Wellness: Health Care
Abnormalities in stool color and consistency may indicate an underlying problem.
I’ll be the first to admit that I stand outside watching each and every performance of my dogs’ “poop show.” This isn’t just a weird sort of voyeurism—rather, it’s a good way to know what’s going on with a dog’s health. If you, too, like to see what’s coming off the production line, keep in mind that the number-one rule of thumb when considering canine elimination is reproducibility. Stools should generally have the same color, size and consistency each and every time.
Many things can cause variations in a dog’s stool. Some of the more common are dietary indiscretions (“garbage gut”) or a change in diet, stress (known as stress colitis), infectious disease, inflammatory conditions, or obstructive processes. Or it may be idiopathic (meaning, we just don’t know what causes it).
A couple of episodes of diarrhea generally don’t constitute an emergency. However, there are situations that do warrant an urgent evaluation. When your dog refuses food or water, vomits, or acts ill or “off,” a trip to the vet is indicated.
Your vet may ask you to bring in a stool sample for analysis. A tablespoon is generally plenty. Also, freshness counts; fecal samples less than an hour old give the best results. If you’re not able to collect one this quickly, get a morning sample, double (or triple!) bag it and keep it refrigerated until your dog’s appointment.
Testing usually starts with a screen for giardia and “O & P,” specifically looking for giardia protozoa as well as ova (eggs) and parasites. During this evaluation, the laboratory technician will also check for overgrowth of normal gastrointestinal (GI) bacteria, which we refer to as clostridial overgrowth. If your dog is acting ill, in addition to having diarrhea, other diagnostics such as blood work and radiographs may be indicated.
1. Streaks of bright red blood and/or mucus on the surface of a mostly normal, formed stool. This is generally caused by inflammation in the large intestine, where mucus is secreted to help protect the intestinal lining. While this does not necessarily indicate an emergency, it’s a good idea to keep a close eye out for further changes in your dog’s behavior and stool.
2. Soft-formed to liquid brown diarrhea, with or without streaks of blood. “Cow patty” and “soft-serve ice cream” are two frequent descriptors. As with the previous type, it is generally not life-threatening as long as there are no other signs of concern and it begins to improve within 24 to 48 hours. If your dog is acting normally otherwise— eating well, not vomiting, good attitude —a wait-and-see home approach may be tried (more on this to follow). Here again, red blood indicates inflammation and bleeding in the colon but does not necessarily mean that your pet is bleeding internally, as is often thought. This is a step up in concern from the previous condition, in the sense that the stool is now softer.
3. A large volume of bloody, watery, diarrhea. This one does require immediate evaluation by your veterinarian, especially with smaller dogs, as it can be an indicator of a common condition called hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, or HGE. (Read more about it here: thebark.com/hge) Tissue sloughing from the intestines gives it a distinctive appearance, and it’s often described as “raspberry jam” diarrhea.
4. Black, tarry stools. This generally indicates bleeding somewhere higher up in the GI tract, such as the stomach or small intestine, and also requires an urgent trip to the vet. A bleeding ulcer (oftentimes caused by steroid or NSAID use) or more generalized bleeding, such as from rat poison, heat stroke or an immune-mediated disease, can display as black, tarry stools. The appearance of the stool is due to the presence of digested blood, and can indicate that a large amount of blood is being lost. In these cases, I usually recommend blood work and an ultrasound to better assess the lining of the intestinal tract.
5. Yellow-orange or pasty, light stools. This may indicate the development of liver or biliary disease, or a too-rapid transit through the small intestine to the colon. A more thorough examination, including diagnostic tests, is in order.
6. Grey, greasy stools. A possible indicator of inadequate digestion and malabsorption of nutrients from the small intestine, this type of stool is typical of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), also called maldigestion, a disease in which the pancreas no longer functions as it should. The pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes, and without them, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed. Both German Shepherds and Rough-Coated Collies are commonly afflicted with EPI
7. Green stools. In the ER, I have seen dogs with green stool, and upon examination of the fecal contents, have discovered the cause to be undigested rat bait mixed in with normal stool. This condition also calls for an immediate trip to your veterinarian. Although relatively uncommon, rat poison can also cause both bright blood and dark, tarry stool, so—whether or not you think your dog could have had access to them—please let your veterinarian know if there is any possibility of exposure to rodenticides.
8. Worms. Most of the time, you will not actually see worms in the stool. We typically diagnose worms by looking for their eggs under the microscope; we can tell what type of parasite is present by the shape of the eggs. Occasionally, however, you may see white spaghetti-like shapes (typically, roundworms) in the stool, particularly with puppies. You may also see small flat worms on the outside of the stool or rectum, or “dried rice” in your dog’s sleeping areas. This typically indicates tapeworms, which can take over when fleas are allowed to flourish. Although seeing worms in the stool is not an emergency, an appointment with your vet is in order so you can get medication appropriate for the type of parasite present.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Winter Paw Tips
Trim Fur between dog toe pads that can get packed with snow and ice walking painful.
Boot Up Consider dog booties, make sure the fit is correct and start with short walks, with plenty of treats.
Avoid Frozen ponds or streams, dogs may fall through ice less than 2 inches thick.
Lube Up Lubricate paws to prevent skin cracks caused by cold, dry air. A thin coating of products as Bag Balm, Musher’s Secret or petroleum jelly will also do.
