Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-related plans for 2014
Years ago, my sister’s New Year’s resolution was to give up New Year’s resolutions, and she was one of the few people who stuck to her plan. (Success rates are generally less than 10%.) Her secret was resolving to do something that she wanted to do anyway. If your resolutions for 2014 are dog-related, make success more likely by choosing to focus on one or a few things that are of real interest to you.
Simple ideas for dog-related resolutions are plentiful. Here are 10 possibilities.
1. Leave that cell phone in your pocket on walks so that you are truly present and spending time with your dog. It’s the time you spend together that builds the relationship, and this is one of the easiest ways to enjoy each other’s company.
2. Try a new activity with your dog. Classes in agility, tracking, fly ball are common in many areas. Hiking, weight pulling, dock jumping, herding, lure coursing and canine freestyle are just a few of the other possibilities.
3. Provide better nutrition for your dog. This is a big task for most of us, but even a few simple steps can make a difference. Try a higher quality dog food, add fresh vegetables to your dog’s diet or vow to measure your dog’s food for every meal so there’s no risk of overfeeding.
4. Give back to the canine community. There are so many ways to help out such as walking an elderly neighbor’s dog, volunteering at a shelter or rescue, fostering a dog, or giving money to an organization that improves the lives of animals.
5. Teach your dog something new. Practical training skills such as walking nicely on a leash, waiting at the door or a solid stay all pay big dividends. Other possibilities are to teach your dog a new game so you can play together more. Fetch, tug, find it, hide and seek, and chase games are all options, though depending on your dog, not every game may be a good fit.
6. Make plans for your dog in the event that you die first. Financial planning so you can provide for your dog when you are no longer here as well as making arrangements for someone to be the guardian for your dog are two important steps.
7. Give your dog more exercise. This can be daunting so plan to make one small improvement to start. Perhaps add 10 minutes to a weekend walk or set up a play date with a dog buddy a couple of times a month. When it comes to increasing activity, every little bit helps, so taking one step in the right direction is a wonderful goal at this, or any, time of year.
8. Take better care of your dog’s teeth. Consult with your veterinarian about a dental cleaning or about brushing at home. Dental care helps improve overall health and can make your dog’s breath more pleasant, too.
9. Make plans in case of a medical emergency. Whether it is putting aside a little in savings each month or investigating pet insurance, the peace of mind that you’ve got it covered in the event of an emergency is worth a lot.
10. Go new places with your pet. Novelty is great fun for most dogs, so try to go a few new places this year. Perhaps a new pet store or a new hiking trail will provide your dog with an experience that is really enjoyable.
Love them or hate them, New Year’s resolutions are common this time of year. Do your plans for 2014 include any dog-oriented New Year’s resolutions?
News: Guest Posts
In honor of November’s National Pet Cancer Awareness Month I would like to share some “hot off the press” wonderfully optimistic news with you. Dr. Nicola Mason from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine has been researching a new way to treat osteosarcoma, an aggressive and fatal form of bone cancer that has an affinity for growing within the leg bones of large and giant- breed dogs.
Until now, treatment of osteosarcoma has consisted primarily of amputation (removal) of the affected leg with or without chemotherapy. In spite of such aggressive treatment, inevitably tiny clusters of cancer cells eventually grow into metastatic tumors that ultimately become life-ending. Approximately 60% of dogs die within one year of the diagnosis.
A new approach
Dr. Mason’s innovative approach to treating dogs with osteosarcoma involves “cancer immunotherapy” in which the patient’s own immune system is triggered to target and kill tumor cells. In order to use a dog’s immune system to treat osteosarcoma Dr. Mason devised a vaccine consisting of bacteria that have been modified to express a protein called Her2/neu. This protein is known as a “growth factor receptor” and is found on a variety of different cancer cells, including some canine osteosarcoma cells. You may have heard of Her2/neu before because it is commonly associated with breast cancer cells in women. The concept behind the vaccine is as follows: The bacteria stimulates the dog’s “immune system soldiers” to seek out and destroy the bacteria along with cells that express Her2/neu (osteosarcoma cells).
