Wellness: Health Care
Learn how to do at-home physical exams
To identify a problem or an abnormal situation, you must first be able to recognize what’s normal for your dog. Performing this exam in the comfort of your home when your dog’s in good shape is the best way to do this. Consult your veterinarian if you’re concerned about any exam finding; early recognition can save your dog’s life.
Before you start the exam, take a good look at your dog when she’s just hanging out; observe her posture and general demeanor. Getting a good picture of your dog’s “normal” in a relaxed environment will help you pick up any subtle changes that may occur.
1. Take her temperature. Using a digital rectal thermometer (the ear type is less reliable, and mercury thermometers can break), lubricate the end with petroleum jelly and gently insert it into the rectum, about 1 inch for small dogs and about 2 inches for larger ones. If it does not slide in easily, do not force it. A normal temperature is between 100º and 102.5º F.
2. Check her heart rate by taking her pulse at the femoral artery, which you’ll find on the inside of her thigh; feel for the roll of the artery and a pulsing sensation. Count the number of pulses in 15 seconds and multiply by four. A dog’s pulse rate is highly variable, but generally, normal is 80 to 120 beats per minute. Relaxed, large-breed or athletic dogs tend to have slower rates, while the rate for puppies and small dogs tends to be higher.
3. Start at her head. Nose: smooth, soft and clean, like supple leather (noses aren’t necessarily always cool or moist). Eyes: bright, moist and clear, with pupils equal in size; the whites should be white, with only a few visible blood vessels. Ears: clean and dry, almost odor-free; you should be able to gently massage them without complaint. Mouth: teeth clean and white, gums uniformly pink and moist to the touch.
4. Watch her chest as she breathes. The chest wall should move in and out easily and rhythmically in an effortless way; each breath should look the same as the last. (Unless she’s panting, you should not be able to hear your dog breathe.) A normal resting respiration rate is 15 to 30 breaths per minute; a sleeping or relaxed dog would be near the low end, while an active and engaged dog would be higher. As with heart rates, smaller dogs tend to have a faster resting breathing rate than larger dogs.
5. Examine her skin. One of the body’s major organs and an important indicator of overall health, the skin of a healthy dog is soft and unbroken, with minimal odor and—except for wirehaired breeds—the hair coat is shiny and smooth.
6. Check her hydration with the skin turgor test. Pull the skin over her neck or back into a “tent” and release; it should return quickly to its original position. If it returns slowly, or remains slightly tented, your dog may be dehydrated.
7. Finish up with the torso. Starting just behind the ribs, gently press your hands into your dog’s belly; if she’s just eaten, you may feel an enlargement in the left part of the belly just under the ribs (where the stomach lives), which can be normal. Proceed toward the rear of her body, passing your hands gently over the entire area. Lumps, bumps or masses; signs of discomfort; or distention of the belly warrant further investigation by your vet.
For a more detailed discussion of the in-home exam thebark.com/exam and see Dr. Shea Cox on bridgevs.com
Good Dog: Studies & Research
It’s a beautiful summer day. You and your dog are walking near a patch of grass when she stops dead, then sniffs … and sniffs … and sniffs. Gently, you tug on the leash, but—muzzle buried in the turf—she braces herself and continues her nosework.
Scent is extremely important to dogs, much more so than to humans. All dogs have smart noses. In fact, MRI studies show that when a dog recognizes the smell of a familiar human, the caudate nucleus in her brain lights up, signaling a happy event.
For the average dog, a small pile of foliage contains a world of information. Though the canine brain is about one-tenth the size of a human brain, its smell center is 40 times larger. We have roughly 5 to 6 million scent receptors, a fraction of the 125 to 300 million available to our canine companions.
Dog’s moist noses are cute, but there’s function behind that soft form. The mucus on a dog’s nose helps capture scent particles; when a dog’s nose is dry, she may lick it to improve reception. Dogs can also wiggle their nostrils independently, thereby detecting the direction of odors. Some, like the Bloodhound, use their ears to direct even more potential scent particles up to their noses.
Despite the fact that the olfactory system is an ancient neurological pathway, we still do not completely understand how it works, either in ourselves or in our dogs. New studies are under way, however; in September 2015, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded three interdisciplinary teams of scientists $15 million to “crack the olfactory code” as part of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. As the NSF web page notes, “Olfaction is critical for the survival of species across the animal kingdom. Yet how the brain processes and identifies odors—and how this information influences behavior— remains, largely, an enigma.”
Though we may not understand it, most of us are aware that scent can influence behavior. In the realm of human holistic treatments, the use of essential oils and herbal fragrances has become increasingly trendy, and yoga teachers will sometimes use aromatic oils during classes.
