Cats and Claws

Cats leave dogs in the dust when it comes to the dexterity of the fore paws. This allows them to fish small cavities and holes, hooking hidden prey with their well-sharpened claws. Unfortunately, their claws can do a lot of damage to furniture, drapes, human skin, and other cats. Minimizing this damage potential can be a challenge, especially for indoor cats.

 Do I need to trim my cat’s nails?

The simple answer to this question is “no”, unless you are trimming their nails to maintain the natural look of your own skin. In fact, whether you trim your cats’ nails or not, they will constantly sharpen them. This process involves removing some of the outer layers of the nail as they grow so that they will remain clean and pointed. Those cats that cannot sharpen their nails (older cats and cats with extra toes) may need to have their nails trimmed to keep them from overgrowing.

To avoid having your cats tear up your drapes, rugs, or favorite chair, provide them with their own scratching surface. This could be a wooden post with or without carpeting, cut corrugated cardboard packed densely in a low box (about two to three inches high), or something bought from the pet store designed to attract their scratching attention. Adding catnip will often encourage a reluctant cat to try to a new surface. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a few items to find the right surface for you cat; it’s an obligation of all cats to make things difficult for their owners.

Cats also mark their territory by scratching. This may be the case if you find them practicing their sculpturing techniques on the trim around your door and windows, especially if there is an ‘enemy’ cat outside that is hanging around a lot. In addition to providing other objects for your cats to release their artistic inclinations, spraying a synthetic cheek gland pheromone in the area or using a pheromone diffuser may help calm them and eliminate the drive to mark their territory.

 When is it necessary to de-claw my cat?

 Hopefully, never. De-clawing cats is my least favorite veterinary obligation. Well, to be honest, emptying anal glands outranks de-clawing. There is one thought that can pick me up whenever I’m feeling life is a bit tough: we humans could have had anal glands.

If however it comes down to the cat must be de-clawed or the cat must go (too much shredded furniture or skin) de-clawing is something to consider. The procedure involves removing the entire third phalanx, the last toe bone, to prevent re-growth of the nail. Since this is more than just clipping a hangnail, it is important to make sure that your veterinarian believes in good pain control.

At our hospital, we place a pain patch on your cat the day before the surgery. We use a gas anesthetic for the general, IV fluids to maintain blood pressure and avoid dehydration, inject a combination of local anesthetics to eliminate the immediate post-operative pain, and bandage the paws for 24 hours to control bleeding. The following day, the bandages are removed, the IV catheter is taken out, and your cat is discharged in the afternoon. It may be coincidental, but since the advent of pain patches, cats seem to be in a much better mood when they see us at their next visit.

Post operative home care involves preventing your cat from jumping onto high places (the jump down is a bummer for a couple of weeks), maybe some oral antibiotics, using paper-type litter, and removing the pain patch in three to four days.

Because declawed cats have lost their best line of defense, keeping them indoors for the rest of their lives is critical for letting them have a long rest-of-their-lives. Actually, this is good advice for all cats since cats that go outdoors live on average half as long as those that live indoors only.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behavior

When it’s Time to Say Good-bye

As our pets age and their lives come to a close, most of us will face a question that none of us looks forward to answering; is it time to end our pet’s life through euthanasia? There is no right or wrong answer when we consider what is best for a pet that has been a part of our life for many years. For some, the answer is to allow them to live out the rest of their life at home, surrounding them with comfort until their final day. For others, euthanasia is the most compassionate answer. Neither answer is easy.

Is euthanasia always required? The simple answer is no. There are some diseases that are extremely painful and cannot be cured. For these cases (e.g. severe trauma, painful spinal diseases, and some cancers) euthanasia is the most humane answer. However, there are many terminal diseases with which pets do not appear to physically suffer.

We should keep in mind that dying pets don’t seem to worry when they can’t do things that they used to do. They seem to accept things a lot better than we do; they live in the present as well as any Buddhist monk. If they’re too weak to get up, they don’t get up. If they’re not hungry, they don’t eat. If they’re not thirsty, they don’t drink. And they don’t have to listen to us telling them that they need to eat this or drink that so that they can stay well. Not eating and not drinking are ways the body prepares for death. Animals do a good job of listening to their bodies.

