Monday, December 21, 2009

Pets Gone Wild!

From thunderstorm phobia to outright aggression, our pets can suffer from a variety of behavioral maladies. Thankfully, modern science has given us new therapeutic tools, like anti-depressants, that appear to help our pets cope with these issues. But, have we gone too far in pushing these pills on our pets?
By: Krista Gibson, DVM

According to a recent marketing survey, about 17% of all dogs exhibit signs consistent with a condition known as separation anxiety. Video footage of pets left alone can show excessive pacing, extreme vocalization and, in some cases, a rampage of destruction. Doors are chewed, furniture destroyed and other pets go as far as injuring themselves on their cage or other objects. Sadly, some owners won’t or can’t tolerate this sort of behavior and the pet ends up being relinquished to a local shelter and often euthanized.

Beyond separation anxiety, other pets suffer from an obsessive compulsive type of behavior known in veterinary circles as abnormal repetitive behavior. Dogs that endlessly chase their tails, big cats in zoos and even stalled horses who pace tirelessly are all examples of this compulsion. Our pets can also suffer phobias due to thunderstorms and even fireworks.

Veterinarians noticed these pets were behaving similarly to people with mental disorders. Various human ant-depressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were tried to lessen these behavioral issues. In some cases, the medications appear to have a lasting beneficial effect. Now, drugs like Lilly’s Reconcile® are commonplace in a veterinarian’s arsenal of dealing with behavior issues.

In fact, many owners prefer the convenience of a medication to the hard work, time requirements and discipline of behavior modification. It is not uncommon for pet owners to request a pill despite the fact that the right type of positive behavior modification or changes in the pet’s environment might do the trick.

Of course, there are critics who feel that we have focused too much on medicating our pets and not enough on how to enrich our pet’s environment. In a New York Times article, Dr. Ian Dunbar, a noted veterinary behaviorist, is quoted as saying that he has never needed to resort to drugs to resolve a behavior problem. Although he acknowledges that pharmaceuticals can help in some circumstances, his main thrust is that we shouldn’t set up pets in unhealthy lifestyles and then rely on drugs to correct it. Sound advice for humans as well!!

Veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Valarie Tynes of Premier Veterinary Services wonders if “we are not putting dogs in realistic, appropriate situations and are we not teaching them how to behave in unusual situations.”

Likewise, Dr. Melissa Bain, a veterinary behaviorist with UC Davis has commented that our own expectations of how we interact with pets have changed drastically in the last 30 years.

So, what’s the best way to make sure that your family won’t experience a behavioral “meltdown” with a pet?

First, realize that pets are not an item of convenience. Unlike video games or electronic gadgets, our pets can’t be turned on and off at our discretion. They need a stimulating environment and plenty of activity to thrive in our homes. Owning a pet requires a commitment to the animal’s mental well-being in addition to their physical health.

Next, look at your schedules. If both parents work full time jobs and the kids are busy in multiple school activities, who is going to engage with the pets on a regular basis? Pets left alone often are at a higher risk to develop abnormal behaviors.

Investigate and learn about the type of pet you want. For busy, on the go families who aren’t home much, an energetic dog like a Labrador or a Dalmatian might not be a good match. There is definitely a genetic basis to certain behavior issues, and some breeds have a strong need to “work”. Failure to provide the pet with the proper stimulation and socialization can set them up for potential behavioral problems.

Finally, always consult with your veterinarian if any abnormal behavior occurs with your pet. Some behaviors are linked to medical conditions, so a good physical examination could help resolve the issue. Your veterinarian may offer a referral or you can find veterinary behaviorists at Another option would be a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists at

And, although they are not “cure-alls”, there is a place for some medications in dealing with issues relating to our pet’s mental health.

Dr. Tynes reminds us that we shouldn’t fixate on the “Disney Dog stereotype of perfect pets”. For whatever reason, we tolerate less imperfection in our pets, yet we are failing to prepare them for what is a novel and rapidly changing world.” Be sure to bookmark as your sources of up-to-date and accurate pet health information. And get answers to your pet medical or behavior questions at

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Shedding Pounds With Our Pets

Losing weight is a challenge for both people and their pets. With obesity levels at an all time high in North America, how can we reverse the trend and start shedding those pounds? The good news is that working out with your pet has definite advantages!

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

They might not understand the aerobics instructions and they can’t use free weights, but it’s possible that our pets may be just as valuable as expensive exercise machines in helping us humans lose weight.

