Posts tagged dogs

How to Solve Canine “Dis”-Obedience

The ways in which a dog can get into trouble seem limitless. These unwanted behaviors cause enormous frustration to the human members of the family. The only thing there seems to be more of is advice—from neighbors, the pet store clerk, books, and of course, online. Yet simply understanding the way learning and behavior occur will go a long way toward solving just about any behavior problem that comes up.

The most basic principle is why a behavior occurs, and there are really only two possibilities: negative and positive reinforcement. Every organism, from single-celled amoebas on up, will move away from an unpleasant stimulus and toward a pleasurable stimulus. No matter how complex the behavior is, fundamentally the motivation is one of these two desires: avoid pain, or increase pleasure.

Much of the popular wisdom about dog training emphasizes the first principle, negative reinforcement, using its most extreme tool: punishment. But for punishment to be effective, it must meet three criteria. It must be:

  • Immediate (within 2 seconds of the behavior)
  • Consistent (every single time the animal performs the behavior, whether you’re watching or not)
  • Effective (stop the behavior without causing additional problems)

The problem is that these criteria are nearly impossible to achieve. For instance, a popular dog behavior site give this advice: “If you decide that some action requires correction, *always* give a correction when you see that action. For example, if you decide that your dog is not allowed on the sofa, then *always* correct it when you see it on the sofa.” But what if you’re in another room, or sleeping, or at work? If you’re not there, the dog can get on the sofa with no consequences. So what do you think the dog will learn if you correct him every time you see him on the sofa? He will learn not to get on the sofa when you are in the room.

Other techniques follow the “alpha dog” theory: you must be dominant. To demonstrate your position, recommendations include staring the dog down, grabbing her by the scruff or neck and shaking her, tapping under the chin, and most famously the “alpha roll,” in which you force the dog down onto her back with her feet in the air, exposing her belly. The problem with these techniques, which are supposedly based on natural behavior in wolf packs, is that they bear no resemblance to wolf behavior in the wild. You will never see an alpha wolf roll a subordinate; rather, this position is naturally and voluntarily assumed by the subordinate wolf as a sign of submission. That’s a very big difference! These techniques will terrify a submissive dog, but worse, they will make a naturally assertive dog more aggressive. Staring an aggressive dog in the eyes will be interpreted by that dog as a direct challenge. These physical techniques, often demonstrated by “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, have the potential to result in injury to the amateur trainner: you.

“Positive” dog training, which is gaining in popularity, operates from a completely different point of view. This technique recognizes that the reason the dog is doing a behavior is because it gets some kind of reward for it. For example, a dog that gets into the garbage gets a powerful and immediate reward in the form of food. The dog who sleeps on the sofa does so because it’s comfortable. The dog who jumps up on every visitor is getting attention—lots of attention—for doing so.

The best way to correct a behavior is to remove the original reward and replace it with something else that is equally or more desirable to the dog, but also acceptable to the guardian. This philosophy respects and works with, not against, the dog’s needs and nature. Distraction, using a toy or treat, will often successfully interrupt the behavior. Cable TV behaviorist Victoria Stillwell exemplifies this philosophy.

Attention-seeking behavior such as jumping up, barking, play-biting, and incessant nuzzling, generally accomplish their goals. That is, the dog gets attention for it: you’re looking at him, vocalizing (talking or yelling), and perhaps even handling him (pushing, tapping, nudging). As unpleasant as we might think they are, these are actually all strong rewards. To change the behavior, we have to change the reward system. There are two basic steps:

Negative Reinforcer: Withdrawal of Attention. Don’t look at your dog, talk to him, or give him the slightest indication you know he exists. If the dog is jumping up on you (or a visitor), turn away. Most dogs will follow your movement and keep jumping. Keep turning away. Fold your arms, close your eyes, and don’t speak. Do not give him any attention whatsoever. It may take a minute or two, but when the dog fails to get the attention-reward he’s seeking, he’ll lose interest and stop jumping, perhaps to pace or even sit. That’s your cue for the next step…

Positive Reinforcer: Proper Reward. Timing is everything. As soon as the dog stops the unwanted behavior, and is quiet, reward him. Enthusiastic, yet low-key, verbal praise should accompany any reward, such as treats, petting, or a favorite toy, but may suffice on its own. This tells the the dog that the best way to get your attention is to sit or stand quietly.

