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
… and how to avoid them
In my line of work as a veterinary surgeon, I don’t need a weatherman to tell me that summer has officially arrived. One glance at our list of ER admissions is all it takes. Outdoor parties and barbecues are perfect opportunities for flirty, furry, four-legged socialites to work the crowd and make new friends. The downside is that dogs’ curiosity, their heightened sense of smell and their gift for the art of scavenging can spell trouble. Use the following list of usual suspects to prepare, educate your guests or consider a change in menu plans.
Yards: With friends coming and going, there’s always a risk your dog may become disoriented or run off through an open gate. Make sure the perimeter is secure (and everyone knows to keep it that way), or have your dog stay indoors in a quiet, familiar room. And despite your desire to show off your canine Michael Phelps, if it’s a pool party, your dog should stay out of the water, as a crowd of swimmers can create panic and distress.
Bones: It doesn’t matter whether they’re from chicken wings or pork ribs, cooked meat bones cause all sorts of problems, especially if they get lodged in the mouth, throat or esophagus. Terriers in particular have been proven to be at higher risk (which is probably more behavioral than anatomical, but still true). Make sure your guests have somewhere to dispose of their carnivorous waste rather than using your dog as a trash can.
Skewers: Tasty morsels pierced by a sharp wooden skewer may be a convenient and eye-catching way to serve grilled meat or veggies, but the inedible (though deliciously aromatic) stick can prove irresistible to an inquisitive canine, and is guaranteed to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting intestinal tract. More trash bags, please!
Corn Cobs: There’s something about the size and diameter of a corn cob that makes for a snug fit in the canine small intestine, frequently resulting in an obstruction and an expensive trip to the operating room. Be vigilant about picking up leftovers and repositioning plates perched on table edges at the level of a curious snout.
Chocolate: A compound called theobromine found in chocolate can be potentially toxic to dogs, stimulating the heart and nervous system, sometimes with fatal consequences; an overdose is more likely in small breeds. If you know your dog has ingested chocolate, call your vet immediately. If your dog appears excited, or is restless, panting or vomiting, get to your nearest veterinary hospital. If ingestion occurred within two hours and you are seeing none of these signs, vomiting can be induced; administer 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, 1 teaspoon for every 10 pounds [4.5kg] of body weight, by mouth.
Fruit and Nuts: Grapes and raisins (dried grapes) can be extremely toxic to some dogs. In one report, four to five grapes were toxic in an 18-pound dog. If you suspect ingestion, call your veterinarian immediately. Apple cores can become lodged in the canine esophagus; peach pits have a knack for blocking the intestines; and macadamia nuts (plain or in cookies) can cause weakness, clumsiness, vomiting, muscle pain and joint swelling. Fortunately, most cases of macadamia toxicity can be managed with supportive care at home.
Not So Fun Stuff: The combination of a really hot barbecue grill and the desire to get to what’s on offer can overwhelm all canine self-control. Keep your dog away from the grill and nearby raw meats and seasonings. Collect trash frequently and secure it in closed containers. Come nighttime, glow sticks are fun … unless your dog chews through to the toxic contents inside. Candles (a safe distance from happy tails) are a better option.
Fireworks: Call me a party-pooper, but if you want to set off fireworks, don’t invite the dog.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Simple preventive steps can go a long way toward offsetting their threats
A few months ago, the icy breath of the north that normally tucks itself over the Arctic during the winter blasted into the Northeast, prime tick country. This prompted climate scientists to look for links between a weakened polar vortex and a warming world. But those who study arachnids were interested in other signs … like fewer ticks.
In January, Thomas Mather, PhD, an entomologist known to many as the “tick guy,” trudged through thick snow in Kingston, R.I., looking for the spot where he’d buried vials of deer ticks the day before. The overnight temperature had fallen to a tick-numbing three degrees. Locating the vials, he sprinkled the tiny black specks on his palm. They sat there like pepper. Then they began to move.
For ticks, it seems, the ice age was a snowbird’s vacation. So don’t drop your guard, warns Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its outreach arm, the TickEncounter Resource Center (TERC). Mather has spent two decades studying the rise of the blacklegged tick—commonly called the deer tick—in Rhode Island.
“I’m pretty certain that we won’t really be able to credit winter’s serial polar vortices for whatever the ticks are or are not doing in the spring,” he says. It’s not about the weather, but cycles. In their two-year lifespan, ticks feed on the blood of hosts during three growth stages: larval, nymphal and adult. According to Mather, the deer tick problems we’re facing in 2014 were largely decided last August and September by the number of larval ticks that found infected rodent hosts. “That will determine both the summer nymph populations and fall’s adult tick abundance,” Mather says.
