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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fine tune your listening skills for better outcomes in dog training

It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Despite the fact that I spend more of my time each day communicating with dogs than humans, I assure you that this is something that is not lost on me with each interaction that I have with my charges.

A recent read highlights the notion that dogs not only pick up on nonverbal communication and facial cues from humans, but that they can recognize emotions in humans by combining information from different senses. This is something that hasn't previously been seen outside of humans.

That sort of thing isn’t so surprising to most of us who have shared life with a dog; it really does seem that in time, they pick up on our moods and such. My Gretchen was always very in-tune to what I was doing or feeling, especially as time went on. As she entered her final weeks, this became abundantly visible: it was almost as if a mirror was set in front of me if I were feeling uneasy about something that was happening, and I needed to tread with even more mindfulness so that she was not stressed.

All of that said, what we are conveying to our dogs during training – not just what we are saying and physically cueing to them – but our body language, our emotional language matters.

The latter is something that often gets lost in the mix of all that is dog training.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for formal dog training of course. It’s a boon when a human needs help on how to better communicate with their canine, and that’s what it comes down to. It’s just that it’s easy to get uber-focused on our cues, our timing and treat-delivery and other positive reinforcements. That tunnel vision can detach us somewhat from the most important part of training, which is relationship-building part.

But, back to how in-tune dogs are. They’re better at observing things than we are.

You know that quick pause and look that you get from your pooch when you shove your hand in your pocket for something because he knows that's where the treats usually are? Yes, that.

And when you grab a certain pair of shoes? The ears go up and so does the excitement level.

When I walk into the bathroom and fetch my toothbrush from its perch in the evening, that’s a signal that I’m getting ready for bed and invariably, I'll hear four paws padding down the hall to the bedroom.

Our pets are sponges for our subtleties. It's easy to see then how our cues – as unintentional as they are at times – can be confusing to dogs during our time together spent on training.

Be 'all in'

It might sound clich├ęd, but it's important to be fully present when actively training. One of the best bits of advice that I was given years ago when I started writing was: ‘If you’re not feeling it when you set about writing something, just stop. It'll come through in the piece if you keep trying. Just set it aside. You can come back to it later.’ The same is true when we approach a training session with our dog. If it seems like we’re feeling a little off, mentally distracted or upset, we’ll not perform at our best and neither will our four-legged friend - but more importantly they'll recognize that something is amiss, too.

That said, it's our obligation to identify when a dog is on that side of the fence.

Keep it simple, short

Simplicity is best when training. Giving one, clear cue is all that's needed when aiming to get the response that we're asking for. When it doesn't happen, it's easy to get off track and repeat the cue and try different things (often, we shift our body language right along with getting too wordy and/or changing our tone to add emphasis), but all that does is exacerbate the problem and frustrate both parties; a dog will then just take stabs in the dark and miss. Patience is best when used in abundance.

Don't muddy the waters

One of the most common things that we do to confuse our dogs is to unintentionally distract them or exhibit behavior that is incompatible with what we're asking them. Cueing to 'sit' while petting them is a good example of this. For some dogs, the act of being touched is stimulating to the point of distraction and their brain goes to "...that feels nice and I'm loving the attention and oh, hey, what's going on again??"

Simply having their undivided attention, cueing 'sit' in a direct and calm manner while making good eye contact and then timing the food reward or praise/petting after a dog follows through with a rump on the floor is enough.

The takeaway

Having the right training skills and tools in place is a must. But keep in mind that the most valuable tool in the process of training and communicating with your dog is the relationship that you have together and how you'll continue to build on it. With a little effort, our communication skills can be as effective and efficient as that of our four-legged friends.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Hurdle inappetence in cats with renal disease with a multifaceted approach

Navigating chronic kidney disease, or CKD is it's commonly referred to, is a journey sometimes fraught with challenges. In my experience, inappetence is the most common barrier in keeping things on track with managing a good quality of life for kitties with renal issues. 

