Monday, December 28, 2015

Emotional support animal fraud pits those with a legitimate need against fellow travelers

Those who know me are aware of my enthusiasm for travel, and it's something I take the opportunity to do whenever I can. In fact as I write this, I'm aboard a flight to warmer climes.

No matter if I'm visiting a locale near or far, traveling is a great way to engage with others. Invariably, I'll find myself in conversation with other visitors about our respected travels, where "home" is, etc. I most often travel solo, which piques people's curiosity when they realize that I don't have friends or family that I'm waiting on or need to consult before heading to the next activity. It's never too long before someone asks about what I do for a living (something that is more common amongst Americans than those in other cultures) – something I try avoid letting out of the bag completely, as the topic then gets stuck solely on pets, animal behavior or "I've noticed my dog is doing this or that, how do I get them to stop?". 

I often only disclose that I'm a freelance writer, which is more neutral and easy to navigate conversationally.  

Though I love what I do, shutting off the work that I do directly with animals for a few days is often a goal. Quite honestly, it can be frustrating to be bombarded with a stranger's tales of noncompliance with their veterinarian's care recommendations or their qualified (and sometimes not qualified) dog trainer or how they are involved with what is clearly a poorly-run dog rescue.

Regardless of any of that, I have to say that I must be a magnet for people that love talking about their pets – it always happens. It's not a surprising thing, really, considering how much a part our companion animals are of our lives. 

That said, I admit there's one aspect of that togetherness that I find especially irksome: Emotional support animals. 

It's not the fact they are happily accepted in the broadest sense and beneficial to folks that have a legitimate need for them. It's the blatant skirting of the system and nose-thumbing that people engage in so that they can keep their pet with them, no matter where they go. I'm floored by the devil-may-care attitude of many of the pet owners I meet who have no problem telling me - despite my not asking - that though they really don't need to have their furry companion with them, they do it because they can. 

"I have a little anxiety. But my psychiatrist just wrote me a note to allow me to have my dog with me, it was as simple as that," one woman casually told me on a recent trip to Venice, FL a few weeks ago. 

Smirking all the while, she added,"...and there's nothing anyone can do keep me from having him with me as I travel."

On each trip, I'll have at least one person say something like this to me. A psychiatrist can draft a letter detailing the need, end of story. I'm befuddled, and yes, surprised each time, though I reply neutrally and do my best to change the topic. One doesn't even need their own doctor's help to do so: websites providing licensed psychiatrists to write these letters so long as one has the money to fork over are gaining popularity.

The biggest problem that I see with this trend is the animal's welfare: Is the pet capable of handling themselves in social settings period, not to mention those clogged with bustling airline passengers and the like? Do they have behavioral issues, like fearfulness? Putting a dog in a situation like that could be detrimental to their emotional and physical well-being.

Further, are they healthy? Have they received the proper vaccinations? Are they reasonably clean? 

As importantly, those that have a legitimate reason to have a support animal – and yes, they're out there – feel slighted because of any backlash caused by people scamming the system. 

As well they should.

A recent piece in the New York post highlights the problem and really, how easy it is to pass oneself off as needing an emotional support animal. 

Anthony Berklich, of the travel site Inspired Citizen had a telling statement about travelers and their fakery.
Consumers who are being nickeled and dimed for every little thing don’t feel badly about getting through the system.”
I agree with Berklich's comments in the piece in that's a positive thing that emotional support animals are allowed on flights. However the privilege of that is accompanied by mindfulness and responsibility, something that in my experience isn't always packed along with the other essentials that one with a support pet decides that they need on their travels. Skirting the system extends beyond emotional support animals, unfortunately, though it's probably the easiest loophole since their premise reflects a need that can seem invisible to people.
Though it can be comforting to a human to have their pet close, it's vital that the largest piece of the equation is there: Can the pet handle what their humans are asking of them, and is it fair? 

