Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Separation-related behavior problems are fairly common in dogs and also affect cats. Pets with separation-related distress aren’t acting out of spite or mischief when they shred the sofa cushions or urinate on the carpet. These animals are anxious and afraid, and they need help.
Separation anxiety is a catchall term that describes stress-related behaviors that happen when an animal is separated from its attachment person. It causes significant distress to the animal and can lead to relinquishment or euthanasia. Animals with separation anxiety sometimes have other anxiety disorders, like noise phobia. Like other types of anxiety, separation anxiety tends to get worse if it’s not treated.
Animals with separation anxiety show distress behaviors only when they’re separated from their people, not at any other time—unless, of course, they also have another source of anxiety.
Some signs of emotional distress are obvious:
Other signs are more subtle and may go unnoticed if no one is nearby to see or hear the animal:
Animals with subtle signs of anxiety are in just as much distress as the ones who destroy the house. Unfortunately, these animals might be less likely to get treatment because their signs are harder to spot.
In a survey of cat owners, the most common separation-related behaviors in cats were destruction, vocalization, inappropriate urination, depression, aggression, and agitation.
Many disorders cause the same signs as separation anxiety. Pets with possible separation anxiety should first see a veterinarian to rule out medical conditions like urinary tract infection, diabetes, and neurological disorders.
Because of the complexity of anxiety disorders, pets who show distress behaviors often need a full veterinary appointment dedicated to behavior evaluation, not just a quick discussion during a routine wellness visit. A detailed behavior history from the pet’s owner is crucial.
The best way to tell whether problem behaviors are caused by separation is by video recording the pet when the owner isn’t home. Video doesn’t require a home surveillance system; a cell phone can be set up to point at the pet while the owner leaves the house for a few minutes. Separation-related behaviors usually start soon after the owner leaves or even while the owner is getting ready to leave. Video can help pin down the cause of the anxiety (for example, maybe the dog doesn’t rip up the pillows until the mail carrier arrives). Because video is the only way to detect subtle signs of distress, it makes sense for all pet owners to record their animals at some point to be sure all is well.
Managing anxiety in animals usually requires a combination of behavior modification and antianxiety medication. The goal of behavior modification is to teach animals how to relax and calm themselves. Antianxiety medication reduces reactivity so that animals are capable of learning new behaviors, which they can’t do while they’re distressed.
Animals with separation anxiety might need more than 1 type of medication: a long-term drug taken daily and a short-acting drug to use in stressful situations or while waiting for the long-term drug to take effect. Antianxiety medications must be prescribed by a veterinarian. Various nonprescription remedies, such as pheromones and nutritional supplements, are also available. Most of these alternative treatments are more expensive than prescription medications and have less evidence to show that they’re effective.
Treatment of separation anxiety takes time—think months, not days. The most important early goals are to keep the pet safe and minimize sources of anxiety. These are some steps to take right away while waiting for treatment to take effect:
1. de Souza Machado D, Oliveira PMB, Machado JC, Ceballos MC, Sant’Anna AC. Identification of separation-related problems in domestic cats: a questionnaire survey. PLoS One. 2020;15(4):e0230999. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0230999
2. Overall KL. Advances in treating dogs who cannot be left alone. VMX 2020 Proceedings: Small Animal & Exotics: Book 1. North American Veterinary Community; 2020:120-123.
3. Sherman BL. Canine separation anxiety: a common behavior problem and welfare concern. 2019 Fetch DVM360 Conference Proceedings. MultiMedia Animal Care LLC; 2019:37-39.
4. Tynes VV. Separation anxiety and the “pandemic puppy”: what lies ahead after lockdown. American Animal Hospital Association. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://www.aaha.org/publications/newstat/articles/2021-06/separation-anxiety-and-the-pandemic-puppy-what-lies-ahead-after-lockdown/
5. Brooks W, Calder C, Bergman L. Separation anxiety: the fear of being alone. Veterinary Partner. June 4, 2020. Updated July 14, 2020. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/doc/?id=9673053&pid=19239
Photo by Mark Zamora on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Motion sickness is common in dogs and cats and can cause significant anxiety in affected animals. The condition is usually associated with riding in a car, boat, or airplane. If your pet vomits during trips, contact your veterinarian for medical help.
