Taurine, Dog Food, and Heart Disease in Dogs

In July 2018, the FDA released a warning about grain-free dog foods and their possible connection to the development of a heart disease in dogs called DCM. Here are a few things you should know:

  • The FDA’s warning is based on a number of reported cases of dogs that developed DCM whose diet consisted of a grain-free dog food with a large amount of potatoes, legumes, and “exotic” proteins in the ingredients. Vegan and homemade diets were also reportedly involved. This caught FDA’s attention because some of the dogs were not the breeds that commonly develop DCM.
  • Subsequently, the FDA has emphasized that people should “not take intuitive leaps beyond what is explicitly stated in our public notice.” In other words, don’t think that all grain-free diets with legumes or potatoes are problematic. It is primarily a situation confined to relatively few diets and the evidence linking the diets to DCM is far from conclusive and requires additional study.
  • The hypothesis is that the diets in question may potentially provide insufficient levels of the essential amino acid taurine, which would in turn contribute to the development of DCM.
  • Here are the characteristics of the type of diet that would meet the criteria of foods most correlated with DCM in dogs (based on the FDA statement and prior research):
  1. Low in animal protein content.
  2. Containing significant amounts of barley, potatoes, tapioca, peas, lentils, chickpeas, rice/rice bran
  3. Containing a significant amount of “exotic” animal proteins, such as bison, duck, lamb, kangaroo, salmon, and venison.
  • It is important to note that based on the information provided by the FDA it most likely takes a combination of multiple factors to create a situation where taurine may not be sufficient.
  • Many common proteins used in dog food (not “exotic”), such as chicken, turkey, and fish, are generally good sources of taurine.
  • Raw meat and poultry have higher levels of taurine, as the bioavailability of taurine is reduced by heat processing.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that millions of dogs have been fed grain-free diets for many years with no adverse health consequences, and the FDA warning is based on observations from a comparatively small sample of cases. If you have additional questions about the issue, please consult with your veterinarian.

Additional Resources:

Taurine, Dog Food, and Heart Disease in Dogs by Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian

The Importance of Taurine for Dogs & Cats by Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian

 

Spring May Bring Danger to Your Pets!

Don’t you just love Spring, with its mild weather, green grass, and flowers everywhere?

But some of the things we associate with this happy season can be harmful to pets and wildlife.

Bulb plants are a particular problem, and nearly all of them are toxic. To your dog, a bulb may resemble a well-worn ball that is irresistible to pick up in his mouth.

In some plants, only the bulb is a problem, and mainly causes irritation in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. Typical signs are drooling, vomiting, abdominal pain, or in severe cases, respiratory or cardiac abnormalities.

But, with lilies including Easter Lilies, every part of the plant is toxic, especially to cats. A cat can be fatally poisoned simply by licking lily pollen off its fur, or taking a tiny nibble of a leaf or flower.

Toxic bulbs include:

  • Lilies, including Tiger lilies, Day lilies, Easter lilies, and Stargazer lilies (any plant of the Lilium and Hermerocallis genera. Calla lilies and Peace lilies are not true lilies, though they can still cause significant irritation.)
  • Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
  • Tulips (Tulipa)
  • Hyacinth (Hyacinthus)
  • Daffodils (Narcissus)
  • Crocuses (including fall-blooming Colchicum autumnale and more common spring crocuses, which are in the Iris [Iridaceae] group)
  • Irises (Iridaceae)
  • Amaryllis (Amaryllis belladonna)
  • Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
  • Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)
  • Trillium (Trillium)

If you have bulbs planted in your garden, or if you bring a plant or bouquet indoors, be extremely cautious. For garden plants, you may want to consider fencing to keep dogs (and other critters) out. Indoor plants need to be secured well away from pets. Many cats have been poisoned by chewing on plants that a guardian was absolutely sure they couldn’t get to! (For a more complete list of poisonous and dangerous plants, click here.)

