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Sunday, August 28, 2016

New product designed to reduce rodent populations without using poison gets FDA approval

The use of home and garden chemicals is the bane of many a pet lover's existence, especially pet sitters and dog walkers who frequently encounter yards freshly treated with pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. There are dangers that these chemicals pose to the health of our companion animals. Admittedly, during the warm months here in Michigan, I'm constantly vigilant as I make my way out with my canine charges, scanning for tip-offs like the tell-tale spike tags on the edge of lawns, not to mention the overwhelming odor. I imagine I look like I'm playing hopscotch when avoiding these areas. 

But these aren't the only chemical dangers that pets face while in the great outdoors. As you might recall from a piece I'd written for MLive in 2012, rodenticides pose a significant risk, and one dog's encounter after ingesting a common product meant to kill mice was chronicled. 

We do of course worry about pets ingesting things like this, as they can make them sick, or in some cases, kill them. Some pets wolf things down (yes, even mouse and rat poison) indiscriminately, even if we don't see them as being necessarily appetizing. Other pets ingest products like this accidentally. 

The problem is, Daphne—a black Labrador in the story— didn't consume the product directly. It was deduced that she likely did so as a result of secondhand poisoning: catching and then eating a mouse that ingested the chemical elsewhere and made its way to her yard. 

A safer solution

Daphne required hospitalization and an ongoing recovery, narrowly surviving the harrowing encounter, but one biotech company in Arizona is hoping to make incidents like that a thing of the past. Flagstaff-based Senestech received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a formula that can control rat populations more safely and humanely. And the way it works gets to the core of what drives the populations, and is likely just the beginning of something bigger.

"ContraPest has the ability to revolutionize how we control rodent pest populations in the United States by focusing on the root cause of the problem—reproduction," Loretta Mayer, CEO of SenesTech said in a press release

Both sexes of rats are targeted; females experience egg loss while sperm development is impaired in males. ContraPest is a palatable liquid—and according to a test run in New York City, it is one that rats find appealing—delivered via proprietary, tamper proof bait stations. In fact, the rodents love it so much, they come back for more. That's a good thing, considering that sustained consumption of the product means an efficacy rate of the product that's optimal, resulting in rats that can't reproduce.
flickr photo by jans canon

Another attractive quality of the product— which has two active ingredients, one derived from plants, the other chemically based—is that it breaks down into inactive ingredients when it has contact with water or soil, so no worry of contamination, unlike its toxic predecessors.

Additionally, ContraPest was created to not only be a more humane to the populations it's designed to control, but safe for those it's not. Ditto for humans (including those handling the product and bait stations)—even children—and yes, pets.

"Municipalities are perpetually faced with the constant harm caused by rodent overpopulation, including the transmission of diseases, damage to public infrastructure, as well as destruction and contamination of food supplies," added Mayer.

"ContraPest is more humane, less harmful to the environment, and more effective in providing a sustainable solution to rodent pest infestations than traditional lethal methods, such as rodenticides, which contain lethal chemicals that can be toxic to humans and other animals."

Historically, trying to deal with rodent populations has proven to be challenging, due in large part that killing rodents isn't a sustainable solution. But inhibiting the animal's fertility is. 

Rodent control and beyond 

Because the dosage needed to affect rats has been formulated for their size, larger animals won't see any effects. That said, the company is on track to create a formula that is designed for mice.

You might find another facet of this technology to be interesting: Mayer noted that the company is also researching how it could be put to use in feral populations of cats and dogs, something that could be another viable tool in addressing pet overpopulation and homelessness. Alternative solutions to those issues that go beyond surgical neutering, like Esterisol and Zeuterin are being explored but will take time to thoroughly vet and put into place.

Click here to learn more about ContraPest.

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.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

'My Last Dog' Syndrome stunts our perception of our current pets and can exacerbate behavior problems

It's been ten months since my 15 year-old St. Bernard/shepherd mix Gretchen died, and though it sounds clich├ęd, I can say with complete confidence that she was a delight to everyone that she came into contact with, even those not terribly fond of dogs.

