Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Socialization helps dogs become comfortable with new people, animals, and situations. It’s especially crucial for puppies and newly adopted dogs. Socializing dogs requires a little creativity during a pandemic, but you can still make sure they have the experiences they need to be well-adjusted pets.
The best age to socialize puppies is up to about 3 months. Very young pups consider everything they encounter to be a normal part of life, so they’re not likely to be afraid of these things later on. After 3 to 4 months of age, their brains are less receptive to new experiences and their fear responses increase. Puppies that don’t receive adequate early socialization sometimes grow into adult dogs with fearful, anxious, or aggressive behaviors that could land them in a shelter.
Adult dogs also benefit from socialization and training. Newly adopted dogs need consistency and routine to help them settle into their new homes. Carefully exposing dogs to things that worry them, with plenty of positive reinforcement and professional help if necessary, can help them manage their fears. As always, contact your veterinarian if your dog is especially fearful or has had changes in behavior.
Here are some things you can do to enrich your dog's environment during times of physical distancing.
Give your dog toys that engage all of the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Rotate the toys so your dog doesn’t get bored. Let your dog explore different areas of the house under supervision.
Let young puppies interact safely with everyday objects, especially ones that move or make noise: brooms, umbrellas, pots and pans, blenders, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, bicycles, and so forth. Play music. Let your puppy play on different surfaces, like wood, carpet, pillows on the floor, slick surfaces, gravel, concrete, and grass.
Wear hats, sunglasses, and your pandemic face covering—not necessarily all at the same time—in front of your puppy. Move the furniture around to help your pup get used to changes in the environment.
Give dogs and puppies practice spending time alone to help prevent separation anxiety when you have to leave. Use positive reinforcement to teach your new dog or puppy that their crate is a safe space.
Sit outside with your dog or puppy and watch people go by. Is the neighbor using a leaf blower? Fabulous—this is a great opportunity to teach a young pup that loud sounds are OK. (If your dog is afraid of the sound, don’t push this! The point is to get puppies used to noises before they develop noise anxiety, not to force a fearful dog to sit through something scary.)
Take your dog on walks. The more people, other dogs, and noisy vehicles a puppy encounters before 3 months of age, the better. Adult dogs also need the sensory stimulation they get from walks. Maintain physical distance from other people during the pandemic; the CDC recommends keeping dogs at least 6 feet away from people who aren’t in their own household.
Go for car rides, gradually increasing your dog’s time in the car. If your pet has motion sickness or car anxiety, contact your veterinarian.
Dogs that are used to being handled are less stressed than others at the veterinary clinic. Prepare your puppy for future veterinary visits by using positive reinforcement while touching his paws, ears, tail, and belly. On behalf of clinic staff everywhere, I beg you to get your puppy comfortable with foot handling while he’s young. Contact your veterinary clinic for advice if your dog has trouble with nail trims at home.
Socializing Dogs During COVID-19 (American Veterinary Medical Association): https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/socializing-dogs-during-covid-19
Socializing Your Puppy During the COVID-19 Pandemic (University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center): https://www.vmc.umn.edu/sites/vmc.umn.edu/files/puppy_socializing_during_covid19.pdf
1. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization. 2008. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf
2. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): if you have pets. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 28, 2020. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/pets.html
Photo by Alvan Nee
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Giving medication to cats is not always as simple as giving it to dogs. Unfortunately, this means that cats might not receive all of their medication, and some might not get any medication at all. If you have trouble giving your cat pills, tell your veterinarian. Together you can find a way for your cat to get the treatment she needs.
Try It in Food
If the medication can be given with food (check with your veterinarian), try hiding the first dose in something tasty to see if your cat is willing to take it this way. Use a small amount of food that your cat loves or a soft cat treat. Offer the bite of food containing the medication when your cat is hungry; don’t just leave a pill in the middle of a bowl of food.
Using food to administer medication can cause food aversion and reduced food intake in some cats, says the American Association of Feline Practitioners. If your cat doesn’t readily eat the first dose in food, don’t keep trying this method. Never force food into your cat’s mouth. Some medications are bitter and most cats won’t eat pills on their own, so be prepared to try something else.