Outcomes to date
Thus far, Dr. Mason has treated 12 dogs with osteosarcoma following amputation and chemotherapy. The dogs received the vaccine once weekly for three weeks. Side effects of the vaccine were minimal. All that was observed was a mild, brief fever following vaccine administration.
The preliminary results have been immensely encouraging. The first vaccinated dog, Sasha has a survival time of 570 days thus far. Two other dogs vaccinated at the beginning of the study are alive and cancer free more than 500 days post diagnosis. Other dogs who were vaccinated more recently are still doing well. These are truly fantastic results.
What comes next?
Some dogs with osteosarcoma are not good candidates for amputation primarily because of neurological or musculoskeletal issues in their other limbs. Treatment options for these dogs are aimed at reducing the pain associated with the tumor. Dr. Mason plans to begin including some of these nonsurgical candidates in her osteosarcoma vaccine study.
Additionally, Dr. Mason is contemplating learning if what she has developed would be an effective means for prevention of osteosarcoma. Certain breeds (Rottweilers, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Doberman Pinschers, and Greyhounds, to name a few) are particularly predisposed to osteosarcoma. It will be fascinating to learn if the osteosarcoma vaccine will effectively prevent this horrific disease in high-risk individuals.
The research results gathered thus far represent a monumental success in cancer treatment and provide significant hope for a disease previously associated with a grim prognosis. Kudos to Dr. Mason for her stunning work! If your dog has osteosarcoma and you are interested in participating in Dr. Mason’s studies, contact her at 215-898-3996 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
If you would like to respond publicly, please visit Speaking for Spot.
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog's Best Health. There you will also find "Advocacy Aids"- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet's health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog's Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.
Wellness: Health Care
For dogs with Alzheimer's confusion may reign as light falls
A slice of Oregon forest, a fragrant eight-foot noble pine, reigns over our living room in Southern California. I drape the boughs with a final string of lights—silly plastic teddy bears I’ve had for years—and step down from the ladder. It’s growing late on a Sunday afternoon. Our favorite Frank Sinatra carols are playing, scalloped potatoes are bubbling in the oven and the sun is going down over the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been looking forward to this: relaxing in front of the fire, the room lit only by the tree. I should have known better.
Recently, as the days shorten and the curtain of light falls earlier—at four o’clock, now three—Fromer, our 15-year-old Yorkie, goes bonkers! It’s as if the dark sets him off. Now he’s on the floor between my husband and myself, and his ballistic barking drowns out even the roar of the surf.
Five months ago he was diagnosed with terminal renal failure, and given two weeks to live. The vet said I should consider myself his hospice worker. (I don’t know about you, but a hospice worker to a dog was a new one for me.) I gave him subcutaneous fluids, fine-tuned his medications and administered pot roast aromatherapy. By October, my little hospice patient was skipping through the house. The vet cautioned me that Fromer still had renal disease; he was just “temporarily stabilized.”
So, our days were OK; the evenings were something else.
Like a young child squalling over a bogeyman only he can see, at night Fromer got spooked. On this December evening, I forego the pleasure of enjoying the room lit only by the Christmas tree, and switch on every light inside and out. He seems to calm down, but he is licking his paws so feverishly they will be raw if he keeps it up. His tommy- gun barking starts again. Night has turned him into Fromster-the-terrorist-terrier, an impossible-to-please elderly relative.
I poke at the embers to keep the fire from dying out, while Fromer totters off, whimpering in and out the dog door—flap! flap! out, flap! flap! in—the rest of the evening. Until we pack it in and head upstairs. Then he peters out.
When I originally mentioned these symptoms to Stephen Ettinger, our vet, I didn’t get much satisfaction. Dr. Ettinger is an internist, cardiologist and co-author of The Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, said, “Maybe it’s neurological, or he’s cold, or it might be his eyesight.” He reminded me that Fromer’s eyes were failing, making it harder for him to see when the light goes. He didn’t offer any therapeutic help to deal with the situation.
