Medical therapy plus behavior modification may help dogs and cats with anxieties, phobias and compulsive behaviors
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Primrose, a 3-year-old Pyrenean shepherd, has always had a lot of nervous energy — to the point that her behavior could be annoying, says owner Deb Rabuck of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
After Rabuck had Prim spayed last August, the dog’s behavior changed, and not for the better. Already aggressive toward unknown dogs and people, she began urine-marking in the house and developed signs of anxiety such as panting and pacing. Prim’s behavior kept Rabuck from sleeping at night and disturbed her other dogs.
“I had to separate her from my other two dogs,” she says. “I was afraid they would kill her. She drives them crazy with all that energy.”
Rabuck took Prim to veterinary behaviorist Jacqueline Wilhelmy, VMD. After running lab tests to rule out possible health problems, Dr. Wilhelmy prescribed Prozac and gabapentin and offered behavior modification advice. It has been 11 days, and while Prim is still urine-marking, Rabuck is now able to sleep through the night.
Pet behavior problems such as separation anxiety; thunderstorm or other noise-related fears; compulsive disorders such as excessive chewing, licking, tail chasing or other repetitive behaviors; or aggression toward other animals or humans can all respond to many of the same psychoactive medications that help humans. They include fluoxetine (Prozac), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor; gabapentin, an antiseizure medication sometimes used off-label for pain and anxiety; tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline; and benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium.
“Not in every case do we use a medication, but when it is indicated, it can really facilitate the progress of the case quite dramatically,” says Patrick Melese, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in San Diego, Calfornia.
Medications used in humans have the same or similar effects in dogs and cats because the nervous systems of animals and humans operate in a similar manner. The goal is to normalize brain chemistry and improve the way the animal processes information.
Shannon Gillespie’s border collie Fizz has taken Prozac for more than five years because she would “explode” when frustrated or excited and was unable to calm down quickly. About four years ago, when Fizz’s veterinarian prescribed gabapentin for torn bicep and supraspinatus muscles, Gillespie noticed a further positive change in her behavior. Now Fizz takes both medications to help her maintain a calm demeanor.
“Medications can help decrease the animal’s overall level of anxiety, aggressive behavior, and reactivity and help with impulse control, says Wailani Sung, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist at San Francisco SPCA Behavior Specialty Service and co-author of the book “From Fearful to Fear Free.” “They are typically prescribed when the animal has a high level of anxiety, aggressive behavior and reactivity, (and) when the inappropriate behavior occurs daily or multiple times a week or is very intense.”
It can take several weeks on medication before pets become calm or relaxed enough to start learning new ways of coping or adjust to changes in the household or interactions with family members or other animals. How long medical therapy continues depends on the individual animal and situation. It can range from a few months to a year to a lifetime. Animals may stay on the same dose or have it gradually reduced as the situation improves.
Medication by itself won’t solve a pet’s behavior problems. Behavior modification and environmental changes, if needed, are a necessary part of treatment. (The exception, Dr. Melese says, is urine-marking in cats, which typically responds well to medication alone.) A veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist can develop a plan to help the animal respond more appropriately to the circumstances that trigger the behavior.
Arthritis pain can go unrecognized in dogs and cats. Here’s what to look for
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Excited by the prospect of going for a walk, Harper, my 10 1/2-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, sprang down the hall, then skidded to a halt, yelping in pain. A physical exam by her veterinarian and subsequent X-rays showed osteoarthritis in her lower back.
Osteoarthritis is chronic joint inflammation that causes damage to articular cartilage — which covers and protects the ends of bones — as well as changes to synovial fluid and narrowing of the joint space. Because cartilage in an osteoarthritic joint is brittle, it cracks a little when the pet moves or jumps. The cartilage becomes thinner and less able to retain fluid. Eventually, inflammation and cartilage destruction lead to painful bone scraping on bone.
Some 20 percent of dogs and an unknown percentage of cats develop osteoarthritis. We think of it as a disease of senior animals, but it can affect pets at any age, especially if they are overweight or have congenital conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia, says Joyce A. Login, DVM, senior manager of veterinary specialty operations at Zoetis, which counts pain medications among its products.
Pet owners are often surprised and dismayed to learn that their pets are in pain from osteoarthritis, says Robin Downing, DVM, a veterinary specialist in pain management and sports medicine at Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. Too often, they assume that a lower activity level or stiff gait is normal, chalking it up to advancing age. Dr. Downing often hears the following statements from owners who don’t recognize behavior changes that indicate pain:
• “We used to walk 3 miles, but now she only wants to go 1.”
• “She used to play fetch for 20 minutes and now she’s done at five minutes.”