Give It by Hand
For many cats, manual administration is the quickest and surest way to give pills. This technique is easier to show than to describe. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has an excellent video series demonstrating how to give a pill to a cat with your fingers or with a pill gun. (A pill gun is a tube with a soft tip and a plunger that lets you place pills onto your cat’s tongue without putting your fingers in the mouth.) The videos are at this link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzf8tGKj10zzg6Unhw4QZrqcvJZ1amkax
Here are some tips:
Try a Different Form of Medication
It can be very difficult to give a tablet to a cat who doesn’t want it. Some medications come in liquid form. Here is the Cornell video series showing how to give liquid medication to a cat: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzf8tGKj10zxJYert-yKU0B3cUpkH5Y0Z
Compounding pharmacies can make some medications into flavored liquids, chewable soft treats, and other forms that cats might accept more easily. A few medications can be made into ointments that are applied to the skin (usually inside the ear), although this delivery method doesn’t work for all medications. Talk to your veterinarian if you’d like to pursue these other options.
You can find more ideas in these articles:
Giving your cat medication. American Association of Feline Practitioners. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://catfriendly.com/cat-care-at-home/giving-cat-medication/
Giving your cat oral medications. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/hospitals/pharmacy/consumer-clinical-care-guidelines-animals/giving-your-cat-oral-medications
Medicating your cat. University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.vet.upenn.edu/docs/default-source/ryan/ryan-behavior-medicine/medicating-your-cat-(pdf).pdf
Photo by Paul Hanaoka
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
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
It can be fun to choose cute winter wear for your dog (and we love seeing the adorable sweaters on dogs coming into the clinic!). But does your dog really need winter clothing? It depends.
Dogs do not all have the same tolerance for low temperatures. Dogs in the same household might have completely different attitudes about going outdoors in winter, so pay attention to your dog’s preferences and use common sense.
Which Dogs Need Winter Clothing?
Outdoor temperature, weather conditions, length of time outdoors, and level of activity (a leisurely stroll around the block versus a 5-mile run) all affect a dog’s need for extra protection. Also take the following dog-specific factors into account.
Type of Fur
Some dogs’ natural coats are like a puffer jacket; others are more akin to a thin T-shirt. The length of the hair isn’t the only consideration. Dogs with thick undercoats, or double coats, are better protected against the cold than those with single coats. Golden retrievers and Maltese both have long hair, but goldens stay warmer—and shed a lot more—because of their double coat. Goldens are also bigger than Maltese, which brings us to the next point.
Size of the Dog
In general, small dogs like Chihuahuas and toy poodles don’t handle cold weather as well as large dogs like retrievers and shepherds. This partly depends on the individual dog, but little dogs lose heat more easily than big dogs because their body surface area is higher relative to their weight.
Age and Health Status
Young puppies, senior dogs, and dogs with health problems (arthritis, endocrine disorders like hypothyroidism, and so forth) have a harder time maintaining their body temperature in cold weather than healthy adult dogs do.
Breeds that were developed to live in cold climates (like Newfoundlands and Bernese mountain dogs) are obviously better equipped for winter weather than greyhounds and the hairless breeds. Some breeds (and individual dogs) are just better acclimated to cold weather than others.
Signs That Your Dog Needs a Coat
Watch your dog for signs of discomfort in the cold:
If your dog has significant shivering or reluctance to move that doesn’t improve soon after coming inside to warm up, take him to a veterinary clinic to be checked for hypothermia. (Hypothermia is unlikely to happen in dogs in the Charlotte area who are outdoors under direct supervision for a reasonable length of time. It can affect dogs left outside in cold weather without adequate shelter.) Clothing is not a substitute for warm shelter.
Which Dogs Shouldn’t Wear Clothes?
Dogs can overheat if they’re wearing a coat they don’t need. There’s a reason sled dogs don’t wear parkas while they’re running the Iditarod. These dogs don’t need to be wearing clothes:
How to Choose Dog Clothing
Sweaters, jackets, and coats should fit closely enough not to drag on the ground or become tangled around the dog’s legs. However, clothing shouldn’t be tight around the neck or restrict the dog’s movement. Clothing should have no loose hanging bits that could get snagged on something or that the dog might chew. Dog clothing shouldn’t get in the way of urination and defecation (most dog coats are open under the belly and tail). Choose materials that are appropriate for the weather and easy to clean. And if your dog hates his clothes, don’t force the issue. Introduce new clothing gradually and try different materials and fits if you need to.
See more cold weather safety tips here: https://www.mallardcreekvet.com/dr-waldens-blog/cold-weather-safety-for-pets.
