health care
Wellness: Health Care
When Playful Pups Take “Having a Ball” Too Far
Causes and responses to a choking pet

Having “something stuck in the throat” is a common problem for our pets due to their curious natures and indiscriminate eating habits. Recently, I saw an adorable Bernese Mountain Dog named Clover after she had gotten a little over-exuberant with her tennis ball. She’d actually swallowed it. She presented for difficulties with both swallowing and breathing, and X-rays revealed that her distress was toy-induced.

True choking is actual interference with breathing caused by foreign material in, or compression on, the trachea (windpipe). Choking can occur due to an obstruction of the airway from a foreign object in the throat, severe swelling of the throat or constriction of the neck.

In order for a foreign object to cause choking, it must obstruct the opening to the airway—either directly (i.e., actually in the airway) or indirectly (i.e., compressing on the airway), as in the case of Clover. Clover managed to swallow the tennis ball, but the ball was large enough to cause compression on her trachea, making breathing difficult.

Severe throat swelling can also cause choking and is usually associated with an allergic reaction or response to trauma. The tissues within the throat can swell and block the opening to the airway.

Constricting neck injuries are usually associated with collars and ropes. Dogs whose collars become tangled can choke due to the constriction of the neck from the tightness of the collar. In severe cases, dogs and cats can hang from collars, leashes and ropes.

When I lived in Colorado, my immediate neighbor came home one day to find that her two dogs became “hooked” together by collar and jaw; the larger dog’s mouth slipped under the loose collar of the puppy while playing and they couldn’t get free; the struggle resulted in strangulation of the puppy. This was a devastating experience for everyone. Please take this moment to check your pets’ collars and ensure that they are the proper size.

Common signs of choking:

  • Drooling
  • Gagging
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pawing at face
  • Regurgitation
  • Anxiety and distress

If you observe any of the above signs, seek veterinary care immediately.

If you live far from veterinary care or do not have immediate transportation, the following measures may buy you some time while you are arranging for medical attention:

If you notice that your pet is choking, remove any item that may be constricting the neck, such as a tight collar. If you can do it safely, examine the inside of the mouth and remove any foreign object you see, but do not attempt to remove an object unless you can see and identify it.

If you cannot easily remove the object, lift and suspend a small animal with the head pointed down. For larger animals, lift the rear legs so the head is tilted down (like a wheelbarrow). This can help dislodge an item stuck in the throat. Another method is to administer a sharp hit with the palm of your hand between the shoulder blades, which can sometimes dislodge an object.

If this does not work, a modified Heimlich maneuver can be attempted. Grasp the animal around the waist so that the rear is nearest to you, similar to a bear hug. Place a fist just behind the ribs. Compress the belly three to five times with quick pushes. Check the mouth to see if the foreign object has been dislodged.

If your pet is unconscious, perform a finger sweep. Open your pet’s mouth and do a finger sweep by placing your finger along the inside of the mouth, sliding it down toward the center of the throat over the base of the tongue, and gently “sweeping” toward the center to remove any foreign material. Warning: There is a structure deep in the throat (the Adam’s apple) that feels like a smooth bone. Do not attempt to pull it out!

Melanie Monteiro, author of The Safe Dog Handbook, demonstrates these techniques.

What else could it be?

More times than not, what people believe to be choking, is actually an attempt to vomit or cough. Many pet owners will seek veterinary care because they believe their pet has something stuck in its throat, however, it is far more likely that your pet has something mild and infectious, such as tracheobronchitis (also known as kennel cough), and he or she is coughing rather than choking.

Choking versus coughing: With choking, the pet has difficulty inhaling; with coughing, the pet can inhale almost normally.

A few tips to help prevent a trip to the ER:

  • Make sure your pet has a collar that fits properly. Collars that are too tight or too loose can create serious injury and possibly death.
  • If you use a tie out, do not let your pet have sufficient slack to allow jumping over fences or off of decks and patios.
  • Like human children, keep all choking hazards, such as small items and toys, away from your pet. Super Balls and “mini” tennis balls for smaller breed dogs are also a common cause of upper airway obstruction in large breed dogs.

Clover and her experience prompted me to write this blog. I hope it will help prevent, or save, another pet in the future. Clover made a full recovery following the endoscopic removal of the tennis ball that she swallowed and she continues to do well!


Wellness: Health Care
Second Opinion: Wake-up Call

Sometimes I realize I may be getting too old for this job, particularly when I get a phone call from my resident in the wee hours of the morning.

“I’ve got a dog with a broken back,” he says. “Any chance you can give me a hand?”

I could groan, but it would take too much energy. I could say, “Can’t it wait a couple of hours?” but he’s already said the magic words. A broken back is a true surgical emergency, and there’s not a minute to lose if you want your patient to have the best possible opportunity to walk again.

“Sure,” I say, “be right with you.” I hope my robotic monotone and total lack of enthusiasm don’t register with him.

I make the 40-minute commute in silence, and though the fog in my head is beginning to burn off, I feel a low-level exasperation about having to head back to work in the middle of the night. But I perk up when I see my resident and the dog in question.

“Hunter is a Lab/Beagle mix. Eighteen months old. Adopted just two weeks ago. Owner went out for dinner at six, came home at 10 to find Hunter lying in the backyard unable to move¾he jumped through a screen in a second-story window.”

The resident shows me the X-rays: the orderly structure of Hunter’s bony spinal column is crunched and buckled in the middle. This image represents a finite moment in time. Who knows how much distortion and irreversible damage occurred before reaching this point?

