All About Pets

Could it be hemangiosarcoma?

The gentle chirp of crickets alerts me to a weekend text message from my answering service — a pleasant improvement from the days when every emergency was announced by the loud, adrenaline-producing jangle of the telephone. The text says something is wrong with Gamaliel, the golden retriever. I had seen Gam a month ago for his annual physical exam. At 9 years old, he appeared in good health. Blood tests done as “geriatric screening” had all been normal. “He seemed fine until this morning,” his owners reported when I called. “Then he lay on the bed, breathing very fast and shallow, and he yelped when jumping down.” I wasn’t overly concerned about one yelp, but persistent abnormal respiration warranted immediate attention. “Come on down,” I advised, then went to prepare for radiographs. Nowadays, many veterinarians have digital X-ray equipment, but as a small solo practice, that has been beyond my budget. I still use actual film and a darkroom. While warming up my automatic processor, I thought about Gam. A 9-year-old golden retriever breathing hard? Even before seeing him, my first thought was a bleeding splenic tumor.

Hemangiosarcoma of the spleen is a highly malignant cancer arising from the vascular tissue lining. These tumors can rupture, leading to internal hemorrhage — inside the belly where owners can’t see it. Small bleeds may stop on their own, causing no symptoms other than transient lethargy and/or panting. Massive bleeds can lead to sudden collapse and death. Hemangiosarcomas account for more than 5 percent of all tumors seen in pet dogs, and most commonly occur at 8 to 11 years of age. Breeds predisposed include golden retriever, German shepherd, Portuguese water dog, Bernese mountain dog, flat-coated retriever, boxer, and Skye terrier.

When Gamaliel arrived, I immediately rolled back his lip to assess the color of his gums. People are often bemused when I suggest they check their dog’s color. “How do we do that?” they laugh, looking at their best friend’s furry face. Look at the mucous membranes inside the mouth. Although some dogs have brown- or black-pigmented gums, most will have areas devoid of pigmentation where they just look pink. Press a pink spot. It should blanch to white. Remove your finger. The pink should come rushing back within a few seconds. This is called capillary refill time, or CRT. Dogs who are bleeding internally will often be pale, with a slow CRT.

Gamaliel’s CRT was good, but his color was a bit paler than I would like. And he was a 9-year-old golden retriever. A study published in 2000 estimated that dogs of this breed have a one-in-five risk of developing hemangiosarcoma. I proceeded with my examination.

Temperature, normal. Heart rate, a little fast, but that was typical for him at my office. He was panting, but nothing out of the ordinary for a summer day. His belly was slightly tense, but I couldn’t palpate anything unusual. “Before taking radiographs, I want to check one thing,” I said. Abdominocentesis — the aspiration of fluid from the belly by needle and syringe. If Gamaliel was having a major bleed, I should find blood when I did this. I popped the needle through and aspirated. Nothing. I tried a second time. Nothing. OK. That was good news. Maybe.

When I was in school (before texting or digital X-rays) we were taught that 80 percent of splenic tumors were malignant, 20 percent benign. Benign tumors, however, can be just as lethal, as they also rupture and cause death by hemorrhage. Surgery was really the only option. There was no way to know definitively in advance whether a mass was benign or malignant. Surgery could cure a dog with a benign splenic tumor, but even with complete removal of the spleen, malignant tumors carried a grave prognosis. Microscopic spread happens early, and even with no visible evidence of metastasis at the time of surgery, most dogs with malignant tumors died within three months. There was a general consensus that larger tumors were actually more likely to be benign, but overall statistics were discouraging, and many owners opted for euthanasia rather than surgery. Now, more than 30 years since I graduated, we still do not have great options for presurgical diagnosis, nor are there really effective treatments for malignant splenic tumors. What has changed is that current studies suggest the odds are better than we used to think — closer to 50/50 for benign versus malignant.

Hemangiosarcoma can also occur in the heart, and splenic tumors often spread to the lungs, but Gamaliel’s abdominal and chest X-rays looked normal. “There’s a small area here behind his spleen that could be something,” I pointed out, “but it’s probably just a loop of bowel.” Maybe I had jumped too quickly to a diagnosis based on his breed and age. Maybe we were lucky, and his symptoms did not indicate cancer. Despite his recent blood work, we repeated those tests, and discovered a mild anemia and slightly low platelet count (cells involved in clotting.) These could occur with a splenic tumor, or with tick-borne disease, or with many other things. But my gut kept saying, “9-year-old Golden, 9-year-old Golden.” Next step would be an ultrasound, one more piece of equipment I didn’t have.

