If you’ve been sheltering at home during the pandemic, your pets have gotten used to having you around all the time. Puppies and kittens adopted during lockdown might have never been home without people. Take these steps to prevent separation anxiety in your pets when you start spending more time away.
Gradually Change the Schedule
Dogs and cats feel most secure when their environment is predictable. If meal and walk times will be changing, start the new schedule in advance to give them time to adjust. You might also need to gradually alter the timing, frequency, and duration of play times (but make sure they still get plenty of exercise).
Make Departures No Big Deal
A standard recommendation for pets with separation anxiety is to stay calm when you leave and when you return. It’s fine to say hi when you walk in the door, but excited greetings and prolonged goodbyes can be counterproductive. You don’t want to focus too much of their attention on the fact that you are going or coming.
Start With Short Departures
Have everyone leave the house for a few minutes to see how your dog reacts. Some signs of separation anxiety are barking, whining, scratching at the door, urinating or defecating in the house, and chewing the door frame or other objects. A video camera (if you have one) can pick up signs like pacing, panting, and lip licking. If all goes well, gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.
If your dog seems anxious, progress very slowly and use positive reinforcement like treats when you leave. Simply picking up the keys or touching the doorknob is enough to trigger anxiety in some dogs. Dogs that already have separation anxiety might need a veterinary consult.
Use Toys and Treats
Giving your pets toys or treats when you leave can serve 2 purposes: distraction and counterconditioning. A time-consuming toy like a food puzzle gives them something to think about other than the fact that you’re gone. Never leave your pets with toys they can swallow whole, chew apart, shred, mangle, break, or choke on, though.
Counterconditioning means giving an animal a positive stimulus, like a yummy treat, at the same time as an unwanted event, like you leaving. Counterconditioning can help animals form positive associations with things they don’t like but have to put up with.
Confine Pets Safely
If your dogs can’t safely have the run of the house while you’re away, accustom them to a crate or an appropriate room in advance. Make the space a familiar, comfortable environment for them, using positive reinforcement as needed.
Destruction and house soiling aren’t signs that your dog resents you or wants your attention. These could be signs of anxiety, boredom, lack of exercise, or (with house soiling) just needing to be taken out more often. Punishing animals after the fact increases their anxiety and does nothing to keep the behavior from happening again. Look for the cause of the problem instead.
Doggie Daycare? It Depends
Dog daycares and kennels might or might not be open in your area. Follow your local public health precautions. Dogs and cats don’t seem able to transmit COVID-19 to humans, and the risk of them becoming infected appears to be low. To be safe, however, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends limiting contact between pets and people who are not part of the household. If any people or animals in your home are sick, don’t send your dog to daycare. And don’t put face coverings over pets’ noses or wipe them down with household disinfectants.
For More Information
COVID-19: 7 steps to help your pet prepare for your return to work. American Veterinary Medical Association. Published June 12, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.avma.org/news/press-releases/covid-19-7-steps-help-your-pet-prepare-your-return-work
McConnell P. Preventing separation anxiety in the time of COVID. The Other End of the Leash. Published April 27, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/preventing-separation-anxiety-in-the-time-of-covid
Photo by Eric Ward
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Make plans now to keep your pets safe over the July 4 weekend. Large fireworks shows might be canceled this year, but fireworks stores across the state line are open and home fireworks pose risks for pets.
Fireworks in neighborhoods are traumatic for many animals. The loud bangs are random and sporadic, so they’re hard to predict. For pets at home, neighborhood fireworks are louder than big fireworks shows because they’re closer. And fireworks set off by individuals tend to continue for several hours, often over a few days, instead of being limited to the duration of a fireworks show.
Animals startled by loud noises can bolt unexpectedly. Take these steps to keep your pets from getting lost and increase the chance of finding them if they run off:
Noise phobia, or irrational fear of certain noises, is common in dogs and is often triggered by fireworks. Noise phobia goes further than just disliking loud sounds. Animals with noise phobia have reactions that range from hiding under the bed to destroying parts of the house. Some symptoms, like seeking attention, are subtle. This anxiety condition often gets worse with time and can seriously affect an animal’s safety and welfare.
If you think your pet might have noise phobia, call your veterinarian. Your pet might need a combination of short-term treatment (like antianxiety medication) that you can use right away and long-term behavior modification measures. The sooner you address noise phobia, the better it will be for your pet.
