Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
In cats and dogs, chronic (long-term) pain causes subtle behavior changes that can be mistaken for normal effects of aging. Pain can also cause unwanted behaviors like house soiling. Don’t assume that changes in behavior, activity, or mood result from aging, anxiety, or human emotions like resentment or anger. Your pet could be in pain instead.
Arthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic pain in older animals but can go undetected, especially in animals like cats that are biologically programmed to hide their pain. Signs of acute pain (caused by injury) are easier to spot. Whatever the cause of your pet’s pain, recognizing the signs is the first step to helping your pet feel better.
If you think your pet may be in pain, consult a veterinarian. Never treat an animal’s pain with over-the-counter medications, herbs, supplements, or other remedies without checking with your veterinarian first. Many over-the-counter pain remedies, like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve), are toxic or even fatal to dogs and cats. Your veterinarian can suggest safer and more effective measures for your pet.
Signs of Pain in Cats
Signs of Pain in Dogs
15 Signs of Pain in Dogs (PDF, American Animal Hospital Association): https://www.aaha.org/globalassets/02-guidelines/pain-management/painmgmt_15signs.pdf
How Do I Know if My Cat Is in Pain? (American Association of Feline Practitioners): https://catfriendly.com/feline-diseases/signs-symptoms/know-cat-pain/
How to Tell if Your Dog Is in Pain (PDF, American Animal Hospital Association): https://www.aaha.org/globalassets/02-guidelines/pain-management/painmanagement_dogs_web.pdf
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Seizures can be upsetting to watch but are usually over quickly. A pet that has had a seizure for the first time should see a veterinarian. Seizures that last longer than 5 minutes or that happen in clusters (2 or more seizures in a day) are medical emergencies.
What Is a Seizure?
Seizures are involuntary movements caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. How a seizure looks depends on the type of seizure.
Is It a Seizure?
Some other conditions can look like seizures. Heart disease can cause fainting spells that look very similar to seizures. Other nervous system disorders, orthopedic problems, pain responses, trembling, and even extreme itching can mimic seizures.
If your pet has an episode of unusual movement or behavior, you don’t have to decide whether it was a seizure. Take your pet to a veterinarian and be prepared to describe the episode in as much detail as possible. A video can be very helpful. The veterinarian will ask how long the episode lasted, what your pet did (paddling the legs, urinating, etc), and whether your pet had access to toxins or medications before the episode. Your veterinarian will also need to know if your pet has had seizures before and if so, your pet’s age at the first seizure.
A true seizure is followed by a period of disorientation or other unusual behavior. Watch for this phase and tell your veterinarian if you see it. True seizures also begin with an aura phase (nervousness, seeking attention), but pet owners don’t often witness this phase.
Causes of Seizures
The many possible causes of seizures can be classified as things outside the brain (problems elsewhere in the body that affect brain function), things inside the brain (structural problems with the brain itself), or epilepsy.
Primary epilepsy is the most common diagnosis in dogs that start having seizures between the ages of about 6 months and 6 years. It is genetic in some breeds but can happen in dogs of any breed. Primary epilepsy is uncommon in cats. Dogs with primary epilepsy seem normal between seizures. Not being normal between seizures could be a sign that the seizure is caused by something else.
Veterinarians perform diagnostic tests to look for the cause of the seizure and rule out other conditions that mimic seizures. Primary epilepsy is diagnosed by not finding another cause for the seizure. Your veterinarian might recommend referring your pet to a veterinary neurologist.
What to Do if Your Pet Has a Seizure
Treatment depends on the cause of the seizure. Dogs with epilepsy generally have repeat seizures, and the choice of medication depends on the frequency and severity of the seizures. Epilepsy is a lifelong condition that can be managed but can’t be cured, so dogs with epilepsy usually need medication for life. Whatever the cause of the seizure, work in partnership with your veterinarian to develop your pet’s treatment plan. Anticonvulsant medication has specific dosage requirements, so don’t change the dose or timing of your pet’s medication without consulting your veterinarian.
