healthy living
News: Guest Posts
Solid Gold Recalls Canned Turkey Formula
Quick, check your pantry!

Quick, check your pantry! Due to customer complaints about mold, Solid Gold is voluntarily recalling 13.2 oz. cans of its turkey, ocean fish, carrot, and sweet potatoes formula. The cans in question feature a purple label, a "pop-top," and 01/02/2010 expiration date on the bottom. Cans should be immediately returned to the point of purchase. For more info, go to Solid Gold.

News: Guest Posts
The Dangers of Street Shocks

A recent memorial service for a husky named Sebastion serves as a reminder of a danger many of us didn’t even realize was out there—stray electrical voltage. (Sebastian was electrocuted by a lamppost last May.) While the dangers are nothing like the days direct current before Nikola Tesla discovered alternating current, errant shocks and electrocution are not a thing of the past. The folks at Streetzaps.com, an online clearinghouse of information about stray voltage, track incidents and current research, and provide advice for keeping dogs safe, such as avoiding walking close to lampposts or service boxes or across manhole covers.


News: Guest Posts
The Myth of the Hypoallergenic Hound

The Obamas' quest for a hypoallergenic dog looks doomed. According to a story in today's Vancouver Sun, there is no such thing.

"It is a common misconception that people are allergic to a dog's hair, and it is falsely believed that dogs that shed less will not cause a reaction," the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology said.

"However, allergies to pets are caused by protein found in the animal's saliva and skin glands which gets deposited on the hair. These proteins are carried on microscopic particles through the air as an invisible aerosol. When inhaled, they trigger reactions in allergic people. As all dogs secrete these proteins, there is no allergy-free dog."

Will these tiny airborne truths dash our dreams of Tramp slurping spaghetti in the Oval kitchen?

Wellness: Healthy Living
Pain Patches
What are they and when are they used?

For dogs with short or long-term pain, pain patches can provide a real benefit, including avoiding the need to repeatedly give medication to a reluctant patient! The patch was developed for humans and delivers fentanyl, a narcotic or morphine-like drug. Veterinarians prescribe these patches as an “extralabel” pain medication. This means that the patch can be used safely by the veterinary community, but is not officially approved for pets.

The patches come in several strengths, containing different amounts of fentanyl. Dosage is indicated in micrograms (mcg) delivered through the skin—from 12.5 to 100 mcg per hour. This is both helpful, as we can use a patch on virtually any size dog, and convenient, since patches cannot be cut down (the liquid fentanyl would leak out of its container).

The patch is applied to shaved skin, and after a 12- to 24-hour delay, it begins to slowly and steadily deliver the medication through the skin and into the bloodstream. This delay allows us to put the patch on a dog the day before surgery so that it kicks in soon after the end of the procedure. If that isn’t possible, other drugs are used until the patch starts working.

We can also combine the patch with other painkillers. These have to be chosen wisely, as some medications may counteract the patch. A good combination is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and the patch, each of which treats pain by a different mechanism. Since some patients seem to benefit more from the patch than others, this helps us tailor a pain management plan to each individual. After approximately three days, the patch will be empty and is replaced or removed. Fentanyl is a tightly regulated drug, and your veterinarian will likely ask that you return the patch to the clinic.

At our surgical practice, we’ve used pain patches following surgery of the spine (neck or back), jaw, ear or chest cavity. Repair of a really bad fracture, removal of some types of tumors and limb amputations are also likely situations.

Use of the patch is certainly not limited to surgery patients, however. It’s also appropriate for medical conditions that are especially painful, such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) or peritonitis (irritation or infection of the belly). Occasionally, a dog’s pain is managed at home with a patch that is replaced every few days; this typically includes cancer patients, who may experience ongoing or chronic pain.

Like most medications, fentanyl patches can have side effects. Among them are a slow heart rate or sedation, severe breathing difficulties or a very slow breathing pattern (this is rare), euphoria or abnormal excitement, or constipation and difficulty urinating. If such side effects occur, the patch should be removed immediately. Some dogs will develop a rash in reaction to the glue that keeps the patch stuck to the skin; these usually resolve quickly after the patch is peeled off (an ointment with cortisone often helps speed up healing). While most dogs tolerate the patches well, not all do; never hesitate to call your vet if you feel your dog is having a questionable reaction.

