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pets

Try to stop giggling.

A concerned owner called the other day. Solly, the family dog, was passing stools that looked black. Go ahead. Get the giggling out of your system now. We’re gonna talk about poop. There’s no lack of euphemisms for digestive waste, but technically it’s called feces, and feces often give important information about what’s happening inside an animal’s gastrointestinal tract. (Remember this next time you think being a veterinarian is a romantic profession.) So what can it mean, that Solly had this dark stool?

The majority of times when owners report black stool, when I see the sample myself, it is actually just very dark brown, a normal variation. The color of what goes in affects the color of what comes out. “Did anyone give Solly Pepto-Bismol?” I asked. Pepto-Bismol, or any product containing bismuth subsalicylate, can turn stool black. Weird, huh? How does bright pink medication do this? Sulfur in the saliva interacts with the bismuth to form bismuth sulfide … which is black. Ingested charcoal can also make stool black — if Solly chewed on burned wood from the firepit or briquettes spilled from the barbecue, or if a veterinarian intentionally administered activated charcoal, as we might do after a dog ingests certain toxic substances. But, no, Solly hadn’t had bismuth subsalicyclate or charcoal.

“How is he feeling?” I asked. Dark, tar-like stools can indicate bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract, anywhere from the nose and mouth down to the small intestines. The blood gets digested, so when it comes out the other end, it is no longer red. The presence of black, tarry stool caused by digested blood is called melena. Most dogs suffering from significant internal hemorrhage will have other signs consistent with blood loss, such as weakness and pale gums. But Solly was feeling fine.

“Is he on any medications?” I asked. There are a large number of drugs that can cause stomach ulcers. Ulcers can cause hemorrhage. Hemorrhage can cause melena. The most common drugs involved in this scenario are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, AKA NSAIDs, including veterinary prescription drugs like Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Metacam, or Previcox. Or your veterinarian may dispense generic versions of the same NSAIDs. Owners often make the mistake of giving pets over-the-counter NSAIDs intended for people. Dogs (and cats) are not just furry, four-legged people. These products in your medicine cabinet can cause life-threatening problems if given to your pets. Always check with your veterinarian before administering any medication. I occasionally suggest aspirin for dogs (cat owners: Don’t do it!) but other over-the-counter NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil), or naprosyn (Aleve) can cause  nasty problems. Naprosyn in particular can lead to severe gastrointestinal hemorrhage in dogs. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, are another potentially problematic class of medications frequently prescribed for things such as skin problems and allergies. Most dogs  handle them just fine, but rarely, an individual will develop significant gastrointestinal bleeding. With any of these medications, long-term use increases the risk. It’s also important to consider drug interactions. NSAIDs should never be given at the same time as corticosteroids. But Solly wasn’t taking anything.

There are other less common causes of melena: anything that interferes with normal blood clotting such as anticoagulant rat poison, or bleeding disorders such as autoimmune thrombocytopenia. Inflammatory diseases like hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, pancreatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Foreign bodies that irritate or perforate the GI tract. Liver or kidney failure, which may lead to clotting problems or stomach ulcers. Cancer. Even intestinal worms, if there are enough of them. Usually such cases will exhibit other signs of illness besides the melena. Not so with hematochezia.

Hemato …  what? Hematochezia. That’s the medical term for bright red streaks of blood in the stool, a very different situation from the dark, tarry appearance of melena. In younger dogs, hematochezia is often caused by intestinal parasites, or just by eating stupid things: birdseed, acorns, hair — stuff that irritates the rectum and/or anus on its way out. Older dogs are less likely to have worms, though it never hurts to run a fecal study to rule out such parasites, as well as a test for protozoa like Giardia. I am rarely concerned about a single episode of a little blood in a formed stool if the animal is feeling completely fine otherwise, but persistent hematochezia warrants a trip to the veterinarian. One of the first things we do is examine under the dog’s tail for anal-sac infections, tumors, and other perianal problems such as trauma, fistulas, or hernias. If all looks normal, we then have to decide whether to pursue definitive diagnosis or just try nonspecific therapy.

Many of these dogs have “colitis,” i.e. inflammation of the colon, resulting in diarrhea, straining, increased frequency and urgency of defecation, and mucoid stools, as well as hematochezia. Why is the colon inflamed?  Underlying etiologies can run the gamut: food intolerance, stress, many types of infections, cancer. Pinning down the culprit can be difficult. Owners often opt to start with dietary changes, such as feeding bland, easily digested food in multiple, small meals, and empirical medications that may help with colitis, regardless of the cause.