A twelve month study recently completed has shown that exercising with your dog has several positive benefits for both owner and pets. The People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET) study showed people who are trying to lose weight often need a positive support system of friends, co-workers and relatives. Unfortunately, these same people can negatively affect an individual’s exercise plan by sabotage and even negative influences. Exercising with your pet however, brings unique encouragement and fun not seen in other programs.

An owner who desires to lose weight can count on consistent prompting from their canine buddy to exercise. The need for the dog to go outside is a positive influence, encouraging activity. Most owners see their daily walks with the pet as enjoyable and less like exercise. A separate Canadian study showed that dog owners actually averaged 300 minutes per week walking compared to 168 minutes for people without dogs.

Beyond the prompting to exercise, our pets also affect our desire to succeed because of parental pride. Most pet owners consider their dogs and cats to be members of the family and when the pet loses weight as well, you can see the delight in the owner’s eyes.

But, before you rush out to buy a track suit for your four-legged buddy, there are a few considerations to make sure everyone stays healthy and safe.

First, just like you, your pet may not be ready for the Mini-Marathon. Increase the amount of time spent walking gradually. For some very obese dogs, you might begin with simply walking to the end of the block, then gradually working up to longer distances.

It’s also important to realize that your pet will be very excited and not know to take it easy. Every spring, veterinarians see dogs with ruptured cruciate ligaments, painful hips, and other injuries because of over-exertion. Learn your pet’s limits and help him build strength and stamina. Even if your pet is not overweight, strenuous exercise can debilitate any pet not used to the routine

Not all pets are equally suited to the same workout routine. Although all dogs will benefit from daily walks, many breeds won’t make good running partners. Be sure to tailor your exercise plan to your dog’s physical and athletic abilities.

Cats should not be left out of these activities either. Spending 20-30 minutes doing play activities with your kitty can help her lose weight as well. Cat experts recommend using laser pointers to increase activity or even wearing a long “tail” while you do your housework. As you move through your home, the cat can actively “hunt” and pounce on the tail. Other suggestions include allowing the cat to search/hunt for her food by placing multiple bowls around the house in high and low places. Similarly, a Tricky Treat Ball ( can help by stimulating activity and reward your cat with her favorite treats.

Don’t forget the appropriate diet! For overweight pets, a light diet or even a prescription reducing diet from your veterinarian might be appropriate. But, if your canine athlete is already in peak condition, he may actually need a performance diet to help him meet his caloric needs as you increase his exercise regimen.

Be sure to get your pet a good physical exam before starting any weight loss or exercise program. Your veterinarian can help you find the right rate of weight loss for your pet and will have additional ideas on exercise routines and proper diets.

Cultural changes have led to a significant increase in obesity among both humans and pets. Although the study was small, the PPET study effectively showed that our pets can be supportive exercise partners. This teamwork helped both pets and people lose weight and cemented yet another layer into the human-animal bond.

To learn more about how obesity affects our pets, visit You can also learn from licensed practicing veterinarians at

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Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dangers in Our Own Backyard

For many people, the sight of deer in their backyard on a brisk autumn morning is a wonderful start to the day. But, as we continue to encroach into formerly “wild” areas, are we putting ourselves and our pets at risk?

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

Wildlife fascinates us. Whether it’s the sight of a fox along the roadside or a raccoon ambling across a yard, people often stop in amazement, enthralled by these encounters with nature.

However, there is a darker side to this fascination. As we build more homes in formerly rural areas, contact with wild animals increases. Much of this new interaction has unfortunate consequences for the wildlife. This is evident by the number of dead skunks, raccoons, and possums along the roadside.

But, we humans and our pets are also in danger in these wild interactions. Along with deer come blood-thirsty ticks and an array of bacterial diseases. Raccoons and skunks bring the terror of rabies to our backyard and even the humble mouse has the potential for spreading deadly Hantavirus. Is there any way that we can peacefully co-exist alongside wildlife?

Thankfully the answer is yes! Knowing the risks and taking steps to avoid them can help keep the whole family safe.

First, as mentioned above, skunks and raccoons are two important reservoirs of rabies in North America. Prior to 1977, rabies was very rare along the mid-Atlantic states and New England area. But, a human managed relocation of raccoons from Florida to West Virginia in the late 1970s has unleashed a new epidemic of rabies in these areas.