The pain patch may also interact with other drugs, such as medications to treat Cushing’s disease, senility and some parasites, so vets weigh the pros and cons on a case-by-case basis before prescribing its use.

Careful supervision is vital when pain patches are used. Fentanyl is highly addictive and there is a potential for abuse—intentional or accidental—by humans. Among the dangers to people is difficulty breathing to the point of suffocation. Children are especially at risk, and some veterinarians refuse to prescribe a pain patch if there is a young child in the family.

Overall, the pain patch is a very useful tool that has dramatically changed veterinarians’ pain protocols. Side effects are generally rare in dogs, and most benefit greatly from the pain relief.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Good Old Dog
Signs to watch for in your aging dog

There are changes a dog goes through that have nothing to do with disease processes but, rather, are simply normal physiologic shifts. To help you distinguish aging from illness, here is a rundown of those natural, expected modifications that occur as a dog enters and passes through her geriatric years. You’ll see that many of them are similar to changes that people undergo, but which do not grip them with fear of imminent death or disability. They simply require a little more attention on the part of those caring for canine loved ones, along with an appreciation that the dog may very well need your sensitivity with regard to exercise intensity, severe weather conditions and so forth.

Graying hair, particularly around the muzzle: We think it adds character—no Clairol needed.

Slower metabolism: Older dogs burn fewer calories than they did in their younger years. Most of the decrease in metabolic rate comes simply from dogs tending to become less physically active in old age. The less active they are, the more their muscle cells go unused and therefore atrophy and die off, increasing their fat-to-muscle ratio and paving the way for frailty. Slowed physical activity, incidentally, often comes not from age per se but from conditions like obesity and arthritis, which are more treatable than ever.

Difficulty adapting to hot and cold temperatures: Older dogs are less physiologically tolerant of very hot or very cold weather. Put her in a fuzzy bed with a blanket over her when it’s cold (especially important because your dog is close to the floor, and hot air rises while cold air in the room sinks). In hot weather, make sure your pal has plenty of water and is near a source of coolness or at least shade.

Decreased immunity: Older dogs need their vaccination shots even more than when they were young and middleaged. The immune system slows down in old age, making a dog more susceptible not only to diseases such as cancer but also to infections. She simply cannot mount a sufficient immune response to illnesses she might have been able to ward off in her younger years.

Decrease in heart and lung function: Aging dogs do not get coronary artery disease, and they do not get heart attacks. Rather, an older dog does not respond as efficiently to physiologic stress—she will experience an increase in heart rate resulting from exercise, for example. It’s the same for the lungs. As a dog grows older, some of the elastic fibers in the lungs are replaced by scar tissue, diminishing her ability to breathe as efficiently as possible.

Hormonal changes: While age-related changes vary from gland to gland, overall there tends to be some degeneration. Aging dogs have to be watched more carefully for hormone-mediated conditions such as diabetes and hypothyroidism, both of which affect the body cells’ ability to do what they have to do.

Changes in the reproductive system: There is no menopause in the canine world. But older male dogs who have not been neutered are prone to prostate problems resulting from enlargement.

Decrease in kidney and bladder function: The screenings most commonly used to assess kidney function don’t show any abnormality until a dog has already lost 75 percent of her kidney capacity, so dog companions have to partner with vets to identify signs of possible kidney disease. As far as the bladder, older females dogs, predominantly those who have been spayed, are the ones to end up afflicted with urinary incontinence.

Decrease in liver size: As a dog ages, she actually loses liver cells, which makes her liver smaller. The change translates into a decrease in liver function, which means a diminished capacity to detoxify harmful byproducts in the body.

Gastrointestinal slowdown: While GI function in older dogs remains pretty much intact in the stomach and intestines, there’s a decrease in gastrointestinal action in the mouth, which is the beginning of the GI tract. Specifically, there is a decreased production of saliva, which helps to clean the oral cavity. That in turn, contributes to the development of dental tartar and periodontal disease.

Bone loss: Dogs undergo a decrease in bone density, but they tend not to develop osteoporosis. Dogs do experience fractures but not because of decreased bone density throughout the body, like in older people.

Neurologic decline: Falloff in this area divides into two categories: a decline of the senses, including smell, sight, and hearing; and a decline in the function of brain cells. The longer dogs live, the more important it is to watch for signs of the canine version of Alzheimer’s, because the earlier it is detected, the more treatable it will be.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Stretch It Out
Help your dog stay fit and flexible.