Most felines with CKD experience a disinterest in food from time to time and it's nothing to be terribly worried about so long as it comes back within a day or so. Beyond that, you need to act fast so it's important to be vigilant about how your cat is behaving, and what other symptoms might be presenting. This helps to get to the root cause so that those things can be addressed and allow kitty to make friends with food again.

Common causes of a waning appetite in cats with renal insufficiency

Nausea, vomiting and excess stomach acid can all be culprits in suppressing a cats willingness to eat, on their own or in any combination. It's important to think outside the box though, as they can also be an indicator of other problems associated with renal insufficiency.

Nausea is hard to detect, as it may only manifest as a poor appetite. A cat may also appear uncomfortable, scrunched up, licking their lips or hunching oddly over their water bowl. 

Vomiting is not uncommon with CKD. Whether it's vomiting up a clear or white foam (a sign of excess stomach acid), or stomach contents, this can not only suppress appetite but contribute to dehydration. 

Excess stomach acid often accompanies CKD, and can make a cat less willing to eat.

Nausea can be mitigated by raising the feeding dishes slightly so that any acid reflux is minimized and feeding frequently so that the stomach doesn't stay empty for too long (that often increases the likelihood of excess stomach acid). Consider offering some food during the night as well. Anti-nausea meds prescribed by your veterinarian can be an option too, and work well to ease any discomfort. These drugs are usually given on a short-term basis. 

Your veterinarian can prescribe medications to reduce any excess stomach acid, and are usually given once per day. Compounded into a suspension, they are easy to administer.

An elevated phosphorus level is a familiar culprit when it comes to a poor appetite and is measured by doing bloodwork (just as other crucial markers like BUN and Creatinine are). Many commercially-available diets contain phosphorus levels that are not ideal for CKD cats, so a renal diet – low in phosphorus, for one thing – prescribed by the vet is par for the course. Unfortunately, a lot of cats are not fond of renal formulas, but will more readily accept their favorite standbys. To get around the problem, a phosphorus binder can be used. As the name suggests, these products – which are sprinkled on wet food just before serving – bind to the phosphorus in the food, keeping it from entering the blood. Instead, it's carried through the digestive tract and out with the stool. Helpful in bringing the phosphorus level back into a safe range, and a good appetite with it, these products are safe when used under the direction of a vet. 

Constipation can be an unfortunate fact of life with renal kitties. With the insufficient fluid level in the intestines, stools can become hard and difficult to pass, if it's possible at all. If your pet has not had a bowel movement or is straining, it's necessary to contact your clinician as there may be a blockage. Sometimes punctuated by inappetence or vomiting, this can be treated but it needs immediate attention. Constipation can be avoided with prescribed daily medication, which can help draw fluid into the bowel.

Dehydration comes with the territory in renal disease. If your cat isn't already getting sub-q fluids, your vet is most likely going to talk to you about administering those at a rate and volume that is appropriate for your pet. Fluids are a great way to help with hydration and getting the kidney values in check, and ultimately, the appetite.

Other considerations in encouraging an optimal appetite

Variety: There are plenty of choices with cat food, but what you might not know is that there commercially available foods that are on a 'low phosphorus' list (click here to get that). Even with prescription renal diets (brands like Purina, Hill's and Royal Canin), there are options: pate and stew-styles in canned food and in dry, Royal Canin offers kibble in different shapes to please picky cats. Don't be afraid to try different ones. Baby food is an old standby to spark interest in eating, as is Fancy Feast.

(Pro-tip: If your veterinary office doesn't carry several brands of renal food, ask them to write a prescription so that can be taken to a larger veterinary facility that does. You might even be able to get sample packs of dry prescription food from them for a small fee to try out on your cat which can save a lot of guesswork and money.)

