Halloween: Fun for You, But a Horror for Your Pet

Halloween pet dangersBags of sugary candy, a doorbell rung by jubilant children wearing clever costumes, and creative jack-o-lanterns illuminating the night. Halloween may be America’s favorite holiday and the national average for spending on candy, costumes and carved pumpkins is $74 per person. However, Halloween may not be your pet’s favorite holiday and if you don’t take precautions, Halloween may become a horror show for your favorite fur baby.

Candy May Not Be a Sweet Deal for Your Dog
Everyone, including your dog, will want to sneak a treat from the candy bowl. Two common candy ingredients make the candy bowl off limits to your dog. First, chocolate, the most popular candy ingredient, can be toxic to dogs, causing stomach upset, hyperactivity and potentially seizures. A less common, but more dangerous candy ingredient is the artificial sweetener, xylitol. Even a small amount of xylitol can be lethal to dogs as it causes liver failure and low blood sugar.

Fur on Fire
The carved pumpkin on your front stoop which greets your guests, gives a warm, friendly glow. But pets may inadvertently knock it over and singe their fur or set a rug on fire. Use an electric candle to light your jack-o-lantern and keep pumpkins out of reach of your pets. While pumpkin is not toxic, its high fiber content may cause an upset stomach.

Dress-Up Dangers
The internet is loaded with delightful videos of costumed pets – the shark cat on the Roomba and a pack of wiener dogs dressed up like wieners! All pets are adorable in costumes, but some actually hate wearing anything but their natural fur coat. Before entering your pet in the local Halloween parade, make sure he can move about in his costume and that there are no loops or buttons that present a choking hazard. Even if you think it is the cutest costume ever, if he hates it, switch to a pumpkin themed bandana or a collar with emblazoned with a skull and crossbones instead.

Preventing a Halloween Nightmare
Halloween is just not the best holiday for your pet. I suggest he spend a quiet evening away from the front door, safely tucked into his crate or carrier. If she demands to participate in the Halloween celebration, make sure she has both a microchip and a collar with an ID tag in case she slips out the front door during an encounter with a trick-or-treater. Have your pet practice wearing his costume in advance of the holiday and make any necessary alterations in the costume’s fit to ensure safety. Finally, know where the closest animal ER is located and post the pet poison control numbers, so if ingestion of candy occurs, you can call them immediately for advice.

Does My Cat Need a Biopsy?

cat pawsThe Animal Medical Center’s webmaster received the following electronic query: “My cat has a mass on its toe and my veterinarian has recommended amputation of the toe. Should the mass be biopsied instead?” Here is my response:

Maybe Not a Biopsy
Given how small a cat toe is, a biopsy might not be possible. Once the surgeon removes a small piece of the mass for submission to the lab, the skin over the mass needs to be sutured closed. The skin on a cat’s toe is very tight and closing up a biopsy site may not be possible in this particular location. Hence, an amputation of the toe removes the tumor and the excised tissue can be submitted for biopsy.

Maybe a Biopsy
If the biopsy site can easily be sutured closed, then a biopsy will provide a diagnosis and expected outcome and also direct future testing and treatments.

Biopsy Alternatives
Malignant tumors of the toe often destroy the toe bones. This can be seen on an x-ray. If there is evidence of bone destruction on an x-ray, then the mass is likely malignant and the toe should be amputated to give the best chance for complete tumor removal. Another method of determining whether or not the mass is malignant would involve sedating the cat and using a needle to remove a few cells from the mass. The cells can be analyzed in the laboratory and may give an indication of malignancy.

Should Any Other Testing Be Performed?
Any pet with a mass, should also have the lymph nodes in the area of the tumor evaluated by using a needle to remove a few cells from the mass and having a pathologist evaluate the cells under the microscope. In a cat with a hind toe mass, we check the lymph nodes behind the knee; in a front toe mass, we check the lymph nodes in the armpit. Because toe tumors can be malignant, a chest x-ray to check for tumor spread to the lungs should be performed in any pet with a possible tumor.

Read this cancer survivor story about a dog with toe tumors.

