Monday, December 29, 2014

Monitoring skin masses on pets can be easier using a common tool

As someone who cares for other people's pets on a daily basis, I can tell you that my smartphone is an invaluable tool and I am never without it. I can stay in touch with my clients easily, make last-minute changes to my schedule on the fly — or even check the ever-changing weather forecast.

It is an essential tool in the direct care of my charges. One example is simple but helps me stay on track: if I have a suddenly finicky eater (whether it is behavioral or health related, many pets tend to eat a bit less when their people are away), I can take a photo of their feeding bowl in the evening to see how much food they might have consumed overnight. When I can return early in the morning, I can look in their bowl and compare.

Caring for pets effectively is all in the details, whether you are a pet owner, a veterinarian or a caregiver.

Any change that one sees with their pet is important, but there is one that can cause considerable concern: skin masses.

Some are benign, others malignant. At times they can progress at a snail's pace, which can lead us to feel like there isn't much to pursue. Skin masses can also appear suddenly and grow swiftly. Then, of course, we feel compelled to get to the vet and take action right away.

The truth is, when any skin mass shows up, we don't really know what's going on beneath the surface.

Many are lipomas — frequently referred to as fatty tumors — which tend to not cause issues and can disappear and reappear as quickly. Not all fall into this category, though as the lumpy bump could be something more pressing, for example, a mast cell tumor (MCT). Gretchen has had one for years that I decided to leave alone. My Lab, Bruiser, who has since passed, had a MCT that emerged and then grew to the size of a grapefruit overnight and needed surgical removal. (Bruiser also had fatty tumors that would come and go.)

It's understandable for financial or other reasons, that when a companion animal makes a visit to the vet's office and there's a skin mass is in question, that a wait-and-see approach is necessary.

That said, it could be kind of difficult for some pet owners to judge how large or small a skin mass looks on any given day when compared to the week before should they decide to forgo an immediate biopsy as gradual changes in reduction or growth can be hard to detect.

Using a simple trick can help mitigate that problem, and help with the compliance that your vet needs to help your pet be their best.

The solution: using your smartphone, take a weekly picture of the lump — with a ruler beneath to help give more accuracy with regard to size and shape. You'll feel more empowered when dialoguing with your clinician, and they will appreciate the clear communication. After all, their goal is to help your pet be healthy and comfortable.

Click here for other ways that your smartphone can be a useful tool in caring for your pet.

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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Area safe haven & hospice devoted to cats with feline leukemia also aims to educate people on prevention

There's a population of cats whose immune systems are so profoundly affected by a virus that it puts them at risk of developing other diseases like blood cancers, anemia and fatal infections — usually upper respiratory — and because of that, it greatly shortens their lifespan.

Feline Leukemia, a retrovirus, abbreviated as FeLV (and referred to as "fee loo") is highly contagious among felines, though it's important to note that it's not transmissible to other animals nor humans.

FeLV is also preventable. Why it is then that the virus continues to infect cats?

That's actually a complex question to answer, but really, it boils down to human responsibility.

Cats can be vaccinated for FeLV (dependent on individual risk and exposure), but for many reasons, that doesn't happen, whether it's because cat owners are lax about having their pet's vaccinations completed or kept up to date — if they're are done at all.

Failure to sterilize pet cats compounds the issue, not to mention the overpopulation problem as a whole, and the rate at which felines can reproduce.

The failure to sterilize cats is a multi-faceted contributor: intact male cats have a penchant for fighting other males no matter if they are feral, stray or simply allowed to venture outside, and in many cases resulting in direct contact through bites (the virus is spread through saliva and other body fluids). The virus can also be transmitted during mating, grooming and infected mothers can pass the disease to their kittens.

Kittens have immune systems that are far less sophisticated than adult cats, and are at special risk.

"If we can get kittens to their first birthday, that's fantastic," says Leona Foster, founder of Ann Arbor-based Leuk's Landing.

Leuk's Landing serves as a permanent safe haven for FeLV-positive cats of all ages, and has done so since 2007. It's also a cat hospice, as it's not uncommon for resident cats there to die within two years of arriving. Foster does not adopt out the cats that come into the facility — it's too hard to successfully rehome FeLV-positive cats because of the virus' transmissibility to other healthy family cats.

Foster's idea for the organization came after wanting to do something more meaningful than besides simply having a successful career. She loves cats — she has a handful of her own at home — and after chatting with her veterinarian, Dr. Tina Kaufeld who noted that there was a niche that needed filling, she felt moved to create the sanctuary, which is one of only 20 or so in the country devoted to cats with FeLV.

With a current residency of 36 cats, Foster gets calls from cat owners, shelters and rescues from all over the country with inquiries about space at Leuk's Landing for 'just one more cat'. After noting that there is currently a waiting list of 45-50 cats, it's hard to ignore the noticeable tinge of angst in her voice.

"I have to say 'no'; it's so hard," but in order to keep things manageable in the organization, it's necessary.

"Stress is the number one enemy of cats with this disease."

With over 35 cats in residence, it's easy to see how things could get dicey in close quarters. The cats get along surprisingly well, as Foster tells it, despite their having different histories.

Though Leuk's Landing is a 501(c)(3) non profit organization and is funded by donations, Foster also spends a considerable amount of her own money to get the things necessary to help the animals. Veterinary needs are a large part of the budget.

Then there's the nitty-gritty work. Volunteers fill in the gaps with daily chores and one-on-one time needed with each cat — with Foster doing plenty of the hands-on work — which includes feeding, medicating, tending to litter boxes and of course cleaning. Ensuring that feeding dishes and the like are properly sanitized is a must.

Spending individual time with the cats is therapeutic not only for the animals, but the humans. Foster says that despite the emotional hardship that comes with doing this sort of thing, it's of course tremendously rewarding, even on one's worst day. In fact, as Foster and I chatted, one of the cats BeeGee, was on her lap, luxuriating in the attention. He and the other residents are not unlike any other cats without the disease in that regard: they love in interact, to play, to be with humans. They just need that extra bit of care to stay as healthy as possible, for as long as possible. If you're at Leuk's Landing, though, the end usually comes before too long. It's hard, but Foster keeps things in perspective.

"These guys just love life. In looking at them, you just say to yourself, 'If they can do it, then we [as humans] can.' You can change, you can adapt... you can acclimate to what life brings."

She explained that before a cat is accepted into the sanctuary, it must be absolutely clear that they are FeLV-positive. Sometimes the test, called an ELISA test, can be wrong, and testing two or three times is sometimes necessary to ensure that the reading is correct.

It's sad, "hearing the number of situations when an animal control or shelter have a cat that tests positive once, then they decide to move forward and euthanize immediately."

She goes on to say that happens a lot with mother cats and their young offspring. (It seems important to interject that just because one or more in the group tests positive, it doesn't mean that each one actually has the disease.) It's understandable that so many cats given the diagnosis are euthanized, given the level of detail, care and resources that is needed to ensure that an infected cat stays healthy, and cats free from the disease stay that way.

Foster's voice noticeably brightens when she reflects on what has changed for the better the years since the sanctuary opened.

"I'm finding that more and more people are willing to give these cats a chance," and she credits social media and the Internet as a whole in dispelling myths that are perpetuated about cats with the disease — and in helping to educate people about how to prevent it.

For more on Leuk's Landing, click here.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer, most recently as a contributor for The Ann Arbor News. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Addressing obesity in dogs may be more nuanced than previously thought, according to new study

A new study reveals that obesity in humans and canines share similarities, including one that's unexpected.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, an abstract fleshes out the study. 14 beagles were included — seven of them fed a commercial food to increase their weight (which happened, they gained about 11 lbs. each), while seven other beagles were fed a restricted amount of the same food to maintain their optimal weight.

