Martha Schindler Connors
Martha Schindler Connors writes about health, fitness and nutrition and is a former senior editor at Natural Health. In her free time, she volunteers with Pointer Rescue (pointerrescue.org).
Wellness: Health Care
Weighing the Options of Sterilization
May 24 2016
For the vast majority of American dog owners, the question is a no-brainer: unless you breed dogs or participate in dog shows—or don’t mind being persona non grata at the dog park—you have your dog “fixed.” About 80 percent of U.S. dogs have been altered—relieved of their sex hormone-producing organs, a.k.a. gonads (testicles for males, ovaries for females), through a surgical procedure known as a gonadectomy (castration for the boys, spaying for the girls).
Of course, the primary objective of surgical sterilization is to prevent unwanted litters, and in that regard, the procedure is extremely effective. It became standard practice in the U.S. in the 1970s and has had a huge impact on the numbers of puppies roaming the streets or filling shelters. Animal welfare organizations continue to endorse it as the best and only way to get—and keep—shelter numbers down, even as many advocates also push for more research into alternative methods of contraception.
Shelters also promote—and practice— early sterilization, says Joyce Briggs, president of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs (ACC&D), an advocacy group that promotes non-surgical methods. While veterinarians have traditionally recommended altering a dog between the ages of six and nine months (HSUS now recommends four months), that’s a bit late for a puppy who’s ready to be adopted at eight weeks.
Plus, most shelters and rescue groups would rather send an animal home already neutered or spayed than ask the adopters to have the procedure done at a later date (in many areas, shelters can’t legally place intact dogs). “Pediatric spay/neuter is a critical component of shelter dog placement,” says Briggs. After all, she says, the goal is to get dogs out of the shelter, and to ensure they can’t produce litters that could add to future shelter populations.
The procedure also reduces a dog’s chances of being relinquished to a shelter later, regardless of whether the dog started out as a shelter pet or not. Statistics are clear on this one: intact dogs of both sexes are surrendered to shelters roughly twice as often as those who have been sterilized.
While here in the U.S., this is generally accepted as the right thing to do, it’s not seen that way everywhere. In other parts of the world, it ranges from generally accepted to culturally taboo. In many European countries, neutering and spaying are less common than in the U.S., but not entirely unheard-of (with the exception of Norway, where it’s illegal unless done explicitly for the animal’s health). In other places, including much of Latin America, neutering is considered both physically and socially emasculating (for both dog and owner, apparently) and therefore anathema.
Forest vs. Trees
In reality, he says, the health effects are a mixed bag: some research shows clear benefits, other shows disadvantages, at least for certain subsets of dogs. As a result, many vets and other experts are stepping away from the standard advice— to alter every animal as quickly as is safe and practical—in favor of a more case-by-case (or dog-by-dog) approach.
Crunching The Numbers
Say a study shows that altered dogs of a certain breed get a certain disease twice as often as intact dogs. That would make the relative risk of altering those dogs 200 percent, which sounds huge. But that number would apply only if the disease occurred in virtually every dog of that breed. If the disease is uncommon—maybe it occurs in only one out of every 1,000 intact dogs (0.001 percent)—then doubling that number wouldn’t make the absolute risk much greater (0.002 percent) for any one dog. However, if it’s a common condition—it occurs in 10 percent of all intact dogs—then doubling the relative risk would mean that altering puts the dog at a greater absolute risk (20 percent) for that disease.
Why So Complicated?
One big problem, McKenzie says, is the shortage of quality research on the subject: The studies that do exist are regressive, meaning they look back at the data and try to draw conclusions; also, they’re typically small and don’t always control for critical variables, such as the age at which an animal was altered. Some studies are based on owner surveys, which are notoriously unreliable (some owners describe a dog as “aggressive” because it growls when playing, for example).
Take the concept of longevity. Most research indicates that neutering and spaying increases canine lifespan. One recent study, which tracked 2.2 million dogs across the country, found that they live an average of 11 years, with neutered males living 18 percent longer (and spayed females 23 percent longer) than intact animals. But other studies have found the opposite: altered dogs (or dogs who were neutered or spayed at a younger age) actually died earlier than did intact dogs (or those neutered or spayed later in life).
This discrepancy can be explained in part by the fact that study data is just that—data—that can be interpreted in many ways, some more valid than others. So, although the raw numbers say that intact dogs die sooner than their altered brethren, that doesn’t mean that the altered dogs lived longer because they’d had their gonads removed (what experts call a “causal relationship”). These numbers include deaths from all causes; dogs who were hit by cars or died of distemper or other preventable diseases are counted along with dogs who succumbed to cancer or another disease with a significant genetic (read: not preventable) component.
This big-picture view also misses some key socio-economic factors: statistics show that dogs who are surgically sterilized typically belong to humans who are relatively wealthier, better educated and more likely to provide quality veterinary care. Thus, these dogs are already at an advantage; they’ve had their shots, they aren’t wandering the streets (dodging traffic, picking through trash, getting into fights), they’re eating a healthy diet. All of which might mean that the procedure was just part of the dogs’ better, and more-conducive-to-longevity, standard of living.
The same questions can be applied to other research as well. For example, a handful of studies have found higher rates of certain cancers in altered dogs, even when those same dog populations live longer overall when they’ve been neutered or spayed. How can that be? One theory is that, in dogs as in humans, many of the deadliest diseases occur later in life; the longer one lives, the more likely one is to develop a serious disease. In this scenario, altered dogs would automatically have higher rates of age-related diseases simply because they’re living longer. Thus, the dogs didn’t necessarily get cancer because they were altered—they lived long enough to get cancer.
Likewise, studies that look at behavior are also open to interpretation. For example, a 2011 study of dogs who had bitten children found that nearly all (93 percent) were altered. Observers might infer that sterilization causes aggression. But they might also conclude that the dogs in the study were likely to bite regardless of their status, and that this aggression might have been at least one reason they were altered in the first place.
Hormones: Friend or Foe?
The age at which a dog is altered can have big implications on the chance of developing several diseases, simply because the longer a dog is in possession of his or her gonads, the more sex hormones the dog’s body will receive. But the ideal level of exposure to those hormones is anything but clear. In humans, the understandably limited data on castrated vs. intact men show that eunuchs live longer (up to 20 years longer, according to a recent study of 16th-to-19th century Korean men who’d been castrated before puberty). But for women, the opposite seems to be true; women who keep their ovaries past the age of 50 live longer than those who undergo a non-ovary-sparing hysterectomy before that age.