Motion-related nausea is caused by stimulation of the vestibular system, a set of structures in the inner ear responsible for sense of balance and coordination of head and eye movements. Signals from the vestibular system are connected to the vomiting center in the brainstem.
Motion sickness is probably related to sensory conflict when input from the eyes (what the animal sees) doesn’t match motion that the vestibular system detects. Head movements that are jerky, inconsistent, or in the opposite direction of the body’s motion—all of which happen while riding in a vehicle—can trigger the neural signals that lead to vomiting.
Animals with motion sickness sometimes vomit before the vehicle is even moving because they’re anxious and scared. They’ve learned that riding in a vehicle makes them feel sick, so they develop fear of the vehicle itself, and that fear makes them vomit. Anxiety that’s not related to motion sickness can also cause vomiting, so animals who are afraid of car rides for other reasons might vomit even if they don’t really have motion-related nausea.
Animals with motion sickness don’t always vomit. Some of the symptoms of nausea and anxiety are more subtle. Watch for these symptoms in dogs and cats:
Diagnosing motion sickness is usually pretty straightforward: vomiting that happens only in moving vehicles is motion sickness. A thorough history can help determine whether the animal has motion-related nausea, anxiety, or both. Vomiting that continues longer than the vehicle ride or is accompanied by other symptoms, like stomach pain, should be investigated further.
Withholding food for a few hours before the animal travels is a good way to start but might only reduce the volume of vomit; it won’t help with anxiety. Puppies sometimes outgrow motion sickness, especially if they receive positive-reinforcement training for vehicle rides. Training improves anxiety-related symptoms in some adult animals too. However, many animals need medicine to help them deal with motion sickness.
Safe and very effective antinausea medicines for dogs and cats are available by prescription. A veterinarian can help decide whether a pet would benefit most from antinausea medicine, antianxiety medicine, or both.
Motion sickness remedies for humans are available without a prescription, and some of these can be used in dogs and cats. However, never give your pet any motion sickness remedy without talking to your veterinarian first. Some of the products for humans have unwanted effects in animals. Many “natural” remedies are either untested or not effective in animals, and some might even be unsafe.
1. Conder GA, Sedlacek HS, Boucher JF, Clemence RG. Efficacy and safety of maropitant, a selective neurokinin 1 receptor antagonist, in two randomized clinical trials for prevention of vomiting due to motion sickness in dogs. J Vet Pharmacol Ther. 2008;31(6):528-532. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2885.2008.00990.x
2. Graham H. Motion sickness in small animals: pathophysiology & treatment. Clinician’s Brief. June 2013. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/motion-sickness-small-animals-pathophysiology-treatment
3. Coates JR. Motion sickness in animals. Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated March 2021. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/nervous-system/motion-sickness/motion-sickness-in-animals
4. Hickman MA, Cox SR, Mahabir S, et al. Safety, pharmacokinetics and use of the novel NK-1 receptor antagonist maropitant (Cerenia) for the prevention of emesis and motion sickness in cats. J Vet Pharmacol Ther. 2008;31(3):220-229. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2885.2008.00952.x
Image source: James Frewin via Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Chip, snack, and cereal bags pose a suffocation risk that pet owners might not know about until it’s too late. Dogs and cats have died after putting their heads in snack bags and other food containers.
Of the various types of food containers, plastic and Mylar-lined bags are the biggest suffocation hazards. When an animal with its head in a bag inhales, the bag tightens around the head, cutting off airflow. The animal might not be able to remove the bag on its own. Death can occur in just a few minutes.
Preventive Vet conducted an online survey about pet suffocation and received 1354 responses from 2014 through 2018. The responses from pet owners whose pets died or almost died of suffocation are summarized here.
Most common culprits:
Where pets got hold of the bags:
More than one-third of pet owners were home when their pet suffocated. Of the owners who were away from home, 18% were gone for less than 15 minutes.
Animals of all sizes are at risk. According to the survey responses, more than half of the dogs who suffocated were larger than 30 lb, and some were over 60 lb.