Photo by Anne Dudek
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Toxins from algae in a pond killed 3 dogs in Wilmington earlier this month. The same type of algae has been found in a public park pond in Charlotte. The only way to know if algae is harmful is by testing the water in a laboratory, so for safety, keep your dog away from all scummy or discolored water.
Harmful Algal Blooms
Algae are tiny plantlike organisms that live in water. Some algae produce toxins that cause serious illness. Under certain conditions, algae grow quickly into collections called algal blooms. Algal blooms are most likely to form in warm water that is high in nutrients like nitrogen. Hot weather and stagnant water increase the chance of algal growth.
Algal blooms can form in either fresh or salt water. The most common type of harmful algae in fresh water is cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. Another type of algae causes red tide in salt water.
Avoid water with signs of potentially harmful algal blooms:
Symptoms of Exposure
People and animals can be exposed to algal toxins through skin contact with contaminated water, by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food (like fish), or by inhaling water droplets in windblown spray. Dogs are typically exposed when they play or wade at the edges of bodies of water with algal blooms.
Not all algal blooms are toxic. But with some types of algae, exposure to only a small amount of toxin can be fatal within hours or days. Algal toxins can damage the liver, nervous system, kidneys, and digestive tract. Symptoms depend on the type of toxin and the amount of exposure and include the following:
What to Do if Your Pet Is Exposed
If your dog comes in contact with questionable fresh or salt water, bathe or at least rinse him off with clean (tap) water right away, before he licks his fur. Take precautions to avoid exposure to yourself; wear gloves or wash your hands after rinsing your dog.
Take your dog to a veterinary clinic if she has swallowed water containing algae or has licked her fur after wading in water with an algal bloom. Symptoms of toxin exposure constitute a medical emergency, so seek veterinary care immediately if your dog is vomiting or stumbling after water contact.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommend these precautions:
Cyanobacteria: Protecting Children & Dogs (NCDHHS): https://epi.dph.ncdhhs.gov/oee/algae/protect.html
Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB)-Associated Illness (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/habs/index.html
Photo source: https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/harmful-algal-blooms-6
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
Leptospirosis is a disease caused by infection with Leptospira bacteria. The disease is zoonotic, meaning that it can pass from animals to humans. The bacteria are spread through the urine of infected animals and can remain in water or soil for months.
Who’s at Risk
Many different animals can carry Leptospira. Rodents are the most common sources of infection in people. Farm animals, wild animals, and dogs can also be carriers. (Cats are very rarely infected.)
Leptospirosis is a public health hazard for people around the world. People are most often infected through contact with contaminated water, including recreational contact like swimming. Heavy rainfall and flooding increase the risk. Other routes of infection are direct contact with animal urine and contact with contaminated soil or food.[1,2]
Dogs are infected the same way as people: through contact with urine, contaminated soil, or contaminated objects. Dogs can also be infected by eating infected animals. Pregnant dogs can pass the infection to puppies through the placenta.
Dogs are at increased risk for leptospirosis if they have access to any of the following:
Leptospirosis was once considered a disease mostly of working dogs and other outdoor dogs. But small-breed dogs that live in cities and have no access to outdoor water sources are also at risk because rodents carry the disease.
Leptospirosis causes a wide range of problems, including kidney failure, liver failure, lung disease, eye damage, blood clotting disorders, and death. Some dogs infected with Leptospira have mild disease or no symptoms at all. The severity of disease depends on the Leptospira strain and the dog’s immune system, among other factors.
Symptoms of leptospirosis in dogs vary but can include the following:
Leptospira infection can be diagnosed with blood tests. Dogs suspected of having leptospirosis generally also need other tests, such as urinalysis, x-ray examination, and ultrasound.