Various therapies have been used to help dogs with noise phobia. Some work better than others. A survey published in May 2020 asked dog owners how they managed their dogs’ fireworks fears and how well various techniques worked. The most effective measures, indicated by at least 69% of owners, were counterconditioning (giving the dog something desirable when the noise occurred), prescription antianxiety medication, and relaxation training. Pressure vests and desensitization using fireworks recordings were less effective. Pheromones, nutraceuticals, and herbal remedies worked for the fewest dogs.
Fireworks contain hazardous substances like fuel, oxidizers (for combustion), and heavy metals. If swallowed, these chemicals can cause vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, liver disease, or kidney disease. Lit fireworks and smoke are obviously a risk to animals’ eyes and skin. Keep your pets completely away from new and used fireworks:
1. Riemer S. Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. J Vet Behav. 2020;37:61-70.
2. Fireworks. Pet Poison Helpline. Accessed June 19, 2020. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/fireworks/
Photo by Andy Thrasher
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Otitis externa, or inflammation of the outer ear canal, causes itchy or painful ears and is common in dogs. Dogs with otitis externa often develop ear infections.
Otitis externa affects the part of the ear from the eardrum outward. Inflammation or infection that extends farther into the ear causes otitis media (middle ear disease) or otitis interna (inner ear disease).
Allergies to environmental substances (pollens, dust, etc) or to food ingredients are the most common causes of otitis externa in dogs. Other causes include parasites like ear mites, endocrine disorders like hypothyroidism, and immune system disorders.
Risk factors that make dogs more likely to develop otitis are long droopy ears, narrow ear canals, lots of hair in the ear canals, and growths in the ear canals. Plucking hair from the ear canals, cleaning the ears aggressively, and using harsh ear cleaners may damage the cells lining the ear canal and increase the risk for otitis externa.[1,2]
Depending on the cause, otitis externa can be a chronic problem that requires lifelong management. Dogs with allergies sometimes have flares of otitis even if the condition is under control most of the time.
Symptoms of external ear disease vary according to severity, individual dogs’ tolerance to discomfort, and whether infection is present. Most dogs with otitis externa have 1 or more of these symptoms:
Some dogs with long-term or recurrent otitis externa develop end-stage ear disease. These dogs have chronic ear pain (although they might not show obvious signs of pain), narrowed ear canal openings, hardened ear canals, and possibly hearing loss.
The diagnosis of otitis externa is usually made by physical examination and history. Cytology, or examination of material from the ear canal under a microscope, is used to diagnose infection, identify the type of infection (bacteria, yeast, or both), and monitor the response to treatment. Examination of the canal and eardrum with an otoscope is helpful but not always possible in dogs with painful ears unless they are sedated. Other diagnostic tests can include bacterial culture of ear canal contents and imaging studies like radiography or computed tomography. Your veterinarian might recommend additional tests to find the underlying cause if your dog has had multiple episodes of otitis externa.
Medications to treat ear infections include topical ear drops, oral medications, and medicated ear washes. The type of medication used depends on the type of infection and the severity of inflammation. The underlying cause of otitis is also treated as needed.
Many medications prescribed for ear infections contain anti-inflammatory drugs like corticosteroids. These medications reduce redness and itching, so the symptoms will improve before the infection has resolved. The best way to be sure the infection has actually cleared up is to follow your veterinarian’s dosing directions (how often and how long to use the medication) and to return for ear cytology rechecks as your veterinarian recommends.
For many dogs, especially those with allergies, otitis externa can’t be completely prevented. Work with your veterinarian to manage the factors that contribute to your dog’s otitis and watch for symptoms so you can catch ear infections early.
1. Bajwa J. Canine otitis externa - treatment and complications. Can Vet J. 2019;60(1):97‐99.
2. Paterson S. Topical ear treatment - options, indications and limitations of current therapy. J Small Anim Pract. 2016;57(12):668‐678. doi:10.1111/jsap.12583
Photo by Ryan Walton
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Whipworms are intestinal parasites that are relatively common in dogs and can cause serious illness. Some (not all) monthly heartworm preventives prevent whipworm infection.
Canine whipworms are small worms about 2 to 3 inches long that live in the cecum, a pouchlike structure attached to the large intestine. The whipworm that infects dogs, Trichuris vulpis, does not infect humans. (Another species of whipworm can infect people.) Whipworms are very rare in cats in North America.
