Is the Mars acquisition of VCA cause for concern?
An explosive, must-read article in Bloomberg Business Week looks at what happens when big business monopolizes the pet health business and how this corporatization might not be in the best interests for our dogs.
Ever wonder why many veterinarians do not heed the 2003 American Animal Hospital Association’s recommendation for core vaccines to be administered every three years? Instead a number of vets still prescribe annual vaccinations—with boosters for distemper, parvovirus and adenovirus. According to the Bloomberg article the immunologist, Ronald Schultz, from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, was one of those researchers who recommended this three-year protocol in the 1970s. He recalls that the AAHA Canine Vaccination Task Force, facing a revolt from vets about the decrease in their future vaccine incomes, struck a compromise at three years instead of the once-in-a-lifetime approach that he and others recommended. But yet you can find that annual vaccines are still being recommended by the 1,000 Banfield Vet Clinics in this country. Another surprising fact is that pet vaccines seem to be the only vaccines where one size, seemingly, fits all—the doses are the same regardless of weight or size of the animal, so the same 1 milliliter is given to a Chihuahua or an Irish Wolfhound—very little research has ever justified that approach. Bloomberg points to an example from Banfield's software program "Pet Ware," used to instruct the veterinarians in diagnosing and prescription advice:
“the book shows a checklist of therapies for a dog with atopic dermatitis, or itchy skin. Doctors are encouraged to recommend a biopsy, analgesics, topical medications, antibiotics, a therapeutic dietary supplement, an allergy diet, and a flea control package. They’re required to recommend antihistamines, shampoos, serum allergy testing, lab work, a skin diagnostic package, and anti-inflammatories. It’s a treatment course that might run $900 for symptoms that, in a best-case scenario, indicate something as prosaic as fleas. The manual reminds doctors: You cannot change items that were initially marked Required. They must remain required.
No wonder the pet health industry is booming and going through a period of rapid consolidations, Banfield, located in many PetSmart stores, was purchased in 2007 by Mars, the candymaker and pet food giant (the largest in the world with over $17 billion in sales from brands like Pedigree, Cesar, Eukanuba, Iams, Natura brands, Royal Canin, Sheba, Nutro). Then in 2015 the Mars Petcare portfolio of vet clinics grew when they acquired BluePearl Veterinary Services, with an additional 55 locations.
Mars, seemingly, facing a slowdown in consumer purchases of prepared/package foods and sugary products, is acquiring even more veterinarian companies and it was announced that their newest acquistion that they are paying $7.7 billion is VCA, Inc., the veterinary and doggie day-care business based in Los Angeles. VCA owns 750 hospitals and employs 3000 vets and 23,000 people, and had a 2015 revenue of $2.1 billion. The Los Angeles Times noted that “VCA has used acquisitions to combine hospitals, diagnostic labs and veterinarians into its network. In 2014, the company even acquired a dog day-care chain called Camp Bow Wow.”
And similar to Banfield’s approach, the Times notes that “VCA has been criticized at times by some customers for requiring tests that can be costly, but VCA maintains that it’s against its policy to sell unnecessary tests or treatments.” But 41 percent of VCA’s operating profits comes from their company’s Antech Diagnostics that also does bloodwork and other tests for more than half of the country’s hospitals, including their own of course. As Bloomberg reported, Tom Fuller, VCA’s chief financial officer, puts it this way when he speaks to investors: “Diagnostics is what grows the industry.” And the company’s business strategy has been “to leverage our existing customer base by increasing the number and intensity of the services received during each visit” (as found in their annual financial reports by Bloomberg reporting.)
Pushing tests unto clients is “good” for business, if not always for their clients’ pets,
"according to Wendy Beers, a veterinarian who resigned in 2014 from a VCA hospital in Albany, Calif. 'Every month they would print out things to say how many packages you sold, how many procedures you did,' she says. 'And if they came out and said, ‘This month we want everyone to do 20 heartworm tests,’ and you only did eight, well, next month you have to do better. I don’t feel when they’re lecturing us that their chief interest is to make sure animals get the best care.'”
