Friday, October 28, 2011

Living with a cat on prednisone

Eamon the cat in his chair, looking for trouble
Eamon is clearly looking for trouble here. Note the narrowed eyes...
Eamon has been on a low dose of prednisone for about a month. In that time, I have seen remarkable improvement in his back condition. He's able to run, jump, play and amble. He's had at least one session of play fighting with Lucy (which he hasn't done in over a year). Overall, he seems like the picture of good health. I can thank the pred for that.

That being said, prednisone does have some side effects for Eamon that drive me a little wild.

For starters, prednisone tends to interfere with a cat's metabolism, so Eamon is hungry all of the time. And by hungry, I mean that Eamon is yelling his fool head off around dinnertime, and he's choking down his food as fast as you put it down. He's constantly on the countertops looking for food. He's even tried to sneak into the basement and eat food out of the bag. I can't increase his meal levels, since we don't want him to gain weight and put more pressure on his back. But even when I do give him a small snack to tide him over, he still yells for more.

In addition, I believe the prednisone is making him slightly more frantic and active. He has always been a busy cat, and he loves to run, but now he's even more active than he ever was before. He runs up and down the stairs twice as much on prednisone days as he does on non-prednisone days. He runs into a room, forgets why he is there, and runs back out again. Sometimes I am concerned that he'll hurt his back even more with all of this running.

Long-term prednisone really can do wonders, and I am so happy that Eamon is no longer in pain. But I am planning to talk to his doctors about these disturbing changes. Perhaps we can taper his dose yet more.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dog book review: Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Liam the pug with his Susan Orlean book
Liam doesn't seem to find the book very engrossing, but I sure did!
Do you have plans for tonight? If not, head to the Hollywood Theater at 7pm for a night of canine fun. Susan Orlean will be reading from her new book about Rin Tin Tin, and then the theater will screen a Rin Tin Tin movie. I'll be there, and I am very excited. 

A full disclosure statement: I am an avid fan of Susan Orlean. Her tightly packed sentences and unexpected humor make her New Yorker articles a thrill to read. I had never thought of her as a dog lover, however. She wrote about people with great skill, but I don't recall seeing any articles that dealt with furry creatures of any sort. I approached her book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Can someone who doesn't really LOVE dogs write a great book about dogs?

The answer, in my mind, is a qualified "Yes."

Orlean has done her research about dog breeding, dog personality types and dog training. People who are interested in the GSD breed will learn a lot through this book. But Orlean is, in the end, more concerned with teasing out the human/dog relationship and determining what it means to love a dog and build your life around a dog.

Most of us who have dogs tend to take this relationship for granted, and it can be a bit startling to hear her discuss how dog ownership tended to isolate some of Rin Tin Tin's handlers throughout the years. But, perhaps, her outsider's perspective gives her a view dog lovers simply can't see.

I'm eager to hear her speak, however, and I am doubly thrilled to have the chance to watch the movie. Now that I've read up on Rin Tin Tin, I'd like to see him in action! It sounds like tickets to the event are still available. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

4 fall foods to share with your dog

Liam the pug posing with Hanner Jumbo apples
Liam posing with a crop of fresh Hanner Jumbo apples.
While most experts agree that dogs should stick to dog food for the vast majority of their meals, most dog owners can't resist slipping their dogs a tasty treat every now and again. I find this is especially true for me in the fall, when the house is full to bursting with fruits and vegetables I've brought home from stands, the store and the garden.

Here are just a few fall snacks I give to Liam:
  • Apples. A raw, unpeeled apple is full of nutrients and it has a texture that most dogs really enjoy. Liam will happily crunch and crunch on a small slice of apple for several minutes before he'll swallow. I think he wants to savor the juices before he allows the apple to leave his mouth. The seeds are toxic, however, so remember to give your dog a sliced, seeded bite of apple only.
  • Pumpkin. Adding a bit of cooked pumpkin to your dog's diet can help firm up the dog's stool, and most dogs really love the taste of pumpkin. Popping fresh pumpkin and water in the crock pot and cooking for an hour or two is a great way to create your own, cheap pumpkin puree without exposing your dog to added salt or preservatives.
  • Sweet potatoes. A thin dog can pack on the pounds with a bite of potatoes. In fact, Liam gets a little potato every day. Just boil the potatoes in water and mash them to prepare them. Leave the skins on for the added nutrients. 
  • Green beans. Dogs who have the alternate problem of packing on too many pounds can happily snack on green beans. These beans tend to fill the dog up, without adding many calories. Freeze your extra beans and pull them out for quick treats. 
Adding a few of these tasty snacks to your dog's diet can help you boost his fiber intake, but remember to just give a little bite as a snack. Overdoing it could cause stomach upset. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