Rabid raccoons often become nice and “approachable” and many people are tempted to take the animal into their yards or homes. Skunks, on the other hand, will become overly aggressive and actively attack humans and pets.

Raccoons also harbor a significant parasite known as the “raccoon roundworm” or Baylisascaris. These large worms are associated with severe or even fatal central nervous system disease in many mammals. The eggs are passed in the feces of the raccoon and then encountered by other animals, including children. The parasite can also mature in our dogs. This means that it is possible our pets are helping to contaminate larger areas with this potentially fatal worm.

They may be small, but many mice and rats can carry a killer virus. First discovered in the Four Corners region of the US, Hantavirus (or Sin Nombre virus) is now found in more than 30 states. Because of a long incubation period (one to five weeks), many people are unaware of a problem until too late. Thirty percent of affected individuals die. This disease is spread through rodent droppings, urine and saliva. It is possible to become infected after cleaning a house or barn where rodents have been in residence. Thankfully, our pets are not affected by this virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (, the white tailed deer population in North America is now approaching levels not seen in more than 200 years. Although beautiful to look at, many wild deer carry some unwanted passengers, like ticks.

Ticks are the primary vector for several serious bacterial diseases like Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia. As we have built new subdivisions in rural areas or reforested old agricultural lands, these diseases have shown significant increases, both in humans and our dogs.

Finally, a single celled organism known as Giardia is the most common intestinal parasite of people in North America. In fact, people comprise the main reservoir of this disease. But, wild animals, like beavers, muskrats and small rodents also make up an important additional source of infection. This parasite can cause severe diarrhea, anorexia, and weight loss in both people and pets.

Thanks to modern veterinary medicine and good common sense, it is possible to enjoy our wild neighbors and keep everyone safe.

First, avoiding contact with wildlife is the number one rule. Not only will it help prevent disease transmission, but it will also stop traumatic injuries from fights or chases through the woods.

Avoid the temptation to feed the local wildlife (with the exception of birds). Like our dogs and cats, wild animals become accustomed to regular feeding stations. Although well intentioned, this act will cause wild animals to linger in your yard and puts them in danger.

Similarly, don’t adopt orphaned or injured animals unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Keeping these animals increases your risk of contracting one of the diseases or parasites mentioned above.

Watch for wildlife defecation areas, like communal raccoon latrines. Using proper protective equipment, remove and destroy the feces.

Vaccinations and preventive flea and tick medications are vital in keeping our pets safe from these dangers. Your veterinarian can help you determine your pets’ risk factors and then guide you to choosing appropriate vaccines and flea/tick preventives.

Our growing urban sprawl and the adaptability of wild creatures means that we will continue to encounter many animals in and around our homes. To learn more about keeping everyone safe, visit for a video on the dangers wildlife can pose to our families.

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Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Feline Food Controversy Confounds Cat Lovers

As predators go, it’s pretty hard to beat the cat family. Designed to thrive on meat, cats have perfected their bodies, both inside and out, as “obligate carnivores”. Now, a debate about the right type of diet has many pet owners, and veterinarians, perplexed.
By: Krista Gibson, DVM

Even when times are tough, pet owners still find ways to make sure their furry companions have the right food. For many cat owners, that food has always been a high quality dry kibble. Some experts are now saying that these commercial diets are at the center of an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among our feline friends. So, how do you know what’s best to feed?

To try and find an answer, veterinarians and nutritionists are looking at the evolutionary history of our cats. All of our felines, purebred and mixed, are descended from a Middle Eastern wild cat that goes by the simple name of Desert Cat.

As with most desert creatures, our cats’ ancestors evolved to obtain most of their water from the food they ate. In the cat’s case, the majority of their moisture came from hunting lizards, small rodents, birds and insects.

And, unlike their canine cousins, these cats didn’t routinely eat plant material as a significant portion of their diet. Cats evolved to be obligate carnivores, meaning that all their nutritional needs can be met through eating animal tissue. In fact, some early commercial cat foods were deficient in certain amino acids found only in meats and animal fats. This caused heart and vision problems in numerous cats.

Today, almost all cat foods are complete and balanced. So, why the worry?

Some experts are concerned that most of our pet cats are eating dry cat food made with significant amounts of cereal grains. In a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), author Dr. Deb Zoran speculates that the use of grains in our cats’ diets as well as the routine use of a dry food has potentially predisposed a large percentage of cats to diabetes, obesity and several other issues, including blockages in the urinary tract.