For many of our dogs, especially as they age, joint degeneration,muscle atrophy, loss of flexibility and subsequent pain are all too common. Considering that conventional options for treating pain and arthritis are limited (typically,prescription drugs and/or surgery), it is important to seek out natural ways to increase our pups’ longevity and minimize their pain.

Think of your dog’s body as a complete system. For optimal functioning, all parts must be in balance. To keep your dog fit, flexible and feeling great, provide proper nutrition and consistent movement, and minimize the toxins your pooch is exposed to. And remember, movement is how the body heals.

Pay attention to your dog’s habits to discern what she needs to feel great. Does she get up slowly? Resist going up or down stairs? Seem down in the dumps? Lure her out of the doghouse! Coax her off the couch! Get moving! Dogs can maintain and even improve mobility and range of motion of the joints with just a few minutes of stretching and massage each day. When it comes to health, mobility and pain management, consistency, rather than intensity, is key. Once you have the green light from your vet, incorporate the following moves into your dog’s routine to put the spring back in her step.*

Sacrum & Back Rub
Nothing stops a dog in her tracks faster than the sacrum rub. Keep her back in tip-top shape—and nerve impingement to a minimum—with some light massage. The sacrum is located above the base of the tail, between the hipbones. Use light pressure and circular movements over this hard flat surface and watch your pet smile. Proceed up the length of your dog’s spine with gentle massage strokes. (When in direct contact with spinal vertebrae, use very little pressure.)

RESULTS: Increased spinal fluid flow, root chakra balance, decreased anxiety, mobility of the hips and spine, freedom of movement.

Rear Leg Stretch
Decreased mobility of the hips and deterioration of the knee are major problems for the elderly canine.Keep her perky by loosening up her hip, lower back and leg muscles. This stretch will surely become a favorite. Take hold of her rear leg near the knee and gently pull the leg back in an extended position.Move slowly and confidently. Hold the stretch for a few seconds, release and repeat.

RESULTS: Increased mobility of the hips and flexibility in the spine; decreased pain associated with arthritis; improved health of the low back, hip and leg muscles; oxygenation of the ankle, knee and hip.

Shoulder Stretch
More than 60 percent of your dog’s body weight is absorbed by her shoulders. Improved range of motion at the shoulder equals greater mobility; less pain; and looser chest, shoulder and upper back muscles.Move your dog’s front leg forward in an extended position. (Stabilize movement at the elbow for a more intense stretch.) Hold the stretch for a few seconds, release and repeat.Once you have completed this shoulder stretch, move her leg forward and back in a pendulum movement to further release the muscles of the shoulder, chest and back.

RESULTS: Integrity of the shoulder girdle; increased breathing capacity; improved health of the wrist, elbow and shoulder; decreased pain; freedom of movement.

Chest Opener
Your dog’s chest musculature takes a tremendous amount of strain. Please your pup with this abduction (away from center) stretch. Take hold of her front legs near the wrists and gently open them out to the side. Hold for a few seconds, release and repeat. Finish up with a gentle chest massage.

RESULTS: Softening of the brachial and cardiac plexus, ensuring a calm canine; heart chakra balance; hydration of the chest, shoulder and intercostal (between the ribs) muscles; increased breathing capacity.

Tummy Rub
Your dog’s soft belly is a sensitive area, so please be especially gentle when touching this spot. Gently place your hand on her belly, wait for a pulse or heat, then release and repeat. Move hands in a clockwise circular motion to treat constipation; use a counterclockwise motion to treat diarrhea.

RESULTS: Decreased anxiety; loosening of the muscles along the front of the spine; increased mobility of hips, low back and spine; softening of the solar plexus and diaphragm; increased breathing capacity.

* All moves can be performed while your dog is either standing or lying down; it’s up to the pup.

Wellness: Healthy Living
More Advice for Graying Dogs
Dr. Nicholas Dodman on keeping your aging dog happy and healthy.

Couldn’t get enough of Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s senior dog tips in our last issue? We asked Dodman even more questions about his latest book, Good Old Dog, and what you can do to keep your aging dog as happy and healthy as ever.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Got Teeth?
So does your dog--here’s how to brush them
Tooth Brush

There’s no time like the present to have your veterinarian examine your dog’s teeth, and then begin a brushing routine at home. Daily brushing boosts and supports dogs’ well-being and general health by reducing bacteria that may enter the stomach and bloodstream. Trying to brush an unhealthy mouth is no fun for you or your dog, however. According to AAHA Dental Care Guidelines, the only way to know for sure that your pup’s mouth is healthy is through dental x-rays. Once your veterinarian gives you the go-ahead, it’s time to start brushing.