Dogs with leptospirosis are treated with antibiotics. Most require hospitalization for supportive care and intravenous fluid treatment. The prognosis is good for most dogs that are treated early in the course of disease. Dogs with kidney failure that is not aggressively treated and those with lung complications have a poorer chance of survival.
Dogs with leptospirosis can infect people and other dogs. People handling infected dogs should take precautions like wearing protective clothing and avoiding contact with the urine.
Leptospira vaccines are available for dogs. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s risk for leptospirosis. In some geographic areas, veterinarians recommend leptospirosis vaccination for all dogs, including those that live mostly indoors.
Other precautions to reduce the risk of infection are washing hands after handling dogs, wearing gloves when cleaning or collecting dog urine, and using antibacterial solutions to clean surfaces that might be contaminated with urine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding contact with contaminated water (don’t wade barefoot in floodwater!) or wearing protective clothing around potentially contaminated water or soil.
1. Leptospirosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/index.html. Accessed July 9, 2019.
2. Leptospirosis. World Health Organization website. https://www.who.int/zoonoses/diseases/leptospirosis/en/. Accessed July 9, 2019.
3. Sykes JE, Hartmann K, Lunn KF, Moore GE, Stoddard RA, Goldstein RE. 2010 ACVIM small animal consensus statement on leptospirosis: diagnosis, epidemiology, treatment, and prevention. J Vet Intern Med. 2011;25(1):1-13.
Photo by Matt Jones on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
A recent study of 114 recipes for homemade diets for cats found that all of the diets were nutritionally inadequate in some way. Most of the recipes, which were either posted online or published in books, were deficient in at least 1 nutrient. Some recipes included ingredients (like onions and garlic) that are toxic to cats. Other studies have found similar problems in recipes for home-cooked diets for dogs.[2-4]
Some pet owners choose to make their own dog or cat food because of a pet with food allergies, a desire to feed natural products, a distrust of commercial pet food, or another reason. Preparing dog and cat food at home is time-consuming and expensive, and owners who undertake it generally just want to take good care of their pets. Dogs and cats rarely require home-prepared diets, but if you decide to make your pet’s food yourself, check the resources for safe recipes at the end of this article.
Potential Problems With Homemade Pet Food
Recipes for home-prepared dog and cat diets are often not nutritionally complete and balanced. Deficiencies in nutrients like iron, taurine, and calcium can lead to anemia, heart disease, and bone disease. Because many recipes are deficient in the same nutrients, rotating among different diets and ingredients won’t necessarily balance the diet.
Home-prepared diets must be supplemented with the right mix of vitamins and minerals. General-purpose multivitamins for dogs or cats are usually not sufficient for pets eating homemade diets. Some vitamin supplements are made for pets eating fortified commercial diets, not those eating homemade diets with lower vitamin and mineral levels.
Oversupplementation is also a possible problem. Too much vitamin D, for example, can damage the kidneys. The choice and amount of nutrients to include in a supplement depend on the ingredients of the chosen diet.
Some homemade diet recipes include potentially unsafe ingredients. Others are based on misconceptions about dog and cat nutrition. Dogs and cats don’t need to eat raw meat, which poses a risk of bacterial contamination for the pet eating it and also for people in the household.[5,6] Bones in the food can damage the digestive tract unless they are ground up. Many recipes (and commercial diets) promote the mistaken idea that there is something wrong with feeding grain to dogs. In fact, grain-free diets might be linked to heart disease in dogs.
Where to Find Recipes
The safest homemade diets for dogs and cats are formulated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists. These specialist veterinarians have extensive training in animal nutrition. Veterinary nutritionists develop recipes for healthy animals and can also customize diets for animals with diseases or specific nutritional needs.
If you use a recipe from a veterinary nutritionist, be sure to follow the recipe and feeding instructions exactly. Ingredient substitutions can change the nutritional balance of the diet.
1. Wilson SA, Villaverde C, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Evaluation of the nutritional adequacy of recipes for home-prepared maintenance diets for cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2019;254(10):1172-1179.