Dr. Zoran’s argument is that as obligate carnivores, cats are unable to fully utilize carbohydrates as an immediate energy source and the excess carbs found in these cereals end up being stored as fat.

One solution proposed by experts is to use grain free, canned cat foods. Unfortunately, not all cat owners like this option as they feel it is wasteful (the canned food dries out quickly) and more expensive. Using a dry food offers the owner convenience and less of a mess to clean up.

There are even cats who refuse to eat canned diets. Moreover, some veterinarians feel that cats will over-eat canned diets just as easily as dry and the sticky wet foods promote more dental issues than the dry kibble. Finally, because canned diets of the meat and gravy variety are only complete and balanced if the pet eats the whole portion, cats who lick up the gravy and leave the meat are at risk for nutritional deficiencies.

So, is there an easy, or even a right answer to this debate?

First, cat owners should realize that millions of cats have eaten dry commercial diets for many years and done very well. So, there is no immediate need for panic. Although nutrition does play a part in diseases like diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and urinary obstruction, other factors, such as genetics and environmental issues, also influence the progression of these illnesses. So, a switch to canned diets may not prevent the development of these diseases.

Next, choose foods wisely. There are many commercial diets, canned and dry, prepared by companies who have invested years in developing nutritionally sound diets for pets. Don’t be fooled by fancy label claims or celebrity endorsements. Your veterinarian is a great resource to help you find a quality food for your pet.

If you and your veterinarian decide that adding canned foods to your cat’s diet is a good idea, remember to start slow. Sudden changes in diet can be hard on a cat’s digestive system or could cause them to stop eating entirely.

Finally, remember to “count calories” with your cats. Leaving bowls full of dry kibble AND feeding canned diets can lead to overweight kitties and the problems mentioned above. Feed small meals frequently throughout the day to mimic a cat’s natural “grazing” activity. Some owners even hide small amounts of kibble around the house for cats to “hunt”.

Nutrition is probably the most important aspect of the health of any pet. Veterinarians and nutritionists are actively researching and refining diets to best match the needs of our cats. You can find more helpful pet care information, along with the Internet’s largest gathering of licensed veterinarians and pet professionals at

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Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Internet Reunites Lost Pets With Their Owners

With our impressive array of technologies, like GPS and “smart” phones, you might think that finding a lost pet is getting easier each year. Sadly, the odds are still against many missing pets ever making it back home. Isn’t there some way to insure that your pet will return safely from his wandering?

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

Everyone loves the amazing stories of dogs and cats who travel long distances to find their way back home or even locate their owners in a new city. Unfortunately, these happy tales are the rare exception to the rule. For every pet that makes it back after leaving, there are tens of thousands who never live to see home again!
Humane groups and pet industry experts estimate that more than 5 million pets will be lost this year. One pet in every three will be lost at some point in his or her lifetime. According to the American Humane Association (, of those that roam away from home, less than 17% of the dogs and only 2% of the cats ever make it back to their owners. Sadly, most of the rest will be euthanized in over-crowded animal shelters. Newspapers and on-line ads still tell the sad story of some youngster’s lost pet every day. Why do we see a continuation of this problem year after year?
First, despite leash laws and other ordinances, many families are reluctant to chain their dogs or attempt to keep their cats from roaming. This is especially true in rural areas.
Compounding the issue is that there are more than 200 million pets in North America and only a very small percentage has some form of permanent identification. ID tags and collars are easily removed by unscrupulous individuals or even by the pet in some instances. Microchips help to insure that the pet has some means of identification, but even these implants aren’t foolproof.
In fact, it is a rare pet that actually has a microchip. According to industry data, only about 5% of all pets in North America actually have a microchip. And, even the pets with chips aren’t necessarily any safer. When owners fail to register their pet properly, reunions are delayed or even prevented in many instances. Again, experts from all major microchip companies state that less than 50% of chipped pets are registered with correct and current information.
Other forms of identification, such as tattooing, are very rare and obscure. This fact means that a shelter employee or veterinary office may not even note the presence of a tattoo.
Finally, even though they have good intentions, shelters and rescues are often overwhelmed with pets. A microchip could be missed during a hurried exam or a description of your lost pet might not match what the employee sees in front of him.
In spite of these overwhelming odds, you can proactively help insure that your pet will make it safely home. First, like so many things, prevention and preparation go a long way. Neuter your pet to decrease his roaming urges and consider using both ID tags and a microchip. Obey local leash laws and don’t allow your pet to wander the neighborhood.
Next, if your pet does become lost, act fast! Don’t delay in the hopes that he will simply find his way back. The faster you respond to his disappearance, the better your odds are of finding him safely. Visit local shelters daily.
A new online service, has recently made headlines across the country for their success rate in finding pets. This pet recovery service offers a nationwide alert system for lost pets.
If you are enrolled at their website and your pet is lost, one call sets a flurry of activity into motion. First, all veterinary offices, groomers, shelters, pet stores, and HelpMeFindMyPet members within a 50 mile radius of your pet’s last known location receive notification via email or fax of your pet’s disappearance. This communication contains a flyer with a picture or description of your pet and any other identifying features or ID numbers. Additionally, using the power of the social media networks, like Facebook and Twitter, announcements are made to help increase the number of searchers for your pet.
According to Jessica Staton of HelpMeFindMyPet, more than 87% of pets reported through their system make it home. Additionally, this service continues to broadcast alerts until the pet is found! Ms. Staton describes numerous incidents of stolen pets being returned because of intense publicity. Other organizations, such as Amber Alert for Pets and also have web-based recovery services.
We all want our family members to stay close to home and to heart. But, like all children, our pets love exploration and adventure too. Work with your veterinarian to make sure all your pets are properly identified with tags and/or microchips. Now, you also have the option to use the power of the Internet in case your pet decides to wander off.
To learn more about microchips, visit You can also find expert pet advice at
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pet Health Savings Plans