Lorrie Shaw is an avid traveler, 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, December 17, 2015

Understanding a cat's preference for using sight or smell to locate food might enhance their well-being

It's long been thought that cats rely more on their sense of smell when it comes to locating food. 

Evy Mayes, along with a handful of other researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, set out to see if that was the case in a recent study. But as it turns out, cats can have as individual a preference for using their vision or sense of smell to home in on food. 

To try and create an environment where the cats chosen for the study could demonstrate behavior and where the results measured reliably, the team decided to use a T maze that had "decision points". In essence, the cats had to select which way they would go – based on their preference for using an olfactory (scented) or visual (an image) cue.

Eight cats were trained using a two-alternative forced choice procedure, meaning one combination of stimuli (again, visually or scent-based) resulted in the food reward while the other lead to no reward at all. 

Six cats were successful in catching on, and from there, the team was able to extrapolate the data in how each cat figured out the exercise. 

The results were published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Curiously, four of the six cats chose the visual cue to get the food reward. One had a preference for using their nose, while the sixth displayed no preference. 

The sex of each cat was not stated, which is a detail that could offer some insight into each cat's preference. (An earlier study on dogs indicated that female dogs have enhanced visual skills. This might explain why with regard to tracking, the trend is to train male dogs for their keen olfactory abilities.)

The takeaway with regard to a feline's use of sight or smell is ever-important, despite the study being so small: cats have the inherent ability to use both senses to figure out what's going on in their environment, but some have a clear preference for one. Paying attention to what those preferences are on an individual basis could have implications in the rehoming process, or even how a feline's needs change in their dotage.

Interesting factoid: kittens, like puppies, are born functionally blind (and deaf). Read more by clicking here on how the gestational period of our furry friends may be the reason why. 

Click here to read the study, Individual differences in visual and olfactory cue preference and use by cats (Felis catus). 

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, December 12, 2015

Bravo recalls several pet food formulas citing Salmonella concerns

A pet food recall by Manchester, CT-based Bravo has been put in place. The recall involves several products that were distributed to retail stores, internet retailers — even directly to consumers, between November 21, 2014 and January 15, 2015.
Here's the information on the recalled product:
Bravo Blend Chicken Diet for Dogs and Cats
Product Number: 21-102
Size: 2 lb. (32 oz.) chub
Best used by date 11-13-16    

UPC: 829546211028

Recalls like this reiterate two important points when handling pet consumables: the need for safe handling and handwashing techniques, and saving the UPC code information from product packaging.
Salmonella, also referred to as salmonellosis, causes digestive problems, and dogs will typically present with fever, diarrhea, vomiting and weakness. Other symptoms can occur.
Salmonella can affect other animals —  not just the dogs who consume the treats. There is risk to humans just the same, from handling contaminated pet products. People handling dry pet food and/or treats can become infected with salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the food or any surfaces exposed to any contaminated product.
The recall was initiated after routine testing of a sample from a 2 lb. chub of Bravo Chicken blend diet by the Colorado State Department of Agriculture revealed the presence of Salmonella.
It's important to note that out of "an abundance of caution," Bravo has decided to also include a handful of other products on a voluntary basis, though the company indicates that there has been no evidence of an issue involving the following products with "best by" date of November 13, 2016.
  • Bravo Blend Chicken diet for dogs and cats

  • Bravo Blend Turkey diet for dogs

  • Bravo Balance Turkey diet for dogs

Consumers that have purchased any of the recalled items are urged to not offer them to their pets. Rather, they should be disposed of safely. Products can be returned to the point of purchase for a refund or store credit along with 
a refund claim form, which can be downloaded from the Bravo company website by clicking here.
Questions about the recall can be answered by calling Bravo at (866) 922-9222 on weekdays between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm (EST).
Click here to read the company's press release, which includes more detailed information on the additional three products included in the recall.