In recent years, those cycles have produced record numbers of nymphs at the sites his team sample each summer. So many, in fact, that he considers it a public health crisis in his state, which is part of the East Coast “tick-belt.”
Mather says that human and pet encounters with ticks are skyrocketing, and while ticks don’t always carry a disease, they may, and many of those diseases are dangerous.
Between 2006 and 2010, Veterinary Week reported a 30 percent increase in the rate of dogs exposed to tick-transmitted diseases. Among them: The aggressive lone star tick can transmit ehrlichiosis, one of the most common and dangerous tick-borne diseases in dogs. The brown dog tick and American dog tick also spread ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF).
Then there’s the deer tick. Although there are hundreds of species of ticks—all of which are relatives of spiders and mites, in the U.S. —the deer tick is number one on the most unwanted list. It spreads several dangerous infections, Mather says, and topping that list is Lyme disease.
Trail of Infection
The deer tick in the East and the related western blacklegged tick are the only known transmitters of Lyme disease in the United States. The trail of infection typically begins with rodents or, in the West, lizards, natural reservoirs of the Lyme bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. Ticks need a blood meal to reproduce, and acquire the bacterium when they bite an infected host. The next time they bite, they inject the bacterium into their unlucky meal source.
Where Lyme is found, so are deer, but the “deer tick,” as it’s commonly called, is actually the blacklegged tick, and it feeds on many different mammals, birds and reptiles. This tick has been on a tear in the Northeast, its range expanding, its pathogens mutating, ever since the disease it spreads—long known in Europe—was recognized in 1975 in Lyme, Conn.
Lyme disease was first diagnosed in a dog about 25 years ago, and now it’s one of the most common tick-borne diseases in dogs in the U.S., notes Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health. In several of the most affected states, one out of 15 dogs tested positive for Lyme disease in 2011, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And where dogs test positive, so do humans. In 2012, 95 percent of human cases were reported from 13 states concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
In parts of the Northeast, up to half of the deer ticks are infected with Lyme disease. In California, where Lyme also exists, the infection rate is far lower, with the disease mainly occurring in four northwestern counties.
A dog’s risk in such areas goes up and down. As noted on the Baker Institute’s website, even within highly infected regions, there are “hotspots of tick infestation and Lyme disease risk,” which “mingle with non-infested areas with much lower risk.” Even so, far fewer infected dogs than people develop the disease. Studies suggest that more than 75 percent of dogs in hyperendemic areas may be exposed to infected ticks, yet only about 5 percent develop Lyme. However, Lyme is only one of the diseases deer ticks spread to dogs; among the others are ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and anaplasmosis (“dog tick fever”).
There’s also a growing list of new diseases involving deer ticks, including one caused by the bacterium Borrelia miyamotoi, which mimics Lyme disease, and the rare but increasing Powassan virus and its variant, deer-tick virus. Powassan hasn’t been found in dogs, but dogs with neurological issues aren’t commonly tested for this rare disease, and such tests aren’t readily available.
In fact, even with available tests, diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs is challenging. Unlike viral diseases such as Powassan, Lyme is a bacterial infection and can be treated with antibiotics. But its symptoms, if any, mimic many other diseases. One common sign, lameness, takes two to five months to appear, according to the Baker Institute, and, unlike people, dogs don’t develop the telltale bull’s-eye rash around the bite.
A CDC study found that people in areas with a higher-than-average number of dogs with Lyme disease are at greater risk of getting it themselves. There’s no evidence that dogs spread it directly, but they may bring infected ticks into homes and yards.
And since dogs have a way of getting people outside, down that trail and—bag in hand—under that bush, it’s easy to see why the CDC says that dog owners face an elevated risk for Lyme disease.
Know the Enemy
Going outdoors is not the problem. What increases the risk of being infected is entering tick habitats. Especially if you go in thinking that ticks fall off trees. Or that they pounce, or fly. Surveys find that most people don’t know enough about ticks and their habits to ward them off.
“When it comes to tick-bite protection and disease prevention, we’ve learned that people tend to only focus on it after the fact,” Mather says.
That’s why TERC, which Mather heads, came into existence. Its goal is to entice people to learn more than they ever wanted to know about Ixodes scapularis (blacklegged or deer ticks)—ticks that carry the Lyme disease pathogen—and other species as well.
The idea for TERC began around 2004, when Mather decided to start “an aggressive, grassroots, tick-bite prevention program.” The tally wasn’t nearly as appalling back then, but by 2013, CDC estimates of the number of Americans diagnosed with Lyme disease each year hovered around 300,000, a whopping 10 times higher than anyone thought.