"He's friendly!" A bit of dog-walking etiquette

Liam the pug on his leash looking a little worried
A neighbor of mine has a very boisterous, very large dog. I've met this dog before, when he came to investigate my gardening skills, and he seemed quite cheerful and friendly. This dog is also, unfortunately, very reactive on the leash and responds with barking and lunging whenever he sees another dog approaching.

Barking dogs don't really bother me very much, but the owner's behavior is beginning to grate. She believes, for reasons I can't explain, that the dog is somehow misunderstood and friendly, and she is constantly yelling "He's friendly!" at me, while she holds the end of the leash and he barks and snarls away. This morning, she nearly attempted to walk him in my direction to prove her point. Liam and I had to do some fancy footwork to escape.

Here's the etiquette lesson: If another dog owner is distrustful of your dog, walk away. If the other owner is nervous and holds onto a leash with the death grip, that person's dog is likely to become anxious and aggressive. The tension moves down the leash, and you have a fight on your hands. If the other owner says "No," this means "No."

Additionally, if you have an untrained dog and you'd like to brush up on that dog's skills, let your dog practice with other dogs you know that are of a similar size. Everyone you meet is not responsible for your dog's training. They are responsible for the safety and training of their own dogs. Liam might be friendly, but he's also under 30 pounds, and there's no way I will use him as bait in a training exercise with a 75-pound dog. When a big dog and a little dog fight, the little dog loses.

I see this woman twice per day, and I know we're facing a showdown. At this point, I may simply tell her that Liam is aggressive. Maybe she'll get the message.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pugs, skin problems and detergent: Are they connected?

Liam the pug in a freshly washed bed
Pugs are notorious for skin problems, but when you run an internet search on the problem, most owners seem to focus only on fleas and foods.

While it's true that pugs can develop allergies to fleas and it's true that food allergies can lead to skin problems, laundry detergent can also be to blame.

Many laundry detergents contain a whole host of chemicals, including petroleum products and heavy fragrances. While they may not bother us as humans, our dogs may lick their beds, chew on their blankets and drool on their toys more often than we do (I hope). It's likely that a dog will ingest chemicals from detergents, and those chemicals can cause allergic problems.

I wash Liam's bedding once a week. It helps to cut down on any fleas he brings in from the great outdoors, and it keeps him and his bedding from smelling moldy and disgusting. This is particularly important during the winter months. He comes inside from a wet walk and dives into his bed. After a few days, that bed smells like wet dog. Yuk.

When Liam was a puppy, he developed a small case of hives on his belly on laundry day. I figured the detergent was to blame, since this was the only thing I introduced on the day he had hives, and the search was on for new detergent. Eventually, I settled on Dreft. It still contains more fragrance than I would like, but it doesn't seem to irritate his skin. 

Some dogs may still react to Dreft, which might mean more research is in order.

If your dog is itchy on washing day, this might be a great topic to broach with your veterinarian. A simple change in detergent could make a big difference to your dog.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tapering prednisone in cats

cats asleep in bed
Eamon is feeling healthy enough to cuddle with his friends once more.
When your cat is facing a serious medical problem, like chronic itchy skin or painful joints, veterinarians often prescribe predisone. The medication can reduce inflammation and just make the animal feel better.

About a month ago, Eamon went on prednisone for a back problem and he went from being an immobile and painful cat to a jolly, snuggly guy in just a few days. Like most owners, I was resistant to taper him off a medication that seemed to be working.

Prednisone is a great medication, my veterinarian reminded me, but it's just not a great idea to give high doses of the medication over a long period of time. That's why veterinarians often suggest that you provide the medication at a high dose and then slowly decrease the amount you're giving until you find a low dose that works to control the chronic problem.