Research has shown that female Rottweilers live longer—and stay disease-free—when their ovaries are left in place or removed at a later-than-average age. In Rotties, the ovaries appear to increase lifespan, at least in part because they may protect against certain types of cancer. (Another study found that male and female Rottweilers who were altered before their first birthday were three to four times more likely to develop osteosarcoma, or bone cancer.)
But even these studies are oddly inconclusive: should we conclude that Rottweilers are unique among dog breeds, or that this research simply illustrates the need for more research? Lumping all dogs who died without their ovaries into one category— “spayed”—ignores the fact that dogs who were altered late in life (perhaps because of infection or another non-breeding- related reason) had years of exposure to sex hormones, which may very well have affected their health and longevity. Put another way, research that doesn’t consider the age at which an animal was sterilized may be (incorrectly) crediting the procedure with benefits that are actually related to keeping an animal intact, thus getting it backwards.
Meanwhile, research on Golden Retrievers analyzed dogs of both sexes, categorizing individuals as intact, sterilized early (before age one) or late, and tracking the development of several diseases common to Goldens, including five types of cancer. The study found that early-neutered males were three times as likely to develop lymphosarcoma (or lymphoma, a malignant cancer of the lymphoid system), while late-spayed females were four times as likely to develop hemangiosarcoma (malignant tumors that form in blood vessel cells, most often in the spleen). Overall, the likelihood of an intact dog developing one of the diseases being studied was typically one-fourth to one-half that of an altered dog. But the advantages of late sterilization over early (or vice versa) were inconclusive.
We know that removing gonadal hormones can affect everything from neurological and immunological functioning to blood clotting and metabolism. Research also shows a connection to orthopedic disease: in the Golden Retriever study, early-sterilized dogs had a greater chance of hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) rupture. Because the sex hormones have an impact on bone growth and development, altering dogs before puberty can create what’s known as differential growth. In this situation, some bones are longer (and lighter) than they would have been if the dog had matured with his or her gonads in place, potentially causing joint misalignments and other orthopedic problems.
When it comes to behavior, sterilization can definitely have an impact, says Zawistowski, although not always in the expected direction; some studies show that spayed females show more aggression than those who are intact, for instance. But what is clear is that the procedure will affect only those behaviors that are mediated by sex hormones. This should dispel one of the oldest myths about sterilization: that it will harm a hunting or working dog’s abilities. “Working behaviors have been genetically installed in certain breeds—they’re not part of the sex hormone equation,” Zawistowski explains. “A hunting dog will hunt, a guard dog will guard, a herding dog will herd regardless of whether he or she has been altered.”
The Bottom Line
The goal, it seems, is one of balancing the needs of the general dog population (read: population control) with those of individual pets (read: optimal health and longevity). And the bottom line, if there is one, seems to be this: when you’re talking about preventing litters, surgical sterilization is the best option. And having it done early, insofar as it prevents breeding while preserving each animal’s health, is preferable to postponing the procedure.
Looking at the rest of the dog population, the research shows a fairly clear benefit for spaying any female dog who won’t be bred, in most cases before her first heat, McKenzie says (when it will do the most to reduce the risk of mammary tumors). As for males, he says, there’s no clear health benefit for neutering, at least for neutering before the dog is fully grown.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have a simple rule that can be applied in all cases— always alter, never alter, alter before this or that age—because biology is simply more complex and nuanced than that,” McKenzie says. Instead, he advises dog owners to do their homework: research conditions and diseases that are common in dogs like theirs, then look at the impact that sterilization might have. As he notes, “You have to understand the real risk to your dog.”
Other Sterilization Options
Zeuterin. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of Zeuterin, the first and (so far) only nonsurgical form of neutering dogs in the U.S. Designed for 8-to-10-month-old males, Zeuterin is a solution of zinc gluconate that’s injected directly into each testicle (vets and the manufacturer swear it’s essentially painless), where it kills sperm and triggers the formation of scar tissue that blocks the tubes that would otherwise carry the sperm. According to research trials, the results are permanent, and the process works in 99.6 percent of dogs. “Zeutered” dogs get to keep their testicles, although they typically shrink a bit after the procedure; the dog will get a “Z” tattoo to show he’s been sterilized. Dogs treated with Zeuterin also keep an average of 50 percent of their testosterone, as the testicles will continue to produce at least some sex hormones. This might be a good thing— or not—as testosterone appears to help on some fronts, hurt on others.
Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH ) agents. In Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe, male dogs can be treated with Suprelorin (also known as Deslorelin), an implant that sterilizes male dogs for up to a year by neutralizing the production of the GnRH reproductive hormones. Gonacon is an immunocontraceptive injection currently approved in the U.S. for use in wild horses and deer (no word on when or if the government will okay it for dogs) that can sterilize an animal for up to four years by blocking the production of GnRH.
New spay surgery. For female dogs, some U.S. vets are replacing the standard spay surgery—the ovariohysterectomy, or OVA, which removes both the ovaries and the uterus—with an ovaries-only procedure called ovarioectomy (OVE), which has been used for many years in Europe. Leaving the uterus in place means a much less complicated surgery, with a speedier (and likely less painful) recovery, while still achieving the goals of spaying (infertility, prevention of “heat” cycles and various reproductive diseases).
Wellness: Healthy Living
College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
April 5 2016
Forget the idea of the solitary researcher toiling away in his lab. At the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) at Colorado State University, they decided long ago that cooperation beats isolation, and that inspiration and innovation can come from many different places.
With more than a century under its metaphorical belt—CVMBS celebrated its 100th birthday last year—the college is consistently ranked among the nation’s top vet schools. It also operates the first, and largest, animal cancer center in the world. “We really started the idea that you could treat dogs with cancer instead of just throwing up your hands,” says Robert Ullrich, PhD, professor of oncology research at the Animal Cancer Center. “We’ve also been at the forefront of researching and treating spontaneous tumors in dogs, and translating that knowledge to human medicine.”
“We have grown in many ways and directions,” Robinson says, “but we’re still unique. Several other vet schools have added acupuncture or herbal medicine, but none have an approach solely committed to scientific and evidence-based explorations and scrutiny. And to my knowledge, no other schools have a dedicated faculty position for scientifically based complementary and alternative medicine.”