Gamaliel went to Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists, where an ultrasound revealed a small splenic tumor. After getting plasma transfusions to improve his clotting ability, his spleen was removed, but those 50/50 statistics still mean that half the time, these tumors are malignant. Tiny lesions that had not been visible by ultrasound were found on Gamaliel’s liver during surgery, suggesting probable metastasis. Post-operatively, he developed cardiac problems, but those seem to be stabilizing with medication. He is home now, but odds are he doesn’t have much time. It is a beautiful summer evening. As the stars start coming out, I hear the chirping of real crickets outside my window. I think tonight they sound a little sad.

Xylitol, a common sugar substitute found in some medications, may prove fatal to dogs.

Tidbit is a tiny toy poodle, weighing only 5 pounds. OK, I don’t really have a patient named Tidbit, but let’s imagine I do. Little dogs pose unique challenges for veterinarians. It can be easier to wrestle an uncooperative Labrador than to safely handle an annoyed Chihuahua.

What tiny dogs lack in size, they frequently make up for with attitude. But we love their big spirits, and do our best to provide them optimum care. So my imaginary patient Tidbit has had a bad back for years, but now the pain medications we had been using were no longer doing the trick. Tidbit needed something to give her relief.

“Maybe we should try gabapentin,” I suggested. This drug is used in humans to treat epilepsy, restless leg syndrome, and as a pain medication for conditions like diabetic neuropathy. It is also used “off-label” for problems like anxiety, insomnia, and bipolar disorder. In recent years, veterinarians have begun trying gabapentin for pets. In dogs, it seems to be helpful treating chronic nerve-related pain, such as Tidbit was experiencing with her intervertebral disc disease.

The veterinary pharmaceutical industry produces many medications that are formulated and approved specifically for use in animals. Because these companies know our patients can range in size from 2 pounds to 2,000 pounds, they typically market a wide variety of strengths to accommodate this. But veterinarians also utilize pharmaceuticals manufactured only for people. Gabapentin is such a medication. If I wanted Tidbit to try it, I would need to prescribe the human product from a local pharmacy. “Let me figure out her dose,” I said, grabbing my calculator. But for the teeny dose needed for this teeny dog, the tablets made for people were way too big, even if we broke them into quarters.

In such situations, veterinarians may use compounding pharmacies to prepare appropriately downsized doses for little patients. Other times, we may find that certain medications are already available commercially in liquid form, designed for children or people who have difficulty swallowing pills. These liquid formulations make accurate delivery of very small doses easier.

“Oh, look!” I exclaimed as I read through my drug formulary. “Gabapentin comes in a liquid. We could use that for Tidbit … oh … wait … no, we can’t.” Why not? Because the liquid product for people is sweetened with xylitol, and even in small doses, xylitol can be lethal to little dogs.

Xylitol is a naturally occurring substance found in plants such as berries, lettuce, and mushrooms. During World War II, a shortage of regular sugar led to the commercial production of xylitol, which could be manufactured from xylan, extracted from wood. A white crystalline substance, xylitol looks and tastes like sugar. Its use as a sweetener has become increasingly popular in recent years, not just because it has less calories than regular sugar, but because of its reputed beneficial properties. Chewing xylitol gum avoids sugar-related tooth decay, and also has antibacterial action that actually reduces periodontal disease, and may prevent ear and throat infections in children. There are even claims xylitol may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and breast cancer. An occasional sensitive individual may get mild diarrhea from xylitol, but in general it appears to be safe for people. It is now found in all kinds of products, including sugar-free gum and mints, toothpaste, mouthwash, and even cakes and candy.

So why is xylitol dangerous for Tidbit? When people consume xylitol, the sweetener is absorbed very slowly into the body without inducing a significant release of insulin. But Tidbit’s body reacts differently. It absorbs the xylitol extremely quickly, and confuses her tiny canine pancreas. “Here comes a huge sugar rush,” her pancreas thinks. “I better pump out a big blast of insulin fast!” But her body doesn’t really need that big insulin surge. Xylitol is not real sugar. The insulin surge makes Tidbit’s blood sugar plummet. This profound drop in blood sugar is life-threatening. The first sign is usually vomiting, followed by lethargy, weakness, collapse, seizures, and sometimes, death. Onset of symptoms is rapid — as little as half an hour after ingestion — but occasionally may be delayed as long as 12 hours. Effects may persist for a day or more. In a small dog, ingestion of just two pieces of gum can be fatal.