Exposure to certain herbal or spice scents has been shown to have positive effects on humans. For example, Mark Moss and Lorraine Oliver, working at the Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University in the UK, designed an experiment to investigate the pharmacology of 1,8-cineole, one of the main components of rosemary.
After exposing 20 human subjects to varying levels of 1,8-cineole, the investigators tested their cognitive performance. Speed and accuracy test results showed that the concentration of 1,8-cineole in the blood was related to an individual’s cognitive performance: higher concentrations resulted in increased speed and accuracy. If scent can have positive effects on olfactorychallenged humans, it might be expected to have an even more pronounced effect on dogs.
While research on canines is limited, a study done at the University of Belfast explored the influence of four types of olfactory stimulation (lavender, chamomile, rosemary and peppermint) on the behavior of 55 dogs housed in a rescue shelter. The control condition used no odors other than those arising naturally from the dogs’ environment (e.g., odors from disinfectants and other animals). Using diffusions of essential oils and allowing two days between stimulants, the dogs were exposed to the scents four hours a day for five days.
According to the study, dogs exposed to lavender and chamomile spent more time resting and less time moving than with other olfactory stimuli used in the experiment. These odorants also were found to reduce barking and vocalization in caged animals. On the other hand, fragrances such as rosemary and peppermint were found to encourage significantly more standing, moving and vocalizing.
Shelters are safe but sterile environments, and, recognizing that as an issue, some have looked for ways to enrich those environments for their animals; an increasing number are introducing scent. For example, on its web page, the Humane Society of Miami describes its scent enrichment program, which incorporates essential oils such as lavender, Valor (a blend) and vanilla as well as herbs and spices.
McKamey Animal Center located in Chattanooga, Tenn., is among the few that have been working with scent enrichment for several years, according to Morag Greaney, the center’s adoption and foster supervisor. “I’ve been working there since last August, and they started long before then,” she says. Greaney, who hails from Scotland, was a high school teacher and then worked in canine rescue for nine years before coming to McKamey.
According to Greaney, the scents— which include lavender, peppermint, vanilla and cinnamon—are changed every day. The essential oil is mixed with water, then sprayed on the ground outside each dog’s kennel using nonaerosol methods. While there isn’t an immediate reaction, staff observe that the animals tend to be calmer and more settled the following day. Greaney believes that it is not just a particular scent that makes a difference (although she does find that lavender has a calming effect), but the variety that helps stimulate the dogs’ brains.
The center, which handles upwards of 200 animals, hosts a number of different breeds—Huskies, Labradors, American Staffordshire Terriers and Shepherds among them. While the center hasn’t conducted any formal studies to determine if different breeds are affected differently by the scents, its behavior-assessment team uses lavender to help relax new animals prior to evaluation. Scented dog toys are also used.
Scent enrichment can work at home as well. Greaney remarked that she has used scents with her own dog for more than six years. Rather than using a spray, she says, she rubs her hands with an oil such as eucalyptus, lemon, lavender or geranium and then massages it into her dog’s coat. She says that her German Shepherd, who she describes as “high strung,” is better behaved as a result.
“I would absolutely recommend that dog owners use scents with their animals,” she concluded. However, she cautioned, people should first do some preliminary research and check with their veterinarian to avoid any possible detrimental effects.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Fats are the major source of energy for dogs, the energy they supply is a more concentrated source (2.5 times) than either protein or carbohydrates. Not only do they supply energy but they also help keep skin and coat healthy, and foot pads supple. Nutritionally, fatty acids aid in the absorption of vitamins because they transport fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K and E) into the body from the intestine. They also play a role in cell structure and function, including vision and learning abilities. Plus, they make food, both manufactured or homemade, tastier and more palatable.
Fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat and are classified into omega-3s or omega-6s. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are those that the body cannot make for itself, and needs to be supplied daily in the diet, hence they are considered to be essential (this essential status is species-specific). For dogs, the EFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 acids, which are required for them to thrive. In other words, if a body (animal or human) does not receive sufficient amounts of EFAs, critical body functions can be severely disrupted.
While both are important to a diet, it is thought by many nutritionists that commercial pet food (similar to commercial human food) contains too many omega-6s and not enough of the “good fat”, omega-3s. Omega-6s can be found in meat products, egg yolks, whole grains and vegetable oils, while the best source for omega-3s for dogs is cold water fish. Fish oil provides the long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA), that are used for metabolism. Another complication is that fatty acids are very unstable and fragile, and tend to oxidize very quickly. They are easily destroyed by heat, light, and oxygen, thus they break down during processing and storage. It is important to note that the only way you can assure that your dog is getting sufficient amounts of EFAs is to either provide fish, such as mackerel, sardines, tuna, salmon, etc., in their diets or add an EFA supplement yourself. If using a supplement, ideally it should be guaranteed-fresh source packaged in an oxygen-free container, such as soft gel capsules that prohibit air from contacting the oil.