After six months, researchers tested the fecal samples of all of the dogs. Those who were at an optimal weight had higher amounts of desirable microbes called Firmicutes in the gut, while dogs in the other group harbored more Proteobacteria, a less-favorable Gram-negative bacteria.

The obese dogs also had a less diverse level of intestinal microflora than their thin counterparts, which is also been demonstrated in humans.

It's thought that Proteobacteria may lead to an increase in lipopolysaccharides (which form a protective membrane within the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria) — something that has a negative effect on the immune system of mammals and has even been tied to weight gain in mice.

Though more research is needed to further understand the role of gut bacteria and weight in dogs, it seems to make sense to keep our pets on the lean side, as it appears that doing so allows for more-favorable types of Firmicutes to thrive, while staving off the growth of Proteobacteria.

Here's another theory stemming from the study: the decrease of serotonin in obese dogs may increase the likelihood of keeping the weight on, as the neurotransmitter increases appetite.

Optimal body condition also helps to add to a pet's overall health — one of the most important being the reduction of the effects of arthritis, as less weight means less stress on the joints. Click here for my interview with Crystal Eberly, DVM of Washtenaw Veterinary Hospital more on strategies to safely reduce weight in dogs.

For more on other findings of the study, Association of Obesity with Serum Leptin, Adiponectin, and Serotonin and Gut Microflora in Beagle Dogs, click here.

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, November 24, 2014

Life hack: create a sling to help support your dog's hindquarters when walking

It's not surprising that those who share lives with pets by and large, aren't opposed to spending money when it's related to their animal companion. When it comes to toys, food, enrichment, training for the family, paying up has increased tremendously.

This holds true for the health and comfort of pets, too, and anyone who has a pet with a medical condition or issues related to aging can attest to the added costs of medications, equipment and supplies.

My pooch, Gretchen — a St. Bernard/Shepherd mix — is 15 years of age and falls into the latter category. Over the past few months, there have been changes with her health that one would expect, so tweaking medication regimens, adding therapies and using products to help with her mobility has been an ongoing part of the process. While most of these things have been relatively affordable, others have been quite costly (though the benefit has far surpassed the money that has been spent; more on that at a later time) and being mindful of what's helpful and what's not is key.

Spending money in the right places is a huge part the success of a care regimen, and anytime I am able to save some money or repurpose an item, I'm there.

Using a support sling temporarily has been necessary a couple of times in Gretchen's life, as she has pinched a nerve in her spine (which is quite long) or when she has strained a muscle. A sling is super-helpful in keeping the spine aligned as a dog goes up or down stairs, or offering assistance in walking if the rear legs are weak or injured. Designed with two handles (usually adjustable to accommodate the human's height) to securely support a dog's hindquarters, they are simple and easy to use and can be found better pet stores.

(I do keep a large beach towel in my day bag that can be used in a pinch should a canine charge unexpectedly require a little temporary assistance. I simply fold it into quarters lengthwise to fashion into a sling.)

The other day, Gretchen pinched a nerve in her spine at an appointment, so once again using a sling had become necessary, so I borrowed one from the facility we were at. Though she had recovered from the injury quickly, using a sling for a few more days seemed smart. Rather than purchase one, I had a better idea: why not somehow repurpose a reusable cloth shopping bag? They're durable, they can support a fair amount of weight and best of all, they're inexpensive.

I have several bags around the house, so I set about fashioning one, and all I needed was a pair of scissors. By cutting out the sides of the bag, I have a nifty sling that is useful and easy on the pocket book. For added comfort, a little fleece could certainly be added to the sling with Velcro adhesive strips to keep it in place.

These bags are relatively inexpensive when purchased new, but to be even more thrifty, consider looking for used ones at garage sales or your local thrift shop.

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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fine-tune your approach when offering treats to better communicate with a dog that is too motivated by food

I often use food rewards when I'm with my canine charges, and I do so for various reasons. It might seem like being a caregiver to animals is strictly a fun and carefree endeavor, but it's serious business and there's much work to be done each day to keep everyone on schedule, comfortable, and having the cooperation of my four-legged friends is essential.

It's common for them to want to linger a bit longer in their backyard on visits, or not focus as well on walks when they're dealing with a slightly different schedule than they are used to. In cases like these, using treats to persuade a pooch is valuable, as most dogs (but no, not all in my experience) are quite motivated by food.

Occasionally I'll be caring for a dog that is a little too focused on getting edible rewards. I find that one cause is the chronic reliance on treats by their people (as opposed to using a combination of praise, play and treats as rewards), the timing of the food reward and the value of it.

One example of this is demonstrated by one of my charges: she's a dog that won't do anything without a food reward, even at five years of age and having gone though basic positive reinforcement training. Most of the time she'll spaz out and commence to performing any number of commands that she thinks I might be asking for — a combination of sit/down/high five in rapid succession — hoping that any number of those might elicit the yummy treat she knows that I might have in my possession, as her people usually do.

There are a couple of things that can help resolve the issue of a misplaced focus, and they're easy to implement.

Right on time

As we know with positive reinforcement training, it's crucial to have a dog's undivided attention and focus when working with them. Treats are a big part of that but it's our timing of doling them out that best communicates with them. To do this, ask for the behavior that you want, ensuring that you don’t reach for the food until the dog has performed it correctly. Using the clicker or verbal marker is important because that is a consistent precursor to what they want — the reward. Always click or mark, then reach for the food or have it ready in your hand behind your back. (Poor timing is most definitely the root of the problem with my charge, as is the overuse of treats.)

Don't let a dog's sense of smell trump your requests

If it's one thing that I know, not all treats are created equal, and I use them all differently for that reason. Some are crunchy, others soft while a few stimulate super-high value real estate in the brain because they have a powerful aroma.

Potent-smelling treats are a boon and as a pro, I know to save them to have as a secret weapon in motivating reluctant or skittish dogs. Otherwise most dogs can't pay attention to me, my voice and what I need them to do; they're only interested in the yummy bits of food and expect me to be a human Pez dispenser. Instead, I use less-valuable food treats that don't over-stimulate their olfactory system.

Incorporating the use of the appropriate treat rewards (or better yet a combination of treats, lavish praise or a quick game with a favorite toy to keep a dog on their toes) and timing the reward and marker properly can help you to better communicate with your four-legged friend.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular 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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Helping dogs overcome their fear of car rides can be simple but it takes patience, time

From the time Gretchen was a tiny pup, she has spent time traveling in the car frequently. My desire to take road trips with her was a driving force behind that, so making even the shortest car rides a pleasurable experience was something that I worked at making happen.

In the 15 years since I brought her home, we've taken many trips — and there have been car rides to other people's homes, the park, the pet store and more frequently these days, trips to a local facility for laser therapy to address her advanced arthritis, which she enjoys (more on that later).

Through it all, Gretchen has enjoyed her car rides because almost always, good things happen (sometimes these days that means the two of us splitting a small order of fries from the drive-thru after laser therapy).

That said, a lot of people have dogs that they have welcomed into their family that are not so fond of a vehicular outing, and it's understandable: cars can be noisy, over-stimulating and disorienting — plus, there's the scary unknown. Bad experiences can result in lots of nervous panting, drooling or even vomiting on the part of our pet friends.

If you're in that camp, rest assured that you can help your reluctant pooch make friends with the thing on four wheels.

First, consider that your furry pal might have an aversion to car rides because of motion sickness or even anxiety, so a visit with the vet is in order to see if medication can help.

