Tags Posts tagged with "pets"


by -
Ava Trott holds Clifford the Big Red Dog's hand at the head of the procession towards the lighthouse.Photo by Michael Cummo

This past Saturday, the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard held its sixth annual Celebration of Pets, at the Harbor View Hotel for the fourth year in a row. Father Michael Nagle of the Good Shepherd Parish was on hand to provide a blessing of the animals. Everyone’s favorite big red dog, Clifford (created by the late Edgartown author and artist Norman Bridwell), led a parade of the animals around the Edgartown Lighthouse, accompanied by Jim Joyce on bagpipes.

The celebrated pets were provided with special treats, and ribbons were given to all who participated. It was a beautiful day to honor the loyal companions that provide so much joy.

“This was the biggest turnout we’ve had for the Celebration of Pets, and it included many animals who were adopted through the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard,” said Greg Orcutt, member of the board of directors for the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard and director of underwriting for MVY Radio.

For more information about the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard, contact 508-627-8662 or visit animalshelterofmv.org.

Skip the shampoo

Spring arrives, heralded by pinkletinks, crocuses … and ticks — followed closely by a flood of pet owners in search of flea and tick control. It’s big business, parasiticides (that means stuff that kills parasites), and the market is inundated with choices. How do you decide which products to use for your menagerie? To decide which options to choose, it helps to learn a little about the lives of fleas and ticks.

Ticks are arthropods, related to mites, scorpions, and spiders. Most species we have here will live on three different hosts during their life cycle. Deer ticks, for example, like mice, then deer, then some third mammal like rodents, dogs, cats, or people. Most species have four developmental stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Larvae and nymphs need a blood meal to molt to the next stage. Ticks will actually gather on vegetation along paths and trails frequented by people and other animals, waiting to be alerted by the warmth, motion, and presence of substances like carbon dioxide in the exhaled breath of their hosts, then hop aboard as they pass. Once on board, ticks attach and start feeding. An adult female can feed for eight to 12 days, engorging to one hundred times her original weight. She mates while still attached to her host, then detaches, and lays anywhere from 100 to 6,000 eggs.

The adult flea is a wingless, six-legged insect that spends the majority of its time living on your cat or dog. It hops but don’t fly. The female flea must bite and take a blood meal before laying her eggs right on Rover. When Rover rolls over, the eggs fall onto his bed, your bed, the carpet, the couch, where they hatch into larvae: nasty, squirmy worms that burrow deep into rugs, between floorboards, anywhere they can wiggle. These larvae live on dander and other organic debris, then spin sticky cocoons, and turn into pupae securely glued to whatever surface they are touching. You can vacuum right over them and not dislodge them. Pupae can remain dormant for extremely long periods of time, waiting for optimum conditions. Like ticks, they recognize the presence of a host by sensing motion, warmth, and carbon dioxide. The pupae then hatch into new adult fleas … who hop onto Rover and start all over again.

Now if you are old, like me, you may think shampoo is what you need. Wrong. Shampoos only kill the parasites currently on Rover, but have no residual effect. As soon as he’s out of the tub, new bugs will happily reinfest him. Old-fashioned powders, sprays, and dips have also been largely replaced by more effective options. For 15 years the market has been dominated by topical products like Frontline and Advantix, to name a few. These are designed so you just pour a small amount of liquid on one or more spots on Rover’s skin along the back once a month. The parasiticide spreads along the oil layer of the skin. Fleas and ticks crawling on the skin are exposed to the product. They don’t need to bite to die. Theoretically, female fleas die before having time to lay eggs, and larvae in the environment die when they consume parasiticide-laden dander that falls off the pet. These topical products, which remain solely on the surface, should not be confused with products like Revolution and Advantage-Multi, which, although applied to the skin in the same way, are actually absorbed into the animal’s bloodstream.