Despite coming home with me much earlier than she should have—Gretchen was 5 weeks of age, and in a situation no dog should have been in—she was a joy to unfold from house training and learning cues to understanding what was cool and what wasn't in terms of how she behaved. It was a challenge at times, but what puppyhood-into-adulthood isn't, right? She was a major chewer as her second set of teeth came in and I would get lax about ensuring her chew toys were at her disposal, so I lost a pair of shoes and other things, but lesson learned! She developed a brief penchant for digging, which we got under control easily by working together, but her love of rummaging through any trash can could not be tamed. In the latter case, I resigned myself to the fact that keeping trash cans out of her grasp was a mindful way to solve the problem, and indeed it did and that was that. 

Even as a large-breed dog, Gretchen was a divine traveling companion and acclimated easily to staying in hotels, beach-going and even canoeing. She loved visiting my Dad before his death in 2012 and understood that the "rules of the house" applied equally at his home, or no matter where she might be visiting.

Though she was a champ at the vet's office—no anxiety about being examined or poked, even when she wasn't feeling well—in her later years I opted to go the house call vet route to make it easier on her as car rides, though joyous and calm in her youth, were not as easy for her or myself to manage physically because of her arthritis and her large size. 

Her personality was just about perfect: an intelligence beyond belief, a quiet curiousness tinged with a sense of humor that rivaled the most apt clown and a stubborn sensibility that didn't let you forget that she was her own living, breathing being with a mind of her own. 

All of that said, I'd never considered taking us to a training class, and I've no regrets. 

Her Other Important Human, Chris, had been in the picture for the last half of her life and misses her equally. They had cemented a fantastic relationship and shared a bond that was as close as I had experienced, albeit different and for every bit of what they had together, I was grateful. He of course was fully present, supporting her passage as she had help making her final transition at home and as the trip was made to have her vessel tended to and her cremains brought home later that night. Despite our decision to part ways years ago, Chris and I have remained close friends and after our losing our other dog, Bruiser, three years ago, he's expressed that he's got the urge to welcome a new furry friend. 

I'm not surprised at his remarks on several occasions that he'd love to have another dog that is just like Gretchen. So would I, admittedly. But we both know that's about as likely as winning the lottery. She was a one-of-a-kind, in the best possible way and any future dogs that we bring into our respective folds will be as unique, though perhaps not as reliable in terms of their personality and behavior. 

The latter is something that comes to mind often as I read emails from readers and listen to clients as they see a new-to-them puppy or dog unfold.

"My last dog wasn't like this. He never had an issue when it came to house training. Why is it that Piper can't get with the program?"

"I buy all kinds of toys to fetch with and Boston doesn't seem interested at all. You remember how Eddie loved to fetch [me, nodding in agreement]—we would have to make him stop and take a break. What's wrong with Boston?" 

"Perry seems to get anxious when I leave for work. I never had that concern with my other dog—she was so easygoing. I just don't get it." 

There are a bazillion other comparisons, but they have one thing in common: they're unfair. 

Dogs are much like humans when it comes to their personalities, preferences and previous experience—they, as with fingerprints, are not alike. That's why it's vital to treat each dog (any pet, for that matter) like the individuals they are. The way that we interpret their behavior, how we interact with them and our expectations of them requires us to be free from the influence of our "last dog". Otherwise, we risk not allowing them to unfold freely and in many cases, we exacerbate problems or behaviors that are unwanted. Sure, it's helpful to use our previous experiences with pets to guide us in our relationship-building with the ones in our lives now. It's important to remember that dogs are not robots, but complex beings with emotions, drives and mental and physical capabilities that need to be considered as we discern if what we're seeing is first of all, really a problem and if so, why it's happening. Seeing things without the lenses that we've managed to leave our fingerprints all over serves both parties well. 

One of the first things out of my mouth when speaking with a pet owner when scheduling a meet and greet is, "Tell me about each of your pets... what are they like?". This enables me to better use the information about their care regimen and tailor the time I spend caring for them in an optimal way and avoid problems. The mental notes and dialogue abound! 