Arthritis: Not Just a Single Disease and Not Just a Single Joint

arthritis in dogsI examined the most handsome four year old Labrador with a blocky, square head the other day. Being a very athletic dog, he normally jumps up on the sofa in the waiting area. The other day, he needed help to jump up and couldn’t seem to get comfortable once he was on the sofa. Based on my examination, he did not have any broken bones, no torn ligaments, but his gait was stiff and his lymph nodes were a little enlarged. The nurses drew blood for analysis and we prescribed a short course of an anti-inflammatory medication. I told the family one of the potential diagnoses was polyarthritis or inflammation of multiple joints. The family only heard “arthritis” and was distressed that a four year old dog could have arthritis.

shoulder arthritis
Arthritis in the shoulder of a canine

What is Arthritis?
The word originates in Greek: arthro- meaning joint and -itis which is both Latin and Greek for inflammation. Arthritis describes the problem, but gives no information about the affected joint, cause or treatment required.

Most Common: Osteoarthritis
The most common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis, which may affect as many as one in five dogs. The typical dog with osteoarthritis is an older large breed dog, but small breed dogs and cats can also have osteoarthritis. As the cartilage overlying the bone in the joints deteriorates, the bones rub together causing inflammation, pain and swelling of the joint. Hip dysplasia leads to osteoarthritis, and a joint injury can also result in osteoarthritis of the hip joint. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are the mainstay of treatment for long-term management of osteoarthritis.

Many Joints: Polyarthritis
Because he was walking funny, I was concerned my handsome Lab patient had inflammation of multiple joints, or polyarthritis. Bacterial infections can spread to the joints via the blood stream or multiple joints may be inflamed because of an aberrant immune process. Blood tests, x-rays and removal of a few drops of joint fluid for analysis in the laboratory help to make a diagnosis. When a bacterial infection occurs in the joint, it is called septic arthritis.

Familial Shar-Pei Fever
Chinese Shar-Pei dogs suffer from a strange form of arthritis. Dogs with the disease have recurrent fevers and joint swelling. The disease results from a derangement of the body’s immune system and causes unchecked inflammation. In affected dogs, the hocks, the joint just above the ankles, are most commonly involved. In this type of arthritis, other organs also become inflamed, leading to kidney and liver problems.

And the Diagnosis is…
The screening test for tick-borne infections came back positive for a bacteria called Anaplasma. Antibiotics were prescribed and immediately the handsome Lab felt better. A more sophisticated test identified the DNA of Anaplasma phagocytophillum as the cause of the illness.

Steps for Pet Owners
Diet is critical to maintaining an ideal body weight and limit stress on sore joints. Specially formulated diets can also help to mitigate clinical signs of arthritis. Exercise designed to minimize stress on joints such as swimming or walking on an underwater treadmill often benefits dogs with osteoarthritis.
To prevent tick-borne illness, use medications or collars designed to protect against ticks and check your dog daily for ticks. Review what to do if you find a tick on your dog before you remove it. Finally, never give your own arthritis medications to your dog; you might make him extremely ill.

Controlling Household Pests Safely When You Have Pets

pet safe pest controlAt one time or another, every home becomes infested with a household pest such as ants, cockroaches or rodents. Ridding your home of these noxious creatures can involve using equally noxious poisons which may not be safe for your pets. Here are some pest control treatments that do not involve poisons and are pet safe.

Talcum Powder
A mineral composed of magnesium silicate, talcum powder has been touted for the treatment of household ants. Shake talcum powder where your find ants and then once they are gone, vacuum up the residual powder. This method has the potential to get messy if your pets walk through the pile of powder on the floor, so keep them out of the treated area.

Building a Safer Mouse Trap
Controlling rodents can be downright dangerous for your pets. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, intoxication with rodent poison is number two on the list of dog poisonings and number 10 on the list for cats. Even though the labels indicate the refillable bait stations are dog proof, the manufacturers seem not to have met some of the more creative and persistent patients we see in New York City who are able to thwart the protective bait station, allowing them to feast on the contents. The most common type of rodent poison intoxication seen at the Animal Medical Center is life-threatening hemorrhage caused by anticoagulant rodenticides such as d-CON or Tomcat. Less common are rodent poisons that drive up the level of calcium in the body and cause kidney failure. Even glue traps can get stuck on a curious cat and require an animal ER visit for removal. Safest for pets would be the mechanical mouse traps which trap the mouse without any poison.