One of the more painful experiences that we go through as we face the death of a pet is projecting unto them our fears of death and dying. Pets don’t have to let go of all those things that we as humans hold on to. They don’t regret the past nor worry about the future. They aren’t burdened with the worries of what happens to them and others around them after they die. Hospice workers that help people in the last days of their lives tell us that there comes a great peace in those last days as the dying come to accept their pending death. The only things our pets have to lose are our company and affection. And we can easily give that until the end. They don’t have to find the peace we as humans must search for; they already own their peace.

What will be best for you and your pet as he or she nears the end of its life will be something that you, your family and your veterinary team should discuss. However, most of our clients find it easier to discuss some general concerns before that time when emotions are likely to be high. Knowing what happens during euthanasia and what options are available for the care of our pet’s remains eases some of the fears and worries that only make that difficult time more difficult.

Listed below are some of the common questions and concerns that you might have. Since details may vary among veterinary practices, please discuss these topics with your veterinary care givers.

How does euthanasia work? An over-dosage of an anesthetic is injected into a vein. Your pet falls into a deep sleep within seconds and, within a minute or so, the heart stops beating.

If I choose euthanasia, what are my options? Some people chose to say good-bye to their pet while they are alive and to leave them before the euthanasia injection is given. Others prefer to remain with them and say good-bye after they have died. The option is yours.

We have found that, for many smaller dogs and most cats, the restraint that is required for us to inject the euthanasia solution into the vein prevents the pet’s owners from being in close contact with them at this last moment of life. At out clinic, we often use a light anesthetic to allow the pet to calmly fall asleep. Once they’re anesthetized, we can easily give the IV injection. For those who wish to hold their pets for the last moment of life, this is an excellent option.

What options are available to me for the care of my pet’s remains? Some people choose to bury their pet at their home. Local ordinances should be consulted if this is your choice. Others choose to have their pet buried at a pet cemetery. Still others choose to have their pets cremated. Most crematory services offer you the option of having your pet cremated communally with others or alone if you wish to have his or her ashes returned to you. It is a good idea to discuss these options with the staff of your veterinary hospital as much ahead of time as possible to avoid having to make this important decision at the time of euthanasia.

I doubt one column can answer all the concerns that you might have about the end of your pet’s life. If there is something that we could do to help ease any concern that you have, please feel free to contact us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ruminations

Summer, Kids and Biting Dogs

National Dog Bite Prevention Week – the third week in May – was established to remind us of a common threat to the health and safety of all us, especially our children. According to the CDC, of the 4.7 million Americans that are bitten by dogs each year, 800,000 seek medical attention, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department and about a dozen die.

About one half of those bitten are children. The injury rate is highest for children between 5 and 9 years old. For children four years and younger, almost two thirds of the injuries are to the head and neck.

In my 30 plus years as a veterinarian, I can’t begin to count the number of dogs that have been presented to me because they bit a child. Most of these dogs belong to the family of the victim or to a close neighbor. Almost all of these bites could have been prevented.

The CDC ( offers some good tips and rules to help prevent dog bites. The first safety tip they mention is, “Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.” is excellent advice. Since our children will have to be in the presence of dogs from time to time and many dog bites come from dogs that we thought were safe, it’s extremely important to teach our children how to correctly approach any and all dogs.

Below are listed some recommendations that I have for greeting all dogs, even those that we know and consider harmless. The greeting ritual outlined by these suggestions helps reassure the dog that we are not a threat or afraid and helps create a positive social bond between the person and the dog. This lessens the chance, but does not guarantee, that a bite may occur.

Please note that these recommendations are for those situations where a child may meet a dog, including dogs they already know. All children must understand and follow the CDC’s first rule to never approach an unfamiliar dog. Of course, any interaction between a child and a dog should be supervised by an adult who can control the dog and the child. These greeting suggestions should be followed by adults as well as children.

The Don’ts

  • Don’t look at the dog, especially at his eyes.
  • Don’t move towards the dog.
  • Don’t reach towards the dog with your hands or make a lot of movements with your hands.
  • Don’t talk to the dog.