1. Use a pet-formulated toothpaste in a flavor your dog likes. Do not use human toothpaste, as the detergents and high fluoride levels may cause severe tummy distress.

2. Use any soft-bristled toothbrush. If your dog is small, try a child’s toothbrush. Some pet owners like to use angled pet toothbrushes or finger-cap brushes.

3. If you’ve never brushed your dog’s teeth, introduce brushing slowly. Use lots of praise for small advancements in the process.

4. Start by letting your dog lick a pea-size amount of toothpaste off your finger. If you’ve found a flavor he likes, he’ll consider it a special treat.

5. Next, rub some toothpaste onto the outer surfaces of his upper and lower teeth. (Do not try to clean the inner tooth surfaces—leave that to the veterinary professionals.)

6. After a few days, put a pea-sized amount of pet toothpaste on his toothbrush and let him lick it off.

7. The goal is to brush the upper and lower teeth on both sides of the mouth for a full minute, or the length of a television commercial.

Perhaps the most important point: “Dog breath” implies significant dental issues. If your dog’s breath is nasty, or if he resists brushing, please consult your veterinarian for a thorough dental check-up, including x-rays and professional cleaning under anesthesia. For more information, see the AAHA Dental Care Guidelines at aahanet.org.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Can Diet Overcome DNA?
Scientists investigate the new field of nutrigenomics.

Have you ever had problems losing weight and wondered if you’re just genetically fat and doomed to your pudgy fate? If so, you may be in luck. Scientists studying nutrition and genetics in dogs are helping to debunk the myth that your genes set your physiologic fate in stone.

“Your DNA tells you everything you could be. It doesn’t tell you everything you are going to be,” says Dr. Steven Hannah, Director of Molecular Nutrition at Nestlé Purina PetCare.“There are many factors that modify the ultimate expression of an animal.” One such factor is diet.

New studies are finding that diets can alter the expression of genes. In other words, they can determine which genes are active. In fact, there’s now a branch of nutrition called “nutrigenomics” dedicated to the study of how nutrients affect gene expression.

In an active gene, a segment of DNA is transcribed to RNA, which can then be translated into many copies of a single protein. Each gene codes for a different protein and each protein has a slightly different job. Some proteins provide structure, such as the protein in muscle or collagen.Other proteins, called enzymes, drive the chemical reactions that create the various hormones, neurotransmitters and products needed by the body, as well as creating products that serve as energy to power the body.

In humans, the study of nutrigenomics is slow because there are too many factors to consider in a person’s normal life—even in just their diet. But with dogs, researchers have already discovered diets that alter arthritis and obesity.

How does nutrigenomics come into play in developing these diets? First, the company or researcher identifies gene expression profiles in affected and normal dogs.Next, they figure out which ingredients they believe will change the gene expression profile from that of an affected dog to that of a healthy one. Then they formulate a mixture, feed it to the affected individuals and see if the gene expression profile changes in a positive way. For instance, in the case of arthritis or degenerative joint disease, researchers at Purina compared the gene expression profile of normal, healthy cartilage cells, called “chondrocytes,” to that of arthritic chondrocytes.

“We have constructed a gene expression array chip that has virtually every gene known in the dog,” states Hannah. “It has tens of thousands of genes on it. We took the chondrocyte cell’s RNA and applied it to the chip.” The chip, in turn, revealed every gene whose expression was affected.

“We were able to identify which genes in the tissue were up- and down-regulated in arthritis,” says Hannah.“Because those genes are codes for all of the proteins the cell was making, it’s a snapshot in time of what the cell is planning to do biochemically.” (“Up-regulation” and “down-regulation” are the processes by which cells increase or decrease, respectively, the quantity of a cellular component, such as RNA or protein, in response to an external variable.)

By examining the 325 up-regulated genes and the 25 down-regulated genes, Purina researchers were able to look at the biochemical decision of the arthritic cell compared to a healthy chondrocyte cell. What they found was that the arthritic cells were up-regulating specific enzymes that degrade the cartilage and down-regulating enzymes that inhibit the degradation process. That is, they were primed for cartilage destruction.