By accident, I stumbled on a Newsweek article (Jan. 31, 2000), “Coping with Darkness,” revolutionary new approaches in providing care to people with Alzheimer’s. The article described how Alzheimer’s patients can become increasingly agitated at the end of the day, and how light is especially important to them in the late afternoon and early evening. Although Fromer hadn’t been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—dogs also suffer from this disease—the early nights of winter had brought on a behavior in my dog that exactly matched the symptoms of some Alzheimer’s patients.
Now I had a name for what I’d been observing: sundowning. And a definition: According to Harvard Medical School, Department of Psychiatry, sundowning is a syndrome in Alzheimer’s patients of recurring confusion and increased agitation in the late afternoon or early evening. A sundowner is a patient who sundowns.
One antidote to sundowning is increasing the light to eliminate frightening shadows. Except increased illumination only helps patients with intact vision. That explains why flooding rooms with light did not soothe my geriatric friend.
This is now our second Christmas without Fromer. As I untangle those silly teddy bear lights, I remember those awful winter nights, and wonder what I might have done differently.
A half-dozen vets I have spoken with since then say they have never come across sundowning in veterinary literature. They offer replies similar to Allen M. Schoen’s, D.V.M., author of Kindred Spirits, “I am not familiar with the syndrome.”
Until I reach Nicholas Dodman, Director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Dodman says, “I think you’ve struck on something.”
He explains that this behavior has sort of been recognized but under the global term of sleep disturbance, which is one-quarter of the diagnostic criteria for canine Alzheimer’s. “Did Fromer have canine Alzheimer’s?” asks Dodman. “I would say from what you’ve told me—I never examined him—almost certainly, yes. Since sundowning is a part of Alzheimer’s in people, why wouldn’t it be in dogs as well?”
Johnny Hoskins, a small-animal internal medicine consultant with a specialty in geriatrics and pediatrics, agrees. “I believe dogs go through similar changes as humans as they age.” Dr. Hoskins explains there are certain triggers in older animals when they start having behavioral–mental changes. “In your animal the trigger just happened to be when it was getting dark.”
Dodman says this is the first time he’s heard of this association with dogs and the day/ night junction. He thinks it’s helpful because it adds another layer of detail to nocturnal disturbance syndrome. “It makes it easier for people to recognize and it’s a very clear- cut sign: As light is fading, some dogs, not all dogs, because not all dogs do everything with any disease, but some dogs with canine Alzheimer’s may, when light falls, become even more confused, and upset, and that can lead to this hysterical behavior: barking, pacing, inconsolability. Sundowning. I think that’s a very nice addition to the canine Alzheimer’s syndrome, which previously was just painted as a late-night, throughout the night, problem.”
Dodman explains that vets don’t have a good handle in this area. “They know there are sleep disturbances. But what precisely are they? Vets think that means when the owner goes to sleep at night the dog wakes up and barks and paces. Sundowning makes it more subtle, and more akin to the human syndrome, and it sounds perfectly reasonable.”
Now that we have a definition and a basis for diagnosis, is there a treatment in the canine population? Dr. Hoskins cautions that since there are so many neurotransmitters in the brain, a dog owner should not expect that one single medication will handle all the behavioral-mental changes in his animal. It’s way too late for Monday morning quarterbacking with Fromer, but perhaps others who are currently caretaking an elderly dog will find that these medical suggestions (see sidebar) can make sundowning more understandable and less of a downer.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Where are dogs living longest?
It is hard to decide which of the many wonderful qualities of dogs is the best one, but it’s easy for me to say what is the worst thing about dogs: They don’t live long enough. We all wish dogs lived longer and most of us are hungry for information about which factors may give us more time with our dogs. It’s possible that where our dogs live is one such factor.
A state-by-state analysis of dog lifespan shows Montana and South Dakota at the top with dogs living an average of 12.4 years. Other states with long-lived dogs include Oregon, Colorado and Florida where the dogs are typically living over 11 years. In contrast, Mississippi and Alabama have an average lifespan of just over 10 years.