“He can’t move his legs,” says the resident, “but he does have deep pain.” Deep pain is the last measurable sensation an animal retains before total paralysis.

“Good,” I say, “then we’re still in with a chance.”

Perhaps it’s the word “we” that gets the resident’s attention. “I was hoping I could do the surgery. That you could walk me through it.” Spinal fractures, which can be tricky, are respected and revered by surgeons in training, and he was up for the challenge.

There are lots of ways to fix these fractures, but the plan we devise for Hunter involves using a combination of pins and sterile cement to bridge and stabilize the break. Aim a pin in the wrong direction, push it in too far, and you risk puncturing the spinal cord (never a good thing) or, worse still, puncturing your patient’s aorta (invariably fatal).

I look at him. Unlike me, the resident was totally awake, excited and hungry for the opportunity. He was me, 20 years ago.

“Sure,” I say. “We’ll do it together.”

And we did, or rather, he did. He repositioned the broken bones and then placed his pins. I guided his hands; I approved pin positions and angulations and told him precisely when to start and stop. But the repair was his, and when we reviewed the postoperative X-rays, Hunter’s spine was once more perfectly aligned.

“Nice job,” I said, and meant it.

In the following weeks, I followed up on Hunter’s recovery, chatting with his owner, Tim.

“Hunter’s doing great, especially when he does his water therapy. He still can’t walk on his own, not yet, but he’s definitely getting there.”

In Tim’s voice I could hear the emotion common to every dog owner who’s had to deal with canine spinal trauma: eternal optimism. When faced with a forecast of slow progress, intense nursing care and an uncertain outcome, a “glass-half-full” attitude is essential.

“He’s always in a good mood. If Hunter never got any better than he is today, if I had to fit him for a cart, I know he’d still enjoy a great life.”

On the night of Hunter’s surgery, my sleepy indifference had vanished the moment I saw a dog in such dramatic need. The responsibility of trying to restore something as fundamental as the ability to walk across a room was a real eye-opener. Better than a double espresso any day.

“Don’t forget,” I had said to the resident after we finished, savoring his excitement and appreciation, “we’ve only created the possibility for recovery. The rest is out of our hands.”

I didn’t want to kill the buzz; I simply wanted to remind him that surgeons can’t play God. Nothing we do with our hands and tools can get a spinal cord to heal if too much damage has been done.

The resident nodded his understanding. I smiled, invested in and thrilled with what had been achieved for Hunter.

“Thanks for your help,” said the resident. “Next time. I won’t have to call.” And that’s when it hit me: I wouldn’t want to miss this feeling for the world.

“Call me anyway,” I said as I got ready to leave. “Remember, no two spinal fractures are ever quite the same.”

Wellness: Health Care
In a Spin
Canine vertigo is treatable but scary to witness

I jolt awake in the middle of the night to the sound of one of my three dogs throwing up. My first thought is, glad the floors are concrete and easy to clean. The moon provides enough light for me to make my way to the kitchen, where I see Meadow, my 10-year-old Alaskan Malamute, standing with her head slightly lowered, a small pool of yellow vomit on the floor in front of her. Her front legs are splayed wide.

“Oh, Meadow girl, I’m sorry you’re sick …” I murmur as I approach. Before I can reach her, she stumbles and falls hard to the floor, then struggles to stand up. Stumbling like a drunk, she slams to the floor again. What the hell’s going on?

Meadow, who weighs more than 90 pounds, continues trying to stand. I hold onto her collar, using my other hand to steady her. When she falls, she crashes into my legs with all her weight, almost taking me with her. Not wanting to hear that heart-wrenching thud again, I use my body to prevent her from standing. She moves awkwardly, head swaying, fighting my downward pressure.

She finally stops struggling, but is clearly distressed. Her front legs are spread out in front of her, her chest is barely on the floor and all her weight is on her elbows. One of her hind legs is pinned under her hips, the other one extended out to the side. She pants fast and heavily. She can’t possibly be comfortable, but hasn’t let out any cries of pain and resists my attempts to rearrange her legs.

I turn on an overhead light, then lift her face toward mine. I’m confronted with one of the most frightening sights I’ve ever encountered: Meadow’s eyes are darting rapidly from side to side, as though every neuron in her brain is on fire. Almost crying in fear and frustration, I’m completely stymied.

I’m also alone in a house without cell phone reception. Just me and my dogs. The nearest ER vet clinic is three hours away, but I can’t get Meadow into the car without help. “Meadow, look at me.” I sense that she’s trying to focus, that she hears me, but she can’t make her eyes stop moving. “Meadow, you cannot leave me, not now, not here,” I say to her, trying to quell my own fear that she’s dying and there’s nothing I can do prevent it. I have to do something.

Telling Meadow to stay, I quickly dress and drive the quarter-mile to my closest neighbor’s house. Amazingly, despite the hour, they get their vet on the phone. After hearing the pertinent details, the vet makes an instant diagnosis: “She’s having a seizure. It might be the only one she ever has, or she might have more. She may have brain damage, or she may not.” Brain damage? Not good, although at least I can stop worrying that she’ll die tonight. But the eye thing, her inability to stand; it was going on a good 15 minutes before I left to come here, I argue mentally, thinking a seizure should be a quick thing, like the one I’d witnessed in a friend’s dog with epilepsy. “Seizures can last anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours,” the vet informs me, as if reading my mind. “Should I bring her to you tonight?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “there’s nothing to be done. Just watch her so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself.”