Keeping Mice Away
Of course, having no mice in your apartment would be better than having to set traps! I have steel wool around the openings in the floor where the heat pipes come into the radiators. The steel wool prevents mice from slipping through the hole and is not very chewable. Another pet safe mouse deterrent is peppermint oil. Apparently, mice don’t like the smell and it keeps them from coming into the apartment. Cotton balls soaked with peppermint oil from the health food store should be placed near the opening where the mice are entering. Part of me wonders if you could put the peppermint oil on the steel wool, but fortunately, I haven’t had reason to test this hypothesis.

Boric Acid
Often used as an antiseptic for minor burns and cuts, boric acid has also been approved for decades as an insecticide for cockroaches and ants. I found insecticide products containing boric acid on the shelf of my local drugstore. At first glance, boric acid seemed like a good choice for a pet safe insecticide, and although boric acid is used medicinally, the warning labels on the insecticide take boric acid off my list of pet safe insecticides. For minor cuts and burns, the boric acid crystals are diluted in water making the concentration very low. Based on the warning labels, I suspect because the concentration in the insecticide is much higher compared to the antiseptic solution.

Contact a Professional
If these simple pest control methods don’t work, consider engaging a professional pest control company and be sure to follow their directions regarding restricting your pet’s access to the treated areas in your home. You could also board your pets or have them spend the night at grandma’s house while your home gets treated.

Avoiding the Knife: Preventing Pet Surgeries

At The Animal Medical Center, our board certified surgeons and neurologists perform approximately 1,500 surgeries each year. A recently released pet insurance study completed in 2012 listed the top ten surgery claims for both dogs and cats:

Since none of us want our pets to be subjected to the difficulties most surgeries pose, I will devote this blog to suggestions on how to avoid some of the most common canine and feline surgeries.

Tooth extractions

Topping the surgery list for cats and coming in at number three for dogs were tooth extractions. Keeping your pets’ teeth healthy means daily brushing and annual dental cleanings. The American Veterinary Dental College website provides good information about home dental care in dogs and cats. Remember, doggy breath often means periodontal disease, so if your pet has smelly breath, see your veterinarian for treatment before extractions become necessary.

Skin abscess, inflammation and pressure ulcers

This list of skin conditions ranks number two as a reason for surgery in both dogs and cats. Pressure ulcers generally occur in older dogs with limited mobility. Padding, padding and more padding will help prevent pressure ulcers on their elbows and thighs. Investigate orthopedic beds for your dog and try to keep him from laying on hard surfaces like the bathroom tile floor which can aggravate pressure sores. Promote mobility in your dog through regular exercise and management of arthritis with diet and medications.

Feline bite wounds

When I was a veterinarian in a more suburban area, we treated cat bite wounds on a daily basis. Preventing cat bite injuries is as simple as keeping your cat indoors. Cat bites not only cause wounds which can become abscesses, but cat bites transmit the feline immunodeficiency virus and possibly blood parasites as well. Priceless is how I define the value of keeping your cat indoors and healthy.

Aural hematoma

The tenth most common surgery in dogs was to repair an aural (ear) hematoma. Cats can develop aural hematomas too, just not as commonly as dogs. This condition is essentially a blood blister inside the ear flap. Blood accumulates in the ear flap when your dog incessantly shakes his head or scratches her ears. Usually, the shaking and scratching is in response to an allergy or an ear infection. If you see this behavior, check inside the ear for redness or discharge. See your veterinarian immediately to treat the cause of the shaking and scratching to prevent the development of an aural hematoma.

While some surgeries are unavoidable, these are prime examples of how a visit to your veterinarian for routine preventive care can help your pet avoid surgery.

Should Pets Go to College?

For college students, the fall semester is well underway. While undergrads percolate chemistry experiments, burn the library lights late into the night, and strike keyboards as they type out the latest term paper, some will find themselves homesick and missing their family pet. Often on a whim, many students go so far as to take a quick trip to the local animal shelter to adopt a puppy or kitten to fill the void. But is this a good idea?

I asked this exact question of my college best friend when she simultaneously announced her daughter, Colleen, had been accepted to Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and was getting a puppy named Fripps as a graduation gift. As you can see, veterinary college suits Fripps and Colleen and they have made lots of friends already.

First, a backup plan

Colleen is lucky — her parents love Fripps. If Colleen’s academic demands become overwhelming, her parents will keep Fripps at their home with their own dogs. Many parents might not be as accommodating as Colleen’s are. So, if you are a college student considering a pet adoption, think about how you will provide for your pet if you have the opportunity for a semester abroad or if your roommate develops allergies. Check with your parents to see if they would agree to provide you with the backup you might need. If the answer is no, you will need to think of another alternative, such as a friend or relative who can take in your pet when necessary.

