Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Preventive health care helps pets live longer, happier lives. But some cats are so anxious about travel that bringing them to the clinic—not to mention examining and treating them—is a challenge.
Resistance to carriers and stress at the veterinary hospital are two of the top reasons that some cats receive no preventive health care at all. Here are some things you can do at home to make trips to the clinic easier for your cat.
Choosing a carrier
Choose a carrier that is easy to get your cat into and out of. Lifting a cat out of a top opening is less stressful (to the cat) than pulling or dumping her out of a front opening. A front-loading carrier lets a cat walk in on her own, so consider carriers with both front and top doors. Rigid plastic carriers that come apart in the middle are great for cats who are anxious at the clinic. Taking the top half of the carrier off makes it easy to gently scoop out a cat. Sometimes the cat can stay in the bottom half, where she might feel more secure, for most of the examination.
Getting your cat used to the carrier
Cats need lots of time to adjust to new things. Let your cat get used to the carrier at home before you need to bring her to the clinic.
Once your cat is going into the carrier on her own, shut the door for brief periods. Continue to give positive reinforcement: occasionally drop a treat through the top while the door is shut. Let her out before she shows signs of anxiety (ears pinned back, flattened or frozen posture, vocalization).
Getting your cat used to traveling
After your cat has accepted the carrier as a normal part of life, take her on short car rides that end in something fun. Dogs who love car rides have learned that good things happen after a trip. Cats are often put in the car only to go somewhere they don’t like, so naturally they are less happy about it. Try taking very short trips that end at home, with treats and toys when you get back.
Carrier training and synthetic feline pheromones are just not enough to manage some cats’ fears. (Cats who are aggressive at the clinic are scared cats, not bad cats.) Or you might need to bring your cat to the clinic before you have time to accustom her to the carrier. Antianxiety medication given at home before a clinic visit can make a big difference for some cats. Call the clinic if you’d like to discuss the options. We want the clinic experience to be as stress-free as possible for both you and your cat.
More information from the American Association of Feline Practitioners
Choosing the perfect cat carrier
Cat carrier tips
Getting your cat to the veterinarian
Photo by Paul
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Have you wondered what happens during a dental cleaning at the veterinary hospital? Recently I brought my dog Oreo to the clinic to clean her teeth. Read on to see what was involved.
Oreo is about 7 years old and had her last dental cleaning 2 years ago. I’ve brushed her teeth at home, but not regularly enough to keep tartar from building up.
Oreo came to the clinic with an empty stomach. Thoroughly cleaning pets’ teeth requires general anesthesia, so Oreo had bloodwork to check for abnormalities that might affect the anesthetic plan. The analysis included blood cell counts, markers of liver and kidney function, electrolyte levels, blood sugar level, and other tests. I also gave her a complete physical exam. In the coming months Mallard Creek will be installing a dental x-ray unit, which will let us further assess patients before their dental procedures.
2. Preanesthetic medication
Oreo received a sedative injection before going under general anesthesia. This sedative reduced the amount of general anesthetic she needed. Injected sedatives wear off more slowly than the general anesthetic agents we use at Mallard Creek, so Oreo was a little sleepy for a few hours after her procedure.
3. Intravenous catheter
We clipped fur from Oreo’s front leg, cleaned the skin with an antiseptic, and placed a catheter in her vein. During the procedure, Oreo received intravenous fluids through the catheter.
4. Anesthesia induction and endotracheal tube placement
Oreo’s general anesthesia began with an injection of a fast-acting anesthetic agent through her catheter. Once she was asleep, we placed an endotracheal tube in her trachea (windpipe). This tube allowed us to deliver oxygen and anesthetic gas to keep her asleep. An inflatable cuff on the tube also kept water and debris out of her lungs.
Pam, one of our trained veterinary technicians, looked after Oreo while I was cleaning her teeth. Pam monitored Oreo’s heart rate, breathing, blood oxygen level, and level of anesthesia.