Judicious use of training treats can do wonders, even for entrenched behaviors. All-meat treats are the healthiest for your dog, but any treat your dog loves will work. If it’s a large treat (jerky slice, for instance), break or tear it in to small pieces for the purpose. Treats contain calories, and may put on the pounds if used excessively. At first, give a treat for every successful behavior. After the dog is behaving reliably, give a treat every other time, and gradually extend and vary the interval. Variable reinforcement is the principle behind slot machines; and can create serious addiction. But in this case, you want your dog to be addicted to good behavior!

Recently, a noted behaviorist commented that “good dogs” are, in a way, losers. They are quiet and obedient, and for that, they are largely ignored. So let’s not forget to tell our dogs how wonderful they are when they are just being dogs…sitting, snoozing, walking on a leash without pulling…these are the times when we need to give them little rewards, so those nice behaviors are rewarded.

Of course, it is important to respect the dog’s other needs: exercise, social engagement, healthy diet. A dog that sits alone in the house all day may justifiably be rambunctious in the few hours the family is home and awake. Fetching games (use a Chuck-It if you don’t have a hall-of-fame throwing arm!), appropriate walks, doggie day care, or a trip to the dog park, will help work off that accumulated energy, and help keep the dog on a more even keel.

Got questions? Post them in our Community disussion boards!

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Keeping the Holidays Safe for Your Pets

The holidays can be a stressful and even dangerous time for our pets. The routines are upset, visitors abound, and tempting smells are coming from the kitchen! Keeping pets safe is sometimes tricky at this time of year, so here are a few tips and tricks to help everyone enjoy the holidays fearlessly!

The Christmas tree is the first item of great interest on your pet’s Santa list. Many cats find it irresistibly tempting to climb. So, make sure your tree is in a sturdy, tip-resistant stand. (A classic Christmas card shows a cat and two women gazing at a decorated tree that’s tightly guy-wired to the walls and ceiling; one woman says to the other, “No chance of the cat knocking over the tree this year!”)

Most tree stands have a water container—this is another hazard. Aromatic compounds from the tree itself and the chemicals often added to the water are highly toxic to pets; make sure the container is wrapped and taped or otherwise made inaccessible to your feline and canine friends, who will often try to drink from this novel water source.

Christmas lights and wires on the tree and around the home are an invitation to chew for both cats and dogs. For wires that are easily accessible to curious teeth (especially young animals), run them through inexpensive foam pipe insulators that you can find at any home improvement or hardware store.

Metal tinsel is rare these days, but mylar tinsel and garlands can also pose a swallowing hazard. They can cause serious damage to a pet’s intestines. Consider a beaded garland instead. Also, when unwrapping presents, make sure all ribbon and string is safely disposed.

Keep glass ornaments to a minimum if you must use them at all, and place them higher on the tree, with unbreakable ornaments lower down. A broken glass ornament is a minefield for tender paws. If a pet eats all or part of a glass ornament, immediately feed cotton balls or bread soaked in milk or cream; the soft mushy texture will gather up all the sharp pieces and safely “escort” and expel them.

Parties and visitors increase the risk of a cat slipping out through an open door; make sure all your pets are microchipped and wearing collars and ID tags.

You may want to provide a “base camp” for your pet that includes food, water, bed—and for cats, a scratching post, and litter box—in a room that’s less likely to be disturbed. A spritz or two of a pet pheromone spray (Only Natural Pet Phero-Soothe) or flower essences (Only Natural Pet Just Relax Flower Essences, or Spirit Essences Holiday Stress Stopper) will keep the atmosphere calm. But no decorations in that room, please, especially lit candles! (Of course, unattended burning candles are a serious hazard at any time of year!)

Take it easy on the treats. Too many fatty treats like turkey skin or ham can cause serious tummy upset; in dogs, these can trigger life-threatening pancreatitis. Ask dinner guests to refrain from feeding “under the table”—or even better, keep pets safely confined during the festivities. Chocolate, of course, is toxic to both dogs and cats.

For extra comfort, consider adding essences, herbs (like Animals’ Apawthecary Tranquility Blend, or Only Natural Pet Chinese Herbal Blends Calm), or homeopathics (Newton Homeopathics Nervousness & Fear) to meals during the most hectic times.