Texture and temperature: Most cats have a preference for pate, but commercially-available canned food also comes in shreds, chunks and stews and what is appealing to one cat isn't necessarily to another. If your cat likes an even smoother texture, you can mush up a pate with a fork with little effort. You might consider blending in a little hot water to thin out the mushed food even further. Also, the temperature of canned food can affect how your furry friend feels about diving into a meal. Leftover food stored in the fridge can benefit from a few seconds in the microwave – just test it with your finger to check for any hotspots. 

Location: When a client notes that their pet has a diminished appetite, I often recommend that they try setting out multiple food dishes – yes, even a variety of food – throughout the house to make it convenient for their furry friend to eat. Some CKD cats have low energy, and this can make it easier for them to access the food, too. Remember to keep a safe distance from the litter box. Cats like a clean dining area.

Dishing it up: Cats often have sensitive whiskers, and flat or shallow feeding dishes can mitigate any unpleasant sensation they might otherwise experience. Glass, ceramic and aluminum dishes are an ideal choice. Plastic can harbor bacteria and odors that cats find unpleasant. (Ditto for water dishes – try a glass pie dish.) 

Heighten the senses: Offering catnip a few minutes before feeding can boost a cat's willingness to chow down. 

The buddy system: It's my experience that most cats appreciate a little company while they dine. I usually plop down on the floor and talk to my own cat, Silver, as well as my charges during mealtimes, which seems to encourage a heartier appetite. You might even try brushing them gently if they pause or seem disinterested if they like that sort of thing.

Drowsy dining: A strategy that I have tried with Silver is to offer up a little warmed food the minute he rouses from a deep sleep. With him feeling really comfortable and his mind not firing on all cylinders, he will sometimes go for a few mouthfuls of food.

Enhancements: A little extra help with boosting taste can be useful. An older kitty's taste buds might not be as keen as they once were, so try sprinkling a little Parmesan cheese atop or add a little fat free/low sodium stock, tuna or clam juice to canned food.

Prescription appetite stimulants: Though there can be side effects to these drugs, they are very helpful even in low doses. In my experience, they work within hours and the effects last for days. In some cases, only one dose is needed to jump start the desire for food. Your vet may decide that this approach is a good one.

A final word 

Managing chronic kidney disease in cats – especially when it comes to poor appetite – is most successful by having ongoing communication with your vet and following their recommendations. No two cats are the same and depending on their respective health issues, treatment regimens can vary.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Beyond classical music: audiobooks, podcasts like 'Sleep With Me' can be a calming boon for pets

Creating an environment for pets that is low-stress and calm is a goal of pet owners and those who work with pets. 

Shelters are, by and large stressful places or dogs, and though shelter staff do what they can to facilitate an enriching and nurturing environment, it can be challenging. Now it seems that they might have one trick up their sleeve to make it easier. 

Researchers from Hartpury Animal Behavior College, UK wanted to see how classical music, pop music and music from Through a Dog's Ear stacked up against an audiobook – Michael York's reading of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

The data from using the audiobook was favorable: the dogs barked and vocalized less, exhibited more calm behaviors and they rested and slept more than when music was played.

Click here to read the study, which was led by Clarissa Brayley and Tamara Montrose.

This builds on what's been discovered about the use of classical music in kennels.

The researchers feel that one of the aspects of using the audiobooks that might be superior to music is that it's narrative in nature. Audiobooks are voiced to be engaging and dogs respond to the human voice and as social creatures, dogs respond well to human contact.

Truth be told, whenever it's possible I leave a radio tuned to talk radio, usually NPR, as I end a visit with my charges. I've found that the human voices helps my furry friends feel a little less lonely and/or anxious – and it buffers any outdoor noise that might be a problem for them. And as I read the study on using audiobooks, a practice that I put into place at home a few months ago came to mind.

An NPR-tuned radio seemed fine for my own pets just as it has been for my clients, but as Gretchen transitioned into hospice and then her final weeks, I got the idea to play selected podcasts over Bluetooth for her and Silver during my short absences – and it was a boon. In the months prior, I found some of them including RadioLab, Stuff You Should Know, Strangers and In Our Time, enjoyable to listen to at bedtime. Because the tone tends to be conversational and measured, they were integral in allowing my mind to drift and escape the mental strain that followed me to bed, and also to ease me back to sleep when Gretchen needed a little tending during night. 