According to Ken Shea, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, who says that with Mars’ expanding presence in animal hospitals, the company will have an opportunity to use the facilities to sell even more of its pet foods. Is this troubling news for pet parents? A recent class action suit brought on behalf of consumers by a San Francisco law firm thickens the plot further when you consider that this suit contends that pet food manufacturers (including Mars) and retailers (such as PetSmart) are using "prescriptions" to justify overcharging consumers for food that contains no restricted ingredients. Neither the FDA nor any other government agency mandates such prescriptions.
Bloomberg clearly makes the case why all these things, like over vaccinations, unnecessary testing, false prescriptions for pet food matters is that veterinary medicine is largely unregulated. And one of the reasons why businesses like Mars find the pet industry a good investment strategy is that
“...pet owners pay cash: Vets don’t deal with insurers haggling for better prices or questioning whether that vaccine or ultrasound or blood panel is really necessary. (A small percentage of pet owners carry insurance, but they pay vets upfront, like anyone else, and then take on their insurers for reimbursement.) What’s more, when veterinarians make fatal mistakes, they face no real financial consequences. The law hasn’t changed to reflect the attitudes of the average pet owner; courts still treat pets as property. Damages paid to owners whose pets have been killed or injured are so low that a typical medical malpractice insurance policy for a veterinarian costs less than $20 a month. Damages are so low, in fact, that few pet owners can find a lawyer willing to take even the most egregious case of veterinary malpractice.”
So, yes, it should matter, and as always, it is good to understand what you are up against, what to expect if you use any of these services, to double check before you agree to over vaccinations, or receive a “prescription” for pet food, you are after all the only advocate your dog has and the better informed you are, the better decisions you will make. Nancy Kay, DVM, author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, added that she “feels truly disheartened for my profession” about this expansion of Mars’ vet monopoly. Be sure to read the Bloomberg story and get the word out.
News: Guest Posts
Endocrine-disrupting chemical raises red flags
A study by researchers at the University of Missouri finds that eating canned dog food may increase a pet’s exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA).
While the study was short-term, the results were “very revealing,” says investigator Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. Fourteen healthy pets were switched from their usual diet of kibble to canned food. Could a two-week menu change raise the dogs’ BPA levels?
It did, three-fold, and that could really be an issue for dogs that eat the same diet every day.
Over 300 studies have linked BPA to health problems from reproductive disorders to cancer, and now research is shedding light on how people and animals are exposed to the plastic-hardening chemical. While the FDA has reviewed the studies, they still consider BPA “safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”
By measuring BPA’s escape from packaging, scientists are narrowing the focus. One study settled the debate over whether BPA—banned in baby bottles but used in many other items—seeps from metal can linings and taints human foods. (It does).
And in August, a long-term study in the UK found a sharp decline in canine fertility associated with exposure to other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The researchers considered food packaging a possible source, finding the chemicals in a range of dry and wet foods.
Some plastic dog toys have also been found to leach the chemical. A study at Texas Tech by environmental toxicologists Phil Smith and Kimberly Wooten found that BPA and phthalates leached from plastic bumpers into dishes filled with artificial dog saliva.
Wooten, who wasn’t involved in the present study, says that while it isn’t clear if dog health is being harmed long-term, “it’s still important information to have since there’s so little data on canine exposure to these types of chemicals.” She knows of no other studies that have looked at the effects of a specific BPA source on the concentrations in the blood.
“I’d say a 3-fold increase suggests that for dogs that eat canned food, their diet is the most important contributor to their total BPA levels.”
The current study highlights another concern; with the pet food industry being held by about five companies, it seems commercial foods aren’t as diverse as packaging suggests. Of the two (unnamed) brands in the study, one was declared “BPA-free” by the manufacturer.
So, skip the can and spare your dog? It turned out, the dogs already had a small amount of BPA circulating in their blood, shown by initial baseline samples. The researchers then analyzed both the cans and the food for BPA. They also checked for any disturbances in gut bacteria and metabolic changes.
Although one of the diets was presumed to be BPA-free, feeding either brand for two weeks resulted in a three-fold increase of BPA levels in the animals. At the same time, the dogs showed gut microbiome and metabolic changes, with potential health consequences. Increased BPA may also reduce one bacterium known to metabolize BPA and related environmental chemicals, according to the study.
