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3 posts from July 2008


My thoughts on “Pill-Popping Pets”…

Today in the New York Times Magazine, there was a piece by James Vlahos about the use of drugs to address behavioral issues in our pets. I’ve been mulling over some of the concepts brought up in the article, and a number of thoughts come to mind.

I’d first like to mention that Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who is frequently quoted in the article, is a wonderful man who cares deeply about animals. He was one of my teachers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and I have the utmost respect for him. I know how much he cares about the well being of all animals; his motives are entirely pure and for this reason among others his work should be taken quite seriously.

Concerns were expressed, in the article and by many who read it, regarding the use of drugs as a substitute for addressing the root cause of behavioral issues. There is no doubt that it is essential, if possible, to ascertain and alleviate the underlying trigger for a pet’s unwanted behavior. This, unfortunately, can be easier said than done in today’s society. Of course dogs are lonely and bored when we are all so busy busy busy, and of course this leads to emotional and behavioral consequences—just as it would in any intelligent, social being left alone with nothing to do for hours at a time. Dogs live to have a job, and dogs with no job to perform are often unhappy—that’s no surprise. Just as of course cats (exceptionally skilled and agile predators) with nothing else to pounce on may end up pouncing on their human guardians! Dogs yearn to work; cats yearn to hunt—when one's strongest and most instinctive yearnings are denied, naturally trouble often ensues. 

Above all, though, I can’t help feeling how lucky our pets are, and I as a veterinarian am, to live in a society where all this matters so much to us. Yes, it’s distressing that there are dogs who are bored, lonely, terrified of fireworks, or fearful of strangers. It’s unfortunate that keeping cats safe means keeping them inside—not as exciting, to be sure, as a life of hunting and surviving in the great outdoors—but a more comfortable, secure, and longer life nonetheless. But none of this is nearly as heartbreaking as the plight of animals all over the world who are hungry, diseased, without shelter, or abused. In this country and even more so elsewhere, millions of dogs and cats are homeless, living short lives of danger and deprivation. Therefore, I feel blessed, and I know our pets are blessed, to live in a time and place where we’re arguing over the best way to keep animals happy and healthy, and we’re discussing it in the pages of the New York Times Magazine.

The pet food recall brought this home for me. Although the months of the recall in the spring of 2007 were among the most sad and stressful of my career, watching beloved animals suffer and die because of greedy, unethical practices perpetrated half a world away, the silver lining was the gratitude I felt to live in a country where everyone cared. The recall and its consequences were in the forefront of the media, drawing national attention and widespread outrage. As a veterinarian horrified by what was occurring, it was at least comforting to be surrounded by a nation equally appalled. 

I dream of a world in which all dogs and cats are in safe and loving homes, and in the perfectly ideal world, none of them will be bored, frightened, or lonely either—but in the meantime as we attempt to understand the emotions and behaviors of our animal companions, let’s at least be glad that so many of them have people who care.


Prescription Pet Foods: Do They Really Make a Difference?

Today a pet parent asked me: "My vet recommended a prescription diet for my dog, who has problems with her kidneys. Do prescription diets really make a difference, or is it all just marketing?"

The answer is - yes, there is a difference between prescription pet foods and those sold over the counter!

Pets who don't have any issues with their health generally don't need prescription diets, of course. But prescription diets can make a huge difference to pets with a number of different health problems.

Here are some examples:

Kidney disease: Diets formulated for animals with kidney disease (generally diets that are lower in protein and phosphorous, for example) can make a real difference in the quality of life and longevity of these pets. Several studies have shown this to be the case. There are prescription kidney diets, and there are also recipes for homemade diets for animals with kidney problems. (Be sure any homemade diet you use has been developed and balanced by a veterinary nutritionist .)

Liver disease: In some types of liver disease in which animals develop a problem called "hepatic encephalopathy", special diets can be very helpful. When animals have very poor liver function or a liver "shunt" (an extra blood vessel that allows the blood to bypass the liver), certain toxic substances are not properly filtered from the bloodstream, as they would be by a normally functioning liver. These toxic substances can cause "hepatic encephalopathy", a situation where the animal acts drunk, dizzy, weak, or blind due to the effect of the substances on the brain. By reducing the buildup of these toxic substances, diets for liver disease can help alleviate hepatic encephalopathy.