What about flea and tick collars? Aren’t those also outdated? Not any more. Nowadays collars are available that deliver extremely effective parasiticides by continuous release, spreading along the oil layer on the skin in a similar way to the topicals previously discussed. There is only one kind that is safe for use in cats (Seresto, by Bayer), but multiple options exist for dogs. These collars provide six to eight months of protection against both fleas and ticks, and are great for people who have trouble remembering to apply monthly products. The feline collars are breakaway, for safety, so if your cat tends to undress himself, save your money (though Bayer currently will replace one lost cat collar per family for free.) For dogs who swim, frequent immersion in water may shorten the duration, but they still work pretty well. I avoid collars for families with small children, who might be more likely to touch them a lot, exposing themselves to the chemicals.

In recent years we have seen the advent of more types of oral parasiticides, such as Comfortis, Nexgard, and Bravecto. Each product is slightly different. Comfortis, given monthly, kills fleas but not ticks, and is safe for cats and dogs. Nexgard kills fleas and ticks, but can only be used on dogs. Bravecto only needs to be given every three months, and kills fleas and ticks, but can only be used on dogs. All are extremely effective, and eliminate virtually all human exposure to the parasiticides, but you are giving your pet a systemic medication — putting a long-acting medication into his body instead of just on the surface. On the other hand, the chemicals involved specifically target insect physiology, not mammalian, and have minimal reported side effects. To eliminate fleas in your environment, all the household pets need to be on aggressive flea control. For example, if you give the oral pills to Rover but leave Tom untreated, the cat will be a source for continued infestation and poor Rover will keep getting bitten by the fleas breeding on Tom. And if you give Tom the oral pills, he still needs something topical for tick control if he goes outside.

Discuss the particulars of your household with your veterinarian. What delivery methods best meet your needs and your philosophy? Which make you most comfortable? How much do you want to spend? With so many great choices, your veterinarian should be able to help you select an effective flea and tick control protocol tailored to your needs.


Jimmy Benoit and daughter Laina play with Wheaten Terrier puppies on Lucy Vincent Beach. –Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

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. Got a question for the Dogfather? Send it to dogs shelby@msn.com.

Dear Dogfather,

I am a new mother whose husband decided it would be nice to have a puppy that would grow up with our son. As I read about dog training, I keep thinking that some of the training suggestions would apply to parenting my child. Could this be possible? I appreciate any insight you can give me.


Dear Joyce,

I love this question, because my wife once said, “I think my husband is a better father because he’s a dog trainer.” She said this at a dinner with two other couples. One of the couples dismissed the comment as crazy because “parenting kids and dogs is not analogous.” I think the other couple felt the same, but they were politely silent. It gave me cause to think about it, a lot. Granted, there were several times that one of my kids may have proclaimed, “Dad, I’m not a dog” after I patted her on the head and said “Good girl” for something she did.

But there are real correlations between parenting kids and dogs. Tell your kid, “No cookies before dinner,” and keep making exceptions, and your credibility is lost, as the kid is flying on sugar as he arrives at the dinner table and doesn’t touch his veggies. Don’t allow the dog on the couch, and keep making exceptions — Well, there’s a saying in my business: “If you want the best seat in the house, tell the dog to move!” The kid-dog correlation: It’s called consistency.

We were in a Chinese restaurant with another couple and our kids. My friend’s son was stuffing his face with the crispy dry noodles, and when the second small bowl was empty he asked for more, to which his mother responded, “You can’t have any more!” When the kid started making a real fuss and demanded to know why he can’t have more noodles, instead of saying, “Because I said so!” or “It will ruin your appetite,” she lied and said, “Because the restaurant is out of noodles.” Meanwhile, noodles were being served to the tables all around us. Your Maltese seems to demand your attention every time you’re on the phone, jealous of the diversion of your attention. I had a client who worked out of her home, primarily on the phone. Her Maltese was morbidly obese by age 2 because she constantly tossed the dog treats to shut her up. The kid-dog correlation: It’s called confront the problem.