These data come from Banfield Pet Hospital and only include those states in which they have facilities, which means that Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, Vermont and West Virginia are not included. It also means that the data may only reflect the specific dogs seen in their practices rather than fully representing each state’s dogs.
However, there are a number of reasons that lifespans may vary from state to state. These include nutrition, exercise opportunities, rates of spaying and neutering and the types of disease prevalent in the area. The breeds and sizes of dogs that are most popular in those states may matter, too.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Some Compulsive Disorders Point to the Gut
Canine compulsive disorders (CCDs) take many forms and are generally considered to be behavioral issues. However, recent studies suggest that at least two of them—“excessive licking of surfaces” (ELS) and “fly-biting syndrome,” in which a dog appears to stare at something and suddenly snaps at it—may be related to underlying health issues. Both studies were conducted by researchers associated with the University of Montréal Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
The first set out to investigate surface-licking behaviors to see if there was a medical component: “The objectives of our prospective clinical study were to characterize ELS behavior in dogs and to examine the extent to which it may be a sign of an underlying gastrointestinal (GI) pathology as opposed to a primarily behavioral concern.”
Researchers looked at 19 dogs, 16 of whom exhibited this behavior daily. This group was compared with a control group of 10 healthy (i.e., non-ELS) dogs. Complete medical and behavioral histories were collected for all dogs. The medical evaluation revealed that 14 of the 19 ELS dogs had GI abnormalities; treatment of the underlying GI disorder resulted in significant improvement in a majority of dogs in the ELS group.
The second study examined seven dogs with a history of daily fly-biting behavior. As the researchers noted, “Fly-biting dogs are generally referred to neurologists or behaviorists because the abnormalities are often interpreted as focal seizures or as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”
As in the ELS study, these dogs were given complete medical examinations and were filmed to determine if the behavior was perhaps more prevalent after eating. The video analyses revealed a significant finding: all of the dogs demonstrated head-raising and neck extension, which can be an indicator of esophageal discomfort, prior to fly-biting.
All of the dogs in this study were found to have a GI abnormality, and one was also diagnosed with Chiari malformation (a brain/skull disorder). The dogs were treated for their medical conditions, and four had complete resolutions of the fly-biting behavior. The authors of this study concluded, “The data indicate that fly-biting may be caused by an underlying medical disorder, GI disease being the most common.”
As Marty Goldstein, DVM, observed in a post related to this research, “These studies don’t mean that primary obsessive/compulsive behavioral issues don’t exist, because they do … [But] if you have a pet with obsessive/compulsive disorders, don’t jump to psychoactive medications before exploring the use of food-allergy testing, changes in diet, and digestive enzymes and probiotics that can repair a damaged GI tract.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Procedure necessary after ingesting rat poison
Rory the cat can claim that dogs are his best friend, too, or at least that one particular dog is. When Rory was in dire need of a blood transfusion, Macy the Labrador retriever was rushed to the vet to donate and that saved Rory’s life.
Rory the cat had consumed rat poison and his life was at risk. Due to bad luck, Rory had eaten the poison too late in the day on Friday for the lab to be able to determine the type of blood needed to ensure a match. The wrong type of blood could cause Rory to die, but the veterinarian treating Rory found out that there was a chance of saving Rory if he was given a transfusion of canine blood.
Rory’s guardian contacted Macy’s guardian, who is a good friend, and that’s how Macy came to be the life-saving blood donor. The procedure was not without risk. The canine blood could have killed Rory, but he certainly would have died without it. Cat’s antibodies don’t react to canine blood at first exposure, which is why the blood transfusion worked. The transfusion gave Rory enough time to replace the red blood cells he needed to recover. He’s doing well and Macy is just fine, too.
I just spent $400 for an ultrasound on my rescue Shepherd mix, whom we’ve had for five of his six years. Last year, we had baseline lab tests run and discovered that he had slightly elevated liver enzymes. This year, when the tests were rerun, they showed higher enzyme levels and mild chronic liver and renal failure.