This is a big deal, she says, because more and more dog owners are looking into CAM for their pets. In fact, in 2006, CVMBS did a study of owners whose pets were being treated at its Animal Cancer Center and found that more than 75 percent were using complementary and alternative medical approaches, including herbs, supplements and acupuncture. Owners said they were looking for ways to improve their pets’ overall well-being as well as to improve immune function and reduce pain.
Unfortunately, the study also found that many owners didn’t tell their veterinarians that they were utilizing these remedies and didn’t ask veterinary experts for advice. This lack of communication creates potential for serious problems, such as drug interactions or overdose.
That’s where CVMBS’s program comes in. By conducting rigorous, science-based research and training vets in the proper use of alternative remedies, Robinson and her colleagues hope to expand the knowledge base regarding these therapies, and spread that knowledge to practicing veterinarians.
“There has been a lot of interest in the program, and it’s growing,” Robinson says. “Over a third of each veterinary medicine class takes our critical overview of CAM class, and many go on to take the ‘Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians’ course.”
Late last year, Robinson spearheaded a joint effort with CSU electrical engineering students to build “SimPooch,” a simulated Labrador Retriever designed to help students learn correct acupuncture techniques. The life-size model, based on MRI data gathered from a real dog, reproduces bone, muscle, skin and fat in all their respective densities so that students can get realistic feedback as they practice the various techniques. In the next few months, the engineering students will complete the computer software that will both teach and test acupuncture students on their point-locating ability. They have already reproduced the head in a virtual reality environment that interfaces with the physical model.
It’s all part of Robinson’s science-based approach. “Anatomy is the foundation of medicine and of acupuncture,” she says. “We need to move away from the notion that acupuncture works by stimulating invisible energy systems and recognize its anatomical basis.” Looking ahead, Robinson says she anticipates an expansion into more research, “from nutraceuticals to herbs to acupuncture, laser therapy and more.”
And what does she say to skeptics? People who dismiss complementary and alternative therapies as nothing but hocus-pocus? “I tell them that I am as skeptical as they are. We are not here to promote CAM, but to study its effectiveness and measure its safety.”
High-Tech Meets High-Touch
“This truly is a state-of-the-art facility,” LaRue says. “We’ve been doing radiation therapy with dogs since 1957.” The latest innovation: a Trilogy Linear Accelerator, which is the first of its kind in any veterinary clinic or college in the world.
The Trilogy has the capacity to target tumors with a precise dose of radiation, one that is custom-fit to the tumor’s depth, shape and size, thus sparing healthy cells. It also has a built-in CT scanner and digital X-ray machine that allow doctors to monitor a tumor’s changing shape and position with each treatment. The Trilogy can even be programmed to deliver radiation timed to the dog’s respirations in order to prevent misfires if the tumor moves as the dog breathes.
“One type of cancer we’ve really struggled with in dogs is nasal tumors,” says LaRue. “Think about the shape of the dog’s head: You might have a tumor wrapping around the eyes or brain, or going all the way from the dog’s nose to the top of his head. These tumors can have a very complex anatomy.” Before now, she says, treating them was more than tricky, in part because doctors couldn’t administer a big enough dose of radiation for fear of damaging the all-too-important structures nearby. “Now we can get the dose high enough to get the tumor control we need,” she says. “We don’t want to put dogs through this if we’re not going to get cures.”
But while the treatments are space-age, dogs visiting the center are treated to an old-fashioned welcome and plenty of personal attention. “We think that the patients who come in should be happy,” says LaRue. So instead of a standard hospital setting, the center’s waiting area looks more like a doggie day care, with a safe area for dogs to play and relax while waiting for their treatments. “They really like it, and they’re a lot less stressed than the owners,” she says. Most dogs get lots of attention from LaRue’s staff as well. “They get very bonded to my staff and follow them around,” she says. Unlike human oncology patients, she says, dogs really can enjoy the treatment experience, and keeping it as low-stress as possible is one of the group’s goals.
The Supercluster essentially takes the business model of an economic cluster—Silicon Valley tech companies, for example, aggregated hubs of brainpower and marketing muscle—and applies it to biomedical research and veterinary medicine. Economic clusters create a kind of critical mass, where technology and production facilities attract other businesses and thus create a powerful momentum that benefits everybody.
The Cancer Supercluster includes the College of Veterinary Medicine, plus four others: the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Applied Human Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Engineering. The program includes 65 faculty members from 12 departments who conduct research in all aspects of cancer treatment and prevention, including risk assessment, diagnosis, therapeutics and genomics (the study of the relationship between genetic structure and biological function).
Much of the Supercluster, however, is based on the work of the Animal Cancer Center. For example, research from the center is being applied to a new product that will be used in human medicine. “Often, in cancer, if you can identify specific changes in the chromosomes, you can help diagnose problems,” explains Ullrich, who has studied cancer and its genetic components for more than 30 years. “Sometimes, cancers involve taking part of one chromosome and moving it to another, something called translocation. In other cases, part of the chromosome becomes inverted—this happens in some cancers and also in certain birth defects.” Until now, he says, scientists couldn’t identify these changes. But, using 15 years of research at the Animal Cancer Center, a new Supercluster company is developing a method of identifying these chromosomal inversions, and plans to launch a new birth defect–screening product for humans. “The next thing is to identify these inversions in cancer, which will help us create new markers for diagnosis and new targets for therapy, both in dogs and in people,” he says.
Applying an innovation in veterinary medicine to human patients is a fairly novel idea; most often, the protocols go the other way, says Ullrich. “Typically, we take things that have been used in humans and try them with dogs. The difference here is that we’re developing things that are so cutting-edge that they’re being moved into the human arena.”
This, perhaps, is the most compelling aspect of the work that’s being done at CVMBS, in the Animal Cancer Center as well as the Supercluster program: Developing treatments that can help today’s animal (and human) patients as well as tomorrow’s. “We are absolutely a research facility,” says LaRue. “Realistically, we couldn’t have invested in all of this equipment solely for the purpose of treating animals. But our translational research is invaluable. We can evaluate how these patients respond to treatment, and this information can go directly into the human clinic, or back to our own practice, where we can use it to help more animals down the road.”