Quick Wipe Wash paws off after walks. Dogs can lick salt, antifreeze or other chemicals, plus paw pads may bleed from snow or encrusted ice.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Gather up a high quality pair of trimmers and some styptic powder, such as Kwik-Stop or other product, to stop bleeding if you nick the quick.
You may want to sit on the floor with your dog in your lap, or have someone hold your dog on a table. Hold your dog’s paw firmly and push on the pads to extend the nail. Locate where the quick ends. With clear or light nails, it is easy to see the pink color where the quick ends. But with black nails you can look for a black dot on the underneath of the nail; that’s where the quick ends.
Trim the nail below the quick on a 45- degree angle, with the cutting end of the nail clipper toward the end of the nail. Make several small nips with the clippers instead of one large one.
In some cases, if the nails are brittle, the cut may tend to splinter the nail. In these cases, file the nail in a sweeping motion starting from the back of the nail and following the curve to the tip.
Go slowly, take breaks between each paw., and don’t forget the dewclaws. If you accidentally cut the quick, wipe off the blood and apply Kwik-Stop or styptic powder to stop the bleeding. It is not serious and will heal in a very short time.
Some important tips:
Wellness: Health Care
An examination of coming to terms with our worst fears
The way we loved her—my husband and I —ended in a fierce custody battle when we divorced, both of us threatening the other with lawyers and lawsuits. Which, of course, was ridiculous, since animals, as we found out, are not family but property. Which made Riva Jones technically mine, since I’d adopted her before the marriage. But as we all know, in matters of the heart, “technically” and “legally” are muddled, and a dog qualifies as a matter of the heart.
When we fought, Riva would come over and rest her head on my knee while she looked up at me, her eyes saying, Please be happy. She, like most dogs, was family, not property. And that’s why I agreed to share custody of her. My ex loved her the way I loved her, and no matter what kind of meanness I could muster for him at the loss of our relationship, I could not take Riva away from him, nor could I take him away from Riva. So after we broke up, we traded weeks. He lived across the highway and it was easy enough. We saw her through two major surgeries, costing us $7,000; she saw us through new partners, engagements, broken engagements and a marriage. She loved us just the same. She accepted her two-household life. She loved the girlfriends of my ex (even though I told her not to), and she loved my new husband.
After three years of the weekly dog swap, my ex announced that he was moving three hours away. I figured I’d just keep Riva full-time, but he figured otherwise, and fought for her. Motivated by the leftover guilt of leaving him or the fact that she loved him too, I agreed—we would do the dog swap once a month. For three more years, we met on the side of highways, at rest stops, in the dark corners of gas stations.
It seemed like we were trading contraband— who would have guessed that we had pulled over to trade off a German Shepherd? My new husband resented waiting in the gas station parking lot or on the side of the road. I do not know what the girlfriend thought. But Riva always seemed happy to get into one car or the other, never complaining, never even looking back. I wish I had just a little bit of that kind of acceptance, that sort of living in the moment, the attitude that says: “Okay, this is what we’re doing now. Fun!”
At 12, Riva started cutting trail on backcountry ski trips so she could keep up. The last time I took her skiing, she ran down the skin trail instead of following behind us, diving in and out of the fresh snow like a porpoise. When she disappeared, I shouted for her for an hour, afraid she’d fallen in a tree well. She had taken the easy way down and was waiting for us at the car; she sat, smiling, as if to say, That took you a long time.
I took Riva on her last summer hike when she was 14, which, in retrospect, was ambitious, though even our vet had called her the “Wonderdog.” My plan was to hike the two miles to Meiss Meadow from Carson Pass and then back again. It was hot, she was tired and her back end kept giving out. I sat in the shade with her, stroked her head and told her it was okay. I am sure that my ex and Riva took a similar hike—one that was a little too much.
By 15, Riva was blind and deaf. She became incontinent and was horrified when she realized what she had done. I tried my best to tell her it was all right. Nobody was mad at her. No one had ever been mad at her. We tried everything, including installing a doggy door and layering plastic over the floor of one room, with pieces of old carpet on top so she wouldn’t slip. That lasted until she pooped, stepped in it and smeared it all over the carpet pieces and the plastic. Then, the dog whose bed had been right next to mine for 15 years had to sleep in the garage.
My ex got a new job, one that required travel, so the last six months of her life, Riva stayed exclusively with me. I resented my ex on the days I had to clean the house, my shoes and her fur. I resented it when she had to sleep in the garage. I resented it every time I had to help her up and down the stairs, every time I had to go outside and stop her from barking at imaginary things, which prompted the neighbors to call animal control, even the police. Once during that time, I needed a break and called my ex; he said he could not take her. My husband said, “Riva is here to teach you something. It’s her last gift.”
I made a list of all the things I loved and how many of them I could do without and still want to live. Perhaps I could go without skiing and hiking and running, but not reading, not spending time with family and friends. I came up with a number: 30 percent. If I could still do 30 percent of the things I loved, I would want to live.