If not, the anxiety that they are feeling is likely because they are simply afraid.

Here's how to help mitigate any reservations that your dog might have:

  • Demonstrate that the car is something positive. Start by approaching your vehicle while it's parked and the engine is off. Playing their favorite game near it and around it will create a positive association, as will offering high value treats.
  • Give them autonomy. Open the doors of the car before you climb in calmly, but cheerfully. Invite them to join you in the same manner, all the while offering high value treats and praise. Consider feeding a favored food once they venture inside. Keeping the doors open allows your pet the freedom to make choices will help increase his confidence. It will also give you a barometer to measure how they're feeling about things,
  • A Kong toy filled with food to enjoy while in the car might further enhance positive associations. If your pooch decides to exit the vehicle, kindly retrieve the toy from them and put it in the car in plain view. This will demonstrate that the vehicle is the place where fun things happen.
  • Transferring a positive association can be helpful. If your dog has a good relationship with their crate, you might consider putting one that they're familiar with in the car. Be sure to keep the door to the crate open, as this will offer the autonomy to get in and out as they wish.
  • When you observe that your pet has made friends with the new environment, it's time to take the next step: being inside the car with the engine running. How you do this is crucial. With you and your four-legged friend happily settled in somewhere in the backseat area of the vehicle, (and making sure that the radio is off), have a person that your pet trusts get in and calmly start the car. Sit with them while rewarding with yummy treats, or play with a valued toy and praise. You won't be driving anywhere, just allowing them to get used to the sound and feeling of the running engine. Remember, it's all about positive associations.
  • Once your dog gets the hang of how that feels, you can begin taking short drives, (preferably where there isn't too much stimulation, like lots of traffic or people or animals), and then gradually increasing the distance and intensity of visual and auditory stimulation. (Some dogs do really well with the help of calm, relaxing music playing on the stereo during their car rides.)
  • Ensuring that these first outings always end on a positive note is key, so something like a walk in a favorite park or some interactive playtime back at home would in order.
  • After implementing these fun and easy tips, it isn't too long before the time comes when most dogs get really comfortable with the family vehicle and then of course you'll need to spell out C-A-R R-I-D-E.

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Scientists discover that reptiles may have more sophisticated cognitive ability that facilitates learning new skills

The way that animals interact with the world around them has long fascinated us, and most often we as pet owners are focused on behavior and ability to learn when it comes to our dogs and cats — as well as a fair share of those who have horses and birds.

What may not be on our radar is that other species that are kept as pets — reptiles, like the bearded dragon, specifically — may also use a type of learning to gain new skills that only other animals were known employ: social learning.

In the past, it was thought that only certain species of animals (as an example, primates and canines) were capable of using social learning.

Researchers discovered that reptiles, bearded dragons, as they witnessed in a new study, likely use social learning through imitation as well — something that has not been noticed before.

The study, called Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps), was recently published in the journal Animal Cognition and used 12 bearded dragons that had never been used in experiments in cognition.

Researchers from the United Kingdom, Eötvös University in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna were behind the study.

Because it's known that reptiles and mammals evolved from a common ancestor, sorting out the two group's similarities and differences in behavior is of interest to help flesh out the overall evolution of cognition.

Lead researcher from The School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, Anna Wilkinson expanded a bit on the topic.

"The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the pinnacle of social learning and long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. However, nothing is known about these abilities in reptiles. This research suggests that the bearded dragon is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms — such as an individual being drawn to a certain location because they observed another in that location or through observational learning. The finding is not compatible with the claim that only humans, and to a lesser extent great apes, are able to imitate."

It's important to clarify that in discussing cognition, imitation (in other words, mimicking what is seen, as well as comprehending the intention behind the action), differs from emulation, or simply parroting behavior without understanding that there might be a desired outcome that will result.

To do the study, researchers used one lizard that was trained to demonstrate the act of opening a wire door which concealed a hole that was cut in a wooden board. The door could be slid to left or right by using their head or the foot. After opening the door, the lizard was given a food reward.

The other lizards were divided into two groups: experimental and control.
The experimental subjects watched the lizard used to demonstrate the activity (using their head to open the door), and each of them went on to imitate it successfully.
Subjects in the control group did not imitate it, nor did they observe the demonstrator lizard manipulate the door.

"This, together with differences in behavior between experimental and control groups, suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms. These results reveal the first evidence of imitation in a reptile species and suggest that reptiles can use social information to learn through imitation."

Click here for more on the study.

Archerfish are also known to use social learning to gain skills in going after food, according to a recent article on

You can watch one of the experimental lizards in the study imitate the behavior.

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Recent study reveals surprising details about ingredients in pet food

What's in the food that our families eat is undoubtedly something that more of us are conscious of these days, and it's not limited to the bipeds in the tribe: what goes into the mouths of our furry and feathered friends is of concern, too.

There are more choices on the market when it comes to pet food and I know all too well that there is much contention (and plenty of people willing to offer their unsolicited opinions!) about which type of food is best. Walk into any pet store and you can really see the proverbial fur fly; when I'm browsing the aisles, I usually hear at least one patron or employee soliciting unfounded, cringeworthy advice about why one brand or type is better than the other.

Despite the number of recalls of all kinds that are posted on the Food and Drug Administration's website in a given month, the acerbic banter about how evil the most well-known pet food companies are is fed like a coal furnace with the help of the pet food recalls that are issued, though most commonly they are voluntary and done as a precaution by the company.

A recent study could give people more to consider when it comes to ruminating about the food that they are giving their pets: there's a possibility that the ingredients in the pet food could be mislabeled.

“Although regulations exist for pet foods, increases in international trade and globalization of the food supply have amplified the potential for food fraud to occur,” said Rosalee Hellberg, Ph.D., who co-authored the study, titled Identification of Meat Species in Pet Foods Using a Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Assay.

"With the recent discovery of horsemeat in ground meat products sold for human consumption in several European countries, finding horsemeat in U.S. consumer food and pet food products is a concern, which is one of the reasons we wanted to do this study.”

Interestingly, 40% of the foods that were tested were mislabeled (20 out of 52). Here are some more highlights from the study:

  • 13 were dog food and 7 were cat food
  • 16 of the total tested were found to contain meat species that weren't on the product label
  • pork was the most common undeclared meat species

DNA was extracted from the 52 products was tested to see which of eight meat species — beef, goat, lamb, chicken, goose, turkey, pork or horse — were present.

The results concluded that chicken was the most common meat species found in the pet food products, followed by pork, beef, turkey and lamb. Goose was at the bottom of the list.

Horse meat was not detected in any of the tested samples.

More studies are needed to determine just how far the incidence of mislabeling goes, as well as seeing where it occurs during production.

Pet foods are regulated at the federal and state level. The Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates animal feed and pet foods. While the United States Department of Agriculture regulates the interstate transportation and processing of animal products, as well as the inspection of animal product imports and exports. At the state level, Departments of Agriculture also conducts testing — in fact this is where problems have been detected in some recent pet food recalls.

Though the brands tested were not disclosed, mislabeling does raise an obvious cause for concern: many pets are on limited ingredient formulas because of allergies.

“Pet food safety was another area of concern, particularly with pet foods that are specifically formulated to address food allergies in both cats and dogs,” noted Dr. Hellberg.

Click here for more on the study, which was co-authored by Tara A. Okuma, was recently published in the journal Food Control.

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, October 6, 2014

Having the courage to face reality is key when helping any pet in their twilight or during a grave illness

"I am seeing that my dog doesn't do as well when we travel and aren't able to take them with us, and wanted to ask about how you might be able to help..."