Then, I stumbled on an even better discovery: the Sleep With Me podcast. Let's just say it was our saving grace during the final months of 2015 and even now as Silver is in the midst of some profound health crises. More soothing to the ear and mind than the aforementioned podcasts, my feeling is that it's on par with an audiobook to help dogs.

Created by Drew Ackerman, who performs as Dearest Scooter, Sleep With Me's bedtime storyteller, the podcast bills itself as " a bedtime story for grownups, just interesting enough for you to forget your problems but boring enough to put you to sleep."

And Scooter gets the job done in short order. It's very much like guided meditation, and I have yet to get through one episode at bedtime. 

In drowsy measure, Ackerman's alter ego soothingly extravagates about everything: Game of Thrones, chickens, during a statue crawl in the Bay Area's Golden Gate Park (his neck-of-the-woods), cupcakes, a snowy walk in the woods and a bazillion more things. 

With each dreamy episode lasting just over an hour, I can cue up the podcast for Silver as I leave and set the sleep timer or let each installment play endlessly as Sleep With Me boasts over 300 episodes – not to mention a tremendous following. The favorable reviews on iTunes aren't the only thing that's demonstrative of its draw: the activity on the podcast's Facebook page and just this month, the show of financial support by fans on Patreon is telling.

I reached out to Ackerman to pick his brain about the podcast, and to hear the most surprising thing he's discovered since starting it.

Koa (Photo courtesy of Drew Ackerman)

"The thing I was most ignorant of was how many people are in chronic physical pain and can't sleep. The breadth of why people can't sleep... the emotional pain, physical pain and the mental anguish that is keeping people up," he said. 

When I first approached Ackerman after my seeing the connections between the study with audiobooks and my using his podcast to soothe my own pets, he piped up about his own dog, a pit bull mix named Koa. 

As he mused about how he welcomed Koa into the fold as an adult dog, her attentive nature and how she's partial to being lulled by sports talk radio in his absence. 

A natural curiosity led him to start Sleep With Me – which has unfolded nicely and highlights an acumen for storytelling that's rich, quirky and intuitive – and I wondered if doing a podcast for kids or pets might be on the horizon. That, despite having a full-time job aside from the many hours he puts in each week to write and put together what we already hear on a weekly basis. 

As he notes, though creating a podcast for kids is an idea that he would like to venture into, at this point it all comes down to keeping the quality of what is already on the table up to par, and life balance.

"It's a totally different beast. It would be fun to find the time to explore it in some way, to test out story ideas and to see what the obstacles would be."

Though he's not given serious thought to creating a sleepy storytime designed for dogs, it's clear that Ackerman understands the importance of the human-animal bond.

"[Koa] definitely likes voice content. I usually leave NPR or sports talk on for her," he said.

"I've tried classical music and my impression was that she didn't like it as much, so I think it's this 'human voice' thing. This makes me curious about how an animal's demeanor changes when you're conversing with them. Animals that miss their owners and enjoy their companionship, they might like something similar."

After talking more about Koa, the connection that dogs have with us – and I should note with a noticeable lift in his already merry tone – he added, "It's always interesting to think about these layers of stuff with humans and animals and sleep and comfort."

Click here to subscribe to Sleep With Me on iTunes, Android or your favorite application.

A little irony: is a new sponsor of the podcast. Click here for a 30-day trial and to download a free audiobook for you – or your pet's listening pleasure.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Keeping snow-shy puppies & small breed dogs on track with housetraining is a cinch with one simple idea

Though it's not been the case so much the season so far, Michigan is no stranger to snow. Despite the fact that many dogs really love the white stuff, clients and readers often lament about their small and toy breed dogs – and yes, puppies – who refuse to go outside and get business done in the winter. It's not that uncommon, and you can't blame the pets for feeling the way they do.