Composition and sources of Omega-3 fatty acids:
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) cold water fish and their oil.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) cold water fish and their oil, eggs from chickens fed omega-3.
- ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) found in flaxseed oil, canola, soy beans, navy or kidney beans and walnut oils, plus green leafy veggies.
It is important to note that, unlike humans, dogs cannot convert ALA to the all-important EPA and DHA, so plant oils are not an ideal source of omega-3s for them. ALA from plant foods are often the primary sources of omega-3 found in dog food. While they are still important, this does mean that your dog’s diet may be lacking in EPA and DHA, causing them to miss out on certain health benefits.
Composition and sources of Omega-6 fatty acids:
- LA (Linoleic acid) that can be found in corn, canola, safflower, sunflower oils, whole grain and body fat of poultry.
- GLA (Gamma linolenic acid) in black current seed oil, borage oil and evening primrose oil.
- AA (Arachidonice acid) found in the body fat of poultry, lean meat, egg yolks, some fish oils.
- DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid) found in organ meats.
Benefits of Omega-3s:
As many veterinarians, including Karen Becker, DVM, have noted, “omega-3s have tremendous potential to positively impact your pet’s health.” Here’s a list of what omega-3s contribute to a dog’s health and vitality:
- Support normal neural development, cardiovascular and immune systems, healthy reproduction, and skin and coat health.
- Therapeutic benefits and aid in managing chronic inflammatory disorders, like colitis, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, joint pain due to arthritis and allergic skin problems.
- DHA is important for development of a healthy nervous system and proper development of the retina and visual cortex in fetuses and newborn puppies.
- Manage stress and improvement of brain health and cognitive functioning, especially in senior dogs.
- Support skin and coat health and relieve dry and itchy skin.
- Omega-3s fatty acids have been shown to slow the development and metastasis of certain cancers, while omega-6s have been shown to stimulate tumor development.
- Fish oils have been shown to decrease the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood.Not All Fish Oil Is Created Equally
With the rising popularity of fish oil for both the human and canine health, there are many different manufacturers making a variety of claims. So when selecting which omega-3 oil to purchase you need to consider a few factors including, purity, freshness, potency, bio-availability and sustainability.
Purity: The oil must meet international standards for heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants. You need to check with the manufacturer’s Certificate of Analysis (CoA) to receive third-party verification. Many oils come from areas of the ocean that are heavily trafficked and/or polluted by deep sea oil rigs. Make sure you know what part of the world the fish was caught.
Freshness: EFAs are susceptible to oxidation, which turns them rancid. Look for verification about the freshness from the CoA, and for companies that use smaller vessels. Ask how the fish is kept fresh once it is caught, and how long does it take from the “catch” to the processing plant. The product should be available in an oxygen-free container, such as soft gel capsules that prohibit air from contacting the oil. Freshness is measured by oxidation as shown in the CoA’s anisidine and peroxide values, that should be less than 5 meq/kg.
Potency: The oil must contain DHA and EPA. DHA provides most benefits to dogs, so it should exceed the levels of EPA.
Bio-Availability: The oil must be in a natural form not a synthetic triglyceride which many fish oils are.
Sustainability: Many fish oils are made from fish that are endangered. Choose products made from fish that are certified by organizations such as the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED).
It’s important to look for or request a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) from the maker before you buy a fish oil product and if you have any questions, the company should be available to address those in a timely manner.
Omega-3s and omega-6s are indeed essential fatty acids, not only because they need to be added to a diet, but because they are essential to overall health. However, as they also add calories, attention needs to be given to the overall caloric count that is provided to a dog in both their food and supplementation. Consultation with your veterinarian is also recommended.
Wellness: Health Care
As the mom of two young children, I’m always checking the weather forecast. Jacket or sweater? Rain boots or sneakers? As a veterinarian with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), I rely on a different forecast, the Companion Animal Parasite Council findings published by my veterinary colleagues, which tracks the intensity of pet diseases from year to year. Here’s what to expect for the remainder of 2016.HEARTWORM DISEASE FORECAST: STORMY
Veterinarians anticipate a rise in heartworm disease because of the unusual weather pattern created by El Niño. The warmer temperatures and wetter conditions create an ideal breeding environment for mosquitoes. When an infected mosquito bites a dog, the larvae are injected into the dog’s skin. They migrate through the body, finding their way to the large blood vessels of the heart and lungs. There, they mature to the size of cooked spaghetti. These tangled masses of worms can cause heart failure, and even death, if not treated early.
