Bird Care

Backyard Chickens: Cage Free but Not Carefree

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Cluck, cluck, cluck. You’ll hear these sounds in nearly every state these days.

Backyard chickens have become exceedingly popular and are popping up in suburban areas everywhere. There’s plenty that’s appealing about these feathered pets — and plenty to consider before you get them.

Chicken Charms

Believe it or not, chickens are extremely inquisitive and great fun to watch. They love to explore and investigate everything. Chickens also provide companionship, and nearly every chicken owner will tell you that these friendly birds recognize their owners and respond to their voices — they bond to their human families and can be devoted companions.

Chickens also provide fresh eggs to eat. This is perhaps the main reason so many people want chickens as pets these days. There is something very rewarding about being able to step out into your yard in the morning and bring breakfast directly to your table. Chickens can also teach children about responsible pet ownership. They need to be fed and watered daily, and their coop needs to be cleaned and swept, at a minimum, once a week. Nest boxes need to be checked daily for eggs and cleaned regularly. All family members, including children, can participate in chicken care, making it a fun family experience.

Chickens Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Unbeknownst to most people, there are over 400 varieties of chickens in the world. Standard chickens are the familiar large birds, while Bantams are much smaller, weighing only a couple of pounds. Standard chickens are kept mainly for their egg-laying abilities, as they generally produce larger eggs more frequently, while Bantams are kept more often as ornamental pets. In addition to size variation, different varieties of chickens come in different colors with varying feather length and pattern. And some chickens can also lay differently colored eggs, from the white and brown eggs you can find in the grocery store to those beautifully colored in pastel shades of pink, green or blue.

Chickens certainly are appealing as pets, yet they are not simple to care for. What many people don’t realize is that chickens actually require a fairly high level of care.
What should you know before getting a backyard chicken? Here are six things for you to think about:

1. They Can Be Backyard Outlaws.

Before obtaining one or more chickens, you should check your local ordinances to see whether chickens can be kept legally as pets in your area. Not all locations are zoned for chickens, and they may not be allowed, even in seemingly semi-rural areas or on large lots. The laws vary not only state to state, but also town to town. Some locations specify how many chickens you can have, whether you can have roosters and even what kind of coop is allowed. Many areas also require permits to have chickens.

2. Eggs: Eat at Your Own Risk.

Most people don’t realize that chickens may carry several parasites that can be transmitted to people through contact with their droppings and consumption of eggs. Commercially raised chickens are routinely monitored for parasites and other health problems before their eggs can be sold to consumers. Pet chicken owners should seek out a veterinarian who is familiar with chickens to ensure their birds are healthy and parasite-free. A knowledgeable poultry veterinarian also will not recommend any medications that might be passed on to humans who are eating the eggs. On the other hand, vets unfamiliar with chickens might not think about concepts like “antibiotic residues” in both eggs and chicken meat when they are medicating a sick chicken.

3. It’s a Lengthy Commitment.

People often don’t realize that while chickens typically lay eggs for only two to three years, they can live as long as 15 years. As a result, many unwanted chickens are dumped in shelters and rescue groups across the country. So, if you’re thinking of getting pet chickens, you may want to contact local shelters before ordering them through a hatchery or farm supply store.
4. Your Chicken Palace: Aim for Function, Not Flair.

Many people get backyard chickens because they look pretty in dollhouse-like coops in their suburban yards. Lots of popular stores also advertise coops like they are pieces of decorative furniture. The reality, though, is that many of these fancy coops lack features that are critical for good chicken health. For example, chickens housed in cold climates need heat when it’s very cold so that they don’t get frostbite, so the coop needs to accommodate a heat lamp or other heat source.