There are other spring dangers that we need to be aware of, such as fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, and other chemicals commonly used in gardens. Even blood meal and bone meal can cause problems if the dog eats too much–as dogs often do! Cocoa mulch is another culprit, although it is unusual for a dog to consume enough to be poisonous (the toxin, theobromine, is the same chemical that’s in chocolate). So keep your yard safe: be sure to lock up all garden products and tools when you’re through using them!

Between knowledge and common sense, we can prevent many tragedies, and keep Spring a happy season!

Wellness Canned Cat Food Recall

Wellness has announced a recall of its canned cat food:

Wellness Canned Cat (all flavors and sizes) with best by dates from 14APR 13 through 30SEP13;
Wellness Canned Cat Chicken & Herring (all sizes) with 10NOV13 or 17NOV13 best buy dates. [Update: Canned kitten food should have been included in this recall]

The manufacturer, WellPet, deserves credit for going out of its way to personally contact bloggers (including myself and Susan Thixton of the awesome blog, TruthAboutPetFood.com) to help get the word out to consumers as quickly as possible.

Only one case of illness in a cat is known to have been reported, and WellPet’s rapid and complete response is impressive. [Update 4/4/11 – WellPet did make a few mistakes…they originally did not include their kitten food in the recall, which was affected; and they did not notify all their retailers in a timely manner.]

The following letter is from WellPet’s CEO:

Dear Pet Parents,

My name is Tim Callahan, and I’m the CEO of WellPet, makers of Wellness® natural pet food. Over the years, we at WellPet have worked hard to earn the reputation of being a company that does everything possible for the pets that depend on us.

WellPet is committed to delivering the very best in pet food nutrition, as nothing is more important than the well-being of our dogs and cats. So when we found through product quality testing that specific product runs of our Wellness canned cat food might contain less than adequate levels of thiamine (also known as Vitamin B1), we decided to voluntarily recall them.

Please know, the vast majority of products tested had the appropriate levels of thiamine; however, with the number of recipes we offer, we did not want to make this more confusing. Therefore to avoid confusion and in an abundance of caution, we have decided to recall all canned cat products with the specific date codes noted below. Cats fed only product with inadequate levels of thiamine for several weeks may be at risk for developing a thiamine deficiency. If treated promptly, thiamine deficiency is typically reversible.

Though the chance of developing this deficiency is remote, withdrawing these products is the right thing to do and we are removing it from retailers’ shelves.

The lots involved in this voluntary recall are:

Wellness Canned Cat (all flavors and sizes) with best by dates from 14APR 13 through 30SEP13;
Wellness Canned Cat Chicken & Herring (all sizes) with best by date of 10NOV13 and 17NOV13.

If you have cat food from these lots, you should stop feeding it to your cats. You may call WellPet at 1-877-227-9587 to arrange for return of the product and reimbursement. For further information, please visit our website at http://www.wellnesspetfood.com.

No other Wellness products that your pets currently enjoy are impacted, so you can continue to feed your pets Wellness with full confidence. This is an isolated situation, as we have had only one reported issue. We are taking all the necessary steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Speaking on behalf of our entire Company, I apologize for any concerns this may have caused you. As a parent of a yellow lab named Hope, I understand the sense of responsibility we all share for our dogs and cats. Rest assured, product quality and safety will always be our top priority.

Sincerely,

Tim Callahan

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!

Solving Cat Scratching Problems

There has been a lot of media attention lately on cat declawing, as the total number of cities banning the practice as animal cruelty rose to 8 by the end of last year. Declaw surgery is no manicure; it amputates 1/3 of the cat’s paws. Declawing is extremely painful for the cat, and medical complications are extremely common. Despite average pain management at the time of surgery, it is now known that serious pain can persist for months or years, leading to physical and behavior problems. Studies show that  33% (1 in 3) declawed cats will develop a more serious behavior problem, such as aggression, or failing to use the litterbox. It’s far better (and more humane) to resolve behavioral problems with behavioral solutions.

What can you do about destuctive scratching without declawing? Fortunately, there are many alternatives, one or more of which is sure to work for any cat.