Frustrated humans who are unable to convince their furry friends to get busy if it has snowed in many cases resort to using absorbent potty pads indoors. This isn't a terrible option, but understandably with puppies, wanting to stay on track with good outdoor habits that have been established is key. 

One way to keep the momentum going is with with help of something you likely have in your shed or garage: a tarp.

Before the next snowfall, simply lay out a tarp in a grassy area of your yard that your pooch prefers (ideally by the door). When it's time to go out, pull back the tarp and voila! Your pet has a snow-free area to use. 

Granted, not all snowfall is created equal – it can range from light and fluffy to heavy, wet precipitation to an icy mix, so getting out every so often to remove any accumulation before it gets too heavy to lift away might be needed. In any case, this idea can help to make the snowy season more manageable for every member of the family. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The choice in substrate for your bird's enclosure can keep them healthier

Having lots of hands-on experience with exotic birds, I can tell you they're not only a lot of fun to spend time with, but require a lot of your time and diligence, just like any other pet.

Whether you're talking about parrots, cockatoos, macaws – even parakeets – being able to keep track of how they're feeling and cleaning up after them easily is a must. (Yes, they're all messier than you'd think!)

As a caregiver, this is especially important. Having that well in hand enables me to spend more time with them doing equally important things, like creating foraging toys for them, preparing fresh meals and interacting.

Enclosures vary from bird to bird, and that has a lot to do with affordability, and the size of the animal. One thing that they all have in common is that there is some sort of tray on the bottom to catch droppings and of course the food that invariably makes its way down, which is covered with some sort of substrate. 

There are many choices that one could pick from to line the tray, and in all my years as a pet sitter, I have seen them all.
Even though birds usually can't have direct access to the substrate (there's usually a bottom grate that separates the inside of the cage from the substrate's tray), whatever is lining the bottom should be safe and ideal for the health of your pet.

Not all products are created equal

Kitty litter is one of the worst choices for substrate. The clay variety produces particulate and dust, which can cause respiratory issues in avians (and other health problems as you'll read later), while clumping litter can be especially dangerous if it somehow injested into the G.I. tract. Also, many litters are scented, which is unhealthy for birds. 

Sand is not recommended as it can be ingested, but mostly it's difficult to clean. Also, it's a mess to deal with.

Wood shavings and chips might seem mindful, but one drawback is the potential for natural toxic substances in varieties including cedar, pine and redwood to sicken birds. 

Walnut shells and corncobs are popular natural alternatives, but unfortunately they make excellent breeding grounds for fungi, mold and bacteria. Some varieties of mold, like aspergillus can be deadly to birds. Also, these products are easily ingested and can cause an intestinal blockage.

Paper pellets and pulp bedding share an inherent downside that all of the other choices also possess: they make it difficult to do "poop patrol" – something that I can tell you as a caregiver is a vital part of my job. Checking the amount of droppings per day, along with the consistency and appearance of the waste is so important in understanding if something is amiss with a bird. 

Additional concerns

Kitty litter, walnut shells and corn cobs produce a lot of particulate in a bird's environment, and is something that could contribute to the development of a rhinolith. 

Rhinoliths (the Greek stem of the word refers to the word "nose"), commonly referred to as nose stones, are caused by material that accumulates between the nares (the nasal-like openings) and the hardened flap of keratin just behind them, called the operculum. Nose stones can cause problems in the tissue and worse, malformations of the bone. Unfortunately, they need to be tended to by a veterinarian experienced with birds. Dr. Leila Marucci, DVM, D-ABVP details this condition on her blog and offers tips on prevention. Click here to read more. 