Solly did not have hematochezia. No bright red blood. Did he truly have melena, or was this simply a “false-positive” dark stool? Ah, I hear you thinking. “Can’t she just run that test they do for people to check for blood in the stool?” Nope. The occult fecal blood test requires three days of vegetarian diet prior to testing. Otherwise all we would learn is that Solly eats dog food, dog food contains meat, meat contains blood. Since he didn’t have diarrhea, his appetite was good, and he was feeling fine, I suggested feeding a bland diet and continued observation. If the dark stools persisted or if Solly wasn’t feeling well, they should bring him in. I haven’t heard back, so I am assuming no news is good news. That’s today’s scoop on poop. Now grow up. Stop giggling.

Skin tabs and beyond.

When I first met Freesia she was a 12-pound bundle of adorable, wiggly puppy. Over the years she grew into a typical Island Labrador, with typical Island medical issues. The occasional bout of fleas. Seasonal allergies. Skin problems. Sporadic ear infections. Annoying, but not worrisome. Then, at 7 years old, a pedunculated mass grew on her chest.  Pedunculated is a great word. Derived from the Latin for “foot stalk,” it means the mass attaches to the body by a narrow tissue band like a flower stalk. Pedunculated skin masses are often benign, but Freesia’s was in an awkward spot, dangling down and rubbing the floor when she laid down. Over time the surface began to ulcerate and bleed. “It’s probably just from the friction,” I told her owners, “but when a mass ulcerates, we worry more about malignancy.” We all agreed that even if benign, the growth was messy and cumbersome and should be removed.

Surgery went smoothly. The biopsy report came back with a diagnosis of “fibroepithelial polyp, ulcerated.” In parentheses, the pathologist added (skin tag). Aha. The comments went on. “The sample features a polypoid proliferation of dermal collagen and mildly hyperplastic epithelium consistent with a benign hyperplastic fibroepithelial polyp …  these may occur as a proliferative response to trauma or resolving furunculosis. … Prominent ulceration and associated inflammation [are] likely secondary to local trauma. No evidence of malignancy.”

That’s a lot of scientific jargon just to say that, as we had hoped, Freesia simply had grown a big honking skin tag that had rubbed raw on the rug. Phew. No cancer. Freesia was good to go. Two months later her annual physical exam found her in excellent health, although a little overweight. Then, four months later, in early December, Freesia came in again. The family had been away for two weeks on vacation. Freesia had been well-cared for in their absence, but on their return, just didn’t seem herself. At first, her owners thought perhaps it was an emotional reaction to their being gone, or maybe she had strained or sprained something. They tried keeping her quiet and letting her rest, but soon Freesia began to exhibit pain. “She’s moaning, especially at night,” her mom said. Freesia’s appetite was still good, but, well, Labradors do love to eat.

I looked her over. She wasn’t limping. She resisted my manipulating her neck side to side, but that didn’t seem to actually hurt. I palpated each limb, feeling for heat or swelling. I moved each joint checking for crunchiness (called crepitus), pain, abnormal laxity, or any altered range of motion. I systematically pressed each vertebra down her back. Everything checked out normally. “She’s having trouble getting up onto the bed,” her owner added, “and hesitates getting in and out of the car.”

I wasn’t worried. That history in a middle-aged, overweight Labrador?  Pretty common. Probably back or joint pain. Maybe a pulled muscle, or intervertebral disc disease, or degenerative joint disease (i.e., arthritis). Blood work ruled out Lyme disease or metabolic abnormalities. Since she was walking and eating normally, and I couldn’t find anything on exam, I doubted it was serious, and prescribed 10 days of anti-inflammatory pain medication, restricted exercise, weight loss,  and “tincture of time.”

Freesia felt much better on her pain medication, but very soon after finishing the 10-day course began limping on her left hind leg. I dispensed additional medication and suggested more rest. “If she’s not significantly better in two weeks, we should take radiographs,” I said, warning the owners that many musculoskeletal problems don’t show up on plain x-rays. Conditions like intervertebral disc disease often require MRI for definitive diagnosis. “But radiographs are our next step,” I concluded, “to rule out things like hip dysplasia.” (Yes, dogs can have dysplasia for years without showing signs, only developing symptoms later with age.) But Freesia couldn’t wait two weeks. Within days her lameness was worse, and the pain meds had stopped working adequately. We proceeded immediately with x-rays of her hips, knees, and spine.

For hip films, we place dogs on their backs, stretch the hind legs out parallel to each other, rotating the femurs inward. This may require anesthesia for good positioning, but Freesia was cooperative. I put the film on the viewing screen. Her hips and knees looked fine. But wait. What was that? Farther up the pelvis on the portion called the ilium, the bone looked funny.  Freesia was a big dog, so the whole pelvis wasn’t on this picture. “I need another film,” I said, my heart sinking. This was not what I had expected.