Not every sugar-free product uses xylitol. Aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and stevia are other common artificial sweeteners, and these do not cause hypoglycemia in dogs. But more and more products are now using xylitol. Some of the common xylitol-containing products you might have in your house include Trident gum, Icebreaker mints, Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste, and TicTacs. Some over-the-counter medications that used to be safe to use in dogs have been reformulated to be sweetened with xylitol. Even a kind of peanut butter spread sold by GNC, called Nuts ‘n More, contains xylitol.

So what should you do if Tidbit eats the Trident? As with any poisoning, first grab the package, as that will help your veterinarian determine the degree of exposure. Then call your veterinarian, pronto. If ingestion was recent, we can try to get it out of her system by inducing vomiting. If, however, the xylitol has already reached the bloodstream, it is too late for making her throw up. Instead, we must monitor her blood sugar levels. If they are too low, it may be necessary to give intravenous fluids containing dextrose for 24 hours, or even longer. Once treatment is instituted, the prognosis is excellent, though in certain cases dogs may develop liver failure up to a week later. Symptoms of liver failure include vomiting, lethargy, bruising, and gastrointestinal hemorrhage, and it is often fatal.

The take-home message is simple. Read labels. Carefully. If xylitol is in the ingredient list, don’t give it to your pet. For my imaginary patient Tidbit, I’m calling the imaginary compounding pharmacy and having it mix up a batch of imaginary liver-flavored gabapentin, sans xylitol, which I hope will relieve her imaginary back pain.


Ace would like to be home for the holidays.

Ace, a rescue dog who loves, dogs, cats and humans, is shown here with William Burmeister.– Courtesy Betsy Burmeister

Ace is a rescue whose adoption fell through. Until he finds a family, he is living at Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animal’s shelter in Oak Bluffs. He is a spaniel mix and loves dogs, cats and humans. He is neutered and up to date on his shots.

He is a very sweet boy who would like a family of his own.

If interested in meeting Ace, please call Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals at 508-560-6046.

Rocket and Parker, Angels Helping Animals.
Mudd, Angels Helping Animals.
Matthew, Angels Helping Animals.
Greta, M.V. Helping Homeless Animals. —Photo by Emily Galligan
Denver, M.V. Helping Homeless Animals. —Photo by Emily Galligan
Cedar, M.V. Helping Homeless Animals. —Photo by Emily Galligan
Boo, M.V. Helping Homeless Animals. —Photo by Emily Galligan
Bear, M.V. Helping Homeless Animals. —Photo by Emily Galligan
Scooby, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Scooby, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Bear, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Augie, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Marley, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Kittens, available at Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Nala, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Maggie Mae, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Gizmo, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Harrison, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Wilbur, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard
Winston, Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard

There are three facilities on the Island that offer animals for adoption.

  • The Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard (ASMV), Edgartown: For more information about ASMV, call 508-627-8662 or search them on Facebook.
  • Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals (MVHHA), Oak Bluffs: For more information about MVHHA, call 508-560-6046 or email
  • Angels Helping Animals Worldwide. (AHAW), Oak Bluffs: For more information about Angels Helping Animals Worldwide, search the group won Facebook.

The above animals are currently available for adoption.

Disaster preparedness for pets.

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

As we edit this story, the wind is whipping off Vineyard Haven harbor, the waves are crashing and the word “northeaster” is blinking on and off in news updates.

If you had to evacuate your house because of  a storm, would you know what to do with your pets? Rita Brown (most of you know her from Back Door Donuts) and the Martha’s Vineyard Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) sent us these helpful guidelines.

Take Fido along

The single most important thing you can do to protect your pets when you evacuate is to take them with you. Pets left behind during a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed; if left inside your home they can escape through broken windows, etc. Outside, they are likely to become victims of exposure, starvation, contaminated food or water, or accidents. Even if you think you’ll be gone for only a few hours, take your pets. Once you leave, you will have no idea how long you’ll be kept out of the area and you may not be able to go back to get them.

Until recently, Island shelters had various policies regarding pets. Last spring, the state mandated that all emergency shelters must also take pets. Once you’ve arrived at the designated shelter (in a disaster, these will be broadcast — the high school, or one of the elementary schools), MV DART will be there with vets to check your pet in.

Prepare a pet emergency supply kit

Just as you do with your family’s emergency supply kit, think first about the basics for survival, particularly food, water, and medicine. Consider two kits. In one, put everything you and your pet will need to stay where you are. The other should be a lightweight, smaller version you can take with you. Remember to bring extra cash in case your pet needs emergency veterinary care. Along with the following items, it’s good to keep a record of any your pet’s behavioral problems, a medication schedule, and the name and number of your veterinarian.