I made a list for Riva. She could no longer chase chipmunks or swim, but she could eat treats and relax in the sun. From what I could tell, she was at exactly 30 percent. That’s when I started googling “When to put your dog down.” During this period, my friend Sandra came over. When she saw Riva, she said, “You have to put that dog down.” She was not being mean. Sandra is unflappable, and she is not one to couch her opinions in euphemism. She has an aging Pit Bull, Luna, who goes everywhere with her; they even went out together last Halloween, both dressed as witches. Sandra said, “When it’s Luna’s time, I want you to tell me.” I should also say that in addition to old age, Riva had Cushing’s disease, and her spine was a column of stones. Her belly was bloated and her fur matted with old age. Her milky eyes probably no longer looked intelligent, but I had not noticed. At one point that evening, Riva had fallen on the slate floor (recently installed because of her incontinence) and cried, and I picked her up. This, from the dog who never complained. Sandra said, “Put that dog down. You can’t let a dog lose her dignity.” I knew Sandra was right, that she was only trying to encourage me to do the humane thing, but of course I could think only this: That is coming from a woman who dresses her Pit Bull in a witch costume.
I asked my husband what he thought, and he said, “It’s your decision to make. And you have to do it alone. Riva would want that from you. She expects it.”
But I called my ex, and we decided together that we would put Riva down in one week’s time. He would come to the house. The vet would come to the house. I put in for a day off work. But still, I kept searching online for something that would make things easier, something that would tell me when it was time. Again, I googled “when to put your dog down” and landed upon lists and surveys, which I took for Riva Jones, checking whether or not she ate or wagged her tail when I got home (the answer to both of those, by the way, was “yes” until the very end).
All week, I fed Riva steak and chicken and rice. I doubled her pain medication. I spent as much time with her as I could, and she improved. The weather had warmed, so she was sleeping on the deck, happy in the spring Sierra air. Some days, she could walk a half-mile up the trail behind my house. My ex came over, and we ended up sitting on the deck, sharing a bottle of chardonnay with Riva at our feet. We caught up on our friends, but talked very little about Riva. I wondered why he didn’t spend the time on the ground with her, but figured that we all deal with these things in our own way; maybe he didn’t really want to admit she was going, could not bear to say good-bye.
He came again the next day, the day before the appointment, and we took her walking. She made it about a half mile. We saw a bear, and she seemed happy to be among the wakening wildlife. We didn’t talk about the appointment, which was how things had always been between us. But after he left, I cancelled it. I told him we’d wait and see, take it day by day. My ex went home.
In the end, it really would be my decision to make. Among the survey questions on the “Should you put your dog down” test was Did you make euthanasia appointments and cancel them? I now checked “yes.” Riva was now at 50/50, the point at which, according to the survey, one should “put the dog down.” But did it count? Did I make a mistake when I made the appointment in the first place? So I waited.
I am here to tell you there will be an answer to your question, “When should I put my dog down?” but the answer cannot be found on an Internet survey.
There is only this: On a Thursday morning in April, you will wake up and your dog will be throwing up. By the time you leave, she will seem fine. But still, you ask your dog sitter, who is also a vet tech, to check on her during the day. You will run a poetry slam in the evening and will not be home until late. When you call your husband after work and before the event, he will say your dog seems fine. You will ask him what the dog sitter’s note said—she always leaves detailed descriptions of what goes on.
“No note,” he will say.
“She always leaves a note. Find it. Tell me what it says.”
“I didn’t see a note.”
“Look on the counter,” you will insist.
“No note,” he will answer.
You will leave it alone, knowing something is wrong, but you are in charge of an event, so you will choose to believe that your husband is telling you the truth.
He isn’t. He knows you have to go to the event. The note says your dog has been throwing up. But your husband checks on her and she seems to have improved, so he doesn’t say anything.
When you get home, you will find your dog on the porch, dry heaving. Though it will not have snowed for months, on this night, it will be snowing. You will find your dog outside, trying to throw up over the deck. She will know better, even then, to make a mess outside. She will be shivering, and tiny frozen flakes will be caught in her fur.
You will coax her inside, start the fire and ask her to lie on her bed. She will be dry heaving, and every once in a while, yellow bile will come up. She will froth at the mouth, and you will wipe the fur around her face with a towel.
So here’s when you know: when it’s too late. Which is what you tried to avoid with your googling late into the night. You will apologize to her over and over, telling her how sorry you are for not having the doctor come to the house and put her down.
But you could have not done that. You needed it to get to this.
You will call your vet, and because you live in a small mountain town, the office is closed. You will be directed to the vet hospital in the nearest big city, more than an hour from your house. You will call the hospital, and the woman on the other end of the line will encourage you to bring your dog in. “Her stomach could be flipped, and this is extremely painful,” the voice will say. You don’t believe this, but it will make you cry harder. “But she probably won’t make the drive,” the vet tech will say.
You will ask, “Why would I force my dog into a long car ride she probably won’t make?”
“You should bring her in,” the voice on the other end will answer. You will hand the phone to your husband, and he will talk to the vet tech in the other room. You cannot, in fact, do this alone.
When your husband hangs up and comes back into the living room, you will ask if you are going to drive your dog to the big-city vet. He will say no. You will say, “Call Sandra. Ask for her gun.”
He will say, “What? I am not calling Sandra. It’s after midnight.”
“Call Sandra and ask for her gun.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You have to. Just get her gun.”
This is when you know it is time to put your dog down: when you have never shot a gun in your life, and you’re willing to illegally fire a bullet from your unflappable friend’s pink .22 into your dog’s brain.
Your husband will call your friend Sandra, and after she figures out who’s calling her so late at night and asking for her gun, she will say no way. She will tell you it is illegal to shoot a handgun in your town. Unflappable though she is, she will not let you shoot your own dog.
So you will pull your dog’s bed, with her on it, over to the couch, and you will sleep next to her on the couch. She will dry heave for a while but then fall asleep, mercifully, until 7 am. For the last time, you will sleep beside her.