On the new film, Freesia’s left ilium was clearly abnormal — the bone mottled where it should have been solid, fuzzy and irregular where it should have been smooth. There was a remote chance this was osteomyelitis, i.e., a bone infection, but far more likely, it was cancer. “How would she get an infection there?” her owners asked. That’s the question, isn’t it? Unless Freesia had recently traveled to the southwest, fungal infection was virtually impossible. Bacterial infection was also extremely unlikely. “The only way to get a definitive diagnosis would be bone biopsy and culture,” I sighed. “But the odds are overwhelming that it’s cancer.” For some reason, all I could think of was that old fatalistic saying, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”

We consulted a specialist, who agreed this was almost certainly cancer. With the location and extent of the lesion, the prognosis was poor. At best, we were talking amputation, followed by chemotherapy or radiation. Freesia’s family opted to spare her such invasive procedures. We focused instead on palliative care, hoping to keep her comfortable, but it wasn’t long before the pain became too much and we had to say goodbye. Sweet Freesia. I had hoped those radiographs would just find something like arthritis in her hip or back; something she could live with to a ripe old age. But that was not to be. Sometimes you eat the bear …

Diapers can work wonders with females in heat. – Courtesy Bostonterrier.com.

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 he owner of a dog in heat.

Dear Dogfather,

I have two dogs, one male, 1.5 years, and one female, 10 months. The female has gone into heat this morning. The male is neutered, and I have a Pampers with a hole cut for her tail. What else should I do/expect?

Tyler

Dear Tyler,

I bet your male dog is a lot more excited about your female going into heat than you are. Heat averages about three weeks. Generally the bleeding turns pink by day 12, and stops by day 16, but they are not out of heat. It just means that she has ovulated, and it’s during this time that there are many unplanned breedings. Keep the diaper on her (indoors) for at least a couple of days after the discharges have stopped. You may also want to put a belly band on the male to prevent his “marking” indoors.

She will have a very strong and distinct smell that dogs from miles around can smell. Having used my dogs for search and rescue for 25 years, trust me when I tell you: Depending on the wind, dogs in Falmouth will be trying to take the ferry over to meet your alluring girl. When outside, do not take her off the leash. Period.

On average, they are breedable between the 12th and 18th day, known as the estrus period, but they can remain in heat until day 21. It is during the estrus period that you will see her “flagging,” cocking her tail to the side and backing her butt up to the male, or your leg, or whatever, saying, “I’m ready NOW!”

In terms of behavior, it’s not unusual to find both dogs humping each other, your leg, or anything humpable. Raging hormones may cause some minor behavioral presentations, and sometimes result in a “hysterical,” or false, pregnancy. It may occur whether or not she was mated. Symptoms usually begin four to nine weeks after the heat period, and may include mammary-gland enlargement with or without the production of milk, lethargy, and actually taking a toy and treating it like a newborn puppy. If that happens, let me know, and we’ll discuss it then.

If you have a yard with a six-foot fence, it’s still not good enough. An ardent suitor will get in or your dog will metamorphose into Houdini and escape to find the nearest “lover.” Outdoors she stays on leash!

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Dogfather #2|

 

Dear Dogfather,

Our 12-year-old Australian Shepherd barks at the front door, intimating that he would like us to open the door. We accommodate and he walks outside. Barely a minute passes before he is barking at the door again, intimating that he would like to return inside. We open the door, he comes inside. A few minutes pass and he is back barking at the door again. And so it goes. Other than spending the night opening and closing the door, is there anything else we can we do?

Thanks,

Kate

 

Dear Kate,

Dogs are pack animals and if they had their way the pack (family) would always stay together. Most dogs will present mild anxiety when during a walk a family member leaves the group (pack) to discard a soda can in a recycle bin 50 yards away, and show obvious satisfaction when the pack member rejoins the group.

Dogs also love attention and will do what they can to garner it, even at the expense of preferring negative attention to no attention. That’s why the puppy, rather than being ignored, will grab a sock only to have you chasing him, even if you’re angry about it.

Dogs are also tremendous creatures of habit. I remember a lady with a 7-year-old Spaniel mix who woke her up every night at 3 am to go out. “God, I’d love, for once to sleep through the whole night without having to let her out,” was what the lady said to me. I told her dogs are very habitual and this behavior is likely a carryover from her puppy housebreaking days, and the dog probably thinks it’s her obligation to continue her nocturnal outings. I suggested that she cuts off the water by 6:30 and when the dog awakens her at 3 am,  to tell her to be quiet and not get out of bed. The lady called me the next day to thank me and said, “She laid back down and sighed as though she was saying, ‘Thank God I don’t have to do this anymore.'” Creatures of habit.

So Kate, when you have the audacity to be doing something other than paying attention to your Aussie, he gets your attention by his barking at the door, but when you don’t go out with him he not only gets no attention, he needs to make the pack whole again. Quite a habitual dilemma for him and you.

First suggestion, install a “doggy door.” Problem solved. Or, teach him “Quiet!” At age 12 he’s certainly very attuned to your wants and dislikes. When he barks at the door tell him “Quiet!” sternly and ignore him. If he keeps barking try startling him by shaking a throw can a split second after you say “Quiet.” (An empty soda or beer can with a dozen pennies in it). If he still continues his pesky barking try throwing the can near him (not at him) as you say “Quiet!”