Keeping Furniture Safe

Surveys recently found that while 95% of cats are declawed to protect furniture, only 52% of cat guardians provided their cat with a scratching post. Scratching is an extremely strong instinctive need for cats, and unless you give them an attractive and acceptable surface to scratch on, they will choose one for themselves—and it could be your sofa or expensive carpet! So the first step in preventing destructive clawing is to give the cat a good scratching object and start transferring the behavior.

To train your kitten or cat to use the post or scratcher, place it next to a problem scratching spot, or near a favorite sleeping spot. Cats like to stretch when they wake up from a nap. Rub the post with catnip if your cat likes it. Gently redirect scratching to the post. No yelling or punishment—they don’t work, and will only confuse and frighten the cat. Praise the cat or give treats for using the right surface. Be patient, and be consistent.

Some cats have a distinct preference for either vertical or horizontal scratching surfaces, which can easily be determined by observation. Cats tend to prefer corrugated cardboard and sisal rope or matting over carpet (the most common post covering). There is an incredible variety of shapes, sizes, and orientations available. From simple cardboard scratchers to wall art and exotic cat furniture, you’ll find something here to please any cat! We advise providing multiple options, even for a single cat. All vertical posts should be sturdy, stable, and tall enough for your cat to stretch fully. Make your own scratchers from cardboard, logs, sisal, or soft wood, or try one of these cat-friendly products:

If your cat still prefers furniture to his own scratching objects, loose furniture covers (blankets, towels, sheets), or protective double-sided sticky tape can be used to make the furniture unappealing. Specially made tape comes in strips and sheets, and won’t harm harm upholstery. Don’t worry, these are not permanent measures; once your cat is using the acceptable alternatives reliably, you can remove the protectors.

Keeping People Safe

Another concern is the potential for the cat to scratch a person. For young children, the elderly, immuno-compromised individuals, or people on blood-thinners, this seems like a legitimate reason to declaw; but it isn’t. Studies show that declawed cats are more likely to bite, and to bite harder or more frequently.  Cat bites are far more dangerous to human health than scratches, and are much more likely to become infected.

Children (and some adults!) should be taught how to approach and handle cats gently and humanely. Children can learn, but declawing is for life. Never play rough with a cat or kitten using bare hands or feet. Yes, it’s funny and cute to play with a kitten with your hands (we’ve all seen that YouTube video), but when he’s all grown up with inch-long fangs, it’s not so amusing. Don’t create a bad habit to start with, so your cat won’t have to unlearn it later (which is not so easy to accomplish).

Additional protection for human health can be accomplished by regular nail trimming to keep the claws blunt and harmless. Scissor-style nail clippers or human nail clippers are the easiest to maneuver. It’s ideal to get kittens started young by handling the feet and trimming nails early; but even adult cats can learn to tolerate it. Be patient and go slowly. There’s no rule that says you have to trim all 18 claws at once; one or two when your cat is sleeping or peaceful is also a great way to start.

For even more protection, you can apply vinyl nail caps over the nails. Your veterinarian’s office or groomer can show you how to apply them. Once the nail caps are applied they remain in place for approximately 4-6 weeks. They will fall off with the natural growth of your cat’s nails. We recommend that you check your cat’s nails periodically because usually just one or two fall off at a time and these can be easily reapplied. Each kit contains 40 nail caps and will last approximately 4-6 months per cat.

More Options

There are “repellents” available that will make the unacceptable scratching area less appealing to your cat. Or, make your own using citrus oils or citronella.

If your cat is scratching due to territorial anxiety, natural pheromones can encourage use of the correct surfaces (posts, scratchers)

There’s Never a Need to Declaw

All reasons for non-medical declawing have non-surgical alternatives. There are many humane choices that will protect both human and feline health, as well as sofas and Persian rugs. Those who absolutely insist that no cat of theirs will have claws, can adopt an already-declawed cat (there are many of them in shelters and rescues).