Photo by Rebecca Johnson, DVM
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
It’s tempting to share some of the Thanksgiving feast with our pets. Not all human food is safe for dogs and cats, though. The best way to avoid a holiday trip to the emergency clinic is to give pets their usual food and keep table food out of their reach. If you (or your guests) do want to give your pets a little bit of holiday food, though, here are some suggestions that are fine for most dogs and cats.
Keep in mind a few rules of thumb. Don’t give them anything that’s dangerous to dogs and cats: fatty food, bones, raw meat, raw eggs, raisins, grapes, currants, onions, garlic, leeks, raw yeast dough, macadamia nuts, chocolate, and the sugar substitute xylitol. For more, see the posts on Thanksgiving safety for pets and human foods that are toxic to pets.
Unseasoned single-ingredient foods are safer than multiple-ingredient dishes because they’re less likely to contain hidden dangers like onion. Moderation is key; too much of any food can upset a pet’s stomach. And remember that these suggestions don’t apply to pets with food allergies or digestive problems.
A bite of cooked skinless, boneless turkey meat is safe for most dogs and cats. Keep portion size in mind; a 10-lb dog or cat does not need the same amount of turkey that a person would eat. Take these precautions:
Defatted turkey or chicken broth
Pan drippings and gravy are too high in fat for dogs and cats. But a spoonful or two of defatted broth is usually fine for dogs. Don’t give broth to your cat unless you can be absolutely sure it wasn’t made with onions, leeks, shallots, or garlic; try tuna juice instead.
Vegetables and fruits
Dogs like vegetables more than you might think. Avoid grapes, raisins, currants, veggies cooked with fat or butter, and vegetable casseroles (that green bean casserole with the crispy onions on top? no). Stick with plain veggies and fruits, either raw or cooked without seasoning. My own dogs highly recommend all of these:
A small piece of bread, cornbread, or biscuit is generally safe for dogs and cats. Keep unbaked dough out of their reach; raw yeast dough can cause ethanol poisoning. Watch for added fats and seasonings (no onion focaccia or garlic bread). A bite of plain bread is safer than dressing or stuffing, which is likely to contain fat, onion, and possibly raisins or currants. Also avoid store-bought baked goods that might contain artificial sweeteners like xylitol.
For pets eating prescription or limited-ingredient diets
The best approach for pets with medical needs or food allergies is to close them in a room away from the kitchen and dining area. Guests might not realize that these pets have dietary restrictions. If your pet is eating a special diet and you’d like to give treats, ask your veterinarian for safe options. Some prescription diet manufacturers have developed treats that are compatible with their diets.
Photo by Charles 🇵🇭
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Cats need to scratch objects. Scratching is normal for cats, and even declawed cats engage in this instinctive behavior. You can’t train your cat not to scratch, and it wouldn’t be humane to try. But there are ways to direct your cat’s scratching so she’ll scratch more where you want her to and less where you don’t.
Why Cats Scratch
Understanding why cats scratch helps us figure out how to convince them to use a scratching post and not the sofa.
Cats have a physical need to scratch. Scratching grooms the nails, flexes the claw-retracting apparatus, and stretches the muscles.
Scratching is also a communication method for cats. Cats are territorial, and scratching is one way they mark their territory. When cats scratch, they leave visual signs (scratch marks) and scents (from glands in their paws) as signals for other animals.
Anxiety—for example, from conflict with other pets—can increase a cat’s marking behaviors. If your cat is clawing the furniture more than usual, stress is a possible reason. Punishing a cat for scratching could certainly increase his anxiety level.
Giving Cats Things to Scratch
Cats have individual preferences for scratching surfaces. The right type of scratching post is whatever type your cat likes best. You might need to try several before finding your cat’s favorite. Here are some general tips:
To encourage your cat to use the scratching post, try these ideas:
Keeping Cats From Scratching Other Things
Living With a Clawed Cat (American Association of Feline Practitioners): https://catfriendly.com/cat-care-at-home/living-clawed-cat/
Scratching (The Ohio State University Indoor Pet Initiative): https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/basicneeds/scratching
Photo by Jonas Vincent
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Dog urine can turn grass yellow or brown. Lots of other things can also cause grass to die or change color, so before you blame your dog, make sure the grass spots really are caused by dog urine (you might need to consult a lawn care specialist).
Why Does Urine Discolor Grass?