A little extra care and attention will make this holiday season a safe and happy one for the whole family!

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Fur Loss – What’s the Problem?

Is your pet “going bald?” There are many reasons why a pet might lose fur, but in most cases, it’s because the of overgrooming: chewing the hair and breaking it off, or pulling it out completely. Those 12 tiny incisor teeth between the canines (fangs) are designed for grooming, and under normal circumstances, they’re used to “comb” through the hair to remove debris, mats, and parasites.

Hair loss from any cause is called “alopecia” (“aloe-pee’-sha”).  Sometimes you’ll actually catch your pet in the act of chewing, or notice that he’s scratching or grooming more than usual, but more often you’ll glance down and suddenly notice a bare patch where the fur used to be. Areas where alopecia can develop without you noticing are the tummy, tail base, and front legs. Dogs are especially prone to work intensively at an itchy area and develop raw, open sores called “hot spots.” When cats do this, they cause even worse damage because of their rough, barbed tongues.

Parasites

The first essential step is a trip to the veterinarian’s to diagnose the cause of the problem. Far and away the most common reason for both dogs and cats to pull out their hair, especially around the base of the tail, is flea-bite allergy. It only takes a single flea bite to produce an intense and prolonged reaction. Your vet can prescribe an effective and safe flea preventive and help you get rid of fleas and eggs in and around the house, or you can use more natural methods. Once the fleas are gone, the skin will heal up on its own, or you can use homeopathy to hasten the process.

Another parasite that may be far more common than many vets suspect is mites. There are several species of mites that produce a condition called “mange.” Sarcoptes mites (scabies) cause unrelenting, severe itching. They are most often found on the belly, but can wander anywhere. Scabies mites prefer warm, moist areas. Cheyletiella (“walking dandruff mite”) and Demodex may or may not be itchy, but if the infestation grows out of control, they can cause scratching and hair loss. Demodex is a normal parasite of humans and animals (we have them in the hair follicles of our eyebrows–eew!), but if the immune system is weak, it can explode into a nasty infestation. Sometimes cat ear mites will get into the skin, particularly around the head and neck. All of these can cause animals to lick, scratch, rub, and chew to try to relieve the itching. Strengthening the immune system is the most basic support for a parasitized pet.

Most mites have one thing in common—they are easily transmitted, and they are not picky about where they set up housekeeping. In a household with scabies, multiple animals and people are likely to be infected. Your vet will do a skin scraping and put it under the microscope to check for mites, which are very tiny and hardly visible to the eye. However, scabies mites are very hard to find. It’s been estimated that only 20-30% of pets with scabies are ever definitively diagnosed, even by multiple skin scrapings. If there are two or more itchy individuals (of any species!) in the household, treatment for mites may be indicated.

Ringworm (which is actually a fungus) is also frequently implicated in cases of hair loss, especially around the face, feet and ears. It is more common in cats than dogs, and even more so in kittens–but all animals, including humans, can get them. The hair disappears in small patches, and the skin turns dry, gray (or red, especially in people), and flaky. The time between initial contact and the appearance of lesions varies from one to three weeks. Ringworm is extremely contagious! While it doesn’t seem to bother the animals much, in people it can be extremely itchy! Treating ringworm can be difficult and time-consuming.There are a number of effective topical creams that can be used if the lesions are small and localized, but a pet with a major infection may need to be shaved and bathed in a special shampoo for a month or more. Alternatively, there are oral medications or herbs that must be given consistently, usually for several weeks. They have serious side effects, so be sure to discuss the options thoroughly with your vet. Homeopathic treatment can be very helpful.

Internal Disease

Along with parasites, the veterinarian will also consider other potential causes of hair loss. Certain patterns, such as symmetrical hair loss along the sides, may point to an endocrine disorder; i.e., a problem with one of the hormone-secreting glands, such as the thyroid or adrenals.

Localized pain may also cause the excessive licking. A brewing abscess is painful, and will inspire a lot of licking before it opens and drains. Hair loss over joints may indicate arthritis pain. I once examined a cat who had suddenly started licking at one particular spot on her right side. As I mulled over which organs were in that part of the abdomen, I became suspicious, and ransome tests. It turned out she had acute pancreatitis, which we successfully treated before it became a full-blown, life-threatening problem.