According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), almost 50,000 dogs in the United States tested positive for whipworms in 2019. About 2500 of these dogs were in North Carolina, putting North Carolina in the CAPC high-risk category for whipworms.
Dogs are infected with whipworms when they swallow whipworm eggs in the environment—for example, by licking dirt from their feet. The eggs hatch in the dog’s intestines and grow to adult worms in the cecum. About 2.5 to 3 months after the dog is infected, the adult worms begin producing eggs that pass out of the body in the feces.
Whipworm eggs in the environment take about 2 to 3 weeks (or longer) to develop into a stage that can infect dogs. This means that dogs are infected by swallowing contaminated substances, not by eating fresh dog poop. Whipworm eggs in the environment are resistant to temperature changes and sunlight and are able to infect dogs for years.
Symptoms of whipworm infection depend partly on the number of worms present and can include the following:
Whipworm infection can be a little tricky to diagnose. Typical fecal analysis at a veterinary clinic involves looking for worm eggs in a stool sample under a microscope. However, because whipworms don’t produce eggs for the first few months after infection and they don’t produce eggs all of the time, stool analysis with a microscope can miss the infection. Sending a fecal sample to a diagnostic laboratory for a whipworm antigen test can increase the chance of finding the infection.
Treatment and Prevention
Antiparasitic drugs to treat whipworm infection are typically given in at least 2 doses spaced a few weeks apart. Monthly heartworm preventives that contain milbemycin (given by mouth) or moxidectin (applied to the skin) will treat and prevent whipworm infection. Other heartworm preventives available at the time of writing (May 2020) are not effective against whipworms.
It’s not possible to completely eliminate whipworm eggs that are already in the environment. The CAPC recommends reducing dogs’ risk by removing dog feces from the environment and regularly testing dogs for whipworms.
1. Parasite prevalence map: 2019, whipworm, dog, United States. Companion Animal Parasite Council. Accessed May 20, 2020. https://capcvet.org/maps/#2019/all/whipworm/dog/united-states/
2. Brooks W. Whipworm infection in dogs and cats. Veterinary Partner. Published May 8, 2004. Updated July 18, 2018. Accessed May 20, 2020. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/doc/?id=4952061&pid=19239
3. Trichuris vulpis. Companion Animal Parasite Council. Updated October 1, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2020. https://capcvet.org/guidelines/trichuris-vulpis/
Image: photomicrograph of Trichuris vulpis egg, 400× magnification. Credit: CDC/Dr Mae Melvin.
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a serious disease caused by a coronavirus infection in cats. The disease is usually fatal, although a new antiviral drug under investigation has had promising results in some cats.
Cats very commonly carry a strain of feline coronavirus that lives in cells of the intestines. This virus, feline enteric coronavirus, does not cause disease in most cats. In some cats, though, the virus mutates into a disease-causing strain that invades a type of white blood cell and spreads through the body. This strain is FIP virus (FIPV). The disease it causes, FIP, results from the body’s immune response to the infection.
Feline enteric coronavirus spreads easily among cats housed together, especially in shelters and catteries. This virus is shed in the feces, and cats can be infected if they share litter boxes or have close contact with infected cats. Cats with no symptoms can spread the virus to other cats. Cats are often exposed to feline enteric coronavirus as young kittens.
Why feline enteric coronavirus mutates into FIPV in some cats is not fully known. Virus genetics and individual cat factors (genetics, immune function, and possibly environment) are likely to be involved. Most cats that develop FIP are kittens or young adults. Cats housed in groups, male cats, purebred cats, and cats that have not been spayed or neutered are at higher risk than others for FIP.[1,2]
The mutated virus strain, FIPV, does not appear to spread directly from cat to cat. Feline enteric coronavirus and FIPV are not known to infect humans.
Most cats exposed to feline enteric coronavirus do not become ill. Some cats have an episode of diarrhea or vomiting, which is usually mild.
Because FIPV spreads throughout the body, FIP affects many body systems and can cause a wide range of symptoms. The clinical signs are not specific; they can be caused by diseases other than FIP.
Typical FIP signs are caused by fluid accumulation in the abdomen and chest, by inflammatory changes in various parts of the body (such as kidneys, nervous system, liver, heart, or eyes), or both. The symptoms depend on the body system affected and can change over time in the same cat. These are some of the possible symptoms of FIP:
Diagnosing FIP is not straightforward and can’t currently be done with a simple blood test. Because so many cats have been exposed to feline enteric coronavirus, a positive antibody test (indicating virus exposure) doesn’t mean that a sick cat has FIP. The diagnosis is usually based on a combination of clinical signs, results of baseline blood and urine tests, and analysis of abdominal fluid and samples taken from affected organs.