Money is tight for everyone these days! Paying your every day bills is hard enough, so what happens when your pet needs emergency care? A new idea just might keep your pet, and your wallet, from suffering!

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

Historically, veterinary medicine has always been a bargain for pet owners. Unfortunately, when a serious illness strikes or the pet is injured, pet owners are often shocked by the estimates and invoices they receive. Furthermore, when the estimate exceeds the amount in their checking account, some owners feel trapped between a decision to fix the pet and hurt their savings, or lose their pet forever.

Sadly, this scenario is all too common in veterinary medicine. Many pets with fixable problems or curable diseases have suffered euthanasia due to financial reasons.

Pet insurance can help, but since there are no third party payment systems in veterinary medicine, the pet owner must still pay the invoice up front and wait for reimbursement.

Likewise, personal financing options are available. Unfortunately, the very people who need the most help aren’t often able to qualify for credit.

Thankfully, Pet Health Savings Plans may provide some hope for pet owners as a new option in covering pet healthcare costs. Pet Health Savings Plans allow an owner to make an automatic deposit into an FDIC insured account set up specifically for them and their pet. Since the deposit is automatic, most owners never truly miss the money. The account is also interest-bearing, so pet owners can actually see sustained growth in their pet’s nest egg!

One of the major controversies with pet insurance is that if your pet never needs it, owners feel as if they have paid the premiums for nothing. With the new pet health savings plans, the money stays with you, so that you can use it for any purpose.

Conversely, pet health savings plans do take time to build and a sudden pet emergency could still leave you without funds. Many pet insurance policies will provide reimbursements even after payment of just a single premium.

Unlike personal financing options, pet health savings plans aren’t going to require a substantial credit check. If you have a checking or savings account, you will likely be eligible for one of these plans as well.

A great example of a pet health savings plan can be found at Pawsitive Savings was started by Dr. Tom Beall as another way to try and help his clients handle unexpected pet expenses.

Pawsitive Savings gives their members a debit card complete with a picture of their own pet on the front. Through a network of veterinarians and veterinary suppliers, owners enrolled in Pawsitive Savings also receive numerous benefits and coupons for products and services.

But, perhaps the biggest advantage pet owners and veterinarians have seen with pet health savings accounts is the fact that the money stays with the owner. If the pet never needs emergency care, special surgery, or long-term healthcare, the money can be used for the next pet or for whatever the owner would like.

Beyond finding out how to pay for an emergency situation with your pet, veterinarians remind owners that one key to lower pet healthcare costs is to practice good preventive care and some common sense.

Don’t skimp on heartworm preventive or vaccines in an effort to save money. Likewise, trying to cut costs by using less expensive foods or over the counter imitation products can also lead to a pet health emergency.

We know that we can’t prevent every single accident our pets might have, but preparing for future situations makes a lot of sense. Pet health savings plans help provide pet owners with some peace of mind and, these accounts designed for saving money just might be life-saving as well! You can learn more about this great new idea by visiting Also, for all your pet health questions, visit for access to more than 100 professional veterinarians.