Expect to see cases skyrocket in:
Heartworm disease is prevalent in the Lower Mississippi River region and this year it’s expected to spread to:
All dogs need to be protected from heartworms, even those who rarely venture outside. The one mosquito that flies through your open window and bites your dog just might be infected with heartworm larvae. Preventives are available in the form of pills, topical liquids and injections. All kill the larvae once they enter the bloodstream. The AAHA recommends year-round heartworm prevention.TICK-BORNE DISEASE FORECAST: PARTIALLY CLOUDY
An infected tick can spread a number of life-threatening diseases when it bites a dog. The most common are Lyme, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, and their prevalence varies by region. Some dogs with Lyme disease will run a high fever, experience painful joints and exhibit swollen lymph nodes. Others will present no signs at all. Untreated infections can lead to kidney failure and death.
In regions where Lyme has been living comfortably for years, the incidence is expected to rise. These regions include:
Recently, the disease has spread to:
These states may have a higher-than-average occurrence the rest of the year.
Historically, Lyme has thrived in New England, but, oddly enough, the incidence there is expected to fall below normal this year, perhaps because more owners are vaccinating their dogs.
If you live in an area where ticks are abundant, take precautions to keep your dogs safe. Your veterinarian will prescribe a tick preventive in the form of pills, topical liquids or collars. In areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, she may recommend vaccination.
Anaplasmosis causes disruptions in blood clotting, which results in bruising, internal bleeding and nosebleeds. Signs of Lyme disease also present in anaplasmosis.
Anaplasmosis shows moderate to high activity in:
Ehrlichiosis displays signs similar to both Lyme and anaplasmosis along with eye, liver and spleen infections. Above-normal incidence of ehrlichiosis is expected in:
Just like the human flu, canine influenza is spread by one infected dog sneezing or coughing on another. Two strains of canine influenza are present in the U.S. H3N8 has been here for years, but a vaccine has kept it at bay. A new Asian strain, H3N2, hit Chicago last spring, causing a local epidemic; dogs didn’t have a natural immunity to the strain and there was no vaccine. Since then, H3N2 has infected more than 1,000 dogs in more than 25 states. Fortunately, H3N2 vaccines were developed not long after the outbreak, which likely curbed the spread. It’s difficult to predict how the flu season will play out for the rest of the year. With so many dogs on the move with their owners, and not all of them protected by vaccines for the new strain, the disease could spread quickly. If you plan to travel with your dog, visit your veterinarian for a vaccine protocol.
Golden Retriever Rocky 3 was hit by a car and sustained a major spinal cord injury, that virtually paralyzed him. Watch how Karen Atlas, MPT, CCRT and her team at HydroPaws in Santa Barbara performed amazing rehabilitation physical therapy on him. Karen also serves as the president of the California Association of Animal Physical Therapists. This is a coalition of animal physical rehabilitation professionals (licensed physical therapists with advanced training/certification in animal rehabilitation) who seek to play a leading role in defining appropriate legislative/regulatory language in California; similar to those states (such as Colorado, Nevada, and Nebraska) who have already successfully regulated this area of animal care. Even now, the California Veterinary Medical Board wants to limit/restrict our access to qualified non-vet rehab therapists and this video is proof of why this coalition disagrees. This inspirational video of Rocky 3 certainly does demonstrate the important work that is performed by these highly skilled professionals.
Wellness: Health Care
“Sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly”
We have been experiencing idyllic temperatures in Berkeley, Calif., these past couple of weeks—mostly sunny days and mid-70s bliss. Perfect weather for a fun-filled outing with our pets, right? For the most part, the answer is “yes” but these are the kind of days where we have to be extra cautious with our pets. At the veterinary hospital where I practice, I have had three dogs die from heat stoke in the past three weeks. These were not dogs left in unattended cars or as the result of negligent owners. They were really the result of not realizing that “sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly.”
Two of the deaths were Bulldogs, one who played ball for a short 20 minutes outside and the other who went on his “normal daily walk.” The other loss was a Golden Retriever; the owner let him play at the park for an hour with the neighborhood kids, who always loved to spend time with him, such heartbreaking loss for everyone involved.
Many people are unaware of how dogs process heat and how easily they can succumb to heat stroke. Dogs cannot tolerate high temperatures as well as humans because they depend upon rapid breathing (panting) to exchange their warm body air for cooler environmental air. Therefore, when the air temperature is close to body temperature, cooling by rapid breathing is no longer an efficient process, and dogs can succumb to heat stroke in a relatively short time period.
Heatstroke can occur in many conditions that include:
Clinical signs of developing heat stroke:
Heat stroke is an emergency that requires immediate recognition and prompt treatment. A dog’s normal body temperature is 101.5 degrees plus or minus 1 degree Fahrenheit, and any time the body temperature is higher than 105 degrees, a truly life-threatening emergency exists. Initially the pet appears distressed, and will pant excessively and become restless. As the hyperthermia progresses, the pet may drool large amounts of saliva from the nose and/or mouth. The pet may become unsteady on his feet. You may notice the gums turning blue/purple or bright red, which is due to inadequate oxygen.