Although Mather felt that scientists already had solutions, “the link between science and people’s lived experiences with ticks was largely missing.” To fill this gap, his team took their fieldwork in a new direction: into tick-afflicted neighborhoods and to meetings with stakeholder groups. “People kept asking if we had a brochure or website,” he says. “After hearing that, oh, like 50 times, we started brainstorming.” They knew that brochures usually end up in the trash, but could a website reach people? “TickEncounter is what we came up with,” he says. It launched in 2006.
Today, the Internet teems with tick-related websites and information, and Mather believes it’s more important than ever to promote “a common core message” so the facts are clear to people. TickEncounter aspires to be the place people turn to for reliable and up-to-date information. The site isn’t soft on the facts; many people are susceptible, even likely to fall victim to tick-borne disease, which can be devastating. But simple preventive behaviors work. Before people can take action, Mather says, they need to believe in their own ability to successfully use those practices.
TERC’s unique graphic interface empowers users to snitch on the tiny army, ratting on its whereabouts and force-strength by season and region. The TickSpotters program, which includes crowd-sourced surveillance, recently added veterinary clinic reporting. Every two weeks, participating clinics send in patients’ ticks for identification. “These data are informing our ‘Current Tick Activity’ databases,” he says. Posts are updated every two weeks for nine U.S. regions. They plan to add an online dashboard with a map of results to show tick trends across America.
In February 2014, the TickSpotters page reflected the effects of the frigid weather, showing low tick activity in New England. Things were heating up on the West Coast, however, home to the western blacklegged tick. In fact, it’s always tick season somewhere, and people and pets can get Lyme disease even in winter.
“Pet owners seem most [affected] by adult ticks because they can see them,” Mather says, but the nymphs “are potentially more dangerous.” Nymph season is May through August, months during which people and dogs tend to spend the most time outside. Nymphs lurk in moist leaf litter in or near the edge of wooded areas. Because they’re so tiny at this stage, nymphs attach to small mammals near ground level, such as mice, which often carry Lyme. According to the Baker Institute, only repeated exposure to nymphs causes infection in dogs.
Adults, being larger, tend to bump into their hosts at higher altitudes. They wait aboard grasses and bushes, closest to animals’ largest body surface. They’re mainly a threat to dogs in fall and early spring. In winter, they only seek hosts when temperatures rise above freezing. Adults also transmit Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis.
Despite the threats ticks pose, it’s not easy designing public education programs that work for everyone, health officials say. The problem is different for places in which ticks are entrenched and those with an emerging infestation. The bad news is, the number of the latter is definitely growing.
More Ticks, More Diseases
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the temperate, humid, northeastern U.S. is a favorable place for ticks. More so all the time, it seems.
Ninety percent of canine Lyme cases now occur in the Northeast, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, whose website includes a “parasite prevalence” map by state, with confirmed canine cases by county. Lyme disease has also shown up in Northern California and on the Oregon coast, but there isn’t much evidence of spread.
The deer tick has even moved into Canada, where average temperatures have increased by 2.5º F over the past 60 years. One study suggests that tick-inhabitable regions in Eastern Canada will expand from 18 percent to more than 80 percent by 2020.
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that in the U.S., Lyme disease is shifting northward; the study noted large increases in 21 states between 1992 and 2007. This may be due “at least in part to the effects of climate change,” wrote the researchers. A Yale study also found links between Lyme disease outbreaks and milder weather in the Northeast. The 2004–2007 survey found the greatest risk in southern Maine through Washington, D.C., Minnesota and Wisconsin. Newer hotspots appeared to be cropping up in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and North Dakota.
Warmer winters, which allow ticks to breed throughout the year, may be a factor, the researchers say. Warm, moist air may also extend their life cycle. They dismissed the Southeast as a location for Lyme disease, only acknowledging the lone star tick. But some say there’s growing evidence of a Lyme or Lyme-like infection there, too. In North Carolina, Lyme disease is up slightly, with a few cases diagnosed per year, but other diseases are being reported. RMSF cases rose 50 percent in 2012 compared to 2011. In June 2013, a child died from RMSF.
In 2009, the Ixodes affinis tick, native to South America and previously seen only in coastal Florida and Georgia, was found in North Carolina. Recently, the more southerly Gulf Coast tick, which transmits canine hepatozoonosis, was spotted there as well. This disease affects muscle cells and results in a debilitating and usually fatal condition. The aggressive lone star tick, historically found in southern and south-central states such as Texas and Florida, has been marching north and east for decades, scientists say. It has even worked its way into Maine and Ontario, Canada.
According to the CDC, cases of RMSF, mainly found in the Southeast, cropped up in an area of eastern Arizona where it had never before been seen—mostly in communities with many free-roaming dogs, who likely carried the brown dog tick. Newer deer tick pathogens are expanding their range, as well.