Hyperlipidemia: This long word refers to a condition where the fat levels in an animal's bloodstream are too high. On a blood test, these fats are called "triglycerides". Animals whose triglyceride levels are too high can suffer problems such as seizures and inflammation of the pancreas if the triglyceride levels are not lowered. Abnormally high triglyceride levels can be caused by certain hormonal imbalances, or by improperly functioning fat-processing systems in the body.  Certain breeds of pets, such as schnauzers, are predisposed to this condition. Prescription low fat diets are often very important in this situation, to help lower the triglyceride levels and prevent or alleviate seizures or pancreatic issues.

Allergies: Animals with food allergies, which may be exhibited by gastrointestinal signs such as diarrhea, or by itchiness of the skin, can be greatly helped by prescription hypoallergenic diets. For a diet to be hypoallergenic, it must contain a protein the animal has never eaten before, and be very pure, i.e., not containing other proteins or other allergy-causing substances.

One problem that vets are encountering is that so many of these special proteins are being used in over-the-counter pet foods. Because people noticed that vets often recommend lamb-based food, for example, they thought it must be good to feed pets lamb. Because of this demand, pet food manufacturers began putting out pet food containing lamb. But the reason vets would recommend lamb for allergic pets was because it was a protein most pets in this country had not eaten before, not because there was something intrinsically healthy about lamb. Once lamb began being used in commercial pet foods, vets had to turn to more exotic sources of protein for allergic pets, such as duck, venison, and rabbit. But once again, pet foods began to be made using these proteins as well, so it is becoming ever harder for vets to find a protein source that an allergic pet has never tried! We are turning to really crazy things like ostrich and kangaroo meat. But pretty soon, these will turn up in commercial pet foods as well. (For this reason, it's a good idea to avoid feeding your healthy pet all these different exotic proteinsl if your pet ever develops a food allergy, there will be nothing hypoallergenic left to try!) 

Urinary tract stones: For pets who have developed stones in the urinary tract (the bladder, kidneys, ureters, or urethra) at some point, prescription diets can help to prevent more stones from forming. Different types of stones can require different diets. The diets that are labeled as "urinary" diets or "good for urinary tract health" in the grocery store are NOT the same as prescription diets, so do not substitute these for a diet your vet has prescribed!

The bottom line: If your vet recommends a prescription diet, there's probably a good reason.  Don't substitute another diet without talking to your vet. If the diet is too pricey for you, or your pet just doesn't like it, there may be other options, and your vet can probably help you find one. Or you may want to seek the help of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, such as those found at and Balance IT . These specialists can work with your vet and with your pet's medical records to help recommend the best food for your pet, whether prescription or homemade.


Lilies: Not so pretty if you're a kitty...

All the flowers are in bloom, and most of the time this makes me happy—except when I see my least favorite flowers: lilies. Despite their beauty, I just don’t like lilies: nothing that hurts cats can ever look pretty to me. 

 It seems like many people don’t know that lilies are very very poisonous to cats. Every single part of the lily plant and/or flower are toxic to kitties; they cause severe kidney damage, which is often fatal. This is true of all different kinds of lilies. It just takes a little nibble—and we know how much the kitties like to nibble on plants.

Please, everyone, spread the word! Tell everyone you know who has pets. When you see someone buying lilies at a flower shop, make sure they realize that they should not bring lilies into their homes if they have cats, or give an arrangement that contains lilies to anyone who has a cat. If someone at work gets flowers, help them make sure there are no lilies lurking in the arrangement. 

If we all tell everyone we know about the dangers of lilies (maybe we should all send an e-mail to everyone in our address book, and ask them to do the same), then one day no cat will have to suffer or lose their life because their owner didn’t know what could happen. 

And of course, if you ever suspect that your cat may have eaten any part of a lily plant- bring her to the veterinary emergency clinic right away! Immediate care can be lifesaving!

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