One family (they have previous life experience with dogs) that I tend to had four border collie mixes when we first met. The ages ranged from geriatric to young adult and their respective personalities were as diverse. Each was welcomed into the fold at different times, they had been given the space to unfurl naturally and continue to be who they are. The comparisons end at, "They're just different from each other." One lives to have a ball kicked to him so that he can bring it back to the human participant to do a hundred times over; another is a lively girl who appreciates her one-one-one attention and will do her best to get it; the third is one of the most sensitive dog I've ever known and has a keen ability to pick up on the energy of the others around him and then absorb it. Two summers have slipped by since the dog rounding out the tetrad—the oldest and most stubborn of "matriarchs" in her own right—passed away from age-related causes. All of the dog's personalities impress prominently, and despite that, the swirling of their personalities influence each other, at least a little. After the elder dog died, I could sense a palpable shift in the group's dynamic and most interestingly, they unfolded a little more individually. All of this has not been lost on the humans in their life: they can see it too, and adjust accordingly. 

This tribe—and how their human members allow them to develop and redevelop—is a fantastic example of one not afflicted by the "previous- or my other dog syndrome" that is all-too-easy to get sucked in to.

Though it'll be hard to not conjure thoughts of my life with Gretchen when I decide the time is right to welcome the next canine who I'll share life with, I'll spare myself the frustration of thinking they could never measure up to her. As importantly, I won't do anything to try detract from what made Gretchen unique by comparing how awesome they are. After all, I'll be a different human in many ways this next time around, and hopefully won't be under the proverbial comparative lens, and maybe, just maybe, I'll need some slack cut. 

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.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The ties that bind: giving familial dogs physical and mental space is essential for their emotional health

There's a point during our time together  — usually at the 5-to-7 day mark — when some of my canine charges start getting a little antsy with the change in their normal routine. That means I need to step things up a bit and adjust to keep them content. I'm all-too-happy to do what I can to make a companion animal comfortable while their people are away, and that can mean doing any number of things.In households with multiple dogs, this is something I need to be especially mindful of. 

We need not look much further than examining our own needs when it comes to thinking about how we can cultivate a sense of emotional well-being for our pets. Yes, as a species, dogs thrive on social bonds. But that doesn't mean they need to be immersed in contact with members of their own species constantly. It's all about balance. As someone who admittedly prizes alone time — something I know many of you can relate to — I can see its usefulness amongst the canines in my midst.

Unfortunately, there's so much emphasis on socialization and how familial dogs are buddies who so enjoy each other's company, the importance of their being individuals and having alone time can easily get brushed to the wayside. I find that not honoring that alone time for the pets who require it can create some real challenges for how well they fare and get along no matter if they are in their everyday schedule, if they're tagging along on a trip or if their family is away. 

It can be the similarities in our furry friend's personalities that can create tension — like their energy levels, their neediness, their play styles — that can make them feel a little squeezed mentally and physically when it comes to sharing their time and physical space. Ditto for sharing the humans in their lives. 

The same is true obviously when considering any differences. 

And though it's nothing new, it seems that more families are welcoming as many as 3 and 4 dogs into the fold. For some, especially newcomers who might have a little trouble adjusting to their new life, a little alone time can go a long way. There are few ways to approach it, and it's a matter of finding what fits. 

Don't underestimate the power of focused engagement

Giving dogs some of that valuable space can be as simple as taking a solo walk with them, or for a 10-minute game of fetch so that they have the ball all to themselves (or any favorite activity for that matter). The individual attention a dog gets from one of their humans —  this includes using one's voice, physical touch and eye contact — is vital.  I often take extra time for this with each of my charges, and I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in how they behave: they tend to focus better on listening and their happiness quotient increases dramatically. (I use a stuffed Kong to occupy the pets who aren't the center of my attention and might otherwise feel left out. As a positive distraction, this enhances the way they get to spend this time, too.)

Room to breathe 

There's something to be said for the benefits of dogs having that physical space that all of us crave now and again. I've a client with two dogs that-are very attached to each other. They're close in age, well-matched in athletic ability and activity levels, but in some ways, so very different. One is a little firecracker, with her non-stop desire to have in-your-face engagement and playtime with dogs and humans alike; the other, more reserved, stoic and quite happy to just sit and enjoy life from a quiet spot. Though they play well together, the latter really needs her alone time so that the former doesn't drive her crazy. That means separating them for periods during the day by putting them in different parts of the house. It's a strategy that works well for this and other families that I know. 