Bagged kibble might also contain BPA, since the dogs had some BPA in their blood before the study, possibly from their dry diets.
“This is the point that it is not clear,” Rosenfeld says. “It could be that the food already contains BPA. However, we saw minimal levels when the dogs were on kibble.” In some cases, very low amounts can lead to equally if not greater harmful effects as high doses, she says. The greatest concerns may be at the low and high doses.
“The doses we found in the dogs after being on canned food though were comparable to what has been linked to health problems in humans and rodents,” a list that includes diabetes and obesity, among others.
If the dogs continued to eat the canned food, would BPA keep building up in their bodies?
“We did not see what would happen if we took the dogs off the canned food or kept them on it longer,” Rosenfeld says. “These are definite follow-up studies.” Ideally, based on the results of this one, she says they would pursue long term studies to test BPA concentrations after long term feeding of canned food, examining the dogs for metabolic disorders—such as obesity and diabetes—and neurological ones, using MRI and behavioral testing.
In a previous rodent study, they did find that the longer mice were on a diet containing BPA, even though it was being metabolized, it would start accumulating in their system so that greater amounts would persist over time, she says.
In humans and primates, BPA is excreted through urine. “It is not clear how it is cleared in dogs.”
While BPA affects the reproductive system, Rosenfeld says they did not find any gender differences in this initial study—“but we would need to test more dogs to confirm.”
The main concern about the gut microbiome changes is that they have been linked with various diseases, including neurological, metabolic, immunological, gastrointestinal, and possibly even cancer, she says. “Thus, by affecting the gut microbiome, BPA could induce such secondary effects.”
Unfortunately, a supposedly safe substitute for BPA, BPS, didn’t fulfill its goal. Rosenfeld says that in rodents and fish, BPS has already been shown to lead to similar health concerns as BPA. Their study didn’t test BPS in the cans. “It is not clear if some dog foods are using this substitute,” she says.
“By feeding fresh food, dry food, and minimizing canned food, it will reduce exposure to BPA and BPS.”
Wellness: Health Care
E-cigarettes, the latest thing in nicotine delivery systems, pose a significant threat to dogs. These devices vaporize a liquid mix of glycerin, propylene glycol, nicotine, and flavorings; in states where marijuana is legal, THC may be among the ingredients. The liquid, often called e-juice, comes in flavors such as cinnamon gummy bear, cotton candy and cloudberry, and dogs are attracted to the sweetness.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center includes cigarettes and nicotine on its list of poisonous household products, and warns that e-juice used to recharge device cartridges contains enough nicotine to kill a dog. Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include severe vomiting, depression, an elevated heart rate, decrease in blood pressure, seizures and respiratory failure.
Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT and associate director of veterinary services at Pet Poison Helpline, says, “We’ve handled cases for pets poisoned by eating traditional cigarettes or tobacco products containing nicotine for many years, but, as the use of e-cigarettes has become more widespread, our call volume for cases involving them has increased considerably.” According to the Pet Poison Helpline, not only are the ingredients dangerous (depending on the dog’s weight and metabolism, symptoms can occur between 15 and 60 minutes after ingestion) but also, the plastic e-cigarette casing and e-juice containers can injure the dog’s mouth.
If you suspect that your dog has consumed these or other poisonous substances, call your vet, local animal hospital or poison hotline immediately.
As the Pet Poison Helpline notes, “Home care is not generally possible with nicotine exposure due to the severity of poisoning, even in small doses.” Keeping these devices and refill containers out of dogs’ reach is always the best course of action.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
It’s a beautiful summer day. You and your dog are walking near a patch of grass when she stops dead, then sniffs … and sniffs … and sniffs. Gently, you tug on the leash, but—muzzle buried in the turf—she braces herself and continues her nosework.
Scent is extremely important to dogs, much more so than to humans. All dogs have smart noses. In fact, MRI studies show that when a dog recognizes the smell of a familiar human, the caudate nucleus in her brain lights up, signaling a happy event.
For the average dog, a small pile of foliage contains a world of information. Though the canine brain is about one-tenth the size of a human brain, its smell center is 40 times larger. We have roughly 5 to 6 million scent receptors, a fraction of the 125 to 300 million available to our canine companions.