Your husband will leave for a meeting. It will seem, for a minute, that your dog has stopped dry heaving, frothing at the mouth.
But she hasn’t.
You will call your local vet, and the receptionist will say the vet cannot come to the house, but you can bring your dog to the office any time. Your eyes will have that sandpapery feel. You won’t know why, but you will feel the need to shower while your poor dog is suffering in the other room. Maybe you just want to make sure. Maybe you will get out of the shower and she will have stopped dry heaving, and she will be better!
So you will dry off and get dressed and you will realize you can’t wait for your husband to be done with his meeting. It is time.
You will lift your old dog from her bed and carry her down the stairs. She will not resist you. You will put her on the grass, and she will sniff around and go to the bathroom, and this last act of normal doggy behavior will nearly bring you to your knees.
You will call her, your voice cracking. She will see the hand motions you now use since she can no longer hear you, and she will look into the car as if she might try to jump into it. Before she can try, you will lift her into the car, and put her on her bed. She will smile, knowing she is going somewhere.
You will call your ex, telling him you are on your way to the vet … that it is time. You will call your friend Eve, who has three dogs, because you figure she might offer you some words of wisdom, and she does. She tells you to have them do it in the car. She will tell you that is how she has had all her dogs put down.
When you walk into your vet’s front office, everyone will know why you are there. The front office staff will tell you they will help you carry her in. You look around at all the other pet owners with their animals who will have to watch this. Your vet will agree to come out to the car. You are thankful for your friend who told you to have it done that way. You will go out to the car, open the back and sit with your dog in the morning sun.
The front office person will come out with paperwork. He will ask if you want your dog’s paw print. You will imagine them sticking the dead paw into a mold and quickly say no. Then you realize that your ex might want said paw print, so you call him.
“Do you want her paw print?” you say when he picks up.
“You know, they make a plaster imprint of her paw.” Then you add, “But they do it after she’s dead.”
Your ex will agree that the $79.95 paw print isn’t needed.
“But you are doing the private cremation, right?”
“Yeah,” you will answer.
“Call me. Later.”
You agree that you will.
You also agree to the more expensive “private cremation,” even though a former student has offered to dig a hole in your yard.
Here’s what you need to know if you are afraid of the actual procedure. Don’t be. You will not believe how easy the dying is. Afterward, you will wonder why we can’t let our humans go in this way, with compassion and kindness and love.
Here’s what happens: The vet tech will tell you that your dog will be given something to calm her down, make her “loopy.” You will ask if you can have some. “Only if you want to puke,” your vet will say. “It makes dogs feel great, not so much with humans.” Your dog will very quickly stop dry heaving and foaming at the mouth. She will lay her head down and seem to be in a very happy place. You will pet her and talk to her and do your best not to cry because you do not want to upset her. Then the vet will say she is giving the second injection. You will keep your hand on your dog’s chest, feel her heart slow and then stop.
“We’ll be right back,” your vet will tell you. “Take a few minutes.”
That is when you will bury your face in the fur of your dead dog and you will wail. The vet and vet tech will come back with a little stretcher, they will lift your dog onto it and cover her with a fuzzy ducky blanket that seems at once sentimental and silly, but heartbreaking, really.
The next day, you will relay your story to your running partner, and when you get to the ducky blanket, your voice will crack. You will have to stop talking. Your friend will say, “That isn’t heartbreaking. It’s soulbreaking.”
And so it was.
As with most dogs, Riva Jones taught me how to be a better creature in the world. How to live in the moment, to go with the flow. How to be a friend. How to live and, finally, how to let go.
Even though I wanted to prevent her from suffering even one single minute, I couldn’t. The last 20 hours or so were uncomfortable, really uncomfortable. But I have to believe Riva could see that I did the best I could. Would it have been more humane to put her down a week earlier, when I had made the first appointment? Probably. But as it is, I sometimes wonder if I should have brought her into the vet that morning, had the doctor check her. Maybe she’d be alive today! Those are the irrational thoughts that go along with the here-one-day-gone-the-next nature of death. I even worried that Riva would “wake up” in the vet’s office, scared, wondering where I was.
Everyone says your dog will tell you when it’s time. That you will know. That only makes sense in retrospect. You did it, so it was very much the right time. My ex didn’t send me a check for half the euthanasia or cremation, but he did call me to tell me he would be up to spread the ashes. When I told my husband, he responded, “Tell him no cash, no ash.”
I went back and forth about what to do. Finally, I opened the wooden box (a private cremation comes with a lovely cedar container) and we dished two heaping ladlesful of Riva into another baggie. As I did with my father’s ashes, I sifted through Riva’s remains, hoping for what, I’m not sure. Some feeling that it was her. But as with my father, it was gray bone fragment, and I could make no connection between it and the living being.
When I went to meet my ex with the ash and Riva’s collar, he asked me if I wanted to go with him. I felt like I needed an ending to my story, an ending, in many ways, to my relationship with my ex. We had kept in close contact because of Riva, but that would be over now. I then realized that the day he sat on the deck with me, drinking chardonnay, he was there not so much to say good-bye to Riva as to say good-bye to me.
We hiked up the hill behind the house we once shared. Since her death, he had gotten a dog paw tattooed on his forearm, and underneath, Riva’s name. I refrained from telling him, even in my usual passive-aggressive way, how ridiculous I found that. I saw that even though we both lost the same dog, we both had our own journey with it. When we reached the top, the valley unfolding into the lake, my ex opened the baggie and let the wind take the ash. It swirled around, scattering on the dirt below us. He then drove a metal cross into the ground with a mallet and wrapped Riva’s collar around it. We both sat there for a long time, looking out across the lake.
