Wednesday, January 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koa (Photo courtesy of Drew Ackerman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all products are created equal

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

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

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

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

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

Additional concerns

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

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

The best option 

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

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

AKC welcomes two new dog breeds into the fold for 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quoting the study: 

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Conflict resolution over a neighbor's barking dog may be easier than you think

I'm no stranger to barking dogs. In fact, I revel in being able to understand the joy that they may be expressing to me when we're spending time together – or whatever message they are conveying. Communication is important between my charges and I. I think most people, dog lovers or not, will agree that gratuitous barking is frowned upon. When barking extends beyond being what one would deem to be warranted, it just causes strife. 

It seems important to point out that a dog's barking is never chargeless – there's always a point to it, though it may not seem like it. As I said before, it's a form of communication.

I think it's safe to assert that most of us have been in a position of living within earshot of a dog that barks constantly. I know I have more than once. 

What I'm writing, I get to work from home, which is great. But not so much when there is a neighbor dog just a few steps away who frantically voices her displeasure of regularly being left alone for too many hours on end, or when she hears a noise, or...

You get the picture. 

This is a scenario that I'm often presented with by readers who ask my advice on what to do (though sadly in some cases some of the dogs are left outside 24/7) to get some resolution. It's a difficult situation to approach a neighbor with no doubt. My philosophy is that you'll gain the most ground by being non-confrontational, and conducting yourself with tact and kindness.

Case in point: a few weeks ago, I decided to put my irritation, along with my apprehension about talking to my neighbors aside and look for an opportunity. 

In understanding our reluctance to say anything to a neighbor, that can guide us in our approach and how we steer the conversation. After all, causing tension or making someone feel attacked won't further our cause. Nor will not giving the other person and opportunity to speak, or to come up with solutions to the problem. 

I took the chance to reach out to my neighbor during an exchange of small talk, which felt totally right. After her asking about Gretchen, who had just passed, I interjected along with my response...

"Oh, Minnie looked adorable in her little coat the other day... speaking of dogs, I'm kind of concerned about her. I've noticed that she seems very uncomfortable when she's left alone – which seems to be happening a lot lately – barking and carrying on with increasing intensity as the day or night wears on. I know that in order for her to go on like that, she must be really upset, and that's a concern. I have to say it's really hard to know that's going on, and more importantly, to listen to especially when I'm trying to work from home. I tried moving into another part of the house to try to buffer myself from the noise, but to no avail. I know you can understand my frustration..."

This not only conveyed, yes, first my concern for the dog's mental and physical well-being, but also established how the behavior affects me. If one issue didn't garner an equally mindful and engaged response, surely the other would. And I was right.

An apology from my neighbor was enthusiastically extended, along with her thoughts on other things that could be contributing to the barking, like squirrels roaming around outside and the birds attracted by the outdoor feeder by the picture window. After her own brainstorming how the latter triggers could be mitigated, it didn't take her long to muse about workable solutions for the bigger issue at hand: the dog's boredom and unhappiness about being left alone so long. 

Together, we also talked about additional strategies to help make the dog happier. 

Though it took a little time for the family to get on the same page and work together to make sure the pet was as well-adjusted as possible while everyone was away, things are much better now. 

Granted, the situation had a good outcome in large part because the dog's owner was receptive – though I did my best to posit her to be – not all people feel as empowered as they'd like being presented with a conversation like that. I'm not sure that the level of civility that I projected is something that many people even expect these days. And let's be honest, not all are interested in addressing a problem like that when it's brought to their attention.

In my experience, whether it's a neighbor's barking dog or any other situation where you need to approach another pet owner about their dogs behavior, positive reinforcement is a concept that works not just for canines, but people.

Click here for more on using positive reinforcement to dialogue with pet owners who are behaving badly, whether they know they are or not. 

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.