Dog

Pets, Ticks & Tick-Borne Disease

Ticks are one of the most common ectoparasites (on the skin) found on pets.

They are of particular concern because they can transmit potentially serious diseases to both humans and their pets. While it is fortunately very unlikely for a tick to transmit a particular disease directly from a dog to a human, or vice versa, our pets can act as important sentinels of disease in our environment — i.e. if a dog has tested positive for exposure to the causative organism of Lyme disease, it indicates an environmental risk to the human parents as well.

The four most common ticks found in this part of the U.S. and the diseases they can carry and transmit are:

(Side-by-side pictures of the ticks described above can be found here and here)

According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, 1 in 35 dogs in Arlington County has tested positive for exposure to Ehrlichia species, 1 in 18 has tested positive for exposure to the organism that causes Lyme disease (Borrelia burdgorferi), and 1 in 458 has tested positive for exposure to Anaplasma.

Many of the tick-borne diseases, including Lyme, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, and RMSF, can cause abnormalities in the white blood cells, red blood cells, and/or platelets, as well as fever, enlarged lymph nodes, enlarged spleen, joint pain, and/or general malaise.

Tick paralysis is a potentially serious condition caused by a neurotoxin from the saliva of certain ticks, typically after they have been attached for at least several days. Symptoms start with weakness and can progress to paralysis and even death if the dog is unable to breath. Removal or death/detachment of the tick will result in a quick improvement of symptoms, often within hours.

Cats seem to be uniquely resistant to many of the tick-borne diseases, with the exception of Cytauxzoonosis, and Mycoplasma haemofelis. Cytauxzoonosis a severe and typically life-threatening disease transmitted by the Lone Star tick. This condition is more common in southeastern and south-central states, but fortunately quite rare in northern Virginia.

Mycoplasma haemofelis is a cause of feline infectious anemia – and is an organism that lives within red blood cells, causing them to be destroyed, leading to a an often severe decrease in red blood cell numbers (anemia). It can be transmitted by any blood-sucking arthropod (mostly fleas but ticks can and do transmit it) – and we do see it in this geographic region. Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis have been poorly characterized in cats but few reports do exist and generally the symptoms are nonspecific and general-malaise in nature. And while Borrelia is capable of infecting cats, Lyme has not been reported in a cat outside of a laboratory setting.

Of all the diseases described above, there is only a vaccination available for the prevention of Lyme disease. In many cases, ticks need to be attached for 12-48 hours to transmit diseases which means that the most effective way to prevent tick borne diseases is to prevent tick exposure, remove ticks when they are found and the use of year-round tick prevention (to quickly kill them when they do get on your pet). When choosing a tick prevention medication recognize that many products that are safe to use in dogs are NOT safe to use in cats and that many of the “over the counter” flea/tick medications do not carry the same safety and efficacy profiles and guarantees that prescription medications do.

Talk to your veterinarian about tick prevention strategies that best suit you and your pets to keep all your fur-kids happy, healthy and tick-free.

Seasonal & Environmental Allergies

Spring allergy season is already in full-force, with many of us experiencing the runny eyes, stuffy noses, and congestion typical of seasonal environmental allergies. Our pets, too, can experience environmental allergies, though in addition to the runny eyes and sneezing that we experience, they typically manifest their seasonal allergies through itchy skin and/or ears. Itchiness may manifest itself through scratching, biting, chewing, licking, and/or rubbing.

Allergies themselves cause itching and redness but in our pets, it is often the secondary infections that make matters even worse. Bacteria and yeast are part of the normal healthy flora of the skin of both dogs and cats. With an underlying allergy, the skin’s barrier function is affected, and these organisms are able to “set up shop,” leading to further itchiness and inflammation of the skin. As such, chronic/recurrent yeast infections are often a hallmark of allergic skin disease in our pets.

Unfortunately, diagnosing an environmental allergy is not always cut-and-dry. Many other things can cause similar symptoms — other types of allergies (fleas, food, contact), metabolic or autoimmune conditions, and other skin diseases can sometimes mimic the symptoms of environmental allergies. Your veterinarian will likely ask a number of questions related to the history involving your pet’s symptoms.

One of the strongest support factors for an environmental allergy is a seasonal component to the symptoms — most dogs with environmental allergies will be significantly less symptomatic during the late fall and winter months. Additionally, environmental allergies can often get worse with age, or may be worse in certain environments (unfortunately, the D.C./Northern Virginia area is one of the worst for allergies).