Simply being aware of the risk is a big part of keeping your pets safe. A lot of us have probably left chip and other food bags where our pets can reach them. Here are some steps you can take:
Pet suffocation awareness, Preventive Vet website: https://www.preventivevet.com/pet-suffocation
Prevent Pet Suffocation website: https://preventpetsuffocation.com/
Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova
In March and April 2021, outbreaks of Salmonella infection linked to wild songbirds, ground turkey, and small turtles were reported, and several brands of dog and cat food were recalled because of possible Salmonella contamination.[1,2]
Dogs and cats are at risk of illness from salmonellosis. However, healthy adult animals infected with these bacteria often become carriers with no symptoms. Salmonella are zoonotic—they spread between humans and other animals—so a major concern with Salmonella infection in animals is that it increases the risk for people.
Salmonella are spread through the feces of infected animals. These are some of the animals that carry Salmonella and expose people to infection:
Contaminated Food and Water
People and animals are most often infected with Salmonella by eating food or drinking water contaminated with feces. Handling contaminated food is also a risk if you don’t wash your hands thoroughly afterward to avoid bringing the bacteria to your mouth. Potential sources of Salmonella infection in humans, dogs, and cats include the following:
Animals carrying Salmonella shed the bacteria into their environment. Animals that seem completely healthy can be Salmonella carriers. It’s safest to assume that Salmonella are present anywhere an animal of a high-risk species spends time: reptile habitats, terrariums, aquariums, chicken coops, animal pens, and so forth. Bedding and water tanks or bowls (especially in reptile and amphibian habitats) can also be contaminated.
Bird Feeders and Birdbaths
Wild songbirds aren’t just Salmonella carriers; sometimes they get sick and die of Salmonella infection. The type of Salmonella that birds carry, S typhimurium, is contagious to people and other animals. Cats who hunt birds or hang out under bird feeders and birdbaths can be infected.
Many adult dogs and cats exposed to Salmonella don’t get sick but can still spread the bacteria. Puppies, kittens, stressed animals, immunosuppressed animals, and animals with other diseases are more likely to become ill with salmonellosis. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. The infection can be fatal in fetuses and newborns.
Salmonellosis in cats infected by birds is called songbird fever. Symptoms are similar to salmonellosis in other animals: vomiting, bloody diarrhea, lethargy, and loss of appetite.
As with most diseases, specific treatment depends on the individual animal’s needs. Salmonella can develop resistance to antibiotics, so animals with mild symptoms might be treated only with supportive measures. In some cases, the choice of antibiotic is based on results of culture and antimicrobial sensitivity tests.
Be aware that raw meat pet diets are a common source of Salmonella. The CDC recommends these measures to prevent Salmonella infections:
1. Reports of selected Salmonella outbreak investigations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 20, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/outbreaks.html
2. Recalls, market withdrawals, & safety alerts. US Food & Drug Administration. Accessed April 20, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/safety/recalls-market-withdrawals-safety-alerts
3. Salmonella infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 20, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/salmonella.html
4. Kukanich KS. Update on Salmonella spp contamination of pet food, treats, and nutritional products and safe feeding recommendations. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011;238(11):1430-1434. doi:10.2460/javma.238.11.1430
5. Marks SL, Rankin SC, Byrne BA, Weese JS. Enteropathogenic bacteria in dogs and cats: diagnosis, epidemiology, treatment, and control. J Vet Intern Med. 2011;25(6):1195-1208. doi:10.1111/j.1939-1676.2011.00821.x
6. Salmonella outbreak linked to wild songbirds. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 1, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/typhimurium-04-21/index.html
Image source: Shenandoah National Park (photo by N. Lewis, NPS)
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Dog bites are physically and emotionally traumatic and can also have serious consequences for the dog. National Dog Bite Prevention Week, the second full week of April, is a good time to learn more about dog bites.
Why do dogs bite?
Dogs bite as an instinctive response to provocation. Even friendly, tolerant dogs can bite under the wrong circumstances. A dog might bite a person in situations like these:
Which dog breeds are likely to bite?
Trick question! Any dog can bite if provoked.