Until recently, the prognosis for cats with FIP was uniformly bleak. Conventional treatments, including various antiviral medications and drugs to manage the immune response, have had variable success at prolonging cats’ survival times. Cats are usually treated with supportive measures to maximize their comfort for as long as possible.
A new antiviral drug, GS-441524, successfully treated some cats with FIP in a study published in 2019. This drug is closely related to remdesivir, which was originally developed as a treatment for Ebola virus infection and is now being studied as a potential treatment for coronavirus disease 2019. GS-441524 may prove to be effective for some cases of FIP, but it is not currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Preventing FIP is difficult because feline enteric coronavirus spreads so easily among cats and because the factors that cause it to mutate to FIPV aren’t known. A vaccine for FIP has been marketed, but it is not very effective and is not currently recommended for use in cats. Practicing good husbandry in high-density environments like shelters and keeping individual cats in good health might reduce the risk.
1. Levy JK, Hutsell S. Overview of feline infectious peritonitis. Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated January 2014. Accessed May 6, 2020. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/generalized-conditions/feline-infectious-peritonitis/overview-of-feline-infectious-peritonitis
2. Felten S, Hartmann K. Diagnosis of feline infectious peritonitis: a review of the current literature. Viruses. 2019;11(11):1068. doi:10.3390/v11111068
3. Pedersen NC, Perron M, Bannasch M, et al. Efficacy and safety of the nucleoside analog GS-441524 for treatment of cats with naturally occurring feline infectious peritonitis. J Feline Med Surg. 2019;21(4):271‐281. doi:10.1177/1098612X19825701
4. Scherk MA, Ford RB, Gaskell RM, et al. 2013 AAFP Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel Report. J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15(9):785‐808. Published corrections appear in J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15(11):NP2 and J Feline Med Surg. 2014;16(1):66. doi:10.1177/1098612X13500429
Photo by Timothy Warrington
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Heartworms are parasites transmitted by mosquitoes. The worms grow to be several inches long and live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of the lungs. Cats are infected less often than dogs but can die of heartworm disease. There are currently no good options for removing heartworms in cats. Giving cats heartworm preventive medication all year round is the best way to protect them from heartworm disease.
Infection in Cats
Cats can be infected with heartworms wherever dogs are infected with heartworms—and heartworms have been diagnosed in dogs in all 50 states. Studies have shown that 12% to 16% of cats have been exposed to heartworms. In a 2017 study, 15% of cats with heartworm infection were indoor cats.
Animals become infected with heartworms through mosquito bites. Mosquitoes take in heartworm microfilariae (baby heartworms) when they bite an infected dog, coyote, or other canid. When the mosquito bites another animal, heartworm larvae are deposited in the other animal’s body. Over the next few months, the larvae travel to the blood vessels and eventually to the heart.
Dogs are heartworms’ natural hosts. Cats are atypical hosts, which means that heartworms aren’t as well adapted to living in cats. In dogs, heartworm larvae grow up to be adults that can make baby heartworms. Heartworms in cats are less likely to produce offspring. Heartworms that reach adulthood in cats are usually smaller than in dogs and don’t live as long (heartworms can live for 2-4 years in cats and 5-7 years in dogs). Cats typically have only a few heartworms, whereas dogs can have many. However, because cats and their hearts are so small, even 1 or 2 worms are a significant burden for them.
In cats, heartworm disease is mainly a lung disease. Most of the symptoms are caused by an inflammatory reaction to worms in the lungs and the blood vessels of the lungs. Although some cats never show any signs, others have a severe inflammatory response that leads to a condition called heartworm-associated respiratory disease. The symptoms of this disease can be mistaken for asthma.
Symptoms of heartworm infection in cats can include the following:
Diagnosis of heartworm infection is not always straightforward in cats. Antigen tests are used routinely in dogs, and a cat with a positive antigen test is definitely infected. But antigen tests detect only adult female heartworms. These tests are more likely to miss infections in cats than in dogs because cats are sometimes infected with only immature worms (no adults) or with only 1 or 2 worms (which might not be female). Antibody tests show whether cats have been exposed to heartworms but not whether they are still infected.