Dog’s moist noses are cute, but there’s function behind that soft form. The mucus on a dog’s nose helps capture scent particles; when a dog’s nose is dry, she may lick it to improve reception. Dogs can also wiggle their nostrils independently, thereby detecting the direction of odors. Some, like the Bloodhound, use their ears to direct even more potential scent particles up to their noses.
Despite the fact that the olfactory system is an ancient neurological pathway, we still do not completely understand how it works, either in ourselves or in our dogs. New studies are under way, however; in September 2015, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded three interdisciplinary teams of scientists $15 million to “crack the olfactory code” as part of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. As the NSF web page notes, “Olfaction is critical for the survival of species across the animal kingdom. Yet how the brain processes and identifies odors—and how this information influences behavior— remains, largely, an enigma.”
Though we may not understand it, most of us are aware that scent can influence behavior. In the realm of human holistic treatments, the use of essential oils and herbal fragrances has become increasingly trendy, and yoga teachers will sometimes use aromatic oils during classes.
Exposure to certain herbal or spice scents has been shown to have positive effects on humans. For example, Mark Moss and Lorraine Oliver, working at the Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University in the UK, designed an experiment to investigate the pharmacology of 1,8-cineole, one of the main components of rosemary.
After exposing 20 human subjects to varying levels of 1,8-cineole, the investigators tested their cognitive performance. Speed and accuracy test results showed that the concentration of 1,8-cineole in the blood was related to an individual’s cognitive performance: higher concentrations resulted in increased speed and accuracy. If scent can have positive effects on olfactorychallenged humans, it might be expected to have an even more pronounced effect on dogs.
While research on canines is limited, a study done at the University of Belfast explored the influence of four types of olfactory stimulation (lavender, chamomile, rosemary and peppermint) on the behavior of 55 dogs housed in a rescue shelter. The control condition used no odors other than those arising naturally from the dogs’ environment (e.g., odors from disinfectants and other animals). Using diffusions of essential oils and allowing two days between stimulants, the dogs were exposed to the scents four hours a day for five days.
According to the study, dogs exposed to lavender and chamomile spent more time resting and less time moving than with other olfactory stimuli used in the experiment. These odorants also were found to reduce barking and vocalization in caged animals. On the other hand, fragrances such as rosemary and peppermint were found to encourage significantly more standing, moving and vocalizing.
Shelters are safe but sterile environments, and, recognizing that as an issue, some have looked for ways to enrich those environments for their animals; an increasing number are introducing scent. For example, on its web page, the Humane Society of Miami describes its scent enrichment program, which incorporates essential oils such as lavender, Valor (a blend) and vanilla as well as herbs and spices.
McKamey Animal Center located in Chattanooga, Tenn., is among the few that have been working with scent enrichment for several years, according to Morag Greaney, the center’s adoption and foster supervisor. “I’ve been working there since last August, and they started long before then,” she says. Greaney, who hails from Scotland, was a high school teacher and then worked in canine rescue for nine years before coming to McKamey.
According to Greaney, the scents— which include lavender, peppermint, vanilla and cinnamon—are changed every day. The essential oil is mixed with water, then sprayed on the ground outside each dog’s kennel using nonaerosol methods. While there isn’t an immediate reaction, staff observe that the animals tend to be calmer and more settled the following day. Greaney believes that it is not just a particular scent that makes a difference (although she does find that lavender has a calming effect), but the variety that helps stimulate the dogs’ brains.
The center, which handles upwards of 200 animals, hosts a number of different breeds—Huskies, Labradors, American Staffordshire Terriers and Shepherds among them. While the center hasn’t conducted any formal studies to determine if different breeds are affected differently by the scents, its behavior-assessment team uses lavender to help relax new animals prior to evaluation. Scented dog toys are also used.
Scent enrichment can work at home as well. Greaney remarked that she has used scents with her own dog for more than six years. Rather than using a spray, she says, she rubs her hands with an oil such as eucalyptus, lemon, lavender or geranium and then massages it into her dog’s coat. She says that her German Shepherd, who she describes as “high strung,” is better behaved as a result.