A woman with a dog came up the trail, and said, “Great spot, huh?” We allowed that it was.
“My husband proposed to me right there,” she called.
“Right where you’re sitting.”
She walked off with her dog, and I said, “Should we tell her?” We both laughed for a long time and then agreed it was time to head back down. When we reached my car, my ex gave me a check for half the vet bill without being asked. And then, finally, we said good-bye.
Wellness: Health Care
Take a Deep Breath
Somewhere in northern California, a tiny dog is still prancing around on four paws thanks to hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). Unbeknownst to the dog’s owner, a piece of string had become wrapped around his paw, hidden in the dog’s dense fur. As circulation in the paw slowed down, skin and tissue began to slough off. By the time the owner realized what was happening, the paw was in such bad shape that the little dog’s vet, understandably, recommended amputation. The owner, however, wanted to try to save it. After a strict regimen of cleaning and dressing changes failed to promote significant improvement, the dog was referred for HBOT treatment.
Deep-sea and scuba divers have long used HBOT to combat the bends, and in the medical arena, it has been employed for more than 50 years to help people recover from serious infections and hard-to-heal wounds, among other ailments.
Now, this technology is being utilized to help companion animals and horses with conditions as varied as head and spinal-cord trauma, intervertebral disc disease, wounds and burns, infections, and inflammatory conditions.
The general theory behind HBOT is that it promotes healing by raising oxygen levels in the blood, allowing oxygen to diffuse into tissues at distances three to four times further than usual. Gary Richter, MS, DVM, medical director of Holistic Veterinary Care and Rehabilitation Center, Oakland, Calif., is among those who use HBOT in their practices. According to Dr. Richter, “When there’s inflammation, damaged tissues or injury, lack of oxygen is very commonly the limiting factor. By increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to tissues, we are stimulating these patients’ own healing abilities—immune systems, stem cells—to begin the healing process where other types of conventional medicine might not be able to achieve that goal.” (The dog with the damaged paw was treated at Dr. Richter’s clinic.)
Typically, HBOT treatments last about an hour and are given one to two times daily. A patient is placed in a hyperbaric chamber and breathes 100 percent oxygen at 1.5 to 3 times normal atmospheric pressure. The total number of treatments required depends upon the condition and how the patient responds. Being enclosed in the chamber doesn’t seem to distress the dogs or cats who use it; many reportedly go to sleep during treatment. Dr. Richter thinks that for the patient, it’s mainly boring; “as far as the animal’s concerned, nothing’s happening.” The cost and protocol are the same no matter how large or small the patient.
The therapy has essentially no side effects, although Dr. Richter says that it’s also important to select HBOT candidates appropriately. Dogs or cats with some types of respiratory problems or who are predisposed to specific types of seizures need to be evaluated before undergoing the therapy.
And sometimes, says Dr. Richter, the therapy may have positive side effects. Take, for example, the case of a cat with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) so severe that she required a surgically implanted feeding tube. The surgical site became infected with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium responsible for several difficult-to-treat infections. HBOT was used to help the site heal and resolve the MRSA, but as a side effect, her IBD improved to the point that she no longer required intensive medical monitoring.
Despite being approved for use in humans for an array of medical conditions, HBOT is not without its skeptics, who say that the lack of clinical trial data supporting its claims puts it into the realm of experimental. However, based on the human experience, it would seem that HBOT has the potential to become another valuable tool in the veterinary health-care toolbox.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Eight ways you and your anxious dog can catch a break
It sometimes feels like the dog world is polarized between people who “get” anxious and reactive dogs and people who don’t. Worse, the people who don’t can be dismissive and unkind, not to mention make it difficult for you to navigate the world with your dog by not respecting personal space.
Lately, however, people are coming to realize that completely calm, bombproof dogs are closer to the exception than the rule. Many dogs have something they’re not good with, whether it’s alone time, storms, cats or children. This increased awareness has translated into more and easier tactics to help anxious dogs than walking them at 5 in the morning. Here are eight ways to make life with your anxious or reactive dog better for both of you.
1. Seek out a PR trainer. In recent years, modern trainers have learned that an overwhelming majority of dogs who lunge at, bark at and fight with other dogs and humans aren’t doing so because they’re “dominant” or because they want to be “pack leader.” They’re doing it because they’re scared. A frightened dog, especially one who feels like she can’t escape, will turn to aggression to “get him before he gets me.” Once we know that aggression is rooted in fear, we know to avoid trainers who “rehabilitate” aggressive dogs by dominating them. Hurting a dog doesn’t stop her from being scared, it just makes her shut down. Change the emotion, on the other hand, and you’ll change the behavior. A dog who isn’t scared of other dogs has no need to bark or fight. Find a good trainer, ideally one who follows positive reinforcement principles and is certified by CCPDT, and you can work wonders together.
2. Make her visible. This might sound like the last thing you want to do with an anxious dog—I’ve certainly spent my share of time hiding around corners and not opening my door until I’ve checked that the coast is clear—but drawing attention to your dog’s anxiety is a good way to tell other people not to approach. Put a yellow ribbon on your dog’s leash, or buy a bandanna or harness that says “nervous” or “no dogs” and you’re giving people a heads-up without having to yell at them.