I am not the type of cat owner that argues with medical advice, so I follow dosage instructions carefully and we're tapering off the prednisone now. I am on the alert for signs of pain, stumbling or weakness and I'll be calling my veterinarian when I see any of these problems. He may go on a higher dose at that time, or we may add in a pain medication to help with the symptoms. I'm hoping that doesn't happen, but I'm prepared in case it does.

You'll notice that I am following instructions here. When I worked in veterinary clinics, I encountered many pet owners who refused to taper and would call multiple clinics to fill prescriptions for their pets. I have a lot of things to say about this behavior, and none of it is good, but the short version is this: Veterinarians have a pet's best interests at heart and they've spent many years studying animal physiology. Questioning their expertise is a bit silly, unless you're a veterinarian yourself. Always do what they say.

But if you can't resist the temptation to tinker, do your research first. I often look up medical conditions in this book The First Aid Companion for Dogs & Cats (Prevention Pets), and if I'd like to follow the recommendations I see there (rather than those my veterinarian requests), I bring the book with me to my animal appointments. I outline why I'd like to do something differently, and I give the veterinarian a chance to change my mind.

It's much safer to follow an approach like this. Rather than making some sort of snap decision about what my pet should do, I'm educating myself and then asking the pros for education. If the advice you're getting about a pred reduction just doesn't sit well with you, this could be an approach you might consider.

Disclosure: Some product links in this post are “affiliate links.” If you click on them and make a purchase, I'll get a commission. Rest assured that I only recommend products that I believe provide real value. This disclosure comes in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cats on the furniture: Why do they like your beds better than cat beds?

Maggie the cat sleeping on a chair in my office

By my count, there are 9 cat beds in this house. This afternoon, not one cat bed had a cat in it. Instead, the cats were all cuddled up in my chairs.

Let me be clear: The cat beds are all padded, clean and comfortable. They are all in cozy and draft-free spots in the house. And the cats have used them before. But in general, the cats just seem to prefer the human seating arrangements.

No matter how I try, I can't convince the cats to give their own beds the majority of their attention. Maggie is the worst offender. She's so bad, in fact, that we must keep the bedroom door closed or she will spend the entire day sleeping on my pillow (and I'll spend all night wheezing).

So what's the solution?

It's possible that cats sleep in these spots because they like the way a favorite human smells. Sleeping in a person's sitting spot is a way to stay connected to that person, even when the person is gone. You can help with that by lining pet beds with old shirts or laundry. That scent might linger, and you could help the cats to stay connected while in their own beds.

Also, some cats sleep in human spots because humans keep them warm. These cats will leap into your chair as soon as you get up, so they can suck up some of the warmth your body has left behind when you stand. These cats might love a heating pad or a warm bed. That way, they can stay in it all the time without fighting you for it.

But in general, keeping ALL cats off the furniture at ALL times just isn't realistic. Cats want what they want, and sometimes, that means they want your spots.

There are things you can do to make it tolerable. I place towels or blankets on the favorite furniture, so I can remove those coverings when guests arrive. No one likes to leave a visit covered in foreign pet hair, after all. I also vacuum the furniture frequently, so pet dander doesn't accumulate in the furniture. As a rule, it's hard to get pet dander out of thick cushions (like mattresses and pillows), so it's best to keep cats out of the bedroom if you have allergies.

Many cat owners complain that their cats use the furniture to sharpen their claws. I think all cat owners have dealt with this problem from time to time. The answer, for my cats, is to give them more stimulation. When I moved from a small condo with no view to a large house with a squirrel-infested backyard, the scratching ceased. I also trim my cats' nails regularly. When their nails are short, they're less likely to feel inclined to sharpen.

Would I like my cats to sleep in their own beds? Of course. But if I share and they share, it's not so bad.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How to make your dog walk nicely on a leash

Liam resting in his bed after a long walk
Liam resting after a long walk.
I take Liam for two walks per day, and three weeks ago, I would have said that Liam has nice manners on a leash. Now that I can only use one arm on these walks (since I am still wearing my sling after shoulder surgery), I have a different opinion. Liam tends to pull, run and lag behind on most walks, and he's hard to control with only one hand.

On a standard walk, most dogs will dart and pull. Male dogs, in particular, are notorious for this behavior as they like to mark most surfaces you pass along the walk. Even dogs that only weigh 24 pounds can pull you off your feet if they run in a different direction without warning. I can't imagine what my surgeon would say if I had to pull a Mulligan on my surgery because of my pug.