Allergies

Contact allergies, while rare, are possible. A new carpet, cedar bed, or different detergent used to launder the pet’s bedding can cause a local allergic reaction that causes the pet to lick at the itchy area. Hair loss and rash will occur in the areas where the pet most frequently comes into contact with the material, such as feet and tummy.

Once parasites and medical problems have been ruled out, there are still two major players to consider. The first is diet. Food intolerances or allergies may show up first in the skin, causing tiny red crusty sores that spread or coalesce as the pet rubs or scratches at them. Secondary bacterial infections are common once the skin becomes irritated. Food allergies are much more common in cats than in dogs. Lesions around the face, feet, and ears are typically seen with food allergies. Allergies to inhaled substances, such as dust mites or pollen, may produce identical signs. A diet trial with low-allergen food, skin or blood test (good diagnostics for dogs but notoriously inaccurate in cats), or trial treatment may be used to assess allergies. Treatment consists of improved diet including added essential fatty acids and other natural products.

“Fat Deficiency”

The skin and coat are also the first to suffer when the diet is inadequate in certain nutrients. Pets on all-dry, “light,” or “low-fat” diets may develop dry, flaky skin, and the coat may be dull or greasy feeling. The skin may be irritated and the coat may become thin because hair is falling out. Or there may be plenty of fat in the diet, but not the right kind of fat.

Supplementation with essential fatty acids and/or Vitamin E may provide a great deal of relief. Omega 3 fatty acids, in particular, found in fish oil and cod liver oil will help calm underlying inflammation, and condition the skin and fur. There are a number of good products for animals, such as Nordic Naturals Pet Omega 3 or Cod Liver Oil.

Many cat lovers have also found that homemade and raw diets, which eliminate the colorings, preservatives and other additives found in commercial cat foods, has done the trick. Simply getting rid of the dry food in favor of any wet food, such as canned, is the ticket in many cases.

It’s All in the Head?

Some herbs have mild sedating or calming effects. There are combinations made especially for animals. These would be appropriate to use if you know what the stressor is, and can dose appropriately whenever the stress will occur. For instance, if your pet gets upset when he’s left alone, you would give him the herbs right before you leave for work or school.

Other Treatments

Hherbs can help soothe and heal the skin.

Homeopathy can also be very beneficial in treating alopecia related to itching.

One of the best and simplest modalities for treating stress on the pyschological level is flower essence therapy.

Alopecia is a  sign that something’s wrong, and it’s often uncomfortable for the pet. While it’s not always easy to find out why your pet is pulling out her hair, it’s very important to get to the bottom of it, and to treat it appropriately.

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The Truth About Heartworms

Veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies have teamed up in a marketing campaign to frighten pet guardians into giving year-round heartworm preventatives to both dogs and cats. They say they’re doing this to improve protection for individual pets, but the facts say they have other motives.

Except for a the warmest parts of the U.S., heartworms are a completely seasonal problem. There is no reason to give heartworm medicine to most pets year-round (except to make money for those who make and sell it!).

Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. Hearworm larvae, called microfilaria, live in the blood and are sucked up by the bug. Once inside the mosquito, they must further develop before they can infect another dog. For that to occur, outside temperatures must remain above 57 degrees F, day and night, for a certain period of time. The warmer the temperature, the faster the larvae will mature. If the temperature drops below critical level, larval development will stop; but the larvae don’t die—development will re-start at the same point when the weather warms back up. Larvae reach their infective stage in 8 to 30 days (the latter being the entire lifespan of the average mosquito).

In many areas of the country (northern and mountain states, for instance), such warm temperatures simply don’t exist for most of the year, and sustained warm temperatures don’t occur until at least June. In fact, only in Florida and south Texas is year-round heartworm transmission possible. Within 150 miles of the Gulf Coast, heartworm risk exists 9 months out of the year. In the rest of the country, heartworm transmission is possible between 3 and 7 months out of the year. Hawaii and Alaska have each had a few cases of canine heartworm, but the incidence  in those states is very low.

It should be obvious that during seasons where there are no mosquitoes, there is no risk of heartworm. Evidently that little fact escaped the attention of the veterinarian who prescribed heartworm protection—in December–for a puppy living high in the Colorado mountains. At that altitude, temperatures are never warm enough for heartworms!