-------------------------------------------Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at

Friday, July 17, 2009

Declawing Cats: Is It Cruel or Caring?

I often get asked about declawing cats. People have heard all sorts of terrible things about declawing, but they feel frustrated, helpless and angry with their cats when their house is being destroyed. They ask me what to do because they feel guilty even considering a declaw, but what happens when you no longer like your own pet because of its destructive behavior? What kind of life can you have together? Is that good for either the owners or their cats? In my experience in practice as well as with the NUMEROUS cats I have kept over the years, I think I can give you a pretty good understanding of the reasons behind both sides of this debate.

Removing the cat's front claws, or onychectomy, is a procedure performed only by veterinarians. While there are various methods used (Resco, disarticulation, laser, etc), the goal is to remove the claw and the third digit of the toe. Many people opt for declawing their cats as a means to protect their furniture or even their skin!

Opponents of declawing state that it is unnatural, cruel, and causes medical and behavioral changes in the cat. Some strong opponents have even been able to ban declawing in certain cities across the United States. Many European countries, parts of Australia, New Zealand and Japan all ban declawing. The first thing we must understand is WHY do cats scratch? Cats will sink their claws into a variety of inanimate objects in order to stretch, to mark territory, to sharpen the claws and to remove the outer layer of the claw that may be flaking away slowly. Pet owners report that cats seem to prefer certain fabrics when scratching (such as the easy-to-destroy vertical weave of many draperies!). Cats, of course, will also use their claws as a defenses mechanism, swatting at opponents or raking with their rear claws. Because many juvenile cats haven't learned how to play "nice", their play swatting and raking can sometimes take a toll on the owner's skin, or, worse, the skin of a young child.

Many people turn to declawing simply because they are not aware of, nor are they told about other options. These other options include training, tendonectomy, Soft Paws and simply routine nail trimming. For a lot of cat owners, taking the time to train the cat seems futile.

Opinions vary as to the "trainability" of cats, but experts do agree that an appropriate training program can keep a cat from scratching on unacceptable objects. First, a suitable substitute must be provided - scratching post, cat condo, etc. Next, owners need to be able to provide some sort of punishment for scratching on unacceptable items without being associated with the punishment. Squirt bottles can sometimes work if the cat is unaware that the owner is doing it. Punishment as a deterrent is especially challenging if it can’t be used EVERY SINGLE TIME an undesired behavior happens. In order for it to be effective, it must be consistent and not associated with the owner, or else the cat will simply learn not to do the behavior when the owner is around. So, more often, booby traps need to be set up so that the cat is startled every time and even when the owner is not around. Owners should also encourage and praise the cat for using the appropriate objects, like a scratching post. Catnip is useful for this!

Tendonectomy is a surgical procedure that clips the tendon that extends the claw from the cat's foot. Now, the cat keeps the claws but can't extend them. Owners need to realize that the cat will still need nail trims routinely throughout its life, and that while the cats can’t fully extend their claws, they can’t fully retract them, either. My experience with this procedure has been mixed. People like the idea, but in reality, the cats still can cause damage, and the need for continuous nail trimming can become a burden for some.

Soft Paws are acrylic nail caps that are glued in place over the cat's nails. By creating a blunt tip, the Soft Paws keeps the cat from causing any damage, to furniture or people. In my experience, these worked ok, but needed replaced quite often. Eventually, most people give up on these because of the extensive maintenance required.

So...what about the opposite viewpoint? Do cats experience immense pain and exhibit behavioral changes after a declaw? To date, no scientific study (and there have been several) has been able to document behavior changes in cats after they have been declawed. According to one survey, almost three quarters of the people asked had a better relationship with their cats after the declaw.

Pain is a different story. Seeing a cat waking up from anesthetic and a declaw procedure can be a trying experience for a new veterinary employee. Thankfully we understand so much more about the control of pain, pre-operatively, peri-operatively and post operatively now! With appropriate pain relief on board, many cats wake up comfortably. When lasers are used for declaws and the surgeon is well experienced, many of these cats wake up ready to play!! Younger cats seem to bounce back more quickly, regardless of the method used, while older cats do seem uncomfortable for a little longer. On a personal note, I declawed one of our clinic cats several years ago when he was five because he was swatting clients and drawing blood. We kept him on pain medication for a full week, and after the first day, he jumped up and down off counters and acted normally. So, bottom line is...if declaws are done, pain relief must be used!