Severe hyperthermia is a disease that affects nearly every system in the body. Simply lowering the body temperature fails to address the potentially catastrophic events that often accompany this disorder. A pet suffering from hyperthermia should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for appropriate care. There are many life-threatening after affects that happen to a pet’s body following an episode of heat stroke, and early treatment will give your pet the best chance for survival.
What to do:
What NOT to do:
What if I see a pet in distress?
California law now prohibits leaving pets unattended in a vehicle, but I still see this (“grrrrrr”) all of the time. If you do happen see a pet in distress, you can call the local animal control agency, police or 911 for assistance. Any peace officer, humane officer or animal control officer is authorized to take all steps necessary for the removal of an animal from a motor vehicle. I have also made a downloadable flyer for you to print and leave on car windshields if you notice a pet inside of a vehicle. I wanted to create way to educate others instead of just getting worried, upset and frustrated. I know it is just a small gesture, but if it can save one pet’s life, then I’ve done my job with it.
I hope this blog has offered both awareness and education and please feel free to leave questions or comments!
Wellness: Health Care
Out of the blue, your dog rolls on his side and starts to shake. What’s going on?
Charlie, a four-year-old Shih Tzu mix, held his head low and cried out when touched. His regular veterinarian performed blood tests and took X-rays, none of which revealed a reason for the neck pain. After discussing possible causes—a slipped disk and meningitis among them—the vet prescribed a trial of antibiotics and pain medication. At first, Charlie improved, but within a few days, his pain seemed to increase. Then he had a seizure.
His people rushed him to a local emergency clinic, where he was admitted. The clinic kept Charlie overnight to stabilize him, and the next day, transferred him to our practice, Southeast Veterinary Neurology in Miami, Fla.
Charlie was minimally responsive. When we examined him, we saw that he tended to turn his head to the left and didn’t react to stimuli on the right side of his body; he didn’t blink when touched near the right eye or when his right eye was approached. After a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spinal fluid analysis, we had a diagnosis: encephalitis. Treatment was started immediately.
Seizures—a manifestation of uncontrolled electrical activity in the cerebral cortex—are the most common canine neurological disorder. The cerebral cortex is made up of cells (neurons) that communicate with each other via electrical activity. A seizure happens when that electrical activity becomes excessive or uncontrolled.
Seizures are classified as either focal or generalized, with the latter being the most frequently seen. In a classic generalized seizure, all four legs become stiff and the dog lies down or falls over before losing consciousness and convulsing. During a convulsion, many dogs will vocalize and salivate; some will urinate or defecate. The seizure may last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, or longer.* Focal seizures are milder and only affect one part of the body—part of the face, or one leg.
Any disturbance that either increases the electrical activity in the brain or decreases the control mechanisms that prevent seizures can cause these episodes. There are three basic types of disturbances: extracranial (problems outside of the brain that secondarily affect the brain), intracranial (physical or structural problems with the brain itself) and idiopathic epilepsy.
Low blood sugar, severe liver or kidney disease, electrolyte abnormalities such as low calcium, and toxins/poisons are among the causes of extracranial seizures. All of these conditions are relatively easy to identify with blood and urine tests.
Intracranial causes include brain tumors, strokes, encephalitis/ meningitis (as in Charlie’s case), head injury or a malformation such as hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”). Diagnosing these conditions requires an evaluation by a neurologist, an MRI of the brain, and possibly a cerebrospinal f luid analysis. Seizures experienced by certain breeds of dogs—including Boxers, Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese and other terriers—are more likely to have an intracranial cause.
Idiopathic epilepsy—seizures with no known cause—is the most common reason for recurrent seizures, and is the result of an inherent hyperexcitability of the neurons of the cerebral cortex. In general, dogs with idiopathic epilepsy are between one and five years of age when they have their first seizure, which is usually of the generalized type. In between seizures, they’re completely normal, as are their neurological examinations.
Seeing your dog have a seizure can be distressing, but the primary thing you need to do is to remain calm. Do not put your hands near your dog’s mouth, as in the throes of a seizure, he’s not aware of his actions and may unintentionally bite you. Keep your dog in a safe area where he is unlikely to hurt himself, moving him away from stairs, pools or other hazards. If this is your dog’s first seizure, take him to your veterinarian immediately.
Your vet will likely start with a series of blood and urine tests to evaluate the liver, kidneys, electrolytes and other internal organs, looking for an extracranial cause. A consultation with a veterinary neurologist and an MRI may be recommended if the blood tests are normal, if your dog is younger than one or older than six, or if he acts abnormally between seizures.
