Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Most dogs and cats cope very well with vision loss. They rely more on the sense of smell than on the sense of sight. Blind animals can have happy, comfortable lives with some help from their owners.
Pets with gradual vision loss often adapt so well that their owners don’t realize their pets are having trouble seeing until they’re completely blind and bumping into things. Animals with sudden blindness can take longer to adjust.
Safety and Navigation
Use gates and other barriers to block a blind animal’s access to stairs, swimming pools, fireplaces, and other dangers. Use foam cushioning (child safety equipment) to pad furniture corners. Keep the floor clear of trip hazards like toys and laundry.
Keep blind animals in a crate or other secure space whenever they’re unsupervised, at least while they’re adjusting to their loss of vision. This space can also become a safe, familiar retreat.
Blind animals can have a hard time navigating stairs, especially descending. Be patient and use a harness and treats to show blind dogs how to manage stairs. Consider covering short runs of steps with a ramp. Nonslip strips applied to stair treads might make a blind pet feel more secure. Dogs and cats that sleep on furniture might need a ramp or steps so they don’t have to jump up and down.
To help blind pets learn their way around the house, don’t pick them up and carry them; let them walk on their own. Different floor surfaces (mats or rugs) can help them identify specific areas like doorways and the location of food and water bowls. A radio left on at all times in one room and scents applied to furniture at the pet’s head height can also help orient them inside the house.
Face whiskers help animals feel obstacles, so don’t have their whiskers trimmed at grooming appointments. Vests with circular extensions around the head or chest (halo vests) are available for blind dogs who keep bumping into things.
Exercise and Mental Health
Blind animals need exercise just like every other animal, but they shouldn’t go outdoors unsupervised. Even a small fenced yard can have holes and fallen branches that would pose a risk to a blind pet. If you don’t have a fenced yard that’s safe and familiar to your dog, keep your dog on a leash.
When walking your blind dog, attach the leash to a harness instead of a collar in case you need to pull your dog away from a hazard. Teach your dog verbal cues like “left,” “right,” and “stop.” An unexpected touch can frighten a blind dog, so warn people who approach that your dog is blind. Consider using a dog vest with the words “Blind dog” or “Do not pet.” Be very careful if another dog approaches while you’re walking your dog. A blind dog can’t read other dogs’ body language. If you let your dog interact with another dog, be sure that the other dog is friendly and that your dog is comfortable with the interaction.
Provide toys that stimulate senses other than sight. Use toys with bells (with supervision—bells can be a choking hazard), catnip toys for cats, and tracking games for dogs who enjoy following scents. For some animals, playing contact games like tug of war might be easier than chasing toys by sound or scent.
Some animals experience anxiety while they’re adjusting to vision loss. Keep your pet’s routine consistent, stay positive around your pet, and provide a safe retreat like a crate. Behavior changes like hiding, reluctance to walk or play, growling, barking, and snapping can all be signs of anxiety. Contact your veterinarian if your pet has any of these changes or seems to be having trouble adapting. Some pets benefit from short-term or long-term prescription anxiety medications.
For more ideas, see the ACVO Vision for Animals Foundation website: https://www.visionforanimals.org/coping-with-a-blind-dog/
Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/SEX4KAz9ExQ
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Many dogs and cats need eye medication at some point in their lives. Pets with chronic eye diseases might need more than 1 eye medication given multiple times a day for years. With practice and positive reinforcement, giving eye medication to an animal can be quick and drama free.
If your pet doesn’t need eye medication yet, you can train them for it in advance. This training will reduce your pet’s stress when they need medication later on. Go through the body positioning and head handling steps listed below and give yummy treats at each stage. Large dogs can be trained to rest their head on your knee to receive eye medication.
Handling Eye Medication
Giving Multiple Medications
Administering the Medication
Watch for Unwanted Effects
Some eye medications are a little uncomfortable for the first few applications. It’s common for animals to blink more than usual or squint for a minute or two after an eye medication is applied. If your pet’s eye seems uncomfortable for more than a few minutes or if this response continues for more than the first few doses, contact your veterinarian.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/181765699@N08/48298582227/
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Aggression related to being petted is very common in cats. Cats with this type of aggression suddenly scratch, growl, or bite while they’re being petted.
The most likely explanations for petting-related aggression are that the cat is overstimulated, has a low tolerance for being touched, or is trying to exert some control over the interaction. It’s also possible that the cat has a medical problem (for example, pain caused by arthritis or dental disease). Any type of aggression, especially if it’s a new behavior, warrants an examination by a veterinarian.