Heartworm diagnosis in cats usually involves a combination of antigen testing, antibody testing, and possibly ultrasound to look for worms in the heart and the blood vessels of the lungs. Chest radiographs can show changes compatible with heartworm disease. Cats also typically receive general bloodwork including a complete blood count and chemistry profile.
In cats, the goals of treatment are to reduce the inflammatory response and provide support until symptoms improve or the infection clears on its own. The level of treatment depends on the individual cat’s condition and symptoms. Cats with severe disease may need intensive care.
The drug used to eliminate heartworms in dogs is not recommended for cats because it is more toxic to cats. No medications so far have been shown to be effective and safe for removing heartworms in cats. Surgical removal of heartworms may be attempted in some cats but has risks. Studies of other treatment options are ongoing.
Safe and effective monthly heartworm preventives are available for cats and kittens. Some products are flavored chews; others are drops applied to the skin. All heartworm preventives in the United States require a prescription from a veterinarian. No over-the-counter products are effective at preventing heartworms in dogs or cats.
For More Information
Heartworm in cats (American Heartworm Society): https://www.heartwormsociety.org/heartworms-in-cats
Heartworm in cats (Cornell Feline Health Center): https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/heartworm-cats
1. American Heartworm Society. Prevention, diagnosis, and management of heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis) infection in cats. Published 2020. Accessed April 16, 2020. https://d3ft8sckhnqim2.cloudfront.net/images/pdf/2020_AHS_Feline_Guidelines.pdf?1580934824
2. Heartworm: cat. Companion Animal Parasite Council. Updated July 1, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2020. https://capcvet.org/guidelines/heartworm/
3. Levy JK, Burling AN, Crandall MM, Tucker SJ, Wood EG, Foster JD. Seroprevalence of heartworm infection, risk factors for seropositivity, and frequency of prescribing heartworm preventives for cats in the United States and Canada. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2017;250(8):873-880.
Photo by Rana Sawalha
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
New information about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to emerge as the pandemic progresses. The information in this article is current on the date of posting (April 1, 2020). For the most recent updates, see the resources linked at the end of the article.
Can pets get sick with COVID-19?
This question is still being investigated. A vast number of pets have lived with people with COVID-19 without getting sick, so the risk of human-to-animal transmission is probably extremely low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not had any reports of animals in the United States getting sick with COVID-19.
There have been rare reports of pets in other countries having positive tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (A positive test for a virus doesn’t necessarily mean the virus will cause illness in that animal. It also doesn’t show whether the animal can pass the virus to another animal.) These animals each lived with a person with confirmed COVID-19 and were almost certainly exposed by the infected person. Two dogs in Hong Kong had positive tests for SARS-CoV-2 but had no symptoms (they didn’t actually get sick with COVID-19). One cat in Belgium reportedly had a positive test and symptoms, but because of missing or questionable evidence about this cat, the World Organisation for Animal Health has not confirmed this as an infection.
Can pets spread COVID-19 to people?
Multiple infectious disease experts and international health organizations say there is currently no evidence that dogs and cats can spread the COVID-19 virus to people.
There is no need to avoid, neglect, or surrender pets out of fear of COVID-19. (This has reportedly been happening in some places.)
Pets and people live in close contact and can share other diseases, so health organizations recommend washing your hands after handling animals and practicing good hygiene in general.
Can pet hair or accessories (leashes, food bowls, etc) transmit the COVID-19 virus to people?
According to the most recent data and guidance, transmission through pet accessories is theoretically possible but hasn’t been shown to actually happen. SARS-CoV-2 mainly spreads from person to person. Touching an object that has virus particles on it and then touching your face could possibly transmit the virus, but this route is not considered a major source of infection.
If the virus can be transmitted through pet hair or accessories at all, transmission is probably more likely with smooth, solid objects like food bowls than with porous or fibrous objects like hair. Coronaviruses can stay on surfaces for hours or days, according to the World Health Organization. The virus particles might or might not be able to infect a person during that whole time, depending on the environmental conditions.
Although it seems unlikely that the virus would be transmitted by a leash, food bowl, or pet hair, it’s always a good idea to clean pet accessories regularly and wash your hands after handling an animal.
If someone in my household has COVID-19, how should I protect my pets?