6. Tooth scaling
I removed plaque and tartar from Oreo’s teeth with an ultrasonic scaler. This instrument vibrates at a very high speed to remove tartar quickly and efficiently. It sprays water while it’s cleaning to keep the scaler tip cool. Because Oreo was under anesthesia, I was able to remove plaque and tartar under her gums, which is essential to prevent gingivitis and periodontal disease. Oreo’s gums bled a little during scaling, showing that she had already developed some gingivitis even though her gums did not look particularly inflamed on the physical exam.
7. Tooth polishing
After I scaled Oreo’s teeth, I polished them with polishing compound. The point of polishing is not to make the teeth look pretty. Polishing smooths the tooth enamel after scaling, removing tiny grooves where bacteria and plaque can take hold. Brushing with toothpaste does not have the same effect.
8. Rinse and repeat
After I rinsed the polishing compound from Oreo’s teeth, Pam and I turned her over to repeat the process on the other side.
9. Waking up
When the cleaning was finished, Pam turned off the anesthetic gas and let Oreo breathe oxygen. During this time, Pam continued to monitor Oreo’s vital signs and trimmed her toenails. After a few minutes, Oreo began waking up, and Pam removed her endotracheal tube. Later on, Pam removed the intravenous catheter.
10. Going home
Oreo came home with a bandage on her front leg where the catheter had been. I removed the bandage that evening. After a couple of days it was time to restart her home dental care!
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Cold weather can be hazardous to pets. Fur is not enough to protect pets when the temperature plummets, even if they spend most of their time outdoors when it's warmer. If it’s too cold for people to be outside for very long, it’s too cold for dogs and cats too.
Some cities have regulations stating that animals cannot be left outdoors when the temperature falls below a certain point. Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s animal ordinance is more general: “Animals must have an adequate shelter so that the animal can be protected from extremes of weather (heat, cold, rain, etc.) and able to remain dry and comfortable.” Use common sense when deciding how long your pets can be outdoors in cold weather.
Know your pets’ limitations
Some pets are more tolerant of cold weather than others. Body condition, coat type, age, and health all affect an animal’s ability to withstand low temperatures. A healthy 3-year-old Siberian husky can handle the cold more easily than an arthritic 11-year-old greyhound, but even the husky is susceptible to hypothermia if left outside too long.
Medical conditions like heart disease and thyroid disease can make it harder for pets to regulate their body temperature. Pets with arthritis may be more likely to fall if they encounter icy patches. Very young and very old animals can also have trouble managing temperature extremes. These pets can go outdoors in the cold, but their time outside should be supervised and shorter than usual.
Watch for signs that your pet is having trouble with the cold:
Bring them indoors
It’s fine to let healthy dogs play outdoors in the cold for a while, but they shouldn’t stay out for a long time. In weather as cold as we’ve had this past week, dogs should certainly be indoors at night. How long they can stay outside during the day depends on the dog and the environment. The safest approach is to keep dogs indoors during the day and take them out frequently for supervised exercise.
The Humane Society recommends never leaving cats outdoors in cold weather at all. Cats sometimes seek shelter in warm car engines. Bang on the hood of your car and perhaps honk the horn before you start the engine to evict stray cats and wildlife that might have taken refuge under the hood.
Wrap them up
We’ve seen some spiffy coats and sweaters on dogs coming into the clinic. If you think your pet will be more comfortable in a coat, be sure it fits snugly and has no loose parts that might trap legs or become a chew hazard. Remove wet clothing immediately; it will make pets colder.
Keep them safe on walks
January is Walk Your Pet Month. Even in cold weather, walking has great health benefits for both you and your dog. Keep dogs on a leash when you’re near bodies of water so they won’t jump in. Wipe their paws when you come indoors to remove ice balls stuck between their paw pads and chemicals used to melt ice on roads.