This is something that I often hear from those that share life with aging dogs, and for good reason: they know their pet better than anyone.

Pets experience all kinds of changes throughout their lifetime, and we spend so much of our time with them that it seems easy to pick up on when they might be having trouble — or is it?

The answer to that depends on a lot of things: our previous experience, the pet, the species — even our willingness to do so.

With regard to the latter statement, I'm not suggesting that we're stubbornly refusing to do what is reasonably mindful for our furry friends. Rather, perhaps it's subconscious. It can be difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that a pet is changing in little ways, or more profoundly.

In some respect, we've probably all done it, or will: we don't want to face the prospect that they might be in pain or that cognitively they are slipping a bit or we know that we need to stop procrastinating on having a conversation with the vet even though we instinctively know that there is a dire health issue unfolding. Perhaps we feel like there isn't good communication between ourselves and the clinician and we don't know how to navigate through that. Family dynamics often muddle things when it comes to addressing pivotal or even minor changes with our pets. It can even be easy to let ourselves off the hook by writing things off as a normal part of aging, when we know that there's more to our pet's story.

What does facing the changes that we're seeing mean for us? That's certainly a fair question, because we're one part of the equation, and we're socially bonded to our companion animals.

Sometimes it means crafting a different life, a new routine; acquiring a new skill in caring for our pets; thinking not in terms of years, but months or weeks; having to summon the courage to open up a tough conversation with another family member who might be resistant to what is happening; facing the fact that a chapter in our lives will be closing.

Being honest is hard, I know that all too well. I'm incredibly bonded with all of my charges and over the years, specializing in the care of aging pets because of my day-to-day experience has become the norm. And with two aging pets at home, there's a double dose of everyday reality.

Coming to terms with our pet's changing needs spurs us to re-evaluate our definition of what "doing well" is — "the new normal", I call it. It's surprising how different that looks in short periods of time.

With the right care, our pet's lives can be comfortable, happy and full while navigating their twilight or through a grave illness. None of that happens optimally without our having the courage to speak up on their behalf.

Many have articulated that what's most surprising is once the honestly hurdle is crossed, there is a weight that is lifted — the one that is worn like an albatross around the neck. If we give ourselves the opportunity, we come to see that though these changes are moving us and our pets in a direction that we don't want to go, life can still be enjoyed, just differently.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular 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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

One teachable skill can avoid resource guarding in dogs, but it can be tweaked for other situations

There is one scenario that presents itself regularly in my daily adventures with dogs, and it can vary anywhere between being benign, disgusting or downright dangerous: I need to retrieve an item from the animals's possession — their mouth, more precisely — and typically in fast order.

I could be on a walk with a charge and they discover a dead animal, a prescription pill enveloped in a yummy treat could inadvertently drops on the floor as I am preparing to dole it out to another pet in the family, or I might to need to get a prized chew toy away from a furry pal before they devour it whole.

Ideally, a pet has been taught to "leave it" — one of the most valuable skills that a dog can have in their repertoire in my opinion —but quite honestly, the item that they have in their mouth might be of really high value to them, they might not be as reliable as we would like in giving it up (especially if there is another dog close by).

In any case, grabbing the item might prove to be too gross or as it is most often, unsafe.

Instead, I make a "trade" with the dog: one high-value thing for another, usually a yummy edible treat, though it could be a coveted toy that they don't get often.

It goes without saying that every dog has their favorite edibles, so taking that into consideration and having them handy before proceeding is helpful. Is it a crunchy dog biscuit? A soft, meaty treat? A nibble of dried liver? A piece of cheese? Maybe it's a chunk of apple.

This teachable skill, which can also stave off the problem of resource guarding, can be practiced giving your pooch a toy or other object that she likes to play with. With the toy in her mouth, offer up a high-value treat and as she drops the toy to take the treat, use verbal marker, like “yes!” and feed her the treat. Then give her back the toy.

If she's on the fence about complying, use something that's higher in value and try that or you might consider scattering several treats on the floor.

As with any other new skill, practice often but make it fun.

Quite honestly most of my charges are not good at this skill, but I still employ this process in a modified form to get the job done. Does it teach the dog anything? No. But that's not my aim. It's just a Plan B and one that is geared to keep everyone safe. In fact, my Lab, Bruiser, was impossible to teach "trade" to and resource guarding was one issue that could never be successfully resolved with him, but this modified tactic worked well with him.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles.

That said, with my ever-present pocket-full of high value treats, I'm always ready to handle a scenario that might avail itself and quickly so.

I stand in front of the dog, get their attention with a quick call of their name, show them the treat/treats (making sure they get a whiff of them as well) by waving them gently about while calmly but enthusiastically asking, "Would you like a treat?". At this point my furry friend will either stand still with said object in their mouth, pondering the decision. They might drop the item, at which point I feed them a couple of treats to keep their mouth busy, offering a verbal "good job!" as a distraction, both of which give me time to pick it up safely or allow us to move away from the dead something if we're on a walk.

If all else fails, tossing a couple of treats on the floor but away from their body can be convincing and with some dogs, a safer choice.

I often use the latter technique to distract overly-enthusiastic dogs who simply can't self-regulate when playing a game of fetch. Getting head-butted, clocked in the face accidentally or having my fingers nipped by a large breed dog is something I'd like to avoid, so getting them to drop the toy and moving away from me so that I can grab it will keep the fun going.

Though canines can be taught a multitude of skills in order to live harmoniously with their human counterparts and to keep them safe, we can at times use a process behind the skill to achieve a favorable outcome as well.

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Staying safe when tending to certain tasks that could make your dog ill-at-ease is a must

During the cold or soggy months I joke that I feel like a kindergarten teacher because I spend much of my time bent over putting on dog booties or drying off wet paws, or putting on or removing a charge's fleece jackets.

I get a few laughs from saying that, but in truth it can be a very dangerous situation for me: my face is level to a dog's body, and more easily within reach of my charge's teeth. You get the picture.

The fact is, just like you, I spend a lot of time in physical contact with the dogs in my care all year whether it's putting on a collar, harness or leash, checking them over for ticks or burrs after an adventure or tending to a minor (or goodness forbid) a more serious injury.

Though I am confident that my charges by and large are behaviorally safe around their bonded humans (including myself), there are times that my touching them might become uncomfortable for some reason — or be downright painful, and as you know, canines often try to hide their pain. If I locate an especially painful area that I'm not privy to and/or startle the dog, they can easily act out in response to the pain. This kind of thing is especially prevalent in arthritic dogs.

I don't get up-and-close to my canine friends in a casual way: believe me, there is mindfulness behind my close interaction, though it might seem quite off-the-cuff (years of doing so and relationship-building helps!).

Whether I'm interacting with a fearful or anxious dog, or one that is fine with being touched, I make a point to follow these rules:

Give fair warning: As I build a rapport with a dog, I touch them a lot, an act that builds trust: petting, rubbing their ears, scratching their rump — things that most dogs find positive. As I get to know them, it's then that I incorporate the word "touch" immediately prior to my performing tasks that they not find as favorable, like checking for ticks or burrs, putting on booties or if I am having a look at things around their head or face. The dogs in my care seem to catch onto this quickly and appreciate it.

Keep their mouth busy: Yes, I use a lot of treats in my work and for good reason — they work! In this case, I have them munch on some dog treats as I set about tending to whatever it is that they might not find favorable. If they are happily munching away on a yummy treat, they are less likely to be paying attention as closely to me, they'll associate what I'm doing as something positive and honestly, it's harder to snap or bite if your mouth is full.