With time, patience, and a little effort, one or more of these alternatives will work for any cat; making it unnecessary and inhumane to use a radical, irreversible surgery to solve a behavior problem.

Relieving Joint Aches and Pains

With winter and cold weather setting in, it’s time to think about the joint aches that often affect older pets. What is generally perceived as “slowing down” or “a little stiff” may be a sign of significant joint deterioration or arthritis, and probably causes some degree of discomfort in most older pets.

Arthritic cats often gradually stop jumping up as high as they once did. The inflammation and pain that go with arthritis can cause house-soiling if there is not a litter box on every level of the home!

Dogs with arthritis may not be as enthusiastic about hiking, playing, or stairs. They may choose to sleep on the floor if they can’t get to the bed or sofa. Even getting into the car can be a real challenge.

Providing “steps” (a box or stool, for instance) up to a bed, chair, or other favorite high spots may be greatly appreciated by an older pet. A portable ramp may be a great answer for getting an older dog into the car or truck.

Cats’ unique metabolism makes metabolize many of the arthritis and pain medications commonly given to dogs, such as carprofen (Rimadyl®) too hazardous to use. (It has also caused some serious, even fatal, side effects in dogs.)  Moreover, ibuprofen (Advil®), naproxyn (Aleve®), and acetaminophen (Tylenol®) are all highly very to both cats and dogs.

The good news is that there are simple, inexpensive nutritional supplements that are very effective and, most important, very safe. Supplements for arthritis include:

Cartilage and joint fluid building blocks: glycosaminoglycans such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid. These supplements also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Green-lipped mussels are an excellent source of these compounds.

Connective Tissue Support: MSM (methyl-sulfonyl-methane) provides elemental sulfur for the body to make certain amino acids and other compounds used in connective tissue. Silica, another component of connective tissue, is found in the herb horsetail (Equisetum arvense) along with MSM.

Antioxidants: to help minimize and resolve inflammation, which is the primary cause of joint pain. These include antioxidant vitamins C and E, astaxanthin, and essential fatty acids.

Anti-inflammatory herbs: Boswellia serrata (frankincense) is traditionally used in combination with other herbs in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Since some herbs can be extremely toxic to cats, it’s best to consult with a veterinarian trained in the use of western or Chinese herbs. Turmeric (Curcuma longa)has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine; modern science has validated its beneficial properties. Yucca schidigera was used by Native Americans for arthritis pain. (Yucca also has the odd but useful “side effect” of reducing intestinal gas!)

These supplements are not quick fixes—it may take 3-5 weeks for improvement to be noticeable, and they must be given daily to prevent return of pain and improve your pet’s activity and flexibility. Here are a few supplements containing these important nutrients:

Only Natural Pet Lubri-Ease (several formulas) (Note: the topical formula, Joint Gel, contains white willow bark, which is related to aspirin; please consult your veterinarian before using this product on cats.)

Only Natural Pet Easy Strider 

Vetri-Science Glyco-Flex for Dogs

Only Natural offers many other excellent nutritional products that aid joint health for dogs and cats.

From a holistic viewpoint, no physical condition is simply physical. In energetic terms, disease, including arthritis, starts on the energetic plane and progresses through the mental and emotional spheres before manifesting itself in the physical body. One way to address this is through the use of flower essences, which can heal the imbalances on the mental and emotional planes. Another way to look at this is that mental “stiffness” ultimately contributes to stiffening of the physical joints. Flower essences, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture, massage, aquatherapy, physical therapy, and other holistic therapies can help your pet stay mentally, physically, and emotionally “flexible,” and minimize the energetic stresses that contribute to the development of arthritis.

Last, but certainly not least, a warm, soft bed is an essential for older pets; letting the joints get cold can make them stiffer and more painful. Check out Only Natural’s wide variety of cozy beds for pets.

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!