Ice-melting chemicals and salt are dangerous if swallowed or licked off paws. Keep these products out of reach of your pets. Do not let your pets lick or walk through any liquid that has leaked from a motor vehicle. Even small amounts of antifreeze can be deadly; windshield washing solution is also toxic.
Cold weather pet safety (AVMA)
Cold weather safety tips (ASPCA)
7 Tips to keep animals healthy during cold weather (NCSU)
Photo by Marcus Löfvenberg
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Do you like to give holiday gifts to your pets? You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make them happy—as any cat owner whose cat likes the box better than the toy already knows. Rather than listing the latest and greatest toys you can buy at the last minute on Christmas weekend, I’ll discuss a few things you can do for your pets to keep them healthy and stress-free throughout the year.
Toys are an important part of environmental enrichment for both dogs and cats. Environmental enrichment means giving animals objects and experiences that meet their psychological and physical needs. Providing adequate enrichment reduces animals’ anxiety, which in turn reduces unwanted behavior.
Consider your pets’ natural instincts when choosing toys. Some dogs enjoy playing fetch; others (like all of the dogs I’ve had myself) would rather watch you do the fetching. Cats are natural predators and need toys that simulate stalk-and-pounce hunting.
Behaviorists suggest using toys that provide different types of sensory stimulation (taste, vision, hearing, smell, and touch). For both dogs and cats, rotate toys to prevent boredom. Be mindful of possible choking hazards and monitor your pets while they are playing.
Toy ideas for dogs:
Toy ideas for cats:
Exercise, which can include both walking and interactive play, benefits both you and your pets. Walking your dogs promotes bonding; sending them alone into a fenced yard does not. If you usually play with your pet for only a couple of minutes at a time, consider increasing the interaction time. In one study, owners who played with their cats for bouts of 5 minutes or longer reported fewer cat behavior problems than owners who played with their cats for only 1 minute at a time.
Give your pets indoor hideaways. A safe space can be a crate, a tall cat perch, or a quiet room—anywhere they can get away from visitors, other pets, or loud noises like New Year’s fireworks. Give your pets time to become comfortable with the safe space before a stressful event occurs so they will see it as a retreat, not a punishment.
A veterinary blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the gift of good health! Fleas, ticks, heartworms, and intestinal parasites (like hookworms and roundworms) are all common in the South. Parasite preventives are safer and more effective than they were in past decades, and keeping your pets free of parasites will also protect your own health. A new toothbrush and pet toothpaste are great stocking stuffers for pets. Regular physical examinations, appropriate vaccinations, and good nutrition will also help keep your pets healthy.
Disaster Preparation Plan
Give yourself peace of mind and ensure your pets’ safety by preparing in advance for winter storms and unexpected disasters. Plan how you’ll take your pets with you during an evacuation, and consider giving them microchips as permanent identification in case you get separated. See the disaster plan post for more tips.
Above all, give your pets lots of love and attention, and have a wonderful holiday!
Thanks to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (environmental needs PDF), Clinician’s Brief (environmental enrichment for cats [PDF] and dogs [PDF]), American Veterinary Medical Association, Indoor Pet Initiative, Companion Animal Psychology, and Psychology Today for some of the ideas in this article.
Photo by oliverromero
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The winter holiday season brings some potential hazards for pets. Here are some tips to keep them safe over the holidays.
Tinsel: Cats like shiny tinsel—and they like to put it in their mouths. Swallowed tinsel can cause dangerous intestinal blockages, so keep tinsel off the tree if you have cats.
Other ornaments: Broken ornaments can injure paws. Any swallowed ornament can block the digestive tract. Hang ornaments made from salt dough (or anything else that’s attractive to your pets) out of their reach.
Christmas trees: Cats can tip over Christmas trees by climbing them. Consider anchoring your tree to the ceiling or a door frame, possibly with fishing line. If you have a live tree, don’t use water additives. These can harm pets who drink the water.