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

'Do as I do' poised to be a credible method in training, highlights dog's capability as social learners

One unseasonably-warm spring day in 2000, I was knelt down in a soon-to-be flourishing flower bed. Having ditched the hand shovel that I had been using, my gloved hands seemed a more efficient tool to dig small pockets in the soil in order to get the items that I'd picked up planted. 

Unbeknownst to me, Gretchen – who was about 8 months old at the time – had been spying me instead of chewing on the bone that I'd given to occupy her mind. Her curiosity got the better of her it seemed, since before too long she had claimed a spot next to me, peering over at my methodic digging and mounding. 

Suddenly, she set to jabbing one front paw at the freshly cultivated earth, then the other. Looking over at my work, and back to her own poking and digging, tail wagging all the while and her face wearing an expression as if to say, 'you and I – we're doing the same thing!'. 

It's not just a fond memory for me, but an illustration that dogs are fully capable of social learning. 

This type of learning has been studied in different non-human species (including lizards

Social learning, as the name implies, bears the hallmark of one learning a new behavior by watching someone else perform it, then copying that behavior. It was first thought that only humans were the only species capable of the processes that are considered to be high-order. 

Seeing how in-tune Gretchen was even at that age, I was excited to use her willingness to follow my lead to help me facilitate better communication and our training process. It was a fun way interact with her and proved to be an effective tool in unfolding her. Little did I know that years later, it would become a recognized asset in the world of canine behavior.

Any positive direction that dog training takes is a good one, and an interesting method called "Do as I do" (DAID) is an example of this and is catching on. By using a dog's ability to learn socially, DAID enables the handler to demonstrate a set of actions to the dog that can then be imitated (thusly, learning by doing). 

In a recent study done by researchers Adam Miklósi and Claudia Fugazzi from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary, set out to see how a more traditional positive reinforcement method using clicker/shaping training (which uses individual learning) stacked up against DAID. 

Fugazzi, who created the DAID method, is also author of the book Do As I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs

Most interestingly, the results from the study indicate that DAID is more effective than shaping/clicker training when it comes to learning things that involve interacting with an object. For the study, opening a sliding door on a cabinet was chosen because for each dog involved, as it was a novel behavior.

Dogs who were trained with DAID learned faster than the dogs who were only exposed to clicker training for the skill. They also retained the ability to perform the behavior when later cued verbally better than dogs in the clicker group – even after 24 hours had passed from first exposure to learning the skill. Furthermore, the DAID dogs could apply the same skill more reliably in a new context. (This could prove to be helpful in "proofing". For more on that, click here.) 

Though DAID incorporates social learning, it's a more simplified form than is seen in other instances. 

Social learning often plays out by way of an individual learning a new behavior simply by observing others in a group setting, and without any cue to reinforce that they're getting it right.

In DAID, the dog learns by observation, then performs a behavior and has positive reinforcement – that all important form of communication – when it is performed correctly. (The positive reinforcement is a hallmark of operant conditioning.) In essence, a handler - treats in hand, ready to reward - gets the dog's attention and performs an action with the animal paying close attention. Next, the handler exclaims, "Do it!", at which point the dog mimics the action and if performed accurately, is rewarded with a treat and a verbal affirmation.

Using this multifaceted approach is fun, engages dogs in a positive way and enhances their natural learning style, since they are social animals.

More research is needed on how reliably dogs can learn body-movement behaviors (another area of importance in canine training) as was referenced in the study. I think it'll be interesting to see how reliable this kind of training is for those desirable behaviors.

The best part of this research is that it highlights the importance of establishing a solid human-animal bond between a dog and their people, and how we can make it work to enhance our communication with our canine counterparts.

Watch the video below to see a DAID training in action.

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, October 9, 2015

'Obi' poised to be next best thing to entertain your cat

Cats love to have fun, and it's nice to indulge them in their quest to seek opportunities to engage in play, no matter their play style. 

As I've previously discussed, felines are pretty good at playing independently or getting another pet or a human on board to interact. Though they'd be ecstatic if we were available 24/7 to entertain them, it's just not possible. 

