Ever wonder how a professional athlete handles the pressure of competition and a grueling 6-month long schedule? For burgeoning NBA star Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, it’s a walk in the park … the dog park. When Klay isn’t in the gym or on the road, he likes to take his dog Rocco, an English bulldog, to his local off-leash area at Cesar Chavez Park in nearby Berkeley (CA). We’ve seen him there, playing fetch and doing what dog people do … unwinding, taking in some fresh air. “With me, my friends or my family, I can’t help but talk about basketball, so this is my escape,” Thompson is quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle profile.
ESPN analyst and hall-of-fame player Charles Barkley calls the 6 ft 9 Thompson the best NBA player at his position—strong praise. Thompson’s team, the Golden State Warriors, apparently agrees, recently resigning their star shooting guard to a multi-year, $70 million contract. What was Thompson’s response at the post-signing press conference? “We were trying to get the contract signed, and all he wanted to do was go home to his dog,” mused Warrior general manager Bob Myers.
We know the joys firsthand of Cesar Chavez Park OLA, it’s where the idea for The Bark was born. In fact, the 17-acre OLA overlooking the San Francisco Bay was founded by Bark co-founder Claudia Kawczynska in 2000. One of the founding dogs was Claudia’s dog Nellie … named after former Warrior coach Don Nelson. A bit of history we think Klay Thompson would appreciate.
Wellness: Healthy Living
A Virus Worth Watching
It’s not new, but a member of the circovirus family, usually linked to diseases in pigs and some birds, is now showing up in dogs. Research data from the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine suggests that this emerging virus, either alone or as a co-infection, may be a contributing factor in canine illness in California.
Data collection is underway in multiple regions of the country to determine if exposure to circovirus is common and widespread. Dog-to-human infection has not been documented.
“We know from looking at dog samples that were stored in our archives that canine circovirus has been around for at least five years,” said Patricia Pesavento, DVM. PhD, associate professor, Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We are seeing it in dogs now because we are looking for it, and we have the tools to diagnose it now. The canine virus is not a modified strain of porcine circovirus, but is a completely different virus from the same virus family.” The good news is that circovirus does not always result in illness, being found in the stool of 14 of 204 healthy dogs screened.
“From what we know now, circovirus is not a major cause for concern, and the cases we’ve identified post-mortem seem to be isolated,” said Dr. Pesavento.
Among dogs that were sick and had circovirus in their tissues, vomiting and bloody diarrhea were the common symptoms, said Dr Pesavento. “However, diarrhea isn’t necessarily predictable, since two dogs had clinical signs that were limited to the central nervous system, and in those cases blood vessels in the brain were most affected. This reflects the fact that the virus seems to affect the vascular system.”
A symptom as non-specific as diarrhea could come from wide variety of common causes including other infectious agents, ingestion of foreign bodies or toxins, overeating rich treats, and even stress. Dr. Pesavento added that, among infectious agents, parvovirus is very common and can cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea.
Circovirus is shed in feces, and transmission is presumably fecal-oral transmission. Doggie daycare and boarding facilities, where many dogs are gathered in one area, can be a prime source of infection for many illnesses, although the virus is not confined to boarding facilities.
To reduce the chance of any viral illness and to avoid infecting other dogs, apply the same simple measures that you would in a child attending daycare. Avoid contact with ill animals and contact with other dogs if your dog has symptoms of illness. Clean up your pet’s stool and avoid contact with other pet’s stool whenever possible.
“As you well know, dogs are not very picky about what they put in their mouths,” said Dr. Pesevento. “Monitor dogs carefully if they have ‘dietary indiscretion’ that causes vomiting or diarrhea that is mild and short-lasting. Blood in any vomit should be addressed quickly, said Dr. Pesavento.
Consult your veterinarian to get the correct diagnosis, including any laboratory testing. Prompt treatment, regardless of the cause, gives your dog a better chance of quick recovery and avoids infecting other animals.