Founded in 1907 as the Department of Veterinary Science; renamed in 1967
Number of applicants (2007): 1,604
Best known for—
Dog's Life: Humane
January 18 2016
For centuries, wolves — incredibly charismatic, highly social and extremely intelligent — have held a special place in our consciousness, starring in as many nightmares as they have in paintings and pop songs. With their bigger brains, stronger muscles, and teeth and jaws many times more powerful than any dog’s, they’re also quite dangerous, capable of killing an elk, a moose, even a bison.
It’s both understandable and surprising that people want to take a bit of that wildness home in the shape of a wolf/dog mix — or “wolfdog” — which some consider to represent the best of both worlds: a dog’s friendly companionship paired with a wolf’s good looks and untamed nature. Buy a wolfdog, the thinking goes, and live out your Jack London fantasies, even if you’re in Akron rather than Anchorage.
As with many things, reality is not so simple. Wolfdogs are perhaps the most misunderstood — and, many would argue, mismanaged — animals in America. Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others and are showing up on breedban lists, along with Pits and other so-called “dangerous breeds.”
What’s more, there’s no approved rabies vaccination for wolfdogs. While the federal government officially sees them as domestic pets (and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities), they’re treated as wild animals when it comes to rabies. Thus, the wolfdog who bites a person can be considered a rabies risk — even if he’s been vaccinated — because the USDA, which regulates veterinary medicines, does not extend approval for use of the standard rabies vaccine with “hybrids” (the vaccine is approved for use in dogs, cats, ferrets and horses). Euthanasia is necessary, the USDA says, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain.
Wolfdog owners are encouraged to vaccinate their animals, but to do so, they have to make a tough choice: lie to their veterinarian about the animal’s lineage or sign a waiver stating that they understand that the vaccine is being used “off-label” on a hybrid animal and thus cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies, and that their animal can be impounded and put down if it bites someone — a high-stakes gamble, and one for which the wolfdog could pay with his life.
When it comes to their legal status, the regulations are literally all over the map. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s illegal to keep one as a pet in Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. However, in some of these states — Alaska, Michigan and North Dakota — a wolfdog can be “grandfathered” in. Other states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah — don’t regulate ownership on a state level, instead leaving it up to individual counties. Among the states that allow wolfdogs, many require the owner to obtain a permit, or mandate registration and/or confinement in specific kinds of cages. In some states (New York, for example), that means getting a “dangerous animal” permit — the same type needed to keep a lion.
And, legal or not, wolfdogs pose significant behavioral challenges for owners, many of whom are unable or unwilling to meet them, thus creating a large population of unwanted animals who wind up chained in backyards, abandoned or euthanized.
“These are beautiful animals, and a lot of people are attracted to something that’s exotic and different,” says Nicole Wilde, a wolfdog expert and author of Wolfdogs: A–Z. “They want to own a piece of the wild, and they often say that the wolf is their spiritual sign or totem animal. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it’s not really the same thing as having a wolf in their living room.”
Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs can be tough to identify, regardless of laws passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some people deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100 percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as wolfdogs actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.
Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm, a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend). Genetic testing is theoretically possible but, as it is reserved for wildlife management and law-enforcement agencies, is essentially unavailable to individuals. Phenotyping — having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics — remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs and, as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.
Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ‘98 percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend like food coloring: if you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the individual offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (an F2 cross, a generation removed from full wolf) could have anywhere from three-quarters wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarters dog and one-quarter wolf — yet all will be considered one-half wolf. Thus, he says, you can see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.
Knowing an individual animal’s filial number — the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to speculate about its future behavior and potential problems, says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association, a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man. The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he wants to do it himself.”
Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets — and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries — are all dog, too. “I’d say about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” notes Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc., a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Individuals take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal who looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”
Unfortunately, people who like the idea of owning a fearsome predator as well as those with a misguided nature fetish often don’t understand what they’re getting into. In many cases, a person will think he has had experience with wolfdogs in the past — maybe he had or knew an animal who he thought was a hybrid but was, in fact, all dog — and decides to get a wolfdog puppy. “Only this time, he gets the real thing,” Collings says. “And by the time the pup is five or six months old, [she’s] eaten the couch or clawed [her] way through the drywall.”
Of course, not all wolfdogs behave the same way, and there’s probably more variety in behavior among wolfdogs than any other kind of dog. “You have to remember that a wolfdog is not a wolfdog is not a wolfdog,” says Brown. “There’s no such thing as ‘typical.’”
“A high-content animal is probably going to act a lot more ‘wolfie’ than a low-content animal,” adds Wilde. “With a high-content wolfdog, you might start out with the puppy in the house and then, as he hits adolescence, you’ll be building an enclosure outside. You’ll have to.” It’s for just these reasons that many experts, including Wilde, discourage people from breeding wolfdogs, or buying wolfdog pups from breeders.
“The average dog owner won’t deal with their Beagle, and can’t handle an ordinary dog’s behavior problems,” says Wilde, who rescued a wolf and two wolfdogs several years ago. She can personally attest to the challenges of keeping these beautiful canines. “I worked with them to the point that I could look between their paw pads and look at their teeth — and give them tummy rubs — but I never forgot what they really were.”
Editors’ Note: In our opinion, despite their undeniable beauty and appeal, deliberately breeding or purchasing wolfdogs as companion animals does a disservice to both Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris as well as to the individual animal. If you love wolves, honor their ancient connection with our domestic dogs by joining the effort to preserve their habitat and maintain their status as a federally protected species. HSUS and the Defenders of Wildlife are just two of many groups working on their behalf.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Greater choice made available to pet owners
November 16 2012
As politicians and voters squared off this fall, a little bill sat in committee on Capitol Hill, awaiting action that in all likelihood won’t happen. If it expires, it will probably be reintroduced at the next Congressional go-around in 2013. But even if it dies on the vine, the bill has opened debate on an issue that affects virtually every pet owner — the cost and availability of veterinary medications — and promises to keep the discussion going for years to come.
If passed, the legislation (officially known as HR 1406: Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011-IH) will require vets to give clients a written copy of all prescriptions. It also will require them to notify clients, in writing, of the client’s option to have the prescription filled elsewhere, and to confirm (via fax or other means) any prescriptions sent to outside pharmacies. This is not a novel concept; a majority of veterinarians already do this for those who request it. The act would, however, make it mandatory for vets to provide the prescriptions without being asked.