One new product, the Obi, is a toy designed to help keep cats happy by satiating their love of chasing lasers, and no humans need be in the room.

With a sleek, minimalist design, Obi can easily notch into any decor seamlessly – and can fit on a shelf or even a small table. 

The compact unit transmits a red laser, which can be activated and then controlled via iPhone in the manual mode, or it can be programmed to turn on at a specified time (when a sound will emit from the unit to let your cat know it's time to play). In the latter case, a boundary can be programmed in to restrict where the laser is pointed, as well as setting a customized pattern for the laser to appear to suit your cats play style. 

Used in the manual mode, Obi can easily engage a cat in a thoughtful manner by sticking to some mindful rules that you can read about by clicking here. While Obi is a fun option for felines, I do stress that lasers are an inappropriate option for dogs as using one can result in behavioral issues –  their play styles and needs differ from that of a cat.

The brains behind Obi, Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt, are no strangers creating and marketing tech-savvy products: this is just the most recent that is posited to be as successful. By way of a Kickstarter campaign, in just two weeks nearly $50,000 of the  $120,000 goal has been pledged. For an $80 pledge, you can pre-order an Obi for your home. 

In their pitch, the duo fleshes out how their newest endeavor is different. They're putting together a podcast that chronicles the adventure of how they're bring this idea to fruition. 

"We've been recording our conversations since the inception of the idea, and the first episode is already available to download," notes Provost. 

Click here for more, including the accompanying Kickstarter video.

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 5, 2015

U-M College of Pharmacy to host safe medication disposal event in October

How many times have you had a prescription filled, and for whatever reason there's a partial amount leftover? 

Things happen: the antibiotic didn't work; only a portion of the steroid cream that your doctor prescribed for you was needed; those allergy eye drops expired; you had far more pain pills after an outpatient procedure than you really needed.

The same situations avail themselves with the medications that your veterinarian prescribes for your pet. 

In fact, many of the same drugs are used for humans and companion animals, but the end result is the same – you're left with unused bottles, tubes, blister packs and loaded needleless syringes of prescription or over-the-counter meds in your cabinet.

Hanging on to them, we realize that the possibility that our all-too-curious kids and pets could ingest them and become a victim of poisoning (in the latter case, a leading cause of veterinary emergency room visits each year). Of course, the reasons we don't toss them in the trash vary, but the most common amongst households is that we know it's not good for the environment. Ditto for the fact that the potential is there for illicit use. 

Thankfully, you've no need to lament about the situation. On October 6, 2015, simply gather up any unneeded prescription and over-the-counter medication and tote it over to the Chemistry Building on the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Central Campus. 

Twice yearly, students from U-M College of Pharmacy partner with Great Lakes Clean Water Organization to hold medication disposal events to help the community safely get rid of unused medications. 

Anyone can participate, and it's as simple as getting over to the site – located on North University – and drop off anything that's accepted. (Click here for a list of approved items.)

Tomorrow's event is free of charge and runs from 10:00AM – 2:00PM. 

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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Using transdermal medications to treat chronic illness in cats is a low stress option

"My cat is going to need prescription medication for the rest of their life. How am I going to manage things if that's the case?" 

This is a common refrain that passes the lips of clients – existing and prospective ones – not to mention pet owners that need reassurance.

It's daunting, right – realizing that your pet is ill and then having a firm diagnosis, or having routine bloodwork come back indicating that there is something going on? The good news is that things have come a long way with treating disease in the years that I've been caring for pets.

Advances in diagnostics and treatment have expedited the sometimes muddled path between "there's-something-going-on to here's-the-solution". That's especially true when it comes to treatment, especially with prescription medicines. 

That brings me to an important facet of treating disease: if the option is there, you want to make that as easy and low-stress as possible on the animal, and yourself (and caregivers!).