• “She stops and thinks about it before she walks up the stairs.”
• “She doesn’t like to be groomed or touched in certain areas.”
• “He’s not eating as much as he used to.”
• “My cat doesn’t groom himself very well anymore.”
• “My pet doesn’t jump on the bed or sofa anymore.”
• “My cat has stopped using the litter box.”
Decreased stamina, reluctance to perform previously normal actions, and resistance to touch can all signal joint pain. Pets who aren’t eating as much may have lower back pain that makes it painful to lean down to the food dish. And animals who stop using the litter box or have accidents in the house may do so because it hurts to climb in and out of the litter box or squat long enough to completely empty their colon. Pets in pain may isolate themselves to avoid being petted or groomed. When the veterinarian performs a pain palpation, the animal may react by twitching the skin, moving away, crying out or trying to bite.
A plan for managing pain from osteoarthritis may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); injectable chondroprotectants such as Adequan Canine (also used off-label in cats); nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory or immune-modulating effects, such as microlactins and omega-3 fatty acids; weight loss; laser; and physical rehab. The goal is to break the pain cycle quickly and effectively.
NSAIDs tend to be a cornerstone of treatment, Dr. Downing says, but multiple strategies and products allow her to target pain and inflammation in different ways. Reducing reliance on NSAIDs to treat chronic pain gives her the option to reserve them for use with acute pain, such as that caused by a tooth extraction.
“Each pet is an individual,” Dr. Login says. “There’s not one specific product or treatment that I think you can lean toward. We can’t always fix it, but we can make them happy and comfortable.”
Shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers can have valuable insights into pets available for adoption
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
When you’re ready for a dog or cat to come into your life, you want him now, right? You look online or go to the shelter, walk through once or twice, and, hey, that one in the third cage to the right looks like what you had in mind. But is he really the right choice? Adoption counselors and volunteers at shelters and rescue groups say people don’t ask enough questions about the pets they’re interested in, leading to mismatches in personality and lifestyle.
“I do Abyssinian rescue,” says Linda Kay Hardie of Reno, Nevada. “Some people are attracted to the beautiful looks of the Aby, but they don’t realize the high activity level and intelligence of the cat. One of my Abys came to me after he was returned to the breeder by someone who didn’t know that Abys are high energy and need a lot of attention.”
Ask about health needs, especially if you are interested in a particular breed. Veterinary care isn’t one-size-fits-all. Nicole Morrison of Houston, who was rescue coordinator for her local cavalier King Charles spaniel club, says cavaliers, for instance, need regular teeth brushing and dental cleanings, as well as weight control to prevent obesity. A breed rescue coordinator should be able to fill you in on specific needs of the breed and an individual dog or cat.
Think about your lifestyle and how you enjoy spending time with a dog or cat. More important, ask what the animal you’re considering likes to do and whether that matches your activity level and what you’re looking for in a companion animal.
Common questions potential adopters ask include “Is she housetrained?” “How much does he shed?” “Is she a lap cat?”
Those are good questions, but be aware that appropriate house manners or desired behaviors such as lap sitting may not appear until the pet is comfortable in new surroundings. Maryanne Dell, one of the founders of Shamrock Rescue Foundation in Orange County, California, says even well-trained animals may have accidents in a new home because environmental changes can be upsetting. It’s important to give them time to settle in and ensure that they don’t have opportunities to make mistakes.
“Many rescue pets have been turned over by their owners because they are old or have medical or behavioral issues,” Dell says. “Others are saved from kill shelters by rescues for the same reasons. A good rescue will disclose any and all of the issues that might affect an animal and how he may act in the new home.”
Former shelter adoption counselor Sharon Melnyk of Berkeley, California, suggests some more in-depth questions to ask:
• Is this animal well-socialized or accustomed to interacting with people?
• How does this animal react to children?
• Does this animal get along with other cats or dogs?
• Are there any dogs or cats I should consider who haven’t caught my attention?
Consider behavior and personality, not just looks. Melnyk says it can be heartbreaking to see sometimes shy or reserved cats pawing at people as if trying to get their attention, only to be ignored. Even if a particular animal isn’t what you had in mind, give him a look. You may find a friend for life.
Laura Anne Gilman of Kenmore, Washington, recalls going to a shelter with the idea that she wanted a black kitten. A large orange adult cat reached out to grab her arm both times she walked by. She stopped to see him, and he snuggled his face into her neck. She and Boomer have been together for 15 years now.