The people most at risk of injury are children and others who don’t know the signs that a cat is uncomfortable with an interaction. Tolerance to petting varies from cat to cat, and the same cat’s tolerance can change according to the circumstances.
To help people understand the best way to interact with cats, a team of researchers in the United Kingdom developed a set of guidelines that they describe with the acronym CAT (for choice, attention, and touch). The team found that cats showed less aggression when people followed the CAT guidelines during interactions.
The gist of the CAT guidelines is that we should handle cats the way they want to be handled and leave them alone when they want to be left alone. Makes sense, right? However, in another study, the same team found that some people who had lots of cat-owning experience and rated their own cat knowledge as high interacted in ways the cats did not want.
The following is a summary of the CAT guidelines, or how to pet a cat.
C: Give the cat choice and control.
A: Pay attention to the cat’s body language.
These are signs that a cat might not want to be petted any longer:
T: Touch the cat only where the cat wants to be touched.
To read more about cat-friendly petting and how humans interact with cats, check out these 2 articles:
1. Haywood C, Ripari L, Puzzo J, Foreman-Worsley R, Finka LR. Providing humans with practical, best practice handling guidelines during human-cat interactions increases cats' affiliative behaviour and reduces aggression and signs of conflict. Front Vet Sci. 2021;8:714143. doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.714143
2. Finka LR, Ripari L, Quinlan L, et al. Investigation of humans individual differences as predictors of their animal interaction styles, focused on the domestic cat. Sci Rep. 2022;12(1):12128. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-15194-7
Photo by Ilze on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Urinalysis is part of the diagnostic workup for many medical conditions, such as kidney disease, diabetes, and urinary tract infection. Pets that are urinating in unfortunate locations need urinalysis because inappropriate urination can be a symptom of a medical problem. Routine wellness checks, especially for senior animals, often include urinalysis. Urine is also collected for bacterial culture and other tests.
Urinalysis includes measurement of urine concentration, chemical analysis, and examination under a microscope. The results are affected by the age of the urine and the way the sample is collected. Urine begins to change soon after it’s voided, so urine samples need to be very fresh, ideally delivered to the veterinary clinic within an hour. The collection container needs to be completely clean, with no residue from food or cleaning solutions that can affect the chemical test results. Debris in a urine sample interferes with the chemical analysis and microscopic examination.
Urine can be collected either at home or at the veterinary clinic, depending on the reason the sample is needed and individual pet and household factors (such as the animal’s temperament and medical conditions, owner’s ability to collect urine, and distance to the clinic). Home urine collection is fine for most routine urinalysis, but check with your veterinarian to be sure it’s appropriate for your pet. Sometimes urine needs to be collected in a sterile manner at the veterinary clinic. In these cases, urine is usually collected by cystocentesis, a technique using a needle inserted directly into the bladder.
General Urine Collection Tips
Collecting Urine From Dogs
Collecting Urine From Cats
Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Pets need stool tests to screen for parasites or help find the cause of diarrhea and other digestive system problems. Collecting a stool sample at home is the least stressful option for the pet. The alternative is for someone at the veterinary clinic to use a loop to remove a little bit of stool from the rectum. This option yields a much smaller sample and can be unpleasant for the animal.
A fecal test for parasites involves mixing the stool sample in a flotation solution and either spinning it in a centrifuge or leaving it to sit in a vial for a certain amount of time. The material at the top of the solution is then removed to a microscope slide to look for parasite eggs that have floated to the surface. Sometimes a tiny bit of stool is smeared directly onto a microscope slide for examination. Fecal analysis can also include chemical tests. For all of these tests, the stool needs to be fresh and squishy enough to mix or smear.
The age and condition of a stool sample affect the results. Parasite eggs can dry out or hatch in old stool. Hard, dry feces is very difficult or impossible to prepare for testing. Stool that has been sitting outdoors for a while can contain fly eggs or larvae (maggots). Liquid diarrhea that’s soaked into paper or cloth can’t be mixed in solution to test for parasites.
Here’s how to collect a stool sample to get the most accurate results:
Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Socializing young kittens and puppies means giving them positive experiences with things they’ll encounter throughout their lives. Building positive associations early in life helps animals feel comfortable with new people and new situations. Animals that are well socialized when they’re young are less likely to develop fear-based behavior problems (like aggression) that could put them at risk of being sent to a shelter or euthanized later on.