Loosening the ties that might bind 

In my experience, there are rare instances when two dogs are so bonded that they find it difficult to be away from each other, but even in this case alone time can be essential and easy to achieve. It's just a matter of perspective. Case in point: two of my canine charges would rather not be separated, but it's obvious that one of them has an appreciation for some alone time, and he plays well independently. He makes up games to entertain himself (I have to say I find it entertaining to watch), so while he's engaged in that, I keep his housemate — who is quite boisterous — occupied with some sort of activity on the other side of the room. This gives both animals a break from each other while not feeling the tension of being separated. 

While all of these strategies are useful all on their own, depending on your tribe's composition and needs, they can be used in conjunction with each other. However you can incorporate that feeling of freedom for your pets from being lumped together 24/7, you can be assured of a few positive benefits long term. 

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, May 18, 2016

Dog bite prevention is successful when rooted in facts, understanding canine body language

A frequent conversation that I have with someone who contacts me for the first time to care for their pet involves a lot of dialogue about their dog's behavior, and the better part of it is on the caller's part. 
"My dog has been labeled as 'aggressive' toward members of the staff of the doggie daycare that they attend and has been asked to not come back, but they are fine at home," or, "My pet is uneasy and becomes unmanageable on walks, or around new people or groups of people," are familiar statements. 
Some of these pets have snapped at people or even worse — bitten them.
Can you relate?
Many of my clients have called on me because they need a caregiver while they are away and they've been made to feel that they have a 'problem dog' and they're running out of options. The other arrangements have not worked out well for various reasons, but in most cases it's due to lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the pet care professionals, caregivers and even the family.   
When I say to that dog's human, "I understand — and it's common — but let's talk more about that so we can unpack why it might be happening. Surely there is a reasonable explanation for the behavior..." they tend to relax a bit after a bit of open and honest discussion about what behaviors that their furry friend is exhibiting, revealing a picture about the pet that they didn't expect. 
The first thing I ask is whether or not the dog has been evaluated by a veterinarian. Undiagnosed illness or pain can affect a pet's ability to interact the way they'd like. 

I'm happy to recommend a couple of reputable and certified training professionals who can help the family, which I do often.
Most of the time it just boils down to the fact that the dog hasn't attained the skills or have been given the space they need to navigate through these type of encounters (with both other pets and humans) and some are actually quite fearful. The dog's clear communication about how uncomfortable they're feeling in a given situation has been missed or ignored, and that can happen with any dog. They all have limits on what they're willing to tolerate. The sad reality is that misunderstanding these concepts or writing a dog off as 'aggressive' and leaving it at that can lead to situations where things escalate to a point when a dog bites someone — and that's never a good thing. 
An unfortunate misconception is that all dogs like each other. Taking your canine friend to a dog park, doggy daycare (or even a walk down a sidewalk that sees lots of foot traffic) is in my opinion a lot like one of us humans attending a cocktail party: there are some of us who can hang and interact with gusto, others can do so for only so long, while a few of us... well, our personalities are such that they're not well suited for that environment. And that's okay!
But, unfavorable interactions aren't limited to these settings. Anytime there is an opportunity for two or more dogs to meet or for a pooch to be close to a human, it can happen. 
But this leads me to address an important topic: May 15-21 is Dog Bite Prevention Week, and to highlight that it only seems fitting to talk about this totally preventable issue that has grown significantly in recent years. Here are a few things to think about. 
  •  4.5 million dog bites occur each year, and out of those, 800,000 seek medical attention.

  • Roughly half of those individuals are children are often, and they sustain the injuries that are the most severe — often bites to the head and neck.