When I get home, Meadow hasn’t moved, and is still exhibiting the same symptoms. I make a bed next to her on the floor and watch, and wait. As the night wears on, Meadow’s eyes finally quit darting, and eventually—around 5 am—she puts her head on the floor and sleeps on her side. I lay with her, stroking her fur, still trying to figure out what’s happening. It just doesn’t fit my idea of a seizure. Then suddenly, I remember: three years earlier, I’d had a sudden case of extreme dizziness, and my own eyes had danced uncontrollably, just like Meadow’s. I had awoken one morning to a world spinning out of control, unable to stand without falling or slamming into walls. Even rolling over in bed made the world heave and lurch. An ER doctor diagnosed vertigo, likely the result of a severe head cold that had affected my inner ear. A drug resolved my symptoms within 20 minutes, although I had to keep taking it for a week.

Can dogs get vertigo? I wonder as I lay there, stroking Meadow’s body. As it turns out, the answer is yes. In dogs, it’s called vestibular disease. Just about any creature with ears and a brain stem can suffer from vestibular disorders.

Vertigo (from the Latin vert(ere) = whirling or turning around) is a type of dizziness, a sense of motion when one is stationary, due to a dysfunction of the vestibular system in the inner ear. It is often associated with nausea and difficulty standing or walking.

“Vertigo is a human description of a feeling; dogs can’t tell us what they’re feeling, so vestibular disease is the term used,” says Beverly Sturges, DVM, associate professor of clinical neurology/neurosurgery at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to Dr. Sturges, the most frequent cases are referred to as idiopathic or “old dog” vestibular disease because it’s most often seen in older dogs and there’s no obvious cause. “It’s benign; we still have no real understanding why it occurs,” she says. “It’s self-limiting, [requiring] no treatment except supportive care and comforting the dog,” she adds. The second most common cause is infection—especially Rocky Mountain spotted fever—or inflammation.

Dr. Sturges describes two broad categories of vestibular disease: outside the brain, and inside. “When outside the brain, it involves the middle or inner ear and is referred to as peripheral vestibular disease. This type is more treatable, with a better prognosis,” she says, and includes the old-dog syndrome. “Inside the brain means it involves the brain stem and is referred to as central vestibular disease. In small breeds—Maltese, Yorkies, Pugs, Poms—it’s usually caused by a non-infectious inflammation of the brain stem, often referred to as inflammatory brain disease. It occurs mostly in younger dogs [less than] two years of age. In larger breeds, central vestibular disease is usually caused by brain tumors [putting] pressure on the brain stem. Or, sometimes, trauma to the head.” Symptoms of central vestibular disease may be more subtle, with gradual onset.

That frightening eye-darting I saw in Meadow? It’s called nystagmus, a rapid, involuntary eye movement, side to side or, less frequently, up and down. “Nystagmus is not seen in all cases, but [it] is common,” says Dr. Sturges. “It lessens as the dog gets used to the sensation. Nystagmus can be profound in old-dog vestibular disease; a few days, or perhaps one to two weeks later, it’s almost always gone. It’s a reliable symptom: if there’s nystagmus, it’s vestibular disease and not usually a seizure. But you can see a drunken gait—ataxia—and other symptoms without nystagmus and it could still be vestibular disease.”

Diagnosis is based on a description of symptoms, or better yet, actual observation of symptoms. When appropriate, a vet will do a CT scan or an MRI to see if there are tumors or brain swelling. The type of nystagmus observed (horizontal versus vertical) and the direction of the dog’s head tilt (another common symptom) can help a neurologist differentiate between peripheral and central vestibular disease. Other issues involving the inner ear, or ear infection, will be ruled out if symptoms persist.

Treating central vestibular disease in dogs depends on the type and cause. “We’re pretty good now at removing tumors from the brain stem,” says Dr. Sturges. “If there’s inflammation and fluid, that can be drained surgically if necessary. We can prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal. When a vascular cause is suspected—a temporary or permanent lack of blood supply—vestibular issues usually get better on their own,” she says. “Toxins are another possibility. Metronidazole [Flagyl] and a few other medicines can cause toxicity, including vestibular disease; taking the dog off the drug and substituting another can resolve it.”

A sudden onset of acute symptoms  and an absence of other physical findings usually mean peripheral vestibular disease. You and your vet may elect to wait a few days to see if improvement occurs before doing extensive diagnostics. After some online research, this was the choice I made for Meadow. Some vets will prescribe corticosteroids to reduce swelling and antibiotics just in case the cause is inside the brain. Ultimately, the final diagnosis of old-dog vestibular disease is made by the self-limiting nature of the symptoms.  According to Dr. Sturges, 5 to 10 percent of dogs who experience this problem may have additional episodes.

Unfortunately, like Meadow, many dogs with vestibular disease are initially misdiagnosed as having seizures. In some instances, unable to afford expensive diagnostics or consult a neurologist, the distressed owners put the dog down, fearing he or she has suffered brain damage and won’t recover, or will suffer repeated seizures in the future. “That’s sad,” says Dr. Sturges. “There’s no reason to put them down. We don’t often see brain damage in dogs. A seriously long seizure could cause damage, but don’t jump to euthanize, even in cases of seizure,” she emphasizes.

Granted, sudden onset of vestibular disease can look like a seizure; the two are often hard to distinguish. “A neurologist could maybe tell the difference,” says Dr. Sturges. “An EEG to measure brain electricity and some other tests could help differentiate. But actually seeing the episode is the best way to diagnose. A video—everyone has cameras and video-cams these days—would be very helpful.”