The CDC recommends that people who have COVID-19 stay separated from pets. CDC guidance states that people with COVID-19 should “avoid direct contact with pets, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, sleeping in the same location, and sharing food.” This guidance does not apply to service animals, who can stay with their handlers.
If possible, someone who does not have COVID-19 should take over the pet care. People with COVID-19 who have to continue caring for their pets (including service animals) should wash their hands before and after handling their pets. The American Veterinary Medical Association adds that people with COVID-19 should wear a face mask around their animals and shouldn’t share food, dishes, or bedding with them.
No one is recommending that pets wear face masks, in case you were wondering. Face masks could actually harm animals by hindering their breathing.
How should I prepare for pet care in case I get sick with COVID-19?
Plan ahead, just as you prepare for natural disasters like hurricanes. Identify someone who can take care of your pets if you’re unable to. Make sure you have a couple of weeks’ worth of pet food and medications. Check your supply of monthly heartworm and flea preventives and contact your veterinarian if you need a refill. If your pet has medical needs, be ready to provide a list of instructions for another caregiver. Consider preparing a letter for your veterinarian authorizing your backup caregiver to approve treatments.
If my pet needs to see a veterinarian, what should I do?
Contact your veterinarian to find out if your pet should go the clinic. Depending on local guidance, the clinic might be postponing non-urgent procedures to help reduce community spread of COVID-19. Some clinics might be able to treat established patients through telemedicine (virtual visits).
Under North Carolina’s current stay-at-home order, veterinary clinics are considered essential businesses. Your pets can still get the care they need. If your pet needs to be seen at the clinic, you will probably be asked to stay outside the building while your pet is taken inside to help keep you and the clinic staff safe.
If I am (or might be) sick with COVID-19 and my pet needs to see a veterinarian, what should I do?
Call the clinic. Your clinic might not have sufficient personal protective equipment for staff to use when handling animals from a household with COVID-19. Your veterinarian might be able to treat your pet via telemedicine or refer you to a clinic with available protective equipment. If your veterinarian confirms that your pet should come to the clinic, have someone else (ideally not living in your household) transport your pet to the clinic.
For more information and updates:
Image: colorized scanning electron micrograph of cell infected with SARS-CoV. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH; https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/49680300342/.
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Indoor cats need mental stimulation and physical activity to stay happy and healthy. Playing games with your cat and providing cat-appropriate toys can make life better—and more fun—for both of you.
When and How Long to Play
Always let your cat choose whether and when to play. Cats might nip when they’re overexcited or want to stop interacting, so watch your cat’s body language (for example, pinning the ears back or twitching the tail) and be ready to end the session before things go too far.
When you’re petting your cat, remove your hand every minute or so and watch her reaction. If she ignores you or walks away, it’s time to stop. If she rubs her head against your hand, she probably wants more head or face petting. Some cats are overstimulated by being touched for very long on the lower back near the tail and prefer to be petted on the front half of the body.
The ideal length of a play session probably depends on the individual cat. The results of a 2014 cat owner survey showed a possible link between the length of play sessions and cat problem behaviors: owners who played with their cats for at least 5 minutes at a time reported fewer problem behaviors than those who played for 1 minute at a time. However, the survey didn’t show whether longer play resulted in fewer problem behaviors or whether owners just didn’t engage as much with cats who had behavior issues.
To choose toys and games for your cat, start by thinking like a cat. Cats are born hunters, and even cats living the good life indoors need to be able to act on their natural instincts. Cats play by acting out predator behaviors:
The toys you provide should allow your cat to perform all of the instinctive predator behaviors. Cats tend to like moving objects they can stalk, which is why your feet might be a target. Try a variety of toys that mimic the movements of prey animals like rodents and birds. These can include toy mice, balls, toys dangling from the end of a wand, or toys pulled on a string. Of course, don’t leave strings or toys your cat can swallow within your cat’s reach when you’re not there to supervise.
Cats can become frustrated if they can’t catch what they’re chasing. If you use a laser pointer, hide a treat for your cat to find after stalking the moving light. (And don’t point the light into your cat’s face.) Balls inside circular tracks might not be attractive to some cats because they can’t capture, hold, or bite them.
Cats get bored with their toys, so don’t leave the same toys out every day. Rotate your cat’s toys to keep her mind stimulated.
You don’t have to buy a lot of cat toys to play with your cat. Paper bags, boxes, crumpled paper balls, and socks all make great toys. Think about engaging all of your cat’s senses with objects that look, smell, taste, sound, and feel different from each other.