Position strategically: Whenever possible, it's ideal to approach a dog from the side, and facing the same direction as they are, as opposed to approaching from from the front. This conveys, "We're working on doing this together, and I'm honoring your space.". (Fearful or anxious canines benefit from this greatly.)

Pay attention to body language: dogs use non-verbal language and they speak clearly when they are uncomfortable. If I see that a dog is not okay with what I'm doing, I stop and give them space. Click here to get a better understanding of how dogs tell us when they are having difficulty in social situations and otherwise.

With a fluid action, If I'm attaching a harness around a dog, as an example, I will have a couple of treats in one hand, the harness in the other, and as I approach I'll say, "Okay, here we go! Touch..." (as I pop a treat into their mouth with my right hand as I slip the harness around their facial area, then another treat as I fasten the harness and clip the leash.)

Staying safe when interacting with my charges, large or small is paramount. By incorporating these tips, you can do the same while trust-building all the while.

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When giving pets oral medication, using their natural tendencies to persuade them is essential

One of the most common tasks that I need to ensure gets done when caring for my charges is giving any medication. Though a few meds are dispensed as a suspension, as a transdermal gel or even by injection (something that I had to begin recently with both of my pets), pills or capsules are the most common mode of delivery.

This doesn't make most animals feel especially cooperative, as many a pet owner can attest -- especially when it comes to the latter. Their size and shape can make things a bit more challenging.

There's a bit of an art to making the task of taking meds stress-free for dogs and cats, and as a caregiver to many four-legged charges, I've figured out a couple of tricks to facilitate this.

Dogs can be pretty easygoing when it comes to administering pills, as they are food motivated and believe me — I take full advantage of that. For most dogs, pill pockets work well, though some dogs get wise to the tactic so mixing things up a bit and employing a stealthy technique can be helpful.

There are a variety of things that you can use as treats to act as a foil for medications as most dog treats aren't soft enough to work with.
  • Cheese cubes (co-jack is ideal, because of it's soft, smushy yet firm texture)
  • a gob cream cheese
  • a piece of hot dog that's cut just big enough to hide the pill in
  • liverwurst (or cooked chicken livers that have been mashed and formed into balls)
  • a regular-sized marshmallow
  • a gob of Daiya (cheddar-style wedge)
  • canned dog food that's chilled and formed into a bite-sized meatball. (A bit of pâté-style canned cat food formed into a small meatball can be used as well.)

The trick to getting even the most reluctant canine to scarf down any one of these things is to make sure that they are good and hungry (give them before a meal), and have 4-5 treats in your hand, ready to offer one after another in rapid-fire succession, ensuring the highest value treats are doled out somewhere in the middle. For example, you might give a crunchy treat, a slightly higher value treat, then whatever you've hidden the medication in, then whatever is left in your hand. Most dogs are too busy thinking about getting the next treat that they don't pay attention to anything, and using this tactic seldom fails.

Cats can be a very different story, but it's important to note that there are pill pockets for our feline friends and some actually do eat the treat, pill and all so they are worth a try first.

Most cats require the use of a piller (swaddling helps calm them and keep you safe), and they can be obtained at your vet's office or at better pet stores. These gadgets make it easier and above all, they keep your fingers safe from those very sharp teeth. Though I am very experienced at pilling the most challenging feline, there are always a few out there that refuse any attempt to be coaxed into doing it or having it popped down the hatch with a piller.

Recently, I stumbled on a technique that has worked well, but I have yet to use it on every one of my feline charges that needs a pill. It's very simple and works on very much the same premise as the one that I fleshed out for dogs. It's genius!

Michelle Danna-Christian, DVM of Baltimore, MD gave the details on

"I use Easy Cheese (Kraft). I make a line of cheese, then a dot, then another line. The dot contains the pill. Cats eat the cheese quickly, and because there is a second line, they continue to eat very quickly and swallow the pill without noticing they consumed it."

It doesn't seem to work if the pill is just stuck in a glob of cheese, Danna-Christian clarifies, as the cat will eat the cheese, leaving the pill behind.

"It's the line-dot-line technique that consistently works for my clients and me."

See my own cat, Silver, demonstrate how easily the aerosol cheese technique works. In the past, he's notoriously fractious when it comes to taking medication.

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Omelets are fun, homemade comfort food for exotic birds year round

Exotic birds are interesting, intelligent creatures and are no different than other species of captive pets in that they gain pleasure from eating.

It's not hard to get them to eat by and large, though some birds not exposed to a varied diet from a tender age can be quite fussy. Much like their exotic mammalian counterparts, they have preferences when it comes to food, and care needs the taken with their diet to ensure that it's balanced. Too much of one thing and not enough of another (including exercise) can lead to dietary deficiencies and obesity, which in turn can lead to illnesses like heart disease.

Fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts and some seeds are beneficial to maintain not only physical health, but when they are offered in ways that enable birds to forage, they gain the benefits derived from that activity. (Click here for more on creating edible foraging toys for birds.)

Omelets are a great way to include a bird's favorite grains, legumes, seeds, fruits and vegetables in one meal that is yummy, warm and offers the soft, moist texture that many birds crave. Texture is important, too.

These tasty warm offerings are a cinch to make, they're inexpensive and can be made ahead days in advance and refrigerated for convenience. The latter is a boon, especially if you have a caregiver come in to tend to your bird while you're away, as one of my clients does.

Starting with a fresh whole egg and the method below, you can whip up an omelet using your bird's favored ingredients or as some people do, use a product called Crazy Corn that's made with nuts, peppers, whole grains, pasta, papaya, banana chips, pineapple and vegetables, which is cooked first. (I've actually tasted a little precooked, refrigerated Crazy Corn to ensure it was still fresh for a bird before serving it to them, and it's easy to see why birds like it!)

Exotic Bird Omelet

Toss 1 clean egg, shell and all into bowl and crush up with a fork
To that, add 4 tablespoons of your bird's favorite veggies, fruit, cooked beans, legumes and grains (or cooked Crazy Corn Mix) and microwave for 4 minutes* or until puffy & cooked dry. Allow to cool until just slightly warm, cut into wedges and serve. Refrigerate leftover wedges in an airtight container and serve within 3-4 days. Reheat portions in the microwave 5-6 seconds, testing for hot spots to serve warm to your bird daily.

Crazy Corn or the other products in the company's line (click here for their website) can be cooked months in advance and frozen in small batches for ease of preparation.

*microwave wattages vary, this time is approximate so your appliance may take more or less time

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Positive reinforcement is an asset when approaching others about their dog's behavior -- or their own

No one likes to hear negative things about their dog's behavior, not to mention their own when it comes to engaging with their pet.

When our pets behave in a way that is less-than-ideal in a social setting (namely with other dogs), it usually doesn't slip through our radar to some degree, though we hope that it has in the eyes of others. Some social offenses are negligible, even funny. Others are, well, quite telling with regard to how our ongoing training is going.

But let's face it: some of us share life with dogs that just never get the hang of navigating some social situations, so it's understood that we need to pick our battles, right?

Picking our battles is something we can easily do when in the midst of other folks and their dogs, too.

I find that just as with everything else, there's no shortage of opinions when it comes to how a canine should behave or how their said human ought to handle a situation, and often it doesn't seem to matter how much knowledge the person really has is that is doling out advice, solicited or not.

With that said, it seems especially important for all of us to know when it's mindful or necessary to speak up when we are truly in the know, and how to do it. It's all about context. I often find myself in a situations that can be especially rife with vicissitude; it's never easy to talk to a stranger about their pet's behavior — or theirs — in public setting when I feel the need arises.

