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