In addition, chickens that are housed inside for many days over cold winters lack exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which is essential to helping them make vitamin D in their skin. Vitamin D enables chickens to absorb calcium from their food so that they can make hard-shelled eggs. Without adequate UV light exposure, they can lay soft or shell-less eggs or, even worse, have the eggs get stuck inside of them. This condition is called “egg-bound” and is a life-threatening emergency for which you need to contact a veterinarian. Your coop needs to provide adequate daylight or an artificial source of UV light. Cute coops are great to look at, but they also need to be large and airy enough to accommodate your flock size and to allow for easy access for feeding and cleaning as well as providing protection from wild predators.

Finally, coops must be placed in areas where the top layer of soil can be dug up and removed at least once a year. Otherwise, chickens can ingest parasite eggs that are passed into the soil in their droppings and continually reinfect themselves.

5. “Ixnay” on the Pet Play.

Chickens are prey species and are naturally stressed when they are around predators — including pets like cats and dogs. It’s the predators’ natural instinct to chase and catch chickens as the birds flap away from them. Even docile pets who mean well and may only want to pick up a chicken in play will use their mouths to do so. But keep in mind their sharp teeth can puncture and kill a chicken in an instant. So, no matter how gentle a dog or cat may be or how much you’d like to see all your pets gamboling together on the lawn, keep your birds and your “predator pets” apart for safety.
6. Chickens Carry Salmonella.

All chickens potentially carry this infectious bacteria. Chickens can harbor it in their gastrointestinal tracts and pass it into their stool without being affected by it themselves. People or other pets in contact with chicken droppings may accidentally ingest this bacteria and develop severe intestinal infections. In fact, it has been reported that an increasing number of people are becoming infected with Salmonella due to backyard chicken flocks. The best way to prevent accidental ingestion and infection is to wash your hands whenever you touch a chicken or anything potentially contaminated with chicken feces (nest boxes, soil, the coop, food dishes, etc.). Also, never bring pet chickens inside your home, especially in the kitchen, and don’t kiss your chicken, even when she’s a cute and fuzzy little chick.

Bottom Line: The Reality “Cluck”

Chickens can make terrific, charming and entertaining pets — as long as you know what you are getting into ahead of time and can take the proper precautions to ensure that both you and your new feathered friends stay healthy and happy.

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Keeping City Pets Safe in the Concrete Jungle

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I live and work in one of the more densely populated cities in the world: New York City, home to more than 8.4 million residents. Although many would guess there’s not much room for pets, the New York City Economic Development Corporation estimated there were 1.1 million pets living in our metropolis in 2012.

The Big Apple is a wonderful place for both people and pets. We have five-star restaurants, gorgeous parks, world-class health care for both animals and humans, and other amenities such as spas and dog parks. But behind the glitz and glamour of the city, there are potential dangers unique to urban settings. Those risks are a concern for pet owners living in any metropolitan area. Let’s look at some of the more common dangers I worry about for my patients as a city-dwelling veterinarian.

High-Rise Hazards

No one knows for sure if cats jump on purpose or fall by accident, but every summer, veterinarians in cities with high-rise apartments treat cats and an occasional dog for injuries sustained when they fall to the ground from apartment windows, terraces and fire escapes. Make sure the screens are tightly installed in every window you open in your apartment — bars might be preferable if they are small enough to keep a pet from squeezing through — and do not let your pets onto unenclosed terraces where they might spy a bird and take a fall as they leap to capture the fluttering creature. Another tip: Don’t put bird feeders on your window sills or terraces, as they will encourage your pet to spend more time near windows.

Moving Violation

Many suburban dogs have never been in an elevator. I can always recognize a country dog on a city visit by the startled look on her face and her crouched position when the elevator starts to move. Lots of city dogs, on the other hand, are pros at riding elevators, but this necessity for high-rise hounds poses a serious danger to any pet on a leash. If a dog darts into or out of the elevator just as the doors close, the leash may get trapped in the doors. As the elevator begins to move, the leash becomes a strangulating noose. To prevent this, control your dog as she enters and leaves an elevator, and don’t drop the leash and let her scamper into or out of the elevator car on her own, no matter how cute she looks when she does it.