– First aid kit. Most kits should include cotton bandage rolls, bandage tape and scissors; antibiotic ointment; flea and tick prevention; latex gloves; isopropyl alcohol and saline solution, along with your animal’s medications.

– Collar with ID tag and leashes. Your pet should wear a collar with up-to-date identification tags attached at all times. Include a backup leash, collar and ID tag in your pet’s emergency supply kit. In addition, place copies of your pet’s registration information, vaccination documents and medical records, and the name and phone number of a relative or friend who is outside the disaster area in a waterproof container. You should also talk with your veterinarian about permanent identification such as implanting your pet with a microchip, and enrolling your pet in a recovery database.

– Crate or other pet carrier. If you need to evacuate in an emergency, the emergency shelter on Martha’s Vineyard will welcome you and your pet; M.V. Disaster Animal Response Team and the Red Cross will take your pet in the same shelter, but in a separate area. Dog owners should have a crate large enough for your dog to be able to stand, turn around and lie down in comfortably. Cat owners should have a crate large enough to put your cat in it with a carrier (as a hidey hole) and a litter box and bowls. You will be asked to feed, walk and visit with your pet at the shelter.

– Sanitation. Include pet litter and litter box, newspapers, paper towels, plastic trash bags and household bleach to provide for your pet’s sanitation needs. You can use bleach as a disinfectant (dilute 9 parts water to 1 part bleach). Do not use scented or color-safe bleaches, or those with added cleaners.

– A photograph of you and your pet together. If you become separated during an emergency, a photograph will help you document ownership and allow others to assist you in identifying your pet. Include detailed information about species, breed, age, sex, color, and any distinguishing marks or characteristics.

– Familiar items. Put favorite toys, treats, bedding in your kit. Familiar items can help reduce stress for your pet. Plan what you will do in an Emergency.

Plan ahead for an emergency

– Create a plan to get away and be ready to assess the situation at hand. Use whatever you have on hand to take care of yourself and ensure your pet’s safety during an emergency. Depending on your circumstances and the nature of the emergency, the first important decision is whether you stay put or get away. You should understand and plan for both possibilities. Check TV, radio or the Internet for instructions. If you’re told to evacuate, shelter in place,   or seek medical treatment, do so immediately.

– Are there safer places for you to go to? Consider staying with family or friends who are willing to take in you and your pet in an emergency. On the Vineyard, some areas (low-lying flood zones) are more apt to be evacuated than others. Determine if some hotels or inns can take pets. Find viable options before an emergency.

– Develop a buddy system. Plan with neighbors, friends, or relatives to make sure that someone is available to care for or evacuate your pet if you are unable to do so. Talk with your pet care buddy about your evacuation plans and show your pet care buddy where you keep your pet’s emergency supply kit. Also designate specific locations, one in your immediate neighborhood and another farther away, where you can meet in an emergency.

–Talk to your pet’s veterinarian about emergency planning. Discuss the types of things that you should include in your pet’s emergency first aid kit.

For more information, visit or call 1-800-BE-READY (237-3239). MVDART, which works with the state of Massachusetts animal response team (SMART), is looking for volunteers. Email Rita Brown at

Denver would like to share naps in the sun. — Photo by Emily Galligan

Single, attractive grey male (a year old; seven in cat years) seeks older woman (under 105 in human years) to share long naps in the sunroom. Non-drinker (well, a light drinker is fine) please; recreational catnip use okay. A quiet man would work, too.

My name is Denver and I’m clean, neutered and up to date on all my shots. I love other cats, and even the occasional dog, if they mind their manners. I enjoy petting (what cat doesn’t?).

Ok, now to my baggage: my former family moved on and left me behind, so I’m admittedly skittish about short-term relationships and would prefer something long-term, ideally forever.

To reach me, call Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals, at 508-560-6046.

Doodle – a male Australian shepherd mix — Photo by Lorna Welch

Correction: The print version of this article, published September 11, incorrectly identified Cali, Josephine, Dakota, Rupert, and kittens as pets available at Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals. They are available at The Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard. The animals available at Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals are: Athena, Bear, Beau, Boo, Cedar, Denver, Doodle, Greta, King, Marshmallow, Mimi, Minnie, Monk, Mouse, Munchkin, and Sable.