Many things are tipping the balance, scientists say, and they’re all wrapped together. They include the prevalence of deer, invasive plants, bird migration and traveling pets. Then there’s the sprawl of suburbs into woodlands, which exposes more people and pets to tick-borne diseases.
Some point to dwindling biodiversity, as animals that keep tick numbers down are increasingly shut out of their habitats by development and other human activities. Though ticks aren’t known to be any animal’s food source, opossums—rarely welcomed in the suburban landscape—groom themselves meticulously, and in the process, kill ticks by the thousands. As Rick Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, remarked, “Many ticks try to feed on opossums, and few survive the experience.”
Warmer weather and drought may be causing oaks to overproduce acorns some years, creating a boom in the white-footed mouse population. More acorns, more mice; more mice, more ticks. When the acorn crop crashes, fewer mice reproduce, and ticks are driven to seek fresh blood.
Some scientists think ticks migrate, following animal hosts that may be moving with the shift of plants.
And they may find perfect habitat in a dog’s backyard.
Tools to Stem the Tide
Farmers who take a sustainable approach often use a technique known as integrated pest management (IPM) to control pests and avoid toxic chemicals. Pet owners can learn from these farmers’ practices, which combine a range of methods and as few synthetic chemicals as possible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website describes IPM as “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach” that can be applied in homes and gardens.
In fact, surveys find that homeowners in suburban neighborhoods in the Northeast are reluctant to spray chemicals to kill ticks. And at any rate, ticks are adapting to traditional pesticides. A recent CDC study found that spraying bifenthrin in a suburban area failed to reduce tick bites. Homeowners do widely accept methods such as brush and leaf-litter control or landscape barriers, which experts say offer medium levels of control.
TERC doesn’t rule out pesticides to control deer ticks, but suggests careful targeting to limit their use. Their recommended approach combines host-specific “Tick Tubes” and habitat-specific perimeter sprays. They also discuss many other ways to keep ticks in check, including their web-based TickEncounter Risk Calculator. By answering questions about their landscaping and other factors, people can use it to help determine the risks their yards offer, and can receive customized action plans.
At a 2013 EPA conference on tick-borne disease and IPM, Mather discussed his work, including the top protective actions people can take. Among them are knowing the ticks in your area and how to identify their life stages and seasonal patterns; taking protective actions, such as daily tick checks; and, of course, including pets in the plan. Even when a tick finds a dog, it has to be embedded for 24 to 48 hours to spread infection; quick removal drastically reduces the risk. TERC is also working on a vaccine for people, pets and wildlife.
So, the key to successful tick control lies in your own back yard, where about 75 percent of tick bites are said to occur. Seeing one tick is not enough to launch weapons. Signs of deer near your home, though, may be an important clue. To discourage ticks and their hosts, mow regularly, remove weeds and leaves, and make sure garbage and composting containers are rodent-proof. Prevention might also mean removing exotic vegetation or other welcoming habitat. Invasive bush honeysuckle and Japanese barberry, for example, attract white-tailed deer and mice (and thus, their ticks), a study found. Managing the growth of these plants significantly reduced the abundance of infected ticks. Paving or laying down gravel in heavily used areas also helps limit tick turf.
There is no one perfect solution to what seems to be nature's new normal. Come heat or hail, ticks are on the march. As summer unfolds, they’re sure to be out in force, seeking the most inviting habitats and hosts. Dog owners just have to think more like farmers … and tick guys.
Wellness: Health Care
A new treatment holds promise
Weekend hikes gradually turn into strolls around the block. Joyful games of fetch or Frisbee are rare. Even standing up after a nap becomes a daunting task for your faithful friend.
Anyone who has had a lifelong canine companion has also had the difficult experience of watching that companion age, becoming increasingly stiff and less interested in play. The cause is usually osteoarthritis, which affects nearly one in every five dogs. The progressive, chronic degeneration of cartilage characteristic of this condition can occur in various joints and at almost any age, and the pain that results can be debilitating.
Geriatric pets most commonly develop it in the hip, stifle (knee) or elbow; however, it is also often seen in dogs with hip or elbow dysplasia as early as one to two years of age. Treatments range from supplements and antiinflammatory medications to surgical intervention and, increasingly, stem cell therapy.
Over the last decade, regenerative medicine, which has been around in the human sphere for nearly a quarter of a century, has become more common in veterinary medicine, and stem cell therapy is at the forefront. Stem cells are the body’s way of regenerating itself. Biological “blank slates,” they have the potential to specialize into one of many types of cells—skin, muscle, nerve, bone, tendon or ligament—and virtually any organ, and can be found in every organ in the body.
