Many of our dogs are victims of eating too fast, and the food coming right back up. But some conditions can cause digestive problems, and an inability to keep food in the stomach. One of these problems is known as canine megaesophagus. Megaesophagus is a condition in which the muscles of the esophagus lose their tone and ability to move food to the stomach. Normally, wave-like contractions propel food into the stomach in a process known as peristalsis. Food will then sit in the esophagus, and is at risk of falling into the lungs and causing other problems. Canine megaesophagus can be congenital (a puppy is born with it), develop later in life, or a secondary result of another disease or problem (such as a vascular ring anomaly). While megaesophagus can be found in any dog, some breeds are more at risk, like Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Labrador Retrievers, and Miniature Schnauzers.
Symptoms of megaesophagus can vary by individual dog, but the most common is regurgitation. This is different from vomiting, which is associated with heaving and retching. Regurgitation is when the food simply falls out of the esophagus, with little to no warning. Because food is not being digested, a dog gets limited nutrition, so weight loss and lethargy are also signs of megaesophagus. If food falls into the lungs, it can also cause pneumonia, so frequent or unrelenting cough, fever, and labored breathing may also be symptoms. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death in dogs with megaesophagus. To diagnose megaesophagus, a doctor will use x-rays or other radiologic imaging to view the upper digestive system. Sometimes a barium contrast meal will be given to view digestion during the imaging.
While there is no cure, some treatments and lifestyle changes have helped many pets. Surgery has improved conditions of some individuals (mostly puppies), but has had no effect on other. Some drugs can help, like Metoclopramide (improves muscle tone), antacids, and anti-nausea medications. Severe cases of megaesophagus, or dogs with significant other health problems being addressed may be candidates for a feeding tube, so nutrition can bypass the esophagus entirely. Many pet owners find that changing the eating habits of their dog shows the most improvement. Food consistency helps prevent regurgitation, but depends on the individual. Some dogs do best with a liquid diet, others find solid food to be easier. Small, frequent meals are preferred to a couple large ones, and feeding in an upright position uses gravity to guide food in the stomach. This is done by feeding on a step ladder, with the head and front above the back legs, or using a device known as a Bailey Chair. The Bailey Chair keeps the dog sitting up like a human, and feeding can be easily controlled by the owner. The dog must remain upright for at least 15 minutes after eating, to ensure that the food has passed the esophagus.
While canine megaesophagus can be dangerous, and seem daunting to a pet owner, it can be managed effectively with diligence. Most dogs are able to lead happy, safe lives with expert care. If you suspect your dog may have megaesophagus, see your veterinarian.
Decorating for Christmas and other holidays can be a chore with pets in the house. You want your home to look festive, but finding things that are safe and practical to have around a curious cat or a large dog can be difficult. We know mistletoe, holly and poinsettias are hazardous to our pets, but did you ever think about your Christmas tree? Real Christmas trees can be mildly toxic to animals, especially fir trees. Fir tree oils can cause an irritated mouth and stomach, and most commercial live trees are treated with a fire retardant that can be toxic. The tree water can also present a problem, as many trees have pesticides, fertilizers, and even aspirin in their branches, which can be released into the water. Artificial trees are often made of plastics, and may have chemicals that are not digestible. Either form of tree has needles that can also cause blockages and obstructions if eaten by your pet, and even punctures in the GI tract. And even if your tree itself is safe and secure, the decorations can be poisonous, sharp, and otherwise hazardous to our animals.
Real and artificial trees can present lots of hazards to our pets, but there are a few steps you can take to keep you and your furry family safe. First, do not let your pet around the tree unsupervised. Even a dog that is used to having a tree every year can see a new ornament or smell something unusual and want to investigate. Placing the Christmas tree in a closed room or using a baby gate will help minimize the time your animal is around it. Putting your tree in a corner and securing it well can prevent it from being knocked over. Keep bells or something noisy near the base to give you a warning if they get too close, and keep other tall objects far from the tree (a cat tree near the Christmas tree is just asking for trouble). Tape the cords to your Christmas lights on the wall or floor so pets won’t be inclined to chew or trip on them. As for ornaments and decorations, use common sense. Never decorate your tree with food, and place extra fragile or sentimental ornaments at the top of the tree. Imitation snow (flocking) is poisonous to pets, as is tinsel (and it only takes a few strands to cause a major problem). Using light twine rather than metal hooks can be a good idea, just in case your pet decides to chew on a branch or ornament. You can also use a bitter spray (check in the pet store) on the tree, ornaments, and area to keep pets from chewing or licking. Even if your tree is now pet-safe, you also have to make sure the area around it is too. If you have a real tree, keep the water bowl covered so pets don’t drink or play in it. Clean all needles (both real and artificial) and any fallen décor up promptly. Make sure the presents you put under the tree (including those for pets!) aren’t going to lure your pets closer to or under the tree. Things like food, candy, and pet toys can be wrapped and placed in another secure location.