3. Muzzle up. If your dog is reactive and big enough that you could lose control if she lunges, consider a good quality muzzle. A muzzled dog is still seen by most people as a dangerous dog, which can lead to some unpleasantness for the owner, but thankfully, the Muzzle Up! Project is trying to get rid of that prejudice and spread the word that a muzzle is a sign of a responsible owner and a safe dog. By making those with aggressive dogs feel safer, muzzles allow both people and dogs to get more enjoyment from being outside.
4. Consider changing your vet if he/she isn’t tuned in to your dog’s needs. While some vets are great with nervous and aggressive dogs, others are still very old school; they don’t listen to owners and use invasive and rough handling. There are, however, new techniques out there for vets dealing with anxious dogs. Dr. Sophia Yin has developed a program for vets that focuses on low-stress handling, which can make a huge difference in your dog’s anxiety levels. And Dogs in Need of Space has a list of vets who go the extra mile for anxious dogs; if you do want to change your vet, it’s a good place to start.
5. Learn your dog’s body language. Your dog constantly communicates how she’s feeling, and the better you understand what she’s saying, the easier it can be to avoid stressful situations. Something that was fine for her last week might be too much for her to cope with today due to a phenomenon called trigger stacking (an increase in anxiety-related behaviors caused by the dog experiencing repeated stressful events without enough time in between for the associated stress hormones to leave her system). Avoid this by keeping an eye out for signs that tell you how your dog is feeling.
There are lots of resources for learning the basics; Lili Chin has made some lovely posters, and there’s even an iPhone app, so you needn’t run out and buy a textbook. Just remember that every dog is an individual, so you might not see all the signs of stress all the time. My dog only pants when she’s hot, for example.
6. Try medication. When I tell people, “My dog’s on Prozac,” most of them laugh; they think it’s a funny way of talking about her anxiety. It’s not: she really is on Prozac. Many of the same antidepressant medications that millions of humans use have been proven to help dogs with anxiety have the confidence to try new behaviors. A conversation with your vet is the first step on this route. Your vet can refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, a DVM who is knowledgeable about both training and medication; a vet behaviorist can give you a complete prescription tailored to your dog’s needs and, ideally, liaise with your trainer or applied animal behaviorist (a professional who specializes in dogs with behavioral problems but is not a vet).
Making the decision to try medical intervention can seem like a big step, but there is a lot of specialist information designed to make it easier. A good place to start is Debbie Jacob’s website, fearfuldogs.com. There are also numerous over-the-counter pills and products marketed to help anxious dogs, but be careful if you choose to experiment with them. Most “calming supplements” haven’t been tested, and evidence for the ones that have been is sketchy at best. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, but do remember that treatment has its own kind of placebo effect.
7. Find a shared interest. It’s okay to be disappointed that your dog doesn’t want to go to the dog park, agility trials or pavement cafés. Try focusing on what you guys can do together instead. Set up indoor obstacle courses, go on quiet wilderness hikes, take nose-work classes or just chill at home. Don’t try to force the dog you have to be the dog you wanted. In the end, you’re likely to make her problems worse, not to mention strain your relationship.
8. Know your limits. If you’re really out of your depth, or your dog represents a serious danger to you or your children, it’s okay to consider rehoming. Training and medications are expensive, and anxious dogs often require a lifetime commitment. In some cases, it’s safer for you and better for the dog to find a new home where she can get what she needs if you don’t have the resources or the situation to provide it. You’re not a bad person or a failure—you’re making the wisest, kindest choice in the circumstances.
With these options, life with an anxious dog doesn’t have to be lonely!
Wellness: Health Care
Periodontal disease, the most common disease occurring in dogs and cats, is defined as plaque-induced inflammatory pathology of any part of the tissues that hold the tooth in the mouth. >Plaque is a soft biofilm that contains bacteria and toxins. It accumulates on the surface of teeth within hours after dental cleaning; if it mineralizes, tartar (calculus) forms.
>Gingivitis is the reversible form of periodontal disease, affecting only gingiva (the gums). As inflammation continues, the gum detaches from the tooth, creating a pocket. Toxins from plaque bacteria and enzymes from inflammatory cells cause further destruction of periodontal tissues.
>Periodontitis is the more severe form of periodontal disease. It results in attachment loss, gingival recession and loss of alveolar bone, which loosen the tooth and put it at risk of falling out. In multi-rooted teeth, the furcation between two roots becomes exposed. Bacteria, toxins and inflammatory mediators may also be released into the bloodstream, allowing them to travel throughout the body and cause harm to important organ systems.
Your pet should generally have an annual oral examination performed by a veterinary health care professional. The amount of dental deposits (plaque and tartar) and the condition of the gingiva (color, texture, shape) will dictate the need for placing your pet under anesthesia to have dental scaling and periodontal therapy performed.
Although anesthesia will never be 100 percent risk-free, modern anesthetic and patient-evaluation techniques minimize the risks, and millions of dentistry and oral surgery procedures are safely performed each year.
(Anesthesia-free dentistry by untrained individuals is inappropriate for several reasons, including insufficient cleaning of inaccessible tooth surfaces, oral discomfort and serious pain.)
An effective home oral hygiene program consists of daily tooth brushing and use of various oral health care products (e.g., rinses/gels, chew toys, dental treats). When oral hygiene is less than optimal, plaque can mineralize within two to three days, forming tartar that resists being easily brushed off. All you need is a soft-bristled and appropriately sized toothbrush, veterinary toothpaste, some patience and one minute each day.