Declawed cats do lose a signficant portion of their defenses when you remove the claws...but don't consider them completely defenseless. I have seen many declawed cats climb trees and telephone poles without a second thought, and the raking motion of the rear legs will still cause some deep scratches to anyone trying to pin down a cat! That said, I have always recommended that owners of declawed cats keep them inside for their own safety!

Choosing to declaw your cat should be a decision made between you and your veterinarian. I don't believe that the government should step in (as they did in West Hollywood), and, certainly, other options should be considered, if feasible to the owner. An elderly owner with fragile skin may not have the time to go through training, SoftPaws or other options. Similarly, a family with toddlers might also have a more difficult time waiting for other options to work. I also think that you shouldn't decide to declaw a geriatric adult cat unless there are no other options. At the same time, if it’s declaw the cat or it goes to the pound, I’ll declaw it with the understanding of the owner that pain management, both in hospital and at home, is going to be an essential part of the process.

Bottom line...if declawing keeps the cat in a good loving home versus the cat having to live outside with less attention and affection, then I believe that declawing is appropriate if done by a veterinarian and the cat is given appropriate pain relief. If you are able to use other options, then you should find that you, your cat, and his claws can all live in harmony!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Saying Goodbye With Dignity

It’s never easy to let go of a loved one, whether they have two legs or four. Pet owners often console themselves by saying they are “easing their pet’s misery” when they ask for euthanasia after diagnosis of a terminal illness. But, are these “premature euthanasias” good for the whole pet family?

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

Ending a human life is not legal, so people with terminal illnesses and less than 6 months to live often enter hospice care. This relatively recent development in medicine focuses on the comfort of the patient and less on heroic medical or surgical measures. In other words, caregivers put the patient’s comfort first, not an attempt at any type of cure. Another important aspect of hospice care is that the whole family is included. Relatives and friends can say good-bye in peace rather than sitting in hospital lobbies or crowded waiting rooms.

Now, thanks to caring veterinarians, technicians and other support personnel, hospice care for pets is becoming a reality across the continent. Websites like and introduce concerned pet owners to the concept of caring for a terminally ill or disabled pet.

With a shorter lifespan, our pets seem to leave us all too quickly. And, the availability of an “easy death” through euthanasia has potentially robbed some owners of quality time with their beloved dogs or cats. Veterinary hospice care aims to provide a higher quality of life for those pets, even if the time frame is only a few days to a few weeks.

Just like in human hospice, veterinarians feel that the final days for the pet should be spent in comfort among familiar surroundings and loving family. According to Dr. Alice Villalobos, director of Pawspice in California, the goal of pet hospice is help pet owners determine the quality of life for their pets. “If the pet owners and veterinary staff can meet the basic desires at a satisfactory level,” says Villalobos, “there is justification for preserving the lives of the pets.” At Pawspice, the five “H’s” of hunger, hurt, happiness, hydration and hygiene, along with the pet’s mobility are rated each day. Of course, the goal is that the pet is having more good days than bad ones.

Through judicious use of pain-relieving medications and comfort techniques, veterinarians help pet owners bring ease to pets struggling at the end of their lives. Many veterinarians will teach owners how to administer a variety of medications as well as how to clean wounds or control minor bleeding. For their part, the veterinary staff often holds themselves ready at all hours to help when the pet tells his owners “it’s time”.

According to, owners should try to plan ahead, especially if they care for a disabled pet or a pet recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Most importantly, the involvement of the family veterinarian is crucial in providing the appropriate palliative care.

Some owners find comfort in providing various amenities to their pets. Heated pet beds, mobility aids and even special harnesses designed to aid the pet in getting up from lying down are all available to aid the pet owner during this stressful time.

Finally, pet owners should consider developing a support system to help them when the task of caring for the pet becomes an emotional or physical challenge. Grief counselors, relatives, and even good friends can help provide strength at critical times.

No one wants to see their pets suffer, but the diagnosis of cancer or the onset of a debilitating injury does not automatically mean instant euthanasia. As Dr. Villalobos says, “palliation means to make things better and I like this word because it has pal in front of it. We are making things better for our pal!” Ask your veterinarian about hospice care options in your area or visit for additional information.

To learn more about advances in veterinary medicine, visit and

Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services veterinary hospital in Scottsdale, AZ, and can be reached at