Diazepam (Valium) or midazolam, fast-acting drugs, will halt a seizure in progress. Depending on the cause and the dog’s response to treatment, longer-acting anti-seizure medications are also prescribed. Among these are phenobarbital, potassium bromide, levetiracetam (Keppra), zonisamide (Zonegran) and felbamate (Felbatol); each has both positive and potentially adverse effects. Your veterinarian or neurologist will discuss which medication makes the most sense for your dog. For many conditions, including idiopathic epilepsy, medication can help reduce the frequency and severity of seizures, but some seizure activity can still be expected.
Seizures are indeed scary, but understanding their causes and knowing what to do when they occur go a long way toward successfully coping with them.
*Ed. note: According to other sources, a seizure that lasts more than five minutes or that reoccurs three times in a 24-hour period should be considered an emergency.
Wellness: Healthy Living
We look at ways to make their lives easier.
In your eyes, your dog will alway s be a puppy, even if she’s getting up there in canine (and human) years, or her muzzle is beginning to gray. However, eventually the day will come when you notice that your pup is panting a little bit harder after a long walk and struggling to climb onto your bed. It’s time to start adjusting to the lifestyle needs of an older dog.
When a dog is considered a senior largely depends on breed. Smaller dogs (such as Chihuahuas or Terriers) don’t reach their golden years until they’re 10 or 12, while a Great Dane may attain senior status at the age of five or six. Beyond size and breed, genetics, diet and environment all have an impact on a dog’s life expectancy.
Just as modern medicine has extended the lives of people, with the right combination of attention and preventive care, it can also extend the lives of dogs. If you want your older dog to have a long and happy life, consider incorporating these strategies into your pet care routine.
Remember your dog’s teeth. Dental hygiene is particularly crucial as your dog ages. Regular brushing and professional cleaning can prevent painful dental disease and decay (and help your dog avoid the chewing problems mentioned earlier). If your dog doesn’t enjoy having his/her teeth brushed, consider dental treats and toys instead.
Watch your dog’s diet. Mature dogs often have food issues, including problems chewing, lack of appetite, obesity and digestive difficulties. Consult with your vet on the best diet and exercise plan for your aging dog. Dietary changes may include adding more fiber to aid with digestion or decreasing carbohydrates to maintain optimal weight. Supplements such as fish oil or glucosamine can be added to alleviate joint pain.
Exercise your dog’s body and mind. Like people, aging dogs experience pain and have difficulty performing physical activities they used to enjoy. However, exercise continues to be imperative to their health and well being. Take your dog on short, gentle walks and monitor his/her breathing and gait to make sure nothing is amiss. Your dog’s brain needs plenty of exercise as well. Stimulating toys such as food puzzles help keep your dog sharp.
See the vet more often. Take your dog in for a vet checkup at least twice a year. Just as elderly people need to be aware of health issues and visit their doctors more often, aging pets benefit from more frequent visits. Older pets may need additional blood tests, dental care and examinations. Additionally, many breeds have predispositions toward certain ailments, including arthritis, hip dysplasia, cancer and diabetes. Early detection can help catch these before they become major problems.
“Seniorize” your house. Just as you once puppy-proofed your home, you now need to provide your older dog with special accommodations. For dogs with hip dysplasia or joint issues, consider a special ramp or stairs so they can still get in the car or join you on the bed. Keep food and water in areas they can easily reach, especially if they are vision-impaired. Heated beds can soothe achy joints, particularly if you live in a colder climate. Finally, non-slip surfaces will prevent falls and help your older pet maintain traction when rising.
Pay attention. Monitor changes in behavior; appetite; weight loss or gain; dental issues; and any lumps, bumps or lesions and bring them to your vet’s attention. (A journal is a great memory aid.)
Taking care of an older dog may involve a little more work than you’re used to doing, but caring for a lifetime companion is a deeply rewarding experience. Your dog has been good to you (and for you) for years—now’s the time to return the favor!
Wellness: Health Care
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)—what some call a “slipped disc”—can smolder or it can strike full-blown, leaving your dog in excruciating pain and unable to walk. Initially, signs that a dog is afflicted can be subtle: a hesitation about going up or down stairs, paws that knuckle under or cross over, nail scuffing, an arched back, a tense abdomen. Dogs may shy from their food bowls to avoid bending their necks, or cry when picked up.
IVDD causes compression of the spinal cord and leads to weakness, pain and sometimes paralysis, and is divided into two categories: Hansen Type I and II. Type I often swoops in suddenly, usually in younger, smaller dogs ages three to six. The center jelly of the vertebral disc, called the nucleus pulposus, degenerates, then ruptures and presses on the spinal cord. Not surprisingly, the chondrodystrophic breeds (dogs with short legs and longbacks)—Dachshunds, Corgis, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus and Beagles—are predisposed to this type.