The Poop on Pigeons

City birds, especially the rock dove or pigeon, pose a danger to city cats beyond their ability to lure your feline onto the window sill or fire escape. Pigeon and other bird droppings contain the fungal organism Cryptococcus. Although related to mushrooms, Cryptococcus is microscopic and round rather than mushroom shaped. Pigeons in particular are an important avian carrier of this organism, and though it can be found in any rural and suburban environment, it is certainly more of a concern in urban areas where pigeons are plentiful. Cats exposed to pigeon droppings on the terrace or window sill inhale the organism. Because of this route of exposure, Cryptococcus infections are most common in the nose and eyes. Life-threatening systemic infections are especially serious and difficult to treat when they involve the brain. Cryptococcus initially resembles an upper-respiratory infection, with sneezing, nasal and ocular discharge, but worsens over time. Swelling over the bridge of the nose and scabby skin will clue your veterinarian in to a diagnosis of cryptococcosis. To prevent this, discourage pigeons from taking up residence on your terrace and keep your pets away from areas where they may congregate. Though dogs are likely to be exposed to Cryptococcus on their daily walks, they seem to be less susceptible to the infection than their feline counterparts.

The Problem With Puddles

The threat of a Leptospirosis infection in an urban environment typically flies under most dog owners’ radars. That’s because wild animals are generally considered reservoirs for the microscopic organism, and city dwellers often don’t worry about wildlife the way suburban or rural pet owners do. But it’s important for owners to realize that city dogs do share their urban home with lots of wildlife in the form of rats, mice and raccoons. All of these species can spread the Leptospira bacteria in their urine. Leptospirosis occurs worldwide, especially in warm, moist environments, and this disease can affect all mammals, not just dogs. Humans as well can contract this serious disease, so it’s important to understand the risks no matter where you live. Clinical signs of leptospirosis in pets may be as mild as vomiting and diarrhea or progress to full-blown liver and kidney failure. To help keep your dog from contracting leptospirosis, don’t let her drink from puddles or pools of standing water. You should also talk to your veterinarian about whether your dog should be vaccinated against this disease, based on your pet’s possible exposure.

The Concrete Buffet

The lucky suburban dog has her own door leading to a fenced yard, and the contents of that yard are (ideally) carefully monitored by the dog’s family. City dogs, on the other hand, share the streets with humans, cars, trash trucks and other dogs. With all those folks sharing the streets and all the great food available in cities, the concrete gets littered with doggie desirable leftovers: a chicken bone, a greasy hot dog, French fry papers or raisins dropped from a baby stroller. Each of these items can be dangerous to your dog. Dog walking time requires you to be hypervigilant in order to prevent your dog from snacking off the sidewalk.

Egg-Frying Pavement

Every summer, it seems that an enterprising young TV reporter fries an egg on the hot asphalt during an August heat wave. If the pavement will fry an egg, think what it is doing to your dog’s paw pads. Put your hand on the sidewalk and count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, and if your hand is frying, so will the paw pads of your favorite fur friend. Though hot pavement can be a problem anywhere, in cities it can be much more difficult to find shaded or grassy areas to walk your dog. During warm weather, always walk your dog on the shady side of the street or head to a grassy area to play ball. Consider teaching your dog to wear boots if your daily walk includes more hot pavement than grass. If your city apartment lies in the middle of a concrete jungle, consider a dog stroller for a paw-safe ride to a lush green park.

Great food, modern high-rise living and emerald green parks for people and dogs give city life its pizzazz — and its perils. Be wise about the risks and take a few simple steps to help keep your city pets safe and comfortable.

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5 Factors That Put Your Dog at Risk for Summer Heatstroke

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Many dogs love summer as much as we do, but high temperatures  can present a problem for our canine friends.