Training a dog to walk nicely on a leash isn't easy. Most of the time, you must be hyper aware of your dog, and stay on the lookout for head movements that signal a run is near.

Liam tends to pull his ears forward and tighten his wrinkles before he darts away. If I catch this behavior, I give him a sharp "No!" and he stays in line. If I don't catch the behavior and he darts away, I stay completely stone still and ask him to come back to my feet and sit nicely. I don't move forward or back until he completes this command.

Some dog owners can use no-pull halters that force the dog's head into an unnatural position when the dog pulls. The dog may end up looking down or flipping around at the end of a pull, and they may learn to stop pulling as a result. Unfortunately, most of these halters fit around a dog's muzzle. Snub-nosed breeds like pugs can't wear these halters, since they have no noses.

If anyone knows of a no-pull halter that would work for a pug, shoot me an email message. My surgeon and I would appreciate it!

But there is a secret weapon you can use in place of a no-pull harness. That weapon? A cookie. The theory is that you can use a treat to make your dog look at you, not at something else, and the cookie is a way to reward that behavior. The treat doesn't have to be huge to work. Even a tiny nibble will do the trick. As long as the dog gets something for behaving, you're on the right track.

I'm using cookies, and I can tell you that they work. Yes, it's hard to give out cookies with one hand, but the snacks keep Liam from pulling me off my feet. Catching myself with one hand if I fall would be harder, I reckon.

Good luck! Hope you have the same success I've had. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why do cats love heat?

cat next to heater
Eamon cuddling up to the heater (which isn't on).
Fall has arrived in Oregon, and that means I pulled out the oil-filled heater for my workroom. I rarely leave this room during the workday, so there's no sense in heating up the whole house. Instead, I just heat up this one room. It keeps me cozy, and it keeps me on task. Who wants to hang out in the cold part of the house?

My animals feel the same way, so in the fall and winter months, they're all in my workroom with me, trying to bask in the warmth. No one is more eager than Eamon, who practically danced for joy when I pulled the heater out of the closet. He hopped right up on this chair to snooze, and I didn't quite have the heart to tell him that the heater wasn't yet plugged in and therefore wasn't emitting any heat.

Theories abound as to why cats love heat. Here are my three favorites.

1. It's in their DNA. 

Back in 2007, scientists discovered that our domestic cats share genes with wild cats currently living in Saudi Arabia (check out the deets at National Geographic). That's a fascinating tidbit, and it could explain a lot.

If our cats originate with wild cats that live in the desert, that means their bodies might do best in super-hot climates. They've probably evolved to do well in places that are really hot. And since that's true, they're probably likely to seek out spaces that are really hot, like heated workrooms.

2. It's a background thing.

Very tiny kittens don't have the ability to see, and they can't hear very much, either. But, they need to find their mommas, so they can get the milk they need in order to survive. They do that, veterinarians say, by seeking out heat sources. Momma cats have hot bodies, and baby kittens are like heat-seeking missiles when they're hungry.

If this is true, adult cats might equate heat with childhood, and with nourishment and protection. When they're hot, they have a sense that they're safe and protected.

3. It has to do with health.

Senior cats like Eamon are even more attuned to the power of heat, and it's possible that their hot preferences have to do with health and bodily preservation. Senior cats can't regulate their body temperatures as well as young cats can, and they often have stiff joints due to arthritis. By sticking close to the heat, they can keep themselves just a touch healthier.

Which theory is the correct one? I really have no idea. But here's what I do know: I'll have a crowded workroom until the spring weather comes back around.

Friday, October 7, 2011

How to help vision-impaired cats (hint: Utilize your local animal aid societies!)

This pretty kitty with the wide eyes has a vision problem
I have many friends who are passionate about animals. Most of us have rescued many animals on our own time, and using our own funds, and we have homes full of animals that no one else wanted. This doesn't keep us from torturing ourselves with stories of animals that need help, however.

This morning, a friend of mine sent me a link to a advertisement, and it has me a bit angry.

The in this ad cat is a purebred Persian. I have no idea where this person got him, but she's had him for 2 weeks and she's decided she's spent too much money on his care and she's trying to give him away to a new home. He needs a eye surgery, and she can't/won't pay for it. She states she'll need to euthanize him if someone else won't adopt him.