When an infected mosquito bites a dog or cat, the microfilaria are deposited on the skin, where they crawl into the bite wound and enter the bloodstream. Inside the body, they grow and progress through other larval forms. In dogs, the heartworm’s natural host, larvae migrate to the heart and eventually develop into adult worms, reproduce, fill the blood with microfilaria, and pass it on to the next mosquito.

In cats, full-grown worms can develop, but not reproduce. Adult heartworms are over a foot long, and it doesn’t take but 1 or 2 to fill up a cat’s tiny heart and cause serious problems. In 80% of the time, the cat’s immune system kills the larvae at an earlier stage, and clears the infection. However, microfilaria can cause significant inflammation in the lungs, even in cats who never show any signs of infection. Cases of heartworm have been diagnosed in cats living entirely indoors.

Heartworm preventative drugs do not kill adult heartworms, but they do kill microfilaria up to a certain stage of development. Currently it is believed that larvae under 6 weeks old are affected. This means that in order to prevent heartworms from reaching adulthood, the preventative can be given up to 6 weeks after the mosquito bite and still work. The recommendation is to give the drugs every 30 days, purportedly because once-a-month dosing is easier for most people to remember (and, coincidentally, it also sells more drugs). Preventatives should be given starting 4-6 weeks after the earliest possible infection date and continue 4-6 weeks after the last possible infection date. In most states, protection should be continued through November or December. In southern Texas and Florida, year-round preventatives may be needed. Local conditions may vary from year to year.

The most common preventative drugs for heartworm are ivermectin (Heargard®) and selamectin (Revolution®). While these drugs are generally safe and effective, there are always exceptions. Toxicity associated with ivermectin include depression, ataxia (balance problems or unsteady walk), and blindness, but these are uncommon at the doses used in heartworm preventatives. Selamectin is also used to treat ear mites and some worms; adverse reactions include hair loss at the site of application, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle tremors, anorexia, lethargy, salivation, rapid breathing, and contact allergy.

Update 7/15/2010: The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) recently reported that mounting evidence suggests that preventatives may be susceptible to a very serious problem: resistance. This is similar to the situation with antibiotics, where massive and unnecessary over-use has caused many bacteria to develop resistance to one or more drugs, creating super-infections, and making many antibiotics useless. The CAPC report states: “There is a growing body of anecdotal reports and experimental evidence that currently available heartworm preventives (macrocyclic lactones) may not be completely efficacious in preventing heartworm infection in dogs. Reports of resistance for dogs in the region [south-central U.S.] have resulted in confusion about how best to prevent infection in veterinary patients.” If ivermectin and related drugs lose their effectiveness, that will be trouble indeed, since these drugs are also used in the treatment of heartworm infections.

Only Natural Pet HW Protect Herbal Formula is a natural product intended for use as a preventative to be used during mosquito season as part of a comprehensive heartworm control program. The formula was designed with two objectives, using herbs that work together to reduce the likelihood of mosquito bites to lower your pet’s risk of becoming infected, and to help eliminate existing larvae-stage parasites in the bloodstream. This tincture was developed to help prevent heartworm infestation using extracts of herbs well known for their mosquito repelling properties, and others well known for their anti-parasitic properties.

References:

Knight DH, Lok JB. Seasonality of heartworm infections and implications for chemoprophylaxis. Clin Tech Sm An Pract. 1998 May;13(2):77-82.

Atkins C. Feline heartworm disease. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. http://www.cliniciansbrief.com/webrief/25.php. Accessed 5/20/2009.

Companion Animal Parasite Council, http://www.capcvet.org/downloads/Heartworm%20Preventive%20Efficacy.pdf. Accessed 7/15/2010.

Pena F, Rosenthal M. Expert shares new protocol to manage heartworm signs. Veterinary Forum. 2008 Aug 1:17-18.  http://www.vetlearn.com/ArticleDetails/tabid/106/ArticleID/3289/Default.aspx. Accessed 7/15/2010.

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Essiac (B.S.S.T.)