Intradermal skin testing is the gold standard for diagnosing environmental allergies. This is typically done by a veterinary dermatologist. However, in recent years some of the available blood testings for environmental allergies have become more reliable and provide another means of more definitive diagnosis that can be done with your regular veterinarian.

When it comes to “treating” environmental allergies, the most important thing to realize is that allergies are never cured, but are instead managed. A multimodal approach is most often the most successful. Potential therapeutic options include: medications, supplements, bathing and allergy “shots.”

Medications that we often reach for include antihistamines (though their action is not nearly as reliable in cats and dogs as we’d like), corticosteroids (to help decrease the inflammatory/allergic responses), immunomodulatory drugs such as cyclosporine/Atopica or Apoquel, and often antibiotics or antifungals to address the secondary infections. Fish oil supplements are often recommended to patients with allergies as higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and they can improve the overall health of the skin and fur.

Frequent bathing with a medicated shampoo to cut down on the number of allergens, yeast, and bacteria on the skin often allows us to use less drugs to keep a pet comfortable (though is often more feasible in dogs than cats!). And, finally, non-pharmacologic methods with immunotherapy (allergy “shots”/vaccinations) can be very helpful with chronic management of environmental allergies, to reduce the haywire response of the immune system to a normal stimulus.

We recommend talking with your veterinarian at the first sign of excessive itching/scratching in your pet.  Fortunately, the options for managing environmental allergies are improving all the time, but it still remains a very frustrating condition since it can never be cured.  Some patience and understanding of the underlying condition can go a long way in making the condition more approachable and manageable.

Obesity & Our Pets

Obesity is the No. 1 disease of cats and dogs in the U.S. According to the 2014 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey, nearly 53 percent of American dogs and 58 percent of U.S. cats are overweight or obese.

Overweight is defined as 15 percent above ideal body weight, while obesity is defined as 30 percent above ideal body weight. Obesity predisposes animals to numerous diseases, including osteoarthritis, diabetes, hypertension, cranial cruciate ligament (“ACL”) injury, and respiratory difficulties. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that it can also predispose to certain types of cancer.

And, if we needed further reason to keep our pets at a healthy weight, the Purina’s Landmark Life Span study found that dogs maintained at a lean body weight outlived their counterparts by 15 percent, or two years, for the Labrador retrievers used in the study.

So, with all of these reasons to keep our pets at the ideal weight, why are so many pets still overweight?

The simple answer is that calories in are greater than calories out — they are just eating too much. Most of us enjoy giving our pets that little extra snack or even treat from the table. It’s rewarding to see their excitement, so we tend to over-treat and “supplement” their diets.

With regards to cats, many cats aren’t huge treat-takers, so limiting treats may not have as big of a factor on their overall calories; however, cats are most at risk for being overfed, since we tend to just leave food out for them, without measuring it out. Additionally, many indoor cats lead fairly sedentary lifestyles, so they just aren’t burning many calories on a daily basis.

How do I know if my pet is overweight?

Most veterinarians use either a 5-point or 9-point body condition score, with a score of one being emaciated, and 5/5 or 9/9 being morbidly obese.

Sometimes it can be difficult to accurately assess our own pets, since we see them on a daily basis. Asking your veterinarian for an objective score, or even a friend or family member, can be very useful.

How much should I be feeding my pet?

Because there is such variation in the number of calories per cup in pet foods, it’s impossible to say “this dog should eat X number of cups per day.”  And, to make matters worse, most pet food companies do not clearly display the number of calories per cup on the bag — this information can usually be obtained via the website, but they certainly don’t make it easy to find.

In general, though, the chart on the back of the bag can be used as guide for feeding volumes. However, because these charts tend to be very generous (the pet food companies are in the business of selling food, afterall), we typically recommend decreasing the “recommended” volume by 20-25 percent for most adult pets, dog or cat.

How do I start a weight-loss program for my pet?

If you are ready to take on a concerted weight-loss program, it’s best to meet with your veterinarian ahead of time to get a baseline weight, determine the ideal number of daily calories, a healthy rate for weight loss, and a detailed plan of action. Your veterinarian will most likely recommend a percentage decrease in the volume fed, or a specific target number of calories per day, as well as follow-up with frequent “weigh-ins.”  Sometimes changing the diet itself, not just the volume, can be helpful to promote weight loss.