The next step was to determine what dietary changes might affect the joint. These tests started in petri dishes. First, the researchers grew chondrocytes in cell culture and added inflammatory mediators that would be seen with any joint injury. This made the chondrocytes look arthritic. Then they added nutrients at various concentrations to see which nutrients would help the cells repair.With that testing, they found that omega-3 fatty acids provided good results, and they were able to determine which levels worked best.

But, as Hannah points out, “We can’t feed the nutrient directly into an animal’s joint. There’s no cell culture dog food. Rather, we needed to next see if we could get the nutrient from the food in the same concentrations into the dogs’ joint.”They needed to know if the fish oil would be digested, absorbed and then the omega-3 fatty acids transported to the joint in concentrations shown to be effective in the cell culture.

“Luckily, at the time, Colorado State was conducting an arthritis study in dogs,” says Hannah.“We were able to put these dogs on test diets with different levels of omega-3 fatty acids and then analyze the joints.” They quickly found that they were indeed able to match the levels that they had gotten in the petri dish.

“That’s all nice,” says Hannah,“but the bigger question is whether the dog actually cares. Does it make a clinical difference?” That’s where force-plate analysis came in. This process determines whether a dog’s lameness has improved; researchers did find improvement in the dogs’ physical abilities.

“We were able to verify that the changes in the gene expression profile were accompanied by changes in the corresponding enzyme levels too,” says Hannah. “After the diet, the joints contained less metalloprotease, an enzyme that degrades the cartilage, and more protein that inhibited the metalloproteases. So the omega-3 down-regulated the enzymes that chew up cartilage and up-regulated factors that inhibit the degradation.”

Another major area of nutrigenomics research is in obesity. “We’ve looked at the gene expression profile in obese patients,” says Dr. Todd Towell of Hill’s Pet Nutrition.“We can see a huge difference in gene expression between dogs who are obese and those who are lean.”

What classes of genes are different? The short answer is that at the level of gene expression, obese dogs are up-regulated at systems that make them efficient at storing fat in adipose tissue. They are fat storers. Those who are lean are more efficient at burning fat for energy.

Armed with this information, researchers set out to answer the million-dollar question: Is it possible to design a diet that would both allow weight loss and change the gene profile? To find out, Hill’s researchers fed overweight animals a new weight-reduction diet and then looked at their gene expression profiles; they looked at percent of body fat and genomic analysis at the onset of the study and then again after four months on the diet. All the dogs went from overweight to lean, and those on the new diet showed a change in 254 genes—240 were down-regulated and 14 were upregulated. The diet had changed the dogs’ metabolisms from fat-storing to fat-burning.

Interestingly, in a similar study with dogs on a high-protein weight-loss diet, dogs also went from fat to lean, but their gene expression profiles remained those of metabolically obese dogs. So they were still fat-storers, which suggests they would gain weight back. Because it’s the gene expression in the fat cells that’s important, the downside to this study is that researchers tested the gene expression in blood cells but did not test it in the fat cells where fat is actually stored; their assumption was that gene expression was also changing in the fat cells.

Another researcher who has looked at gene-expression changes in fat is Dr. Kelly Swanson, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine. “We fed a fructooligosaccharide, which is a fiber-like substance that’s not digested by the host but preferentially stimulates the beneficial microbes in the gut.” In other words, the fructooligosaccharide hangs around in the gut, where it serves as food for beneficial microbes. As a result, it allows the beneficial microbes to flourish.

The results? The diet improved insulin sensitivity in fat cells of obese dogs. Several genes that coded for proteins important in lipid regulation and oxidation were up-regulated. These results suggest that a diet with fructooligosaccharides could be useful in diabetic patients.

These findings are just the start. Says Hannah,“Researchers are routinely using nutrigenomics to understand physiology and biology at a new level. Instead of just trying to find individual genes that predispose dogs to developing diseases such as diabetes or obesity, researchers are now asking, ‘What about all of the genes and corresponding pathways?’ It’s about understanding how a molecule or nutrient changes gene expression.”

Says Swanson, “With nutrigenomics, you often get to disease states you don’t understand. If you can identify the genes and pathways affected in the disease process and know the effect of nutrition on that same process, you can determine the biological mechanisms to target.”