Assuming that a dog is aggressive because of its breed is unfair to responsible dog owners and (in the case of breed bans) potentially unsafe for the dog. It’s even more dangerous to assume that a dog won’t bite because it looks like a breed people think of as “friendly.” It’s almost impossible to tell the breed heritage of a mixed-breed dog just by appearance anyway.
A dog’s body language and facial expressions are better indicators of bite risk than its (apparent) breed is. These cues can be subtle, but learning to tell if dogs are feeling anxious, afraid, or aggressive can help keep you safe.
Who’s at risk of being bitten?
At least half of the people bitten by dogs in the United States each year are children, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Older adults are also at higher risk. Most people with dog bites are bitten by their own dog or another dog they’re familiar with.
How can I keep myself and my kids from being bitten?
These measures can reduce the risk:
What can dog owners do?
Socialize puppies and newly adopted dogs so they’ll be comfortable with different people and new situations. Dogs who are well socialized are less likely to feel nervous or threatened when they encounter new people and unfamiliar environments. Obedience training using positive reinforcement also builds trust between dogs and their owners.
Be sure your dog’s rabies vaccination is up to date. Monitor your dog’s health; pain and illness reduce a dog’s tolerance for being touched and handled.
Don’t let your dog run free outdoors, and follow your local leash laws. If your dog is nervous around unfamiliar people, be sure he has a place to get away from visitors to your home.
Photo by Ralu Gal
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Over-the-counter (nonprescription) nasal sprays and eye drops can pose a serious risk to animals that ingest them. The problem ingredients—imidazoline decongestants, phenylephrine, and xylitol—are common in products to treat allergies, colds, flu, and red eyes.
If your pet chews a nasal spray or eye drop bottle, call your veterinarian or an animal poison control hotline immediately. This type of poisoning is a medical emergency. Even small amounts of ingested product can be dangerous.
Pet poison hotlines (consultation fees apply):
Decongestants in the imidazoline class are found in many nasal sprays and eye drops that reduce nasal congestion and eye redness. Some of the drugs in this group are oxymetazoline, naphazoline, tetrahydrozoline, tolazoline, and xylometazoline. A few of the many brands that contain imidazolines are Afrin, Clear Eyes, Mucinex, Opcon, Privine, Sinex, Visine, and Zicam.
Imidazolines affect the heart, circulation, digestive system, and nervous system. They decrease nasal congestion and eye redness by narrowing small blood vessels in the nose and eyes.
Symptoms of imidazoline poisoning appear as soon as 15 minutes after ingestion of a large amount or a few hours after ingestion of a small amount. The symptoms last from about 12 to 36 hours and include the following:
Animals with imidazoline poisoning need to be hospitalized for treatment and monitoring. Reversal agents for imidazolines are available.
Imidazolines and phenylephrine have similar effects on the body. Like imidazolines, phenylephrine acts as a decongestant by shrinking small blood vessels in the nose.
Phenylephrine is available in oral forms, nasal sprays, eye drops, and hemorrhoid creams. Two brands of nasal spray that contain phenylephrine are Little Remedies and Neo-Synephrine. Ingestion can cause vomiting, agitation, hyperactivity, and increased blood pressure.
Some nasal sprays, including some with labels reading “natural saline,” contain xylitol. One example is Xlear nasal spray. Xylitol is harmless in humans, but in dogs it causes a dangerous, rapid drop in blood sugar and can also cause liver damage. The best approach is to keep all remedies (prescription, nonprescription, and “natural”) out of reach of pets and never assume that a product that’s safe for children is also safe for animals.
1. Almgren C. Clear eyes, dry nose, no problem? Wrong! Intoxications due to eye drops and nasal sprays. Pet Poison Helpline webinar. November 14, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/webinar/november-2017-intoxications-due-eye-drops-nasal-sprays/
2. Khan SA. Decongestants (toxicity). Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated August 2014. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/toxicities-from-human-drugs/decongestants-toxicity
Photo by Diana Polekhina
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Some bugs carry dangerous diseases or have venomous stings. But what about insects that our pets catch and swallow? Most are harmless, but a few are unsafe for pets. As warm weather arrives, keep an eye out for insects that can cause trouble if they’re eaten.