For those who have never experienced vertigo, let me assure you: it’s sudden, overwhelming and incredibly frightening. You don’t know what’s happening, or why, and your brain seems disconnected from your body. Dogs must experience similar fear. And it can be dangerous, depending on when and where it occurs. Both Meadow and I were lucky; we were safely at home and our falls didn’t cause injury. Growing up in a family of aviators, I remember hearing whispered talk among pilots about vertigo, how deadly it can be during flight; it was the one thing they seemed to fear. Then, I couldn’t understand how simply being dizzy could cause a pilot to lose control of an airplane. Now I do. In fact, vertigo is thought to be the most likely reason the private airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., and carrying his wife and sister-in-law crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, killing all three. With vertigo, you literally don’t know up from down. Remember white-knuckle rides on that spinning playground equipment? When you tried to get off, you’d stumble and fall to the ground, head still whirling. That’s vertigo light. The real thing is more intense, longer lasting and much scarier.

Meadow and I eventually fall asleep. Around 7 am, I’m awakened by movement. I open my eyes to see Meadow sitting up. “Meadow! Good girl!” I say excitedly. This is progress; this is huge. “Do you want to go outside?” Before I finish the sentence, Meadow is leaning forward to get her hind legs underneath her. Helping her up, I usher her unsteadily toward the door. Out in the yard, she immediately pees and poops. I’ve never before been so excited about normal bodily functions. We head back into the house, where she goes straight to her normal sleeping spot beside my bed. Her gait is wobbly, but she’s moving under her own power. As she settles down, we both heave a huge sigh of relief.

Within a few days, Meadow’s gait is back to normal. She doesn’t have the lingering head tilt common with vestibular disease, but displayed every other symptom. Follow-up blood work discloses that she’s hypothyroid, a possible cause of vestibular disease.

After the dust settled, I shared my experience with friends. Many had similar stories involving taking their dog to a veterinary emergency clinic. One - a vet - has seen several cases in her clinic. Sharing our stories can help prepare us in the event our dogs – especially our old dogs – suffer a sudden episode, making it less scary. Seek medical treatment when appropriate, but if a diagnosis doesn’t ring true, trust your own observations and get another opinion. You know your dog better than anyone.


Be Prepared

An online search of “vestibular disease in dogs” and “nystagmus” brings up YouTube videos of dogs showing classic symptoms such as head tilt, drunken gait (ataxia) and nystagmus. The videos are hard to watch, but being aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease could save you a night of fear and stress, or help you notice warning signs of central vestibular disease, allowing early intervention and an increased likelihood of a good outcome for your dog.

Wellness: Health Care
Deciphering (Ab)Normal Dog Behaviors
Chasing their tails, eating grass and rolling in garbage—should you worry?

From humping to “targeted” sniffing, our pups have a plethora of odd habits—at least to those of us who walk on two legs instead of four. While no one knows for certain the exact “why” behind these behaviors, we do have some theories. And until dogs learn to speak human, divulging their best-kept secrets, we’ll just have to continue to make educated guesses about this weird-but-true realm of doggy deeds. The key is recognizing if a behavior signals poor health.


When puppies chase their tails, it’s like babies grabbing their toes—and this is a normal way for them to explore their bodies. But like anything in life, moderation is key, and problems can arise if this behavior becomes compulsive. So, how do you determine if your pooch has a case of Canine Compulsive Disorder? It comes down to whether you can distract them from this behavior. If your dog would rather chase her tail than go for a walk, she may have a compulsive disorder and veterinary assessment may be needed.


It can be common for dogs to drag their bottoms across the ground after doing their business, particularly if their stool is loose. But if this behavior is noted frequently throughout the day, this may be a sign of impacted anal glands, a condition that can have serious complications if left untreated.


Watching your dog get personal with his stuffed toy can make you want to look away, but it’s not abnormal. Many dogs discover that humping feels good, it can relieve stress or serve as an outlet for excessive feelings of exuberance and excitement. Both males and females are known to partake in this behavior, though males do it more often.

Eating grass

People often think that dogs eat grass when their stomachs are upset or they are ill. However, a good ol’ lawn actually serves as a gourmet snack to many dogs. As omnivores, they like to eat their meat and veggies, too. Eating grass in moderation is a normal part of a dog diet, and a walk in the park for my dogs always includes a stop at the grass buffet. That said, if all of a sudden you see your dog frantically binging on grass, this could be the sign of distress, and a call to your veterinarian is in order.


It is general custom for Spot to greet Rover with a sniff of the behind, but why share this custom with us? Bad manners? Well, not according to the canine code of conduct, as this is a perfectly acceptable way of collecting personal information about one another, including humans. So the next time you are surprised by a nosey nudge, just know that you are being greeted and assessed (and don’t worry, dogs generally won’t be offended if you just give them a pat on the head in turn).

[Recently, Bark columnist Julie Hecht, MS, took a light-hearted look at the phenomenon.]

Eating excrement

Gross, right!? I’m asked about this all of the time and all I can do is give an empathetic cringe of the nose and a shrug of the shoulders. (I know the score: My dog Mickey used to raid the cat’s litter box, proudly returning with “kitty cigars.”) As stomach-turning as this is, eating excrement is a surprisingly normal behavior for dogs. In the early stages of domestication, dogs performed a hygienic function of cleaning up their own feces. Additionally, their digestive system is very efficient and they can actually get some quality nutrients out of it—although I can think of much better sources.

Rolling in garbage

When we see a decaying animal or a pile of garbage, our first inclination is to step around it … waaaaay around it. But, keeping true to our dog’s oddities, it is their greatest desire to jump right in, getting a good coating of ick with a strategic roll. The more foul the smell, the stronger the lure, and the more joy that is experienced by our now perfumed pups. One theory is that dogs like to cover their own scent with horrible odors to make it easier to surprise prey. You probably can’t curb your dog of this desire, so your best hope is to spot smelly things first and steer your pal in a different direction.