When we think of prescription meds, pills and capsules of course come to mind for some diseases, ointment, creams and drops for others, not to mention the much-feared injectable meds for diabetes. Suspensions are an option in some cases, as are medications formulated into yummy chewable treats, but my first suggestion is if at all feasible is have the medication compounded into a transdermal preparation. Transdermal medication is applied directly to the skin and absorbed into the system.

Drugs like those used for parasite prevention in pets have been administered transdermally for years, so the concept is nothing new. These days, drugs like antidepressants, prednisolone and those used to treat thyroid issues (all of these, the most frequently-prescribed drugs among my feline charges) are normally compounded this way.

There's nothing worse than trying to corral your cat so that you can try to pill them or attempt to slip an oral syringe into their mouth (hoping that you don't waste any of a measured liquid dose as they wiggle around or work to heave out what goes down). After a few go-rounds of this – or even successful administrations – cats gets wise so they try and avoid it. It becomes a stressful time, and can really impact any favorable interaction with them.

Imagine trying to manage that as often as twice a day, every day.

That's also something to consider when thinking of when your cat has a caregiver of any experience level. Though I find actually administering medications easy, I've spent many a visit just trying to locate a reluctant cat because they know at some point medication is happening. It's nearly impossible in some cases and most importantly, it's stressful on the cat. That's not something I want for them.

Formulated into a gel, most often in a convenient applicator (think of a lip gloss applicator) that is twisted from the bottom to easily measure a precise dose, transdermals are applied to the ear flap. What could be easier? 

Aside from the benefit of low-stress handling of the animal, going with a transdermal can provide other favorable aspects, like lessening any GI irritation since there's no gastric or intestinal contact – a concern in cats with GI issues. A reduction in dose-dependent side effects is possible, and because there's more precision in formulating the finished gel, as a custom dose can be created for the cat's size. 

Some drugs can't be compounded this way, as they act locally in the GI tract, or they're simply not able to effectively absorb through the skin in a precise therapeutic dose. This method is also more expensive, so that can be a drawback. (That said, wasted medication and having to address possible complications with a vet visit because of missed doses is costly.)

Medications like these can't be filled by traditional drug stores, but rather a compounding pharmacy. Prescriptions can be easily handled by accredited Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board (PCAB) pharmacy locally, or by one that is processed online

I urge my clients to seriously consider going with a transdermal when a chronic illness has been diagnosed if it's an option. In doing so, one curates a plan for low-stress handling, resulting in a recipe for success. Equally, in consideration of having a caregiver be there to administer medication when the guardians can't, everyone is empowered as the task is done calmly, correctly and the end-goal of managing the disease stays on track.

Click here for more tips on medicating pets. 

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, September 25, 2015

Ditch generalizations & anthropomorphizing when it comes to your dog's behaviors for better outcomes

I deal with a lot of dogs on a daily basis, and I find it fascinating to tap into their unique "language" cues that convey what they are trying to express – both the verbal and non-verbal kind. I'll be honest, the latter is by far their more precise lexicon, though because of it's nature, is more commonly misinterpreted by many people. 

Why does this unique language barrier crop up?

Our shortcomings

Humans have come to rely so much on verbal communication with each other that we often miss out on everything that is being said, regardless of we're interacting with an animal or a human. The notion that we make assumptions about what is being conveyed rather than actively "listening" with our ears, eyes and emotional intelligence gets in the way, too. 

Think about all of the times that you've felt misunderstood, or like you've completely missed the point of what someone is trying to get across. Yes! – dogs can totally relate to that. The fact is, canines do not communicate ambiguously, even if they're lacking in social skills. (In that case, they'll most definitely let you know that they're uncomfortable or are unsure about a situation.)

When there's a misinterpretation with a human, often it just leads to a frustration. The same can easily happen when interacting with a dog, but notably – like we saw last week with a young girl in here in Michigan – there are cases when serious consequences can be the result. Those incidences are of special concern, since the opportunity to easily prevent an unfavorable interaction between a child and a dog is missed, and the outcome, even more disheartening for both parties and their loved ones. After offering some sage insight in a comment on the online article, the responses to it sent a clear message: 'We just don't understand dogs, but we have tightly-held opinions about them anyway.'