Wellness: Healthy Living
Vet School Team Solves Dog's Mystery Rash
Max’s itchy skin problem resolved.
Dog Lab-Mix Breed Running with Allergies

When we impulsively rescued an eight-week-old ball of yellow fur from the back of a pickup truck headed for the pound, we had no idea how much our lives would change. This Lab/German Shepherd mix, whom we named Max, grew quickly. Before we knew it, we had a 108-pound ballistic missile with a wet tongue and four paws — and, in his second year, a severe allergy to an unknown substance.

We tried steroids, antibiotics, topical applications, herbs and acupuncture, yet the rashes, oozing and itching persisted. The steroids worked in the short term, but made him hungry, thirsty and susceptible to ringworm, and were bad for his bones, joints and kidneys over the long haul.

The rashes typically began with papules — red dots — and pustules, and then spread into a solid flaming mass of irritation in his inguinal (groin) and axillary (armpit) areas — sometimes on his belly as well. I kept telling vets that it looked like poison ivy, and they assured me that dogs do not react to poison ivy.

No one had any idea what Max was allergic to. Because the rashes appeared initially in summer, they were first attributed to our typical Florida weather — hot and humid — exacerbated by insects of all kinds. That theory was disproved when Max’s condition continued into the cooler, drier months.

We investigated food as a source, and put Max on a special diet of an allergy-free amino acid–based food for three months. Then we reintroduced his regular diet. No change. We gave him raw milk at the suggestion of a farmer friend, who had tried it successfully for her dog’s itchiness. No change. We thought he might be allergic to turkey and chicken and eliminated them from his diet. Nothing seemed to make a difference. The typical culprits — fleas, ticks and mites, both demodex and scabies — were ruled out or did not fit the symptoms to begin with.

He wasn’t better in any particular season, so inhalant allergies were out. Our allopathic vet suggested he was just allergic to “a lot of stuff,” got itchy and then got various infections from romping around. That’s when drugs were prescribed: antibiotics for the secondary infections and steroids to suppress his reaction to the allergenic agents. Our holistic vet offered various herbs and did some acupuncture, but she seemed as perplexed as everyone else about what could be causing this awful skin condition. Although we were frustrated, we could not fault the professionals we consulted. Presented with the facts we had, they did the best they could.

We’re fortunate to have a veterinary college near us, part of the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville. Although we hesitated at first because of the cost, we finally decided it was time to have him checked out there — Max was still miserable despite the fortune we’d already spent on medications, herbs and topical applications.

The great thing about visiting a university clinic is that a team of students and residents reviews a case before the attending veterinarian weighs in. We liked the idea of having several bright, inquiring minds looking for solutions to this mystery. We were there for half the day, and the intake exam was thorough — the students carefully inspected every inch of Max’s body, then took him away for testing that included skin scrapings for cultures and microscopic examination. Finally, they all re-entered the tiny treatment room where my husband and I were waiting. The attending veterinarian, Rosanna Marsella — a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology — came in with them. “Max definitely has a contact allergy,” she told us, as opposed to an atopic allergy. (Atopic means the reaction can be distant from the cause — for example, a rash that is a result of pathogens entering through the respiratory or digestive system.)

So what was he coming in contact with? Dr. Marsella said the rash was consistent in character with that caused by plants in the Commelinaceae family. Her Italian accent, coupled with the challenging pronunciation of the full botanical name (genus and species), made it difficult for me to understand what she was saying. “Does it have a common name?” I asked.

“‘Wandering Jew,’” she said. We knew this plant as an invasive exotic that many people have in their ornamental gardens. But, since we make an effort to maintain native plants, this was not one that we had growing on our 10 acres of land. “Well, we don’t have any of that,” I said, disappointed that we had reached another dead end. My husband, however, made the connection between the botanical family name and the genus of “Wandering Jew.” He asked if she had said Tradescantia fluminensis.

“Yes, that’s it.”

And then it all fell into place. We are surrounded by acres of Tradescantia — not the invasive T. fluminensis, but the beautiful Florida native species, T. ohiensis, commonly called “spiderwort” or “blue jacket.” There was still a disconnect for the medical team because most plants in the Commelinaceae family are ground creepers. But the Tradescantia that grows abundantly on our property gets as high as 36 inches, which accounted for the reaction on Max’s torso.