“There is no circovirus-specific treatment, said Dr. Pesavento. “As with most viral infections, your veterinarian can treat symptoms with supportive fluid therapy or antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections.”
A healthy pet is more likely to have a fully functional immune system to fight infections, so good preventive care is also important.
More than anyone, you know when your dog is not behaving normally. Prompt veterinary treatment can be critical to a good outcome, so address all illnesses early for the overall health of your pet.
Wellness: Healthy Living
A snoring spouse, sirens and glowing electronic screens can all make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Research from the Mayo Clinic finds that pets can be part of the problem, too.
Patients at the Mayo Center for Sleep Medicine were asked about causes of interrupted sleep in 2002, and only 1 percent mentioned their pets as an issue, though 22 percent had pets sharing their beds. When patients were asked similar questions in 2013, 10 percent reported that their pets disturbed their sleep.
Dr. Lois Krahn, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, says, “Dogs disturbed sleep by wanting to sleep in a particular place on the bed (where the sleeper would prefer to place their feet, under the covers, on the pillow), needing attention and creating sounds [such as] whimpering during dreaming.”
One benefit of having a dog is having a warm body to snuggle up with at the end of a long day. But sometimes, what you love gets in the way of what you need. In a 2009 survey done by Kansas State University, Dr. Kate Stenske found that more than half of dog owners allow their dogs to sleep in their beds.
How can you reconcile your need for solid sleep with the comfort of your canine companion?
First, take an honest look at how well you sleep. Do you fall asleep quickly, or do you spend a long time tossing and turning? Are you up in the night, for your own needs or to take care of something else? In the morning, are you energized or do you rely on coffee to get going?
If your dog is getting in the way of your falling or staying asleep, it’s time to make some changes. Try moving her from your bed to her own bed in the same room; create a comfortable space near you but on the floor. This is a hard habit to break, so plan to work on it. You’ll have to keep moving her back to her bed when she climbs up with you, but be patient and offer lots of praise.
What about doggie sleep sounds? If you don’t want to use earplugs, try white noise from a fan or other appliance with a constant humming sound.
Once you take back your sleeping space, you may realize that the dog wasn’t the problem. Dr. J. Todd Arnedt of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan has tips for what he calls good “sleep hygiene.”
• Avoid evening exercise.
If you make these changes and insomnia is still stalking you, it’s time to talk to a professional for more in-depth study.
Most dog owners can continue to enjoy the comfort and companionship of their furriest family member through the night. But if sleep is evasive, you may want to take a closer look at what’s keeping you up at night.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Tuning in to your senior’s needs.
There’s something disconcerting about being middle-aged and watching my once-agile dog leap ahead of me into old age. No, not leap—she’s too creaky for that, stiff and slow almost overnight, it seems. She’s suddenly terrified of the kinds of storms she once danced through; she spurns a morning walk to go back to bed, circling awkwardly in an effort to get comfortable. Once down, she’ll lie there for hours on end, chin over the edge like Snoopy at his most dejected.
She’s depressed about getting old, I decide—never dreaming that it’s I who haven’t made the necessary accommodations.
“A lot of old dogs get what I call the ‘shrinking world’ syndrome,” says certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug. “Their owners get in a rut with them; they start walking the dog less” (gulp) “and they don’t train the dog or teach him tricks. The dog doesn’t get as much stimulation and enrichment—maybe they stop taking the dog to the dog park—and there’s a significant decline in mental and physical challenges.” Stung, I mention Sophie’s arthritis. “So maybe she can swim. Or the walks are shorter. Or maybe you just take her into a wooded park, lie down on a blanket and let her look around and sniff.”
It’s the slowing we have trouble with; we expect our dogs to be the same forever. Instead, their senses of sight and smell grow less acute, their joints stiffen, or their legs may splay like Bambi’s on slick hardwood floors. Some develop a canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s: “It’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome,” Haug explains, “and it shows up with dementia, changes in their sleep-wake cycles—they might pace all night and sleep all day—vocalizing at night, forgetting their training. You say ‘Sit’ and they stare at you blankly.”