Identifying the motivation

I find a good place to begin is to ask myself what my motivation for speaking up really is. In other words, do I want to influence the other person's behavior, or is there a more pressing need, like protecting the dog that I am chaperoning? In essence, do I need to work the person, the the dog — or both?

Clarifying that can help set the course to more well-received dialogue with the person, or in some instances, effective action on your part to diffuse a potentially dangerous situation.

Effective approaches to use with humans

In most cases, the opportunity is there to work the person, and I find it's always best to start on a positive note, and as always, have a big pocketful of valuable treats. (Click here for a little on when it's best to work the dog.)

Let's say I'm accompanying one of my charges in a veterinary clinic waiting room and there's another dog that is allowed to approach my dog in a way that they find unfavorable. I might says something like, "Boy, your dog is quite friendly and eager to engage — wow, such gorgeous eyes — how old is she?" After the owner's response I might add that the dog I'm with is feeling a bit nervous, and while it's nothing against their dog, "I'm just going to move to the other side of the room (or outside)..."

In doing so, I've made nice with that person, and possibly given them something to think about while avoiding a potential skirmish. The same thing could work at a dog park or on a walk. (Click here for more on veterinary office waiting room etiquette.)

The point is that positive reinforcement isn't just for dogs. Humans respond well to it, too — just as they do when they are lead by a positive example.

That brings me to a couple of other scenarios that I often experience, and they can be handled similarly.

It's not uncommon for others with dogs to want to stop and chat if I'm out walking a dog. I may pick up on the other dog's inability to handle themselves in a social situation when their human doesn't recognize the anxiety that they are exhibiting. I find that the canine that I'm chaperoning may be perfectly fine, but the other dog is be clearly signaling that they are much too distressed by the close approach. To diffuse their discomfort, I will ask if I can offer some treats to the other dog as we are chatting, while keeping a safe distance, and toss them a couple as well as the dog I'm with during the exchange, which I always keep brief. Before excusing myself, I find a way to interject how well their dog seemed to compose themselves once they were given the option to have a little physical space and a healthy distraction since "...I noticed that Rex appeared very stressed with our initial introduction. Keep up the good work!"

Stepping in without stepping on any toes

Seeing a human handle a dog roughly is always a difficult sight, isn't it? One might see anything from an owner yelling in a dog's face when they don't feel like they are getting the behavior that they are looking for, or perhaps getting physical with them by way of jerking on the leash or worse. It's perfectly reasonable to have the desire to say something or to diffuse a situation like this — and in some cases, even have concern for the owner's safety as this may a repeated pattern with them and the dog might get pushed too far.

I've been faced with this, and as sad as it is, it's simply not my job to police the way that other people interact with their dogs — but I can keep the door of possibility open to influence them in a positive way, and I need not even mention what I saw.

The important thing to keep in mind is, just as in the aforementioned scenarios, people, just like their canine friends, respond better to positive reinforcement and interaction, and being empowered.

I'll walk up, a warm smile on my face and ask about their dog.

"Oh, I used to be a caregiver for a dog just like yours, but they've moved away... I miss her — is he a boxer? What a beautiful dog, please tell me about him..."

That disarms the human, sets them at ease and in turn, the dog often follows suit.

Then I ask if I can offer the dog a treat. If so, I might ask the pooch for a sit and when they do (this almost always happens), they get yummy treats and, fingers crossed, the human sees an example of how their dog can demonstrate desired behaviors, given the opportunity. The whole thing may go over the owners head, but the point is that I have the attention of them both at that crucial moment and got a favorable and hopefully, a resonant conversation rolling.

I usually have a pocket(s) full of treats, so I would also add at the end of our conversation, "It was nice to meet you, have a great time with Rocky today... oh, I have plenty of treats, would you like some for your walk home??"

If I simply march over and voice my displeasure about how abusive that sort of thing is, the person will block me out or worse. Be assured that next time they see me, they'll remember the negative exchange and avoid me. In using the suggested approach, I avoid overstepping a boundary or putting them on the defensive.

Granted, it can be a challenge to encounter cringeworthy situations with other dogs and their humans, but with a clear, meaningful objective, a little positive reinforcement and a cool head one can empower a misguided or frustrated human that is attached to the other end of a leash when it is needed.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as regular 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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dog walking equipment can fail, but one inexpensive item can be a safeguard to keep your pet tethered to you

The act of walking a dog is as unpredictable as most anything that I can think of.

I have charges in my care that are effortless on leash no matter what we encounter on an adventure, while others can be reactive if they even see another dog. That said, there are plenty of dogs that fall somewhere in between when it comes to being able to handle themselves when out and about.

Then of course, there are other dogs that are allowed to make an unwelcome approach.

Try as I might, I realize that there are things that are out of my control. Nonetheless, I have the responsibility to ensure that not only my clients, but everyone else, stay safe.

I employ a considerable amount of mindfulness when it has comes to choosing the gear that I use when walking a dog, no matter the breed or age. What I find works best for me and my canine pals is their flat or martingale collar that includes their identification tag, an Easy Walker harness, a long lead (more on that is available by clicking here) or a 6 foot leash, depending — and a carabiner.

I find that the latter piece of gear provides me a little extra peace of mind when it comes to my staying physically connected to my charge when I use it to connect a dog's collar to the harness.

I always use and recommend those two pieces when walking a dog, and despite the fact that they are both great at staying secure, the reality is that dogs can wriggle out of their harnesses, and collars can slip off in the blink of an eye and then you've got a pooch on the loose. If your dog is like a couple of those that I care for, they'll capitalize on any opportunity to not be tethered while outdoors and away they go!

The solution: I simply clip one of my carabiners to the ring on my charge's flat or martingale collar to the ring on the harness, and then of course I connect the leash to the ring on the harness as usual.

Regardless of the equipment that you prefer to use, this is a simple trick that you can employ with your own pet for an added measure of safety — simply clip the two (whether it be a martingale, flat or head collar/halter or harness, specifically) using the rings on each with a carabiner.

Should any one of tools have a failure, the carabiner acts as a backup. Typically available at sporting goods or outdoor specialty stores, (better pet stores usually carry a leash made by RuffWear that has one built-in), a carabiner is an inexpensive and easy way to ensure that your pet stays tethered to you.

For more of my tips on making the most of your time out with your furry pal, click here.

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, July 7, 2014

Do dogs see what's on a computer or television screen the same way that humans do? An expert clarifies

A few months ago I was chatting with a client about one of their dogs, and they noted that their furry friend seemed to be fascinated by what was on the computer screen.

"I wonder what Woody is thinking when he watches the screen?" he noted.

"Rusty doesn't seem nearly as interested."

We all know dogs seem to show great interest in TV shows, and react to what they see. Others most definitely respond when they see or hear another animal on the screen. Some dogs are completely nonplussed by the TV.

One of the really interesting things that piqued my interest in the conversation was the notion of the "refresh rate" of TV and computer screens, it got me wondering about how that aspect of viewing them differs between a human, a dog — or even other animals.

It seems that I found a few answers after finding an article on the topic.

Let's first back up with a little background on canine vision: we know that a dog's eyes contrast from humans with regard to the colors that they perceive. Dogs have two kinds of cones whereas we have three. Not only do colors differ between the species, but so does the level of detail that is perceived — something else that cones facilitate.

Given that difference, does that mean that the eyes of a human and the dog respond to different refresh rates favorably?

According to Ernst Otto Ropstad, associate professor at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, the answer is yes.

The images that we see on our TV are created by a set of images being captured rapidly to create the illusion of a moving picture (this typically occurs at 24 times per second).

Ropstad, who was interviewed for an article on notes that dogs fare better with the new technology that's available.