The bill is modeled on the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act of 2003, which required eye doctors to give their patients a copy of their prescriptions, thus breaking the medical monopoly on those lucrative little bits of polymer. This “prescription portability” was credited with changing the entire contact-lens market, giving consumers freedom to comparison shop (making prices more competitive) and also improving the quality and safety of the products themselves by streamlining the supply chain and distribution system. In the world of veterinary medicine, prescription portability would, at least in theory, reassure bargainhunting consumers that they’re shopping around in a truly open (and safe) marketplace.
HR 1406 was introduced April 2011 under the sponsorship of Representatives Jim Matheson (D-UT) and Lee Terry (R-NE) and was immediately sent to the Health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which must approve the bill before it can be voted upon by Congress. But because 2012 is an election year — one that most certainly hasn’t been dominated by debates over pet prescriptions — few observers predict any action. The legislative monitoring service GovTrack gives the bill a 1 percent chance of passing before the end of the 2012 session; not great odds, obviously, but not particularly bad, either, given that only about 4 percent of the bills introduced in 2009–2010 were enacted.
“Most often, bills like this take five to seven years to get passed,” says Andrew Binovi, federal legislative manager of government relations for the ASPCA, which is supporting the bill. Alyson Heyrend, communications director for Rep. Jim Matheson, adds, “There is no action expected on the bill before the end of the session — it’s an election year. But we’ll most likely be reintroducing the bill next time. It’s a good bill, good for pet owners, good for consumers. In this economy, every little bit helps, and lots of people aren’t even aware that they have options when it comes to pet medications.”
A Pocketbook Issue
Like everything else in Washington, the Pet Owners Act has both fans and foes. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, eight organizations are registered to lobby on HR 1406, including Walmart and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. “This bill allows consumers a choice when it comes to prescription medications for their pets, and Walmart supports efforts that give our customers a say where they purchase medicines and enable them to save money,” says Molly Philhours, a media relations rep. This support is hardly surprising, as the act would be a boon for Walmart and other big retailers, drug and grocery stores, says David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, a market research firm. “What we’re seeing is a natural progression, as the pet-health market moves toward greater parallelism with human healthcare.”
However, the number of pets covered by health insurance is miniscule, arguably making the out-of-pocket cost of a pet’s prescription drugs an even bigger concern for consumers than their own meds. “Less than 1 percent of the cats and dogs in America are insured, so this is a huge issue for owners,” says Laura Bennett, CEO of Embrace Pet Insurance. “Even if this bill doesn’t go through, it’s already had a big impact.”
Bones of Contention
The proposed legislation has another downside for vets: loss of revenue. While the impact will vary among individual practices, Morgan says, most veterinarians today make between 14 and 28 percent of their income from in-house drug sales. In addition, vets typically charge fairly high mark-ups, an average of 129 percent over wholesale, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. Many also charge a “dispensing fee,” typically an average of $9 per script. Morgan adds that the proposed law would drown vets in paperwork, and require clinic staff to spend an inordinate amount of time communicating with outside pharmacies. Most veterinarians will be forced to pass those extra expenses on to their clients.
Until fairly recently, veterinarians were the sole source for prescription pet medications. But with the advent of online pet pharmacies, such as Drs. Foster and Smith (which began selling medications and other pet care products through its catalog in 1983 and online in 1998), price-conscious owners started taking their drug business elsewhere. And in 1994, with the passage of the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA), veterinarians could prescribe certain approved human drugs for animals. In many cases, this gave veterinary clients an option to choose between the animal and the human drug, and to buy those drugs from outside pharmacies.
But this just means that vets are behind the times when it comes to setting their prices, says Bennett. She notes that many veterinarians deliberately undercharge for some services to keep clients happy; like restaurateurs who exponentially mark up the wine they sell to make up for value-priced entrees, these vets count on the sale of medications to make the balance sheet work. “If you’ve been relying on drug sales all this time, this is a wake-up call,” she says.
Competition — and Choices
All of these outlets offer incentives to pet owners. Kroger, for example, sells a long list of generic pet drugs, including some of the most-prescribed for dogs — pain-relievers like tramadol and meloxicam and antibiotics like amoxicillin and cephalexin — at $4 per 30-day supply. Target’s PetRx program, available in more than 1,200 of its instore pharmacies, can fill veterinary prescriptions for animal-specific medications, and all Target pharmacies will fill pet scripts for human drugs (they offer many $4 generics, as well). At Walgreens, you can add your dog to your $35-a-year family membership in the discount pharmacy program. With that, you get reduced prices on pet prescriptions and access to over 400 generic medications priced at $12 for a 90-day supply. Stop ‘n Shop and Winn-Dixie stores fill human-equivalent scripts, and have arrangements with online pet pharmacies to get your dog’s meds to you in one to two days.
For those who’d rather shop online, there are currently 18 web-based pet pharmacies accredited with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy through its Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (Vet-VIPPS) program, each of which has its own offers and incentives. (There are also countless websites that aren’t accredited — or properly licensed — which the Food and Drug Administration and other groups strongly suggest you avoid.)
All this competition is good news for consumers, says ASPCA’s Binovi, because it guarantees that pet owners will be able to fill prescriptions as cheaply as possible. “There are big benefits here for both pets and their guardians,” he says. “It’s not that the veterinarians were a problem, just that this bill would harmonize all the different state laws to guarantee that everyone has better access to these medications.”
Keeping the cost of pet ownership down is especially important in this economy, he adds. “We know that economics weighs into the decision to adopt an animal and even, in some cases, to surrender an animal to a shelter.” There are no statistics on the number of owners citing the high cost of prescription drugs — or any other expense associated with keeping a pet — as the reason for surrender, but it’s not a great leap to suggest that someone who’s facing serious financial problems might see the family dog as an expense that could be eliminated. And even for an owner who’s not in dire straights, every little bit helps. “It’s always good to have more choices and better access, no matter what you’re buying,” he says.
You can verify an online vendor’s Vet-VIPPS standing on the NABP website: nabp.net.
Wellness: Health Care
Arthritis management takes careful coordination.
Think of them as the silent sufferers: the millions of dogs who hobble among us, creaking away on swollen joints and dwindling cartilage. Most are older, but the years didn’t make them that way. Arthritis did.