We talked with Dr. Debbie Mandell, staff veterinarian and adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, about what factors can increase your dog’s risk of heat-related injuries and even death. Heatstroke is one of the many problems that veterinarians at Ryan see in the 13,000 emergency cases that come through their doors each year. Here are five factors that Dr. Mandell says can put your dog at risk for heat stress.

What Makes Some Dogs More Vulnerable

1. Congenital defects or underlying respiratory problems. One of the top risk factors, Dr. Mandell says, is upper-airway problems. You may coo at every adorable, flat-faced dog on your block, but breeds like Pugs, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Boxers can suffer from brachycephalic airway syndrome. Unlike humans, who sweat when we’re hot, dogs use their respiratory system to get rid of heat — and these flat-faced breeds’ airway abnormalities put them in danger of heatstroke when they’re exposed to higher temperatures.

Another underlying respiratory condition that can land dogs in big trouble is laryngeal paralysis, which is common in medium and large breeds like setters, Labradors and Pit Bulls. Additionally, small dogs like Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians and Maltese are commonly affected by collapsing tracheas. In both of those situations, Dr. Mandell explains, the dogs will pant to release heat, and their panting causes swelling in the airway, which causes them to pant harder, which results in more swelling. "They enter this vicious cycle where they get worse and worse really quickly," Dr. Mandell says.

2. Not being acclimated to hot weather. "On the first hot day, everyone wants to go for a run with their dog or play outside in the yard," Dr. Mandell says. "Dogs are not going to stop, even when they can’t breathe or are about to collapse."

It’s up to you, then, to know the signs of heat stress, so you can help your dog cool down before it becomes an emergency. Those signs include excessive panting and drooling, a fast pulse and gums that have changed in color from pink to bright red. Vomiting and bloody diarrhea are signals that the heat may have started to affect internal organs.

3. Being kept outdoors without access to shade and water. It can be dangerous for an indoor dog to overexert himself in hot weather, but pets who are primarily housed outdoors are also in danger. "As much as we try to discourage it," Dr. Mandell says, "there are people who have outdoor dogs." Keeping a dog outside in the summer, especially without appropriate access to shade and cool water, is a risk that’s not worth taking.

4. Being left in the car. Speaking of risks that aren’t worth taking, it is never OK to leave a pet in a hot car. "It’s been documented that the temperature inside a car can reach over 120 degrees in minutes," Dr. Mandell says. "If you have that window cracked a tiny amount, it’s really not going to help." Fortunately, Dr. Mandell says, thanks to lots of recent news stories about dogs (and even children) being left in cars, she’s not seeing as many of those cases.

If you see an animal locked inside a hot car, there are steps you can take to help rescue it safely. The Humane Society of the United States, and the ASPCA recommend that you write down the car’s make, model and license plate; attempt to locate the owner; and call animal control or your local police department for help.

5. Obesity. While it is not a congenital defect like brachycephalic airway syndrome, obesity can certainly put your pet in harm’s way when it comes to heat stress. It makes dogs more susceptible to many issues — like joint and back problems — and heatstroke is no exception.

Dr. Mandell explains it this way: While some heat can escape through the respiratory system through panting, "70 percent of the heat loss in dogs and cats occurs by radiation and convection through the skin." When the core body temperature rises, blood vessels dilate, the heart pumps harder, and there is increased blood flow to the skin, where heat is lost to the environment. In obese dogs, the large layer of fat under the skin serves as insulation and can prevent some of that heat from getting to the skin to be released.

One last note: An extremely thick coat of fur can cause the same situation, so you should also watch closely for signs of heatstroke if you own a furry breed like the Newfoundland or Great Pyrenees.

And if you think your dog is experiencing any of the signs of heatstroke, contact your veterinarian or local emergency clinic immediately.