Projecting our own biases

It isn't an isolated kind of thing, this example of clinging to our misconceptions about why dogs interact the way they do with us, and what their intentions are when doing so. Our default is to relate an experience to something familiar – usually a reaction that as a human, we might have – and forge ahead with our opinion of what unfolded.

Just as an example, I'll use one of the canine behaviors that I often see misinterpreted: face-licking. Sure, dogs may engage in it as a positive gesture to those humans that they feel comfortable with, and some more than others. 

"Oh, this dog is saying 'I love you!' or "Look - she's kissing that child's face!"

These remarks are cringeworthy at best, as the human is likely anthropomorphizing the pet's behavior.

In any case, the behavior in a lot of cases is nuanced and intends to communicate something different than what the human thinks.

Sorting out and clarifying behavior objectively

Let's back up a bit so as to offer some context. 

Muzzle-licking is seen amongst groups of dogs and thought to be a sign of appeasement or goodwill. Wolf pups engage in it as a way to stimulate an adult pack member's reflex to regurgitate the food that they've brought back in their stomach to feed their young. 

But I digress. I'm going to stick to the interaction between dogs and humans. 

I've seen face-licking exemplified in several charges over the years, and the situations have varied. The point is that the context of each is different and I've figured out what is being communicated to me. One in particular uses it to get my attention if she doesn't feel like I'm homed in on her (usually I get distracted by her canine housemate who is vying for my undivided attention). If I'm within distance, she'll reach up or over and give a quick lick to the face. Another dog will do so after playing a friendly game when a toy is involved – think fetch or tug-of-war – and he is ready to end the interaction and take the object for himself. (If I'm standing, he'll lick my hand excessively instead.) 

The context of the behavior is vital of course: Is it one quick lick, in the case of my furry friend? Is it repeated face-licking with their full tongue? Does the dog move away once they've done it? Is the behavior present only with certain people? Is an object involved possibly? Is this a new occurrence? There are so many variables.

Paying attention to what is going on is essential because there's a possibility that a dog isn't comfortable, which needs to be addressed, and fast. I emphasize this when it comes to children.

Jennifer Shryock, BA, CDBC of Family Paws Parent Education details the variances in this behavior on her website that she coined "Kiss to Dismiss" in 2014. 

Below is an excellent video of a face-licking interaction between a dog and a baby that begs some questions: 

• Is the dog engaging the baby in a game? (The intensity of the face-licking changes during the exchange, certainly.) 

• Does the pooch want to be left alone with the bone (which may or may not be a high-value object to them)? 

• Is Bruno feeling conflicted about wanting to enjoy the toy in peace/being close to his people/honoring the cue from the mom? 

(Though it can be daunting to watch, there's a lot going on in the video. Never mind scorning the parents of the baby and stick to what can be extrapolated from the footage instead.)

I'm not sure that Bruno really wanted to play a game. Instead, I see a dog that has a ton of self-control but feels conflicted about what to do, so he's doing his best to communicate his displeasure and stay in close proximity to his people. I don't know a lot of dogs that would do this, and in any case I don't feel it's fair to expect out of them.

This is just one example of the canine behaviors that we might misconstrue.

The case for avoiding the simple route and digging deeper for better communication

The bottom line is, anthropomorphizing a dog's behavior is easy to do, as it is to demonize them when things go awry. With our canine counterparts living alongside us for so long and adapting so well (and quickly in terms of how much we've expected out of them), we need to remember that they have a language all their own. Though they've needed to stretch considerably to understand the way we communicate, we've not always reciprocated. In fact, we barely meet them halfway in a lot of cases. That has resulted in some unhappy, frustrated pets and unfavorable outcomes. We need to do better. 