Certain toys and treats can be used in combination with daily tooth brushing, oral health care products, yearly dental check-ups, and dental cleaning and periodontal therapy. Toys and treats should not be too hard, as very hard materials can fracture teeth; rocks and large ice cubes should also be avoided. Tennis balls are popular toys for many dogs; however, they are very abrasive and will rapidly wear down the teeth.
Wellness: Health Care
Your dog is sluggish, withdrawn and avoids his food bowl—is it inflammatory bowel disease?
See those beautiful lilacand plum-colored hills, dotted with darker stones on what looks like pathways? And the slopes that dive into valleys lined with translucent pebbles? But wait. These aren’t lavender-f lowered furrows. They’re a close-up view of the intestines in cross-section. The purple polka dots are inflammatory cells, out of place and infiltrating the tissues. This is inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, as seen under a microscope.
These histological views, thin slices of stained tissue, are collected via endoscopic or surgical biopsy. They might be small but they reveal a lot, particularly about the kinds of inflammatory cells that are cramming the villi and crypts—the steep hills and valleys— of the GI tract. Crowds of lymphocytes, plasma cells, eosinophils, macrophages and/or neutrophils cause the bowel to thicken, and hinder its motility. They also block the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients, properly manufacture mucus to line the tract and originate hormonal signals.
What causes the GI tract to host the wrong type of cells? It’s not completely clear. Broadly speaking, the immune system overreacts, perhaps to diet, parasites or bacteria. The visiting immune cells then send signals, called cytokines, which create more inf lammation. The end result is an altered intestinal architecture and a host of symptoms: weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, mucus and/or blood in the stool. The particular symptoms depend on where the inflammation lives, which can be anywhere from the stomach to the rectum.
Diagnosis begins with blood work, which may show protein loss, anemia, dehydration, altered B12/cobalamin and folate levels, elevated liver enzymes, and sometimes pancreatitis. For a definitive identification, a GI biopsy is the gold standard, but when possible surgical risk or cost is a factor, an abdominal ultrasound can provide a presumptive diagnosis; thickened bowel loops usually indicate IBD. (In rare cases, they may also indicate a cancer such as lymphoma; it can be difficult to suss out the subtleties between it and IBD on ultrasound. It’s important to be sure that lymphoma’s not in play because starting prednisone—a common steroid used to treat IBD—without ruling out lymphoma can make an accurate diagnosis difficult later and can create future chemotherapy resistance.)
Medical Treatment Options
Dogs who do not respond completely to diet change may be placed on steroids, antibiotics and, sometimes, stronger immunosuppressive drugs like cyclosporine or azathioprine. Each medication comes with its own list of possible side effects, so the goal is to try to taper the medication to the lowest effective dose. To cover all bases of possible inflammatory triggers, many veterinarians will also deworm dogs with suspected IBD.
Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) is another excellent tool. TCVM includes acupuncture, Chinese herbs, food therapy and tui na (a form of therapeutic massage). Rather than treating a dog for a list of symptoms, TCVM creates a picture of his health based on patterns. From indicators such as the dog’s tongue color and coating, pulse strength and character, time of day of the signs, personality, and preferences for cold or warm places, a TCVM vet develops an individualized treatment plan.
These specifics matter. Herbal formulas for chronic early-morning diarrhea are different than those used to treat acute bloody diarrhea. Formulas for acute diarrhea may only be used for a week, but herbs for chronic GI issues are usually given for one to three months. It’s important to use highquality, domestically manufactured formulas from suppliers like Jing Tang Herbal to guarantee low toxicity and uniformity. Herbs are medicine, with possible side effects and interactions, so it’s best to have a TCVM vet prescribe the correct formula for your dog.
Combining acupuncture and Chinese herbs is another powerful way to assist in the resolution of both acute and chronic GI issues. Acupuncture points are located in areas where nerve endings, blood vessels, mast cells and lymphatics are concentrated, and activating those points helps to strengthen the immune system, lower inflammation, increase circulation and reduce pain. Studies have documented that point stimulation also releases neurotransmitters such as beta-endorphin and serotonin.
A TCVM vet will choose a series of points to relieve pain, vomiting and poor appetite, as well as to address heat in GI tract (blood) or a yang deficiency (warm-seeking). Thin, single-use, sterile needles are placed at specific sites, and are left in place from one to 30 minutes. The number of needles used depends on the dog’s age, personality and level of disease. Most dogs relax, yawn and even fall asleep after about 10 minutes. As with any chronic disease, it takes time to steer recovery in the right direction. For acupuncture, a good place to start is three to five treatments spaced at 10- to 14-day intervals.
When all goes well, combining Western and Eastern medical treatments results in weight gain, eagerness to eat and a reduction in GI pain. Not to mention the return of those wonderful, broad doggie smiles and whole-body tail wags.
Wellness: Healthy Living
DIY Paw Wax
Snow falls, cold winds blow. In northern latitudes, winter serves up a host of things for dogs and their people to contend with. Salt and other de-icing agents are hazardous to dogs’ paws and skin throughout the season, and moving from cool air outdoors to warm air indoors can result in dry, irritated skin.