Pet travel safety focus of new program
• Animals traveling by air may have better protections with a new standardized global certification program developed by the International Air Transport Association. Based on IATA Live Animals Regulations, developed with input from veterinarians, animal welfare experts and government agencies, the program provides training and on-site audits by independent inspectors. In a statement, Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president of airport, passenger, cargo and security, said: “Animal owners and shippers rely heavily on airlines to carry their precious cargo. As an industry, we have a duty of care to ensure that standards and best practices are in place around the world to protect the welfare of these animals.”
• If you haven’t taken a pet first-aid class, now is a good time to sign up for one: April is Pet First-Aid Awareness Month. Knowing how to stop bleeding, clean and bind wounds, recognize signs of shock and other emergency conditions, and what to keep in a pet first-aid kit can help to save your dog or cat’s life. Courses are available from the Red Cross, humane associations and other organizations.
• Does your dog or cat have a health problem that’s difficult to treat or about which little is known? You may want to see if there’s a veterinary clinical trial or study that needs canine or feline participants. The American Veterinary Medical Association has a health studies database (ebusiness.avma.org/aahsd/study_search.aspx) that allows pets and their owners to contribute to veterinary knowledge and maybe even get helped themselves. Current studies include a University of Pennsylvania study on the role of the microbiome in treating canine chronic enteropathy, and another on the use of noninvasive cardiac ultrasound for diagnosis and management of congestive heart failure in cats. Your veterinarian can help you decide if participation is a good choice for your pet.
— Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
April is Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month; which states fall short in their protections?
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Where does your state rank in terms of legal protections for animals? If you live in Iowa, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota or Kentucky, you might be dismayed to learn that those states have the weakest protections for animal welfare, with Kentucky in last place for the 11th consecutive year. That’s based on annual review of state laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which recently published its 12th annual rankings report.
States with low rankings may have passive flaws, such as outdated language or not keeping up with changing attitudes toward companion animals, livestock and wildlife, but others prohibit actions that could help animals. In Kentucky, for instance, it’s illegal for veterinarians to report abuse and neglect without a court order, subpoena or client waiver. Utah, Wyoming and Iowa don’t prohibit veterinary reporting of cruelty, but they also don’t mandate it.
“Veterinary reporting is a really important part of any animal cruelty investigation,” says Lora Dunn, director of ALDF’s criminal justice program. “Veterinarians are sometimes the only humans besides the perpetrator who actually witness the abuse or neglect.”
Poor definitions of care, weak or nonexistent penalties, and limited or no restrictions on ownership for people convicted of cruelty can also put states at the bottom of the pack.
Defining standards of care, such as the terms “adequate food,” “potable water” and “living space,” helps law enforcement officials determine whether a crime has been committed. When those criteria are not spelled out, neglect and cruelty become a matter of opinion.
States with low rankings often label cruelty, neglect and abandonment as misdemeanors, not felonies. In the bottom five states, humane officers lack broad law enforcement authority.
To determine its rankings, the organization looks at 15 categories of animal protection: general prohibitions; penalties; exemptions; mental health evaluations and counseling; protective orders; cost mitigation and recovery; seizure/impound; forfeiture and post-conviction possession; non-animal agency reporting of suspected animal cruelty; veterinarian reporting of suspected animal cruelty; law enforcement policies; sexual assault; fighting; offender registration; and “ag-gag” legislation, which are laws that punish whistleblowers revealing abuse on factory farms.
Top dogs in animal protection laws are Illinois, which has held first place for the past 10 years, plus Oregon, California, Maine and Rhode Island. Illinois ranks highest for such provisions as felony penalties for cruelty, neglect, fighting, abandonment and sexual assault. The top five states have a full range of statutory protections, require mental health evaluations or counseling for offenders, and restrict ownership of animals after a conviction. With the exception of Rhode Island, those states permit animals to be included in domestic violence protective orders.
In the past five years, more than half of all states have made improvements in their laws, Dunn says. Last year, Pennsylvania made the biggest leap, from 44th to 24th place. Improvements there included a new felony provision for first-time offenders of aggravated animal cruelty, including torture, and granting civil immunity to veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse.
One nationwide trend is “hot cars” laws addressing “reckless endangerment” of pets. In more than 25 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon, it’s now illegal to leave an animal in a vehicle in certain conditions and temperatures. The laws may also offer civil or criminal immunity to people who remove animals from vehicles, if they meet criteria such as seeking the owner or calling law enforcement before doing so.
“The majority of states have updated and improved their animal protection laws over the past 12 years, and that is a direct reflection of the public’s demand for change and for better protection of animals and animal victims,” Dunn says.
FLIGHT OR FIGHT?
A flight attendant’s carelessness causes a puppy’s death. How to avoid a similar situation.