We had friends drive an hour and a half from Long Island to spend the Sunday visiting with us when we lived in New York. They weren’t with us 20 minutes when the father was unhappy with his son’s conduct and threatened to “go right home” if the behavior didn’t stop immediately. This ultimatum was issued to his son all afternoon, with the son knowing that there was no chance of leaving early to sit in traffic for two hours. How many times have you heard a parent threateningly say, “Don’t make me say it again” and it was the 10th time the parent said that? Why should a dog stay the first time you say “Stay,” if you repeat it 12 times? Or stay at all, if you don’t follow through and make him stay. The kid-dog correlation: It’s called: no idle threats; don’t repeat; follow through.

So, are my kids better off because I’m a dog trainer? Who knows? All I can say is they’re gainfully employed and reasonably sane. Good luck parenting your son, and don’t hesitate to come forth with any questions if you decide to get a dog.

The Dogfather

They weren’t planning on getting another cat. She had been hanging around the house they were visiting off-Island. Though not a kitten, she was clearly young. The frostbitten tip of her ear told the tale of a cold, homeless winter. Despite these hardships, the little stray was friendly and affectionate. Unable to ignore her plight, the family scooped up Little Orphan Annie and brought her home to the Vineyard.

“I’m keeping her separate from our other cats,” Annie’s new mom said, at her initial visit. “That’s good,” I replied. It’s always wise to make sure new additions to the household aren’t carrying anything contagious. “We should check her for feline leukemia virus,” I suggested. “I can run a test while you wait. We just need a few drops of blood.”

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a viral infection in cats that can lead to malignant cancer and life-threatening immune-system suppression. When I first came to the Vineyard in 1982, things were far different from today. There was only one veterinary clinic on the Island, and there was no vaccine for FeLV. I saw cats die frequently from this deadly disease. Then, in 1984, the first commercial FeLV vaccine became available. Within only a few years, the incidence of FeLV infections dropped dramatically.

Nowadays, I rarely see FeLV, but still follow the guidelines of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, recommending every cat be tested when they are adopted, regardless of age. This prevents new cats being introduced into multiple-cat households from exposing their feline roommates to the virus. Even if the new home is catless, knowing FeLV status is important. There are future health ramifications, even if a cat is asymptomatic, and carriers should not be allowed outside.

Signs of FeLV infection may be very variable. Nonspecific symptoms include poor body condition, depression, weakness, and chronic or recurrent infections. Many cats become severely anemic, indicated by pale mucous membranes. Others develop solid tumors, often in the chest or gastrointestinal tract, leading to labored breathing or vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. Yet other cats will be completely asymptomatic, sometimes for years, but these animals can shed and spread the virus.

FeLV is most commonly passed along through exposure to blood or saliva, when sharing food and water bowls, grooming, playing, or fighting. Kittens can be infected in utero or when the mother cat grooms them. Young cats (under 1 year old) are far more susceptible than older cats who, with maturity, often develop natural resistance. The virus is not very hardy outside the body, and is easily killed with common disinfectants, but there is no known treatment to effectively eliminate the virus from a cat once infected. The majority of FeLV-positive cats develop clinical signs and die within three years, though with proper care, and a bit of luck, some live longer.

You know what’s coming now. Not good news. Annie’s FeLV test was positive. Drat. Drat. Drat. I took a deep breath. “This is called an ELISA test,” I said slowly. “In certain circumstances a cat can be temporarily positive on this test but not permanently infected.” I didn’t want to hold out false hope, but neither did I want to condemn Little Annie based on a single test result. I recommended sending out a second type of test called an IFA. If Annie was both ELISA and IFA positive, the diagnosis would be confirmed.