According to Dr. Samuel Franklin, assistant professor of small animal orthopedic surgery at the University of Georgia, a good candidate for the therapy “has failed treatment with less invasive and less expensive treatment and has arthritis that does not benefit from surgery.” Franklin also notes that while stem cell therapy helps modulate inflammation, “stem cells do not regenerate cartilage.”
In 2005, Dr. Brian Voynick of the American Animal Hospital in Randolph, N.J., was the first U.S. veterinarian to use stem cell therapy in dogs. He recommends it for young dogs with early signs of hip dysplasia and lameness because it is less invasive and more proactive than surgery.
“In cases of hip dysplasia, we see [improvement in] greater than 90 percent of cases—better mobility, less or no lameness, and increased quality of life. Sometimes, we see improvement on radiographs,” says Voynick. These results are typical when the therapy is used in conjunction with platelet rich plasma (PRP), a concentrated mix of platelets and growth factors taken from the patient’s own blood. According to Voynick, PRP turbocharges the cells’ activation. Once injected, stem cells have an anti-inflammatory effect within the joint and contribute to the reformation and architectural organization of the tissues.
Voynick recalls a case of a dog with severe hip osteoarthritis treated with stem cell therapy and PRP. “[Before treatment] she could not stand up from a lying position. Three days later, she was walking and wagging her tail.”
Normally, however, the response is not quite so dramatic. Though improvement in lameness and pain is sometimes seen within the first week, it more commonly comes within a period of about 90 days. The exact duration of the injection’s effectiveness is not known, but it is thought that, at least initially, monthly injections are most beneficial. Patients are rechecked at 30, 60 and 90 days post-treatment, and injections may be repeated if lameness returns.
Stem cell therapy is also being used for osteoarthritis resulting from cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries. This common injury of the canine knee is more often seen in large-breed dogs but can affect dogs of all sizes. CCL injuries may be treated medically with rest and medication, or they may require surgery.
“With a full [CCL] tear, we want the stabilization of surgery,” says Voynick, adding that stem cell therapy can be beneficial post-operatively during rehabilitation, especially if the injury is accompanied by muscle loss.
Franklin warns that more research is needed to support the results of stem cell therapy. “There is no evidence that [stem cell therapy] is any more beneficial than other treatments that are less invasive and less expensive.” Among these treatments are injections of hyaluronic acid, steroids or PRP. And, says Voynick, “Stem cell therapy should not be used in patients with infections or cancer. Stem cells target inflammation and can exacerbate disease in these cases.”
The process itself is relatively straightforward. Stem cells are either embryonic or somatic (adult), the latter of which can be retrieved from bone marrow or adipose tissue (fat). Due to the ease of collection, fat is usually the source of stem cells for use in companion animals. Fat-derived stem cells do not need to be cultured and can, therefore, be sent for processing and returned in as little as 48 hours.
Harvesting the fat is much less invasive than a spay. It is commonly taken from the shoulder, lumbar region or falciform ligament (a fatty ligament attaching the liver to the body wall). The 20-minute surgery is performed under general anesthesia and the fat is then sent to a laboratory, where it yields a product called stromal vascular fraction (SVF).
Once the SVF is in hand, the veterinarian will sedate the dog and inject SVF into the affected joint(s); it may also be injected into the bloodstream intravenously. Any remaining SVF is usually stored for future treatments. Although as with any surgery, there is risk when undergoing anesthesia to harvest the fat tissue, stem cell therapy is generally very safe. And, since SVF is derived from the dog’s own cells, the rate of immune reactions is extremely low.
Treatment with stem cell therapy isn’t easy on the wallet, however. Surgery, processing and the initial injection can range between $2,000 and $3,000, close to the cost of some surgical treatments. There are also no guarantees, and surgery may still be required if stem cell therapy fails. As Franklin, who recommends a case-by-case assessment on the value of stem cell therapy to an individual dog, notes, “It’s all about pros and cons—[deciding] what will be best for the patient.”
News: Guest Posts
The danger of foxtails grows
The season of ripgut and painful vet bills is here. Foxtails, a longtime scourge in the West, can now be a problem in every state. And climate change may add a twist. Studies find that weeds grow faster under elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide; will migrate northward and are less sensitive to herbicides. A botanist who researched their effects on dogs also warns about a deadly disease.
Sporting dog owners may know it best since field dogs routinely charge into thick brush, where they easily inhale or swallow foxtails, and spend hours in grassy hotspots. But dogs playing in the park or yard, hiking, at a roadside stop; any dog, wherever foxtails live, can develop grass awn migration disease.