The best option 

My favorite choice for bird cage substrate is good, old newspaper or paper bags. Both lay flat, make the droppings easy to see and removing soiled layers is a cinch. As the least expensive options, they're easy to obtain and you'll be repurposing perfectly useful material at the same time. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

AKC welcomes two new dog breeds into the fold for 2016

Each year, the AKC recognizes new dog breeds for inclusion in the organization. Joining the existing 187 breeds are two more: the American hairless terrier, and a breed developed in North Africa – the sloughi (pronounced SLOO-ghee).

Originally bred to hunt vermin, the American hairless terrier is small and moderately active, and as you guessed it, hairless (or at least bears a very short coat). For that reason they need minimal grooming and are said to be ideal for those with allergies.
Flickr photo of an American hairless terrier by Mace Ojala

Excelling in events like agility and obedience, this breed typically stands 12" to 16" at the shoulder. With an average lifespan of 12 to 15 years they do very well in apartment and city living. 

The sloughi, also known as the Arabian greyhound, is a graceful breed. Medium to large in size (26 to 29 inches at the withers for males and 24 to 27 inches for females), they were first used to hunt game: wild pigs, gazelle and jackal specifically. They're fast, agile and though considered sight hounds they have tremendous endurance. This is all important to remember because their natural tendency is to chase things, so care should be taken while off-lead.

The breed can be somewhat aloof and quiet, despite being very driven and focused during games and such. 

“We’re excited to welcome these two unique breeds into the AKC family,” noted AKC Vice President Gina DiNardo said. 

“Both breeds make wonderful companions for the right family."

Though they're not able to participate in the year's Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which is held February 15-16, 2016, the two new breeds are able to compete in their respective AKC breed group events as of January 1.

Click here to go to to the AKC website for more information on these and other recognized breeds.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Friday, January 8, 2016

New study may shed light on cause of uptick of hyperthyroidism in cats

A few months ago, a client updated her cat's medical information for my files, as he had been recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. Two of her three cats now have the condition. 

"Have you ever heard any theories on hyperthyroidism in cats, in particular when there is a herd diagnosis?" she said.

"The veterinarian mentioned to me that there has been some research on this, but they can't determine the cause."

I found this curious myself, because I've seen an uptick in cases with my charges over the past few years (typically older cats) and I know that the overall rate amongst felines is increasing. 

The condition occurs when there's an increase in production of thyroid hormones from thyroid glands, which are located in the neck. Characterized subtly at first, symptoms can include weight loss, increased appetite, increased thirst and resulting frequent urination, among other tell-tale signs. Treatment is crucial (luckily, transdermal meds are an option) as the excess production of the thyroid hormones known as T3 and T4 can affect heart function as well as other organs, like the kidneys.

Some studies have hinted that there is a connection between hyperthyroidism in cats and flame retardants – synthetic chemical compounds, like polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs) – and subsequently the products that they are used on.  

Researchers in Japan, based on a study published in Environmental Science and Technology suggest that those synthetic chemical sources may not be as big an influence on the incidence of feline hyperthyroidism as first thought. 

An unlikely source – cat food, but more specifically, those varieties containing fish – may be the culprit. As it turns out, marine organisms contain naturally-occurring compounds similar in composition to synthetic PBDEs. 

The team, led by Hazuki Mizukawa of Ehime University, tested not just the blood samples of cats, but cat food. Using liver microsomes, they were able to simulate how the feline body might metabolize the compounds. They were also able to isolate the concentrations of specific metabolites, like MeO-PBDEs.

Quoting the study: 

The present study suggests that pet cats are exposed to MeO-PBDEs through cat food products containing fish flavors and that the OH-PBDEs in cat blood are derived from the CYP-dependent demethylation of naturally occurring MeO-PBDE congeners, not from the hydroxylation of PBDEs. 

The team's findings indicate that the high levels of the naturally-occurring compounds found in both the fish-flavored food and the blood samples of the cats could in some way shed more light on the increase in feline hyperthyroidism, though more research is needed. 

Click here to read the study titled, Organohalogen Compounds in Pet Dog and Cat: Do Pets Biotransform Natural Brominated Products in Food to Harmful Hydroxlated Substances?

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.