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A Different Animal: Cancer in Pets and People

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Cancer can strike every organ in the body, and each different type of cancer carries a different prognosis and requires a different treatment. That’s because, although we tend to lump all cancers into the same basket, each one is a separate disease. That is true when we look at cancers within the same species (such as all human cancers or all canine or feline cancers) or when we start comparing the same kind of cancer across species (such as skin cancer in humans and canines). In this article, we take a brief look at how cancers that are important in people usually manifest differently in our pets.

The Human Side

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a group that tracks cancer diagnoses and outcomes among humans, the top five cancers in people are breast cancer in women; prostate cancer in men; and then lung, colorectal and skin cancer in both genders. That probably doesn’t surprise you, since your doctor is likely always talking to you about various screening tests, such as the mammogram or colonoscopy, or about the risks of cigarette smoking or not wearing sunscreen. Organizations like the NCI record and publish information about human cancer rates in the United States to help assess the impact of new treatments and prevention strategies.

No PSAs for Persians

There is no national organization that tallies the occurrence of cancer in pets like the NCI does for humans, but veterinarians know that the top cancers you should worry about in your pet are very different from those you should worry about for yourself. You won’t hear me recommending, for example, a screening colonoscopy for your Curly-Coated Retriever or a PSA (prostate specific antigen) test for your Persian. That’s because colorectal and prostate cancers are very uncommon in pets. Since pets don’t smoke, lung cancer is also uncommon. But there are other cancers that are common in both pets and people. Let’s take a look at the top four among those that we veterinary oncologists worry about.

Girls’ Club

Just as in women, breast (mammary gland) cancer is a commonly diagnosed cancer in dogs and cats — if you live in a region where spaying and neutering is not part of a routine pet preventive health care program. Removal of a dog’s ovaries before her first heat cycle during a spay procedure dramatically decreases the occurrence of breast cancer. That is why one common recommendation from veterinarians is to spay your puppy at about 6 months. Spaying also reduces the occurrence of breast cancer in cats. Breast cancer is the most common tumor found in female dogs and the third most common cancer in cats. In humans, it is one of the top three cancers in women, but obviously, preventive measures differ. In humans, we normally use screening mammograms as an early detection tool.

Lymphoma: Not a Good Prognosis

In cats, one in three cancer diagnoses is lymphoma, a cancer of a portion of the immune system known as the lymph system. It is most often diagnosed in the feline gastrointestinal tract, but any organ can develop the cancer. Dogs, too, can develop lymphoma. For example, both of former President George W. Bush’s Scottish Terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, died from the malignancy.

Despite the incurable nature of lymphoma in cats and dogs, chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment. Chemotherapy can offer pets who are suffering from the disease an improved quality and quantity of life. The typical dog receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma lives an extra year, which is a long time in dog years. In comparison, some forms of human lymphoma are curable, while others are not.

On the Surface

Although skin cancer is common in both pets and people, how it manifests as a disease is different. I rarely see skin cancer in pets caused by overexposure to the sun. The most common skin cancer I see in my daily oncology practice is mast cell tumor (MCT), mostly in dogs and occasionally in cats. Physician oncologists, however, rarely see that tumor in their practices. Most humans have never heard of a mast cell, but nearly all of us have felt their negative effects, since those are the cells responsible for allergic reactions ranging from from those to bee stings to hay fever. A mast cell tumor in pets occurs in the skin or just below the skin and is one of the tumors pet owners can identify just by petting their animals.

Mast cell tumors may just be a bump in the skin that looks like any other benign fatty tumor, but more commonly they are pink to red and may be scabby. A simple in-office test known as a fine needle aspirate can help in the early identification of an MCT. A veterinary pathologist will evaluate the aspirate and, if necessary, recommend surgical removal of any mast cell tumor. Surgery is often all that is needed to cure your dog of the tumor, but in some severe forms, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also needed to control the malignancy.
Melanoma can be a concern in pets, but it is rare compared to its occurrence in people. Unlike the skin spots that alert human patients and physicians to its presence, melanoma in dogs is usually found in the mouth or nail bed. In cats, the most frequent location is in the iris, the colored part of the eye. 