A good spritz with a stream of water from a spray bottle in conjunction with “Quiet” often works well. If he responds, you’ll find you just have to reach for the bottle and he’s done.

Don’t be surprised by a possible behavioral burst — meaning that his initial response to your not cooperating at the door might be to bark louder and longer. If you teach a mouse that when he pushes on a bar of a device to get a piece of cheese, and then remove the cheese, his initial response will be to push the bar harder and longer. “I always got cheese when I did this!”

If you’re willing to endure the acoustic trauma, you can just try ignoring the barking, or leave the room. Good luck with that.

Take a look at the bright side. If you ever move to Boston and decide to apply for a job as a doorman in a luxury building, your door opening experience will look great on your resume.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

P.S.  If you do install a doggy door and have difficulty getting him to use it, let me know and I’ll tell you or show you how to get him doggy door savvy. It won’t be the first time.

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 ready.gov 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 rabrown1950@comcast.net.

Angus (in front) protects Frankie, his new little sister.
The Dogfather, with Paula.
The Dogfather, with Paula.

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 noisy new puppy and Tyler, who’s moving his pooches to VH.

Dear Dogfather,

Angus (in back) watches his new little house mate, Frankie, who can get sort of noisy.
Angus (in back) watches his new little house mate, Frankie, who can get sort of noisy.

Thanks to your advice, Angus and his little sister Frankie (who came home to us a few weeks ago) are best buds. They play rough, snuggle in Angus’s crate, and pal around all day. Frankie is more vocal than Angus when they play and walk around. For instance, she will “complain” and sounds as if she’s walking begrudgingly while trying to keep up with her pack, or growl and yip during play. Should we be discouraging this vocal behavior? Or keep letting her express herself?

Thanks!

Alex and JD

Dear Alex and JD,

Delighted to hear how well things are going with Angus and Frankie. I refer to dogs that bark too much as their being overly verbal. That usually refers to dogs that bark for attention, or at the window when someone has the audacity to walk by your house. Then there are the dogs that give the driver acoustic trauma when seeing anything while driving in the car, or the hapless barkers who suffer from separation anxiety when left alone. These being some of the examples of overly verbal canines, I don’t think they apply to Frankie. From what you described it sounds to me like play excitement barking. Paula, my poodle, will sometimes jump straight up and bark on the sighting of another dog, basically saying, “Oh boy, a possible romp with one of my own kind!”

When dogs play, they chase each other and play fight, and as often as not they verbalize when playing. My Doberman, Michelle, had a best friend, a German Shepherd named Daisy. They played often and sounded like two lions fighting to the death. When Michelle had a tug of war with a rope toy with my other dog Tri, it was a 90-pound Doberman against a 17-pound Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She could have easily ripped it out of Tri’s mouth, but didn’t because she enjoyed the game, and you should have heard the decibel level of the growling coming from both of them.

Alex, if you tried to stop the verbalizing while she’s playing, Frankie would probably relate your correction to her playing, not her growling. Playing, to her — as with many other dogs — includes growling.

However, I’m a little confused when you mentioned that she “will complain and sounds like she’s walking begrudgingly while trying to keep up with her pack.” That almost sounds like she’s experiencing some physical discomfort while walking. You might want to keep an eye on that.

As I’ve said before, the best you can do to have dogs get along is interfere as little as possible, let them work it out.

Enjoy the extended family,

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

I will be moving from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven at the end of the month. I have two dogs. Will this be stressful to them,and if so, how do I lessen the stress?

-Tyler

Dear Tyler,

Will moving from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven stress these dogs out?
Will moving from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven stress these dogs out?

I read somewhere years ago that moving ranked with death and divorce in terms of trauma. That of course pertained to humans as the article went on to explain that a large percentage of people have to move because of something catastrophic such as a job loss or cancer diagnosis. Countless times I’ve heard, “My dog’s behavior is regressing; she started destructive chewing again like when she was a puppy, or peeing in the house,” or whatever, for no reason at all.

But there’s always a reason, and it’s my job to find out what’s causing the dog’s aberrant behavior. Dogs are very aware and sensitive to the vibe of the household. The sadness of a wife whose husband passes away may create enough anxiety in the family dog to cause it to start nervously chewing on furniture.

So if you have to move because of a catastrophic change in your life, your dog is likely to be depressed or a basket case before you even move. Now add to that the fact that your dog can’t even conceive of the concept of “moving.” What the dog will perceive is the disassembling of her den, of her sanctuary, with no understanding of “why.”

When my wife Jaye and I decided to move to MV to retire it was all good. Yet Jaye cried for most of the 5 hour drive from NY just because of the trauma of the momentous change in our lives, leaving our beautiful house we had lived in for 30 years and being so far away from our children, friends and familiar environs.