 The Dos and Always

  • Do talk to the owner of the dog as if the dog is not there.
  • Do act calmly as if nothing is wrong.
  • Always ask the owner if you can pet the dog, but only after the dog becomes calm, has sniffed you and is not acting aggressive or fearful. If the owner says it OK for you to pet the dog, always let the dog come to you, never move towards the dog. If the dog won’t come to you when you ask it to, don’t go towards him or reach for him. He probably isn’t ready to trust you yet and that’s OK.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behavior, Ruminations

Holiday Puppies and Kittens

If you ask most children what they would like for Christmas, at some point in their young lives the answer will be a puppy or kitten. This answer has always been a difficult one for anyone trying to keep up Santa’s image. Unlike most gifts, it can’t be simply put away in a toy box or given away to some charity after the new has worn off. And, of course, all cute puppies and kittens grow up to be not-so-cute cats and dogs with needs and concerns of their own.

Having an answer that will delay the expectation of owning a pet to a time that is more appropriate is a good start for those who are not ready to take on the responsibility. For those thinking of adding to their family this holiday season, October is the time to begin planning for a fifteen to twenty-year commitment, not the week before Christmas when your child asks for a new pet.

The first step is to evaluate your home for its capacity for a new pet. Are the current pets likely to accept the newcomer? Are you planning for the damage potential of a kitten or pup? If this is your first dog, is there enough room for play and exercise and can your yard safely confine a dog? Is your pet area free of potential toxins such as medications, toilet bowl additives, poisonous plants and pest control poisons? Where will the dog or cat be allowed in the house and do you have safe means to prevent them from going to areas that are off limits? Where will you keep your puppy during housetraining? Who will be training the puppy? Do you have the time that a new pet will require?

If these questions didn’t create too much panic, the second step is to determine what type of puppy or kitten would be most suitable for your family, your home, your lifestyle, and your future. Unfortunately, this step is usually surpassed by your child wanting the breed of the cat or dog that was in the latest hit movie. Don’t cave in!

There are many books and websites that describe the different breed characteristics of dogs and cats that can be helpful if you are looking for a purebred pet. Whether to buy a purebred dog or cat or to adopt one from one of the many rescue organizations is a decision that should be well thought out.

Of course, there are seemingly countless adoptable great dogs and cats at our local shelters. Many of the dogs show characteristics of the commonly known breeds and, acknowledging some room for variability, usually carry the same personality tendencies of those breeds. In addition, many shelters have volunteers who will perform temperament evaluations on the dogs and cats available for adoption. Our local shelter employees and volunteers from the Friends of the Shelter have great reputations for caring for the homeless pets of our county and can offer excellent advice when helping you choose a pet for your family.

The third step is to make plans for the physical and mental well-being of your dog or cat. A visit with your veterinarian for your pet’s first exam and vaccinations is a good time to discuss potential behavior concerns and to learn of organizations that can help you with training your pet. For dogs in and around Los Alamos, I highly recommend the Los Alamos Dog Obedience Club. They offer various training classes for dogs older than three months. For information on training and other concerns, please see their website: (

Cats too can and should be trained. The alternative is to be trained by them. Unfortunately, there are not that many organizations to help with this. Your veterinarian should have some basic information and recommendations for training kittens. However, there is one critical rule: never encourage a kitten or cat to play directly with any part of your body – use toys.

Finally, the most critical part of owning a cat or dog is training and educating the humans at your home. Many serious behavioral problems of dogs and cats develop because of improper owner behavior. Understanding how to properly communicate and respond to your pet’s actions is vital to having a well-behaved pet. I have yet to find the perfect book that describes this problem and offers all the answers. However, Jan Fennell’s book “The Dog Listener” offers some concepts for dog owners that I think should be seriously considered.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ruminations

Destructive Behavior of Dogs and Cats

One of the most common reasons for euthanasia in dogs and cats is behavior that leads to destruction or damage of the house and/or furnishings. It is a decision that is both difficult and painful for the owner, who has not been able to solve the problem and knows that the chance of finding a new owner who would be willing to work with a destructive pet is very small.

Behavior modification using techniques that are based on classical and operant conditioning has long been the approach to correcting inappropriate behaviors. These techniques require a considerable amount of understanding, time, and patience on the part of the owner of the pet. The problem with this is that many of these problems occur in homes where time is a precious resource.