2. Heinze CR, Gomez FC, Freeman LM. Assessment of commercial diets and recipes for home-prepared diets recommended for dogs with cancer. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012;241(11):1453-1460.
3. Larsen JA, Parks EM, Heinze CR, Fascetti AJ. Evaluation of recipes for home-prepared diets for dogs and cats with chronic kidney disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012;240(5):532-538.
4. Stockman J, Fascetti AJ, Kass PH, Larsen JA. Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs [published correction appears in J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014;245(2):177]. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;242(11):1500-1505.
5. Freeman LM, Chandler ML, Hamper BA, Weeth LP. Current knowledge about the risks and benefits of raw meat-based diets for dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;243(11):1549-1558.
6. van Bree FPJ, Bokken GCAM, Mineur R, et al. Zoonotic bacteria and parasites found in raw meat-based diets for cats and dogs. Vet Rec. 2018;182(2):50.
Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash
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
Fleas don’t just cause itching. They also carry infectious diseases that can be contagious to people. Controlling fleas on your pets protects your whole family’s health.
Tapeworms are parasites that live in the intestines. They shed small body segments called proglottids that pass out of the host animal’s body in the feces. Tapeworm segments in the stool look like whitish rice grains.
Fleas transmit a type of tapeworm that commonly infects dogs and cats. Dogs and cats become infected by swallowing a flea. Tapeworms rarely cause significant disease in dogs and cats.
The dog and cat tapeworm that is carried by fleas, Dipylidium caninum, can also infect humans (usually children) who swallow a flea.
Bartonellosis (Cat Scratch Disease)
Bartonella species are bacteria that cause a variety of diseases in humans and other animals. Cat scratch disease and endocarditis (heart valve infection) are just 2 of the serious illnesses caused by Bartonella infection.
Fleas are the most common insect vector for Bartonella henselae, the species that causes cat scratch disease. Fleas can also carry other Bartonella species. Infected cats and dogs might or might not have any symptoms of infection.
Bartonellosis is a human health risk. Treating your cat with a cat-safe flea preventive reduces the risk of cat scratch disease for people in contact with your cat.
Rickettsiae are a group of bacteria responsible for diseases such as typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Rickettsiae are spread by arthropods, including fleas and ticks. The types of fleas that infest dogs and cats transmit Rickettsia typhi (which causes murine typhus) and Rickettsia felis. Both of these bacteria can also cause disease in people.[1,4]
Plague, including bubonic plague and the Black Death, is caused by infection with the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) transmits the bacterium usually to rodents but sometimes to cats, dogs, other animals, and humans. Rat fleas in the western United States and other parts of the world still harbor Yersinia.
Cats infected with certain types of Mycoplasma bacteria develop anemia (low red blood cell count). Fleas are thought to be a source of infection for cats.
Fleas cause skin disease in animals that scratch or chew themselves to relieve the itch. Just a few fleas can set off intense itching in an animal with a flea allergy.
Because fleas feed on blood, animals with lots of fleas can develop anemia from blood loss. This anemia can be life threatening.
1. Fleas. Companion Animal Parasite Council website. https://capcvet.org/guidelines/fleas/. Updated September 19, 2017. Accessed May 7, 2019.
2. Bartonella infection (cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carrión’s disease). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/bartonella/index.html. Updated December 14, 2015. Accessed May 7, 2019.
3. Shaw SE. Flea-transmitted infections of cats and dogs. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2008. Veterinary Information Network website. https://www.vin.com/doc/?id=3866578. Accessed May 7, 2019.
4. Little SE. Feline fleas and flea-borne disease (proceedings). DVM360 website. http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/feline-fleas-and-flea-borne-disease-proceedings. Published April 1, 2010. Accessed May 7, 2019.
5. Lappin MR. Update on flea and tick associated diseases of cats. Vet Parasitol. 2018;254:26-29.
Photo of Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) by James Gathany, CDC
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM