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Sweet sixteen

Posted on: February 14th, 2008 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

What a great age! Sixteen, second only to twenty one as a magical day. How I looked forward to reaching sixteen and being able to drive – a milestone year for most, a year that brings much to look forward to.

Sixteen is also a milestone year for our pets, but for a different reason. Sixteen for them is more like reaching our 90th birthday. Skeeter, my special little angel man, turned 16 on January 25th.

He lost his hearing a couple of years ago and is basically blind now, with slight light vision in his right eye only. We were able to stall his inevitable blindness for nearly two years with “Nu Eyes.”

His front leg shakes more often. He sleeps more. At times, he becomes disoriented and shows signs of senility. He now has less control of his bladder, and although much more onerous for my wife and me, we recognize that it is something that comes with the aging process and we simply have to prepare and allow for it.

Skeeter, a miniature pinscher has been my constant companion and pal for nearly sixteen years now. He came to me at six weeks of age after the loss of my special Spanky, another miniature pinscher that helped me through my ordeal with cancer in many special ways. I did not want another dog, certainly not that soon. My shock and grief at losing Spanky were overwhelming.

After all, what dog could ever replace my dear Spanky? I felt it would be unfair to other dogs to bring them into my life, where I would constantly compare them to Spanky. No dog could ever measure up to the companionship and mystical ways of Spanky.

Fortunately for me, my wife and our special breeder, Norma Cacka, forced Skeeter on me, despite my ungracious attempts to repel this little six week old puppy. Alas, my self pity and grief was not meant to be.

Skeeter very quickly captured my heart, even though he was nothing like Spanky. In fact he was not only very different, but almost the opposite. Day by day, he became even more endearing and more special to not only to me, but to the community of my acquaintances and nearly the entire Veterinary profession.

Skeeter moved me to a higher plane of bonding with a pet. Skeeter soon traveled everywhere with me, whether it was a short trip or cross-country. He goes to the office with me daily and occasionally on vacations. Skeeter has indeed been a constant companion. In fact he became the “icon” for pet insurance. I remembering overhearing people say, “There’s Skeeter, the insurance dog.”

Skeeter has had a special life, meeting many movie stars and dignitaries, even Walter Cronkite, who was enamored as everyone else has been with Skeeter’s demeanor and dignity. Skeeter is steadfast and loves everyone, while Torrey, my other constant companion can be difficult and might even bite people, letting them know to leave her alone. Not Skeeter, he is comfortable in a room with hundreds of people, walking among them, mixing, being picked up by anyone, and petted by anyone. He will sit for hours on a stage, as he did twice during veterinary graduation commencement speeches and cancer survivor events that I participated in. He is the epitome of stoic behavior, friend to all, calm and loving.

Skeeter is special in many ways, and his accomplishments are too numerous to mention, but a few bear sharing. His accomplishments are remarkable when you consider he only weights nine pounds and is a dog. The following is a testament to this mighty little package of dog, now sixteen years of age!

-Two Commencement Speeches, first at University of Missouri and later at Texas A&M Veterinary schools, where he sat on the stage in a chair during the entire exercise with his own cap and gown. He stoically sat for hours on stage next to me or on the podium. While I spoke, he simply starred at the audience or dozed.
He participated in several other speeches where he sat on the podium in front of hundreds.

-Honorary Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree (DVM) from the University of Missouri Veterinary School

-Broke the no pet barrier for Veterinary Conferences

-Honorary Board member of the Western Veterinary Conference, the largest veterinary conference in the world

-Scholarships in his name at two Veterinary schools

-Skeeter Foundation named in his honor that promotes research that provides scientific proof of the physiological benefits of pets and pet therapy visits to hospitals and nursing homes

-Hugged by movie stars too numerous to name

-Logged so many flights he should have his own frequent flyer card

-Chairman of Pet Relations for Pets Best Insurance

-Photo hung in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas for several years, in the hallway of stars
Funded research to validate the positive benefits of pets in humans

-Most importantly, this wonderful dog has been a steadfast, loyal companion for sixteen years to this person awed by the positive powers of pets and animals on human health and well being. Happy Birthday, my dear friend.

Brushing Up On Dental Care for Your Pets

Posted on: February 6th, 2008 by

Posted by Kim Campbell Thornton on 2/6/2008 in General Articles

When was the last time you brushed your dog or cat’s teeth? Can’t remember? Counting on dry kibble and a daily hard biscuit to keep his teeth clean and breath sweet? Don’t.

If you ate a dog biscuit every day, but didn’t brush your teeth, your breath would smell as bad as your dog’s — or worse! Getting into the habit of brushing your pet’s teeth is one of the best ways you can keep your pet’s breath kissable fresh and teeth tartar-free.

More importantly, good dental hygiene contributes to your pet’s overall health and can even increase his life span. Veterinary dentists say that keeping teeth clean and the mouth free of bacteria-filled plaque and tartar can add as much as two years to a pet’s life.

To be successful at brushing your pet’s teeth, start when he’s a puppy or kitten. Use a small brush that fits over your finger and gently rub it over his teeth and gums. Once he’s used to opening his mouth and having your fingers inside, you can put toothpaste on the brush. He’ll probably enjoy the pet-friendly flavors of chicken, fish, beef or peanut butter, making him even more willing to submit to having his teeth brushed.

Be sure to use toothpaste made especially for pets. Toothpaste made for people can cause stomach upset in cats and dogs.

Another tip: clean the front of the teeth. Don’t worry about getting the back side of each tooth, but do be sure to brush the “cheek” teeth in the back of his mouth. Tartar buildup is especially common there.

As he grows, continue using the finger brush if that’s easiest for you – or switch to a soft toothbrush made for pets. These toothbrushes feature a large head at one end and a small head at the other end for getting those hard-to-reach teeth in the back.

Dental hygiene goes beyond brushing. Dental diets, treats coated with plaque-attacking chemicals, and tartar-control rinses, sprays, gels and wipes can help put the bite on your pet’s bad breath and its root cause, periodontal disease.

Ask your veterinarian about sprays, rinses and wipes that contain chlorhexidine or zinc ascorbate cysteine compounds. The enzymes in chlorhexidine products work to break down plaque and curtail bacteria. The ZAC compounds encourage production of collagen, which helps heal gum tissue. A tartar-control treat called Reward is coated with chlorhexidine, as are some rawhide chews. Foods, treats and other products can’t replace brushing, but they can help keep your pet’s pearly whites, well, white.

The good news is that you don’t have to floss your pet’s teeth. Your dog does that job by gnawing on a rope toy or grooved Kong. The chewing action pushes plaque away from the side of the tooth. For additional cleaning power, spread the grooves with pet toothpaste.

If your dog or cat exhibits these signs – bad breath, tartar buildup and inflamed gums that bleed when you brush the teeth – there’s a good chance he has developed periodontal disease. Book an appointment with your veterinarian to clean your pet’s teeth. Your pet will be under anesthesia during this professional cleaning. Your veterinarian may also suggest placing chips or gels containing antibiotics beneath the gum line.

Once a month, gently open wide your dog or cat’s mouth to look for signs of infection such as redness, loose or broken teeth, and painful areas. Cats, unlike dogs, get painful cavities. Take a cotton swab and press it on your cat’s gum line. If he flinches, he probably has a cavity that requires veterinary treatment. Any pet who drools frequently, rubs his mouth on the floor or other objects, or drops food when eating may have a serious dental problem.

Bottom line? Brushing is best, every day if possible.

As a helpful tip, all dogs have the same number of teeth. Toy breeds are especially prone to dental problems because they have so many teeth crammed into a tiny mouth. Keep an extra close watch on their oral health.

Happy brushing!

Pet sitting insights

Posted on: January 3rd, 2008 by

By: Arden Moore

The benefit of sharing my home with two dogs and two cats is that I get to enjoy the antics of this “furry fab four,” and they get to have a member of their own species as a pal.

The downside is when I need to travel. Hiring a professional pet sitter can cost more than the price of an airplane ticket or hotel stay – depending on the duration of the trip. Still, I consider it money well spent. My pets get to remain in their own homes and get to be catered to by a professional who is licensed and bonded.

In picking a pet sitter, I’ve learned to be, well, picky. Just because someone tells you that they love pets, doesn’t make them skilled in dealing with companion animal issues. Facing a lot of trips this year, I knew I could not afford to have just any person stay at my house and care for my pets.

I contacted two national organizations: Pet Sitters International and National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. Both referred me to local pet sitting companies who belonged to one – or both – of these organizations. The information on the websites of these local companies provide me with their fee schedules and pet policies.

In picking a pet sitter – and hiring that person for future trips, I considered the following factors:

Punctuality of the prospective pet sitter for the initial face-to-face meeting with me and my pets.
Availability of the pet sitter for future trips to provide continuity for my pets.
Comments from others who had hired the pet sitter in the past.
Knowledge of cat and dog behavior.
Acceptance that my pets are not perfect. My dog, Chipper is afraid of skateboards and will turn into a 60-pound puddle at the sight of one on a walk.
Willingness to provide daily walks for my dogs and daily brushings for my cats.
Receptiveness to meet close neighbors who keep an eye on my house and are available should an emergency arise.
Accessibility by phone or email to provide me with daily updates on my pets.
The body language of my pets when they were around the pet sitter. The person I chose brings out pure joy and goofiness in my dogs and dignified acceptance from my cats.