Sensitive Period for Socialization
For kittens, the window of opportunity for socialization is very early: from 3 weeks to about 7 to 9 weeks of age.[1,2] The sensitive period is the time when a young kitten’s brain is most receptive to socialization. During these early weeks, a kitten is exploring and learning, developing neurological pathways that will help the kitten learn in the future. After the sensitive period, brain development shifts; kittens don’t make positive associations as quickly or easily and they’re more likely to be afraid of new things. This is why it’s so difficult, if not impossible, to convert a semi-feral adult cat into a cat that can be happy living as a house pet.
You will have noticed that the sensitive socialization period for kittens is nearly closed by the time they’re typically adopted or purchased. Socialization needs to start with the person caring for the mother cat and newborns. When you adopt or buy a kitten, continue providing socialization (at the kitten’s comfort level and pace) to reinforce what the kitten has already learned.
The socialization process should always be positive. Don’t force kittens to interact with strangers or other animals if they’re shy, and don’t push them to be near things that scare them. Let them choose whether to interact. Give them room to walk away and let them hide if they want to. Use positive reinforcement (food or play) to encourage them to interact and build their confidence.
The following suggestions are adapted from the American Veterinary Medical Association. For more tips, check out the First Year of Life page on the Cat Friendly Homes website: https://catfriendly.com/life-stages/first-year-life/
Socializing Kittens Before Weaning
Socializing Kittens 8 to 12 Weeks Old
Older Kittens and Newly Adopted Adult Cats
1. Welfare implications of socialization of puppies and kittens. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 9, 2015. Accessed July 8, 2022. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/literature-reviews/welfare-implications-socialization-puppies-and-kittens
2. Todd Z. The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens. Companion Animal Psychology. July 26, 2017. Accessed July 8, 2022. https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/07/the-sensitive-period-for-socialization.html
Photo by Haley Owens on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The Five Freedoms, which describe animals’ basic welfare needs, are a framework to guide animal care. The Five Freedoms were first developed for the care of livestock, but they apply to all animals under human care.
The Five Freedoms aren’t meant to be rigid, absolute standards; for example, it’s not biologically possible to completely eliminate hunger and thirst. The original Five Freedoms focused on reducing animals’ negative experiences. To reflect better understanding of animal welfare, the framework has been updated to include giving animals positive experiences in addition to limiting negative ones.
Meeting animals’ welfare needs helps keep them physically and mentally sound. When you’re caring for pet animals—whether your pets are dogs or frogs—keep the Five Freedoms in mind to be sure you’re giving them everything they need to stay healthy and happy.
Freedom From Hunger and Thirst
Animals need fresh water and a diet that is complete and balanced for their species and life stage. Animal welfare is enhanced (meaning that animals will be happier) if the eating experience is also enjoyable. For pets, this could mean adding variety to the diet or using food puzzles from time to time.
Freedom From Discomfort
At its most basic, freedom from discomfort means having shelter and a comfortable place to rest. This category can also include everything in an animal’s environment. How might you enrich your pet’s environment to promote comfort and enjoyment? Would your elderly indoor cat like a soft, easily accessible window seat to watch birds? Could your snake use another hide in the vivarium?
Freedom From Pain and Injury
Animals should have veterinary care to prevent and treat disease and injury. Caretakers can take other steps to promote health and prevent pain, such as providing appropriate physical activity and avoiding painful experiences.
Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
The original Five Freedoms specified giving animals sufficient space, proper facilities, and the right amount of company of the animal’s own kind. Animal caretakers can go far beyond these basic recommendations. Think about behavior that is normal for your pet’s species. Dogs chase things and cats sharpen claws, and they need appropriate outlets, not punishment, for these behaviors. The need for companionship depends on the species. Some animals (like guinea pigs) need to live with at least one other of their own species, and others do well living alone.
Freedom From Fear and Distress
Animals should not be kept in conditions that create anxiety and stress. Pet owners can also give their animals positive experiences to support their mental health.
To read more about the Five Freedoms and pets, check out these articles by Dr. Zazie Todd on the Companion Animal Psychology website:
What Are the Five Freedoms (and What Do They Mean to You?)