Other dogs develop anxiety disorders for the first time, anything from separation anxiety to storm phobias or nocturnal panic attacks. “The dog may be less social, not coming to greet you, or might get clingier with increased anxiety,” Haug says. “Sometimes they’re just disoriented; they go to the back door but poke their nose at the hinge side. Sometimes we see aggression and irritability. But because anxiety is one of the symptoms, the more you keep the dog stretched mentally, the more you are able to control some of those reactions.”
The wonderful paradox is that by working within your dog’s new limits, you can lessen the change in her responses. Choose games she can still play readily, amusements that don’t stress her, and she’ll be as eager as ever.
“Find new ways to connect with your dog,” Haug urges. “Teaching a trick is not only good for the dog’s brain, but it’s a fun, low-pressure way to do something that doesn’t require a lot of physical strength. The trick doesn’t need to be a backflip. They can bow, cover their eyes with their paws, flick their ears…” Grooming is another way to connect; so is hanging out on the porch or at the park.
It’s not just the dog who needs to learn new tricks—we do too.
Easing Their Way
“Older dogs need softer toys,” notes Catherine Frost, brand and product champion for Planet Dog. Her whitemuzzled black Lab, Ollie, is the model for Planet Dog’s line of Old Soul toys, which are made from a compound that’s gentle on dogs with older jaws, sensitive teeth, reduced “snout strength”and weakened muscles and joints. Similarly, Senior Kongs are constructed with softer rubber.
“Their olfactory sense has probably diminished, so stronger scents are good,” Frost adds, “and high-contrast colors are important so they can see the toy clearly. But the notion that they don’t want to play anymore? That’s not true at all! To be able to lie down and just chew helps them relax and keeps them from being bored. You can’t ever assume that your dog doesn’t want to play.”
Even for dogs at their healthiest, transportation can be tough, and older dogs often don’t hop into a back seat the way they used to. Haug suggests creating a surface that “provides stable footing but is not so firm that when the dog lies down, he’s uncomfortable.” For big cars and vans, there are ramps and steps; take breed and body shape into account when making your selection, however. If you have a Dachshund, you don’t want the short, steep steps, which are popular because they take up less space. Make sure the steps’ treads are deep enough for sure footing and wide enough to forgive a misstep.
It’s also a kindness to soften distractions such as sudden loud noises, and to avoid abrupt changes in routine. Older dogs can be more easily startled; as they’re less able to maneuver or defend themselves, they feel more fragile and grow more fearful, reluctant to play with new dogs or children, distressed by chaos and commotion. (Dr. Debra Horowitz, a veterinary behaviorist, notes that dogs’ neurotransmitter functions change with age—oxygen levels go down and brain chemistry is altered.)
Sometimes, the startle or anxiety is just because the dog can’t see or hear as well as he once did. Cataracts can start to form as early as age seven, for example. But overall, sensory declines are rarely as traumatic for dogs as they are for us egoridden humans; often the changes are so gradual that the dog adapts, and you might not even realize he’s blind or deaf, especially if you have other dogs and he’s following their lead. Susan McCullough, author of Senior Dogs for Dummies, says, “If you sense your dog’s hearing is going bad and he or she doesn’t already know hand signals, teach them now. If your dog is blind, now is not the time to change the furniture. Dogs are amazing, though, in their ability to compensate. I had a dog who still responded to vibrations, so I’d clap my hands and she’d come to me. Creativity goes a long way.”
Food for senior dogs isn’t as complicated as the marketers make it, according to Dr. Donna Raditic, a vet certified in alternative therapies and currently a post-grad resident in nutrition at the University of Tennessee. “Older dogs can eat the adult diets. The development of geriatric diets is a bit of marketing, plus some old beliefs that lowering protein levels spares the kidneys. Actually, we now know that older dogs and humans need more protein. The main concern for geriatrics is to watch calories, because they tend to be less active, especially in winter.”