“I would absolutely recommend that dog owners use scents with their animals,” she concluded. However, she cautioned, people should first do some preliminary research and check with their veterinarian to avoid any possible detrimental effects.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Ah, summer—a season for rambles, picnics and water fun. Longer days and warm weather inspire us to get ourselves and our dogs outside to soak up some sun (judiciously) and get some exercise.
Maintaining our dogs’ grooming routines is also important. It’s not all about looking good, though that’s certainly one motivator; it’s also about keeping a close eye on the condition of our dogs’ skin, ears and nails, solving small problems before they become big ones.
While some breeds require the services of a professional groomer, all dogs benefit from a good brushing, and you don’t have to be a pro to do that. A dog’s best friend is a tool appropriate for his coat type, one that strips out loose hair so air can circulate against his skin. Regular and thorough brushing also prevents mats, which are not only painful but also trap heat and moisture and can result in skin infections.
However, experts tell us to resist the urge to shave down our dogs, particularly those with double coats, who can be quite comfortable as long as those coats are well cared for. Whatever its length and composition, a dog’s coat provides built-in climate control as well as a first line of defense against sunburn, twigs and stickers, among other things.
This is also the time of year to be particularly vigilant about ticks and fleas. The former can carry disease and the latter can quickly set up housekeeping on your dog—and in your house—if not managed. Another reason to be conscientious about wielding the brush, rake or comb of your choice. While your dog may or may not agree, adding an extra bath or two is also a good summer strategy. Brush before and after, choose a shampoo that’s a good match for his skin and coat type (or make your own), lather once and rinse well.
Check your dog’s ears regularly, particularly if swimming is on his play list. Dogs whose ears fold over are prone to ear infections, which wet ears promote. Some groomers pluck hair from a dog’s ear canal, but vets advise against this, as the hair pores then secrete extra serum, providing another excellent medium for infection. After your dog takes a dip, wipe the inside earflap gently with a cotton ball; if your vet says it’s okay, you can also use drops that contain a drying agent. According to the Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, a drop of white vinegar will also help prevent “swimmer’s ear.”
And in the “of course” category, continue to brush your dog’s pearly whites and pay attention to his paws. Check between his toes for ticks, foxtails, brambles or other debris, and trim his nails.
None of this is rocket science, just good old-fashioned conscientiousness. And the payoff is so worth it: a dog who feels good and smells good, and far fewer fur-bunnies rolling across the floor and lurking under the couch!
For more on this subject, see the interview with groomer extraordinaire Robyn Michaels at thebark.com/groomed.
Wellness: Healthy Living
This summer’s routine insect-prevention strategies are taking on a new urgency as public health experts warn that certain parts of the U.S. may experience outbreaks of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in Latin America.
As you protect yourself from any and all mosquitos this summer, don’t hurt your dog in the process!
The Centers for Disease Control recommends people use insect repellents that use of these ingredients:
Unfortunately, DEET can be poisonous to your dog. Ingesting it can cause your dog to have stomach problems, conjunctivitis, breathing difficulties and seizures.
So using it as a spray on your dog’s coat is a big no-no. And be careful that they don’t lick it off of you or get into any bug-spray cans that may have been left in the back yard or in your hiking backpacks.
Signs of possible DEET ingestion include drooling, wobbly gait, vomiting and loss of appetite, according to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, which reports getting calls every summer involving dogs hurt by DEET exposure. If you think your dog has been exposed to DEET, take her to the vet immediately.
For dog people worried that their dog may get her nose into some DEET, good alternatives for mosquito protection are oils from lemon eucalyptus and cedar, which can be used as an insect repellent for people and pets alike.
CDC researchers say there have been no signs that dogs have been affected by Zika or that they act as carriers for the virus. In fact, the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus seek out humans to bite on rather than animals.
Despite the lack of a direct link to Zika, safeguarding your dog against mosquito bites is still critical.
A bite from one mosquito bite infected with the heartworm larvae will give your dog heartworm disease, which can be fatal. With one bite, the larvae can be deposited into your dog. That larvae can grow to cause severe injury to the dog’s lungs, major arteries and heart, harming your dog’s quality of life and potentially her lifespan.
For full protection against mosquitos and heartworms, ask your veterinarian about products that can repel fleas, ticks and mosquitoes. There are also some products available that do double duty by offering heartworm prevention.