There are three facilities on the Island that offer animals for adoption: the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard (ASMV) in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals (MVHHA) in Oak Bluffs, and Angels Helping Animals Worldwide. Angels Helping Animals Worldwide recently moved into a new facility behind the town barn on County Road in Oak Bluffs.

For more information about ASMV, call 508-627-8662 or search them on Facebook.

For more information about MVHHA, call 508-560-6046 or email

For more information about Angels Helping Animals Worldwide, call 508-274-2604 or email, or search them on Facebook.

The following cats and dogs are currently available for adoption, with descriptions courtesy of the respective organizations.

At Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard:


Cali – a 16-week-old female who is spayed and up-to-date on vaccinations.


Dakota – a gorgeous tabby girl with striking markings and spectacular gold eyes. As a senior, her adoption fee is waived. She is shy but super affectionate and in excellent health.


Kittens – Currently, there are 8 tiny kittens who will become available over the next 2 months. Call the shelter to be put on the kitten list.


Rupert is a 16-week-old male who is neutered and up to date on vaccinations.


Josephine – a 16-week-old female who is spayed and up-to-date on vaccinations.

Cali – a 16-week-old female who is spayed and up-to-date on vaccinations

Josephine – a 16-week-old female who is spayed and up-to-date on vaccinations

Dakota – a gorgeous tabby girl with striking markings and spectacular gold eyes. As a senior, her adoption fee is waived. She is shy but super affectionate and in excellent health.

Rupert – a 16-week-old male who is neutered and up-to-date on vaccinations

Kittens – Currently, there are 8 tiny kittens who will become available over the next 2 months. Call the shelter to be put on the kitten list.

At Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals:


Boo – an adorable grey male — Photo by Lorna Welch


Beau – a male grey tiger cat — Photo by Lorna Welch


Cedar – a brown tiger male — Photo by Lorna Welch


Athena is a shiny, sleek female — Photo by Lorna Welch


Marshmallow – a sweet orange male who loves other kittens and cats — Photo by Lorna Welch


Doodle – a male Australian shepherd mix — Photo by Lorna Welch


Denver – a long-haired grey male — Photo by Lorna Welch


Sable – a female boxer mix — Photo by Lorna Welch


Munchkin – a cute grey/brown tiger female — Photo by Lorna Welch


Mouse – an orange tiger female — Photo by Lorna Welch


Monk – a grey/brown tiger male — Photo by Lorna Welch


Minnie – a female Feist mix — Photo by Lorna Welch


Mimi – a cute grey/brown tiger female — Photo by Lorna Welch


Bear is a silky little female — Photo by Lorna Welch


King – a male beagle/chihuahua mix — Photo by Lorna Welch


Greta – a beautiful tortoise-shell tiger female — Photo by Lorna Welch

Athena – is a shiny, sleek female

Bear – a silky little female

Beau – a male grey tiger cat

Boo – an adorable grey male

Cedar – a brown tiger male

Denver – a long haired grey male

Doodle – a male Australian shepherd mix

Greta – a beautiful tortoise shell-tiger female

King – a male beagle/chihuahua mix

Marshmallow – a sweet orange male who loves other kittens and cats

Mimi – a cute grey/brown tiger female

Minnie – a female Feist mix

Monk – a grey/brown tiger male

Mouse – an orange tiger female

Munchkin – a cute grey/brown tiger female

Sable – a female boxer mix

At Angels Helping Animals Worldwide:

Animals unavailable at press time. Visit the group’s Facebook page.

Lena the greyhound takes retirement seriously. (Photo Courtesy of Mary-Jean Miner).

Before we moved to Martha’s Vineyard, in 1991, we often boarded our Doberman in Falmouth at River Bend Farm Kennels while visiting friends on the Cape. When we moved to the Island, we again boarded Hilde there for extended trips. On learning that we now lived on the Vineyard, the owners of the kennel asked us to take flyers from Greyhound Friends, a rescue agency, to our vet, as they thought the Island would be a wonderful place for retired greyhounds.

When our Hilde died of old age, we immediately thought about adopting one of those retired racers.

Tesse tests the tide. (Courtesy of Mary-Jean Miner).
Tesse tests the tide. (Courtesy of Mary-Jean Miner).