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.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

During a dog's senior years and end-of-life, wearable technology can be a boon

Homing in on what our pets are doing on a day-to-day basis is important throughout their life, though no other time than while in their twilight or hospice seems more pressing. 

Through the years, being a caregiver to pets – dogs, namely – in their very late age has been a big part of the [peace] work that I carry out each day. 

It can be tough for those sharing life with pets in their twilight or hospice: bladders aren't as trusty; joints, more stiff; health issues more complicated. I am often contacted by families with older dogs to help out during this time when they can't be home due to work or other obligations. Having a hand to ensure their furry friend gets potty breaks, a little tender companionship and most of all, to be the eyes and ears to monitor things is certainly a boon (not to mention the opportunity to have a brief mental break from the situation).

A lot of what goes on in the final months and weeks has to do with being aware of what is happening, as well as being honest with oneself about what is observed: appetite changes, sleep habits, willingness to engage and activity levels tell the story. The latter can be hard to judge if one is away tending to work responsibilities, of course, and few people have the luxury of being able to be home as often as they'd like to keep track. Those that are frequent business travelers come to mind most prominently.

Technology has come a long way in the years since I started as a professional caregiver. That sector has opened up to the pet product market, and wearable technology for pets has seen a surge – a multibillion dollar one – and one product that I had written about a while ago came to mind as I was considering how fortunate I am to be able, largely unencumbered, to tend to my own 15 year-old dog, Gretchen as she meanders through hospice.

The Whistle and other products like it can provide valuable data about how much activity a companion animal has each day (and track changes), helping to flesh out an accurate overall picture about what's going on with them. Information like this can be relayed to the primary vet, resulting in better communication with the clinician, and in the end optimal health management and comfort for the animal. 

Attached to a dog's collar, the Whistle – which is waterproof – tracks physical activity and syncs the information automatically via an app to one's smartphone. 

The app and device are also capable of tracking and communicating information about food intake and medication (by manually logging each in), two things that are vital in monitoring dogs in later stages of life. This is especially helpful if inappetence is an issue, and as is in so many cases, multiple medications are given daily.

We know that pets that are in the midst of a tender time of life fare physically and emotionally better having people around with whom they have a bonded relationship. But while any technology can't replace what that provides, it can enhance and empower their humans to better care for them if used mindfully.

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, July 1, 2015

Planning ahead for the Fourth of July holiday can make it safer and less challenging for pets

Summer is officially here, and it's a season filled with a lot of fun for us humans — but from a pet's vantage point, it can prove to be quite difficult — especially during Fourth of July and other gatherings.

Fireworks (and in some cases gunfire) are unfamiliar and frightening to pets of all species.  

Independence Day isn't my favorite holiday because of that. It's hard to see so many pets frightened by the noise and lights associated with fireworks. As we've all experienced, the noise of fireworks doesn't occur just on July 4, and that can be challenging.

This time of year — along with New Year's Eve — are prime times for missing pets, as many become frightened and dart out open doors. Injuries from coming into contact with fireworks can pose a threat during this time as well.  