For more ideas for toys and enrichment for indoor cats, check these resources:
1. Delgado M. Do cats have petting preferences? Yes! Cats and Squirrels website. December 29, 2014. Accessed March 19, 2020. http://catsandsquirrels.com/pettingprefs/
2. Strickler BL, Shull EA. An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats. J Vet Behav. 2014;9:207-214.
3. Playing with your cat. International Cat Care. July 30, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2020. https://icatcare.org/advice/playing-with-your-cat/
Photo by Kim Davies
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Coronaviruses cause disease in many animal species. Most coronaviruses affect either the respiratory tract or the digestive system. Some coronaviruses cause no symptoms or only mild illnesses like the common cold. Others cause serious disease.
New information continues to emerge about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). At this time (early March 2020), there is no evidence that this virus can spread between humans and companion animals like dogs and cats.
For updated information about COVID-19, see these resources:
Coronaviruses got their name from spike proteins that cover the surface of the virus particles and look like a crown (corona in Latin) on electron microscopy images. Coronavirus spike proteins bind to receptors on the host animal’s cells and allow the virus particles to fuse with the cells. Spike proteins and the receptors they target vary according to the type of coronavirus.
Because animal species don’t all have the same molecular receptors and different coronaviruses have different surface proteins, coronaviruses tend to be species specific. A coronavirus that causes disease in cows, for example, doesn’t normally cause disease in cats. This is also why your dogs don’t catch your cold even if you sneeze in their faces.
Some coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted between animals and humans. Coronaviruses jump to a new host species through genetic mutation. Mutation changes the virus proteins and creates a genetically different coronavirus that can infect a different host. Jumping to a new species might also be easier if the molecular receptors in the new host species are similar to those of the original host species.
Coronavirus infections in livestock and companion animals can be severe. However, until 2002, coronaviruses usually caused only mild disease in people with fully functioning immune systems. In 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) occurred in China, and in 2012, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) emerged. Both of these outbreaks were caused by coronaviruses thought to have begun as bat viruses. Bats and people don’t have much contact, so the viruses that caused SARS and MERS spread to people through intermediate hosts: civets for SARS and camels for MERS. COVID-19 is the third coronavirus disease to cause serious outcomes in humans.
Animal Diseases Caused by Coronaviruses
Diseases caused by coronaviruses have been identified in many mammal and bird species. Some examples of coronaviruses that cause serious disease in livestock are transmissible gastroenteritis virus and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus in piglets, infectious bronchitis virus in chickens, and bovine coronavirus in cows.
The coronaviruses of most concern in cats and dogs are feline coronavirus, canine coronavirus, and canine respiratory coronavirus. Feline coronavirus usually causes such mild symptoms they aren’t noticed at all. In some cats, though, infection leads to feline infectious peritonitis, a devastating disease that is nearly always fatal. (Feline infectious peritonitis will be covered in more detail in another article.) Canine coronavirus is passed through the feces and causes vomiting and diarrhea, especially in groups of dogs in kennels and animal shelters. Infection usually carries a low risk of death, but a more severe strain of canine coronavirus can be fatal to dogs. Canine respiratory coronavirus is one of the causes of canine infectious respiratory disease (kennel cough).
The emergence of SARS and MERS in humans prompted more research into coronaviruses, so new therapies for coronavirus diseases may be available in the future.
1. Cui J, Li F, Shi ZL. Origin and evolution of pathogenic coronaviruses. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2019;17(3):181-192.
2. Coronaviruses. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Updated March 2, 2020. Accessed March 5, 2020. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/coronaviruses
3. Fehr AR, Perlman S. Coronaviruses: an overview of their replication and pathogenesis. Methods Mol Biol. 2015;1282:1-23.
4. Decaro N, Buonavoglia C. Canine coronavirus: not only an enteric pathogen. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2011;41(6):1121-1132.
Image source: https://phil.cdc.gov/Details.aspx?pid=15523
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Mast cell tumors are common in dogs and somewhat common in cats. In dogs, mast cell tumors are usually lumps on or under the skin. Mast cell tumors in cats can affect the skin or the internal organs.