While we cannot completely pet-proof a Christmas tree, using the steps above can reduce the likeliness of an incident. You can also give your animal a new treat or toy to distract them from the tree for a few days, but never as a “trade” (to stop them from immediately messing with the tree). If your pet shows odd behavior or symptoms, they may have ingested or chewed something they shouldn’t have. Excessive licking, salivating, changes in appetite or water consumption, lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea can all be signs of a problem, and veterinary attention should be sought promptly. We teach our dogs to fetch sticks, and give our cats grass to chew on, so is it any wonder that Christmas trees look so tempting? Even the most well-trained pets can be curious about the holiday decorations, so be sure to keep your home safe and secure this winter. Happy Holidays!
A growing trend in the cat-owner population is the idea of training your cat to use the toilet. No, I don’t mean the litter box toilet. I mean the actual, human, kind-that-flushes TOILET. Seems impossible and absurd, right? Well, with the right cat, and a little help, many felines can be taught to urinate and have bowel movements in the toilet exclusively, with no need for a litter box.
But why would you spend time and energy coaxing your cat into this new behavior? Many people do not like the look, smell, and work that a litter box involves. It requires daily maintenance and cleaning both in and around the area. There can be a lingering odor, and litter and dust gets scattered and tracked to areas away from the box. Teaching a cat to use the toilet can resolve some of these issues, and makes cleaning easier (just flush, right?). So how on earth are you supposed to train a small stubborn animal to do human things, on objects made for a human? The main principle is by taking small steps, and mastering each one before moving on. Start by moving the litter box into the bathroom, ideally next to the toilet itself (if the box is currently far from the bathroom, in another end of the house, you may want to do this gradually). Give your cat time to adjust to that, and then raise the height of the box, an inch or two a week. Now you can begin to train your cat to jump on the toilet. Putting treats on it with the lid closed is a good first step. There are several toilet-training kits for cats on the market, both in and out of pet stores. Most consist of a litter tray, with various graduated rings to sit on the toilet. This gets your pet used to a smaller hole, with a bit of litter, before getting used to a large opening with no litter. Reward your cat with praise and treats when they use the new system rather than the box, and remember never to scold or punish them. The training process should be as stress-free as possible. Be patient, and only move onto the next step after your cat seems comfortable and happy in the current step. Eventually they will be able to straddle the toilet seat without a training ring or litter underneath, but the process can vary by cat and environment. Some owners also train their cat to flush the toilet afterwards.
Is training your kitty to use the toilet really worth it? There is a lot of time, and MOUNDS of patience involved, just for a trick that is mostly for the convenience of you, not the cat. Felines have a natural instinct to dig, eliminate, and cover their waste, and this is repressing that instinct. Toilet training can cause lots of stress and confusion to an animal, which may lead to other behavioral or health problems (aggression, urinary tract infections, etc). In my opinion, litter is really only messy if not cared for, and a cat is less likely to use a dirty box. By using clumping litter and scooping it twice a day, many odor problems can be resolved. You should also top the box off periodically, keep the area around the box swept and clean, and completely empty and scrub the box once a month. This may seem like too much work for some cat owners, but did you really expect owning a pet to be effort-free? Unless you train your cat to flush, the odor issue still is a problem, and you must still flush after them. Toilet training also makes it difficult to see a change in your cat’s urinary habits. It is easy to see frequency and volume of urine in a litter box (how many clumps in the last 24 hours? How big are the clumps?). But unless you are marking the water levels in your toilet, it’s pretty hard to identify any changes when your cat is bathroom-trained. The door and toilet lid must always be kept open, and if they aren’t, the cat is forced to go on the carpet or floor. Straddling the toilet can also be awkward and uncomfortable, especially for small, young, elderly, or ill cats. Never try to train a sick or otherwise stressed/unhappy pet. If a cat falls into the toilet, they will become wet and possibly injured, and may develop an aversion to using the toilet again. If your pet is ever in a vet, animal hospital, or has to be boarded, they will be provided with a litter box, not a toilet. Then when they come home, you may have to retrain them to go potty again. The process can be difficult and stressful for you and your cat.