So Tyler, even assuming that your move is positive, all your dogs see is your stress from the actual mundane hassles of moving all your stuff,  and their comfortable home being obliterated.

So what to do? If possible, before you move, bring the dogs to the new house, making sure they’re hungry, and feed them there. Play with them there. Walk them in their new neighborhood. Do this as often as you can. If you can’t actually get into the house, then familiarize them with the area around the house as much as possible. And when you do move make sure that their beds and bowls and toys are in the new digs immediately, not in a storage facility to be picked up later.

Best of luck,

 

Walter the beleaguered beagle.

Walter was a beagle-springer cross, so I was not surprised that he had an ear infection. Those breeds are both prone to otitis externa, the technical term for an ear infection. You know — when the canal gets all red and oozes that smelly, gooey discharge. Otitis may be caused by yeast or bacteria — sometimes both — and often is initiated by underlying issues such as allergies, frequent swimming, or problems with the anatomical conformation of the ear canals. We treated Walter with a standard ointment, a combination of antifungal, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory medications. The otitis resolved but then quickly recurred.

“Let’s see what organisms are in there,” I suggested, smearing the green goop I had extracted from Walter’s ear onto a slide, which my assistant heat-fixed and stained. “Lots of cocci bacteria,” I concluded, examining the slide on the microscope. A pretty routine staph infection. Walter also happened to be diabetic, making him more susceptible to infections in general. We dispensed a second ear medication. The otitis got better . . .  then recurred . . .   again. This time as I tried to clean it, the canal began to bleed, and Walter was too tender to let me look down with my otoscope.

When faced with a stubborn case of otitis, there are several things we can try. We could take a culture and see exactly what organisms were growing in Walter’s ear. The laboratory could then run an antibiotic-sensitivity panel to determine the most effective drugs. But some specialists say that culturing an ear is like culturing the inside of a garbage can. You’re going to grow a lot of stuff, but not all the information you get will be useful. Instead, we decided to try a special brew many veterinarians mix up for such situations.

We start with a liquid called trizEDTA, which breaks down bacterial cell walls, allowing antibiotics to then penetrate into the organisms and fight the infection more effectively.  Adding liquid antibiotic to a big bottle of trizEDTA, I instructed Walter’s mom to fill his ears liberally with the fluid twice daily for two weeks. “This should fix him up,” I said confidently. Then, almost as an afterthought, I suggested a recheck in a few weeks. Six weeks later, Walter was back. Once again, the infection had responded, only to rapidly recur when the owner stopped the medication. “OK, let’s see what’s going on,” I sighed, thinking it was time to take a culture, and wheeling over my bright exam light to get a good look. I pulled up Walter’s ear and gazed carefully into the canal. Oh, my. I hadn’t seen that before. A small, red, cauliflower-like mass deep in his ear. “He’s got a growth in there,” I said. At past visits a combination of tenderness, blood, and discharge had made it difficult for me to see what was probably a small growth back then, which had now grown and was easily visible. (Or maybe I just hadn’t looked hard enough.)

Ear tumors are relatively uncommon in dogs, occurring primarily in middle-aged or senior pets. They can affect the flap, canal, or middle or inner ear, and can grow out of the skin, connective tissue, or various glands. They can be benign or malignant. Often there are no obvious clinical signs, depending on where the tumor is, what kind it is, and how fast it grows. If the tumor occurs in the middle or inner ear, neurological and balance problems may occur, resulting in walking problems, facial-nerve paralysis or head tilt. As they did with Walter, ear tumors may lead to secondary infection as they occlude the canal, hindering air flow and trapping debris and wax.

“A lot of times with ear tumors, it’s impossible to remove the whole cancer without removing large portions of the ear canal,” I told his mom. But we needed to start somewhere, so we scheduled surgery to remove as much as we could without being too invasive, and sent out a biopsy.  My hope was that it would be benign and thus not a big problem, even if we had to leave a little behind.

No such luck. Walter’s biopsy came back as ceruminous adenocarcinoma, a malignant cancer originating in the wax glands lining the ear canal. Although in dogs these tumors have only about a 10 percent chance of metastasis (i.e., spreading to other places such as lungs or lymph nodes), they tend to be locally invasive and aggressive. After consulting with a veterinary oncologist, Walter’s mom and I discussed the bad news.  “If you decide to pursue treatment, we start by taking chest x-rays and a lymph-node aspirate to make sure it hasn’t metastasized,” I said. “Then a CT scan gets done off-Island at the specialists’ to determine how far it has spread inside the ear.”  Then, more surgery. Although benign tumors can be removed with less extensive procedures, for this malignant cancer the oncologists advise total ear-canal ablation (TECA), which essentially removes all the ear structures while leaving the flap intact. In about one-quarter of cases, such cancers extend into the tympanic bulla on the skull, in which case the surgeon would also open this area and remove any abnormal tissue in a procedure called a bulla osteotomy. Postoperative complications might include facial-nerve paralysis, healing difficulties, and, of course, deafness on one side.

