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Are Our Cats Plotting Against Us?

Some people and societies throughout history have simply not appreciated cats.  Black cats are considered unlucky or linked to evil witches.  Other people look at cats as sneaky or as serial killers of defenseless wildlife.  But, if you read some current headlines, you might think that our feline friends are a real serious threat!

The main threat in these news articles is not our cats, but rather, an extremely small protozoan parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii.  The threat occurs because this particular intestinal bug only reproduces in domestic and wild cats.  So, when the sensational headline reads “Study Links Cat Litter Box to Increased Suicide Risk”, many readers frankly scared and soon began to worry about the risks of owning a cat.

So here are the real facts you can count on.  The uproar can be traced back to a pair of scientific articles.  As far back as 2000, scientists have understood that this particular parasite has a peculiar effect on some rodents, actually making rats less fearful of their natural predators, the cats.  More recently, a study of 45,000 women in Denmark concluded that infection with Toxoplasma gondii (Toxo, for short) increased the risk of suicide attempts.  So, it appears that this parasite may alter something in brain chemistries or behavior. But, does that mean our cats are to blame?

The emphatic answer: absolutely not. The key here lies in understanding the life cycle of the parasite, the cat’s role in that life cycle and the simple, easy steps to minimize your potential risk.  All cats, domestic and wild, are a natural host for Toxo.  Our feline friends pick up the parasite from hunting rodents and birds or eating raw meat.  Once in the cat’s intestine, the organism starts reproducing, creating millions of oocytes (essentially eggs) that will pass o into the environment.  Interestingly, cats will shed the parasite for about two or three weeks and then rarely ever pass any more after that.

Once outside, these eggs will mature over one to five days and become infective parasites.  It is at this time that any warm blooded animal can become infected by ingesting contaminated soil, water or plant material.  Since most animals aren’t the natural host for Toxo, the parasite localizes in various muscle or nervous tissue and becomes a cyst.  The cycle completes (as most parasite life cycles do) allowing the parasite to once again start to multiply and spread.

For most animals, and people, the parasite is not a problem – remember that.  Some people will experience flu like symptoms but then recover without a problem.  However, immunosuppressed individuals can experience much more severe symptoms, including fevers, confusion, headaches, seizures and poor coordination.  Pregnant woman who have no immunity to Toxo can actually pass the infection to the unborn child causing a miscarriage, stillbirth or serious mental disabilities in the newborn.  So it is true, this parasite is not without it dangers.

The CDC estimates show that about 20% of the US population has antibodies to this parasite.  In addition, the CDC’s website shows that Toxoplasma infections occur by eating undercooked, contaminated meats (especially pork and lamb), accidental ingestion of contaminated meats after handling and failure to wash hands, contamination of foods from utensils used to work with other contaminated foods, drinking water tainted with the parasite and, as mentioned above, accidental ingestion of the parasite through contact with cat feces.

Keeping yourself safe from Toxo is actually pretty easy.  Fully cook all meats, wash your hands and cooking utensils after contact with raw meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables and wear gloves while gardening.   Cat litter boxes should be scooped daily as the parasite does not become infectious for at least 24 hours.  Pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals should completely avoid changing the litter.

Ask your veterinarian about specific recommendations for lowering your risk for toxoplasmosis.  He or she is well schooled in understanding this parasite.

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Holiday Safety Tips for Pet Owners

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Every holiday season, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center fields calls dealing with several common holiday situations that put pets at risk.

Wrapped Presents
Gifts are a surprising source of toxicities during the holidays. If you are going to wrap any food (especially chocolate), dog treats, or dog toys, keep the items in a safe place and well out of your pet’s reach until they are ready to be opened. Pets have a keen sense of smell and will often unwrap presents early and eat all of the contents.

Snow Globes
Some snow globes contain ethylene glycol, a highly toxic substance to all pets. If a snow globe is broken, either by a person or a pet, the sweet smell can attract a pet to lick it up, leading to a potentially fatal intoxication. Snow globes should be kept out of reach of pets.

Holiday Food
Pets are often not shy about taking food that is left sitting out on counters or tables. Pets should be kept away from food preparation areas or places where food will be left out. A few of the more concerning common food exposures during the holidays are chocolate, bread dough, fruitcake and alcohol.

Medication
There are often a large number of visitors during the holiday season, and pets often get into medications that friends or family have brought with them. These exposures can be prevented with a little advance planning. People who are not used to having pets in the house can often be unaware of how curious they can be. Pets will often investigate suitcases and can get into pill vials or weekly pill minders. It is safer to have the visitors put their medication in a closed cabinet that is not accessible to pets. Be sure that when they take their medications that they do so behind a closed door, such as the bathroom, so that a dropped pill can be found before the pet has a chance to eat it. A prewritten list of the names, milligram strength, and number of pills that visitors have brought is very useful in an emergency situation as well.

Salt
Ice melt, homemade play dough, and salt-dough ornaments (even when dry) can all be a tempting salty treat for pets, but can cause life-threatening imbalances in the electrolytes.