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Pet lovers across the country were horrified and angry last month after a United Airlines flight attendant placed a carrier containing a French bulldog puppy named Kokito into the overhead storage bin — over the owner’s protests. By the end of the three-hour flight, Kokito was dead from lack of oxygen.
In this case, a language barrier complicated the situation, with the flight attendant not hearing, misunderstanding or ignoring the owner’s statement that a pet was in the bag.
United has taken responsibility for the dog’s death and refunded the passengers’ ticket costs — including the hefty pet fee. Starting this month, it will place bright yellow tags on pet carriers to alert flight attendants to four-legged occupants.
It’s not yet known if the owners will seek additional damages, if the flight attendant will be fired or if criminal charges will be filed. In the aftermath, Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada introduced the Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act, or WOOFF, to create regulations to protect future air-traveling pets from improper stowage.
But as all pet lovers know, no amount of compensation, punishment of the perpetrator or legislation can make up for the loss of a dog’s life, especially under circumstances that should never have happened in the first place. It’s unlikely that this exact scenario will ever be repeated, but there may be other instances in which a pet’s life is put at risk during travel. What can a dog or cat owner traveling by air do to either avoid or deal with a similar situation?
?Be prepared. Know what size pet carrier is permitted on board. Measure yours to make sure it meets the requirements, and bring a copy of the airline’s rules with you in case of a dispute.
?When choosing seats, some people prefer the aisle because it’s easier to get in and out of the seat with the carrier, but there is also more risk that the service cart will run into it or people walking by will accidentally kick it. A CNBC news story reported that Kokito’s carrier was slightly protruding into the aisle, prompting the flight attendant’s demand that it be placed in the overhead space. It may be safer, more comfortable and less stressful for your pet if you are in a middle or window seat.
?Remain calm and polite, but advocate for your pet if a flight attendant asks you to do something that you feel endangers your animal. The Federal Aviation Administration says passengers must follow flight attendant instructions regarding proper stowage of pet carriers. Pet carriers go beneath the seat in front of you, never in the overhead compartment. Ask to speak to the purser or chief flight attendant if there is disagreement.
?If you see something, say something, even if it’s not your pet. It’s OK to express concern to authority when you witness something that appears unsafe. Again, ask to speak to the purser if you aren’t satisfied with the response.
Whether you are an onlooker or the owner, record the incident on your smartphone or ask someone else to do so.
?For your pet’s safety and comfort, as well as for that of other passengers, keep him inside the carrier. This prevents accidental escapes or negative interactions with other passengers or flight attendants.
?Finally, some people have criticized Kokito’s owner for complying. That is wrong. We have all seen news stories of people removed, sometimes forcibly, from flights when they refused to comply with a flight attendant’s direction. Flight attendants have full authority on flights, and questioning one can be intimidating, especially if English is not a passenger’s first language.
How to take the fear — yours and your pet’s — out of pet dentistry
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
My parents have a 12-year-old toy poodle named Spike whom they love dearly. Spike is as cute as he can be, but boy, does he have bad breath. My dad won’t get his teeth cleaned, though, because that means putting him under anesthesia, and he’s afraid Spike will die.
That’s a common fear. Many places try to counter it by offering non-anesthetic dental cleanings. In other words, they scrape the visible plaque and tartar off the teeth. And it’s not like the recent dental cleaning I had, which involved lying back in a comfy chair and watching Anthony Bourdain eat his way through Sicily. Pets must be restrained during the process, which can be distressing for them, or even cause injury if they squirm at the wrong moment and are accidentally jabbed with a sharp scaling device.
Pet dentals are done under anesthesia for many reasons. The aforementioned squirming, for one. Anesthesia ensures that pets remain still and don’t experience fear, pain or discomfort during the procedure. Besides reduced pain and stress for pets, anesthesia allows the veterinarian to better perform a complete examination of the mouth, clean tooth surfaces thoroughly, get beneath the gumline where bacteria hide, and take X-rays of teeth to ensure no damage or infection is lurking.
By the numbers, anesthesia is a low-risk procedure. The risk of death associated with general anesthesia in both healthy and sick dogs and cats is approximately 1 in 500, says Bruno H. Pypendop, DVM, a professor and veterinary anesthesiology specialist at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. In the case of healthy animals, the risk drops to 1 in 2,000.
“Many factors have improved anesthesia safety over the years,” Dr. Pypendop says. “These likely include drugs with more consistent and predictable effects, better knowledge of the effects of drugs on vital function, better ability to monitor and therefore prevent or treat abnormalities and better pre-anesthetic screening.”