There are several simple things you can do to help your dog deal. To prevent salt from irritating paws, apply a coat of Musher’s Secret paw wax, made from a blend of several food-grade waxes, before heading outside. When your dog comes in, wipe her paws with warm water to remove de-icing agents. (Don’t forget to check her legs and stomach, too.) If your dog has long hair, trim the hair between her pads to prevent painful ice balls from forming. Or, avoid these foot problems altogether by putting booties on your dog—which might be easier said than done.
Increasing indoor humidity will help alleviate dry, itchy skin. A simple oatmeal bath can ease irritated skin, but don’t bathe your dog too often, as this strips natural oils and further contributes to dryness. (Vets suggest a once-a-month bathing schedule.) Regularly grooming your dog with a soft brush like Pet+Me can also help improve her skin by stimulating the oil glands to produce more natural oils.
A number of supplements are considered to be helpful in maintaining a healthy skin and coat. Add Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids (found in fish oil) to your dog’s food (this takes four to nine weeks to have an effect); vitamin E can be taken internally and/or applied topically. A deficiency in vitamin A may also contribute to skin problems; ask your vet about supplementing with vitamin A if the other options aren’t helping.DIY Paw Wax
Based on a recipe from Frugally Sustainable
Six 1-ounce tins (or about 20 standard lip-balm tubes)
Small pot or double boiler
2 oz. olive, sunflower or sweet almond oil
2 oz. coconut oil
1 oz. shea butter
4 tsp. beeswax
Optional: Essential oils
1. Over low heat, melt the oils, shea butter and beeswax. Stir continuously until everything is melted and well blended.
2. Pour the mixture into tins or tubes. Let cool.
3. Cap and label. Keep away from extreme heat.
A gathering of ideas
There is an astounding amount of research on dogs—academic studies, medical research, social and psychological testing, not to mention reams of data gathered from our everyday lives. Thoughtfully assimilated, all of this information can help us and our dogs live better lives together.
I was reminded of how fortunate dog enthusiasts are to share in this wealth of information upon my return last week from Purina’s Better with Pets Summit (November 3). The annual event, this year presented in Brooklyn, NY, was a gathering of pet experts sharing their latest findings with the media. The theme for the day was “exploring the best ideas for bringing people and pets closer together.” It was an apt description.
The day started out with an inspired presentation by Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, a veterinarian and research scientist who studies the impact of nutrition on performance on sled dogs. A champion musher himself, Reynolds’ talk focused not on a program he’s involved with in the Alaskan village of Huslia. This small coastal community was the home of George Attla, a famed champion musher and native Athabascan who ruled the sport for thirty years before retiring. In honor of his son Frank, who died at age 21 in 2010, Attla started the Frank Attla Youth and Sled Dog Care Mushing Program. The program serves many purposes—providing skills, lessons in cultural traditions, and a sense of belonging to the youth population while uniting all townspeople around a common activity, mushing. The program, as described warmly by Reynolds and in a short documentary film demonstrates the power that dogs can initiate in our lives.
Next up was a panel discussion titled “Are Millennials Changing Our Relationships with Cats?”—offering the interesting observation that a new generation of cat people have now formed a community on the internet—so as dog people connect at dog parks, cat lovers now interact online sharing their passion for felines. We met Christina Ha, the co-founder of Meow Parlour, New York’s first cat café. Can a canine café be in our future?
The most anticipated panel “Stress, Our Pets, and Us” featured animal behaviorist Ragen McGowan, PhD; architect Heather Lewis (Animal Arts) and Dr. Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary science. McGowan discussed the value of having dogs work for their food citing her studies with grizzlies, chickens and mice on the practice of contrafreeloading (working for food when food is freely available). Lewis’s architectural practice specializes in designing veterinary hospitals and animal care facilities around the country, meeting the unique needs of both workers and animals. It’s evident that good design can have an important impact on animal friendly environments—from soothing color palettes to calming lighting levels or the simple use of horizontal bars (less stress inducing) instead of traditional vertical bars. The key takeaway: Mental exercise for animals might be as important to their well-being as physical exercise.
“Raising Pets and Kids” featured Jayne Vitale of Mutt-i-grees Child Development Director; Ilana Resiner, veterinarian behaviorist; and Charley Bednarsh, Director of Children’s Services (Brooklyn). The Bark features an in-depth article in its Winter 2015 issue on Mutt-i-grees, a program developed by the North Shore Animal League that offers academic and emotional support to students from kindergarten through high school, teaching them how to be ambassadors for the humane treatment of animals. Bednarsh and her therapy dog Paz, team up to assist young witnesses of domestic violence navigate the judicial system (a similar program first reported in The Bark). We were reminded of the important contribution to the health and well-being of the children in these extraordinary programs, and also to common households. Note to self: Don’t humanize your dog—study, understand, embrace their dogness.
The afternoon offered a room full of experiential exhibits—interactive displays that provided lessons in healthy environments, cognition, reading your pet, nutrition and your pet’s purpose. Manned by teams of experts, the well designed displays presented an immersive course in Dog and Cat 101. I’d love to see the exhibits showcased to the general public, those most in need of education and guidance in the proper care of pet companions. The day was rich with ideas and notes that we’ll shape into future articles for The Bark.
Purina’s commitment to offering a forum of ideas is commendable. In a similar vein, the company hosted another notable event on November 7—a free live video cast of the Family Dog Project from Hungary—with over a dozen presentations by leading scientists and animal behaviorist exploring everything from canine cognition to sensory perception in dogs. Like the Pet Summit, it was a fascinating collection of concepts and dialogue, enriching to everybody who participated.
For more check out #BetterWithPets
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