I hope this has shed some light on a few odd dog behaviors. Funny, as I sit here, I find myself looking over to my own dog, Bauer, wondering if he is looking back at me thinking, “Wow, there she goes again, sitting in front of that computer when she could be outside playing with her ball. Now, that’s just weird.”

Wellness: Health Care
Senior Health
What to do while you’re deciding what to do

Your dog hasn’t heard you call his name for a year or two. His back legs are stiff. He’s developed a fear of thunderstorms that he once slept through. His muzzle long ago turned gray.

These poignant signs of aging may pull at your heartstrings, but may not mean much about your older dog’s overall health. As time goes by, though, signs of aging may become more dramatic: nighttime wandering, disorientation, difficulty with stairs, accidents in the house.

At this point, your dog is entering a twilight time. You can see the horizon—a last illness or that last visit to the vet—but you’re not ready to give up. With a little effort, you can provide your dog with the comfort he needs during the last bit of time you share. (Providing him with love is a given.)

This past summer, we nursed our smallish, mixed-breed dog, Shucks, through his last illness, near the end of his almost-16-year span. Given his age, we were making more frequent visits to our veterinarian, Dr. Arthur Wohlfeiler. Indeed, we made it through this challenging time thanks in part to the moral support and help of our vet, and we accumulated some great tips and helpful products along the way. Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable also provided lots of good advice. Here are some of the things we learned.

Food and Water

If your old guy loses track of his water dish, or is physically unable to get to it, it’s up to you to keep him hydrated. Bring the water to him. You may have to hold the dish in front of him for a minute and wet his mouth so that he gets the idea. And make the water more interesting. Dr. Dodman suggests dissolving sodium-free chicken bouillon in his dish. Both the aroma and the flavor will encourage him to drink. Adding a half-cup or so of water to his food (both dry and canned) will help hydrate him as well; he won’t mind the soupiness.

As with people, dogs’ dietary needs and preferences usually change as they age. Try adjusting his feeding schedule; reluctant eaters can often be tempted by small portions throughout the day. Continue to feed him his regular food as long as he likes it. Switching from dry food to canned, however, may help a dog whose teeth are worn or damaged, and its stronger smell may be more enticing to him.

While your dog’s sight and hearing may decline, his sense of smell doesn’t. If he can smell his dinner, he’s more likely to gobble it. Warm the food slightly in the microwave, and add bouillon or some other flavorful treat to pique his interest. Don’t automatically switch to a “senior dog” diet. This use of this term is unregulated, and, depending on an individual dog’s specific health issues, some of these formulations can compromise his health. (Be sure to talk to your vet about any dietary changes you’re considering.)

You have options when it comes to encouraging your old dog to eat if his enthusiasm has waned. For example, feed him from one of your own dinner plates. For whatever reason, food from a “human” plate is sometimes more appealing than food in his humdrum bowl. Keep the dog’s plate on the table next to yours when you’re eating and as soon as you’re finished, give your dog his dinner.

Some dogs find it difficult to lower their head to their bowl; raising the bowl in an elevated feeder or even on a low little bench helps.

Provide your dog with a buffet. In a casserole-type dish, arrange an assortment of foods in small piles and let him “graze.” After he’s eaten the things that most strike his fancy, combine the leftovers in a small ball or two and handfeed it to him, if necessary.

Take care that you’re not forcing the issue; a lack of interest in food and water is, of course, a sign that your dog is near the end. Respect the message he’s sending.

Getting Around
Don’t stop taking your dog for walks just because he’s old and slow. Dogs need the exercise and mental stimulation, and the sense of still belonging to their pack, that walks give them. Just make sure you don’t overdo it. In warm weather, stop when he slows down, and in cold weather, dress him in suitable outdoor garments—a snug sweater or coat. Revise your definition of a walk. Sometimes, a slow turn down the driveway can be a perfectly good outing.

Improve traction by tacking a piece of outdoor carpet to slippery stairs and using nonslip rugs inside. If you have a neglected yoga mat rolled up in your closet, it can also be used both inside and out as a traction aid; it’s easy to cut to size if you don’t need the entire length or width.

Rearrange your furniture, as much as you’re able, to facilitate your dog’s movement around your home. Keep debris off the floor, as even a stray magazine or slipper can trip up an arthritic dog. Block areas where he might get stuck.

Doggie steps and ramps are available online and in pet stores. Be aware, however, that many older dogs are reluctant to change their habits, and high steps and ramps might scare them. Never force their use.

Towels are great tools. You can use them to wrap your smaller dog up when you carry him outside, or, if your dog is a big guy with mobility issues, you can use a large towel as a sling. (You can also purchase slings at pet stores and online.)

Keep It Clean

During our dog’s last summer, we kept a plastic storage bin filled with water in our yard. The sun warmed the water, and it was always there to rinse him off if he soiled himself. That having been said, keep in mind that your old dog is susceptible to changes in temperature. If you’ve had to get him wet, dry him and warm him as quickly as you can.

Keep rags, rags and more rags handy at all times and check out your local pet store for special drying towels. Your elderly dog can’t shake off the water like he used to and these thirsty towels are a great help.