Your pet won’t have the option to watch Animal Planet while he’s worked on, but pre-anesthetic blood work ensures that he doesn’t have any underlying health conditions that could be affected by anesthesia. Monitoring of blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, body temperature and other vital signs during the procedure helps all pets stay safe and comfortable.
“More advanced equipment for monitoring pets during anesthesia allows for thorough assessment of the pet’s status during the procedure,” says Cheryl Blaze, assistant professor of anesthesia at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “There has also been increased emphasis on continuing education training for technicians to increase their skills.”
Sedation beforehand, in the form of drugs such as trazodone or gabapentin, help him relax before the procedure, and a local nerve block minimizes pain if extractions are necessary. Long-acting medications provide pain relief after the procedure.
Why the assortment of drugs? Pain travels the body through multiple pathways and involves different neurotransmitters and receptors. Using a combination of medications, known as multimodal pain management, ensures that as many routes of pain to the brain as possible are blocked.
If your pet is a senior or has health problems, your veterinarian may consult a specialist in anesthesiology about the best ways to minimize risk and manage pain.
“Even older animals can be safely anesthetized when a thorough pre-anesthetic evaluation and dedicated monitoring during anesthesia are consistently done,” Dr. Blaze says.
Ask to see a practice’s anesthetic safety record. There is always some risk when a pet (or person) goes under anesthesia, but advanced anesthesia drugs and techniques used help to ensure that all goes well.
Heroic German shepherd recovers from wounds
• Hero dog Rex is recovering well after taking three bullets during a home invasion last month to protect his owner, 16-year-old Javier Mercado. The German shepherd was shot once in the neck and once in each hind leg. Jennifer Weh, DVM, a veterinary surgical specialist at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital in Renton, Washington, repaired the fractured left hind leg by inserting a surgical pin and screw. Rex was expected to go home to his family to continue recovery. The family was able to pay the $2,000 needed to stabilize the dog, and public contributions covered the $8,000 cost of the surgery.
• In North Sacramento, California, a shelter for people who are homeless has begun to accept their pets as well. It houses more than 100 dogs and eight cats who are permitted to sleep next to their humans, reports Cynthia Hubert in the Sacramento Bee. Dogs and cats living in the dormlike shelter receive veterinary services from the city’s Front Street Animal Shelter, and shelter residents must feed, walk and clean up after their pets, as well as prevent squabbles between pets or injuries to humans. Three bite incidents at the shelter account for a small percentage of all dog bites investigated by Sacramento’s animal control agency, says chief animal control officer Jace Huggins.
• The 2018 Winter Olympics may be over, but some communities are hosting Dog Olympic Games in the coming months. Is your dog ready for the Ball Lottery (dogs retrieve numbered balls; the dog with the highest total wins), Clean Plate Club (self-explanatory); and a dog trick showdown, to name just a few of the events? Look for competitions in Dunwoody, Georgia, on March 17; St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on April 15; or check your local shelter to see if events are planned. — Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
Love the Vet?
Simple tips can help your dog or cat have a turnaround in the way he feels about health care visits
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
My dog Keeper used to be a brown-and-white tornado on the exam table at the veterinary hospital. He’s a nice boy otherwise, and I don’t know what it was in his past life that made him fear being on top of the table, but it has always been a struggle for veterinarians to examine him because he’s trying so hard to escape.
Lots of people have the same problem with their dogs and cats. Some animals are so fearful that they tremble, cry, defecate or throw up in the car on the way to the veterinary clinic. We are lucky that Keeper enjoys car rides and even going into the clinic; he just doesn’t like being on the exam table. Nonetheless, I wanted to make veterinary visits more pleasant for him, not to mention easier on the vets and staff who had to handle him.
My fellow Pet Connection columnist Dr. Marty Becker has been concerned about this problem for a long time. It’s what inspired him to found Fear Free, which trains vets, technicians and other animal professionals to recognize, reduce and prevent fear in animals who come to the clinic for care.
“Veterinarians love pets, and we want them to feel comfortable and loved when they visit us, but the strange sights and smells they encounter at the veterinary clinic can be a big turnoff and even frighten them,” he says.
Keeper’s veterinarian had already been using one Fear Free technique — sitting on the floor — when he examined Keeper. The past couple of visits, I remembered to bring treats or to grab some out of the jar at the clinic, and they were a game-changer.
Last week, my husband set Keeper on top of the exam table, and he started to spin around like crazy, trying to escape. I started handing him treats nonstop. That got his attention — and kept it. The veterinary technician came in to take his temperature, and I’m not sure he even noticed. As long as I was holding treats, he focused on them and nothing else.