Pet owners should, of course, contact their local veterinary professional or the Animal Poison Control Center if their pets get into any of these substances.

Blog post, picture and safety tips provided by the ASPCA.

Also check out our other blog article on how to protect your pets from holiday hazards.

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What’s Wrong With My Cat’s Mouth?

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Ask any cat owner about how they care for their feline’s teeth and most will reply that “he eats dry food” or, more commonly “I really don’t clean her teeth”.  While most veterinarians will acknowledge that brushing a cat’s teeth is a challenge for many owners, they will stress the importance of routine oral assessment of your cat’s mouth.  These exams help find preventable problems and even some very concerning issues.  One of those concerns we are seeing more frequently is called Feline Tooth Resorption.

Tooth Resorption, or “TR” as it is commonly called, is a condition seen in a growing percentage of cats over the age of six years. The same strange condition is also seen in dogs and in people, but it is not nearly as common.

In the past, this disease has been called “neck lesions”, “cervical line lesions” and even the cumbersome “Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions (FORLs)”.  Whatever the name, we know that this condition is seen in cats who often appear normal.  The process will continue to develop, causing extreme pain because of the exposure of the root canal.  This can even lead to behavior changes and lack of normal appetite.

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Dr. Brett Beckman, a noted board-certified veterinary dentist, says that an exact cause for TR has not been determined yet.  Theories about exposure to certain viruses, breed prevalence and chronic inflammation of the mouth and gums have all been proposed as root causes.  According to Beckman, a single study suggests that high levels of Vitamin D in cat foods could be linked to resorptive disease, but that research is still ongoing.  Interestingly, there has even been evidence of TR in cat skeletons that are 800 years old!

Clinically, most cats will appear normal, but observant owners may note that their cat prefers to chew food on just one side or that the cat stops grooming.  They may “toss” dry food into the back of their mouth.   As TR progresses, some pets will even develop sullen or aggressive attitudes, as if they are mad at the world!

Eventually, your veterinarian may point out how some of your cat’s cheek teeth are showing lines of inflamed, fleshy material right near the base of the tooth.  At this point, the erosion has exposed the tooth to the bacteria of the mouth and this is when affected cats become extremely painful.  Even under a general anesthetic, a slight touch of these teeth will cause a cat to “chatter” their jaw, indicating very serious pain!

Dental x-rays are the only way to diagnose TR.  When the radiographs are taken, if TR is present, your veterinarian can see changes in the density of the roots and crowns of the teeth.  All teeth can be affected, but the major “signal” tooth is the first one in the lower jaw.  Some teeth can be partially affected, while others may have completely dissolved away leaving a “ghost image”.

Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment that can save the pet’s teeth.  A normal cleaning and polishing will not work!  Veterinary dentists have even tried root canal therapies (endodonics), but they fail, as this resorption occurs on a microsopic basis.  A tooth that is showing any signs of resorption needs to be extracted.  Some cats will need full mouth extractions.  All cats with a known history of TR should be x-rayed every six months to a year. It is likely other teeth are affected and they must be monitored.

The good news in all of this is that once your veterinarian knows about the disease, several things can be done to keep your cat comfortable.  Experience has shown that cats who were once not eating well or even aggressive will often have a positive behavior change in just a matter of weeks.  It is surprising how the removal of these painful teeth can often bring back your affectionate feline friend.

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Owners are often unaware that their pets are experiencing such discomfort.  But, regular visits to your veterinarian can help identify the issue and start work that will make your cat feel better.  Contact your veterinarian to have a comprehensive oral examination for your pet, including dental x-rays and regular dental cleanings.

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What is a Responsible Pet Owner?

Pets are important and cherished parts of our family lives.  After all, where else can a person find such unconditional love and affection as well as the scientifically proven emotional connection we call the human-animal bond?  Yet, despite this powerful relationship, animal shelters and rescues are still inundated annually with millions of dogs, cats and other pets that are relinquished for a wide variety of reasons.  So, how can we help make sure pets find a “forever home”?

Most people can understand that our animal friends need an appropriate diet, fresh water and necessary veterinary care.  But, many fail to see that there are other, less tangible needs that should be addressed if our pets are going to remain in our homes.

In other words, are we first making good decisions when bringing a new pet into our family and then, are we providing the mental, grooming and behavioral requirements of our pets to have a rich life?

The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) spent one year in 12 selected animal shelters across the United States to find out why pet owners give up their pets.  Of the 2000 canines sent to shelters, more than 45% of owners cited some sort of behavior issue as one of the reason for relinquishing their dogs.  For the almost 1400 felines, human and personal issues (allergies, no time for the pet, new baby, etc) were the most common reasons for surrender.

“The biggest problem we see with dogs is the unruly, untrained adolescent animal who has become too much of a handful for the family,” says Dr. Martha Smith, Vice-President of Animal Welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston.  “We spend significant time and energy giving these dogs some basic obedience training and that helps with their adoptability, getting them into a loving home more quickly.”