The next time you face a business trip or a long-awaited vacation, please plan ahead and make arrangements for your stay-at-home pets to receive the best possible care. Hiring a professional pet sitter helps reduce the chance of coming back home to a behavior problem.

Hairballs 101

Posted on: December 26th, 2007 by

Posted by Sally Deneen on 12/26/2007 in Scratching Post Articles

It is the sound no cat owner wants to hear — the gagging, the hacking. Then the hairball seems to always land on the new carpet, never on easy-to-clean surfaces. Just why do cats develop hairballs? Even more importantly, what can owners do to reduce them?

First, face the feline facts. Hairballs are common and develop because of how cats groom. As cats lick their fuzzy bodies, the tongue’s tiny barbs pull off excess hair, explain veterinarians. Inevitably, cats swallow some hair. Ideally, it passes through the body and ends up in stools, but hairballs form when hair instead wads up in the belly. The cat vomits to expel the wad, digested food, saliva and gastric secretions.

Usually harmless to pets and just a messy annoyance for owners, hairballs can become a serious medical problem, however, when they’re not expelled. Marni Bellavia of Sunrise, Fla., learned that the hard way when her Himalayan Ragdoll named Princess developed a hairball mass in her esophagus, requiring surgery to remove it.

“I was so freaked out,” says Bellavia. “It was really disgusting. After surgery, Princess, fortunately, was fine.”

Hairballs, it seems, can become so big that they cause blockages in the stomach or intestines. If a cat is dehydrated, its stomach contents can become dry and form a blockage, explain veterinarians. Curious cats who swallow string can suffer from blockages as the string mixes with hair and minerals to form compact hard obstructions called trichobezoars.

Immediate surgery is a must if the intestine becomes blocked. Vomiting and possibly pain would occur if the hairball were located in the stomach. Constipation would occur if the hair were in the colon.

Some hairballs can be removed by anesthetizing the cat and inserting a scooping tool into the mouth and down its digestive tract to retrieve the mass. Sometimes, surgery in which a veterinarian makes an incision into the abdomen and/or stomach is required.

Emergencies “fortunately are quite rare, but they can happen. Usually, hairballs are very simple problems,” says Linda Ross, DVM, an internal medicine specialist at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.

Here are five ways to tame hairballs:

1. Bring out the brush. Good regular brushings are an important basic step, even for short-haired cats. Brushings reduce the amount of hair cats swallow. Rubber curry brushes are excellent for removing loose hair. For cats who detest brushes, try stroking gently with nub-covered grooming gloves. Strive to groom longhaired cats daily and treat shorthaired cats to a minimum of weekly groom sessions.

2. Intestinal lubricants, such as Laxatone, are a popular second basic step to employ to help hairballs pass through the digestive tract. Some cats consider it a treat. The gels come in flavors like tuna or malt. Be sure to use enough.

According to Drew Weigner, DVM, who operates a cat-only practice in Atlanta, the biggest problems with intestinal lubricants are not using enough each time or not using it frequently enough. In almost all cases, the most effective dose is a two-inch strip from the tube of lubricant twice daily for two days. Yet, this is far more than indicated on the label. His advice: For cats who like the taste, giving them an inch every day or two will prevent hairballs. If they don’t, just give the above dose for two days. When hairballs return, repeat the initial dose.

3. If all else fails, intestinal lubricants can be given along with a prescribed drug called Metoclopramide, which facilitates the emptying of the stomach, Dr. Weigner says. “Generally, hairballs should be resolved within 48 hours with this regime,” Dr. Weigner says. “If not, either the problem is not hairballs, or a hairball is lodged and may need to be removed surgically.”

4. Avoid home remedies, especially mineral oil, which “can be dangerous,” advises Dr. Ross. “You don’t want to give your cat a liquid oil like mineral oil or baby oil directly in the mouth.” Cats tend to inhale such oils into their lungs because they’re practically flavorless and they don’t signal that they’re edible.

5. Consult your veterinarian about commercially prepared “hairball diets” that have received mixed results. These higher-fiber foods are intended to help cats pass hairballs in their stools.

In the end, be prepared to go through a process of trial and error to help your cat – and don’t give up. Same goes for your hairball-assaulted carpet. The good news, Dr. Weigner says, is cleaning hairball stains from carpet is relatively easy. The mess is relatively dry, after all.