Overall, toilet-training can be convenient for you, but may cause problems to your pet. Basic needs like food, water, and eliminating waste should not be stressful, and using a toilet can be unnatural for your cat. Some cat owners train their confident felines to use it without problem, and their kitties do not mind at all. Each home, person, and pet is going to be different. While the videos amuse me and I am tempted by the simplicity of kitty toilet-training, I think I will stick to the litter box. My cat likes it, and all I have to do is put a little work into keeping the mess and stink away.
The influx of cold weather for us in the Midwest means that it is cold and flu season. But did you know that your dog can also get “colds” and the flu? From coughing to fevers, contagious viruses can make your dog sick in a few different ways. Kennel cough and canine influenza are not serious illnesses in their own, but the secondary problems they can cause have the potential to harm your pet.
Kennel cough is really a broad name to encompass a whole complex of infections, both viral and bacterial. These cause inflammation of the voice box and vocal cords of your dog, similar to bronchitis in humans. Kennel cough is very contagious, and is transmitted from animal to animal through direct contact and particles in the air. While the name does suggest that dogs can be more likely to contract a kennel cough infection after boarding at a facility, it can be transmitted anywhere that the animals have contact, like a dog park or pet store. Allowing face-to-face contact, and toy and water sharing with unknown dogs can increase the risk. The symptoms of kennel cough can vary depending on the exact virus or bacteria, but is trademarked by the dry cough a dog will have, often sounding like a honking noise. Your dog may also have a runny nose, or a mild fever, and occasionally cough up white phlegm. If the illness truly is kennel cough, most dogs will still have a good appetite and energy level, unless otherwise unhealthy. Vaccines against kennel cough which include parainfluenza, bordetella and adenovirus may help protect your dog against contracting the illness, but are no guarantee. Please also note that if your dog already has symptoms of kennel cough, the vaccines will not help. Most dogs recover on their own in about 3-6 weeks. Rest, fluids, and minimizing irritation to the throat (no smoking, use harness rather than collar) are the best remedy, just like a human cold. Older or sick dogs, as well as puppies, may require more care, and are more likely to develop pneumonia as a result of kennel cough.
But what about the doggie flu? Canine influenza (H3N8) is a highly contagious illness that dogs can get from being in proximity to other sick dogs. Direct contact and droplets in the air (millions after a sneeze!) from a flu-carrying dog are easily picked up by your pet. Canine influenza (CIV) can have a range of symptoms, with a mild moist cough, nasal discharge and lethargy, to the more severe. Some dogs (especially older ones or those who have preexisting health conditions) may run a high fever, cough up blood, refuse to eat, and develop pneumonia. Mild cases of CIV do not require extensive care, and the dog usually recovers on its own in 10-30 days. Supportive care may be given, like a cough suppressant, and supplements. Sometimes antibiotics are prescribed to treat any accompanying infections, but do not resolve CIV itself. Severe cases of canine influenza may require hospitalization, including IV fluids, strong antibiotics and more. Flat-faced breeds (like pugs and bulldogs) are more at risk of complications (like pneumonia and sinus infections) but not contracting the flu itself. A vaccine for CIV does exist, however, it may not be right for every dog. For example, if I lived in the remote countryside, where my dog had little contact with others and no reported cases of CIV in the area, I probably wouldn’t vaccinate him or her. Canines that live in urban, highly populated areas, with reports of CIV are the most likely candidates for the vaccine. While your dog could contract the flu and recover on its own, it is still important to consult your veterinarian. Most will do a blood test to confirm, as well as an x-ray to see if any pneumonia is developing. Canine influenza is not contagious to humans, and there is no evidence to support that it can harm you. However, you can spread the germs from dog to dog, so those who work in boarding facilities, dog-walkers, pet-sitters and shelter volunteers should be sure to sanitize all equipment and their hands between each contact.
Just like the colds and flu that people can get, kennel cough and canine influenza are not fatal to a dog. However, the secondary problems they can cause, and the threat that they pose to elderly or sick dogs can be a dangerous situation. If you suspect your dog has any illness, contact your vet for advice and keep your dog away from all others. Quarantining your pet ensures that it does not make other dogs sick, especially those who may not recover as well. While we like to think our pets don’t get sick, a little cough and fever are possible, so keep on the lookout, and take care of your canines!
Sources: ASPCA, The Center for Disease Control (CDC), www.petmd.com, www.pets.webmd.com