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.
We all know that cats sometimes throw up hairballs. But hairballs aren’t the only reason cats vomit. Don’t assume that vomiting is normal for your cat, even if it’s been going on for months or years.
Consult your veterinarian if your cat has any of these symptoms:
Hairballs (trichobezoars in medical speak) are wads of hair in the digestive tract. Cats swallow loose hair when they lick their fur. Hair usually passes through the digestive tract without causing any problem. But sometimes hair packs together into a mass in the stomach or intestine.
A hairball is usually shaped like a cylinder. If you see one on your favorite rug, you might mistake it at first for feces. Hairballs are often about the same size and shape as a log of cat poop. But if you look at a hairball closely you’ll see that it’s made of tightly packed hair (and it doesn’t smell like poop).
We don’t really know how often cats normally vomit up hairballs. In an informal poll at a cat clinic in England, cat owners reported that nearly three-fourths of their cats had never vomited up a hairball. About 1 in 6 cats expelled a hairball once a year, and 1 in 10 cats expelled a hairball at least twice a year. Owners reported that long-haired cats brought up hairballs more frequently than short-haired cats did.
Hairballs that aren’t vomited up or passed in the stool can block the digestive tract. Symptoms include vomiting, decreased appetite, and signs of belly discomfort (which can be easy to miss in cats). Cats with intestinal blockages may need surgery.
Causes of Hairballs
Healthy cats occasionally bring up hairballs just because they’re cats and they groom themselves. But sometimes hairballs are a sign of another problem. Cats are more likely to have problems with hairballs if they swallow excessive amounts of hair or have a disorder that slows the movement of material through the digestive tract.
Fleas and itchy skin conditions can lead to excessive grooming. Cats also overgroom in response to pain or stress. More grooming means more hair swallowed and an increased chance of hairballs.
The symptoms of digestive tract diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal lymphoma (a type of cancer) can be mistaken for hairballs. In one study, some cats with hairballs blocking the intestines also had serious intestinal disease. These diseases affect the way food and hair move through the digestive tract and may put cats at higher risk of hairballs. Hairballs can also irritate the digestive tract, causing inflammation.
Ask your veterinarian before treating your cat’s vomiting or hacking with over-the-counter remedies or hairball diets. Hairballs might not be responsible for the symptoms.
Brushing the coat to remove loose hair is safe and might be all that’s needed to reduce hairballs in healthy cats. Long-haired cats that regularly bring up hairballs may benefit from having their fur trimmed.
If you’re noticing more hairballs than usual, ask your veterinarian to check your cat for underlying problems. If the symptoms point to an intestinal disease, your cat might need a series of diagnostic tests (such as bloodwork, ultrasound, and possibly a biopsy of the intestines).
1. Cannon M. Hair balls in cats: a normal nuisance or a sign that something is wrong? J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15(1):21-29.
2. Norsworthy GD, Scot Estep J, Kiupel M, Olson JC, Gassler LN. Diagnosis of chronic small bowel disease in cats: 100 cases (2008-2012). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;243(10):1455-1461.
Photo by Karin Laurila
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Are you tempted to skip your pets' heartworm and flea medicines during the winter? Dogs and cats actually need parasite prevention all year round. Year-round parasite control for pets helps keep the whole family safe from parasite-transmitted disease.
Warm spells during the winter are common in North Carolina, so we can’t count on cold temperatures to suppress insects that carry disease. Mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks can also live through the winter in areas that are protected from the cold.
Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes become active when the temperature rises above about 50°F (which happens routinely in North Carolina during the winter). But occasional warm winter days aren’t the only reason pets need year-round heartworm prevention.
Heartworm preventives work by killing tiny heartworm larvae that are already in an animal’s bloodstream. These larvae came from mosquitoes that bit the animal in the past month or more. Skipping a month of heartworm prevention could mean that your dog isn’t protected from heartworm larvae that he was exposed to when it was warmer. The American Heartworm Society recommends giving heartworm preventives all year round.
Intestinal parasites (worms)
Some heartworm preventives also control intestinal parasites like hookworms and roundworms. These parasites can infect humans too. Giving parasite prevention to your pets throughout the year is a sensible safety measure.
Fleas don’t just causing itching. They also transmit diseases like cat scratch disease, tapeworms, and plague.
Fleas lay eggs that drop off the infested animal into the environment. This means that flea eggs are present everywhere the animal has been, including inside a home. After the eggs hatch, the larvae and pupae (intermediate stages) can stay dormant for weeks to months before becoming adult fleas.
Because fleas can go through their life cycle indoors, they don’t need to wait for warm weather to develop into adult fleas. Flea infestations are easier to prevent than to treat, so the best chance of avoiding a flea problem is to give your pets year-round flea prevention.
Ticks carry many diseases that affect both pets and people. Some tick species, including the type that transmits Lyme disease, are active during the winter when the temperature is above freezing.
Ticks tend to live in leaf litter, crevices of buildings, and underbrush. When they’re ready to take a blood meal, they move to grassy areas or shrubbery near paths and latch onto a passing animal or person.
Ticks can be hard to see through fur, so you might not realize that your dog has picked up a tick. Because of the risk of serious disease, the safest approach is to limit tick exposure: control ticks around your home and give your pets tick preventives recommended by your veterinarian.
Photo by Justin Veenema
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.