Monday, February 29, 2016

Attaining an ideal weight in cats is manageable -- and you'll keep your vet bills in check

Carrying around a little more weight than we would like is the kind of thing that tends to sneak up on us. Most of us love to eat, and if you're like me, cooking and feeding others is gratifying, too. That extends to our pets just the same. 

That's not surprising, given that the market for pet food has grown so in recent years. It used to be that there were just a handful of choices for both dogs and cats but with the flood of limited-ingredient, organic and frozen raw diets available, we tend to be much more conscious of how we're nourishing our companion animals.

There's one problem, though. We're not paying attention to how much we're feeding them. 

For a pet, being overweight means having many of the same risks and health issues that affect us humans. Heart and respiratory disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis – even some cancers – just to name a few. 

In a study on a group of dogs, researchers found that the obese animals shared something with overweight humans: a less-diverse gut flora and in fact they also harbor more Proteobacteria (which has been shown to impact the immune system negatively). Additionally, because serotonin tends to be suppressed, weight loss is more difficult. 

The study didn't touch on how this kind of thing affects felines, but given that other mammals are affected in kind, it seems logical that being overweight would impact cats just the same. 

I think it's fair to say that we tend to be a bit more mindful about the weight of our dogs, don't you? Is it the way that they engage with us, or perhaps that we pick up on the aforementioned health issues in other species less easily.

The fact is, aside from any chronic medical conditions, like Cushing's syndrome, the reason for weight gain in pets is simple: humans.

Obesity in cats is serious, I assure you. And just as with any other pet, the additional pounds shave years off of their life, along with quality of it.

An preventable epidemic

Plenty of vets will tell you that seeing a cat at a mindful weight is less common these days.

“Pet obesity remains the leading health threat to our nation’s pets,” says Ernie Ward, DVM and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). 

“We continue to see an escalation in the number of overweight cats and an explosion in the number of type 2 diabetes cases.”

Over the years, there have been more pudgy cats in my care than I can shake a stick at. A couple are or have been morbidly obese; unable to get around easily, or groom themselves, diabetic and as I can see, struggling with profound joint pain. 

In one case, breathing proved problematic: asthma, treated with daily inhaled meds and also a recommendation from the vet to feed the prescription calorie-restricted diet and in carefully-measured amounts. The expensive asthma meds were administered with no question. Ditto for the prescription food. In the latter case, without abandon. Along with regular food, and an ample supply of treats.

I would hear: 

She always looks so hungry. She sulks and nags me for food. Just a little extra... it can't hurt, right? I'll put extra bowls out while I'm away so that I don't worry. The inhaler seems to be helping a lot – and she tolerates it so well. 

Until her beloved pet didn't need the medication anymore because it was of no use to her. The obesity contributed to other complications and it was just too much. 

Stories like this, and the thoughts about how we perceive our pet's feelings about food – and us – aren't that unusual. It's not hard to go to that place. We love to nurture our pets. But are they manipulating us, or are we doing that to ourselves? 

A recent study supports the notion that it's a little of both, but the important thing to remember is that cats learn to influence us in giving them food when they don't need it. They beg, vocalize, follow us around and pace, but we can't give in to that provocation – even if we feel those pangs of guilt for not appeasing those requests. 

We can get past those emotions, and so can our pets though it takes a little time. In fact from an emotional standpoint cats do quite well, as the study reveals: though they may harass us for food, they don't hold a grudge when we don't comply, nor do they exhibit undesirable behaviors like urine marking or aggression. Quite the contrary, it seems. The felines included in the study had a tendency to be more affectionate towards their people after enjoying their prescribed meals. 

Strategies to cope

When a cat starts nagging for food, it's easy to replace playtime and attention for chow. Instead of reaching for the treats or an in-between meal snack, grab a cat toy or the brush and give a little of your time. What might be discovered is that the behavior isn't really appetitive, but a simple cue for attention. 

Adhering to the recommended amounts of food that your clinician prescribes for weight loss can be easier by using a cup that's clearly marked with the measurement. In households where more than one person might be responsible for feeding, confusion can be avoided by measuring out the proper amounts ahead of time and putting them in resealable plastic baggies labeled for the appropriate times of day. 