Snow globes and bubble lights: The liquid inside these decorations can be toxic to pets. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, some snow globes contain ethylene glycol (antifreeze), which is extremely dangerous if it’s swallowed. Old-fashioned bubble lights may contain methylene chloride, which is also toxic to pets (and children).
Liquid potpourri: Scented oils can cause mouth and digestive tract ulcers, skin irritation, and nausea. Cats are more sensitive than dogs to the toxic effects.
Lighting: Don’t leave pets alone in a room with lit candles, and be sure burning candles are out of reach of wagging tails. Keep electrical cords and batteries away from curious or fast-moving pets.
Plants: Lilies are highly toxic to cats. Holly, mistletoe, and amaryllis flowers and leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. Amaryllis bulbs and large quantities of mistletoe can cause more serious problems. Poinsettias are only mildly toxic, usually causing mild stomach upset. Christmas cactus is not considered toxic, although ingestion can cause mild vomiting and diarrhea. Christmas tree needles can irritate the digestive tract. Pets that ingest needles or water from Christmas trees may develop vomiting and diarrhea.
Food and Alcohol
Ask guests not to give your pets human food as treats. Don’t leave alcoholic beverages where pets can reach them, and clear food from the table before you let pets into the room. Cover your kitchen garbage can or take out the trash before your pets have a chance to investigate it. Chocolate, alcohol, grapes, raisins, yeast dough, sugarless candy, onions, bones, and fatty food (including gravy and turkey skin) are some of the foods that are hazardous to pets. See the November post about human foods that are toxic to pets for a more complete discussion.
Give your pets a quiet place indoors (a crate or quiet room) to get away from the hubbub of holiday parties. If retreating to a familiar safe zone is not enough to manage a pet’s anxiety, call us for other options. When visitors are entering and leaving your home, keep an eye on your pets to be sure they don’t escape. Be sure each pet has an identification collar, a microchip, or both. If guests will be bringing pets that yours have not already met, either keep the 2 sets of pets separated or introduce them slowly and watch them closely while they’re together.
If your pets are traveling with you out of state or out of the country, familiarize yourself with animal travel regulations. Schedule an appointment for a health certificate examination if needed. Pack a copy of their medical records (such as vaccination history) and all of their medications, including monthly heartworm and flea preventives if they will fall due while you’re traveling. Locate a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic near your destination. If you are traveling by air, contact the airline in advance in case they have additional requirements. Tranquilizers are not recommended for pets traveling by air.
New Year’s Eve fireworks are challenging for pets who are fearful of loud noises. For pets who take antianxiety medication for noise phobia, check your supply and arrange for a refill if needed. See the post about noise phobia for more information.
Photo by Spiritze
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Prescription and over-the-counter human medications are the most common toxins that pets ingest, according to the ASPCA Poison Control Center. This article covers some of the over-the-counter products that are hazardous to pets.
Pets can be exposed to these products either accidentally or intentionally. Keep all medications and supplements out of your pets’ reach, and never assume that a product that is safe for people is also safe for pets. Dogs and cats process drugs differently from humans. A dose of medication that is OK for a 50-lb child could be very dangerous for a 50-lb dog.
Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Some brand names are Advil, Motrin, and Aleve. In dogs and cats, these drugs can cause digestive tract ulcers, leading to diarrhea, belly pain, and bleeding. NSAIDs can also cause liver and kidney failure at higher doses. Although low doses of aspirin can be used with proper precautions in dogs, ibuprofen and naproxen are not safe for pets. NSAIDs and other pain relievers that are formulated especially for dogs and cats are safer and more effective.
Acetaminophen (brand names Tylenol and Excedrin) is highly toxic to cats even in small amounts. It damages cats’ red blood cells and can cause liver failure and death. Dogs are less sensitive than cats to the toxic effects but can also sustain liver damage from acetaminophen.