The Scoop on Litter

Recently I was helping a friend who was recovering from surgery. She asked for a particular type of kitty litter, so off to the pet superstore I went. When I got to the litter section, I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of choices as well as the astonishing variety. Clearly, niche marketing had arrived in a big way. However, many of the litters appeared to distinguish themselves simply by labelling. For instance, one brand had half a dozen sub-types; all the litters looked identical, but had different labels touting one special ingredient or function. There was multiple-cat strength, fragrance or no fragrance, fast or long-lasting odor control, anti-bacterial, low-dust or dust-free, hard-clumping or plain clay–it was all pretty overwhelming. Thank goodness I had a specific order from my friend, or I would have spent all day gawking at that wall!

Since house-soiling is a major cause of cats being abandoned or relinquished, the whole subject of cat litter and boxes is much more important than one might think. Despite the dozens of choices of box size and shape and litter type, the one who really makes the decision about which to use is the cat. Our mission, as humans, is to provide whatever our cat prefers, since the consequences of failing to do so are extremely unpleasant.

So, what do cats want?

  • Openness. Most cats prefer an open box (as opposed to one with a hood). Privacy is not so important to cats, and in fact a wide field of view–so that nothing can sneak up on them–is often a higher priority.
  • Cleanliness. This another human responsibility, and again, the cat will definitely let you know if you’re falling down on the job. Remember, their noses are only inches away from the litter–that gives them the right to be picky! Clay and pelleted litters needs to be dumped and replaced every few days. Clumping litter should be scooped daily, and the whole box emptied and washed at least once a month.
  • Pleasant texture. Since they have to walk on it with their very sensitive paws, most cats prefer the soft texture of scoopable/clumping litter over clay or pellets.
  • Sufficiency. There should be plenty of boxes in a multi-cat home (experts recommend 1 box per cat + 1). Sometimes you can get away with less (my 5 cats shared one enormous box for years–until one day they didn’t!), but if litterbox issues develop, adding more boxes in more places is one of the main ways to solve such problems. But just lining up a bunch of boxes in the basement won’t do. There should be a box on every floor; this is especially important for older cats for whom stair-climbing may be uncomfortable.
  • Comfort. This means that the box should be big enough for the cat to easily turn around in (large plastic storage bins work well). Also, overweight, arthritic or declawed cats may be especially sensitive not only to the texture of the litter, but also its depth. If there’s too much litter in the box, the cat could feel like it’s sinking into quicksand. About 1-1/2 to 2″ of litter is plenty.

Now, within this framework, we can make certain choices. Automatic litterboxes work very well in many households, but some cats just won’t use them; the only way to know is to try, and it’s a potentially expensive experiment. Hooded boxes may be acceptable if you’re diligent enough about keeping them clean, but in a multi-cat home the “ambush factor” can discourage their use. High-sided storage bins are great for preventing litter from being kicked all over the room; but they may be too difficult to get in and out of for very young and very old cats.

Then we’re back to the choice of litter. Most litters are made from clay of some kind, often bentonite (which swells and clumps when wet). However, clay has some serious drawbacks. For one thing, it’s dusty. The dust contains silica, which can contribute to kitty and human lung diseases. Asthmatic cats (and people) should consider alternatives, since scooping the litter stirs up quite a bit of dust. (My own asthma virtually disappeared when we switched to World’s Best.) There have also been scattered (but largely unconfirmed) reports of intestinal blockage from cats ingesting the litter. Young kittens (who don’t know to avoid the wet spots), and cats with a lot of fur between their toes can get quite a bit of litter stuck on their feet; and of course they clean their paws by licking and will swallow whatever is on them. A natural cat litter made from corn or wheat does not carry this risk, as the body can break those materials down.

As a vet, I strongly recommend avoiding clay litter and the dusty clumping varieties, not only because of the health risks to you and your cat, but also because plant-based litters are a renewable resource. Clay comes from strip-mining and is very environmentally unfriendly. There are many natural alternatives available today. Offering your cat a “buffet” of 2 or 3 kinds will be a guide to your cat’s preferences. If you do change litters, remember to do it gradually to minimize stress and increase acceptance of the new product.

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.

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.