Osteoarthritis is the biggest cause of chronic pain in U.S. dogs. According to most estimates, it affects more than 20 percent (that’s 10 to 12 million animals).
Technically speaking, osteoarthritis, or OA, is a degenerative disease involving one or more joints in a dog’s body. It most often shows up in middle-aged or older dogs, although there’s no standard age of onset, explains Jamie Gaynor, DVM, MS, director of the Animal Anesthesia and Pain Management Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
But OA isn’t just an old dog’s disease, nor is every dog destined to be arthritic. OA is generally triggered by excessive wear in one or more joints, but dogs who have joint irregularities are more likely to develop arthritis in the affected joint. These irregularities can be caused by trauma—an accident or injury—or by a developmental deformity, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, which is a genetic condition that develops in a dog after birth.
Other factors that can contribute to OA are obesity (see sidebar) and overuse. This is a problem for racing dogs as well as for many working breeds; they may not be herding sheep or pointing at birds for a living, but many still feel compelled to run around as though they were.
Osteoarthritis is tough to manage, in part because it’s cyclical: Inflammation creates pain as well as physical changes that force the joint to move in an unnatural way, creating more pain and inflammation. Once it gets started, arthritis is difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
What’s more, just controlling the pain of arthritis is anything but simple. Researchers have found that arthritis pain follows several different pathways and creates changes in the dog’s central nervous system, which means that keeping an arthritic dog comfortable most often requires more than one type of pain relief.
There’s no cure for OA—treatment generally focuses on treating the discomfort and slowing the loss of cartilage and damage to the joints.And vets agree that there’s no silver bullet: No drug or therapy or supplement works on every dog, and no two dogs respond in exactly the same way to any treatment.
But there are steps that you can take to slow the progression of arthritis and keep your dog as happy and active as possible.
This last group, known as diseasemodifying agents, can create changes in the dog’s body that have a direct impact on the progression of a disease, explains Dawn Boothe, DVM, PhD, professor and director of the clinical pharmacology laboratory at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn, Ala. In a dog with arthritis, these supplements can make the cartilage healthier and better able to fight off the damaging effects of OA.
The supplements listed here can be combined with other remedies, but check with your vet before adding them to your dog’s diet. Give any supplement at least four weeks to work, says Carvel G. Tiekert, DVM, executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.“If you don’t see any changes after six weeks,try something else,”he says. (For another cautionary note, see the final page.)
Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate. These substances provide the building blocks for polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, or PSGAGs, which are long-chain molecules that hold water and give cartilage its cushion. Research shows they can be very effective in both animals and humans. A recent study (Grainne McCarthy, James O’Donovan, et al., published in The Veterinary Journal 2007; 174:54–61) found that arthritic dogs given a supplement of glucosamine and chondroitin for 10 weeks had significantly less pain than dogs who didn’t get the supplement.
However, not all glucosamine is created equal. “There’s a huge range in quality of these supplements,” says Dr. Boothe. To be sure you’re getting your money’s worth, stick with products that have been proven effective in studies. Both Dr. Gaynor and Dr. Boothe recommend products from NutraMax Labs, which manufactures Cosequin and Dasuquin. Glyco-Flex III, from Vetri- Science Labs, is also well researched, says Dr. Gaynor.
Avocado/Soybean Unsaponifiables (ASUs).
Perna canaliculus (Green-lipped Mussel).
Of these, the first four are COX inhibitors (they target the cyclooxygenase, or COX, enzymes responsible for inflammation and pain). “Some dogs respond better to one, but they all have essentially the same mechanism,” says Dennis Caywood, DVM, MS, a diplomate with the American College of Veterinary Surgeons in Minneapolis.
The drug Zubrin blocks the COX enzymes as well as a second type of chemicals, called leukotrienes, meaning it addresses two different inflammation pathways. This could make it more powerful than the others, says Dr. Boothe. While NSAIDs can be very effective, they also carry the risk of side effects, including damage to the dog’s gastrointestinal tract. They require careful dosing, and can’t be combined with other NSAIDs.
Corticosteroids, or Glucocorticoids. Veterinary glucocorticoids, including prednisolone and methylated prednisolone (Cortisate-20, Depo-Medrol and Medrol), are steroidal medicines that attack inflammation. Unfortunately, they also attack the dog’s tissues.
“As a pharmacologist, I have a real bias against using steroids to treat chronic pain,” says Dr. Boothe. Glucocorticoids can cause weight gain, incontinence and lethargy. Long-term, they’ve been linked to compromised immunity,muscle and bone loss, and a potentially fatal shutdown of the adrenal glands. Moreover, glucocorticoids actually damage cartilage. “Veterinarians have used them in older animals with the idea that they were the only thing that would relieve the dog’s pain,” says Dr. Boothe. “But now there are better options.” However, she says, glucocorticoids might be used in a one-time, direct-tothe- joint injection (see hyaluronic acid, following).
Hyaluronic acid, or HLA, is a natural source of PSGAGs (it’s found in connective tissue and synovial fluid).“We’ve had very good luck with HLA,” says James Cook, DVM, director of the Comparative Orthopedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri–Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine. “We do a series of three joint injections, the first with HLA and Depo-Medrol, and the last two with just HLA. It’s been very effective, even in dogs with advanced OA.”
HLA is also given orally, but there’s no evidence that it’s effective that way, says Dr. Boothe.
“Now, we’re looking at ways to spot arthritis before it gets too advanced,” he says. Researchers are also looking for genetic biomarkers—factors in the dog’s blood or joint fluid that would show the likelihood of his developing OA in the future. He encourages owners to know their dog’s predisposition for inherited joint diseases (the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals [offa.org] publishes dysplasia statistics for various breeds), then talk to a vet about ways to minimize the OA that might occur. “Anything that you do early in the dog’s life will have much more impact than what you do after the problem has developed,” he says.
The supplement industry is not monitored by the FDA, and studies have shown that the quality and amount of a supplement are sometimes less than indicated on the label. The adages “do your homework” and “you get what you pay for” apply.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
How alternative protein is going wild
Stroll down the aisle of almost any pet-supply store and you’re likely to see dog food that rivals the offerings of a high-end butcher shop: salmon, venison and duck, plus pheasant, bison, rabbit and ostrich. You’ll even find critters that aren’t on anyone’s menu, including beaver and Australian brushtail possum. Mmmmmm good.