Cold and cough remedies
Decongestants like pseudoephedrine (in Sudafed) and phenylephrine (in many oral decongestants and nasal sprays) can cause agitation, hyperactivity, heart rhythm abnormalities, seizures, and death in pets. Some antihistamine products, especially combination or multisymptom products, include decongestants. Always check the active ingredient list before giving any antihistamine to your pet.
Other ingredients in decongestant nasal sprays—like oxymetazoline, the active ingredient of Afrin—can cause weakness, collapse, hyperactivity, vomiting, and heart rhythm abnormalities in pets. Pets are usually exposed to this type of product by chewing the bottle.
Although the cough suppressant dextromethorphan (in Robitussin and Delsym) can be used in dogs, high doses cause nervous system problems. As with antihistamines, always check the ingredient lists of cough remedies; many include ingredients that are not safe for pets.
Tetrahydrozoline, the active ingredient of Visine, is in the same drug class as oxymetazoline and causes similar symptoms in pets.
Vitamins and iron supplements
Flavored chewable vitamins may be attractive to dogs. High doses of vitamin D can cause kidney failure. Very high doses of vitamin A can also cause serious problems in pets. Iron toxicosis can cause digestive tract ulcers, bleeding, liver damage, and seizures.
Chewable vitamins may also contain xylitol, an artificial sweetener. Dogs that ingest xylitol can develop low blood sugar levels and liver failure.
Zinc oxide, an ingredient in some sunscreens and other skin creams, causes vomiting and diarrhea if swallowed.
Herbal supplements and essential oils
The dietary supplement 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP; Griffonia seed extract) can have serious effects on the digestive system, nervous system, heart, and lungs in dogs and cats. Vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and death can result.
Herbal supplements marketed for weight loss and energy may include guarana, which contains caffeine, and ma huang, a source of ephedrine. Dogs that accidentally ingest these products can develop hyperactivity, seizures, and heart rhythm abnormalities. Death is possible at high doses.
Peppermint oil is toxic to cats, potentially causing digestive tract, nervous system, and liver problems. Tea tree oil, even small amounts applied to the skin, can be toxic to dogs and cats (cats are more susceptible than dogs). Exposure can cause tremors, coma, and liver damage.
Nicotine in cigarettes, e-cigarette cartridges, nicotine patches, and nicotine gum is toxic to pets that ingest these products. Nicotine toxicosis can cause vomiting, seizures, and death.
For more information about pet poisonings
ASPCA Animal Poison Control
Pet Poison Helpline
Khan SA. Toxicities from over-the-counter drugs. Merck Veterinary Manual website. Accessed November 26, 2017.
Patel T, Brutlag A. Drug store toxins in small animals. In: Plumb DC, ed. Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook, 8th ed. Ames, IA: Wiley-Blackwell; 2015:1683-1687.
Poisonous household products. ASPCA Animal Poison Control website. Accessed November 26, 2017.
Top 10 human medications poisonous to pets. Pet Poison Helpline website. Accessed November 26, 2017.
Photo by freestocks.org
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The Halloween safety post touched on treats that can be hazardous to pets. Here’s a more detailed list of common foods that are dangerous for dogs and cats.
Alcohol, raw bread dough, and raw pizza dough
These foods contain ethanol, a type of alcohol. Pets are most often exposed by accidentally consuming alcoholic beverages. Toxicosis has also been reported in dogs who ate raw yeast dough or rotten apples. Ethanol consumption can cause vomiting, dehydration, sedation, coordination problems, low body temperature, difficulty breathing, coma, and death.
Uncooked bread or pizza dough can also cause life-threatening bloat. Yeast continues to rise in the stomach, filling the stomach with a large mass of dough in addition to the gas given off by fermentation.