Less than a week later, I had the sad task of reporting that Little Orphan Annie was IFA positive. I had also noticed, when drawing the sample, that her blood looked very thin. I suspected she was already developing FeLV-related anemia. The prognosis was guarded to poor. Keeping Annie in their home would put their other cats at risk. Although older cats are more resistant, and these kitties were vaccinated, this was not a guarantee of safety. The veterinary literature suggests a 10 to 15 percent risk of housemate cats contracting the virus with prolonged contact with a carrier. Another option was to look for someone willing to take Annie — someone with no other cats — who would keep her inside, but the reality was that Annie was already showing signs of illness. Her owner wrote to me the following:

“As an animal lover and also as someone with some medical knowledge, I thought a lot about the pros and cons regarding bringing home the cat. In the very small, rural town where my sister lives, the cat was most likely from the farm about a mile away. Regardless, I couldn’t stand the thought about her being outside in zero degree temps. She was so skinny, with frostbite on her ear and such a craving for human attention. I also knew the possibility of her having any number of problems. (A ‘free’ pet is never free).

“She hung around outside for a few days, then disappeared. I thought it was safe to say she had left. On the morning we were heading to go back home, we were saying goodbye, and sure enough she appears. How could I leave her there? I guess, in all of this, I question whether I did the right thing by bringing her home? What if I hadn’t been a responsible person and just let her be an outdoor cat. There would be the real chance of spreading FeLV to other cats … I also think about rabies … Scary thought. I don’t take it lightly, but I think we have made the decision to euthanize her. It does not seem fair to give the responsibility to care for her to someone else. We know we have given her a good two weeks with a warm bed and food in her belly.”

I wrote back to say I agreed with their decision, heartbreaking as it was. It reminded me again how lucky we are to have the feline leukemia vaccine, and how devastating this disease used to be on the Vineyard. Don’t take chances. Vaccinate.

Angus the Boston terrier stayed warm in this past week's frigid temperatures. – Photo by Jamie Stringfellow

When Mother Nature first graced us with two feet of snow, we diligently kept our animals inside through the actual storm, but afterward, nature called in a different way. My husband gallantly shoveled the back porch, and my daughter cleared a trail for our dog to make her way to the woods. The cats we confined inside with a litter box until there were pathways they could safely negotiate without drowning in drifts. By the second big snow, the animals were a bit wiser about how to manage, as were we, but we must remain vigilant to keep our pets safe through this unusually harsh winter. Now we are facing not only snow but exceptionally frigid temperatures. Let’s talk about hypothermia.

For those of you who have dogs or cats who essentially live outside, let’s skip the discussions about whether that is right or wrong, ecologically and philosophically, and stick to the medical. As long as a pet is acclimated gradually to cold, provided with adequate shelter from wind, rain, and snow, and is of appropriate age, breed, and robustness, outdoor living is usually fine — admittedly not the middle-class suburban vision of the life for a family dog, but nonetheless an acceptable option, embraced by working dogs and barn cats for centuries. But even for such rugged animals, spells of extraordinary weather can be life-threatening.

What happens when Chilly the chow gets cold? First, she alters her behavior to conserve heat, by seeking shelter or curling up. Her fur puffs up (called piloerection), trapping a layer of air close to the skin that serves as an insulator. She will shiver, the tiny muscular contractions generating internal heat. Her body protects core functions by constricting peripheral blood vessels, focusing circulation of her warming blood to the command centers of heart and brain. If all these mechanisms fail to maintain normal core body temperature, hypothermia results.

Any condition that impairs heat production or conservation predisposes Chilly to hypothermia. Smaller animals are more susceptible because of the larger skin surface in proportion to body mass. Short coats provide less insulation than heavy ones. In the very young and very old, thermoregulatory mechanisms may simply not function effectively. Thin animals have less heat-conserving body fat, and also reduced muscle reserves needed to generate heat. Dogs with arthritis or any disability, injury, or illness that impairs mobility, move around less, and as anyone who does outdoor winter activities knows, physical activity keeps you warm. Cardiac disease and endocrine abnormalities such as hypothyroidism also increase risk. A scrawny, elderly Chihuahua invalid who never leaves mother’s lap will quickly become a pupsicle in this weather. Chilly, the fat, fluffy, healthy, young chow with a sturdy insulated doghouse, who has lived outside all fall, may not even notice the cold, but unless he’s a sled dog acclimated to arctic conditions, even Chilly should come inside when the wind-chill factor is in the negative numbers.