While the vast majority of dog owners stick to the basics — beef, chicken and lamb-based foods — a growing number are venturing into the exotics, despite the fact that they may cost substantially more than economy kibble. If an average dog owner spends about $227 a year on dog food, an owner who’s feeding the wild stuff will spend many times more, especially if the dog who’s eating it is one of the big guys.
Why are some of us going in this direction? “The most common reason an owner will switch to a food that’s made with a more exotic meat is that the dog has food allergies,” says Mark Newkirk, VMD, director of the Margate Animal Hospital in Margate, N.J. Owners also cite ethical reasons — for example, concerns over the “factory farming” system that generates the meat used in most pet foods — as well as a wish to simply improve their dogs’ diets. The food might be “better” because of what’s in it (higher-grade meat and other ingredients) as well as what isn’t (chemical additives, plus the hormones and pesticides to which the feed animal and/or plant-based ingredients were exposed).
The market for natural pet foods, which includes many products made with exotic or game meats as well as those containing certified organic or “natural” ingredients (that includes products such as beds and toys) had $1 billion in retail sales in 2007 and is expected to top $2 billion by 2012, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. Natural foods represent just 6 percent of total dog-food sales, but they’re growing about five times as fast as the pet-food market as a whole. And while U.S. consumers are increasingly interested in all manner of organic and environmentally friendly products, sales of organic dog food — roughly $84 million in 2008 — have increased at almost twice the rate of organic food intended for human consumption, according to the Organic Trade Commission. Nearly half of all pet-owning households now look for “natural” or eco-friendly pet products, according to another national survey (Packaged Facts).
Consider the Source
One way to avoid this issue is to skip meat altogether and feed our dogs a vegetarian diet, a strategy that’s fairly controversial (and not recommended by many veterinarians). Or, we can look for alternative meat sources for our dog — animals that don’t come from gigantic feedlots and slaughterhouses but rather live and die on smaller farms or ranches, or even in the wild.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the animal that begat the food lived (or died) happily, says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “These animals are either hunted or slaughtered on farms,” she says. “They didn’t die in their sleep.” On the other hand, research shows that animals in factory farms are generally subjected to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions; are routinely given hormones and antibiotics; and are consistently less healthy than animals that live on more traditional farms, or in the wild.
And while scientific evidence for the health benefits of naturally raised foods is still slim for people (and practically nonexistent for dogs), many experts contend that foods made from animals and plants raised in non-CAFO settings are inherently superior. “When you switch a dog to a better food, you definitely see benefits because you’re making the dog’s body healthier,” Newkirk says. “Any kind of debilitation or chronic disease or problem will respond, to one degree or another, to a diet that’s made from healthy ingredients and not full of chemicals. That only makes sense.”
Moreover, while the “big five” dog food manufacturers have recently jumped on the natural bandwagon, the majority of foods made with game meats come from smaller companies, which tend to use higher-quality ingredients and produce their products in smaller plants. Some, such as Taste of the Wild, use only hormone- and antibiotic-free meats (and no synthetic preservatives). Others, such as Timberwolf Organics, rely on wild-caught, free-range and U.S.-sourced ingredients. The Canadian company Horizon Pet Nutrition says that none of its ingredients travel more than 100 km (or about 62 miles) to its Saskatchewan facilities. Champion Pet Foods, another Canadian company, uses regional ducks, free-range bison and wild-caught fish in its foods.
Food allergies are triggered by exposure to a particular food (or more specifically, to a protein in that food) or food additives, such as preservatives, Larsen says. And many dogs are allergic to more than one thing, which makes it that much harder to find the culprit(s) in the dog’s diet. According to Larsen, dogs will often develop an allergy to a food or substance they’ve eaten regularly.
Some of the most common allergens for dogs are beef, chicken and grains, which are also the most common ingredients in commercial dog foods, says Newkirk. “If we suspect that the dog has a food allergy, we’ll put her on venison or duck or rabbit because her body hasn’t seen that protein before and therefore shouldn’t be allergic to it.” He also advises owners of allergic dogs to switch to a food that’s grain-free (meaning no wheat, corn or rice). “Grains are mostly carbohydrate, but they do contain some protein, too, and that can trigger a reaction in some dogs,” he says.
Before we begin swapping dog foods, however, it’s important to evaluate our dogs’ current diet as well as their diet history, notes Larsen. “I’m constantly amazed at people who think they’ve got to start buying ostrich [even though] their dog has never been exposed to beef,” she says. It’s also important that the new diet is both limited — incorporating a minimum number of ingredients — and based on a novel protein (something to which the dog has never been exposed). “Many diets with exotic meats also have a lot of other common ingredients, meaning there could be two dozen protein sources in a particular bag or can of dog food,” she says. There’s nothing magic about any one meat over another: “It’s really about exposure,” according to Larsen.
Identifying and eliminating a food allergen can be a lengthy process, and most vets advise an elimination trial of at least six weeks. Make sure that everything — kibble and wet food as well as treats and even chewable medications like heartworm preventives — containing potential allergens is removed from the dog’s diet. If the symptoms clear up after several weeks, re-introduce the food and watch for the symptoms to return.
Once the culprit is determined and a viable substitute is found, a big improvement in the dog’s health is likely, Newkirk observes. “The results are fairly remarkable. Of course, this may not be the dog’s only allergy and you may have other detective work to do, but it will probably make a major difference.”
Look at the Label
Commercial dog foods are generally lumped into a few categories, including “premium,” “super premium,” “ultra premium” and “gourmet.” Although it’s safe to assume that foods containing exotic meats will be classified thus, these words don’t have any official meaning: Dog foods that carry one of these terms on the label aren’t required to contain better ingredients or pass any more stringent nutritional requirements than ones that don’t.
Many dog foods, including exotic products, are labeled “natural” or “organic.” But this can be tricky, says Nancy K. Cook, vice president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade group representing petfood manufacturers, and chair of the USDA’s Organic Pet Food Task Force. The task force recommended a set of standards for dog and cat foods similar to those used for food intended for humans, but as of today, none has been adopted. That means that a manufacturer that touts its use of certified organic ingredients (or certified organic manufacturing facilities) and uses the official “organic” seal, which is issued by the USDA, must follow the same rules as manufacturers of human food, says Barbara Haumann, a spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association.