Walter is not a young dog, and his diabetes increases the potential for poor healing. There are only limited studies tracking the prognosis for dogs in Walter’s situation. Expected survival time for dogs with ceruminous adenocarcinoma who have the TECA surgery is reported to range from one to three years, but these statistics are based on very small numbers of cases. Without treatment, the oncologist says, Walter may develop trouble with his balance as the tumor spreads, and become severely uncomfortable within one year. His mom is considering their options, weighing all these factors . . . and I am taking a good long look down the ears of every dog who comes in with recurrent otitis.

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

— Photo by Alexandra Loud

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 Alex, who will soon be bringing home a new puppy to join their Shortybull, Angus, and the owners of Alby, who is entering her golden years.

Dear Dogfather,

My partner and I have a two-year-old Shortybull (Frenchy-Staffordshire bull terrier mix) who is fabulously friendly, calm, and loving. Angus is neutered and rarely is aggressive toward other dogs. We are planning on adding a new female pup to our home in September. What do we need to do for Angus and the new pup so that everyone is comfortable and happy?

Thanks!

Alex

Dear Alex,

Glad to hear that Angus is a nice guy and also glad to hear that the new pack member is going to be a female. Generally, opposite sexes get along better than same sex. In my experience the worst inter-family dog aggression is often between two sisters from the same litter — especially terriers. What often happens is the dominant sister is a bully, pushing her submissive sister to the point where she can’t and won’t take it anymore, with the result being a serious fight. Usually happens between one and two years of age, with a lousy prognosis. The bully won’t stop bullying and her sister won’t submit and your quality of life goes downhill as the constant anxiety of a serious fight erupting makes your life miserable. With about 800 training appointments per annum I’ve seen this scenario about once a year, with one of the dogs having to be re-homed because they weren’t going to work it out.

When you have a puppy in mind, I suggest you bring Angus to meet her and let them hang out together. If Angus thinks it’s great fun when the pup play-fights with him and you see two tails wagging a lot, you got a match. If Angus’s new sister isn’t coming home with you on the first meeting, take two dish towels and rub her all over with them. Then place one towel under Angus’s food bowl and the other under where he sleeps. The positive association of her scent with two of his favorite spots can’t hurt.

When it’s time to bring the new family member home, bring Angus with you. If that’s not feasible have them meet a block away from the house and then come home together. Meeting at a neutral location will go a long way in avoiding a territorial-aggressive response, which often applies to playdates, too.

Best of luck with your new pack member,

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

What recommendation or advice do you have for the lucky owners of elderly dogs? I have been blessed with 14 wonderful years with my canine companion, and while I feel sure she will be the longest-lived dog in existence, I know the time will come when I will have to prepare both of us for her ” next great adventure.” My dog, let’s call her Alby, is a terrier mix of about 40 pounds. She has enjoyed robust good health her entire life and continues to be healthy and happy. I take her for daily walks, and if she is a bit less interested in squirrels than she used to be, she still frisks about. While this not a topic I like to think about, I do want to be able to make the best decisions I can when the end nears so as to be able to afford her a comfortable and dignified passing. Yours with respect.

Alby’s Loving Mother

Dear Alby’s Loving Mama,

The vibe I get from your question tells me that if there’s reincarnation I’d like to come back as your dog. One thing’s for sure. Whenever the end comes, you can be sure that Alby’s had as good a life as a dog can have.

Euthanizing a family member is truly one of the most painful hardships we humans can face. And it comes in three parts — knowing when to do it, making the decision, and doing it.

I think if there’s chronic pain and discomfort and she’s living in a haze of painkillers, it’s time. If she stops eating or drinking, it’s time. If her quality of life has totally deteriorated, make the decision.

But in all of this there’s something that I think is extremely important. NO PITY. Don’t share your sadness with him. Dogs are very aware and sensitive to your mood. ACT. Act as up as you can. Do not share your sadness with her. It will only frighten and depress her more. After it’s done, mourn till you’re out of tears. After it’s done.

My little Cavalier King Charles thought he was in heaven before he actually got there. He passed with his tail wagging furiously as he was devouring a chocolate bar when he got the sleep shot. I might also suggest that if possible, have the vet come to your house when it’s time. Alby will be much more comfortable and so probably will you.

Enjoy the time you have and good luck,

The Dogfather

If your dog chases cars, read The Dogfather. — Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Comm
The Dogfather, with Paula.
The Dogfather, with Paula.

Tom Shelby, dog trainer to MV and NYC celebrities (and their dogs), answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. Got a question for the Dogfather?Write him at dogsrshelby@msn.com.

Help!

poodle.JPGI have a 2-year-old female standard poodle. She was attacked (off leash) by a yellow Lab when she was 4 1/2 months old. She is wary and careful about approaching large dogs, especially Labs. She is defensive, a little fearful, and has exhibited territorial aggression toward other dogs if they approach her too quickly, even if they are friendly. She has never bitten any other dog, but does show her teeth if they are too forward or friendly.