Hypothermia often occurs because a pet is injured or lost: the dog who falls through the ice on a pond, the stray cat stuck in a snowdrift. But it doesn’t even have to be winter. Consider Gramps, the old terrier. Thin, arthritic, partially blind, he was sunning himself on the deck while his owner raked leaves on a crisp fall day. Busy doing yard work, no one noticed until dusk that Gramps had wandered off. Calling him was fruitless — Gramps was completely deaf. The neighbors and the animal control officer all joined the frantic search, but it wasn’t until mid-morning next day that he was found half a mile away. He had waded across a little creek, then stumbled into a ditch, injuring his leg. Wet and confused, unable to extricate himself, his night outside had led to significant hypothermia.

Early signs of hypothermia include mental depression, stiff gait, and lethargy. Shivering may be present, but ceases as hypothermia worsens. Pupillary responses become sluggish. Breathing is shallow and irregular. Heart arrhythmias may develop, as well as a profoundly slow heart rate. Blood pressure plummets. Eventually reflexes disappear, pupils are fixed and dilated, and the individual becomes stuporous or comatose. Severe cases may actually be mistaken for death. In human medicine they say about hypothermia cases, “You’re not dead until you are warm and dead.”

Moderate to severe hypothermia is life-threatening, but treatment must be handled appropriately to avoid worsening the situation. Too much movement may precipitate lethal heart problems, so patients must be transported slowly and carefully. Then rewarming can begin. In mild cases, “passive rewarming” may be sufficient, simply wrapping the patient in blankets and letting the body’s natural heat-producing abilities correct the problem. “Active external rewarming” adds heat sources like hot-water bottles or heating pads. These should not be applied directly to the skin, and should be concentrated around the chest, focusing on restoring core temperature first, not extremities. “Core rewarming” involves using things like warm intravenous fluids to increase body temperature from the inside. The complicated interplay of circulation, fluid balance, and heat transfer involved can occasionally result in sudden death called “rewarming shock.”

Large animals are also susceptible. Back when I still worked on horses, I treated a gelding that had fallen at the top of a steep hill in a blizzard. By the time I arrived, he was stiff and stuporous, his extremities icy cold. The wind was so fierce the intravenous fluid line kept freezing. We managed to warm and rouse him sufficiently that, after several hours and multiple attempts, we got him to his feet, but after several stumbling steps down the snowy incline, he cast himself again. Ultimately the owners opted to euthanize him as both his condition and the storm worsened. Gramps, too, did not survive. Although we restored him to normal body temperature, the leg injury was severe. This, his age, and other disabilities, led to the decision for euthanasia. So keep your pets close to home and toasty warm during this bitter weather. And take heart. Mud season is just around the corner.

And how do we get rid of it?

Yoga class. I haven’t done this in a while. When did my toes get so far away? I mindfully follow the teacher’s instructions, but my hiatal hernia objects to the pose. Burping discreetly, I shift to a more comfortable position. A hernia is defined as the protrusion of an organ, or other bodily part, through a wall that normally contains it. In my case, I have a fairly common condition affecting older, heavier people in which a small portion of the junction of my esophagus and stomach protrudes through the diaphragm into my chest. In a small number of human cases, surgical repair is warranted, but most hiatal hernias are small, like mine, causing few if any symptoms, and easily managed medically.

Hernias in pets come in many sizes and locations. The most common and least serious is the congenital umbilical hernia. When puppies and kittens are in utero, each one is attached to a separate placenta via an umbilical cord, which enters their tummies through an opening in the belly wall — the umbilicus. Normally at birth, the cord is broken and the opening in the belly wall closes spontaneously. But occasionally it stays open, allowing a little abdominal fat or membrane to poke out, creating a bulging “outie” belly button. These can range from tiny to fairly large protrusions, but rarely cause serious problems, and are easily diagnosed by location and feel. Often the contents can be “reduced”; in other words, the stuff sliding out can be slid back in by gentle massage. This confirms the diagnosis but doesn’t cure the hernia, as the defect in the abdominal wall persists, and things just slip out again later.