Investing in a feeder that is covered and opens at set times can be a boon for households with felines that are especially persistent. This way, kitty doesn't associate their people with being a food source so much. 

The takeaway

I'm often asked about the best way to cut down on vet bills, and my response is always embarrassingly succinct. 

"Keep your pet lean."

The good news is that in doing that, you'll be keeping your pet comfortable as well as extending their healthy years. 

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

Monday, February 22, 2016

Be wary of products and methods that promise a 'quick-fix' in addressing unwanted dog behaviors

I find my myself repeating a handful of mantras. One of which, 'nothing worthwhile is ever fast nor easy...' bubbles up frequently. It applies to many things in life, right? We might be working toward a goal, like getting better at playing a musical instrument, working on a knitting stitch that we find troubling or learning a new language (something I'm doing right now). Things take time and practice to get the results we're aiming for. 

It's not surprising that we at times want to arrive at that end goal a little faster or get that desired result "right now". We don't want to wait nor do we feel like we have the time to do so. It's natural.

Let's keep in mind this isn't limited to our ourselves; empowering others to get better at something is important too. That includes our pets. 

When addressing unwanted behaviors in our pets, we can't rush it. These things take time, though the pet products industry (and pet store staff) indicate otherwise. This is unfortunate for lots of reasons. The human doesn't get the results they're looking for, and in fact they often get more than they bargained: pets often end up with far more problems than they might have had before. 

Equally distressing is that the companies that produce the products – and the retailers that so enthusiastically sell them – make a profit. 

I have to admit I find it appalling to walk through a pet store's aisles and hear staff make product (and yes, sometimes behavioral modification) recommendations to a frustrated pet owner who recognizes that ther pet needs help. Their responses aren't prefaced with the following questions:

1.) Have you consulted your veterinarian to rule out any undiagnosed pain or illness issues? (A must, especially if the behavior in question is new.)

2.) Are you working with a qualified trainer or behaviorist? 

Don't get me wrong. There are some pet products that help address unwanted behaviors and are thoughtfully designed and marketed. I can't say that for many of them, but one example can be found by clicking here.

I'll often have a friend, client or reader reach out to ask me why the citronella collar – the example I will use throughout this piece – that came so highly recommended from the pet shop to address their dog's unwanted barking isn't working.

"I followed the directions on the package," they say. 

(Ditto for alarm mats, portable transmitters and especially shock/vibration collars, but I digress.)

Because the citronella collars seem benign to their electrified counterparts, they are an attractive choice, plus, like other products, they're cheaper than hiring the services of a reputable trainer or behaviorist. The problem is that by their very nature, they can have the opposite effect of what a pet owner wants: anxiety or outright fearfulness can result, often manifesting into a bigger behavioral issue that can get quite complicated. 

You see, the problem lies in the association that the animal makes when these products are activated – the dog often looks at the big picture when an aversive correction (I'm using the term "correction" loosely here) like this is delivered. 

Let's say a dog has a habit of barking at any activity that they see from in their fenced backyard. Their human decides to try using a citronella collar to curb the behavior.  

The dog barks, and the collar effectively emits the correction. The poor dog is confused because they don't necessarily connect the dots with their barking triggering the citronella and instead may associate the unwanted outcome with something more broad, like the activity that they see – or even the backyard area itself. This is just one scenario, but it can get more convoluted. 

In households with multiple pets, it can get more challenging, even if only one dog is wearing the collar. Even if they get along well, the anxiety that the aversive correction can produce creates conflict between them and in some cases, two-fold: with an increased anxiety level present in one pet, the others can sense that and become hyper-aware but equally confused and anxious. Worse, the dog wearing the collar may become snappy towards the others, which of course can result in fighting. 

The confusion and resulting anxiety from the use of the collar has now complicated an unwanted behavior that could have been addressed much more easily by taking a little time, and getting the right information and support. And, the dog isn't empowered to have self-discipline that naturally comes with the experience of proper communication and training. 