Before adopting

Since Fripps came before Colleen found a place to live, she leased a pet-friendly apartment. If you already have an apartment, check your lease to determine if yours is pet friendly. Talk to your roommate(s) regarding his or her feelings about having a pet in the shared areas of your apartment. Considering a dog adoption? Investigate doggie day care options for days when you have late classes – or simply want to have a burger out with friends before going home. Fripps goes to the Shaggy Dog three days a week, since there is a three days for the price of two special, and being a college student, Colleen is on a budget. Remind yourself, a pet is a lifetime commitment and those lives can last 10-15 years. A college education is partly about exploring opportunities. Although adopting a pet is a wonderful experience, it may limit opportunities for academic travel and work experiences offered by your college.

Budget suggestions

Not only does your new furry friend need food, a collar and leash, and a crate or carrier, but preventive healthcare will be a must. A puppy or kitten series of vaccines and a spay or neuter surgery are just the start. Fripps has access to good medical care through Community Veterinary Services at Mississippi State University, but college students on a limited budget must consider how they will pay for routine veterinary care. For some budgets, a prepaid plan might make sense. To help handle the cost of emergency care, college students — and all pet families — should investigate pet insurance. If you are an automobile-less student, investigate how you and your new pet will get home to visit your family and the veterinarian.

Parents listen up!

If your college student sounds pet homesick on the phone, guide them in making a wise decision about adding a pet to their list of college experiences. With some advance planning, your homesick college student may benefit from a friendly furry face greeting him at the door every evening.

Your Child and Animals: Advice to Parents

As parents, we want to raise children who have a reverence for all living things, and what better way to educate them about animals than to spend a day at a petting zoo, a country fair, or a natural science museum featuring live animal displays? Animal events are fun and educational for the entire family, but before you attend an animal event, your children need a bit of advance preparation to protect themselves. Animals in public setting have been associated with some preventable health issues such as infection, injury, and allergic reactions.

Infection connection

Rodents, reptiles, livestock, pocket pets, and even wild mammals visit schools and are displayed at county fairs and science museums. The potential dangers vary from animal to animal. Livestock can carry the bacteria E. coli, which causes gastrointestinal upset in humans. Just last week I read a report of an E. coli outbreak linked to a fair in North Carolina.

Reptiles commonly shed another bacterium causing gastrointestinal upset: Salmonella. This organism is the reason turtles less than 4 inches in size have been banned from sale. Most experts consider turtles appropriate pets for children over five years of age.

Approach animals cautiously

Parents take their children to visit animal displays because they want their children to be comfortable around animals and to appreciate the natural world. Before you go, make sure your child understands if the animals can be touched and, if so, how to approach one safely. If your child is bitten during one of these events, you risk dampening your child’s enthusiasm for animals and simultaneously exposing him to a serious injury or infection.

Even iguanas can cause allergies

If you have a child with animal allergies, check with her allergist about how best to handle an animal visitation. Most children allergic to dogs and cats are likely to be allergic to other furry critters such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, and rodents. Some people even have allergies to iguana scales.

Take home messages

  1. Teach children how to safely interact with an animal before visiting a petting zoo, county fair, or school event featuring animals.
  2. Wash hands after every animal interaction or use hand sanitizer.
  3. Children should not kiss animals or put their hands in their mouth after handling an animal.
  4. Children too young to follow directions about hand washing and keeping their hands out of their mouths should not handle animals in public displays.
  5. Because of the risk of transmitting an infection, hands should be washed after petting animals and before snack time.
  6. Wild animals do not make good pets.

If you are an early childhood educator, guidelines for animals in schools have been developed by the Centers for Disease Control.

The Compounding Pharmacy Problem: What Pet Owners Should Know

A rare form of human meningitis has recently been in the news. The outbreak, believed to stem from fungal contamination of a medication compounded to treat back pain, has resulted in several fatalities. The manufacturer of the implicated medication is not a big pharma or an overseas company; the medication was produced by a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts. The Food and Drug administration has identified fungal organisms in a sealed vial of methylprednisone acetate produced by the compounding pharmacy.