Tres Grande Vitesse, called Tesse for short, came to live in Oak Bluffs in 1992 soon after we returned from a vacation in France. Named for the high speed trains there, Tesse was a 45-mph couch potato. She indeed loved being on Island, along with several others, whom she met soon after coming here. People who adopt greyhounds tend to seek each other out. Nine or ten families kept in touch, worked to end greyhound racing in Massachusetts, and often rode with their dogs in the Fourth of July parades in Edgartown. Ace, Ginger, Tesse, Windy, Oliver, Mint, and Sneaker all served as ambassadors for adoption, riding on a flatbed truck, each with a soft bed and a dish of water. The owners of River Bend came to the Ag Fair, bringing adoptable dogs. Although this is no longer an event at the fair, and River Bend is no longer fostering greyhounds, the adoption process continues with several other agencies in southern Massachusetts.

As pets, greyhounds are sweet, even-tempered, and good natured. They adapt readily to home life, even though they have most likely spent all their previous years in crate-like kennels. Turned out for brief exercise and runs, they were undemanding and never really had the opportunity to be puppies.

Lena the Greyhound has slowed down some since retiring from racing. (Photo by Kristofer Rabasca)
Lena the Greyhound has slowed down some since retiring from racing. (Photo by Kristofer Rabasca)

They learn very quickly and forget very little. At first, they may be timid and shy, as they adapt to the entirely strange environment you call home. My dogs always remained suspicious of strangers at first, but warmed to visitors eventually. They arrive totally trained to the leash, so they are readily controlled. We used to say the person holding the leash is in charge, even if that person is a small child – a supervised child, of course. In spite of their breeding as runners, they need no more exercise than other dogs. Being retired, they really appreciate nap time. If you want to keep yours off the sofa, teach him early and consistently that couch time must be spent on the dog bed.

My most recent adoption, Lena, learned right away to “wait” when someone was coming or going, as well as leave it,” which serves as a friendly form of “No!”

Being sighthounds as well as runners, greyhounds must always be kept on leash or fenced in. An opening door is an invitation to flight; the dog leaves at about 40 mph, paying no heed to direction or distractions. Because of this, they are not able to find their way home once they slow down or stop. Many are unable to learn “recall,” that is to come back at a signal. It took me four dogs to learn that training myself. Lena will come when called. Usually.

A gaggle of greyhounds gather before the Fourth of July parade. (Courtesy Mary-Jean Miner).
A gaggle of greyhounds gather before the Fourth of July parade. (Courtesy Mary-Jean Miner).

The adoption process is done with great care to be certain the new family understands the unique needs and habits of these dogs. Greyhound Friends, founded in 1983 by Louise Coleman, is our area’s largest agency. Louise has great experience in matching dogs to families, considering the dog’s personalities and ability to adapt. Some can live happily with children or cats, and most other dogs. Early on, most greyhounds were not kept past their racing days. Now, with many active agencies around the world, they, and we, are most fortunate to share their retirement years.

If you think you might have room in your home for one of these forever friends, contact Greyhound Friends in Hopkinton or Greyhound Rescue of New England in Menden online or by phone. The application process is precise, all consideration is given to providing a safe and loving home for each dog, as well as a totally loving companion for the adopting family. My current companion, Lena, and I would be happy to discuss any questions you may have.

In between Tesse and Lena, Rhody and Annie were my companions. It seems that having greyhounds as pets can form as a habit. I can’t imagine life without at least one, providing another heartbeat in my home.

For more information, contact Mary-Jean Miner at; 508-696-8589; or email

Jada and Magnum were born three weeks ago — on August 28. The third triplet did not survive, but these two are opening their eyes and on the move. (Photo by David Roberts)

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owners of a pregnant Vineyard Haven dog, eagerly awaiting triplets.

Dear Dogfather,

Our dog is going to have puppies soon. We are looking forward to the adorable pups, but not so much for all the cleaning up after them. How can we housebreak them as soon as possible?

Awaiting triplets in Vineyard Haven

Dear Awaiting Triplets in Vineyard Haven,

Congratulations on your (probably by the time you read this) enlarged family. One of the lines in my book is, “It’s amazing how much of my life revolves around feces and urine.” If you’re a dog trainer it’s true. I don’t care if the dog is so well-trained that it takes out the garbage and loads the dishwasher; if it poops or pees in the house it’s no good. Period.

Initially, most mothers will clean up after their pups. Dogs are strong creatures of habit, and what they’re standing on when they first become cognizant of the comfort of relieving themselves can be meaningful. That’s been my experience. If as soon as possible you can have them get accustomed to making pee and poop outdoors, instead of on floors and carpets, it speeds up the housebreaking process.