Essiac is a unique 4-herb formula with a long history of use for its amazing healing properties. It contains Burdock (Arctium lappa), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex cetosella), Turkey Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva) powder. This formula is based on a decoction originally developed and used by the Canadian Ojibwa Indians and is also called Ojibwa Tea. This herbal formula was discovered by nurse Rene Caisse in 1922 after talking with a patient who had been cured of breast cancer by a combination of herbs from an Indian medicine man. Caisse treated seriously ill patients with remarkable success for over 50 years.

There are many traditional uses of the 4-herb formula, but Essiac is most famous for its use in cancer patients; however, scientific proof is still lacking (though the individual herbs are each known to have specific anti-cancer action, among many other documented properties). There are also many potential benefits for our pets, including:

  • anti-inflammatory
  • antioxidant
  • anti-ulcer and stomach tonic
  • appetite stimulant
  • blood cleanser
  • blood sugar stabilizer
  • detoxification
  • heart and lung support and tonic
  • immune system enhancement
  • liver protectant
  • prebiotic and probiotic
  • supportive care
  • thyroid normalization
  • tonic
  • reduction of chemotherapy side effects
  • supportive therapy for cancer patients

The herbs are usually brewed into a decoction (strong tea); but they can also be extracted into a tincture. (There are also many products containing the herbs in dried, powdered form, but these are ineffective–the active principles must be decocted or tinctured in order to work in the body.) A tincture is more convenient and easier to administer than tea since smaller quantities can be used, and it also is more stable and has a much longer shelf life.

On a personal note, I gave this 4-herb formula to my dog after he had a malignant tumor removed; it never returned despite its known aggressive nature. I have used it for my own cats, as well as many patients, and I take it myself as a general tonic and immune support.

Only Natural Pet offers the same 4-herb formula in tincture in a product called B.S.S.T. (the initials, of course, stand for Burdock, Sheep Sorrel, Slippery Elm, and Turkey Rhubarb).

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Stress and the Immune System

We’re all familiar with the fight-or-flight reflex, in which acute stress causes the release of the hormone adrenaline, which triggers that response. However, our pets are more likely to experience chronic stress, which has many effects, especially on the immune system.

Both psychological and physical stress are scientifically proven to have a negative impact on the immune system. Now, looking at our pets sleeping contentedly on the sofa, we might think that they don’t have such stressful lives. But even the most pampered couch potato may be subjected to many physical stressors every day:

  • indoor and outdoor air pollution
  • electromagnetic fields, household chemicals
  • hundreds of other large and small assaults, particularly on their keen senses of hearing and smell
  • vaccination
  • medication
  • synthetic additives in food or treats

Psychological stresses also abound:

  • canine and feline hierarchies and social rules
  • behavioral modifications necessary for living with humans—such as not climbing the drapes, tipping the trashcan, or marking all corners of the territory.

Not all of these apply to every pet, but the bottom line is that if a pet thinks it’s stressed, it is stressed, whether or not we can even perceive the cause. Reducing stress, keeping the immune system healthy, and preventing cellular and DNA damage from free radicals and other toxic compounds, are the keys to disease prevention and overall well-being.

To minimize the effects of physical and environmental stress, opt for non-toxic, pet-friendly household and personal care products. Don’t forget that lotions, perfumes, after-shaves, and even topical medications you use on yourself can rub off on your pets, and be ingested when they groom themselves–or lick you!

Many commercial pet foods, especially dry foods and treats, are often made with poor quality ingredients with multiple synethetic additives and preservatives—which is why Only Natural Pet doesn’t sell most of them! Instead, feed one of our natural pet foods, organic pet foods,  or  raw diets. To support the immune system, as well as to prevent chronic inflammation and the degenerative diseases it causes, supplement with Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

We can alleviate psychological stress by using flower essences, massage, music, and other stress-relieving methods such as play therapy, exercise, indoor entertainment, and interactive games.

For Dogs:

Interactive Throw Toys

Secure Exercise

Indoor Entertainment

For Cats:

Interactive Toys

Indoor Entertainment

We should also remember that our pets often pick up on and reflect our own stresses. Here’s a unique method to help relieve stress in ourselves and our pets: Pet Healing and Meditation CDs.

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Helping the Liver with Milk Thistle

Recently we talked about seizure disorders; as mentioned, one cause of seizures in dogs is liver disease. This is usually seen in young dogs with a congenital malformation of the blood vessels inthe liver (shunt), but it can also occur in adult dogs as a result of injury, infection, or toxic exposure.