The televisions of old only produce around 50 frames per second; if you've seen one operate, the screen flickers a lot. These days the refresh rates of newer TVs are much higher, which translates into less flickering (which reduces eyestrain as well).

This isn't just a boon for us — dogs benefit as well from higher refresh rates. Canines need about 70 images per second to perceive what they visualize as continuous film, while we need only 16 - 29 images per second. (Birds need roughly 100 images per second.)

Those following the trend toward gearing television channels towards dogs may benefit from that knowledge, but with regard to whether or not what is on the screen truly holds a pet's interest, it seems that it really a matter of personal preference for our furry friends. Ropstad indicates that after observing a handful of dogs, there doesn't appear to be any pattern to a canine's attention while watching a television.

As for Woody, whatever holds his attention when looking at a television or computer screen is only known to him.

Does your pet like to watch television? How do they respond?

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, June 30, 2014

Pet rabbits are fastidious groomers, but sometimes they need a little help to keep their coat healthy

The one thing that you'll notice about pet bunnies is that they are very clean animals -- and have luxurious, soft fur.

Experts note that while rabbits don't need baths (in fact it's not recommended), they do need regular attention when it comes to their coat, as well as a little extra doting on when shedding heavily, which can range from every three months to twice yearly.

While you might think that long-haired rabbits like the Angora need regular brushing (in the case of this breed, it should be done daily) to avoid problems, those with short fur need brushing frequently too.

The regular ritual need not be thought of as simply a chore -- it's a great way to bond with and give them gentle physical attention, and it enables you to give them a good once over to discover any possible health issues.

The type of brush is important; the skin of rabbits is delicate and can easily be compromised. There are bristle brushes designed for bunnies, and those crafted from boar or other soft components are preferable. A rubber grooming tool like the ZoomGroom is great for capturing all of the loose fur, and is gentle to a bunny's skin. A slicker brush that has the ball ends on the tines to dull them is good for Angoras, since their fur is more easily matted and this type of brush can get through the longer hair.

Most people who share life with rabbits know they can be either very accepting when it comes to being handled -- or not. The latter can be a challenge when it comes to grooming their fur, but I've found that using a rubber grooming glove helps offer more ease in handling skittish bunnies as I'm not fumbling with a brush in one hand and using my free hand to keep the animal still.

Most rabbits seem more comfortable sitting on your lap while being brushed as they tend to squirm around less, are less likely to try take off because they are off of the ground and they feel more secure on your lap. That said, a rabbit should never be a great distance from the ground as they are quite delicate and can be easily injured should they get away and jump from your safe grasp.

Finishing up with a damp (not wet) washcloth will help gather any loose fur that has been brushed out.

More considerations

During times of a heavy shed you'll want to brush more often and ensure that your bunny has plenty of fresh, raw veggies -- and as some clinicians recommend, wet greens -- and as always, access to fresh water. Doing so will support good motility and prevent hairballs which can be problematic, as fastidious groomers like rabbits commonly ingest some fur and even more as shedding increases.

Of course, some rabbits shed a lot all of the time, and with others, clumps of fur will come out when they are shedding heavily. So long as the fur grows back in a timely manner it's nothing it be concerned about, but if not, it's likely an indicator of an illness or other problem. Click here for a fantastic, in-depth piece on fur loss in bunnies by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

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, June 11, 2014

Creating a raised feeding platform for your dog is simple, cheap -- and it can fit into your decor

If you haven't heard by now, I moved into a new place a few weeks ago. I've spent the better part of April and May not only trying to figure out where I fit in to these four walls, but more importantly, "What's most comfortable for for Gretchen and Silver?"

The overall the place is quite ideal for both of them, I've had to tweak a few things, and that's no surprise: they are 14 and 16, respectively. Life is very different than it was a year ago, even a month ago. Being extra mindful and flexible is a must at this stage of life.

I spent some one-on-one time acclimating each of them into their new digs, and while that's important, if you've had a senior pet, you know it's about all the little details that make life easier.

Mealtime is still quite manageable for Gretchen, and I want that to continue be as comfortable as possible. After all, she's been able to retain much of her mobility with the help of an anti-inflammatory, and I want that confidence to continue.

I have found that elevating her food bowl slightly does help in making things more comfortable, but I didn't want to go out and buy another elevated platform, as it really didn't make sense. She already has bowls, so finding another approach to get off the ground was the key.

Full disclosure: I'm big on upcycling and thrifting.

During the move, I made a trip to Costco. After unloading the box of necessities that I purchased, I felt like it was a shame to just recycle the box – which previously held a case of avocados – so I decided to upcycle it into a raised feeding platform. After all, it was heavy-duty, and the perfect height and width.

 As with everything else in my new place, I wanted a custom look, and be functional — but on a budget.

I took a trip down to my local hardware store and picked up a can of Krylon Fusion for $2.99 in a shade of green that I love (greens, oranges and yellows dominate that space), then to a thrift shop for a non-skid placemat (50 cents) in a complementary color, and went to work.

No prep or skill needed: I simply spray painted the box, flipped upside down, let it dry for 24 hours and then placed it in the little nook where Gretchen likes to eat. It's a sturdy platform that fits the bill, and with the snazzy non-skid placemat, her bowl will stay in place easily.

You could certainly give the platform a coat of Krylon clear polyurethane after the color is dry to help protect against mess or water, should you feel that's necessary.         
It's a project that took little time and money to do, but this is a great solution to address a very pressing need, and stylishly so.

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Feedback indicates that pets inhibit sleep, intimacy

The whole culture of sharing life with our pets has changed significantly it seems from past decades. More people do consider their pets to be one of the family, to be included in all that goes on, in and out of the home.

In the past, I've written about the topic of the caveats of sharing our beds with pets, and it was not without considerable backlash. The responses – whether they were in the form of posts or emails countering the idea that doing so might be unwise in some cases — were numerous and at times scathing. I often find myself saying, "don't shoot the messenger!" when it comes to topics like this, and the passion that people feel about them is understandable – and telling.

People want to be close to their pets not just emotionally, but physically.

This mindset benefits humans and the animals alike, but recent research indicates that in two areas of home life, pets might be contributing to some contention.

Sleep is fleeting

We all suffer from the occasional sleeplessness, but there is a substantial portion of the population that struggles with it chronically. Many of those seek help from their doctor in dealing with it, and as a result, sleep medicine clinics stay busy. Whether the root is pulmonary, neurological or otherwise, getting a background and medical testing is helpful in resolving the issue.

A 2013 study conducted at the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine suggests that 10 percent of study participants indicated that they experience annoyance because their pets sometimes disturbed their sleep. Commonly cited reasons include snoring, wandering, the need to relieve themselves and medical issues. The research was compared to a study done in 2002 where only 1 percent of participants said that they felt that their pets inhibited their sleep. (Click here for more.)

“The study determined that while the majority of patients did not view their pets intolerably disturbing their sleep, a higher percentage of patients experienced irritation — this may be related to the larger number of households with multiple pets,” noted Lois Krahn, M.D., Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and author of the study.

Too close for comfort

A more complex issue because it doesn't involve an individual person (although sleep issues often affect more than one person in a family), intimacy can be a problem when it comes to pets being present. A recent article highlighted an area of home life that you won't find couples talking about as openly about as other issues where their pets are concerned. If you find it daunting to share the same space with pets while you try to have alone time with your partner, you're not alone.

Here are just a few comments from those surveyed for the article about their experiences:
"The first dog we let sleep in our bed was a dachshund and there is no negotiating with them. They make themselves right at home, under the covers, whether you want them to or not. Yes, it sometimes puts a damper on things. So we put the dogs outside of the bedroom and lock the door and they're pretty good."