The Five Domains Model Aims to Help Animals Thrive
1. Farm Animal Welfare Council. Report on priorities for animal welfare research and development. May 1993. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://edepot.wur.nl/134980
2. Mellor DJ. Moving beyond the “five freedoms” by updating the “five provisions” and introducing aligned “animal welfare aims.” Animals (Basel). 2016;6(10):59. doi:10.3390/ani6100059
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Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Before bringing a plant into your home, be sure it’s safe for your pets. Some plants are so toxic they should never be kept in homes where animals live (the most hazardous are sago palms and, for cats, lilies). But many plants pose little danger to animals and are good choices for households with pets.
If you need to find out if a plant is safe, the list of toxic and nontoxic plants on the ASPCA Animal Poison Control website is an excellent resource: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants.
You can search the list for specific plants, and you can also generate lists of plants that are toxic or not toxic for dogs, cats, or horses. Some toxic and nontoxic plants have very similar common names, so always check a plant’s scientific name.
“Toxic” is a relative term when it comes to plants. Plants listed as toxic might cause anything from mild mouth irritation to death. Even plants listed as nontoxic can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea if they’re eaten. Plants listed as nontoxic should not cause life-threatening illness in animals.
These are a few of the houseplants that are not toxic to dogs and cats, according to ASPCA Animal Poison Control. Scientific names are from the ASPCA and the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/).
African violet (Streptocarpus ionanthus)
American or baby rubber plant (Peperomia obtusifolia)
Always check the scientific names of plants called “rubber.” Baby rubber plants aren’t toxic to dogs and cats. Jade plants, sometimes called dwarf rubber or Chinese rubber plants (Crassula ovata), are toxic. Indian rubber plants (Ficus benjamina) are also toxic to dogs and cats.
Boston fern (Nephrolepis exalta)
Some ferns are safe and some aren’t. Boston fern isn’t toxic to dogs and cats, but asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus [Sprengeri group]) and some of the ferns that grow outdoors are. Fern palm is another name for sago palm (Cycas and Zamia species), one of the most dangerous plants to have anywhere near an animal.
Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera species)
Christmas cactus isn’t toxic, but pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) irritates the mouth and stomach and can cause vomiting.
Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
Gerbera daisies are safe for dogs and cats. Some other daisy-like plants are listed as toxic; these include seaside daisy (Erigeron speciosus), chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum species), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), and, not surprisingly, poison daisy/mayweed (Eclipta prostrata).
Hens and chicks (Sempervivum species)
The small succulent called hens and chicks isn’t toxic. Some other succulents, like jade plants (Crassula species), can be toxic to dogs and cats.
Majesty palm (Ravenea rivularis), parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
Always look up palm species to be sure they’re safe. Majesty, parlor, and several other types of palm are safe for dogs and cats, but sago palm (Cycas and Zamia species) can be deadly.
Phalaenopsis or moth orchid (Phalaenopsis species)
Spider or ribbon plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Zebra haworthia (Haworthiopsis species)
The zebra plant looks similar to aloe (Aloe vera) but is safer for dogs and cats. Aloe can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Public domain photo of Phalaenopsis or moth orchids by Bob Burch on Flickr
Any dog might need to wear a muzzle at some point. Muzzle training makes wearing a muzzle stress-free and even fun for the dog. Resources for training a dog to love a muzzle are linked at the end of this article.
Why Dogs Wear Muzzles
Muzzles can be incredibly useful. Wearing a muzzle doesn’t necessarily mean that a dog is aggressive. A muzzle is just another tool to help keep dogs and people safe. These are some of the many reasons a dog might use a muzzle:
Choosing a Muzzle
The type of muzzle to look for is a basket muzzle. Correctly fitted basket muzzles don’t hold a dog’s mouth shut, so a dog wearing a basket muzzle can pant, drink water, and take treats.
Don’t buy a cloth muzzle like the ones sometimes used for dog grooming and veterinary procedures. Cloth muzzles keep the dog’s mouth closed, so these muzzles are not safe for dogs to wear for more than a few minutes and can also be stressful for dogs.
Basket muzzles come in various styles, materials, and colors. Some are made of flexible rubber; muzzles made of wire offer more bite protection. Muzzles for specific breeds (like greyhounds) and custom-made muzzles for dogs with hard-to-fit faces are also available.
The fit of the muzzle is crucial, so you’ll need to measure your dog’s face according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (Estimate the measurement if your dog might bite when his face is touched.) A basket muzzle should be long enough to avoid rubbing the tip of the nose but not so long that it hits the dog’s eyes, and it should be deep enough to let the dog open his mouth wide to pant. A basket muzzle deep enough to allow for full panting will probably look huge when the dog’s mouth is closed, but this is the correct fit.