Believe it or not, there are such things as doggie diapers, and you might want to try them. Other products intended for housebreaking puppies can also help with your elderly dog. Housebreaking pads provide a comfortable bed if he’s having accidents in his sleep; washable waterproof pads are also good for this use. (Get several so you always have one or two clean; medical supply stores and children’s bedding outlets often carry them.) Odor removers will help keep your house livable.

Your dog’s last weeks, trying though they may be for you emotionally, can be a gift. They are an opportunity for you to reach a consensus on hard final decisions and to share your feelings about the approaching loss. Even more important, they give you one last chance to show the best dog in the world how much he or she means to you.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Walks Raise Money for Cancer Research
The 2 Million Dogs Foundation supports comparative oncology efforts

It seems everyone I talk to has a friend, relative or pet affected by cancer. The disease has touched way too many loved ones, both human and canine. As it turns out, when it comes to cancer, we may have more in common with dogs than we think. For instance mammary tumors are the most common tumors in intact female dogs and breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. As more similarities are found, collaboration is becoming more common between veterinarians and doctors through comparative oncology.

Now there’s an organization dedicated to increasing awareness and funding for this growing field. Luke Robinson created the 2 Million Dogs Foundation while walking cross-country in honor of his Great Pyrenees who he lost to cancer in 2008. The organization aims to better understand the links between human and companion animal cancer, encourage more collaboration between institutions, develop new approaches to research, and fund translational cancer studies benefiting both pets and people.

Earlier this month the 2 Million Dogs Foundation presented a $50,000 check to Princeton University to help fund their Molecular Study of Canine Mammary Tumor Development and Progression research. The money came from a series of Puppy Up! Walks held all over the country last year.

Comparative oncology is a fascinating field and it’s great to see an organization that is dedicated to supporting research benefiting both humans and canines affected by this horrible disease.

Wellness: Health Care
The Science of Flatulence
There’s more to it than meets the nose!

As much as we might hate to admit it, flatulence is a normal biological function. A surprising amount of air is swallowed just with the simple act of eating, and if this is not burped out, it must exit through the other end. The amount of air swallowed tends to be increased when dogs feel they must eat quickly or in brachycephalic breeds (dogs with a compressed upper jaw and a short muzzle) that tend to breathe more by mouth than by nose.

Flatulence comes from an excess of gases in the intestinal tract. These gases may represent air that has been swallowed, gas produced in the biochemical process of digestion, gas diffusion from the bloodstream or gases produced by the bacteria that populate the intestinal tract. Contrary to popular belief, more than 99 percent of the gases that pass from the intestinal tract are odorless (whew!).

Dietary fiber in pet food is not easily digested by the pet’s own enzyme systems, but it is, however, readily digested by the gas-producing bacteria that live in the colon. As fiber is broken down here, hydrogen sulfide is produced, which is the cause of the really stinky gases. Therefore, a diet that is heavy in fiber further promotes a “happy environment” as well as “food” for the bacteria, ultimately producing more gas.   

Helping clear the air

Offering your pet a highly digestible, low-residue diet is one of the major ways to combat flatulence. A low-residue diet is designed to reduce the frequency and volume of stools, while prolonging transit time through the intestine. It is similar to a low-fiber diet, but includes restrictions on foods that increase bowel activity. Changing to a low-residue diet means that most of the nutrients of the food are digested and absorbed by the pet before they reach the colon, where the gas-forming bacteria live. Less food for the bacteria equals less bacteria, which equals less gas formed.

Sometimes just going through a case and/or bag of such a low-residue diet solves the problem and the pet can return to a regular food afterwards. If necessary, the therapeutic diet can become the pet’s regular food. Low-residue diets are available through your veterinarian, pet supply stores or can be cooked at home (boiled white rice, skinned chicken, cottage cheese and balanced with vitamins and minerals constitute low-residue ingredients).

Other easy changes that can help include:

  • Feeding smaller meals several times daily instead of one larger daily meal
  • Feeding a mixture of dry and canned foods
  • Discouraging rapid eating by placing an overturned small bowl inside the pet’s regular food bowl, preventing them from taking large mouthfuls
  • Avoiding soy, beans and peas in the diet
  • Avoiding any treats containing milk, cheese or other forms of lactose
  • Avoiding fresh or dried fruit treats
  • Avoiding canned foods containing the texturing ingredient carrageenan
  • Increasing activity: A sedentary lifestyle can increase the amount of gases produced as well as how long they “hang out” in the digestive tract. Activity increases gastrointestinal motility, which in turn expels gas and increases regularity of bowel movements.

Are there some medical conditions that can increase flatulence?

Changing the diet and ruling out actual intestinal disease are of primary importance in addressing flatulence. Some disease processes that can cause an increase in flatulence include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Antibiotic-responsive intestinal disorders
  • Cancer
  • Parasites, viral or bacterial inflammation of the intestines
  • Food allergy or intolerance
  • Inadequate production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas

Medications and herbal and botanical supplements

Sometimes medication can help. Although there are many products available, most are unfortunately not as helpful as they are touted to be, or not labeled for animal use. There are more than 30 herbal and botanical preparations available to reduce gas in the stomach and intestines; however, the dosage, safety and efficacy are unknown.

If further therapy is needed, the following products have some basis and support that they may be of help for flatulence:

  • Yucca shidigera supplementation:
 Currently, this extract is labeled as a flavoring agent for pet food but it is also available as an oral supplement. Several studies have shown that it helps decrease the odor in flatulence.
  • Zinc acetate supplementation:
 Zinc binds to sulfhydryl compounds in flatulence ultimately serving to deodorize the gas.
  • Non-absorbable antibiotics: Such antibiotics kill the gas-forming bacteria of the colon and may be helpful as long as their use is not ongoing.