Is there any way to help change her behavior and help her develop confidence when we go out to play (off leash) with other dogs?

Please advise!

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth,

It’s a lot easier to take the dog that looks in the mirror and sees God and make him realize that there may be a God — but it’s not him, it’s you — than it is to take a fearful dog and make him bolder. The concept is, how do you make a coward brave? Not that your dog is a coward: she’s been traumatized and is understandably nervous with dogs she doesn’t know.

The extremely high concentration of Labs on the Island makes it not surprising, but that much more unfortunate that it had to be a Lab that attacked your puppy. Why couldn’t it have been a Maremma (a breed you’re unlikely to ever see on the Vineyard) or a Komondor, instead of a Lab. But alas, it was a Lab, and your poodle girl is likely to meet plenty more.

A word about poodles in general, especially since I adopted a 1 1/2 year old female we named Paula about nine months ago. They’re usually quite smart, and sometimes sensitive to a fault. Mine is smarter than some of my friends.

I’ve seen a few cases where a friendly dog that was mauled by another dog became a consummate dog fighter. “The best defense is a good offense,” as they say. Fortunately that’s not the case with your poodle girl. She’s just wary.

So the first thing I’d suggest is that you get her a DAP collar. It stands for dog appeasing pheromone, and can be quite relaxing to dogs. The scent it gives off lasts for about a month, and one of my daughters can tell when she needs to get a new collar for her dog by the behavior of the dog. Put it on your poodle girl an hour or so before she goes out to socialize.

The only real solution to getting Poodle girl to relax in the company of other dogs is lots and lots of friendly dog encounters. So go out of your way to make sure as best you can that she has play dates with friendly dogs as often as possible.

Also, if the only time she ever gets pieces of chicken or steak is when she’s about to be taken off leash to play with other dogs, her attitude is likely to become more outgoing. However, be sure not to give her the special treats if she’s showing fear or teeth so as to avoid rewarding unwanted behavior. Once again, timing is critical. When poodle girl sees another dog, start loving her with your happy voice and giving her the treats, telling her what a great time she’s going to have as you unclip the leash.

One other thing. Remove her from the happy play date while she’s having a great time. Make her leave “wanting more” play time, as opposed to having had enough!

Good luck and keep those questions coming,

The Dogfather

Hello Dogfather,

My two-year-old Lab mix is awful on the leash. Instead of walkin, she would rather rip the leash out of my hands and play “catch me.” When she isn’t being chased by me she’s chasing squirrels or rabbits or anything that moves and gets especially excited to meet other dogs; so much so that she’s actually pulled me over. I’ve tried using a harness, but somehow she chews her way through them. We both need the exercise. but sprinting and wrestling are too much for me.

Thanks,

Marvin

Dear Marvin,

Sounds like your girl is in need of some serious parenting. Countless times I’ve told people that dogs are usually a lot smarter than you think, get away with what they can, and are very manipulative. Therefore, they need to be parented, given behavioral parameters.

When I’ve entered a house and found the six-year-old child sitting ON the kitchen table eating mashed potatoes with his fingers I usually guessed right that the dog wasn’t going to be very well mannered either.

Age two is about when brain wave patterns change and dogs enter adulthood, and it’s long overdue for Lab mix girl to grow up and become a well mannered, cooperative lady. This will require comprehensive obedience training from a pro. If you’re just interested in mitigating the pulling on the leash, I’d suggest a gentle leader, which uses the same principle that enables a rider to control a thousand-pound horse. Even though the bit is in a horse’s mouth, the leverage is derived from the pressure on the horse’s nose.

Marvin, if I pull you by your nose, what follows with little resistance is you! And so it is with a gentle leader. It goes around the dog’s snout with the leash attached below the mouth and eliminates 95 percent of the dog’s pulling. However, when you put a pair of sunglasses on your face, you know why they’re there. When you put something on a dog’s face, most of the time the attitude is, “Get this thing off my face!” often with the dog on his back pawing at it to remove it.

I’ve acclimated countless dogs to gentle leaders by introducing it with a treat, sizing it properly and immediately taking a 20-minute walk using treats when there’s no resistance. It’s also important that the gentle leader is used every time Lab mix girl takes a walk. If it’s used intermittently, she’s likely to fight it much longer.

Good luck and keep those questions coming,

The Dogfather

I watched Anastasia walk. Ears? Fine. Eyes? Normal. Teeth? Perfect.

Michelle-JasnyMichelle Gerhard Jasny, V.M.D. has been practicing veterinary medicine on the Vineyard since 1982 and writing the Visiting Vet column for more than 25 years. She lives and works in West Tisbury. She can be reached at drjasny@comcast.net.