The NCPPSP study confirmed Dr. Smith’s comments.  Almost 50% of the dogs relinquished were between 5 months and 3 years of age and 96% of them had not received any obedience training. In addition, 33% of the dogs and more than 46% of the cats surrendered had not been to a veterinarian.

What can we learn from this in order to be better pet owners and make a real difference in the numbers of pets in shelters?

The first step is to completely understand all of the needs of the pet you want to adopt and then make a proper selection.  Highly active dog breeds, like Australian Shepherds or Irish Setters, may not be suited for a life in a city apartment.  Similarly, an older cat could be less tolerant of very young children and be likely to nip or scratch.

Next, be careful if you decide to adopt a “free” dog or cat advertised locally or one from a friend.  While the pet may be free, there will still be a variety of on-going expenses.  These include good food, vaccinations, parasite prevention and even grooming.  Some may have more involved issues and it is the responsibility of the adopting family to provide proper care.

Good behavior/training and mental stimulation (or environmental enrichment) is often ignored.  There’s an old adage that a tired dog is a good dog and owners should always find time for interaction and play with their canine friends. The same is true for cats.

Finally, pet owners should always be prepared for some sort of animal emergency.  Traumatic injuries and serious illnesses are common occurrences and, sadly, many owners will either surrender the pet to a shelter or euthanize this beloved family member simply because of the cost.  Plan for these emergencies and major illnesses in advance with a pet health savings plan or a well-researched pet insurance policy. People who use their pet health insurance policy say they could not live without it. Such policies will often times save the life of your best friend.

Your veterinarian is a perfect source of advice on any of these topics.  The whole veterinary team wants to see your family stay together, including all of the furry, four legged members.  Working with your veterinarian and making good decisions can help you become a truly dedicated and responsible pet owner – and that’s best for everyone

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High Tech Vision Looks Deep Into Your Pets Mouth!

Dental disease is the most common diagnosis veterinarians will make on any dog or cat over the age of one year.  Despite a Pet Dental Health Month each February and constant reminders from veterinarians, some owners simply overlook or are unaware of what’s happening inside their pet’s mouth.  But it is a real problem.  Left untreated dental disease can lead to serious problems like heart or kidney disease, not to mention the horrible bad breath!

Even pet owners who do routinely try to brush their pets’ teeth or look at the mouth can be fooled.  A study in the American Journal of Veterinary Research found that almost 30% of dogs and more than 40% of cats whose mouths were clinically normal actually had significant problems under the gumline.  In addition, if the pet had visible dental problems, veterinary dentists found additional pathology more than 50% of the time using dental X-rays.

Some very serious problems can be found under the gumline.  Root abscesses, fractures, jaw bone loss and even cancer often aren’t apparent with a visual examination.  Dental x-rays (radiographs) are needed to find and successfully treat these painful and significant issues.

The use of radiology for veterinary patients is not new.  Just like human dentists, veterinary dentists have long had the ability to use x-ray film and dental radiographic machines.  However, long delays in getting the right shot and developing the film meant that dogs and cats were under anesthesia for long periods of time.

Fast forward to today and we see a great leap in technology.  New digital sensors are replacing dental x-ray film and hand-held dental x-ray units are being used instead of large, wall mounted or floor units.  Images are captured by computer using very special software instead of saving and filing lots of film.

The benefit to all of this is that skilled veterinary dentists and technicians are now able to get a set of full mouth radiographs in less than 15 minutes.  That means less time under anesthesia for your pet and better imaging for diagnosis and treatment of problems in the mouth or around the teeth and roots.  It also means that problems in your pet’s mouth can be found more easily and treatment started sooner.

Using sophisticated software, veterinarians can manipulate these images to look at a tooth or root in great detail or magnify a suspected lesion.  If your veterinarian is using digital dental x-rays, areas of concern can be saved and even sent via email to a board certified veterinary dentist for review.

For some pet owners, the thought of having their four legged companion anesthetized for this is troublesome.  But, it is important to remember that our pets will NOT hold still while someone tries to place a sensor in their mouth or position their head in exactly the correct position.  Further, if a diseased tooth is found that needs extraction or a root canal, the pet is already for the procedure.

It is important to remember that most of the pet’s teeth and the problems they have are under the gumline where it can’t be seen in an awake animal.  Mis-leading marketing campaigns try to tell you that non-anesthetic pet dental scaling is best. But experts and veterinary dentists highly discourage all pet owners from falling for these scams.  Anesthesia is entirely necessary for proper evaluation of the pet’s mouth and for a a complete cleaning or even looking deeper should a serious problem be hidden.

Your veterinarian can help you understand that good oral care for your pets is more than scraping off tarter.  Proper dental care is good imaging, complete cleanings and then treatment and correction of the underlying problems.   And don’t forget, your help is then needed to provide the right type of at-home care, such as daily brushing.

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