Some popular, but more questionable, products with regards to treating excessive flatulence include:

  • Probiotics: There are many ineffective probiotics being marketed and so it is important to use one that has been shown to contain live cultures that withstand stomach digestion. It is unknown if this type of product will really help in flatulence, as it is asking a great deal for these bacteria to survive the acid environment of the stomach, travel through the many feet of small intestines, and finally reach the colon in the attempt to displace the gas-forming resident bacteria. Still, these are unlikely to be harmful, and can be beneficial in other ways outside of the realm of flatulence, such as helping to stabilize the intestinal microenvironment.
  • Activated charcoal tablets: These tablets are not likely to be effective because the charcoal-binding sites are filled on the journey from mouth to colon, so by the time the tablet gets to the gas-forming large bowel bacteria, it has essentially already been used up!
  • Simethicone: This product may control the volume of gas produced, but not the odor. It is an antifoaming agent that reduces gas bubbles. This may be helpful at reducing our doggy’s gas discomfort, but not our nose discomfort.
  • Pancreatic enzyme supplementation: It is unlikely that these extra digestive enzymes would help a pet in the absence of actual exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Furthermore, this treatment is relatively expensive for something that may only be slightly helpful.

While flatulence is a normal part of everyday life, if the problem persists or seems severe, it is recommended that you consult with your veterinarian. Even our pets sometimes need a smog check!

Wellness: Health Care
Be Prepared: Four Emergency Room Essentials
Lay the groundwork for quick, low-stress treatment

Working in the ER, I see a full range of preventable predicaments that complicate addressing a pet’s immediate health crisis. I’d like to highlight four simple measures you can take as a pet parent to prevent distress and concern should an emergency arise while you are away or if you need to seek care outside of your normal veterinary relationship.

Records!! Keep a copy of every medical record, radiograph and diagnostic test in a file. It allows a new veterinarian to quickly understand your pet’s health status. This is especially important if your pet has a history of illness such as kidney failure, cancer or multiple/ongoing disease processes.

Your pet file should also include a copy of vaccination records. I often get last-minute calls to fill out a health certificate for airline travel, but am unable to do so because owners do not have proof of their pet’s rabies vaccination. As is the case with most emergency hospitals, I am unable to administer another vaccine because we don’t keep any in stock (this is an area of health care that is left to general practitioners).

Advanced directive: I strongly recommend that every pet owner have in place an advanced directive with regards to their pet’s continued care in the event of physical decline in their absence. [Here’s a copy of an advanced directive form we provide that you can download and print.] This is especially important if you share your life with a geriatric pet or one who has ongoing medical issues or failing health. Discuss with your pet sitter, family members and your veterinarian your wishes and have a clear understanding of treatment limits in the event you cannot be reached.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen family members or caretakers struggling to make the difficult decision of euthanasia in the event a pet is suffering and the owners are out of contact.

Pre-arrangement for payment in case of an emergency: Along the same lines as an advanced directive, pre-authorization for treatment is strongly recommended. It is not uncommon for owners to leave their pets in the care of a boarding facility, an in-home pet sitter or a family member during vacation, and then something goes wrong. It is heart-wrenching to navigate a situation where the temporary guardian brings in a pet and has no means of payment or way of contacting the owner to obtain approval for a treatment plan. We try to work as best as we can with these situations, but you can only imagine how heavy these decisions can be for everyone involved.

A common example is a pet who has been hit by a car. Although severe trauma can have an excellent outcome with treatment, the cost of stabilization and management can quickly reach thousands of dollars. Financial responsibility and decision to pay for this level of treatment is a big burden to place upon your sitter. I would give anything for this to be a world without financial concerns, but the hard reality is that emergency hospitals generally will not extend credit on good faith, especially if you have no previous relationship with them.

So before leaving town, stop by your local emergency clinic and your regular veterinarian to sign a release of payment in case of emergency. Your credit card number can be kept on file with your signature authorizing treatment in event of an emergency; you can also set the parameters of care at that time.

Plan ahead and anticipate medication shortages: I get many calls from owners asking to refill a pet’s medication because they are leaving town the next day and their regular vet is closed. What many people are not aware of is that legally we are not able to provide this service unless we perform a full physical examination on the pet, and with that, comes the cost of an emergency exam fee.

Although it can be understandably frustrating to have to pay an exam fee for an otherwise healthy pet for a “simple refill” of a medication, legally, hospitals cannot serve the role of a dispensing pharmacy. By law (and risk of our veterinary license) we cannot OK a refill of a medication without examining your pet, no matter how benign or common the drug. Because of this, I recommend keeping an extra bottle on hand, or getting in the habit of refilling your pet’s prescriptions when the bottle is approaching three-quarters empty.

Another tip: If you fill your medication at a human pharmacy, and it is a drug and dose that stays constant for a well-controlled disease state (such as medicated drops for eye disease or phenobarbital for seizures), ask your veterinarian to write an additional refill on the written prescription.

I hope these four simple proactive steps help raise awareness of potential situations that can arise while you are away, and help you to formulate a plan well in advance should any situation unexpectedly arise.

Wellness: Health Care
A Vet’s Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions
Make 2012 happier and healthier for you and your pup

Veterinarians love putting together a plan of care for their patients—so why should New Year’s be an exception? Here are my suggestions for ten (I think fairly reasonable) resolutions that can make a big improvement for your dogs and you. For those who’ve already embraced many of these good habits, this list can serve as a chance to pat yourself on the back.