As usual, I started my morning perusing the day’s schedule. Although we computerized decades ago, I have never let go of my good old-fashioned, spiral-bound, paper appointment book, where we scrawl in good old-fashioned number two pencil — owner’s name, pet’s name, species, reason for visit, phone number. The day looked fairly routine. Recheck cat with hyperthyroidism. Lyme booster. Annual physical. House call to cat at assisted living residence. Dog with red eye. Cat with head tilt. I paused. Who had the head tilt? A 13-year-old Russian Blue cross named Anastasia whom I had known since she was a little four-pound kitten.

Holding the head angled to one side is referred to by veterinarians as a “head tilt.” It can be a symptom of a wide range of problems, from the benign to the life-threatening. Head tilts in cats usually fall into three categories. The first group is cats experiencing discomfort around the head or neck from things like ear infections, bite wounds, abscesses, or dental disease. In these cases, the animals are just intermittently tilting their heads in response to pain or itchiness, such as that caused by the teensy ear mite, Otodectes cynotis.

Okay, some people say they can see these mites with the naked eye, but to my 59-year-old peepers, ear mites are microscopic. (Dogs rarely get ear mites but they do get frequent bacterial or and/or yeast ear infections, which may lead to skin infection that spreads down the neck or across the side of the face. They will often rub their faces on the floor and shake their heads vigorously. Cats are less melodramatic.) Your veterinarian can diagnose and treat ear mites, abscesses, skin and external ear infections easily.

Many cats will also tip their heads when eating a particularly hard or chewy item. This may indicate oral pain, so your veterinarian will want to take a good look in your cat’s mouth, but for some cats it is just a normal, idiosyncratic feeding behavior. The key point is that with all  these conditions, these cats can and will hold their heads in a normal position at least some of the time, and careful examination reveals a demonstrable cause for their behavior.

If Anastasia’s head tilt is truly constant, then the problem is probably in her vestibular system, the body’s balance mechanism that helps an animal know which way is up. The middle and inner ear comprise the peripheral vestibular system which then connects via the eighth cranial nerve to the central vestibular system in the brain. It is not always easy to determine if the problem is peripheral or central. Symptoms of peripheral vestibular disease may include persistent head tilt (always to the same side), rhythmic horizontal or rotary flicking of the eyes called nystagmus, walking in circles, falling to one side, an uncoordinated gait called ataxia, and vomiting. It can be caused by trauma to or infection of the middle or inner ear, nasopharyngeal polyps, tumors, or drugs that are damaging to the inner ear, but in cats far and away the most common type of peripheral balance disorder is idiopathic feline vestibular syndrome.

The pathophysiology of feline vestibular syndrome is unknown, hence the term “idiopathic.” It comes on very quickly, often in the matter of a couple of hours. Most common in older cats,  any age may be affected. It occurs more frequently in late summer and early fall, though no one knows why, but can happen any time of year. When an owner sees their kitty suddenly staggering around, walking in circles, sometimes unable to stand, it is not surprising that they assume the worse, but feline vestibular disease is actually no big deal.

For the first one to two days, cats may feel “seasick,” leading to loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting, but this usually resolves quickly. Diagnosis is made based on the history, clinical signs, and ruling out other problems. You can do every test in the book, from blood work to X-rays to MRI, and they will all be normal. There is no specific treatment, although in severe cases your veterinarian may prescribe anti-nausea medications such as Dramamine ® or Antivert ® but no mediation of any kind has been found to alter the course of the disease. The most important thing is nursing care, keeping Anastasia in a safe, protected environment and providing easy access to food and water until the signs resolve. Most cats start improving within days and recover completely over several weeks.

This doesn’t mean that if your cat is staggering around, you can skip a visit to the vet. There are many serious problems with similar signs, and you need a professional to assess the situation. Central vestibular disease can be the result of head trauma, infections, brain tumors, even “stroke,” though that is rare in cats.

Signs of central balance disorders are very similar to those of peripheral disease but may include weakness on one side of the body and proprioceptive deficits. (Proprioception is the ability to sense the body’s position, motion, and equilibrium. In other words, to know where your feet are.) Animals with central disease may have altered mental status, seeming depressed or even stuporous. With peripheral disease, Anastasia might be disoriented but she would still be completely alert and responsive.

When our little Russian princess arrived, I realized the main reason for her visit was simply her annual physical and rabies vaccination. She waltzed out of her carrier, head completely straight. “Tell me about the head tilt,” I asked, looking her over.

Well, it seems her dad likes to hand feed Anastasia delicious little tidbits. Her owners noticed she would tilt her head to one side as she licked the proffered treat. I watched Anastasia walk. Ears? Fine. Eyes? Normal. Teeth? Perfect.

“I think she’s just a dainty eater,” I concluded, inwardly laughing at myself for having spent my morning worrying about those two words, “head tilt,” scrawled in my appointment book in good old-fashioned number two pencil.