Older dogs should be monitored for dental problems, like bleeding gums or tooth loss. Even bad breath can signal something as simple as tartar buildup or as serious as oral cancer, kidney disease or diabetes mellitus. And when dogs do fall ill, nausea can decrease their appetite. “Often owners think their dogs are being picky—they are not—they don’t feel well!” Raditic exclaims. “It can be very difficult to keep weight and condition on an old dog with a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract.”
Glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to be beneficial for arthritis, and anti-inflammatory pain meds can help, too. How do you know when your dog’s in pain? According to Haug, the signs are pretty obvious. Look for “restlessness, crankiness, irritability when handled, difficulty getting up or lying down, looking stiff, being unstable, moving very slowly. Sometimes, if they move suddenly, their joints scrape together.” She sighs. “The thing that’s underappreciated, even sometimes by veterinarians, is how much these dogs can benefit from pain medication. Some are restless at night, only because they can’t get comfortable.”
Check Your Assumptions
Ted Kerasote, author of the acclaimed memoir Merle’s Door, is a superb athlete; when his dog Merle couldn’t do the ski runs anymore, it broke Kerasote’s heart. Then it made him examine his own impulses. “The first thing to be clear about is whom you’re indulging. Very often, because we want to run or mountain bike, we delude ourselves into thinking, ‘The dog loves this,’ and we push the dog far beyond where he needs to go. The problem is, dogs age much more quickly than we do. Say you get a dog when you’re 30, you’re now 38 and in fine shape, and the dog is possibly geriatric.”
Kerasote is currently working on a new book, titled Why Dogs Die Young and What We Can Do about It. “Most of the people I’ve spoken with who have really long-lived dogs change their dog’s food periodically, seasonally,” he remarks,“just the way a wild wolf would have different food seasonally, and the way we would.”
The biggest factor of all, though, is real engagement. “We are very self-serving: Many of us live busy urban lives, so we buy a whole passel of toys and leave the dog alone all day,” Kerasote says. “The older the dog gets, and the more he’s been left at home, the more he spirals into this kind of depression. People may need to think about budgeting for a dog walker. Or your dog might even be happier driving to work with you, enjoying the ride, sleeping in the car, going for a few short walks and driving home with you. We tend to think, ‘Oh, that’s just an old dog, he loves just lying around.’ Well, have you given the dog a choice?
“You need to find ways to perk up your dog,” he continues. “I’ve never seen a dog who preferred playing with a toy to two or three friendly peers.” Of course, as the dog gets older, the key is finding other dogs who won’t be rough or over-exuberant. But the results are worth the search.
McCullough has one final reminder: Don’t write everything off to aging. A single imperious diva bark to summon you might not be a sign of reduced mobility or altered brain chemistry; it might just be a single imperious diva bark because it’s fun to summon you. Refusal to eat or mobility issues could be signs of other problems, not age-related at all.
There’s one thing age can’t affect, she emphasizes, and that’s the bond you’ve already forged with your dog. “With a puppy, you’re still building that bond,” McCullough points out. “With an older dog, the history’s been created; all you have to do is celebrate it. Revel in it. And when you’re uncertain what to do, let love be your guide.”
More Recipes from "Dog Cookies"
Every dog deserves the occasional cookie, but some treats can trigger allergies or tummy trouble. Dog Cookies comes to the rescue with 30 easy-to-follow recipes for healthy, allergen-free treats—including vegetarian and gluten-free treats—so you can find the perfect cookie no matter your dog’s diet.
For the gluten-free Amaranth Waffles recipe, see the Summer 2011 issue of The Bark.
Baking time: 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven
Any type of fish can be used for this recipe, so use whichever your dog likes best.
Caution: Ensure all of the bones are removed from the fish.
Regardless of which fish you use, these biscuits should not be stored for too long. Salmon, for example is quite high in fat, so there is a risk it may go rancid. Store the biscuits in an airtight container, and do not keep them for any longer than two weeks.
Baking time: 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven
Wellness: Healthy Living
Help your pup shed excess weight.