The vet and I narrowed the cause down to one culprit: the chicken jerky treats we fed him every day. Although the treats are labeled “Made in America,” they are actually made in China and lab-tested in America. The vet said to immediately stop giving him these treats; he also said they’ve seen a large increase in medical issues (up to and including death) due to these made-in-China treats.
I would like stores to stop carrying all food products made in China, although I know this isn’t possible. But at the very least, because companies seem to hide the place of manufacture in very small print, warnings should be printed on packages that explain the risks of feeding these treats to our pets.
Had we not had a wellness-panel run, our beloved dog would have succumbed to liver and renal failure. I now wonder if the same product didn’t contribute to the deaths of our last two rescue dogs.
Wellness: Health Care
An all-too-common malady demystified
The growing diabetes epidemic is not limited to people—diabetes mellitus is increasing among dogs as well. Researchers estimate that one in 200 dogs will develop the disease. Fortunately, treatment has made huge strides in recent years, and as a result, dogs with diabetes are living longer, healthier lives.
The mechanism of diabetes is relatively simple to describe. Just as cars use gas for fuel, body cells run on a sugar called glucose. The body obtains glucose by breaking down carbohydrates in the diet. Cells then extract glucose from the blood with the help of insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas in specialized cells called beta cells. (The pancreas, an organ situated behind the stomach, produces several hormones.) In diabetes mellitus, cells don’t take in enough glucose, which then builds up in the blood. As a result, cells starve and organs bathed in sugary blood are damaged. Diabetes is not curable, but it is treatable; a dog with diabetes may live many happy years after diagnosis.
Kinds of Diabetes
You may have heard that dogs generally get Type 1 diabetes, but the reality is more complicated. Though there are no universally accepted definitions of dog diabetes, the United Kingdom’s Royal Veterinary College identifies two forms: insulin-deficiency diabetes (IDD) and insulin-resistance diabetes (IRD). Neither matches any kind of human diabetes exactly.
In IDD, a dog loses beta cells and no longer makes enough insulin to keep glucose levels under control. Causes include genetic defects, inflammation of the pancreas and immune attack (as in human Type 1 diabetes). In IRD, something prevents the dog’s insulin from functioning properly. That “something” may be “diestrus,” pregnancy, an endocrine disease, or treatment with steroids or progesterone-like hormones. Diestrus, the most common cause of IRD, is the approximately two months of high levels of progesterone (a female hormone) between periods of estrus (heat). Hormonally, diestrus resembles pregnancy, making this form of IRD similar to human gestational diabetes.
•Breed. A study published in the Veterinary Journal in 2003 examined diabetes rates in thousands of American dogs and found that overall, mixed-breed dogs were more prone to diabetes than purebreds. Among purebreds, breeds varied greatly in their susceptibility.
•Age. Dogs most often develop diabetes during middle or old age.
•Gender. Female dogs and neutered male dogs are more likely than intact males to get diabetes.
•Weight. Obesity can make cells resistant to insulin, but it’s unclear whether it actually causes diabetes in dogs.
•Diet. A diet high in fat may contribute to pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas), a risk factor for diabetes.
Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis
A blood test that measures your dog’s blood glucose level is the most common diagnostic tool, but a high glucose level does not always mean diabetes. Because other diseases sometimes raise these levels, your vet may run additional tests to rule out such causes.
Once your dog is diagnosed, her veterinarian will obtain a “serial blood glucose–concentration curve” by measuring her glucose level repeatedly over many hours. The results will help the vet choose an appropriate insulin, dose and dosing schedule.
After treatment starts, your dog will need to be routinely tested to see how well the protocol is working. Most commonly, either a fructosamine test or a glycated hemoglobin test, which reveal average control over the previous one to three weeks (fructosamine) or two to four months (glycated hemoglobin) is used. In contrast, the daily blood glucose measurement is a snapshot, an indication of your dog’s glucose level at one specific moment.