Keeper will eat anything, but Dr. Becker likes to offer something special. Speaking at the 2017 conference of the American Veterinary Medical Association, he said: “Food is currency in a pet’s world. You’ve got to have really good treats. Pet-Tabs are a penny in a pet’s mind, but they don’t normally get hot deli turkey or bacon-cheese-flavored squeeze cheese.”
For pets who are extremely fearful, preparation for veterinary visits can begin as much as a week in advance with what Dr. Becker calls “a magic carpet ride of pheromones.” Spray or wipe down the pet’s carrier regularly with the chemical concoctions that simulate the soothing substances mother dogs excrete or the markers that cats use to make a place or person feel familiar. Line carriers with fleece blankets that have also been treated with pheromones. That helps the car ride be less frightening.
We used another Fear Free technique on this most recent visit. I went inside to check us in while my husband waited in the car with the dogs. They didn’t enter the clinic until an exam room was ready for them, so there was no sitting around in the lobby and allowing anxiety to build up.
I don’t know whether Keeper will ever love being on an exam table, but it’s sure a lot easier now to have him on one. As long as I remember to bring treats, I may no longer have to warn vets and techs to hang on to him so he doesn’t try to flee over the edge.
Dogs and humans could benefit from potential new therapies and diagnostic techniques for a degenerative neurological disease
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
New therapies and diagnostic tests have the potential to help dogs with a progressive neurodegenerative disease live longer lives. Boxers, German shepherds and Pembroke Welsh corgis are among more than 100 breeds and mixes that may benefit from two therapies being studied, as well as a diagnostic biomarker test for degenerative myelopathy, a disease of the central nervous system that develops late in life.
The condition, which typically affects dogs between 8 and 14 years old, damages the spinal cord, muscles, nerves and brain, causing loss of muscle control, weakness in the hind legs and, eventually, paralysis. Dogs with two copies of a mutation in the gene superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1) are at risk for the disease, but not all dogs with the mutation will develop the disease.
Early signs include dragging or shuffling the hind legs. At first, owners may suspect the weakness or lameness is caused by an orthopedic condition or simply advancing age, says Dominik Faissler, DVM, assistant professor of neurology at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
As the disease progresses, the dog may stumble and fall, have difficulty standing up and lose mobility as the nervous system becomes unable to transmit motor commands between brain and limbs. Gradually, the brain stem becomes affected, causing difficulty swallowing. Paralysis usually occurs in the space of a year. Most dogs are euthanized before they develop difficulty breathing, Dr. Faissler says.
Currently, a DNA test developed in 2009 is available to identify the recessive gene mutation that causes the disease, allowing breeders to avoid producing affected dogs, but last year’s discovery of a diagnostic biomarker can help lead to earlier diagnosis of dogs at risk of developing DM, as it’s called for short. It’s also important for researchers in human medicine who study amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The same mutation that causes DM in dogs also causes ALS in humans.
Finding the biomarker involves collecting cerebrospinal fluid from the affected dog. That’s more difficult and expensive than a blood test because it requires anesthesia, but less expensive than magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Because DM mimics other diseases such as intervertebral disc disease and spinal cancer, an MRI is part of the process to rule out those conditions. Even then, the diagnosis is not considered definitive until the dog dies and a necropsy is performed. As the biomarker test becomes more widely available, it may help to provide earlier and more reliable diagnoses. And earlier diagnosis goes hand in paw with the search for effective therapies.
One of the therapies being studied involves injecting antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) into the spinal fluid with the goal of suppressing production of the mutant protein SOD1. Researchers hope the molecular therapy will be able to sneak past the blood-brain barrier and “silence” the messenger RNA, slowing or stopping disease progression. Affected dogs who meet certain criteria may be eligible to participate in the study, conducted at the University of Missouri. A gene-silencing study is also under way at Tufts Cummings School.
A gene therapy clinical trial, also at the University of Missouri, injects what’s called interference RNA (iRNA) into the spinal fluid to repress production of the SOD1 protein. Dogs in the early stages of the disease may also be eligible to participate in that study.
Both University of Missouri studies are randomized and double-blinded. That means neither researchers nor owners know which dogs receive the treatment and which receive a placebo. The study’s design gives dogs a 67 percent chance of receiving the treatment, according to the university’s website.
The treatments have been tested for safety, but their effectiveness isn’t yet known. The same therapeutic approach is being studied in humans with SOD1-associated ALS. Success in either dogs or humans will likely benefit both.
Even normally confident dogs can develop separation anxiety if they experience an excess of stress in their lives
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
When I left my dog Harper with a pet sitter recently while I was at a conference, I didn’t have too many concerns. Harper is a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a breed that’s known for being friendly and outgoing. A cavalier’s motto is usually “Love the one you’re with.”