Dogs have a “den instinct.” They don’t like to make pee or poop where they eat and sleep. That’s where the expression “dirty dog” comes from. If the dog goes in its den, he’s considered dirty. Get a crate large enough for him to stretch out lying down plus a little, and get him to love it. This should start happening at about six to eight weeks of age. Feed him his three meals a day in the crate, crate door open. During the day toss special treats in the crate, praise him whenever he goes in, and put his bed in it, making sure that that is the most physically comfortable place for him to hang out.

As long as he’s too young to hold it all night, the crate, with crate door left open, needs to be boxed in by an x-pen (eight paneled metal gate with all panels jointed so it can be easily configured anyway you want). Next, put a pee pad that has a touch of the dog’s urine on it outside the crate at the back of the confinement area so that when pup wakes up to relieve itself it can leave its den, and pee or poop on the pad which he will be attracted to by the urine smell. The last thing you want is the dog going in his den. You know he can hold it all night when the time comes that you wake up and discover a clean pee pad. That’s when you close the crate door for the night.

If you don’t want a pee pad in the house, have the crate near your bed with the crate door closed and when you hear him crying or whimpering fly out of bed and get him outside immediately. Initially, always praise the puppy with voice and treat as soon as he’s finished going, except at night. No treat then. Keep praise low-key so he goes back to sleep. Most dogs have the ability to hold it all night when they are about 10 weeks old.

Try feeding on a structured basis, close to the same times every day. This way you’ll get a handle on when he has to go in relation to when he eats. I’d suggest he gets fed three times a day until about four months of age, then lose the middle meal and feed in the morning and evening at your convenience. Leave the food down for 20 minutes or so, then remove it and lose the guilt if he misses a meal. He’ll learn to eat when it’s available and you’ll both be better off if he’s on a schedule. (This is not the place for me to deal with the dogs who can’t afford to miss meals for one reason or another).

Also, a dog needs one cup of water for every 8 pounds of weight in a 24 hour period to be properly hydrated. Most vets will tell you to have water always available. That’s because they’ve had clients actually dehydrating their dogs by holding water back to eliminate the peeing mistakes. Cut the water off by 7 pm so pup has a better chance of holding it all night sooner.

During the day, assuming someone’s home, pup is confined within view of caretaker. (The x-pen can make this relatively easy). Enter the Dog God. What happens in most cases all over the world, when an owner sees their dog starting to relieve itself in the house, the person is charging at the dog arms flailing, yelling whatever they’re yelling to stop the dog from going. And what does the dog learn from this? Well, from his perspective, when you see him going,  you clearly lose your mind, charging at him yelling and flailing. That’s why dogs get very good at getting sneaky; they wait till you’re distracted and then step out of sight behind the couch and take a quick pee to avoid your insane reaction to their natural needs.

The Dog God is anything that startles the dog and it doesn’t come from you. Several empty soda or beer cans with a dozen pennies inside, strategically placed to be quickly picked up and shook or thrown near the dog (depending on the dog’s sensitivity) as the dog starts to go hopefully stops the process. Don’t let the dog see you shake or throw the can, and get him out, treats in pocket to reward the outside pee or poop.

Signs of a dog seriously thinking about making pee or poop are a sudden intense sniffing (looking for the right place to pee) or a kind of darting back and forth or circling (looking to poop). If you can’t watch him for whatever reason, he has to be confined in the crate/x-pen area with crate door open and pee pad available, or in the closed crate, depending on his progress. If he goes in the house and you didn’t catch him within 15 seconds, just clean up and deodorize. It is extremely important that the odor of any mistakes be removed, as dogs really do go where they smell it. White vinegar is as good as the odor neutralizers on the market and much cheaper. If the dog is basically housebroken but has a proclivity for going on occasion in a particular spot, feed him on that spot for a week. Dogs don’t like to relieve themselves where they eat anymore than you like to have meals in your bathroom.

In my experience most dogs are pretty reliably housebroken by about five months of age.

Good luck.

The Dogfather

When pets die suddenly owners may attribute it to a “heart attack,” but dogs and cats don’t really get heart attacks.

I got an unexpected crash course in a few aspects of human cardiology recently when I started experiencing tightness in my chest. At first I convinced myself it was asthma, but knowing my family history of heart disease, and knowing the signs of a heart attack can be very vague in women, and knowing too many folks who ignored those warning signs with dire consequences, I eventually went to the emergency room at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Four hours later, my X-rays, ECG, and blood work showed no abnormalities and I felt better, but Dr. Zack was sternly adamant. I could go home now, but must go to Mass General ASAP for a nuclear stress test, an evaluation that involves injecting radioactive dye, then taking images of the heart before and after exercise. These pictures would allow cardiologists to see if any areas of my heart muscle weren’t getting adequate blood flow.