•Insulin. With rare exceptions, dogs with diabetes need one to two daily insulin shots to survive; the insulin is injected just under the skin. Your vet may prescribe a human insulin, or possibly Vetsulin, which is a purified pig insulin; Vetsulin is the only insulin approved for use in dogs in the U.S. Insulins vary greatly in how quickly they start working, when their action peaks, how long they last and how much they cost. Your vet will take these factors into account when choosing the best type for your dog.
•Home monitoring. Weigh your diabetic dog regularly and watch for signs of excess hunger, excess thirst and excess urination, indicators that her glucose levels may be too high. Regular testing of your dog’s blood glucose level can reveal problems before they become emergencies. Glucose levels rise after meals, occasionally when your dog is sick, and when the insulin dose is too low or timed improperly; they drop during fasting, after exercise, and when the insulin dose is too high or timed improperly. Both too-high and too-low levels can be dangerous.
Testing also lets you know how well the treatment program is working.“It’s extremely important that a clear understanding be developed of the meaning of blood glucose monitoring,” says William D. Schall, DVM, professor in the Veterinary Medical Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing. When interpreting the results, consider when your dog last ate, how much exercise she has had recently, when she received an insulin dose, how large the dose was and any symptoms.
Testing involves pricking a hairless area with a lancet, collecting the blood drop that wells up and using a small device called a blood glucose meter to measure the concentration of glucose in the sample. Many dog owners use human blood glucose meters. However, these meters tend to read low for dogs. The AlphaTRAK meter is designed for dogs and cats and requires only a tiny blood sample. “Whichever glucose meter is used, the results should be compared at some point to the results obtained by the veterinarian’s laboratory by performing simultaneous samples,” says Louise Murray, DVM, DACVIM, director of medicine at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City.
When your dog is sick, the vet will also want you to test your dog’s urine for ketones (a poisonous byproduct of fat breakdown); you may need to do that on a regular basis as well.
•Diet. Researchers are still exploring what diet is best for dogs with diabetes. Most veterinarians recommend a diet low in fat and high in fiber. Fiber slows the entrance of glucose into the blood and may satisfy your dog’s appetite sooner, so she eats less and loses weight. Your veterinarian may recommend a prescription dog food designed for dogs with diabetes, or a homemade diet developed by a veterinary nutritionist. Some dogs may refuse to eat special diets; in that event, careful choices should be made when selecting a regular dog food. The one food Dr. Schall absolutely advises against for diabetic dogs is the semi-moist type that comes in packets. “They generally contain more refined carbohydrates than other dog foods,” he says.
•Exercise. Exercise not only may help reduce your dog’s weight, it also lowers blood glucose levels. Your dog should exercise every day for about the same length of time at about the same exertion level. Consistency is important—an unusually long or vigorous exercise session can cause blood glucose levels to drop dangerously low.
•Weight loss. If a dog is overweight, shedding some pounds can make the cells more sensitive to insulin, which means that glucose uptake is easier.
•Spaying. Spaying prevents female dogs from going through diestrus.
Day to Day With Your Diabetic Dog
Hyperglycemia can lead to ketoacidosis (harmful levels of ketones in the blood), which qualifies as an emergency, and you should call your vet right away. Symptoms include drinking lots of water, urinating frequently or copiously, loss of appetite, weakness, vomiting, lethargy, ketones in the urine, or—in the most serious situation—coma. Test strips are available to detect ketones in your dog’s urine, and you should report the presence of ketones to your veterinarian immediately, even if your dog has no other symptoms.
In hypoglycemia, a range of symptoms may be present, including restlessness, lethargy, confusion, weakness, wobbliness, lack of coordination, shivering, sweaty paws, seizures or coma. Test your dog’s blood glucose level if these symptoms appear. If it is below the recommended level, rub maple syrup, Karo syrup or tube cake frosting—high-sugar foods that are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream—on your dog’s gums and the inside of her cheek, then call your vet to report the episode and get further instructions.