Chocolate, coffee, and other caffeine-containing products
The toxic ingredients of chocolate are caffeine and theobromine, which are both in a class of compounds called methylxanthines. Other products that contain methylxanthines (coffee, black tea, soft drinks, mulch made of cocoa bean shells, some herbal supplements, and some human medicines) are also dangerous to animals. Low doses of methylxanthines cause vomiting, diarrhea, restlessness, and increased thirst. High doses cause heart rhythm problems, seizures, coma, and death. Chocolate consumption is the most common cause of methylxanthine toxicosis in dogs. In general, the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the higher the methylxanthine content and the higher the risk.
Grapes, raisins, currants, and sultanas
Grapes, either fresh or dried, can cause life-threatening kidney failure in dogs. Although some dogs can eat grapes and raisins without showing any symptoms, others develop kidney failure after eating only a few. Because we do not yet know why some dogs are sensitive, it’s best to avoid giving dogs any grapes or their dried versions, including raisins in baked goods. In susceptible dogs, grape consumption causes vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and belly pain. Dogs can develop kidney failure and die within 3 days of eating grapes or raisins.
Home beer brewing can expose pets to hops, which are used in the brewing process. In dogs, both fresh and spent hops cause a dangerous increase in body temperature called malignant hyperthermia. Signs include anxiety, increased heart rate, vomiting, panting, elevated body temperature, seizures, and death.
Dogs who eat macadamia nuts may develop vomiting, weakness, loss of coordination, lameness, tremors, and high body temperature. No deaths have been reported.
Onions, garlic, leeks, and chives
These vegetables and other members of the Allium genus contain compounds that irritate dogs’ and cats’ digestive tracts and damage their red blood cells. Cats are especially sensitive to the toxic effects. Consumption can cause vomiting, diarrhea, belly pain, loss of appetite, anemia, and jaundice. Be sure to check the ingredient lists of any human foods you give your pets. Some varieties of chicken baby food, for example, contain onion or garlic for flavor.
Xylitol is an artificial sweetener used in sugarless gum, sugar-free candy, breads, other baked goods, and some human dental products. Drinking water additives for pet dental care may also contain xylitol. Although xylitol is safe for most species, in dogs it interferes with insulin metabolism and can cause a life-threatening drop in blood sugar levels. Dogs that consume xylitol can also develop liver failure. The first symptom of toxicosis is usually vomiting. Other signs include weakness, loss of coordination, seizures, jaundice, and coma.
Food ingredients that aren’t good for people aren’t good for pets either. These include bones (choking, perforation of the digestive tract), moldy food (mycotoxins), raw meat or eggs (bacterial contamination), and rotten fruit (ethanol). High-fat food or indiscriminate eating can also cause inflammation of the pancreas in dogs.
Cortinovis C, Caloni F. Household food items toxic to dogs and cats. Front Vet Sci. 2016;3:26.
Food hazards. Merck Veterinary Manual website. Accessed November 10, 2017.
People foods to avoid feeding your pets. ASPCA Animal Poison Control website. Accessed November 10, 2017.
Photo by Rohit Tandon
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Halloween is just a few days away! It’s a fun holiday, but it can be stressful and even dangerous for some pets. Here are 8 tips to keep your pets safe during the holiday.
1. Keep your pets away from candy! Be sure the candy bowl is out of their reach, and confine them to another part of the house while your children are diving into their treat bags. If your pet eats candy, call a veterinarian right away. These are some of the treats that are hazardous to pets:
2. Watch for other things your pets might swallow, like lollipop sticks and candy wrappers.
3. Bring your cats indoors.
4. Keep your pets in a quiet room away from the front door. If they react to doorbells, consider using one of the tactics that families with sleeping babies in my neighborhood use:
5. Keep glow sticks and glow bracelets away from your pets. These are usually not toxic, but the liquid inside tastes terrible and can cause drooling and pawing at the mouth.
6. If you dress your pet in a costume, be sure the costume doesn’t block its vision, breathing, hearing, or movement. Watch for small parts or loose ends that your pet might swallow. Don't leave a pet in a costume unattended.