"...the cat sits there and stares at us. When she starts sniffing around, my husband pushes her away. We made it work. Now, we have a second cat in the bed and he snores."

"It was never a question about them sleeping with us, that was a given. When we are getting our groove on we make sure to put the 'kids' in another room so it doesn't disrupt us and make anything feel weird."

A happy medium

While there certainly isn't anything wrong with allowing your pets to share your bedroom – or your bed for that matter — it's not out of the question to draw the line in some respects, either.

Though I don't allow my pets to sleep with me (I do have allergies & sensitivity to poison ivy), they have their own posh beds to curl up in. Because they're seniors, there are occasionally disruptions in sleep on my end because of their changing needs. Those are easily addressed by ensuring that last potty break outside and an opportunity to have a good chew session right before bed for Gretchen and some playtime and a light meal for Silver. I also use a fan to create a little white noise to mitigate any snoring. Beyond that, I know that's what I signed up for in the beginning and I just accept any disturbances that might occur.

As for intimacy, couples need to consider each other's comfort levels with regard to that and decide if they're okay with their companion animals being present, or make concessions to keep them occupied for the duration, though the latter might take a little planning if the pets are unhappy with bring kicked out of the bedroom.

For dogs, a walk, then indulging in a chew toy or frozen Kong in or out of their crate could fit the bill. As for cats, some playtime and catnip before shutting the door to burn off some energy.

Marty Klein, PhD, an author on the topic says, "Pet owners can arrange almost anything they want. If you can't train your pet to do what, you need to (teach them) to behave better. People use the uncontrollability of their pet as an excuse. When a couple says to me, 'We have no choice, we don't want to make the pet uncomfortable or we can't make the pet do what we want them to do,' what I hear is, 'We'd rather discomfort ourselves than discomfort the animal.'"

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, June 6, 2014

Does your cat get sick because they eat too fast? Try this simple trick to curb the problem

Diet and eating habits are an important part of the care detail that I need to be clear on while caring for any pet, but cats sometimes have very special needs that need monitoring for various reasons.

Most of the issues surround finicky eaters, cats that are reluctant to eat, others that eat everything in sight, a percentage of kitties who vomit their food (usually associated with consuming a dry food that their upsets their tummy, or eating too fast because they tend to be excited) and finally felines that yes, much like dogs, habitually wolf down their food.

One charge of mine has a particular penchant for inhaling his food, which usually results in everything being vomited up he has eaten not long after. Not fun, nor good for him, certainly.

I've talked before about dogs eating too fast, possible negative outcomes from doing it and ways to get them to slow down a bit to avoid problems. The best way I've seen that allows dogs the opportunity to slow down is an old standby — a food dispensing toy, like a Kong — and provides more stimulation for the mind as well. There are similar products and ideas for cats, and they work well, as I flesh out in a previously posted piece on feline foraging toys. (Click here for more.)

The truth is, some pets really don't like using things like this, but luckily, there was an idea that I stumbled upon when brainstorming a way to get the feline charge, Dhani, whom I mentioned earlier to take his time during meals.

Though Dhani's the only pet in the household, he gobbles up food like he needs to compete with housemates — a scenario that can spur on eating too fast. (In this instance, feeding pets in different rooms can help significantly.) My theory that serving up his food in smaller bowls might be the key proved to be correct, but taking it a step further proved to be a better solution: I used an inexpensive mini-muffin tin.

Portioning out Dhani's meal in smaller increments amongst the individual depressions in the muffin tin has helped him enjoy his mealtime, just more slowly – and no more vomiting up wolfed-down food.

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.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Curbing an unwanted approach from an off-leash dog can be done in a couple of easy steps

I find the following scenario irksome, if not dangerous: I'm with a canine client for a leashed walk, either in the woods or in a neighborhood and suddenly, an unfamiliar dog (or three) appear and are charging toward us.

This is a scenario that I need to be hyper-aware of, as several clients on my roster are in the process of learning to be better socialized (and admittedly yes, some of them will never change). Others have had a recent surgery, or have painful injuries or arthritis. Some are seniors and do not see or hear well, and that can complicate sociability.

It's not unusual for me to hear a distant human voice exclaim as they try to catch up to their four-legged pal, "Don't worry! My dog is friendly!" (We dog professionals refer to this as MDIF, by the way.) Then I respond, "But this dog has difficulty, so it's appreciated that you please give them a little space."

Being prepared to get out of situations like this is crucial no matter who you are, but as a professional, I can offer a fast and simple way that I buy myself a little time to get a handle on the situation and get some much-needed distance between the dogs involved.

First, always have a pocketful of tasty dog treats handy when out on your adventures.

If you find yourself in a sticky situation like this, employ what I call a 'fast sit and stay': ask your dog to sit and stay behind you while you step forward a bit and toss a handful of treats into the face of the dog that is coming toward you.

Tossing the treats usually distracts the dog enough so that they spend several minutes sniffing them out on the ground while you and your pet make a quick, quiet exit.

If you're not able to get your own dog "on a stay," as we professionals call it, the surprise of tasty treats tossed in the other dog's face will usually keep them occupied for at least for a couple of minutes.

This is a useful idea for anyone who runs or walks, whether you have a dog or not.

(I should note that this isn't likely to work in a situation where there is a highly stimulated, aggressive dog that is solely focused on attacking either you or your pet. That unfortunately is a much different scenario.)

For more tips on getting the most out of your walking adventures with your dog, click here.

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, April 24, 2014

Play is important in the development and training of pets, and finding what is a motivator is the key to using it optimally

Play is something that we often forget about participating in as we age. We usually are reminded of how good it feels to partake in it when we have children, or for a lot of us, when we have pets.

With that in mind, it's helpful to turn the tables and be mindful of how beneficial it is for our pets.

As ethologists have learned from discoveries in their research, play isn't just a fun thing to do — it's vital.

You see, as humans, during the process of play we learn, grow, think, reason, step outside of our comfort zone and acquire new skills in the process. We know from research that's been done that this is the case with animals, too.

Learn more about how play is integral in brain development and enhancement by clicking here.

And, as Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D. — an author and researcher — indicates, depriving young animals of play puts them at a disadvantage: it affects the maturation of the brain. His research showed evidence that the simple act of play increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein linked to brain maturation.

It's easy to engage in play with puppies and kittens because they so willingly initiate it. But it's equally important to keep the ball rolling as a pet ages.

There are all sorts of games for dogs that are easy, inexpensive, fun and beneficial to play, and options are limitless, just as they are when thinking of the needs of cats.

Identifying your pet's play preferences can be helpful, as they can vary from not only species, but from pet to pet. Breed, age and physical capability can also influence the way a pet plays.

Some dogs are chewers, others love to hunt for things and still some others love to problem solve or even play with puzzle toys. You might even consider activities like nose work or agility for your pooch to give them a healthy outlet.

Cats have play preferences like birding, stalking or hide-and-seek.

Even birds like to — need to — play.

Human-pet play is an invaluable source of enrichment for a pet, and as I always remind when thinking about enrichment for your pet, "Spend half as much money, and twice as much time."

This type of play is different than self-directed play or interaction between other animals. One difference is that we use language to communicate during a fun activity, using repetitive phrases and gestures. Think about how this correlates with training.

Play has been an integral part of unfolding my now 14 year-old dog, Gretchen, and is one of the most important forms of interaction between myself and the animals in my care. By paying attention to and honoring how they play and engaging in a fun activity with them, I can quickly ascertain what motivates them, what they find off-putting and developing a bond with them.

What are your pets favorite games?

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.