Pets not affected

This outbreak is unusual since the fungi involved, aspergillus and exserohilum, live in soil and water. Exactly how they came to contaminate the medication is under intense investigation. Since veterinarians don’t treat back pain in dogs and cats with steroids like methlyprednisone acetate injected around the spinal cord, there are no reports of fungal meningitis in pets, but veterinarians do use compounded medications, and understanding their role in managing disease in your pet is important.

Compounding defined

Compounding is the alteration of the original drug dosage form for the purposes of ease of administration or because the original dosage form is unsuitable for the purpose intended. Translated for the pet owner, compounding is flavoring a medication to hide the bad taste, dissolving pills into a liquid to facilitate administration, or putting multiple medications into one capsule to help a pet owner comply with a multidrug treatment protocol. Without a good compounding pharmacy, my job would be impossible.

Compounding dangers

Compounding is not regulated by the FDA because it is a process initiated by prescription and on a case-by-case basis. In veterinary medicine, compounding rules have been stretched in an attempt to create cheaper medications. Some compounding pharmacies offer expensive medications at unbelievably low prices. I suspect these cheaper products are being produced by what is known as bulk compounding from raw materials. Just last week, I had to advise a pet owner against using the compounding pharmacy’s cheaper “house” brand of an expensive medication. That medication is not currently available as a less expensive generic. Although I am sympathetic to the financial burden of treating a pet with cancer, my overriding concern is for the patient and the efficacy and safety of the prescribed treatments. Prescribing an approved medication provides some assurance of efficacy and safety for my patients.

Medication safety

Listen to your veterinarian. If they believe a particular medication is better, ask why. If they are concerned about the safety and efficacy of a compounded medication, I recommend trying to make the standard formulation work for your pet.

Learn more about safely medicating your pet.

Demystifying General Anesthesia, Part II: General Anesthesia

In my previous blog, I wrote about the steps leading up to general anesthesia designed to minimize anesthetic risk. This blog continues with medications used prior to the anesthetic agent and concludes with recommendations for pet owners.


Successful anesthesia is not just about the main inhaled or injected anesthetic agent. Most times, several drugs are administered in the hours or minutes prior to induction of anesthesia. These drugs reduce the amount of anesthetic agent required, calm the patient, and make the process better for everyone involved. If postoperative pain is anticipated, pain management may be initiated during this period.

Induction and anesthesia maintenance drugs

After the premedications take effect, administration of an agent to induce anesthesia begins. Sometimes the same drug is used to maintain anesthesia for the procedure; other times a second maintenance agent is administered. Typically a breathing tube is secured in place to allow free passage of oxygen and anesthetic gas into the lungs and carbon dioxide out. The breathing tube has a little expandable balloon cuff which acts as a safety feature. The cuff is expanded to prevent aspiration of saliva or stomach contents into the lungs during the procedure.

Emergency preparedness

Nearly every veterinary hospital has a poster of drug doses to be used in emergency situations. At The AMC, we calculate the exact dose of a long list of emergency medications for every patient undergoing anesthesia. The paper stays with the pet throughout the anesthetic procedure. Emergency equipment is also available in the anesthesia area, including tracheal suction and defibrillators. During every procedure, heart rate, respirations, blood pressure, and blood oxygen level are recorded every few minutes, so if a negative trend is occurring it can by recognized and corrected immediately.

Recovery period

The most critical time in anesthesia is the three hours following discontinuation as this is when the most anesthetic-related deaths occur. Pets are carefully monitored until they are fully awake, once again able to swallow and ambulate normally. Here is a description of Spencer in The AMC’s recovery room.

The pet owner’s role

In addition to asking questions about the procedure and understanding the precautions your pet’s veterinary team is taking to safeguard your pet, you have other important roles. Following your veterinarian’s directions about withholding food and water before the procedure are critical in safeguarding your pet’s health. A full stomach could result in vomiting, leading to aspiration pneumonia.

In most hospitals, you will be asked to sign an informed consent document only when you understand the procedure, its risks, and have had the opportunity to ask questions of the veterinary staff. Finally, if your veterinarian recommends your pet stay overnight and recover under their supervision, listen and heed their advice. On the few occasions I have given in to client pressure and released a pet before I wanted to, both the client and I regretted it. Leaving your pet overnight allows the team to adjust the pain medications, while taking her home means she waits until morning if the prescription needs adjustment.