  • The vast majority of victims were bitten by a dog that they knew, not a stray dog roaming the streets, contrary to popular belief.
Those statistics speak to me clearly, and illustrate some of my previous points on why most dog bites occur. These situations are preventable, and it comes down to humans (both kids and adults) understanding what facilitates them and how to best deal with a dog who bites.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, has offered some sage insight when it comes to dogs who bite.
One point that stands out is that, quite often, a dog is conveying to the human that he is uncomfortable, but said human is not understanding the message. It's up to us to learn the cues that dogs exhibit by way of body language.
This is especially important for kids, since they are the ones who fall in the demographic of often bitten most often. So, what factors create these dog bite cases? 
Many times, children have not learned how to approach a dog correctly and they don't know how to 'read' what a dog is saying when they communicate that they are not comfortable being approached. Other scenarios include a child approaching a sleeping pet — surprising them — or not understanding how to greet dogs. (Embedded in the text are great video links that you can watch with your children.)
On the other hand, many dogs who bite are fearful.
Yin explains this concept in a blog post.
Generally fearful dogs start off by trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But as they are confronted with scary situations repeatedly, they can learn that offense (barking, snapping, biting) is their best defense because it makes the scary people go away.
Fortunately, there are ways to help dogs learn how to navigate through encounters with humans that they find challenging, by way of desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC). And with some diligence, finesse and patience on the human's part, their dog can behave more confidently when it comes to being social, regardless of the situation. 
Yin gives more detail on this and other concepts, such as how canines can be taught to carry out proper replacement behaviors that are disparate with the fearful behavior they have become so familiar with exhibiting, in her blog post, 'Help, My Dog Bites! How to Deal with Dogs Who Bite'. 
Excellent resources related to the topic of preventing dog bites are included as well.
All dog bite situations happen because of an oversight on the part of a human. 
Canines need to be empowered to not be pushed to the point that they bite, no matter their size, age or the company they're in. That happens when the humans in their life (and in many respects, those who are unfamiliar to them) see to it that's the case. With diligence, proper education and understanding of canine behavior and body language — as well as ensuring that dogs are not placed in a situation where they will react by biting — we can keep everyone safe. 

Click here for more resources on Dog Bite Prevention Week.

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, May 11, 2016

Decorum is key to avoid unwanted interactions with people while walking your dog

Wherever I am walking with one of my canine charges, there are usually a few smiles. It's hard for most people to walk past a dog without grinning and making a favorable comment, right? It goes without saying that for some, it's hard to suppress the urge to want to pet the dog I'm chaperoning or to stop and make small talk — and who can blame them? Dogs are fun! 

I'll admit that I don't allow people — especially those who are unfamiliar and ditto for children — to approach or pet my charges, and that's for several reasons. Some of the dogs are not comfortable with that. Others may be recovering from surgery or are old (and may be experiencing things like cognitive dysfunction). A handful are well, a handful when interacting with others. But let's not forget that some folks, regardless of age, aren't very good at knowing how to get up close and personal to a dog with care and finesse. 

And any of that could be a recipe for trouble, (and that's not even including approaches from other dogs.)

Aside from that, it can be a challenge to keep some dogs on task, especially when the goal is to get them out for a walk to get their business done. 

I often need to speak up and advocate for my charges — and at times, myself for that matter as yes, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to stop and talk  — and forgo any interaction with a well-meaning human. I'm all too aware that doing so, I might seem unfriendly or it might be off-putting to the other person, and that's not something I want. It's just not my way. Depending on the situation, I might be honest and say something like, 'Oh, Bo isn't comfortable interacting with people, so if you don't mind...' or 'Sadie's eyesight isn't that sharp anymore so that makes her wary of being approached, so if you'll excuse us...', and admittedly my preference is to be honest because it does promote a level of awareness. 

I do find that one no-fail response is easy to give, is as simple as dipping into my well of neutrality and keeps my charge and I on track:

'You'll have to pardon us... we're in the middle of a training exercise. Thanks for understanding!' 

I don't think there is a person alive that would assert themselves any further upon hearing that.

The next time you're out with your dog and want to avoid an interaction, you might consider cheerfully exclaiming the same thing. It's kept many a busy day moving along smoothly for me and for many of my charges, happy and in their comfort zone.

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

Monday, May 2, 2016

Area vet to discuss strategies in caring for older pets at free event in Ann Arbor

Our companion animals are living longer, more full lives, and that's due to a few things: advances in medical care, nutrition, and no doubt a better understanding of their emotional needs. 

Dr. Alexander with a senior patient
But that doesn't mean that because a pet has been lucky enough to make it to their double-digit birthdays that we can slow up our pace of diligence when it comes to their needs. In fact, we need to step it up a bit. 

"It might be easy to dismiss them as old," says Dr. Lyssa Alexander, DVM. 

"But there's much that can be done today to help senior pets live longer, more comfortable lives."