With a bit of effort your pet can soon be on the path to a healthy waistline, and improved overall health to boot!

Caring for the Geriatric Pet

Geriatric is relative to the pet

It’s a common misconception that one “human” year is equivalent to seven “pet” years. In reality, bigger dogs age much faster than cats and smaller dogs, and the ratio is actually higher in the younger years, and decreases as the pet ages (for example: cats “grow up” faster than dogs in the first 1-2 years, but then age more slowly).

Age is not a disease (however, many diseases happen more commonly in older pets)

A thorough history and physical exam every six months is recommended after 6-9 years of age, depending on the species, age, and breed. Preventive care is important for the early detection of problems and often leads to earlier intervention and improved quality and quantity of life. Physical exams and geriatric blood work can aide in the screening of most of the more common age-related diseases such as heart, liver, thyroid and kidney disease. Cancer also develops more commonly in older pets, but not all cancers are created equal. Early detection can sometimes give a better prognosis depending on the type, location and nature of the cancer.

One of the most common age-related diseases, arthritis, can develop secondary to previous disease or from general wear and tear on the joints. The symptoms of arthritis can vary from a bit of slowness/stiffness upon rising, all the way to being unable to walk without assistance. In cats, it can manifest with urinary accidents, decreased grooming and reduced social interaction. Interventions include: physical therapy, acupuncture, glucosamine, fish oils and other supplements, as well as anti-inflammatory and pain modulating medications.

Making some easy environmental modifications can go a long way in easing your pet’s ability to get around comfortably (i.e. adding area rugs on slippery floors, or a ramp to the bed); and maintaining a healthy weight and routine exercise are some of the most important, not to mention cost-effective, options to address your old friend’s quality of life.

Cognitive problems are also more frequent in aging animals: nighttime waking, restlessness/inability to get settled down, increased vocalization, increased daytime sleeping, and elimination accidents are all frequently seen. These can be quite distressing as they can affect the quality of life of both the pet and owner. It is important to identify and address any underlying disease that may mimic cognitive problems such as liver, kidney or metabolic disease, pain/arthritis, and cancer. If indicated there are several medications and supplements that may be helpful with these behaviors, including: SAMe, casein, and melatonin.

Check out these senior pet checklists to see if your pet may be exhibiting some of the common aging-related ailments. You can then use these as guidelines to discuss any possible concerns with your veterinarian and together work to keep your pet healthy and happy for as long as possible.

Sometimes, we need to let go

Quality of life is of utmost concern in our aging pets and must be considered when making treatment decisions. As much as we would like our pets to live forever… they don’t. Hospice care and humane euthanasia are options owners have in the face of their pet’s declining health. There comes a time in most of our pets lives when pursuing treatment is not the right decision (for your pet, you/your family, or the disease) and difficult end of life decisions must be made.

Be sure to have an open dialogue with your veterinarian about your aging pet’s quality of life and make sure you’re all on the same page with the management, treatment goals and quality of life of your elderly companion.

Canine Vaccinations Explained

What’s in a Name? (part 1 - canine vaccines)

We all know the feeling - you get the annual reminder card from your veterinarian telling you “Spot” is due for vaccinations, many of them a bunch of weird names that say nothing to describe the diseases they protect against. To help you understand what’s being reminded for, here’s a brief run-down of the common canine vaccinations:

Rabies - an incurable and nearly always fatal viral disease of mammals, Rabies is transmitted through saliva and targets the central nervous system.  Because it is spread from animals to people, the public health implications have led to a legal requirement for all cats and dogs in nearly every state.

DAPP/DHPP - Distemper/Adenovirus/Parainfluenza/Parvovirus - This combination of vaccines is considered a “core” vaccine by the American Animal Hospital Association and is highly recommend for all dogs.

  • Distemper virus (in the same class as measles) is highly infectious and spread by respiratory droplets. It targets the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and even the brain in some cases.
  • Canine Adenovirus/Infectious Canine Hepatitis is transmitted through bodily secretions and causes respiratory symptoms followed by liver damage and/or ocular damage.
  • Canine Parvovirus is an extremely contagious and very serious virus that causes gastrointestinal signs, sometimes severe and even fatal.  Spread by feces and very hardy - it is ubiquitous in the environment.  Puppies and unvaccinated dogs are extremely susceptible.
  • Parainfluenza is a respiratory virus transmitted via respiratory secretions.  It one of the causes of “kennel cough.”