My advice? Skip the fast, easy products and the bad information that I often find being doled out in massive doses by pet product companies and retailers. Instead, make a wiser investment by contacting a reputable canine training consultant that can really make a lasting difference in resolving any your pet's unwanted behaviors. 

Click here for thoughtful information on the topic of aversive methods.

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, February 17, 2016

'Clipnosis' can be a helpful technique to calm cats when administering subcutaneous fluids

Low-stress handling techniques are of great importance to me in my work. In fact, just a few weeks ago I felt it important to reiterate and clarify my policies on using them in an update to clients. Whether I'm administering medication to a cat, accompanying a canine charge on a walking adventure or something else, they should feel as comfortable as possible about what's going on. 

This isn't a philosophy that is limited to us professionals. Pet owners can easily employ these often simple techniques at home in their day-to-day interactions.

I share life with pets too, of course. In fact as many of you are aware, my brood in recent years have segued from old age, into hospice and for two of them, end-of-life. With the prospect of the more veterinary visits and daily medication being the norm at that point in life, low-stress handling becomes even more important. I assure you that in utilizing this kind of approach, it made navigating through it all much easier for human and pet alike.

The renal dysfunction that my cat, Silver has been living with for some years now has been advancing so changing up his supportive care regimen has become necessary. Subcutaneous fluids (sub-q fluids, as they are commonly referred to) were added as well as some oral medications to mitigate the effects of the chronic kidney disease. The former is simple to do and a novice, with some practice can get pretty comfortable doing them in no time.

Being pretty easygoing about getting his nails trimmed or getting medication in a suspension form, Silver can be good during fluids too. It's understandable, though that after a few weeks of our daily fluid routine, he had become less so and I decided to put an old trick to use in an effort to make things easier and safer for both of us.

An OXO Good Grips clip is a great choice as it offers optimal pressure 

Veterinary professionals often use an approach called scruffing to safely restrain felines on an exam table or the floor during procedures like blood draws and the like. Aside from keeping a cat in place, the gentle pressure applied by holding the scruff of the neck has the benefit of calming them. This is of course very different than the kind of scruffing (essentially picking up a cat by the scruff of the neck) that has been used punitively, which is harmful to cats and shouldn't be done.

A simple and safe technique that borrows from the calming benefits of scruffing, inducing what's called pinch-induced behavioral inhibition (PIBI) can make the process of administering fluids less daunting. PIBI – or clipnosis, as it's called, is easy to employ at home. 

A study conducted by The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine put clipnosis to the test and the results were favorable. Additionally, the research debunked the idea that PIBI is a fear– or pain response.  

Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State and senior author of the study, offered some insight. 

"Cats generally seemed more content, sometimes even purring, and less fearful during veterinary procedures when clips were used instead of restraint by some other means."

To do this at home, you'll need one or two clips (Silver and I love OXO Good Grips clips, they give just the right amount of pressure and don't slip or cut), and a chilled-out kitty: the PIBI response is elicited when a feline is in an already calm state. So, before settling down to do fluids and while your furry friend is feeling happy – catnip can enhance the experience – pull up (or tent) a scruff of skin directly behind the ears in the middle of the kitty's back and put the first clip in place. Some cats do better with a second clip, so if you find that's the case, just slip one on immediately behind the first. When you're finished with fluids, which should only take a few short minutes, simply remove the clips.  

In addition to using clipnosis and catnip to help your cat feel even more settled during fluids, you might consider playing soothing music, an audiobook or a podcast, and using Feliway to promote a more positive experience.

Click here to read more on the study, Pinch-induced behavioral inhibition (‘clipnosis’) in domestic cats.

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, February 10, 2016

Hurdle inappetence in cats with renal disease with a multifaceted approach

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

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

Common causes of a waning appetite in cats with renal insufficiency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other considerations in encouraging an optimal appetite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A final word 

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

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fine tune your listening skills for better outcomes in dog training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be 'all in'

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

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

Keep it simple, short

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

Don't muddy the waters

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

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

The takeaway

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

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