Fortunately, there have been some excellent results from studies involving drugs that have positive effects on our pets’ moods. These medications can greatly improve the chance of success of the behavior modification techniques by placing the dog or cat in a state of mind in which they can learn faster and have fewer setbacks. The medications are not a replacement for teaching new behaviors; they only help remove the mental blocks that slow down or inhibit learning.

A major block is the distressful mental state associated with separation anxiety and panic attacks. These two conditions are improved by medications that increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. In dogs, the two drugs that have been approved for use in helping with these disorders are Clomicalm and Reconcile. In cats, Clomicalm has been found to be extremely successful in managing cases of inappropriate urination.

Separation anxiety is an extremely painful mental state of social animals that occurs when they sense that they have been abandoned or separated from their group. In dogs, the problem usually manifests itself when the owner goes to work. While alone, the dog suffering from this problem seeks to escape the confines of the home and/or release its anxiety by destroying parts of the house or items within the house.

Clomicalm and Reconcile can quiet this anxiety to a great extent, sometimes eliminating it altogether. Without the constant anxiety and resulting destruction, the owners gain an opportunity to work with the behavioral training that has the best chance of offering a long term solution. It is important to understand that these drugs are not substitutes for behavioral modification and must be used in conjunction with training.

By far and away the most common destructive behavior of cats is urinating outside of the litter box on clothes, carpets, walls and furniture. The first step in solving this problem is to have your cat evaluated for diseases that can lead to this behavior. If no physical condition is found by your veterinarian, behavioral concerns must then be addressed.

Most of the behavioral cases of inappropriate urination are associated with fear or distress. Often the behavior begins when an outside cat begins to haunt and mark the exterior of the house or a new cat is brought into the home. The presence of wild animals, including raccoons moving into attics, can also lead to marking behavior. The cat feels threatened and resorts to doing all it can to protect itself and its territory.

Clomicalm has been shown to have up to a 90% success rate in minimizing and/or eliminating inappropriate urination of cats. For veterinarians and owners alike, this is great news. Adding litter boxes, trying new litter, thoroughly cleaning rugs and carpets, and appropriately using pheromone sprays and diffusers should not be abandoned. Many of these techniques may be all that is necessary to change this aggravating and odiferous behavior. However, if these fail we now have a great backup.

Please remember that, while Clomicalm and Reconcile can help allow dogs and cats to become better learners, it is still our task to teach our pets new behaviors to replace those behaviors we consider unacceptable.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behavior, Ruminations

The Number One Disease of Dogs and Cats

The most common disease that will afflict almost every one of our pets is dental disease. Fortunately, it is one of the most preventable. The many forms of the disease lead to infections and/or inflammation in the mouth, which cause pain and can lead to problems in other organ systems such as the liver and kidney.  Since kidney failure is one of the leading causes of death in cats, anything that will minimize the progression of kidney damage in our feline friends will add considerable time and quality to their lives.

The most common form of dental disease is the easiest to prevent. Tartar, which forms when the easily removable plaque becomes mineralized, leads to gingivitis, gingival pockets, bone loss, and infection around the teeth. The end result is tooth loss. This same process happens with us. Although many of these conditions are painful, the signs of oral pain in dogs and cats are difficult to detect; our pets can’t tell us that they have toothaches.

Caught early, these problems can be reversed or at least prevented from progressing to major problems. This best preventative, and by far the least expensive method, is simply brushing the teeth free from plaque each day. While daily brushing will not prevent every dental disease, spending a few minutes learning how to brush your dog’s or cat’s teeth and a few minutes each day brushing their teeth will pay big dividends over the years by greatly reducing the need for dental cleaning. Should your pet develop tartar, having his or her teeth cleaned early will minimize the chance of developing irreversible damage to the teeth and their surrounding tissue and will decrease the exposure of your pet’s body and organ systems to the effects of inflammatory mediators.

Unfortunately, dental disease in cats in dogs is much more than just problems with tartar. With the recent advent of digital dental radiography, veterinarians are humbly discovering that the level of care that was standard just a few years ago was far from sufficient. We are now able to uncover a myriad of problems that develop below the gum line out of view of anyone examining your pet’s mouth during a dental. With dental radiography, we are able to diagnose problems such as periodontal bone loss, root resorptive diseases, root abscesses, bone cancer of the jaw and maxilla – even root tips that were left from previous tooth extractions.