Pesticides and insecticides can also be toxic to pets. Keep these products out of your pets’ reach and use them only according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Dogs and cats are most likely to get a toxic dose if they’re sprayed with the product or eat a significant amount. A pet that eats a single pesticide-covered insect would ingest a little bit of the product, but the amount would probably be too small to cause a problem (call your veterinarian if you’re unsure or if your pet shows any symptoms).
Caterpillar hairs can be irritating to the touch, and some types of hairs release a toxin. Fur typically protects dogs’ and cats’ skin from the stings of caterpillar hairs. If a pet eats a caterpillar, though, the hairs can irritate the mouth and throat. Symptoms include drooling, pawing at the mouth, shaking the head, vomiting, and trouble swallowing. Processionary caterpillars (found in Europe, North Africa, and Asia) produce a toxin that causes an especially severe reaction.[1,2]
Fireflies are highly toxic to lizards, amphibians, and birds. Ingestion of a single firefly can kill a bearded dragon. Fireflies contain lucibufagins, which are chemicals that cause heart damage in susceptible species.
Asian Lady Beetles
Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) look a lot like ladybugs, but unlike ladybugs they gather in large numbers and come inside houses in cold weather. As a defense mechanism, they secrete an irritating chemical compound. One published report describes a dog with oral trauma similar to chemical burns caused by 16 Asian lady beetles stuck to the roof of the mouth.
Blister beetles (family Meloidae) produce a toxin called cantharidin, an irritant that causes blistering on contact with the skin, mouth, or digestive tract. Cantharidin poisoning is most common in horses that eat alfalfa hay contaminated with blister beetles. Exposure can be fatal to horses. Other species, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and people, are also susceptible to cantharidin poisoning.
The insects known as walking sticks (order Phasmatodea) use camouflage as their main defense mechanism, but some of them also secrete a chemical that can burn the eyes or mouth. Anisomorpha buprestoides, a stick insect found in the southern United States, can aim this secretion directly at the face of a predator. Severe eye damage has been reported in humans and a dog.
Brachinus beetles are called bombardier beetles because they secrete a toxic chemical that they aim at predators in what is usually described as “explosive discharge.” This chemical irritant is released at a boiling temperature. Although I did not find any research reports of bombardier beetle poisoning in dogs or cats, I can’t imagine that eating one would be a comfortable experience.
1. Bad bugs, bad bugs: what you should do to keep your pets safe. ASPCA. August 1, 2018. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.aspca.org/news/bad-bugs-bad-bugs-what-you-should-do-keep-your-pets-safe
2. Fuzzy green poisoners: caterpillar toxicosis in pets. ASPCA Pro. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/fuzzy-green-poisoners-caterpillar-toxicosis-pets
3. Treating firefly toxicosis in lizards. ASPCA Pro. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/treating-firefly-toxicosis-lizards
4. Stocks IC, Lindsey DE. Acute corrosion of the oral mucosa in a dog due to ingestion of multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis: Coccinellidae). Toxicon. 2008;52(2):389-391. doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2008.05.010
5. Schmitz DG. Overview of cantharidin poisoning. Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated June 2013. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/cantharidin-poisoning/overview-of-cantharidin-poisoning
6. Thomas MC. Featured creatures: twostriped walkingstick. University of Florida Entomology & Nematology. Publication No. EENY-314. November 2003. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/walkingstick.htm
7. Schaller JC, Davidowitz G, Papaj DR, Smith RL, Carrière Y, Moore W. Molecular phylogeny, ecology and multispecies aggregation behaviour of bombardier beetles in Arizona. PLoS One. 2018;13(10):e0205192. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0205192
Photo by Kazuky Akayashi
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Coccidia are tiny parasites that live in the intestines. Coccidia infection is common in dogs and cats, most often affecting puppies and kittens. Infection can cause severe disease and even death, especially in young animals, although some infected animals have no symptoms at all.
Coccidia are protozoa, which are single-celled organisms. They are not worms, and deworming medications do not remove coccidia. Different species of coccidia infect different animals. Coccidia that infect dogs and cats are in the genus Isospora. Other types of coccidia infect other mammals (including humans), birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
Unlike some parasites, coccidia that infect dogs and cats are not contagious to humans. Coccidia are host specific: they cause disease only in their own host species, not in animals of other species. Dogs with coccidia spread the disease to other dogs but not to cats or humans. Cats with coccidia spread the disease only to other cats.