But when I called later in the day to find out how things were going, I received the surprising and unwelcome news that Harper was barking nonstop when she was left alone. She was fine if the pet sitter was there, but even pet sitters have to leave the house sometimes, and Harper was not pleased about being crated in her absence.
Dogs who break housetraining, chew destructively — especially at doors and windows — or bark or howl in distress when left alone aren’t necessarily being bad, according to the upcoming book “From Fearful to Fear Free” (scheduled for publication in April 2018). They may be suffering from separation anxiety.
“Besides being noisy or destructive, dogs with separation anxiety may drool excessively, pace, lick themselves incessantly, or refuse to eat or drink,” write co-authors Dr. Marty Becker, Dr. Lisa Radosta, Dr. Wailani Sung and Mikkel Becker.
I never thought of Harper as having separation anxiety, but then I remembered last year’s visit to my parents’ house. I left for a few hours to go visit a friend, thinking Harper would be fine since she was familiar with the house and my family. When I returned, it was to a report that Harper had started barking as soon as I left, had diarrhea and then parked herself on the stairs to stare at the front door.
My dogs learn from an early age how to be comfortable when left alone. We start by leaving them crated for short periods, gradually increasing the amount of time we’re gone. They always get a treat when we leave so that our departure is a positive experience, and returns are low-key to encourage the dog to remain calm.
Although she still looks and acts like a puppy, Harper’s 10th birthday was last month. Was her change in behavior due to advancing age, I wondered? Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sung says that’s not necessarily the cause, noting that only a small percentage of the cases of separation anxiety she sees involve older animals. But separation anxiety can occur at any age and may be related to changes in the dog’s life.
“When the family or owner schedule gets disrupted, the animals have more difficulty adjusting, and sometimes they become gradually distressed over time,” she said in an email interview.
Harper has had a stressful year, no doubt about it. She made several flights (in the cabin), including overseas trips, underwent open-heart surgery and the ensuing recovery period, and experienced a change in our household when our 17-year-old dog Gemma died in September. Any one of those, let alone all of them, could have been enough to make her anxious in new situations.
For pets with mild cases of separation anxiety, Dr. Sung has some advice.
“Maintain the same schedule and routine,” she says. “Provide both physical and mental exercise through walks and food-dispensing puzzle toys.”
The times that Harper has expressed signs of separation anxiety are when she has been left at places other than her regular pet sitter and without the support of one of our other dogs. Her signs aren’t serious enough to require medication, especially since it’s unlikely that she’ll experience these particular situations again, but it can help dogs with more severe cases be able to relax enough so that behavior modification under the guidance of an experienced trainer or a veterinary behaviorist can have an effect.
Claw and Order
With the right motivation, cats can learn to use scratching posts and other scratching items instead of furniture or carpets
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Last month, Denver became the first city outside of California to ban the declawing of cats. In September, the American Association of Feline Practitioners strengthened its position on the procedure, stating that it strongly opposes declawing.
Declawing (onychectomy) has been controversial for years, but the procedure, surgical amputation of the toe bone — think having your fingers chopped off at the first knuckle — is increasingly under fire. Potential complications include claw regrowth and bony remnants that cause pain or lameness.
Cats scratch. It’s not only a normal behavior for them, it’s an essential one. Just as you “mark your territory” with art, photographs or furniture of a certain style, cats lay claim to a place through scent and visual markers. Scratching performs both functions by leaving gouges — the higher the better — in the scratched item as well as depositing scent from glands in the cat’s paws. Both signals tell other cats that yours is a force to be reckoned with and help cats feel comfortable in their environment. Scratching keeps claws sharp and removes the dead outer layer of the claw. And we can infer from our own experience that stretching — a big part of scratching action — feels good.
“Scratching has a communication function, it has a grooming function, it has a comfort function,” says veterinary behaviorist Debbie Horwitz in St. Louis. “It isn’t really in the best welfare of cats to declaw them, to remove their digits, simply because it’s easier than us doing something else to stop a normal but unwanted behavior.”
It can be frustrating when a cat scratches an expensive carpet or piece of furniture, but a little feline psychology and feng shui go a long way toward solving the problem. Teaching a cat where to scratch involves not only choosing the right size and type of post but also placing it in an area that gives your cat the most bang for his communication buck.
Cats scratch in both vertical and horizontal positions. A vertical scratching post should be at least 3 feet high with a sturdy base so the cat can stretch out to full length as he lets loose with his claws. Ceiling-height posts encourage climbing as well, which is good exercise and allows cats to enjoy a high vantage point where they can feel safe and survey their surroundings. Horizontal posts don’t have to be long, but cats will appreciate sturdiness and texture.