Type II, which is typically seen in large dogs like German Shepherds, Labradors and Dobermans ages eight to ten, progresses more slowly. Though the disc doesn’t burst its center, it bulges between the vertebrae and impinges on the spinal cord, causing chronic pain and weakness.
To rule out fractures, bone infections and cancers, your vet will start with X-rays, but a contrast myelogram, CT or MRI (all of which are often done at specialty centers) is needed to visualize the spinal cord and determine the nature and location of the problem.
In addition to type, IVDD is described by level of severity. Roughly, grade I involves pain; grade II, unsteadiness; grade III, weakness that prevents standing or walking; grade IV, paralysis but able to feel deep pain when the toes are pinched; and grade V, complete paralysis with loss of deep pain.
Dogs with grades 1 through IV will likely be managed with pain meds, muscle relaxants and strict rest for up to a month, and are often referred for physical therapy or Class IV laser treatments. Depending on the duration of neurological deficits and amount of pain, surgery may also be recommended for dogs with grades II, III and IV. Because the disease can change quickly, even dogs diagnosed with lower-grade IVDD need sequential exams to ensure that the condition is not progressing.
When a dog is completely unable to walk, decisions have to be made swiftly. Dogs who stay in the grade V stage longer than 48 hours often remain paralyzed despite intervention, while up to 50 percent of those who have surgery in the first 24 hours may regain their ability to walk.
IVDD surgery removes compromised discs, hemorrhage and adjacent bone compressing the spinal cord. With severe disease, it’s the best chance for a dog to walk again. It does, of course, also entail expenses and risks that not everyone is able or willing to undertake. What other options do we have?
Thankfully, veterinarians have been studying other modalities to treat IVDD, acupuncture among them. In 2007, a team lead by A.M. Hayashi found that dogs of all IVDD grades recovered more quickly with electroacupuncture (EAP) combined with a standard Western medical approach than Western treatment alone (JAVMA 231: 913–918).
In 2009, A. Laim et al. reported that dogs receiving EAP and pain medications after surgery for acute IVDD were less likely to need higher doses of pain meds during the first 12 hours than those who received meds alone. These patients also had significantly lower pain scores 36 hours after treatment (JAVMA 234: 1141–1146).
A 2010 study compared three options for IVDD dogs with severe neurologic deficits of greater than 48 hours’ duration: decompressive surgery (DSX), EAP, and DSX followed by EAP (DSX + EAP). The study, led by J.G.F. Joaquim, showed that EAP was more effective than DSX + EAP, and that DSX alone was the least successful. These dogs had severe, long-standing IVDD in the thoracic and lumbar (thoracolumbar) spine, and in the past, their prognosis would have been dismal. (JAVMA 236: 1225–1229).
How does acupuncture work? While there is some debate over definitions, it’s generally accepted that acupuncture points (acupoints) concentrate clusters of free nerve endings, small blood and lymphatic vessels, and mast cells, part of the immune system. A veterinarian certified in acupuncture inserts small, sterile needles into specific points to stimulate muscles, nerves, circulation and the immune system. For IVDD, one needle may be placed at the top of the spine by the shoulders, and a second above the pelvis, which moves the qi and stagnated energy caused by the disc disease.
Functional MRIs reveal that acupuncture activates pain-associated brain stem regions. The specific mechanism of acupuncture on IVDD has not yet been fully explained, but it’s surmised that it reduces local swelling, inflammation and pain; decreases cord compression, scar formation and tissue oxygen deprivation; and restores damaged nerves.
When compared to the use of needles alone, EAP has been found to increase the body’s response to acupuncture. In EAP, needles in the skin are connected by metal clips; electro-impulses move between the clips and into the needles, producing sensations that range from a tingling to a vibration. Frequency and intensity are determined by the type of condition being treated. Sessions usually last from 10 to 30 minutes, and dogs often fall asleep during treatment.
EAP has a cumulative effect and is typically prescribed as a series of treatments, every one to two weeks for at least a few months. Appropriate Chinese herbal formulas are often prescribed at the same time to reduce pain and enhance the effects of acupuncture. Dogs then proceed to maintenance acupuncture at one- to three-month intervals to prevent recurrence.
Ideally, your dog will never go through the pain of IVDD, and you won’t have the worry. But if you do find yourself up against a down dog, it’s good to know that adding acupuncture to the treatment repertoire may help your friend get back on all fours.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Q&A with Dr. Robynne Chutkan
Dr. Robynne Chutkan, one of the leading gastroenterologists in the country, is the author of a new book, The Microbiome Solution, in which she takes us on an exploration of our guts’ ecosystems. Her rousing endorsement of “living dirty” includes the benefits of living with dogs. Bark’s editor speaks with her about just how helpful dogs are to our health, inside and out.
Is it true that there are similarities between our microbiome and those of our dogs, and that dog-owning families have more diverse microbial colonies than dogless households?