Frequently, it is difficult to tell if your dog has been bitten by a mosquito. One telltale sign is scratching. Some dogs will have an allergic reaction and the bitten areas will swell. In most cases, however, all you will see at the spot of the bite is a bump.
To treat the bite, wash the affected area with a mild soap and warm water and apply a topical antibacterial cream. If the bite gets worse or does not improve over the next few days, take your dog to the vet for an examination.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
While beaches are a great place for pets to cool off, get some exercise and play, there are some important precautions to take to keep pets safe, even at beaches designated specifically for dogs. Included below are five of the top beach dangers for dogs, along with tips for keeping your dog safe from Trupanion.
1. Sun burns – You may not realize it, but even dogs can get sun burns. Their noses, bellies, and areas with particularly thinner fur are susceptible to the sun’s hot rays so it’s important to protect your pooch. Provide shade with a beach umbrella and consider dog-friendly sunscreen. (Many sunscreens made for humans can be toxic to dogs. Be sure to avoid sunscreen with mineral Zinc Oxide which can harmful to your pup.) Also consider looking into doggy sun goggles to protect your pooch’s eyes from harmful rays.
2. Salt water – Your pup may be inclined to lap up the salty ocean water if he’s thirsty, but the salt, bacteria and parasites in the water can make them sick. Prevent your dog from drinking salt water by providing plenty of fresh water. It’s also important not to let the salt water dry on their fur since it can irritate their skin. Be sure to give your pup a good rinse off with fresh water when he’s done swimming.
3. Seaweed and sea creatures – While exploring the beach you may come across washed up sea life and other items. Keep a close eye on your dog to prevent him from rolling in or eating anything that could make him sick. Some areas also have higher danger of sea creatures like jellyfish so be sure to keep a close watch on the surrounding waters to keep your pet safe.
4. Hot sand – If the sand is too hot for you to walk barefoot, then it’s too hot for your pup’s paw pads. Save your beach trip for a cooler day or go in the early morning or late evening to avoid the heat.
5. Big waves – Your dog may be a strong swimmer, but large rolling waves can be very dangerous. You might choose to keep your dog on a leash so that he can’t go out too far, or purchase a dog life jacket in case he gets too tired swimming.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Annual check-ups are in order.
With few exceptions, most of us in the pet industry deal with problems and solutions. Consider these examples:
A problem-based approach is still the way almost anyone who sells a product or service focuses their marketing. In fact, a reliable marketing formula is “problem, agitate, solve.” State the prospective customer’s problem, make it sound even worse, offer your solution. However, people are becoming more proactive and health-conscious regarding both themselves and their pets. The number of premium, organic pet-food diets on the market has exploded. Training techniques have, for the most part, moved away from the historical “show ’em who’s boss” approach to ones better grounded in the science of animal behavior and learning (although there is still plenty of room for improvement!). Initiatives have been undertaken to help veterinary visits be less stressful for pets.
All of these efforts to help dogs live happier, better-quality lives are laudable, but to be most helpful to owners and professionals alike, let’s put them into a broader context: which common, daily husbandry or caretaking practices have a big effect on behavioral health, both good and bad? Before we offer some examples to answer that question, we should step back and offer a few definitions.
We’ve all heard the statement “health is more than the absence of disease.” The terms health and wellness, which are sometimes used interchangeably, are rarely defined by specific, measurable criteria. When we applied that statement to pet behavioral health in our article “Behavior Wellness Concepts for the General Veterinary Practice,” we defined behavior wellness as “the condition or state of normal and acceptable pet conduct that enhances the human-animal bond and the pet’s quality of life.” To define “pet conduct,” we created the “Characteristics of Behaviorally Healthy Dogs and Cats” (which you can find at SensibleDogTraining.com and CatBehaviorHelp.com).
To conform to a wellness approach, behavioral health should be described in terms of what pets do, not what they shouldn’t do. For that reason, we’ve long encouraged our clients to ask themselves, How can I get my pet to do what I want? instead of How can I get him to stop [fill in the blank]?—which is usually the behavior(s) we are called upon to help change.