Why in the world do people rescue cats if they don't intend to truly help them? Why take in a sick animal only to boot it back out again for being sick? Rescue work takes money, and if you don't have money, you can't do rescue work on your own. You can donate to rescue organizations, you can donate your time to rescue agencies, but you shouldn't be taking in these animals if you can't afford to pay for their care. Now this cat is facing death or adjusting to a new home after having a painful surgery. Both of these are terrible options.

So what can this owner do instead? Plenty:
  • Contact a Persian cat rescue. This cat is a purebred animal, and has a decent shot at being placed through a dedicated agency. 
  • Contact a blind cat rescue. When this animal is done with surgery, he'll be vision impaired and eligible for placement at one of these organizations.
  • Contact Animal Aid. This group can provide financial assistance to people who cannot afford needed medical care for their animals. They may even be able to take the cat in for needed medical care. 
I feel terrible for this cat, and I am outlining these options for the poster in an email. Let's hope she takes my advice.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dog clicker training idea: How to teach your dog to speak

The "speak" command is useful for vocal dogs that don't seem to know when to keep their opinions to themselves. Why? Because by teaching a dog to "speak," you are implicitly also teaching the dog not to speak.

Think of it this way: Most dogs will only offer a trick if they think a reward is in play, and they tend to stop performing a trick when they get no treat in return. If you teach a dog to speak, that dog might stop speaking unless you ask for the behavior. That's the only way it's rewarding!

Teaching a dog to speak with a clicker is easy.

Start with a treat in your hand, and wait patiently for your dog to provide some kind of noise in order to get that treat. You don't need to wait for a full-on bark. A grunt, a sneeze or a wheeze will work. As soon as you hear that noise, hit your clicker and say "Good speak," while you're performing your preferred hand signal. Drop that treat, too.

Yes, there's a lot you'll need to do all at once, at the same time. But if a clutzy girl like me can do it, I'm sure you can, too!

In time, you'll shape the command by providing the click/verbal reward/treat only when the dog makes an actual bark. And soon, you'll need to work to extinguish spontaneous barks. Atsy dogs like Liam may offer vocalizations when you have a treat in your hands and offer no commands at all.

Eventually, as you get picker and picker about what constitutes a rewardable noise, you'll see your dog barks only when you want that bark. But there may be some bumps along the way.

For example, Liam now offers a back up on the speak command, likely because he learned the two tricks at the same time. I just wait patiently after giving the command and wait for him to offer up the right activity.

Want to try it? I recommend this product:  Karen Pryor, Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs Kit. You'll learn how to use the clicker the right way, and you'll get a starter clicker, too!

Have fun!

Disclosure: Some product links in this post are “affiliate links.” If you click on them and make a purchase, I'll get a commission. Rest assured that I only recommend products that I believe provide real value. This disclosure comes in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Can pets help you heal?

Lucy prefers to help me from afar
Lucy prefers to give help from afar.
I'm back to blogging, after a week's worth of recovery from my shoulder surgery. During that time, I was too flat painful to do anything involving typing. And may of the fears I had when I wrote this blog post about preparing for surgery have come to pass. 

But while I wasn't able to write online, I was able to read quite a bit. And in this week following my surgery, I've read many stories of animals that helped their owners recover in miraculous ways after a major health incident. This is just one of many of these articles.

Either I have a set of spoiled critters or the claims are a bit bogus in the first place.

Liam spent most of last week trying to climb underneath my sling, which was incredibly painful for me. Once I cried out a few times, he kept his distance.

The cats were terrified by the change in my appearance and the way I was moving, and they simply avoided me at all costs and hissed at the sling when I took it off.

This phase has thankfully passed. But now, all the animals seem frustrated that I can't throw the ball, put the food down or pet them as I used to do.

Once again, while I would love to be a romantic and believe that animals sense our pain and want to help, I am reminded that animals are just animals. They are constantly most worried about their own survival, and our ability to provide food, care and comfort. For them, this surgery is disruptive and a bit scary. They don't see an opportunity to rise above and help. They see an opportunity for their lives to go downhill.

I can help by reassuring them, staying positive and sticking to routines. That's what I'm working on now. I'm off to feed them lunch right now, as a matter of fact. But if you're planning to experience something miraculous in response to your own health issue, take it from me. Your pets may love you with all their hearts. But healing? Forget about it.