“Do you live nearby? Can you get some of that Tradescantia and come back with it and Max?” Dr. Marsella asked. Of course, we said. Later that afternoon, the veterinary team made a slurry from the plant and coated shaved areas of healthy skin on Max’s flank and one of his ears with the paste. They added two control spots as well. To be sure he could not paw the test areas on his side, the students made him a spectacular outfit from pink vet wrap decorated with little red hearts.

The next day, we returned to the clinic and were told that the test was absolutely conclusive. Max had developed the same rashlike pustules that we had come to expect on his underside. And once the vet team saw field photos of the plant, they understood why this dog, with his 20-inch leg length, had extensive rashes in his armpits and groin and not just on his feet, where he would have come in contact with the creeping T. fluminensis, T. pallida, and T. zebrina. The rash between Max’s toes was tame compared to those on his underside because, as Dr. Marsella explained, fur prevents direct contact with the skin.

Just as with people who are allergic to poison ivy or oak, the culprit is a chemical, in this case calcium oxalate, a compound with a microscopic crystalline structure. The irritating needlelike formations penetrate the skin, causing an inflammatory response in animals that are sensitive to them. There is no cure for the rash and no vaccine to prevent reaction. The rash almost always leads to secondary infections, which is why most dogs (and cats) that have this allergy are treated with steroids and antibiotics. Fortunately, Dr. Marsella was the lead author of a study published in Veterinary Dermatology (volume 8, issue 2) by the team of veterinarians that pioneered the use of pentoxifylline (Trental®) to mitigate reaction to calcium oxalates when used prior to exposure. The only other treatment is avoidance. Max is now on this medication 24/7, which initially worried me because it is a vasodilator and in the caffeine class of drugs. Recently, though, a friend who is a pharmacist likened Max’s dose to a person drinking a daily cup of Earl Grey tea, and I calmed down a bit. Pentoxifylline lasts about eight hours in a dog’s system, and because it can irritate the stomach, we administer it day, eight hours apart (morning and late afternoon), so it is in his system and “on duty” during the times he is most active outside.

Other options for reducing contact with the plant include booties and/or a body suit. Unfortunately, Max is too large for a body suit to be effective, as it leaves exposed the very areas that need protecting. Another way to mitigate the rash is to rinse or thoroughly wipe down the dog after every potential exposure. By also using shampoos such as Malaseb, alone or mixed with a bit of Selsun Blue, the chance of secondary staph and yeast infections can be reduced.

Studies have shown that dogs build sensitivity over time but may not show a reaction until as late as two years old. And once started, it tends to get worse, according to the research. “Every time the dog comes in contact with the substance, the reaction is likely to worsen,” wrote Gail Kunkle, DVM, in a paper about canine allergies presented at a 2000 Dog Owners and Breeders Symposium at University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. “There are steroids which are used in severe cases to relieve the inflammation but these are not good long term solutions,” she wrote. “The most difficult part of managing a contact allergy is that it [requires] a lifetime commitment from the owners, as it is unlikely the dog will ‘outgrow’ the reaction or improve over time. Some owners have resorted to making concrete or rock kennels in their yards or even using Astroturf if the problem is a grass or weed. The common plants that cause this reactivity in the dog are very difficult to eliminate from your yard and, in some cases, clients have literally killed the grass and the weed has thrived.”

We have chosen to eradicate this otherwise wonderful plant on nearly an acre around our house, and we are considering a fence to keep Max from roaming on the rest of the acreage, where we are unable to tame this native menace. Botanical sources indicate there are 350 species in the Commelinaceae family, and all contain calcium oxalates. Some species are so tiny (e.g., Murdannia spp.) that they look like grass until you get on your hands and knees to see their minuscule purple flowers! Other plants, such as taro (Colocasia esculenta), also contain calcium oxalates, which should not be confused with plants that contain oxalic acid, such as spinach or sorrel.

Max is only outside when we are, so we can keep an eye on him. But still, he occasionally experiences a thrilling moment when a deer wanders by and taunts him into a good run, which the deer invariably wins. On his return, after successfully evicting an “intruder” from our property, Max gets a sudsy rinse on his underside, just in case.

Dr. Marsella told us that Commelinaceae allergy is a greatly underdiagnosed condition in dogs. She hopes that more exposure to the issue will encourage veterinary clinicians to consider it as a cause of chronic rashes and infections. We can vouch for the fact that the patch test is simple, painless, and conclusive. We are grateful to the students and faculty at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine for improving Max’s quality of life.