The onslaught of extra people in the house — or lack thereof, if you're away — can bring on anxiety too, as can the noise that sometimes accompanies the festivities. Here are a few tips that I can offer to keep pets safe, sound and happy:
  • Make sure you have up-to-date photos of your pets. You probably have a lot of photos of your pets either around your home or floating around in your digital camera. Having a picture of each of your pets in different poses and settings could ensure that you'll be reunited with a lost pet. 
  • Be sure that your pet is microchipped. Click here to see how easily the procedure is done.
  • Ensure that your pet is wearing a collar with clearly marked identification that includes the pet's name, your name, address and telephone number. (I often make the suggestion that a client have a tag made with my contact information while they are out of town.)
  • If you're hosting a gathering and your pets have a tendency to be skittish with unfamiliar people, consider keeping them in an area of the home that will be undisturbed by anyone, with the door shut. In the case of a dog, a crate might be an added source of security. Play soothing music, talk radio or white noise to try and block out any unwanted noise that will cause anxiety. A free download for calming music is available by clicking here.
  • If you find that fireworks or other loud noises are troublesome for your pet, consider using what I call "storm treats" to try and curb a negative association with the noise. Directions for playing a game involving storm treats are listed here. Also, a pressure wrap can be helpful. Swaddling and deep pressure have been proven to provide both humans and animals a sense of comfort. Temple Grandin, Ph.D. expands on the topic of deep pressure in animals. Some dogs can benefit from wearing a Thundershirt, or a snug-fitting T-shirt. The theory is that the sensation of deep pressure, (in this case a variation of it) around the torso primarily, or swaddling — modulates the central nervous system, producing a calming effect. 
  • Consider using T-Touch, an approach first developed for horses by Linda Tellington-Jones, and is used worldwide to address a number of issues, including noise phobias in canines.
  • Try dog-appeasing pheromone, also referred to as DAP, a synthetic pheromone produced by lactating bitches. Undetectable and equally safe for anyone outside of the canine species, DAP has been effective in addressing anxiety of various forms for dogs and can be found in a spray form, a collar that is worn and replaced every four weeks or in a diffuser. You might recall my talking about Feliway, the feline version of the same pheromone. DAP helps to attain an overall sense of well being in dogs.
  • Never force a companion animal to be present during a fireworks display. The noise, flashes of light and the smells can be confusing for pets. Scared pets can react by snapping or biting, creating a very unsafe situation for both human and pet.
The great thing about these specific suggestions is that they are easy to implement, and none of them have side effects. Depending on the severity of your pet’s discomfort when it comes to anxiety associated with fireworks, you can tailor a plan of action that works by trying one at a time, or perhaps more than one in tandem.

If your pet is sound sensitive and these other tips don't seem to help, you're not alone. It's advisable to consult with your veterinarian to prepare a treatment plan to make them as comfortable as possible.

Also, a quick inspection of your yard on a regular basis during this time of year is encouraged. Pieces of spent fireworks can land anywhere and curious pets, especially dogs, will readily pick them up and could possibly ingest them. (Don't forget to be vigilant on your walks.)

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 29, 2015

The peanut butter spread in your pantry may not be safe to give your dog

Peanut butter is a staple on most pantry shelves, and in homes with dogs, it's especially useful. Most of my clients leave a jar designated for their canine family members, and I use that to fill their Kong toys to freeze and enjoy. The ubiquitous product is also a popular vehicle to help administer oral meds to dogs. 

By and large peanut butter is a safe product to offer to our pets, so long as it's simply peanut butter and not coupled with other ingredients. 

It's reasonable to expect that peanut butter and peanut butter spreads that are devoid of enhancements like chocolate or hazelnut spread are safe, but one peanut-based spread came to light recently and illustrates that reading ingredient labels is key when it comes to pet safety. 

A popular line of peanut spreads by Nuts ’N More — most prominently the peanut butter flavor — might easily be dismissed as something safe and offered up without a second thought.

Why are wholesome and healthy products like this one and those produced by other companies a problem?

One word: Xylitol.

The risk that xylitol — a sugar replacement used in many products — poses to canines regardless if it is consumed by getting into candy, chewing gum or other sweets (or in this case, even being given directly to a dog) can be devastating. 

The popular sweetener is toxic to canines because it causes a dangerous drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia), as well as liver damage, and even death. The exact mechanism is not clear, but what is known is that it doesn't take much to cause serious health problems.

Click here for more facts on the effects of xylitol in dogs.

Bringing this to light is in no way an effort to vilify any company, as these products are intended for use by humans. (In fact, Krush Nutrition has included information on their website pointing out that xylitol is not safe for dogs.) But, because of our inherent desire to share things with our canine friends, it can be hard to know if some products are dangerous to pets — even if they seem natural and basic. Whenever in doubt, take a second to read the label and if the ingredients are not clear and known to be safe, skip it. 

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.