It begins with a jagged seed. Of the many kinds of foxtails, both native and non-native, only some have harmful barbs. Among them: foxtail barley, found nationwide except in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, according to the U.S. Forest Service; cheatgrass; giant foxtail, and ripgut brome, named for its effects on livestock. The spring through fall season often starts in May, when the green, bushy awns turn brown and seeds disperse. Their spikes help them burrow into soil or be spread by animals. They can also dig down in fur and puncture skin. The foxtail, which carries bacteria, may then keep tunneling into tissue, carving the dangerous path of infection that marks grass awn disease.
The disease is very difficult to diagnose, says University of Wyoming botanist William K. Lauenroth, who studied its occurrence in ten Midwestern states, where field dog owners believe there’s been a sharp rise in cases. One reason it’s hard to pinpoint is that the infection occurs behind the migrating seed.
Many infections show up as an acute illness, according to the findings of Wisconsin resident Cathy Lewis, whose website meanseeds.com provides case histories and information about foxtails and grass awn disease. In 2013, her Springer Spaniel “XL” developed a mysterious respiratory ailment that required draining fluid from his lungs. It began during an outing in January; not the time of year when foxtails come to mind. But the website of Atascadero Pet Hospital in California says they’ve seen pets with “a recurrent abscess that is ongoing for 2 years and once the foxtail is removed the abscess goes away.”
In fact, no plant material was found to confirm XL’s condition. But Lewis has had several other dogs with grass awn infections and recognized the signs, however vague. Today XL is “doing fine,” Lewis says. “He’s back to running field trials, and placing.” That may be due to how quickly she acted on his symptoms: labored breathing, high temperature and lethargy.
Vets say the dog’s body can’t break down the plant material. Sometimes, a foxtail lodges and causes a localized infection. But when it migrates, its barbs keep it moving on a one-way journey to almost anywhere, even the brain. Organs can be pierced, fungal infection can arise, and bacteria pack an extra punch deep inside the body. Head shaking or muscle movement propels it onward. Breathing can draw it further into nasal passages. Inhaled foxtails can travel from the nasal cavity to the lungs; a common site in working field dogs.
But what about the urban hound or beach bum pup? One study of grass awn migration found the most common site in all dogs was the external ear canal. Others were feet, eyes, nose, lumbar area, and thoracic cavity. Warning signs, if any, include extreme sneezing, head-shaking; coughing; excessive licking of a skin puncture, and a high temperature.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Horn’s veterinary blog, “foxtails are very hard to find due to their small size and because they’re covered with infection and scar tissue, and are completely invisible on X-Rays.”
Sporting dog owners hope to make it easier to diagnose and treat grass awn. Lauenroth, who trains retrievers, pursued the matter with a grant from the AKC and sporting dog groups. They suspect barbed grasses, especially Canada wild rye, planted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program have caused more cases. The grasses occur on lands where field dogs train and trial. The program pays farmers to let idle cropland provide ecological services, such as erosion control and wildlife habitat. The farmers plant approved native grasses and comply with mowing restrictions.
Lauenroth found that plenty of Canada wild rye has been planted in the Midwest, and its sharp awn makes it dangerous for dogs. Canada wild rye is also common along the east coast, he says. But the study dried up due to a dearth of definitive diagnoses to draw on. For vets, finding a foxtail seed in a dog is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Lauenroth says he was unable to extract numbers of cases over the past 20 years from the records of veterinary hospitals.
What he found were many “foreign body” cases without resolution. Many of those may have been grass awn disease. A study in 1983 found that grass awn migration in dogs and cats accounted for 61 percent of all foreign body-related cases. Most involved dogs.
To make foxtails more visible, vets often suggest giving dogs a close shave called a foxtail haircut. Others swear by headgear that is truly a pup tent: foxtail hoodies, designed to keep mean seeds out of eyes, ears and mouths.
Lauenroth’s advice is to thoroughly brush and comb after outings. The seeds don’t instantly disappear into the body. Also, get to know the few dangerous grass plants in your area.
In foxtail zones like California, it can also mean getting to know other dog owners: many outings at park and beach end with a festive foxtail-pulling party.
Wellness: Healthy Living
It’s time to get out, kick back and have fun with dogs—safely!
Homework: Before you set off on your summer road trip, check out rules and regs and make a list of dog parks, vets and doggie hang-outs at your destination (and stops along the way). There are apps for that—BringFido (bringfido.com), for example.
Be Ready: Put together a “go-bag” for your dog, which can also serve as an emergency kit; include basic first-aid supplies, an extra collar with ID tags, a leash, bowls, a couple of old towels or a blanket, and perhaps food with a good shelf life.
Overheating: It’s nice to have company when you’re running around doing errands, but this time of the year, it’s best to let your co-pilot snooze at home rather than in your car. Even if it’s “not that hot,” even with the windows down, even in the shade, cars heat up fast, and heatstroke kills.