If we want to take a wellness approach, then it’s up to us to create a life for our furry family members that promotes healthy behaviors and provides an environment that meets their behavioral needs. We know that behavioral and physical health are intertwined, so the first responsibility of any pet owner is to provide preventive and all other needed medical care.
To create a behaviorally healthy lifestyle for our dogs, one that meets their needs, we first must know what their behavioral needs are. That’s a trickier undertaking than you might think.
One of the earliest attempts at this came in the 1965 Brambell Report (Farm Animal Wellness Council 1992), which listed “Five Freedoms” in reference to the care and welfare of farm animals:
Ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
Providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
Prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
Providing conditions needed to prevent mental suffering.
We worked from these freedoms and other research on behavioral needs to create our version of the Behavioral Needs of Companion Animals (Hetts, et al. 2004):
Let’s examine one common caretaking example in light of these behavioral needs: the use of crates. Is a crate really a good thing for a dog? How a crate is used to confine a dog has an impact on almost all of the behavioral needs mentioned above. It’s not uncommon for owners to crate their dogs for a typical eight-hour workday. Some also crate their dogs at night, leaving the dog with perhaps four to six hours of unconfined time each weekday. Can a dog have his needs for exercise, play, social contact, mental stimulation and expression of species-typical behaviors met in those limited hours? Unlikely, in our opinion, especially when you consider other responsibilities and activities the owners typically have on their agendas during those same hours.
And what about a crate as a comfortable place to sleep and rest? At six square feet, the crate we used to housetrain our Irish Setter, Coral, was bigger than what we often hear recommended: “just large enough for him to comfortably turn around in and not And what about a crate as a comfortable place to sleep and rest? At six square feet, the crate we used to housetrain our Irish Setter, Coral, was bigger than what we often hear recommended: “just large enough for him to comfortably turn around in and not
While crating can be a short-term technique, useful for housetraining and safe traveling, in too many instances, it becomes a way of life for dogs, one that virtually ensures that their behavioral needs will not be met. One study found, in fact, that dogs who spent considerable time in their crates were at significant risk for being surrendered to a shelter (Patronek, et al. 1996).
With so many high-end pet products available these days—from food to spa days—it’s easy to overlook the basics that dogs need to lead behaviorally healthy lives. Take a look at the characteristics of behaviorally healthy dogs and the behavioral needs of companion animals and see how your dog measures up.
In our behavior consulting work, we see common practices and beliefs that interfere with a behaviorally healthy lifestyle for dogs, including:
Taking a wellness approach to your dog’s behavior also means being proactive and considering what your dog needs and how you can mitigate stress during changes in your lifestyle, such as moving, the birth of a child, or a significant change in schedule that will result in your dog being left alone for longer periods.
It also means ongoing monitoring of your dog’s behavior using our healthy-dog criteria and taking action when you notice small changes before they become big issues.
It’s human nature to avoid attending to things until they break or become problems. We may be better at getting regular maintenance on our cars than we are at maintaining our own physical and mental health and that of our dogs. We hope, however, that this article provides food for thought about how you can monitor and improve your dog’s behavior health.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Seven ways to carpe the summer diem.
Sure, you could sit around inside with your dog, sweating and complaining about the heat. But why do that when there are so many ways to take advantage of the season’s longer days and warmer weather?
Make your dog a warm-weather flop spot. Look for a shady area in your yard, dig a shallow pit sized to fit your pup, line it with a thin layer of concrete and before the concrete dries, poke holes in it for drainage. Once the concrete has set, fill the pit with playground sand, dampen it and let the fun begin.
Plan a toxin-free and dog-friendly landscape. No snail bait, no cocoa mulch, no lethal plants (check out the ASPCA site for a list of ones to avoid), no chemical fertilizers, no fungicides, no herbicides, no pesticides. Ideal landscaping/hardscaping material doesn’t get too hot, is easy on the paws and— in a perfect world—doesn’t track into the house on fuzzy feet; pea gravel and pavers fill the bill.
Have some good, wet fun—summer’s prime time for water play. A caveat, however: keep an eye on your dog for signs of hyponatremia, aka water intoxication, which can come on fast and is life-threatening. Bone up on the symptoms and make sure your dog takes breaks.