Coccidia that infect dogs and cats are transmitted through feces. Dogs and cats are usually infected by swallowing contaminated soil or other contaminated substances in the environment. They can also be infected by eating a small animal (like a rodent or insect) that serves as a transport host or vector for Isospora organisms.
Coccidia in the feces are not infective right away. The life stage that passes out of the body in the stool is immature (nonsporulated). After a few hours in the environment, this stage matures to the sporulated stage, which can infect other animals. Sporulated coccidia can survive in the environment for a year.
After sporulated coccidia are swallowed, they release other stages that invade cells of the intestines. Damage to the intestinal cells is responsible for the symptoms. Puppies, kittens, and adult animals with compromised immune systems are at most risk for serious illness. These are some of the symptoms:
Coccidia are diagnosed by examining a sample of feces under a microscope. Sometimes infected animals have false-negative test results (no coccidia seen even though the animal is infected), so animals with symptoms might need repeated fecal tests to diagnose the cause of illness. Coccidia can also be found in the feces of animals with no symptoms.
Coccidia infection is treated with medication from a veterinarian. Complete treatment may take a few days or a few weeks, depending on the severity of infection. Sanitation of the environment reduces the chance of reinfection during treatment, especially for animals in group housing.
Medications that remove hookworms, roundworms, and other common dog and cat parasites do not affect coccidia. Heartworm, flea, and tick preventives also do not remove or prevent coccidia.
Because coccidia in stool aren’t infective for a few hours, removing feces from the environment regularly (at least once a day) helps prevent infection. Keeping cats indoors reduces or eliminates their exposure risk. Preventing dogs and cats from hunting rodents and other animals also reduces their chance of infection from transport hosts. All dogs and cats—and especially puppies and kittens—should have periodic fecal tests by a veterinarian.
1. Coccidia. Companion Animal Parasite Council. Updated October 1, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://capcvet.org/guidelines/coccidia/
Photo by David Clarke
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Periodontal disease (disease of structures that support the teeth) is one of the most common medical problems of dogs and cats. This condition, which leads to bone loss around the tooth roots, causes the teeth to loosen and fall out.
Although periodontal disease can be painful, animals often don’t show any outward symptoms until the disease is advanced. Periodontal disease may also increase the risk of heart, liver, and kidney problems. Regular dental care at home and periodic dental cleanings under anesthesia are the best ways to prevent periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease is caused by bacteria in the mouth—or more specifically, the body’s immune response to bacteria. Oral bacteria produce plaque, a sticky substance that coats the teeth. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar. Bacteria, plaque, and tartar near the gumline activate the immune system, causing inflammation.
The earliest stage of oral inflammation is gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums. Periodontal disease is more severe inflammation that affects the bone and other tissues around the tooth roots. Gingivitis is reversible with professional dental cleaning (including under the gums) and home dental care. Periodontal disease, which destroys the structures holding the teeth in place, is not reversible.
The biggest risk factor for periodontal disease is the presence of plaque and tartar on the teeth. Other things that increase the risk are genetics, older age, crowded teeth, thin bone around the teeth (for example, in toy dog breeds), poor nutrition, and possibly medical conditions that reduce resistance to infection. A study of 109 otherwise healthy cats found that all of them had some degree of periodontal inflammation.
Dogs and cats can have remarkably bad dental disease without showing any symptoms of discomfort. Unpleasant mouth odor might be the only symptom that pet owners notice. Because periodontal disease affects the tooth roots, it’s hidden from view in the early stages. It’s more obvious once bone has been lost to the point that the tooth roots are exposed or teeth start falling out.
The symptoms, if any, begin with symptoms of gingivitis and get worse as the inflammation becomes more severe:
Very advanced periodontal disease causes changes that can be seen on oral examination of an awake animal. Diagnosing earlier stages and assessing the extent of the disease require examination with the animal under anesthesia. The diagnosis is made by examining the entire mouth, probing the gums to find pockets of inflammation/infection, and taking dental radiographs (if available) to get a look at the tooth roots and the surrounding bone.