Humidity: And it’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity. Dogs pant to cool off, evaporating body heat by moving it across their wet tongues, and high humidity slows down that process.
Car Safety: If you don’t already use one, invest in a canine restraint device for your car. A loose dog can distract you, or worse, become airborne if you suddenly hit the brakes.
Water Safety: Before taking your pooch on the water, be sure she can swim (not all dogs do). Buckle her into a canine lifejacket if you’ll be on a fast-moving river or open water. Too much water might also not be a good thing. Swimming, diving for balls or even playing with a water hose can lead to water intoxication that can result in life threatening hyponatremia (excessively low sodium levels).
Splash: A rigid kiddie pool is a perfect place for a hot dog to cool off. A floating toy or two will make it even more irresistible.
Frosty Treats: Or cool her down with frozen treats. Some dogs like plain ice cubes, but practically any food your dog likes can be frozen (try easy-release silicone ice trays or cupcake pans). More recipes online;
Fear Less: Tis the season of thunderstorms and fireworks. If your dog is upset by their noise and flash, get good advice from dog-behavior pro Patricia McConnell at thebark.com/fear. Or check out Thundershirt.
Stung: Some dogs love chasing bees— until they catch one. Be prepared; before that happens, review thebark.com/stings.
Good Host: Doing some outdoor entertaining? Plan ahead with your dog in mind. Start with keeping the yard gate closed and secured, then make sure that all those tasty picnic classics—bones, skewers, corn cobs—don’t make their way into Fido’s stomach.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.
When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process.
Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion.
Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?).
Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients.
Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods).
As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term.
Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence.
Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience.
The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency.
Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.
The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins.
In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it.
This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.
Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent.
It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients).
Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality.
In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).
In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.
Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.
The Take-Away on Label Claims
Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Is there something more we can do to help our pups?
Warmer days tempt us to spend more time outdoors, frequently in the company of our dogs, who enjoy running and rolling in the grass and sniffing the flowers. The downside of this wonderful time of year is the potential for all of those lovely growing things to provoke allergic reactions.
Like us, dogs develop environmental allergies. Is this a condition we just have to contend with year after year, or is there something more we can do to help our pups?
In an allergic condition, the immune system overreacts to a perceived invader. Normally, a dog’s immune system can distinguish between a threat and a nonthreat. Pollen and other mild allergens are essentially non-threats and really shouldn’t cause an immune reaction, but in some dogs, they do, for reasons not yet fully understood.
Allergy symptoms come in many forms, from increased sneezing and running eyes to itchy skin and rashes. Humans reach for tissues, but dogs don’t have this option, so they rub their face on the floor or ground and paw at their eyes. In cases of atopic dermatitis, a skin disorder, increased ear-scratching and foot-licking are common; all of this scratching and licking can result in secondary bacterial skin infections, which further complicate the overall problem.
Veterinarians traditionally rely on either antihistamines or corticosteroids to ease the symptoms, and prescribe antibiotics in cases of infection.
Antihistamines, which are not as effective in dogs as they are in people, commonly have side effects—drowsiness or, occasionally, hyperactivity. Steroids are often used as well; many dogs are put on a low-dose regimen to control clinical signs associated with allergies. Other treatment options include medications such as cyclosporine and hypersensitization injections. Regardless of the strategy, we need to consider whether we are correcting the problem or just covering it up. In most cases, we are simply managing the clinical signs; once medications are discontinued, the problem resurfaces. Antihistamines work directly against a type of immune cell called a mast cell. Mast cells contain histamine granules that, when released, trigger symptoms such as itching and nasal discharge. Steroids act directly on the immune response; their mission is to suppress the immune system or put it into sleep mode so that it doesn’t react to nonthreat invaders (for example, pollen). The problem with steroids is that they have many side effects, ranging from increased appetite and weight gain to greater susceptibility to infection and even the possibility of organ damage when used long-term.
Tissue in the intestinal tract is thought to have an important immune-system function. Thus, a faulty immune response may be linked to poor gastrointestinal (GI) health, or what has been termed “leaky gut syndrome”; I tend to approach my allergy patients from this perspective. The GI tract normally maintains a distinct barrier between the bloodstream and what is ingested. Poor GI health, thought to be the result of chronic inf lammation, compromises that barrier and allows many different antigens, bacteria and proteins to cross it. This elicits an ongoing inflammatory and immune response and precipitates allergies as well as a host of other health conditions.