Dog urine contains nitrogen, which is produced by the body’s normal breakdown of protein. Nitrogen helps plants grow, but too much nitrogen damages plants, causing “burn” or “scald.” Fertilizers are designed to deliver the right amount of nitrogen at specific application rates. A small amount of nitrogen from dog urine can act as a fertilizer, so a patch of urine-scalded lawn might be surrounded by a ring of healthy green grass where the urine was less concentrated.
Urine also contains salts and is often a bit acidic. Salts and acid can damage plants, but nitrogen is the main reason that urine discolors grass.
Female dogs may be more likely than male dogs to cause urine spots on grass because they usually urinate large amounts in one location. Male dogs tend to urinate small volumes in lots of different places. But male dogs who urinate a lot in one area can also cause lawn burn.
How to Prevent Urine Spots on Grass
If urine spots on the lawn are new for your dog, consult your veterinarian. Your dog might need a urinalysis to check for a medical problem, like a urinary tract infection, that has changed the properties of the urine.
Don’t treat a healthy dog for a grass problem. Don’t change to a low-protein diet or feed any supplements or foods that claim to change the urine chemistry or pH (unless your veterinarian has diagnosed a medical condition that needs these treatments). These products could be risky for a dog who doesn’t need them and probably won’t solve the grass discoloration anyway.
These methods are safe for your dog:
Photo by 78Li
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Photo by Ian Badenhorst on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Microchips are a type of permanent identification that helps families reunite with lost pets. Pets should also have visible forms of identification like collar tags, but microchips can’t be pulled off by accident and are an important backup. Microchips are also required in some situations, like transporting animals.
Microchips connect owners to lost pets only if the owner’s contact information is registered in a microchip database. The United States does not have a central microchip registry. Microchip manufacturers and pet recovery services maintain their own databases. It’s essential to keep your contact information up to date in your pet’s microchip database.
If you’re not sure where your pet’s microchip is registered, enter the microchip number in the American Animal Hospital Association microchip lookup tool:
If you don’t know the microchip number, your veterinarian’s office can scan your pet if the number is not already entered in your pet’s medical record.
What Are Microchips?
Microchips are radiofrequency identification transponders about the size and shape of a grain of rice. Microchips are implanted under the skin. In dogs and cats, they are implanted between the shoulder blades. You can’t usually feel a microchip under your pet’s skin, but you can see it on an x-ray image.
A microchip is not a GPS device and can’t be used to track your pet.
How Are Microchips Implanted?
A microchip is injected under the skin through a needle, similar to the way a vaccine is injected (although the needle is a bit larger). Animals do not need anesthesia during microchip insertion. Your veterinarian can implant a microchip during an office visit.
How Does Scanning Work?
Shelters and veterinary clinics routinely scan stray dogs and cats for microchips. If the animal has a microchip and the owner’s information in the database is accurate, the staff can contact the owner.
A microchip scanner emits a low-power radiofrequency signal that activates the microchip. When a microchip scanner passes over a microchip, the chip transmits a number that the scanner displays on a screen. The number is unique to that microchip, so once you’ve registered it, it’s also unique to your pet.
Microchip manufacturers around the world make microchips that use different radiofrequencies. Not all scanners detect all microchip frequencies. Universal scanners read multiple frequencies. Microchips that meet the International Standards Organization (ISO) global standard transmit a specific radiofrequency that can be read by an ISO-standard scanner. Some countries require ISO-compliant microchips for imported animals.
Are Microchips Safe?
The benefits of microchipping are generally far greater than the potential risks. Adverse reactions to microchips are rare. Animals could bleed a little or have mild, short-lived discomfort at the injection site. Infection and swelling at the injection site are possible but not common. Microchips can theoretically cause inflammation that leads to cancer, but almost all reports of cancer near a microchip implantation site have been in laboratory rodents. Only a few cases in cats and dogs have been reported, and in most it was not clear if the cancer was linked to the microchip.
Are Microchips Reliable?
It’s possible for an animal to have a microchip that isn’t found on a scan. A microchip might use a different radiofrequency than the scanner can detect (if the scanner isn’t universal). Microchips occasionally migrate under the skin, usually to the side of the shoulder or front leg. People scanning for microchips typically scan a wide area of the body for this reason. And a microchip might not work at all (or stop working). Ask your veterinarian to check your pet’s microchip at the next clinic visit.
For more information, see Microchipping of Animals FAQ on the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) website.
The AVMA Microchipping of Animals backgrounder page was also a source for this article.
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.