Placement is important. Cats like to show off their scratching prowess. If you shove the post down in the basement or some other out-of-the-way area, no one can see his masterpiece. With the number of attractive and stylish cat trees available, there’s no reason not to have one front and center.
“I have one in my kitchen (that) is a big platform so he can look out the window,” Dr. Horwitz says. “I have one in my family room, which is where I spend time watching TV, and I have one in the dining room.”
Placing a post in areas where you spend time and next to items that your cat might otherwise scratch encourages its use and allows you to notice unwanted scratching and redirect your cat’s attention to the post. Run your fingers up it — he’ll be attracted by the motion and sound. A product called Feliscratch uses pheromones and catnip to entice cats to use the post. Its blue coloring enhances the visual message of the scratch marks.
Teaching a cat scratching manners protects our belongings, but it has a deeper benefit, Dr. Horwitz says. Preserving the natural, instinctive behaviors of cats enhances their well-being.
“They have a lot of natural behaviors that are objectionable to us, but we should give them alternatives to do those normal behaviors in a way that they’re not objectionable to us or other people.”
Top Pet Traumas
Is it an emergency? Here’s what you should know when minutes count
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Our dogs and cats hate to let us know when they’re not feeling well. It’s instinctive for them to hide illness and even injuries if possible.
Some emergencies are obvious, though, and an emergency, by definition, requires immediate treatment. Any time your pet experiences one of the following conditions, you need to get him to the veterinarian on the double, whether it’s noon or nighttime, weekend or holiday.
? Hit by car. Even if your pet appears to be OK, he could have serious internal injuries.
? Falling out a high window. Cats have a reputation for surviving high falls, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sustain injuries.
? Blood gushing from an artery or bleeding from the mouth, nose or rectum.
? Loss of consciousness.
? Difficulty breathing, which can indicate choking, poisoning or heart failure.
? Sudden collapse or paralysis.
? Bloody vomiting or diarrhea.
? Broken bones, difficulty walking or reluctance to put weight on a limb.
? Gums that are pale instead of a healthy pink.
? Seizures, tremors or staggering, which can indicate poisoning or neurological problems.
? Known ingestion of antifreeze, Easter lilies, rat poison, items containing xylitol or other toxic substances.
Some pets are more prone to certain types of emergencies than others. Cats, for instance, love to nibble on plants and can develop fatal kidney failure from eating any part of a lily, even small amounts of pollen.
In male cats, straining to urinate can signal an obstructed urinary tract. When that happens, toxins build up quickly and can kill the cat if the blockage isn’t relieved rapidly. Cats who strain to defecate should also be seen right away.
Dogs, especially males but sometimes females, can also develop urinary obstructions from bladder stones or prostate disease. Breeds at higher risk include Dalmatians, bulldogs and black Russian terriers.
An enlarged stomach accompanied by drooling, panting and retching without bringing anything up is a sign of gastric dilatation volvulus, commonly known as bloat and often seen in deep-chested dogs. Never “wait and see” if your dog shows these signs.
Dogs are notorious for eating anything they run across, which leaves them open to ingesting toxic foods and pharmaceuticals. Take your dog in if he eats grapes or raisins, fungi such as mushrooms or toadstools, dark chocolate, any food containing the sweetener xylitol, or drugs such as Tylenol, nasal spray or eye drops.
Another common pet emergency is severe vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by appetite loss. Those signs may be early indicators of life-threatening disease or gastrointestinal obstruction. Pets left untreated, especially cats or toy-breed dogs, can quickly become weak and dehydrated.
Pets with flat faces such as bulldogs, pugs and Persian cats are prone to heatstroke. If these pets are restless, have a rapid pulse, have trouble breathing or are panting or drooling, it’s an emergency.
Cat and dog breeds such as Maine coons, ragdolls, Persians, American shorthairs and cavalier King Charles spaniels are at risk for congestive heart failure. Signs include unusual inactivity, tiring quickly, restlessness, panting, difficulty breathing, crackly breathing sounds and pale gums.
A pet who has trouble walking may have a spinal cord injury. Dogs or cats with long backs such as dachshunds or munchkins are susceptible to ruptured intervertebral disks.
If your pet experiences an emergency, the best thing you can do is to stay calm in the moment. Have your veterinarian’s phone number and that of the nearest emergency clinic on speed dial, and call to let them know you’re on the way and what the problem is.
Most important, know your pet’s normal behavior. Noticing changes early can help you catch problems before they turn into emergencies.