Repairing this gut barrier takes time and, in most cases, requires a total change of diet as well as the use of supplements. I ask owners to switch to home-cooked diets that incorporate a variety of protein sources as well as fruits, vegetables and some starches. Many commercial dog foods are full of preservatives, dyes and other additives that contribute to the problem, but a home-prepared diet ensures that the dog is getting only what is needed, and also aids in the delivery of vital nutrients.
Fed this way, many dogs respond within 30 to 60 days, but others require additional support, which usually correlates to the severity of the damage. Among the supplements that I have found useful are various mushroom polysaccharides, which help modulate the immune response; curcumin; green tea extracts; and a variety of antioxidants as well as other nutritive-type herbs such as spirulina (blue-green algae). Human research points toward the value of L-glutamine, an amino acid that has been shown to help repair the GI barrier as well as enhance overall immune response, and I often add this to an allergic dog’s regimen.
In the end, allergies are, unfortunately, common in both dogs and their people. Those who are willing to dig down and address the root cause of the allergic response may be able to not only improve the immediate condition, but also have a dramatic impact on their dogs’ health and longevity as well as reduce the need for many prescription medications.
with a dog as your muse
There was a piece in the New York Times recently that provides us with yet another reason why living with dogs is so good for us. Gretchen Reynolds, their Phys Ed columnist, reviewed a current study that show how wonderful walking is to our creative process—a form of exercise that all dog people can relate to (at least 2 to 3 times/day). The salubrious effects of exercise, in general, have been found in “multiple studies that have shown that animals and people usually perform better after exercise on tests of memory and executive function, which is essentially the ability to make decisions and organize thoughts.”
But how about our more creative thoughts? So while we all have experienced thought-bubbles popping up while showering, it also seems that a leisurely walk can also stir creative juices.
Dr. Marily Oppezzo a researcher at Stanford studied this recently. She found that the students who were tested after a walk generated about 60 percent more uses for an object, and the ideas were both “novel and appropriate.” She thinks that “It may be that walking improves mood” and that perhaps creativity blooms more easily within a buoyed-up mind. Or walking may divert energy that otherwise would be devoted, intentionally or not, to damping down wild, creative thought, she said. “I think it’s possible that walking may allow the brain to break through” some of its own, hyper-rational filters, she said. (Bring on those doggies!)
Has a walk with your dog inspired any special creative idea?
News: Guest Posts
Book Review: Dog Food Logic
How wonderful if you could pose this question just once in your dog’s life and receive a perfect answer that would last a lifetime. Imagine if there were a ‘right’ formula, and once you know it, you could feed your dog forever and ever on the same exquisite diet. Your dog, in return, would be the happiest and healthiest doggie camper there ever was.
Unfortunately, “What should I feed my dog?” is not the question we should be asking. In fact, “What should I feed my dog” is akin to the infomercial that comes on at 3 AM informing you that if you just buy this Mega-Blast Belt (for three low monthly payments of $19.99), six-pack abs will follow. Both fall into a quick-fix category — the “right” product, the “right” answer — that unfortunately doesn’t exist.
Instead, the question that will last you a lifetime is, “How should I feed my dog?” This is where Linda Case, M.S. comes to the rescue. I don’t mean to be superhero-y about it, but Case’s new book, Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices is a unique work designed to help readers make informed, science-based decisions on what and how to feed our beloved companion dogs. As one veterinarian offers, “Dog Food Logic cuts through the noise and chaos and provides pet owners with a rational, science-based approach to evaluating their pets’ dietary needs and their feeding choices” (The Skeptvet Blog).
Linda Case knows a thing or two about animal nutrition. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She maintains the well-received blog, The Science Dog, and has written numerous books on companion animal nutrition, training and behavior. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Cats in Context conference at Canisius College in 2013 (Case spoke on cat nutrition, and I gave a talk on research into whether dogs and cats in the home can be friends — they can).
But back to dog food. If you are expecting a dry read on dog nutrition and diet, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dog Food Logic is a page turner, jam-packed with real-world examples that you can easily relate to. Case unpacks label claims, fad diets and the wonderfully persuasive field of pet food marketing. What does it mean when a food is ‘recommended by veterinarians or breeders?’ Who is Chef Michael, and should you trust him? And who’s keeping our dog food safe?
Throughout the book, Case discusses research into canine nutrition and diet in a way that is easy to digest, if you’ll pardon the pun. For example, studies have investigated:
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and since I can’t possibly summarize all the topics and findings covered in Case’s book, the above are intentional teasers. To find out more, read the book.
Case, L. 2014. Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices. Dogwise Publishing.
Case, L. The Science Dog blog.
Hecht, J. 2013. Dogs and Cats in the Home: Happiness for All? Dog Spies and Do You Believe in Dog?
McKenzie, B. The SkeptVet blog.
This article first appeard on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
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