Mast cells are a normal part of the immune system. They are most often found in the skin, digestive tract, and other areas that are exposed to substances from the environment. Mast cells are full of granules that contain histamine and other chemicals that are released as part of allergic and inflammatory responses. You’ve seen mast cells in action yourself: the itchy lump you get after a mosquito bite is caused by mast cells in the skin releasing histamine and other substances. Mast cell tumors are cancerous growths made up of mast cells.
Signs in Dogs
Mast cell tumors are most common in older dogs but occur in dogs of all ages. Dogs of any breed can develop mast cell tumors. Breeds at higher risk than others include retrievers, shar-peis, and brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds like boxers, pugs, and Boston terriers.
In dogs, mast cell tumors can look similar to other conditions. Some look and feel just like benign fatty lumps. Mast cell tumors in dogs vary in appearance and behavior. A mast cell tumor might be a smooth, round, raised skin lump; a red, itchy lump; or a soft lump under the skin. Some are solitary growths, and some are clusters of lumps or small bumps. Some grow very slowly, with no apparent change for months; others grow quickly. Mast cell tumors sometimes get bigger (or pinker or itchier) and then return to their normal appearance. This change happens when they release histamine. More serious effects of histamine release include decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the stool, and collapse.[1,2]
Signs in Cats
Most cats with mast cell tumors are older, although an atypical form is most common in young cats. Siamese may be more likely than other cat breeds to have mast cell tumors.
In cats, the signs of mast cell tumors depend on their location (skin or internal organs) and the tumor subtype, which determines how aggressive they are. As in dogs, mast cell tumors in cats can mimic other conditions and do not all look and behave the same way. Mast cell tumors in the skin can be smooth, round growths or flat red patches, and they might grow quickly or very slowly. Mast cell tumors inside the body most often affect the spleen or digestive tract and can cause decreased activity, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and other general signs of illness.[1,3]
Most mast cell tumors of the skin can be diagnosed during a veterinary appointment with a needle aspirate, in which a small sample of cells is removed with a needle and syringe and examined under a microscope. Because putting a needle in a mast cell tumor can cause histamine release, veterinarians often give an antihistamine when they aspirate a mast cell tumor.
A needle aspirate can show that a patient has a mast cell tumor, but it doesn’t give enough information to know the prognosis. Some mast cell tumors are single lumps that don’t spread to lymph nodes or distant parts of the body. Others are more invasive and have a high risk of spreading through the body. Currently the only way to know the grade or type of a mast cell tumor, and hence the prognosis, is by surgically removing all or part of the tumor and sending this biopsy sample to a laboratory for analysis.
Patients with high-grade or aggressive mast cell tumors, including cats with mast cell tumors in internal organs, benefit from further tests to find out whether the cancer has spread or is causing other problems. This workup can include blood and urine tests, lymph node aspiration, imaging (such as ultrasound or computed tomography), and bone marrow analysis. Whether to do these tests before or after biopsy depends on the patient and the tumor.
Surgical removal is recommended for most mast cell tumors and might be the only treatment (other than antihistamines) needed for low-grade mast cell tumors of the skin. Cancerous mast cells extend past the edges of the visible lump, so a wide area of normal-appearing skin around the tumor must be removed. The biopsy report indicates whether all of the tumor was removed during the procedure.
Chemotherapy, other medications, and radiation therapy are available for patients with aggressive tumors, cancer in internal organs, tumors in areas where wide removal isn’t possible, or tumors that aren’t completely removed during surgery. Your veterinarian is likely to recommend referral to an oncologist if your pet might need these types of treatment.
The prognosis is good for patients with mast cell tumors that haven’t spread and are completely removed with surgery, radiation therapy, or both. These patients sometimes develop another mast cell tumor later, so all new lumps warrant a visit to the veterinarian. For patients with other types of mast cell tumor, the prognosis depends on tumor grade, location, and response to treatment.
1. Blackwood L, Murphy S, Buracco P, et al. European consensus document on mast cell tumours in dogs and cats. Vet Comp Oncol. 2012;10(3):e1-e29. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5829.2012.00341.x
2. Couto CG. Mast cell tumors: to cut or not to cut. Paper presented at: 2018 Michigan Veterinary Conference; January 26-28, 2018; Lansing, Michigan. Accessed February 14, 2020. https://www.michvma.org/resources/Documents/MVC/2018%20Proceedings/couto_04.pdf
3. Henry C, Herrera C. Mast cell tumors in cats: clinical update and possible new treatment avenues. J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15(1):41-47.
Photo by JC Gellidon
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.