The liver is the body’s major organ of detoxification, and it works primarily on things we and our pets eat. All blood leaving the digestive tract passes through the liver before entering the main circulation. This unusual route allows the liver to filter, remove, and metabolize potentially toxic substances. Many pharmaceuticals take advantage of this by delivering drugs in a form that will survive the acidity of the stomach and be metabolized into an active form in the liver.

Many drugs, however, put a major burden on the liver, including prednisone and similar steroids, and–ironically–the primary drugs used to treat seizures.

The other unusual trait of the liver is its regenerative powers. For most organs and major body parts, once they’re injured or removed, that’s the end of the story. Healing–when even possible–consists mainly of scar tissue formation. However, the liver has an amazing ability to regenerate itself. In humans, even as little as 20% of the liver can be transplanted yet still provide the patient with normal liver function. That’s why it pays such big dividends to keep the liver healthy! One way to do that is with the herb Milk Thistle.

What It Is

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a flowering plant in the Aster family. A native of Europe, it has been used since the time of the Roman empire as a liver tonic. It grows wild in many parts of the world, including the Pacific Northwest area of the U.S., where it is considered an invasive weed.

Milk thistle is one of very few herbs widely accepted by conventional science to have significant medicinal value. Today we know the active ingredient of milk thistle seed extract as a flavonoid compound called “silymarin.”  Silymarin, which is itself a combination of several other active compounds, has been extensively studied around the world, and has been shown to be safe and effective in treating a variety of liver diseases and other conditions. It specifically protects the liver against toxins (including some molds such as aflatoxin, drugs, and heavy metals), activates protein synthesis, and stimulates growth of new liver cells to replace those that are dead or damaged. Milk thistle also has strong antioxidant (destroys oxygen free radicals) and anti-inflammatory actions.

What It Does

Silymarin reaches high levels in the bile and liver (it also reaches significant levels in the lungs, pancreas, prostate, and skin). It can be used in the treatment of hepatic lipidosis (a common disease in cats), chronic hepatitis, cholangitis (inflammation of the bile ducts), and pericholangitis (inflammation of the tissue around the bile ducts). It may be useful in preventing or treating gallstones by thinning the bile. Many cats and dogs with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) also have inflammation of the liver, bile system, and/or pancreas, and would benefit from supplementation with milk thistle.

Milk thistle can be used as an aid to healing after drug therapy, vaccinations, and infections such as feline distemper or canine parvovirus, as well as a  cancer. It may also help prevent diabetic neuropathy, a common complication of diabetes that causes degeneration of the nerves controlling the hind limbs.

Milk thistle also supports the immune system through its powerful antioxidant, free-radical scavenging action, its ability to preserve the supply of another important antioxidant, glutathione, as well as direct effects on immune cells. Glutathione, which is stored primarily in the liver, naturally declines over time, and depletion of this protein appears to accelerate the aging process.

While it’s not exactly the fountain of youth, milk thistle clearly has wide-ranging positive effects throughout the body. However, before you add this potent herb to your pet’s daily regimen “just in case” it might do some good, herbalists believe milk thistle is best reserved as a treatment for existing disease, rather than being used by itself in a healthy animal.

How to Use

The standard dosage of milk thistle extract is based on a silymarin content of around 80 percent; most supplements contain anywhere from 50-500 milligrams (175 mg is typical). As with many supplements, it’s probably better to buy a milk thistle derivative rather than a silymarin-only or other fractional supplement, since there may be other compounds found in the whole herb that significantly enhance the effects of what science has decided is the main player.

Because of its excellent safety record and lack of adverse drug interactions, when treating a very sick animal with advanced liver disease, up to 200 mg per 10 pounds of body weight of milk thistle extract may be needed. For most purposes, however, one-third to one-half of that dose is more than adequate.

Animals with liver disease may not have much appetite, but it’s easy to open up a capsule, mix the appropriate amount of powdered herb with a little blenderized food or baby food, and feed by syringe. Too high a dose can cause an upset tummy, gas, or mild diarrhea; just give less if this occurs.

Human research studies have shown that it is more effective to administer this herb in three or four small portions over the day than in one large daily dose. A simple dosing schedule of morning, after work, and bedtime works very well. We have several excellent milk thistle products available.

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