The term “natural” does have a definition, although it’s not exactly precise (or legally binding), Cook says. “Basically, a pet food is supposed to be made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in order to be called natural,” she says. That, at least, is the AAFCO definition. The FDA and USDA have no official definition of the term.
The bottom line: If you’re thinking of venturing into the exotic aisle, be sure to read the label carefully, says Larsen. Different doesn’t always mean better.
Wellness: Health Care
When, why and how to find one
If a member of your (human) family got sick or hurt or had a condition that demanded expert care, you’d ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist—someone who could offer treatments beyond what your GP could provide.
And now, if your dog needs care beyond the scope of your regular veterinarian’s practice, you can do the same thing for him.
Specialists can take over where standard veterinary care leaves off because they have specific education and hands-on experience over and above that of most general practice vets, says Nancy Kay, DVM, a board-certified specialist in small animal internal medicine in Rohnert Park, Calif., and author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life (2008). “Veterinary specialists have spent two or more years of in-depth residency training, often receiving one-on-one guidance from clinicians who are experts in their fields,” she says. “That’s where they learn how to deal with challenging cases.”
Veterinary specialists—experts in everything from anesthesia to zoological medicine—were all but unheard of when most of us were young (and romping with the dogs of our childhood). The first specialties were recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in the 1950s, when the association established the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) to serve as an umbrella organization for all AVMA-recognized specialty groups.
Today, the ABVS represents 39 distinct specialties, which are practiced by members of 20 specialty organizations, some of which encompass several disciplines (for example, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, or ACVIM, covers large and small animal internal medicine, plus oncology, cardiology and neurology). More than 9,000 U.S. veterinarians—roughly 9 percent of all vets in the country—are card-carrying members, or board-certified diplomates, of these organizations. To obtain diplomate status, a vet must complete postgraduate coursework and residency and pass a certification exam. In some cases, that means several years of additional training after vet school.
In addition to the AVMA-recognized specialty groups, a few organizations offer specialized training and certification to vets who have added physical rehabilitation and various types of alternative medicine to their practices. (See sidebar.)
The expertise demanded of specialty veterinarians is especially important in veterinary medicine, because vets—unlike human doctors—can legally perform any accepted procedure on your dog, says Mitch Robbins, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) who practices at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill. “If you needed surgery, your doctor is required to refer you to a surgeon,” he says. “He can’t just operate on you himself. But if your dog needs surgery, your regular vet can do it himself. The question isn’t whether he can perform the procedure—it’s whether he is the best person to do it.”
Another issue is equipment—high-tech radiology, neurosurgery and diagnostic machines that specialists have (and general practice vets almost never do). Specialists have received training on this equipment and are well versed in the latest therapies and technologies, says Patty Khuly, VMD, a general-practice veterinarian in Miami, Fla. “They’ve invested in the kinds of equipment that I wouldn’t buy for my practice,” she says. “Of course, there are good and not-so-good specialists just like there are good and not-so-good general practitioners, but, generally speaking, specialists are at least four years ahead of everybody else. Veterinary medicine is advancing very quickly, so four years represents an awful lot.”
Specialization in veterinary medicine is definitely growing, as more pet owners are looking for advanced care and more veterinarians are choosing to tackle it: According to the AVMA, almost 40 percent of 2007’s veterinary school graduates enrolled in targeted post-graduate coursework, internships and residencies, up from just 15 percent in 1995. And despite the current economic situation—and the fact that a specialist will almost always cost more than a family veterinarian (generally about twice as much, says Dr. Robbins)—owners are keeping them busy. They can be found throughout the country, at major veterinary teaching hospitals as well as clinics, many of which offer a few different types of specialty care along with 24-hour emergency services.
When to Get a Specialist
Most general practice veterinarians will readily suggest a specialist in cases that are beyond their area of expertise, says Dr. Khuly. “A few vets might want to do everything in-house, or they might feel that the client wouldn’t want to see a specialist for financial or other reasons, but most routinely make referrals,” she says. The phenomenon is much like the one in human medicine, she says. “The general practitioner is your go-to person for everyday issues, but the specialist is who you see for more complicated problems.”
For example, your family vet might suggest you see a specialist for treatment of a known disease or condition (such as heart rhythm abnormalities or diabetes), says Dr. Kay. You also might be sent to a specialist if your dog isn’t getting better—or is getting worse—despite the treatment he’s currently getting. Dr. Kay also recommends seeking a specialist for a second opinion, or if you just want to feel more certain about your dog’s care or have a “gut feeling” that he might need more than your family vet can provide.
You also might want to consult a specialist if your dog needs diagnostic procedures beyond the run-of-the-mill temperature readings and blood work that your regular vet provides. For example, endoscopy—a nonsurgical method of evaluating a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal or urinary tract or removing growths or tissue for biopsy—is generally left to the specialists, says Dr. Kay. “Some general practitioners perform endoscopy procedures, but unless they’ve received extensive training, they won’t have nearly the experience that a specialist in internal medicine does.”
Seeking Out Surgeons
If your veterinarian recommends taking your dog to a surgeon (or if you think you should see one for a second opinion), do your homework—on both the surgeon and the surgery that your vet has recommended—before the consultation, says Dr. Kay. Find out if he’s board certified, and ask about his experience in cases like your dog’s. Be sure to bring your dog’s medical records, including the latest x-rays, lab results and prescriptions, to the appointment.
When you meet with a surgeon, Dr. Robbins recommends asking the following questions:
•Are there any other options that we could consider? What’s the advantage of surgery over nonsurgical options?
•What can I do to ensure that my dog will be a good candidate for this procedure? Are there additional tests that should be performed (such as “staging” of cancer)?
•What are the risks and possible complications? What is the prognosis for my dog, considering his age and overall health?
•What will the aftercare involve? Will my dog need to remain in the hospital immediately after the surgery (and does your hospital provide 24/7 care)? Do I need to buy special equipment, like an orthopedic bed or baby gates for the stairs? How much post-operative rehabilitation will he need and what will it entail?
“In my opinion, any time you’re talking about a surgical procedure that has some complexity to it, the least you should do—at least, what I would do—is talk to a surgeon,” says Dr. Robbins. “The ‘second opinion’ is the basis of specialized medicine in humans, and it’s the best way for you to be an advocate for your dog. You always want to know if there’s something new or better that could be done to manage your dog’s condition and give him a better quality of life.”
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