And that's something that Alexander, who, along with Dr. Holly Zechar, DVM strives for at All Creatures Animal Clinic in Ann Arbor. In fact, it's a topic that Alexander will be discussing at a talk at Pet People —  located at 3330 Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor — later this month. The pet supply store expressed interest in hosting some lectures for pet owners to attend. So, that, coupled with the clinic's enthusiasm for being involved in educating the community, was a perfect fit. This is the second talk that Alexander has facilitated at the store. The first addressed inappropriate elimination with cats. 

It can be a challenge for pet owners to understand the changes that invariably occur over time. As Alexander tells it, one of the biggest issues that she sees can be, well, complicated. 

"Pets are often suffering from multiple disease processes, and it's not unusual to see  4-5 major issues. A pet might have something like chronic ear infections, but then arthritis and kidney failure are things that might be going on as well."

The key, as the doctor details, is to pay attention to everything that is going on but view the body and spirit as a whole, keep things in perspective and most importantly understand, 'What can we do for them?'

Other common issues that a companion animal may be be living with are cognitive dysfunction, chronic organ disease (the liver and kidneys are most notable) and cancer.

Alexander fleshed out another hurdle that senior pets face. 

"I see people who don't respect the fact that a pet is old, and have expectations that exceed what the pet is capable of." 

Understanding a pet's limitations — whether they're physical, mental or emotional — is the key in their overall comfort and longevity. Nevertheless, just because a pet isn't as able to get around or their vision or hearing may be somewhat diminished, it doesn't mean that their capacity to enjoy life and be connected to their surroundings needs to be. They just need go about doing so differently. And that's where their humans can help. 

"For cats, it may as simple as finding ways to keep them being able to access a window perch," says Alexander. 

With any species, she notes that "there's really good research that, just as with people, cognitive function can be enhanced with mental stimulation and enrichment."

A big part of that can be something as simple as making an effort to seek out our pets to interact and include them in our day to day activities as much as possible. And that can mean something as simple as inviting them to sit next to us on the couch as we read or watch television. Finding novel ways to interact, like with new games or a new twist on an old favorite can be a boost, too. 

It's not unusual for a senior pets senses to be dulled, and that extends beyond sight and hearing: appetite can be affected by a diminished sense of taste, and that's another facet of aging that will be addressed at the talk. 

Chronic kidney disease is something that many senior cats experience, and Alexander plans to touch on common approaches that can enhance a cat's well-being and are easy to do at home, like subcutaneous fluids. 

Attendees will of course have an opportunity to ask questions — something that's encouraged — with a Q&A session. 

Alexander points out that it's important for pet owners to remember that "'s very individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to pets and their senior years."

It's often a long and crooked line from a companion animal's segue into their senior years to end-of-life, and Alexander expressed how despite being mindful of all that happens in between, euthanasia is as important to discuss. 

"People feel so much of a burden when it comes to end-of-life. I talk about euthanasia long before the necessity is there. If it's done right, the process of euthanasia can be peaceful and comfortable."

The event at Pet People titled, How to Care for Older Pets is scheduled for Wednesday May 18, 2016 at 7:00PM. Admission is free, but space is limited so those interested in attending are asked to please RSVP by calling 734-677-6922.

Click here for more information.

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, April 27, 2016

Aquarist veterinarian's mission to educate people on proper care of aquarium fish goes beyond optimal diet

Fish are commonly kept as pets, though they don't seem to get the same amount of visibility when it comes to their care and overall needs. It doesn't seem fair that they need be inured by that notion. 

I was doing research for another piece on aquatic animals when I had the realization that perhaps I should focus on one core facet of their care that seems to be ignored: what they eat (or should be eating). Pet food is something that comes up often when I'm chatting with those that share life with dogs, cats and birds, but with fish, never. 

In my research, I discovered that there's a lot of information out there — pet stores, books and yes, the internet — and too much of it seemed questionable, so I decided to dig a bit deeper by seeking a reliable source.

Aquarist veterinarian Dr. Charlie Gregory has always been fascinated by the ocean and what goes on beneath the surface. And in a conversation with him, his enthusiasm about the creatures that inhabit a world that can seem quite foreign to us humans was quite clear.