How many times has your veterinarian commented on your dog’s weight? How many times have you been told, “Here’s a bag of prescription diet food—if you feed your dog this and only this, he will lose weight.” But what if he doesn’t? And why should you care?
Clinical research has shown that losing just 10 percent of body weight will slow or prevent many life-threatening disease processes, including debilitating osteoarthritis and diabetes, and perhaps even some types of cancers. By taking a few simple measures, you may be able to add more quality time to your dog’s life, time the two of you can enjoy together.
Feed higher protein/lower carbohydrate foods (a 3:1 ratio); proteins and fats are converted to usable energy faster than starches and carbs. Think of this as the “puppy Paleo diet”! And even if you’re feeding a high-protein, grain-free variety, cut down on kibble. In general, all kibble has 60 percent more starch than canned food because starch is needed to maintain the kibble’s shape when it’s baked or extruded. Too much dry food equals too much starch, which breaks down to sugars and is stored as body fat. It’s easy to overfeed dry foods, especially if you follow the directions on the packaging.
Add water or broth to kibble to make it nicely soupy. The extra liquid will help your dog digest his food more easily and reduce his body’s need to pull water from his system to his stomach, which can contribute to dehydration.
Try gradually reducing your dog’s kibble ration by half, replacing it with more moisture-based foods such as lean meats, fish or eggs, and low-starch green and orange vegetables and fruits. I’ve found that companion animals do best with at least 50 percent of their diet fed as fresh foods—cooked, raw, dehydrated or freeze-dried—mixed with a significantly reduced volume of highgrade kibble. This keeps them satisfied and helps with the faster metabolic change that promotes weight loss. Another option is to feed him a low-carbohydrate canned food; these have less starch and more water, and therefore, fewer extra calories to stick around. Or, transition him to a complete and balanced commercial raw diet, which has very little starch.
Decreased fat content also helps with weight loss, but do not eliminate fats entirely, as they satisfy hunger; look for 4 to 7 percent fat content in canned foods. Also, avoid feeding excess insoluble fiber; among other things, it may interfere with nutrient absorption. Roughly 5 to 6 percent fiber is ideal. If stools become soft, add 1/4 teaspoon of psyllium to each meal. Make mealtime more fun with interactive feeding toys. These not only stimulate a dog’s mind, they make him work for his supper (or breakfast, or snack). Dogs eat more slowly and expend more calories. Google “how to stuff a dog-feeding toy” for helpful tips. The Kong is the granddaddy of dog-feeding toys, and there are other excellent options on the market as well, among them Nina Ottosson’s ingenious products.
Walk It Out
As your dog becomes stronger, try walking in water at the beach, up streams and against gentle currents. (The caveat here is to be aware of water temperature; very cold water can lead to achy joints.) Or, walk on sand, on grassy slopes, and up and down gentle inclines. Finally, when he’s ready for it, take him on longer hikes or try a doggie treadmill.
Keep your dog on his feet and improve his balance with some fun exercises. To work his gluteals and hamstrings, have him take several steps backward. Stepping sideways tunes up his adductor and abductor muscles. Navigating cavaletti (small hurdles set at uneven heights); threading through poles or cones; or walking on cushions, an air mattress or a thick foam pad will help him with balance and proprioception (knowing where his feet are). Sit-to-stand and lie-to-stand exercises strengthen hip and knee muscles.
Weight-shifting is another way to help your dog’s balance. Hold one of his legs off the ground for three to six seconds at a time, or have him stand with his front feet on a stair step to eat. To loosen his neck, shoulder muscles and upper spine, lure him into stretching his head back toward his body with a carrot or small lean meat treat.
So, here’s the proverbial bottom line: One—paraphrasing Michael Pollan—feed your dog real food, feed him less of it, and include a variety of protein sources and dog-safe fruits and vegetables. Two, strengthen and improve his muscle tone, balance and stamina with condition-appropriate activities. He’ll have a sleeker physique and you’ll thank yourself for making the effort.
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: 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.
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