Lyme - this bacterial organism is spread by the deer tick. In dogs, it is most often associated with severe joint pain and fever; rarely a severe, often fatal type of kidney disease or  neurologic symptoms can result.  We do not know if dogs can suffer the same chronic effects of Lyme infection as people may.

Leptospirosis - this bacterial infection affects the kidneys and/or liver and is transmitted through the urine (rodents, raccoons and opossums are major carriers in this area). Dogs that swim, play in water or live in cities are at highest risk; humans are also susceptible and suffer similar symptoms.

Canine Tracheobronchitis/Bordetella - another cause of “kennel cough”, Bordetella bronchiseptia is a highly contagious bacterium transmitted through respiratory secretions. It causes inflammation of large airways, causing a honking cough; in the young or immune compromised it can become pneumonia. Typically required by boarding/grooming/training facilities.

Canine Influenza - This virus is transmitted similarly to the human flu virus (direct contact, respiratory secretions, or contaminated surfaces).  Most cases of this relatively new disease have been reported at shelters, dog tracks, or areas where many dogs are housed together.  Some boarding facilities may require this vaccine.

Most veterinarians aim to customize vaccine protocols based on each pet’s geographical location, age and sex, and individual lifestyle.  Which lifestyle category does your pet fall in?

  • “free spirit” -- spending time hunting, camping, hiking, swimming, potentially likely to eat or drink from unknown sources?
  • “urban socialite”-- frequent visitors to dog parks or doggie daycare?  exposure to rodents (common in urban environments)?
  • “pampered pooch” -- frequent trips to the groomer, often travels along to public places?
  • “homebody” -- little or no exposure to other dogs, short leash walks only, no access to unknown dogs, food, or water?

By taking all these factors into consideration, your veterinarian can work with you to develop the best individualized vaccine protocol for your dog.  

February is Pet Dental Health Month!

Now, we realize this may sound like just a clever marketing ploy to get your pet into his or her veterinarian, but there actually is quite a bit to be gained by instituting regular dental home care for your pets, such as improved systemic health, decrease bone loss which can lead to loss of teeth, and even improved breath (important for when you get a big slobbery kiss from your pooch!).

How often do I need to brush my pet’s teeth to make a difference?
In the majority of cases, dental disease is a condition where “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” -- small preventative measures such as regular brushing can significantly slow the progression of tartar accumulation and subsequent periodontal disease. While daily brushing is by far the idea, even brushing every 72 hours will make a significant difference in the amount of tartar accumulation on your pet’s teeth. Every three days is the minimum frequency that will make a significant difference.

More importantly, HOW do I brush my pet’s teeth without losing a hand?
Obviously, your safety is first and foremost in all circumstances, but for most dogs, and even cats, teeth brushing can be a pleasant, non-stressful experience. Check out the video below for instructions on how to brush your pet’s teeth.

Can’t the groomer brush his teeth for me?
Groomers are certainly very capable of brushing your pet’s teeth, but as mentioned above, brushing needs to occur on a very regular basis to make a significant difference.

What is brushing is just not feasible?
If brushing is absolutely out of the question, there are other options to help decrease the plaque and subsequent tartar buildup in your pet’s mouth. Look for products that carry the VOHC - Veterinary Oral Health Council - seal of approval, such as CET products, Greenies, or antiplaque water additives. Most of these products need to be used on a daily basis to make an appreciable difference.

What are the consequences if I don’t brush?
Well, like people, every pet’s mouth is different. Some animals and breeds are more susceptible for dental disease than others. In some animals a neglected mouth will result with some degree of plaque build up over time, and gingivitis (or inflammation and infection of the gums). But in some animals that neglected mouth will lead to severe infectious of the mouth, abscesses, pain, bad breath, and can make it more difficult to regulate other disease processes (such as diabetes). In the more severe cases, treatment involves tooth extractions or complicated dental procedures.

Regular at-home dental care, routine complete oral health evaluations, and professional dental cleanings, when needed, are the best way to maintain your pets dental health. In the long run that routine care will reduce the need for costly procedures, reduce the risk of infections and help maintain good overall health.