Modern medicine has made caring for a diabetic dog quite doable and certainly worthwhile. Although daily care can seem burdensome at first, once you get used to it, it becomes a routine part of the day, like feeding her or taking her for walks. Owners do not need to worry that shots and blood tests will take over their lives. Nor do they need to fear that their dog will not be happy. According to Dr. Schall, almost all diabetic dogs can be treated at home and can enjoy a good life. A diagnosis of diabetes offers a challenge, but it’s a challenge that can be successfully met.
Dog's Life: Humane
We humans are terrific at measuring and recordkeeping— we even know the length of Noah’s ark, in cubits (300) no less. Technology abets this trait, as computers dutifully crunch our numbers, ad, well, infinitum. As a species, however, we are not so good at appraising information to extract its meaning. Confronted with new data, we tend to overemphasize and generalize, often less than critically.
On that cautionary note, what are we dog people to make of a new University of California, Davis, study that examines relationships between early, late or no spay/neuter and several health conditions in Golden Retrievers? How do we apply its conclusions to the animals in our care?
The Davis docs found increased risk of several cancers, hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament tears among sterilized Goldens; the incidence varied according to the sex and age-at-neuter of their subjects. As such, their findings add to a growing library of veterinary literature on the spay/neuter subject. However, the authors are careful to limit their conclusions, as should we.
First, the findings are breed-specific. Goldens, a highly inbred line, were chosen in part because of their susceptibility to cancers and joint issues. The gene pool was further limited by a study sample of dogs (759, to be precise) seen at the UC Davis clinic, in northern California.
Second, we need to remind ourselves that risk is not destiny, and that correlation is not causation. The study notes that the risk of one type of canine cancer quadrupled in late-neutered females, but also reveals that its incidence grew from 1.6 to 7.4 percent— meaning that about 93 percent of the subjects did not contract the disease.
The authors also indicate that they did not specifically consider obesity, another known factor in dysplasia and cancers. Neutered dogs do tend to be heavier, but we can manage that risk by controlling food intake and quality. We also need to recognize that other studies have noted countervailing positive health effects, as spay/neuter reduces or eliminates rates of other common diseases, such as mammary cancers and uterine infections.
Third, context is crucial. These data feed into the universe of things that are harmful to canines. We know, for example, that nationwide, some 50 percent of the animals in shelters don’t survive the experience. To the extent that intact canines contribute litters to the shelter population, that risk dwarfs exposure to accidents or disease. Shelter “save” rates are improving in many places, but we remain far from a no-kill equilibrium. Job One for canine partisans (including the veterinary community) remains the imperative to reduce that carnage.
After sheltering, risk-of-death varies widely by age and breed. A comprehensive University of Georgia study of vet-reported deaths (“Mortality in North American Dogs from 1984 to 2004,” published in 2011) identifies infections, trauma and birth defects as primary culprits in young dogs, with tumor-related diseases at various breed-specific rates, distantly followed by trauma and infections, which dominate the tally for the late-in-lifespan.
Finally, there are the behavioral and other risk implications of fertility, including management of ardent males and bitches in heat.
The Davis study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the unintended consequences of fertility management in a useful and popular breed. Reproductive organs contribute hormones for many reasons—it would be surprising if their removal were completely trivial. Alternatives to traditional spay/neuter do exist, but they are rarely performed. Injectable sterilizers and contraceptives are coming on the market (they, of course, will carry their own measurable side effects).
It’s important to recognize the limitations of the study: one breed, one gene pool, defined conditions and their rank among all the calamities that can befall our best friends. The study itself notes that spay/neuter is uncommon in Europe, which would appear to open up a range of comparative research possibilities and fertility management options.
We should add the Davis work to the burgeoning database. But until a lot more measurements have been taken from which broader conclusions may be drawn, the best advice is not general to all dogs, but individualized: choose your canine companions carefully and love and support them well, and completely. And recognize that we can’t measure or control for everything, yet—or ever.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Deciding when to euthanize
Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.
In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.
Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.
Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?
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