With this information, we can now make accurate assessment of the extent of the dental disease, which greatly enhances our ability to make accurate treatment plans. The result is a much improved level of care that allows us to: 1-stop the progression of periodontal disease before it involves additional teeth, 2-remove painful teeth with previously unidentifiable abscesses or resorptive disease, 3-eliminate hidden sources of inflammation, 4-diagnose cancerous diseases while they are still curable, and 5-accurately define those problems that need referral to veterinary dental specialists.

The development of techniques which are more accurately described as oral surgery allow veterinarians to perform extractions that result in less pain and trauma and faster healing with less complications. As a veterinarian, I find this a big plus and I’m sure my patients feel the same. Thorough pre-procedural exams and laboratory evaluation, modern anesthetic protocols that include anesthesia tailored for the individual, multi-modal monitoring equipment that detects early changes in patient status, and pre-operative, intra-operative and post-operative pain control are some of the many modern day practices that help minimize anesthetic risks and postoperative complications and maximize patient comfort. All these factors are critical in allowing us to perform complicated dental procedures and oral surgery on elderly patients.

We as veterinarians want your pets to retain all their teeth in good shape throughout their lives. We know that veterinary dentistry alone is not enough to ensure that this will happen. The best means to reach this goal begins with daily brushing that removes the plaque before it becomes mineralized. However, should your pet have a tooth or teeth that must be removed, please remember that in today’s world they can do just fine without them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ruminations

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Many behavioral concerns in dogs can be summed up in a line taken from the warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is failure to communicate.” In the movie, the real question was who exactly had the communication problem. With behavior problems in dogs, that question should always be considered.

To understand misbehavior, we must first understand normal behavior. Most behaviorists would agree that dogs behave in predictable ways to changes in their environment. From this perspective, what we see as misbehavior is only normal dog behavior happening in the wrong place and/or at the wrong time. Why do they do this? From my experience as a dog owner and a veterinarian, it seems that what our dogs are hearing is something entirely different from what we think we are telling them. Sounds like me and my kids. When we recognize that dogs and people are communal species that have shared a long history, this might not be too surprising.

A common form of miscommunication is the way in which we often greet our dogs when we come home. Think back to your last reunion with your dog at your home. There was probably a lot of jumping, barking and carrying on – at least by your dog. And you were probably talking, petting or playing with your dog in response. For some dogs, this is not a problem. For insecure and anxious dogs, it may lead to further anxiety and over-protective behavior.

For people, greeting one another with reassuring vocal and body signals is a sign of mutual respect. Not doing so could easily create mistrust. In dog (wolf) language, our dog may be hearing, “My human can no longer handle the position of being in charge. I need to take over.” Your dog will probably argue with you by licking, bowing and even urinating submissively in his or her attempt to get you to maintain your leadership position. And that’s just the beginning of the problems.

How should you act? The answer that your dog wants to hear is like the leading male and female of a wolf pack would act. In wolf packs, the two leaders typically greet their subordinates at a reunion by simply ‘presenting’ themselves as being in good mind and body. This reassures the subordinates that all is in order and there is nothing to worry about. Play may come later, and at the initiation of the leader, but the greeting is all about this ‘presentation of sound mind and body’.

How should we act when we reunite with our dog when we come home? Without talking to, looking at, or reaching for your dog, walk into the house and take care of your things as if your dog was not there. Your dog may keep his greeting circus going for some time, but resist interacting with him until he relaxes. When he does relax, call him to you and reward him with play. Your dog’s greeting circus will be more subdued with each subsequent reunion. A calm and reassured dog will greet you with his tail wagging at body level and sniff you, but without jumping and barking.

In strict behaviorists’ terms, you have taught your dog to greet you in a relaxed manner since you stopped rewarding his excited greeting and rewarded him when he was calm. This is true. But I’m convinced there’s more to it than just a conditioned response. Dogs learn best when they know they have calm, trusting leaders. Unfortunately, we often try to calm our dogs in ways that suggest something other than a calm leader. Learning to recognize when we are ‘misbehaving’ is an important step in helping our dogs when they’re misbehaving. Greeting them properly is a good first step.

Leave a comment

Filed under Behavior, Ruminations