“Even in problem situations,” he says, “the material can usually be vacuumed up after it dries.”

Yikes! My Dog Can’t Cope With Being Alone

Posted on: November 23rd, 2007 by

Posted by Kim Campbell Thornton on 11/23/2007 in Dog Behavior

Dogs are pack animals, and they love to be with their people. That’s one of the many reasons they make such great companions. In some cases, however, a dog’s need for human attention becomes extreme, making him prone to separation anxiety when no one’s home to keep him company.

If your dog pees or poops in the house when he’s left alone, chews destructively, especially at doors and windows, or the neighbors report that he barks when you’re gone, he’s not necessarily misbehaving. He may have separation anxiety, a behavior problem that affects up to 15 percent of the nation’s 73.9 million dogs.

Dogs with separation anxiety are unable to cope with being alone. They may have been poorly socialized, lack self-confidence, or simply have never learned how to be alone. Besides being noisy or destructive, dogs with separation anxiety may drool excessively, pace, lick themselves incessantly, or refuse to eat or drink. When their people are home, they may be clingy, insisting on being as close to them as possible. While separation anxiety can be frustrating, behavior modification can help.

It is vital to teach your dog that arrivals and departures are nothing to worry about. Whether you’re leaving or coming home, be matter-of-fact. Overly emotional greetings or farewells can teach your dog that your absence is something to worry about.

Set up cues that will help your dog feel comfortable with your departure. Give a treat or a special toy before you depart, leave a t-shirt with your scent that he can snuggle with, or turn on the radio or a CD.

To use music as a way of calming your dog, start by playing it during a relaxing time of day, such as when you’re getting ready for bed. Your dog knows that you’re going to be there for a while, so he’ll settle down and go to sleep. Choose something like soothing harp music. Give your dog a few days to associate the music with this relaxing time, then set up a departure conditioning experience, combining the music, a special treat, and your departure and quick return. Your dog learns that good things happen when you leave and that you come back right away.

If you start early, you can teach a puppy that being home alone need not involve chewing the woodwork, barking, or licking himself raw. With patient conditioning, older dogs and newly adopted shelter dogs can learn this lesson as well. If your dog is crate-trained or in the process, put him in the crate while you’re doing housework or otherwise going in and out of the room. Seeing you go out and come back every few minutes reassures him that you’ll always return.

If you have an older dog with some obedience training, place him in a down-stay as you go in and out of the room. At first, you may only be able to leave the room for 10 seconds before he breaks his stay and comes in search of you. Don’t scold, but place him back in position and leave again. Return quickly before he has time to get up. As he becomes comfortable with this, gradually increase the amount of time you’re gone: 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and so on.

You can also condition your dog to short periods of your absence by taking him with you on errands. Leave him in the car while you pump fuel, run into a convenience store for a quart of milk, or make a bank deposit. Your dog learns automatically that you’re gone for a minute or two, you come back, and being left alone isn’t a big deal. Of course, it’s important to take into account the weather and your schedule. On hot days, cars heat up rapidly, even with the windows cracked. Never leave your dog in the car on a hot day unless you can see the car and know you’ll be only a few minutes—picking up the dry cleaning, for instance. And don’t take your dog if your errand will take more than five minutes.

For dogs alike, part of successfully staying alone is the ability to entertain themselves. Whether your dog stays in a crate, in an exercise pen or dog run, behind a baby gate or is well-trained enough to stay out on his own, he needs toys or activities that will stimulate his mind without encouraging destructive behavior. Treat-release toys, or food puzzles, are ideal solutions. These toys all work by extending the time it takes a dog to get a treat or kibble. He focuses on getting at the food rather than being anxious or distressed by your absence. Match the food puzzle to your dog’s personality. You don’t want to make it so easy that he doesn’t have to spend any time at it or so difficult that he gives up in frustration.

Give your dog plenty of attention and play when you’re home. That way, he’ll be more satisfied and comfortable when he needs to stay by himself. Get involved in a dog sport such as agility, teach him to track, go for a walk at the same time every day, or simply set aside a regular time for the two of you to be together while you read or watch television. Even a regular grooming session is a good way for the two of you to share quality time.

The ability to hang out comfortably while you’re away is one of the most important skills your dog can learn and will benefit both of you throughout his life. With training, exercise, and preventive measures, you can help him develop the self-confidence he needs.

– By Kim Campbell Thornton, author of 10 books. She writes a monthly pet column for and lives in Lake Forest, Calif.