While making travel plans, I thought about cardiac disease in dogs and cats. It’s not uncommon when pets die suddenly for owners to attribute it to a “heart attack.” But dogs and cats don’t really get heart attacks, we tell them. Before we go further, a brief disclaimer.  Damn it, Jim, I’m a veterinarian, not a cardiologist. (Okay, please dismiss all Star Trek references as a side effect of my recent illness.)

Seriously. I’m not a cardiologist, but to the best of my understanding, in human medicine what people refer to as “heart attack,” is an acute myocardial infarction. Acute means it comes on suddenly. Myocardial means “of the heart muscle.” Infarction is tissue damage or death caused by lack of oxygen due to an obstruction of that tissue’s blood supply. So a human heart attack, a.k.a. acute myocardial infarction, is caused by sudden blockage of one or more of the coronary arteries leading to damage or death of part of the heart muscle.

Sudden death. It happens to pets now and then. One day your dog or cat, Valentine,  seems perfectly normal. The next, he keels over and dies. It can be devastating for owners, who urgently want explanations for such unexpected losses. Many people’s thoughts go immediately to poison, especially if Valentine goes outside unattended, but most toxins an animal is likely to encounter around here, such as rat poison and antifreeze, will typically cause clinical signs of illness before an animal dies. “He must have had a heart attack,” is another common conclusion. Wrong. Dogs and cats generally do not get coronary artery disease and thus do not get myocardial infarctions. Perhaps it’s their diet, lifestyle, or just genetics, but they appear to be resistant to this particular cardiac problem. That is not to say there aren’t other conditions that can lead to sudden death.

A sidebar on terminology. The term postmortem is short for postmortem examination, the dissection of a deceased body. It comes from the Latin post, meaning after, and mors, meaning death.  Another term for a postmortem on a human being is autopsy. This word comes from the Greek auto, meaning self, and opsis, meaning sight, or eyes. Thus autopsia meaning eyewitness, or seeing with one’s own eyes. The word autopsy was first used to describe the act of dissecting a cadaver to determine cause of death in around 1670 and is technically reserved for when this is done on human remains. For nonhuman animals, the proper term is necropsy, from the Greek nekros, meaning dead body. The point of all this being that if your pet, Valentine, bites the dust unexpectedly, your veterinarian is probably not going to be able to tell you why without performing a postmortem examination, correctly called a necropsy.

One cardiac condition often proposed to explain sudden death in dogs and cats is ruptured chordae tendineae, fibromuscular cords of tissue inside the heart that connect little mounds called the papillary muscles to the heart valves. They are sometimes poetically referred to as the “heart strings.”  If Valentine ruptures one of these heart strings, it can result in sudden death. Theoretically this occurs primarily when there is underlying disease of the heart valve, but we rarely get the opportunity to do a necropsy and/or postmortem laboratory diagnostics to get definitive answers. Perhaps Valentine died of a ruptured brain aneurysm. An aneurysm is a blood vessel with thinning walls that cause it to bulge abnormally. It can suddenly burst, leading to fatal hemorrhage. Even when we do perform necropsies, we rarely examine the brain, so this is another theory we seldom get to prove.

Other common fatal conditions are easier to demonstrate. Middle-aged large breed dogs are particularly prone to a form of cancer called hemgiosarcoma. There tumors affect the spleen or the heart and can often lead to sudden, fatal internal hemorrhage. Presumptive diagnosis can be made by simply tapping the abdomen, or pericardial sac, depending on the location of the tumor, with a needle and syringe and seeing if there is free blood in these places. Other causes of sudden death can include ruptured spleen from trauma such as being hit by a car, electrocution from biting electrical wires, acute conduction disturbances in the heart causing fatal arrhythmias, electrolytes imbalances from adrenal gland disease, and a variety of genetic problems Valentine might be born with but which don’t cause visible symptoms until he suddenly expires.

By the time I got to Boston, I had fairly constant angina. After an abnormal stress test, they quickly admitted me to the ER, then the cardiac ward. Three days later, I was given what they call “conscious sedation,” and cardiologists placed two stents via an artery in my arm into my coronary arteries, restoring adequate blood flow to the affected part of my heart. Amazing technology. The main thing I remember was the cardiologist yelling at me to stop asking so many questions. I guess I was curious. I know I was lucky. My heart gave me warning. No actual heart attack. No sudden death. Just gratitude.