Treatment and Prevention
Gingivitis and early stages of periodontal disease are managed with dental cleaning under anesthesia followed by home dental care. Anesthesia is necessary because plaque and tartar must be removed from the parts of the teeth under the gums. Scraping tartar off the teeth of an awake animal is not enough. It makes the teeth look better, but it does nothing to treat the real problem and can make things worse by delaying a more thorough cleaning.
Teeth with later stages of periodontal disease are treated surgically. The procedure used depends on the stage of disease and the condition of the bone. Sometimes a tooth can be saved with an endodontic procedure like a root canal, but in many cases extraction of the tooth is the best option.
Plaque starts to form on teeth again soon after a dental cleaning, so regular home dental care is ideal. Brushing the teeth with pet (not human) toothpaste is the standard of care for animals that allow it. Many other products to help remove dental plaque are available. See the blog post on dental home care for some ideas and talk to your veterinarian about products that would work for your pet.
1. Wallis C, Holcombe LJ. A review of the frequency and impact of periodontal disease in dogs. J Small Anim Pract. 2020;61(9):529-540. doi: 10.1111/jsap.13218
2. Girard N, Servet E, Biourge V, Hennet P. Periodontal health status in a colony of 109 cats. J Vet Dent. 2009;26(3):147-155. doi: 10.1177/089875640902600301
Photo by Chris Smith
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
On January 11, 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert about certain Sportmix pet foods recalled because of high levels of aflatoxin. At the time of the alert, 70 dogs had died and more than 80 were sick (not all of them officially confirmed as having aflatoxin poisoning).
Other pet foods have been recalled in the past because of aflatoxin. For a list of foods included in the current recall, see the FDA alert: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-alert-certain-lots-sportmix-pet-food-recalled-potentially-fatal-levels-aflatoxin
Aflatoxins are produced by molds (Aspergillus species) that grow on grains like corn. Animals are exposed by eating contaminated animal diets or moldy corn, peanuts, or other foods. Food doesn’t have to look moldy to be contaminated with aflatoxins.
Because commercial dog food is typically the main component of a dog’s diet and dogs usually eat from a single bag of food until it’s finished, even low levels of aflatoxin in the food can accumulate in the body and cause symptoms.
The liver is the main organ affected. Liver damage causes nonspecific digestive tract symptoms. Severe liver damage reduces the ability of the blood to clot and can lead to central nervous system problems. Death occurs quickly in some animals with aflatoxin poisoning. Symptoms include the following:
The symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning aren’t specific and could have a number of causes. Diagnosis begins with history, physical examination, and blood and urine tests. If test results show liver damage and a toxin is suspected, the next step is obtaining a complete history of everything the animal has been exposed to, including all foods and treats. Food samples and possibly tissue samples from the body can be sent to a laboratory to test for aflatoxin.
Treatment consists of supportive care and management of problems (like blood clotting disorders) caused by liver failure. Specific treatment depends on the individual patient’s needs.
What You Should Do
The FDA recommends that pet owners take these steps:
See this FDA page for information about reporting possible problems with pet food: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/report-problem/how-report-pet-food-complaint
Watch for pet food recall alerts in the news and on social media. The FDA posts recalls on the FDA Recalls Twitter account: https://twitter.com/FDArecalls
1. FDA alert: certain lots of Sportmix pet food recalled for potentially fatal levels of aflatoxin. US Food and Drug Administration. Updated January 11, 2021. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-alert-certain-lots-sportmix-pet-food-recalled-potentially-fatal-levels-aflatoxin
2. Martínez-Martínez L, Valdivia-Flores AG, Guerrero-Barrera AL, Quezada-Tristán T, Rangel-Muñoz EJ, Ortiz-Martínez R. Toxic effect of aflatoxins in dogs fed contaminated commercial dry feed: a review. Toxins (Basel). 2021;13(1):E65. doi:10.3390/toxins13010065
3. Aflatoxin poisoning in pets. US Food and Drug Administration. Updated January 8, 2021. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/aflatoxin-poisoning-pets
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Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
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