The muzzle should have lots of openings for air flow. Some basket muzzles have large holes for treats; others have smaller gaps in front of the nose to keep dogs from eating things they shouldn’t.
Muzzle Training Basics
Dogs accept muzzles most readily if the training involves yummy treats and is done gradually over weeks. Dogs who are already afraid of muzzles need extra training steps and more time; don’t hesitate to seek help from a positive-reinforcement trainer.
Watch your dog’s body language throughout training to be sure she’s happy and relaxed. If at any point your dog avoids the muzzle, you’re moving too fast. Back up a couple of steps and proceed more slowly.
1. Arhant C, Schmied-Wagner C, Aigner U, Affenzeller N. Owner reports on use of muzzles and their effects on dogs; an online survey. J Vet Behav. 2021;41:73-81. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2020.07.006
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
About two-thirds of cats respond to catnip. Catnip toys and catnip plants are safe for cats and can provide sensory stimulation and environmental enrichment for indoor cats.
Environmental enrichment means adding things to or changing an animal’s environment in ways that enhance the animal’s mental and physical well-being. An enriched environment lets animals express behaviors that are normal for their species and helps them cope with stress.
Environmental enrichment is used to improve the welfare of animals in zoos and shelters, and it can also help indoor cats be happier and healthier. Sensory enrichment is part of environmental enrichment, and catnip provides olfactory stimulation for cats that are attracted to it.
What is catnip?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb in the mint family. It can be grown in pots or planted in the garden, though like other mints it tends to be invasive if it’s not confined to a container.
The compound in catnip that appeals to cats is nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is a volatile substance, meaning that it forms a vapor. Cats that respond to catnip are attracted to its scent, not necessarily to its taste.
Some other plants contain nepetalactone and similar compounds. In a study published in 2017, most cats that didn’t respond to catnip were attracted to silver vine (Actinidia polygama). About half of the cats in the study responded to Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) or valerian root (Valeriana officinalis).
How does catnip affect cats?
Cats’ reactions to catnip include sniffing and licking it, rubbing their faces in it, rolling in it, kicking it with the back feet, and drooling. The response lasts for about 5 to 15 minutes, after which the cat doesn’t respond to the plant for an hour or two.
Cats do not become addicted to catnip.[2,3] Nepetalactone works through the body’s opioid response system, likely providing a feel-good reward to cats that interact with catnip. Nepetalactone stimulates the opioid response system by increasing the release of natural endorphins, which probably explains why nepetalactone isn’t addicting like externally administered opiates (such as morphine) can be.
Why are cats attracted to catnip?
The catnip response is inherited. Some big cats, like leopards and jaguars (but not tigers), are also attracted to catnip. Breed, sex, and neutering status do not affect cats’ sensitivity to catnip, although the catnip response seems to increase as cats grow to adulthood. We don’t know why some cats but not others have catnip-sensitive genes or why other species don’t respond to catnip in the same way.
So why are cats sensitive to catnip at all? It would be very unusual for animals to have an innate (as opposed to learned) behavioral response that serves no biological purpose.
A study published in 2021 suggested that the catnip response could have evolved as a means of pest defense. This study showed that nepetalactol (a compound in silver vine similar to nepetalactone) repels mosquitoes when it’s applied to cats’ heads. The researchers observed cats’ interactions with nepetalactol samples and found that the cats showed rolling and face-rubbing behaviors only when the samples were within reach, not when the cats could smell the samples but not come in contact with them. After more tests, they concluded that the point of the catnip response is to transfer nepetalactol to the face and body to ward off mosquitoes.
Feel free to offer catnip to your cats if they enjoy it. Don’t rely on catnip for mosquito control, though! Mosquitoes transmit heartworms and other diseases, and catnip isn’t effective enough as a mosquito repellant to keep your cats safe.
1. Ellis SL. Environmental enrichment: practical strategies for improving feline welfare. J Feline Med Surg. 2009;11(11):901-912. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2009.09.011
2. Bol S, Caspers J, Buckingham L, et al. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Vet Res. 2017;13(1):70. doi:10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6
3. Uenoyama R, Miyazaki T, Hurst JL, et al. The characteristic response of domestic cats to plant iridoids allows them to gain chemical defense against mosquitoes. Sci Adv. 2021;7(4):eabd9135. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd9135
4. Ellis SL, Wells DL. The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2010;123:56-62. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2009.12.011
Photo by Madalyn Cox on Unsplash
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.