Experiment with a new way to cruise. Rent a dog-friendly camper trailer or houseboat and see the world from a whole new perspective. Some camper rental companies will handle delivery, setup and hauling away; do an online search for a company in your preferred vacation spot. For on-the-water accommodations, check out Houseboating.org.
Take in a drive-in. Remember the al fresco movie experience of yesteryear? Some communities revive this lovely summer tradition, and some even allow you to skip the car and loll on a blanket under the stars. Search for summer + drive-in and see what comes up in your area.
Sign up for summer school and learn new skills or master old ones. Training, agility, herding and freestyle are all on the agenda. Then, there are dog camps—the summer camps of your childhood, but way better. For maximum relaxation, match the activity type and level to your and your dog’s temperaments.
Mark your calendar with “dog days” concerts and sporting events. Special offerings tend to pop up this time of the year, perfect for enjoyment with the pooch.
We know we don’t have to tell you this, but while you’re having fun with the pup, keep safety in mind. Stay out of the sun during the warmest hours, have plenty of water available, dab sunscreen on both yourself and your dog (yes, there are sunscreens for dogs), take lots of well-shaded rest breaks and never, never, never leave your dog in the car. If you’re out walking, listen to what your dog’s telling you; let him rest if he wants to and don’t coax him to go faster. Finally, do your best to avoid areas with foxtails, those sticky, diabolical grass awns (seeds) that burrow into fur and skin and, once well in, don’t come out without surgery. If these wild grasses show up in your yard—which they’re prone to do—pull them out while they’re still green.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Tonight my littlest dog Nellie came in the house sneezing. Any other time of year and I would be unconcerned, but in late spring and early summer an abrupt onset of sneezing after being outdoors is a “foxtail-in-the-nose alarm bell.” I’ll be watching Nellie like a hawk for the rest of the evening. Any crinkling of her nose, ongoing sneezing or bloody nose, and she’ll be my first patient tomorrow morning.
If you are unfamiliar with foxtails, count your blessings! These pesky, bristly plant awns grow in abundance throughout California and are reported in most every state west of the Mississippi. Once the plant heads dry, they become hell-bent on finding their way into dogs’ noses, ears, eyes, mouths and just about every other orifice. They can dive deep into a dog’s nostril or ear canal (beyond sight) in the blink of an eye. And a foxtail camouflaged under a layer of hair can readily burrow through the skin (a favorite hiding place is between toes). Foxtails can wind up virtually anywhere in the body, and associated symptoms vary based on location. For example, a foxtail within the ear canal causes head shaking, under the skin a draining tract, or within the lung, labored breathing and coughing. Not only is the dog’s body incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails, these plant awns are barbed in such a way that they can only move in a “forward” direction. Unless caught early, they, and the bacteria they carry, either become walled off to form an abscess or migrate through the body causing infection and tissue damage. Once foxtails have moved internally, they become the proverbial needle in a haystack—notoriously difficult to find and remove.
Take the example of Emma Louise, an undeniably adorable Brittany Spaniel mix whose family told me that her favorite pastime is running through fields with her nose to the ground. They described her as a “foxtail magnet,” having accumulated several in her ears and nose over the years. I was asked to help figure out the cause of Emma Louise’s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound, I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louise’s spine, extending into her pelvic canal. Given this girl’s history, I just knew there had to be a foxtail in there somewhere. The question was, would we be able to find it?
As is my medical tradition before launching a foxtail search, I recited a prayer to the “god of foxtails.” I then turned Emma Louise over to one of my surgical colleagues for exploratory surgery. After two hours of nailbiting and a barrage of expletives originating in the O.R., I heard a shout of, “Got it!” The foxtail had been located and removed, and sweet little Emma Louise made a rapid and complete recovery. Not finding the foxtail would have meant a lifetime of antibiotics to treat her foxtail-induced infection.
If you suspect your dog has a foxtail-related issue, contact your veterinarian right away to find out what steps can be taken (at home or in the veterinary hospital) to rid your dog of this unwanted plant material. Whenever possible, avoidance of foxtail exposure is the best and only foolproof prevention. If your dog does have access to foxtails, carefully comb through his or her haircoat—checking ears and toes, too —a couple of times daily to remove any that are embedded and poised to wreak havoc!
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