7. Keep your pets away from electrical cords and lit candles.
8. Be sure your pets are wearing collars with identification tags or have microchips in case they escape from the house while the door is open.
Giving your pets a quiet place indoors to get away from the activity—and away from the candy—is usually the best way to keep them calm and safe during holidays. Happy Halloween!
Mary Fluke, DVM
Associate Veterinarian, Mallard Creek Animal Hospital
A tale of two Labs…or why it’s a good idea to not let your dog get fat.
Life teaches us lessons sometimes, often unexpectedly. That happened to me a few days ago. It was a busy morning here at the practice and one of my cases was a young Black Lab, about a year old, presenting because of a skin fold infection. She was a really nice dog with a really nice owner and a problem that will likely get better with the treatment, but part of her issue was that she is about 10-15 lbs overweight which is why the skin fold had gotten so prominent. Her owner was in the habit of feeding all her dogs together out of one bowl and wasn’t really sure how much food she put out, reasoning that it was best to have food available all the time so that the dogs wouldn’t be hungry. We talked about how to change how she feeds her dogs so they won’t feel the need to compete with each other for food and how the amount on the back of the bag was almost always too much. We set a goal for about how much food to give the dogs to get them, and particularly this dog, back to normal body weights.
A few years ago, Purina completed a project called the Life Span Study. They started with fifty 8 week old Labrador Retriever puppies, in pairs, with one being allowed to eat as much as it wanted each day, and the other pup being fed 10% less. As they grew up, the pups that ate all they wanted grew faster and got bigger at a younger age and wound up being overweight when they reached adulthood. The pups that were fed the lesser amount grew a little slower—they got just as big in the end, but were not overweight as adults. Various tests were done on the dogs including evaluation for hip dysplasia. The dogs fed free choice as pups were more likely to show signs of hip dysplasia on radiographs than their limited fed friends, even though they all came from the same genetic background.
The dogs were maintained through their lives in the two groups. The overweight dogs weren’t allowed to eat all they wanted (that would actually have been cruel because some of them would have become even fatter) but they were maintained in a consistently overweight condition, about on a par with what a lot of people would consider to be pretty typical in a pet. The lean dogs were fed to keep them at a normal healthy weight, with good muscle definition and very little body fat. In every other way, the dogs were managed identically. They all got regular physical exams and blood tests and had annual xrays to check for hip problems, arthritis, and any other issues that might turn up.
Because these were Labrador Retrievers, the most common problem that they developed as they got older was osteoarthritis, not just hip problems but arthritis in other joints as well. As they started having issues, they were treated to maintain their comfort and good quality of life, but eventually they all reached the end of their natural life spans.
Imagine, 50 dogs living their whole lives, in the same environment with the same care except for one thing—half of them were fat and half of them were lean. They all got the same kinds of diseases, but the fat dogs got them younger and tended to have a harder time being managed. The lean dogs stayed healthier longer and didn’t require as much medical intervention—their problems were easier to control. Most of the fat dogs died by the time that they were 10 years old. Their lean buddies made it to 12 years as a rule. The last of the dogs died at 14 years old.
Pretty powerful lesson, right? Keep your dog lean and she will live to be about 2 years older than if you let her get fat. She will stay comfortable longer and her health problems will be easier to control. And it’s so easy since dogs don’t fix their own food. As a rule, owners have total control over how much food their pets eat since the dogs can’t order take out or go raid the cookie aisle at the grocery store. All we have to do as owners is put less food in the bowl. Easy. Cheap. And really powerful in terms of keeping our dogs healthy and with us longer.
That same day I saw another Black Lab. This one was old and disabled due to terrible arthritis. He was also about 10 lb overweight, just like the youngster that I saw earlier in the day. His owners brought him in to be put to sleep because he was having so much trouble getting up and walking. Part of me wished I could wave a wand and trim the 10 lbs. off—he might have had a few more months if he hadn’t had to lug around the extra weight, but the time for that intervention was long past.