The main concerns with umbilical hernias are that an intestinal loop can get caught and “strangulated,” or the bowel may become obstructed. In these rare cases, the swelling will become warm and painful. The pet may vomit, experience loss of appetite or depression, or be straining to defecate. This is a surgical emergency. Radiographs or ultrasound can be useful in determining the contents of the hernia, but are rarely indicated if it is small and nonpainful. The cause of congenital umbilical hernia is not known, but it is generally thought to be an inherited condition, so affected animals should not be bred. More common in puppies than kittens, it can be easily repaired when the pet is neutered, though there is a high rate of post-surgical recurrence.

Other types of hernias include inguinal, diaphragmatic, abdominal, scrotal, and perineal. Anywhere things are supposed to be contained in one place but somehow poke into another place, you’ve got a hernia. Last year I saw a cat, Wolfy. Missing for three days, he had returned home, weak and in pain, with a swelling on the lower right side of his tummy. He had eaten moderately well, but was uncomfortable walking. His owner reported he had a penchant for climbing on the roof, so perhaps he had taken a tumble off the house. Despite cats’ amazing ability to land on their feet, it doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, it has been suggested that shorter falls may result in more serious trauma for cats, as they have less time coming down to right themselves. In any case, Wolfy had clearly had some kind of accident. Radiographs revealed loops of intestines protruding through the belly wall — an abdominal hernia.

Now in case you are picturing guts falling out on the exam table, back up a minute. There are multiple layers that hold Wolfy’s belly together. The outside layers that constitute the skin were intact. Just the inner abdominal muscles had ruptured, allowing intestines to slide out of the belly, but they were still enclosed within the skin. Traumatic abdominal hernias can vary widely in location, severity, and prognosis. I knew one elderly cat, Hope, who sustained a similar though much smaller injury. Because of her advanced age, her owners opted not to pursue surgical repair, and Hope lived a good long time after, with no complications. But Wolfy’s hernia was big and, although no spring chicken, Wolfy was considerably younger than Hope had been. Surgical repair of abdominal hernias can often be accomplished by simply sewing the damaged muscle layers back together. Sometimes, however, the defect is too large, the damage too extensive. Then the hole needs to be closed using a synthetic mesh implant. There was also the possibility that when Wolfy hit the ground, the blow caused other internal injuries, like a diaphragmatic hernia.

The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the chest and the abdominal cavities. Blunt force trauma, like being hit by a car, or falling off the roof, can cause a sudden increase in intra-abdominal pressure, altering the pressure gradient between chest and belly, resulting in a tear in the diaphragm. Maybe it’s a small tear, with nothing displaced from tummy to chest. Or maybe it’s bigger, with organs ranging from liver to stomach to intestines protruding into the thorax and putting pressure on the lungs and/or heart. In the latter situation, the patient will likely be in shock, with labored, rapid breathing. The gums may be pale or even blue if lung function is sufficiently compromised. Although surgery is necessary, first the patient must be stabilized. Surgical repair of diaphragmatic hernias is difficult. Once the surgeon opens the abdomen, the animal can no longer breathe independently, and a mechanical ventilator or trained assistant must “breathe for” the patient during surgery. Occasionally animals with diaphragmatic hernias show no symptoms at all, and can live for years without treatment, but the majority require surgery.

We referred Wolfy to a larger hospital here, with more veterinarians and fancier equipment. They did a wonderful job repairing a three-inch tear in his abdominal wall, replacing multiple loops of bowel in their rightful place. Happily, there was no damage to his diaphragm. I hope he will stay off the roof now. I am still trying to go to yoga, but taking it easy on those Downward Dogs.

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?


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?




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.