Although we share many of the same microbes, dogs in general have a more diverse microbiome than we do. Not surprisingly, some of their additional species are soil microbes (rolling in the dirt from time to time may be a habit worth copying!). Close contact with our dogs is hard to avoid, and that’s a good thing, because they end up passing on some of their unique microbes to their owners, giving dog-owning households a microbial boost.
Dog owners who have children share more mouth bacteria with their dogs than they do with their children. Is this a good thing?
The microbiome in children under the age of three is still developing and as a result, is very different from that of an adult, although there are still lots of shared species with household members (and pets), given the proclivity children have for [putting] everything in their mouths. So, most adults (not just dog owners) have a very different microbiome from their young children. As children get older, their microbiome starts to more closely resemble that of the other household members—not just parents, but pets, too. The vast majority of microbes our canines pass on to us are helpful or benign, not harmful, so keep those doggie kisses going.
So bacteria aren’t species-specific? Is that why, as you note, owning a dog is a highly effective way to replenish and revive bacteria that are basically under attack by modern-day living?
Some bacteria are species-specific, but many are shared by both humans and dogs. Most dogs are much more in touch with the natural world than their owners are, and that’s exactly where lots of the health-promoting microbes come from: soil; unfiltered, unchlorinated water; and, of course, the poo of other animals that our dogs are constantly checking out. Dogs tend to go easy on the hand sanitizer and antibiotics and eat a less processed diet (all habits worth emulating), so they haven’t super-sanitized away as many of their microbes as we have. Some of these canine microbes can be passed on to us, helping to replenish our lackluster microbiome.
The high-fat, low-fiber food we eat, attracts a different range of microbial types; do you know if that is the same for dogs?
I’m not aware of any specific studies looking at variations in canine diets and the effects on their microbiome, but certainly, dogs who eat more processed grains and other foods not natural to their diet tend to have more health problems, and the same is true for humans.
You mention that it’s okay to be a little dirty and sweaty. Why do you think Americans are so obsessed with being hyper-clean?
In the pre-antibiotic era, epidemics of the plague, cholera and other highly infectious diseases wiped out vast numbers of people. The advent of penicillin in the 1930s is still one of the most important contributions to modern medicine, and antibiotics have saved countless lives. But now the pendulum has swung the other way; we’re currently in an era of overdiagnosis and over-treatment, and we’re seeing the emergence of new “modern plagues,” not from infection, but from not enough microbes.
However, the public still sees antibiotics as the life-saving miracle workers they were in the first part of the last century, not as the overprescribed menace they’re becoming. Plus, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in the livestock industry, mostly to fatten animals for slaughter. Clearly, that’s not a lifesaving endeavor.
I think the pharmaceutical and personal-product companies also have a lot to do with it. They’re responsible for many of the public-health campaigns that incorrectly equate cleanliness with health, and of course, they make billions of dollars selling hand sanitizer and other anti-bacterial products.
It’s not just okay to be a little sweaty and dirty, it’s great for your microbiome and your overall health. We need exposure to dirt and germs (bacteria, fungi, protozoa and so forth) to train our immune systems to recognize friend from foe. Not enough exposure to germs, especially when we’re young, leads to a confused immune system that tends to overreact. The result is allergies and autoimmune diseases.
In defense of less bathing and shampooing: your body is really good at concocting the exact formula needed to keep your skin and hair moisturized and healthy. But what do we do? We scrub away our natural oils with harmful antibacterial products and then try to revive our skin and hair with store-bought products full of chemicals. Live dirty for a healthier— and better looking—you!
Many studies have shown the benefits to children of having a dog, including a decrease in eczema and asthma. Why else would you recommend that a family get a dog?
Having a dog is great for reducing stress and anxiety and lowering blood pressure. And we already know they improve the microbiome of the entire household.
What’s your personal dog “biome”?
My mother’s bridge partner, Eva, worked for the Swedish embassy, and when she moved back to Sweden, she left her beloved German Shepherd, Trygg, with us. He’d been used to spending all his time with Eva, and became immediately attached to my mom. We had to be super vigilant in the bathroom because he loved to drink from toilets (all kinds of rewilding going on!).
Hugo, our German Shorthaired Pointer puppy, came into our lives about six months ago. Getting a dog forced me to slow down my too-busy lifestyle and spend more time sitting on my front steps, stroking Hugo and literally smelling the roses. He’s super active, so my husband and I take turns running with him in the mornings and evenings.
We live near Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, so, thanks to Hugo, there’s a whole lot of dirt and sweat happening on a daily basis. Our daughter Sydney loves him so much that we really can’t imagine life without him.
Hugo slobbers over everyone he comes into contact with, and since I frequently have meetings with the Gutbliss team at our house, he’s become our CRO—Chief Rewilding Officer!
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