  • Take your dog for more walks and exercise—after all, it is good for both of you!
  • Take your dog for a yearly physical examination.
  • Put your pet on a weight-reduction program, especially if he or she has enjoyed the holiday season as much as I have! (See: Weight Management Made Simple).
  • Make sure your pet’s microchip information is current and registered, and that he or she wears other forms of identification at all times.
  • Brush your my dog’s coat and teeth regularly. If more help is needed with teeth or your dog is middle-aged or older, maybe schedule a cleaning.
  • Practice effective flea and heartworm control all year long to keep your pet safe from preventable disease.
  • Start training again or resolve to take him or her to a class. Even if your pet isn’t unruly, training keeps you both sharp and engaged.
  • Reassess your home, making sure the environment is safe for pets. Cover electrical cords, remove potential toxins (such as Gorilla Glue) and plants, and know the location and telephone number of your closest emergency hospital.
  • Buckle up your dog in the car. Unrestrained pets are dangerous to both to you and your dog. Use a pet harness, doggy-designed car seat or travel crate to keep them safe.
  • Take the time daily to appreciate your pups; they do so much for you and ask little in return.
  • A few habits to encourage your dog to consider

    • Find your soul mate on Petfinder.com.
    • Work on not drooling when you hear the can opener—it’s a dead giveaway and gross.
    • Take time from your busy schedule of naps, snacks and adventures to stop and smell some behinds.
    • Work on understanding that cats are from Venus and dogs are from Mars—but peace can be found on Earth.
    • Be grateful for the toys that are currently in your bin.
    • Strive to only get into mischief during normal business hours, not during nights and weekends when your normal veterinarian is away.
    • Resist chasing that stick unless you see it leave the hand!!

    Do you make New Year’s resolutions? What new behaviors are on your list?

    Wellness: Health Care
    Christmas in the ER
    A different kind of giving and receiving

    While many people wake Christmas morning to open gifts and gather with family, we ER types begin and end our day with a slightly different routine. For me, my husband Scott, who is also an emergency veterinarian, and our two Dobie kids, Christmas Day begins with opening presents at 4 am, ends with eating a turkey dinner at 10 pm—with “challengingly good” chaos during the hours in between.  

    Working the ER over the holiday is one of those fasten-your-seatbelt types of experiences. Emergency clinics are typically very busy by nature, but over the holidays, the shifts seem to be on steroids.  The normal veterinary world has closed up shop, leaving us to be the first line of care for the patients of nearly 40 area practices. I also think the fact that people are home all day to observe their pets becoming ill or getting into mischief adds to the bustle. Combine these two factors and you have the makings for one action-packed day.

    My 8 am shift begins with morning “rounds” and the concurrent consumption of as much coffee as I can down in that hour. Transfer of care of the hospitalized patients then passes to me, and it is not uncommon to have 15 to 20 ailing critters, many of whom require intensive care. I begin by giving each pet his or her morning physical exam (with some added kisses and rubs) and make a continued plan for the day, adjusting medications and ordering up diagnostics as indicated. 

    The exams are followed by writing up medical records, interpreting the diagnostics as they are returned to me and making phone calls to the worried owners who have left their pets in our care. Adding to the ride, between the hours of 8 am and noon, I also treat each new patient that walks through our doors. Our skilled nursing staff triages each pet, meaning the most critical are seen first. As you can imagine, it is a constant balance of “who needs it most.”

    An amazing phenomenon on this day is that peoples’ patience grows exponentially. Having to wait for sometimes several hours to be seen due to more critical patients becomes a forgiven byproduct of the holiday mayhem, and for this I am grateful. Knowing people have to wait while I treat more critical patients is always a source of anxiety for me. I know worried parents are in the waiting room, equally as worried about their babies. Those are the times when I most wish that I could split myself into many.

    Noon is the magic hour for me—the clock strikes 12:00 and another doctor comes on duty allowing me to take a deep breath and play catch up. I swear I see golden rays of light when the swing shift doctor walks through the door, my knight in shining armor—irrespective of gender.

    Two o’clock comes around in what feels like a picosecond and with it the tummy starts letting you know you’ve neglected it. After all, a continuous oral infusion of caffeine can only get you so many miles.  And just when I think I’m going to hit the proverbial “E” on my body’s fuel gauge, the ordered-in holiday feast from Andronico’s arrives. I am literally stuffing mouthfuls of stuffing while on the run, but ever grateful to have the calories to catapult me through the second half of the day.

    My shift ends at 6 pm, but in ER reality, 9 pm is closer to the mark by the time all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. Then, coming full circle, I round my patients to the overnight doctor.  In the words of Sonny and Cher, the beat goes on.

    As crazy as the ER can be, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I just adjust my seatbelt, according to the peaks of exhilaration and the valleys of exhaustion, because there is no other ride I’d rather be on. It is an indescribable experience knowing that you have forever become a part of some person’s life by saving their beloved family member or by sharing tears when you give the gift of a peaceful death, allowing a pet to pass with quiet dignity in an owner’s arms.

    I’d like to share a portion of a card I recently received.  It reinforces why I work these crazy hours, upstream from the rest of the world. It reads:

    When you have those days, or weeks or months, when you question what you’re doing in this life, proceed with the questions but please remember the family whose pain and fear you eased and—most of all—the dear dog whose last months you made not only tolerable, but joyful.

    Reading this still brings tears to my eyes.

    So, at the end of my crazy, draining, exhausting day, I leave with a smile both on my face and in my heart because there is no better feeling than knowing you were the one to make a difference. I love my job, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and being able to help others and their pets on Christmas Day is truly the best gift of all.