I couldn’t help comparing these two dogs, one at the start of her life and one at the end of his. Nobody knows what the future holds but when there is something easy and simple to do which can prevent needless health problems and allow a longer life span, why not do it? I hope that I was able to give the owner of the young dog the knowledge and tools to correct this problem so her pet can be as healthy and happy as possible throughout her life. I’m sad for the dog that died and his owners who miss him, but I’m glad he’s not hurting any more.
Life teaches us lessons. All we have to do is pay attention.
How to keep your dog at a healthy body weight:
For puppies, feed a food designed for your type of dog, regular puppy food for smaller breeds, large breed puppy food for the bigger breeds. Follow the feeding instructions on the back of the bag for the age and breed, increasing gradually as the pup grows up. If a range is suggested, feed the amount at the lower end of the range.
Once the pup is nearly at adult size (6 months for small breeds, 8-10 months for medium and larger breeds, 12-14 for giant breeds), switch to adult dog food and tone down the amount, especially after the dog is spayed/neutered. As a rule, most grown up spayed/neutered dogs need about a cup of typical dry dog food per 20 lb of normal body weight for small breeds, per 25 lb for medium breeds, and per 30 lb for larger breeds. A 75 lb Lab who is moderately active will probably eat about 2 ½ to maybe 3 cups a day. This amount will vary based on the calorie value of the food, the amount of exercise the dog gets every day, and the dog’s innate metabolism. Unfortunately, the guidelines on the back of the bag almost always result in overfeeding of grown up dogs so keep monitoring body condition and weight.
If a dog is at a normal body condition, you should be able to pick up the skin over the last rib and not feel fat under the skin. Ribs should be easily felt but not stick out. You should be able to see your dog’s waist when viewed from above, and his belly should be tucked up when seen from the side. The body wall should indent a bit just behind the last rib.
If your dog is too thin, feed him more. If she is too heavy, feed her less. If you are not sure, ask your vet for an honest assessment of your dog’s weight, including a body condition score. Purina has published a system which goes from 1 to 9 where 5 is just about normal. Iams has a similar system which goes from 1 to 5 (3 is normal).
If you are already feeding a very low amount of food and your dog is persistently overweight, it’s worth checking to see if there might be a health issue at the root of the problem. Some dogs may require an ultra low calorie prescription diet to achieve weight loss, but this is only necessary if feeding an appropriate amount of regular food isn’t working. Your vet can help you figure out if a diet change is needed.
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, up to 54% of dogs and 59% of cats in the United States are overweight. That’s more than 40 million dogs and 50 million cats. Is your pet one of them?
Obesity has been linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, immune system disorders, liver disease, and other health problems in pets. In recognition of National Pet Obesity Awareness Day (October 11), here’s how to tell if your pet is overweight.
Body condition scoring
Body condition scoring assigns a number to a pet’s condition to make it easier to track changes over time. Body condition score charts typically use either a 5-point or a 9-point scale. The ideal body condition score is 3 on a 5-point scale or 5 on a 9-point scale. Check out one of these body condition charts to see where your pet falls on the scale:
Always bring your pet in for a physical examination before reducing its calorie intake or starting an exercise program. Some medical problems can cause weight gain. Pets with these conditions might need to go on a diet, but they also need treatment:
Other medical conditions can mimic obesity. A pet with one of these conditions might have a big belly but actually be thin overall, and restricting its food could be harmful:
We’re happy to discuss your pet’s weight with you and suggest a diet and exercise plan for your pet that will work for your family. (Telling you “no table food EVER” is not very helpful if you have a toddler in the food-throwing stage). And remember: your pet’s weight is not a reflection of your own health or of how much you love your pet. If we tell you your pet needs to lose weight, it’s only because we want your pet to live a long life and be as healthy as possible.
For more information
Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website
Obesity (dog): American Animal Hospital Association website
Obesity: The Cat Community website
October 13, 2017
Photo by Almi