Gregory, who is owner of Boynton Beach, Florida-based Healthy Aquatics notes that commercially-available pelleted and flake foods besides being easy to find are great for lots of reasons. They do, however, require care in how and where they're stored, and as I learned, you can go further in optimizing your aquatic animal's diet by incorporating variety with other foods — and it's easier to do than you might think.

Flakes and pellets

When comparing brands, Gregory notes that "it all comes down to ingredients." 

The first ingredients should include things like salmon, krill, plankton, protein sources such as that. Ideally, a protein content of 45-55% should be listed and good brands include Ocean Nutrition, New Life Spectrum Thera and Tetra. (That said, herbivorous fish, like tangs and blennies, don't require that percentage of protein and benefit from something like Ocean Nutrition 2 diet.)

Pellets have the advantage when it comes to ready-to-feed diets because less food is wasted — which not only saves money and product, but results in a cleaner tank. Don't neglect a detail like the size of pellet that you're offering: large pellets for large fish, medium for the medium-sized creatures and of course, small for the littlest members of the tank. Pellets need to be able to be swallowed whole in one bite.
flickr photo by FromSandToGlass

Flakes are especially helpful where small ones are concerned, as they are manageable for the fishes' smaller size. But in this case, Gregory clarifies, use the big flakes. 

The integrity of these two types of food is crucial. To keep the food fresh, appealing and safe to eat, the suggestion is to keep only what you'll need for a week's supply in a resealable container that's airtight, and the rest in the freezer or refrigerator. 

Changes in temperature and humidity can adversely affect the quality of the product, and spoilage can result over time. 

"Things like the Omega-3 fatty acids break down easily, and aside from that, fungus can grow — and that's not something you want in your tank," Gregory says.

And as he points out, forgoing the super-size containers of fish food is a big help. Purchase smaller containers, and do so more often.

Other healthy choices 

Nori isn't just for making sushi — this variety of seaweed is another healthful option. So long as as the nori is plain (no seasonings of any kind, please), you're in good shape. Simply attach a piece to the side of the tank with a suction cup clip made for this purpose. 

Skip the store-bought frozen food that you can buy from pet stores and make your own. Because you'll be using human-grade ingredients, the quality is optimal. Gregory encourages people to head to the supermarket for fresh seafood or grab a bag of frozen mix. Shrimp, scallops, squid, clams are perfect choices. A few pulses in a blender or food processor — again, taking into consideration the size of fish in your tank — and adding a little plain gelatin, which acts as a binder and protects the integrity of the food while in the freezer, is all it takes. Spoon the mixture into ice cube trays (think regular size for large tanks, mini cube trays for small aquariums) freeze and store in sealed freezer bags for up to a year. 

More food for thought 

Live food, like feeder fish should be avoided and for good reason: they are often cultivated poorly and can introduce disease into your otherwise healthy tank. 

"Over feeding is a common problem," adds Gregory, who says that not only does wasted food contribute to algae growth in the tank, but unhealthy weight in the fish. 

"You would be surprised at how little food fish really need to be healthy."

His rule: in an average-sized tank (5-20 fish) introduce only enough food that the fish can eat in about 10 seconds. To help them — goldfish and triggerfish, most notably — avoid swallowing air as they eat, dip your finger into the water to tap the food and let it tumble down instead of allowing it to float on top. 

It seemed important to ask about how to handle having your fish fed while you're on vacation. 

"Fish won't starve in 2-3 days," and erring on frugality when it comes to feeding while you're away can help avoid an algae problem, something that seems to happen if someone else is at the helm. For long periods of time, be very specific with your directives on amounts and frequency, and you could always pre-portion and label rations.

Educating the public-at-large

Though helping people understand proper care of their aquatic species is an ongoing passion in Gregory's work — part of his time is spent with residential clients with an average tank to organizations with large public aquariums — he also has his sights set on doing the same with the next generation. 

"We're working to ramp up the education side now — working with the schools, including those in Palm Beach." 

Aside from the marine biology presentations at local schools, the professional team at Healthy Aquatics also offers hands-on event experiences on marine biology at their facility in Boynton Beach. Educational excursions to local ecological sites and more are also available. 

As Gregory emphasizes, these unique creatures are not 'pets'.

"They are living things, and deserve to be treated as such."

Click here for more information on Healthy Aquatics and the services and programs they offer. 

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.