Bone Cancer: the Same in Dogs and Kids

Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, is a disease in pets that shares some similarities to the disease in people. Osteosarcoma in dogs serves as a model for the disease in children due to its similar behavior in both species. It is diagnosed more commonly in dogs than in children, and the good news is that research to improve treatments for dogs with the disease has been translated into new and better treatments for children, showing yet again how our enduring friendship with dogs is beneficial.

For example, ongoing investigation into naturally occurring canine osteosarcoma in dog patients has allowed for the testing of surgical methods that are readily translated to pediatric osteosarcoma — something that can’t be done with rodent models of the disease. The most notable contribution of dogs to the treatment of human osteosarcoma is the pioneering of limb-sparing surgery to remove tumors without removing entire limbs. The NCI has funded that groundbreaking research.

Next on the horizon for osteosarcoma is the investigation of genetic abnormalities leading to the disease and the development of molecularly targeted therapies against those abnormalities.

In dogs, an early sign of osteosarcoma is limping due to pain resulting from the destruction of the bone by the tumor. Although difficult to discuss with fear-fraught pet families, amputation of the leg can dramatically improve quality of life for dogs afflicted by the disease.

Chemotherapy slows the spread of osteosarcoma, and lucky dogs may experience a year or more of good quality of life.

But Some Things Remain the Same

Though we can see that cancers in pets and people differ in many ways, basic common sense when it comes to prevention and early detection in both species is the same. If you, the diligent pet owner, are concerned about your pet’s cancer risk, see your veterinarian for a complete examination and a conversation about minimizing risks. For more on detecting cancer in your best friend, review the Ten Warning Signs of Cancer in Pets.

Help Prevent These 5 Pricey Parasite Problems

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Fleas and ticks are more than just an annoyance to pets — and to pet owners, who have to listen to the scratching or remove the ticks. These unwanted critters are a potentially significant source of disease, misery and expense.

As the weather warms up, flea and tick season kicks into high gear. And that’s when claims at Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) for health problems related to these pests pick up, too.

As chief veterinary officer for VPI, I have both professional and personal experience with fleas. VPI’s offices are in Southern California, one of those places where the external parasites that plague pets never feel the effect of snowstorms and freezing temperatures on their life cycles. But even in parts of the country that experience a deep freeze in the winter months, fleas and ticks are a perennial problem.

Fleas and Ticks, Coast to Coast

When we discuss fleas and ticks, we’re not talking about just two kinds of creatures: The Companion Animal Parasite Council has identified eight species of ticks and five species of fleas that prey on pets. Some of these parasites aren’t terribly picky about where they land, either — neither the “cat” flea nor the “dog” flea stick to the species it’s named for, and ticks hop indiscriminately onto pets and people. As a result, people and pets often share some of the diseases caused by the pathogens that these parasites transmit, including Lyme disease.

People and pets also, of course, share the scratching. You’re probably already feeling itchy just reading about fleas and ticks, so I’ll go right to our VPI claims data for 2013. In order of frequency, here are the top five flea and tick related claims:

  1. External Parasites, General. Many pet owners who bring their animals in because they are scratching are surprised to find out that their pets have fleas. They may assume that their animals could be protected by being kept exclusively indoors, or they have used a flea-control strategy that wasn’t effective, such as a folk remedy (rather than a prescription provided by a veterinarian). Average claim: $73.
  2. Flea Allergy Dermatitis. For many pets with fleas, sound veterinary advice on effective flea control resolves the problem. Unfortunately, some pets have bigger problems: They are allergic to flea saliva, which causes skin irritation and inflammation that can lead to more aggressive scratching and chewing, followed by infection. Average claim: $102.
  3. Ehrlichia. The first of the tick-borne diseases shows up at No. 3. Ehrlichia, along with anaplasma or other so-called rickettsial diseases, are caused when ticks infect the animals they feed on with microscopic organisms. Dogs with Ehrlichia are typically brought in for fever, lethargy, depression, lack of appetite and weight loss. Average claim: $223. 
  4. Lyme Disease. Most people are familiar with Lyme disease in humans, but many are not aware that dogs can be infected, too. Lyme disease is also caused when ticks infest the animals they feed on with the microscopic organisms associated with the disease. Dogs with Lyme disease can have symptoms that include fever, shifting leg lameness, swollen joints, enlarged lymph nodes, lethargy, depression and lack of appetite. Average claim: $209. 
  5. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Dogs all over are brought to the vet with fever, joint and muscle pain, not just in the Rockies. In fact, less than 5 percent of human cases of this disease are from the Rocky Mountain region; the southern Atlantic coastal states account for the highest number of cases in humans, although Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest share a relatively high ranking as well. Average claim: $397.

Parasite Prevention Is Key

Veterinarians stress preventive care for good reason, and that’s especially true when it comes to fleas and ticks. While a simple, overlooked flea infestation often can be resolved by following your veterinarian’s advice, for some of the other health issues on this list, prevention is truly the only way to go. In the case of flea allergy dermatitis, for example, every flea bite can trigger a flare-up of misery. That makes flea control a critical part of maintaining quality of life for these pets.

Ask your veterinarian about recommendations for effective parasite prevention and control. Though most of these strategies will likely involve flea-and-tick preventives, other strategies, such as frequent vacuuming and removing ticks promptly, can be highly effective as well.

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The Mystery of Feline Pancreatitis

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When you think about it, the pancreas is a lot like a cat: It typically goes about its business (of producing hormones and digestive enzymes) without a lot of fuss, but it definitely has a volatile and mysterious side that shows itself when the organ becomes inflamed.

The pancreas pulls double duty in the body. It produces hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which help maintain an appropriate level of glucose in the blood. But it also makes digestive enzymes that enable the body to use carbohydrates, fats and proteins for energy. That multitasking is all well and good, but it can cause confusion when a veterinarian is trying to diagnose a cat with pancreatitis.

Identifiying Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is one of the most baffling diseases veterinarians see in cats. The signs of pancreatitis can be difficult to spot. Loss of appetite, lethargy, dehydration, weight loss, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea can be symptoms of pancreatitis — and of many other illnesses. And some cats won't present with any of thse symptoms: My own family cat, Varmie, had none of the typical signs of pancreatitis except for loss of appetite. Varmie’s case is a good example of why you should take your pet to the vet if you notice any changes in appetite, thirst, activity or elimination.

Another reason pancreatitis is such a puzzle is because we usually don’t know what causes it. In 90 percent of the cases we see, we don’t know why the pancreas has become inflamed. In cats, pancreatitis isn’t associated with obesity, high-fat foods, steroids or other drugs, as it is in dogs, but it can be linked with liver and/or inflammatory bowel disease. In addition, cats as young as 5 weeks and as old as 20 years can develop pancreatitis.

Solving the Mystery

As with any feline health problem, diagnosis begins with a medical history and a physical exam. Common signs we may see on examination of a cat who turns out to have pancreatitis are dehydration, low body temperature (or sometimes a fever) and icterus, a yellowish discoloration of the gums, whites of the eyes and ear tissue. We may also feel a mass in the abdomen, or note that the abdomen is painful when palpated.

Diagnostic tests don’t give us a definitive answer, but they can sometimes help. A blood test that measures what’s called pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (fPLI) can give some useful answers, but results may not be available for a week or more.

An abdominal ultrasound may or may not indicate that the pancreas is inflamed, but certain findings are consistent with pancreatitis. On the other hand, some cats show no abnormalities on ultrasound but still have severe pancreatitis. One of the advantages of an ultrasound is that it may rule out or detect other diseases that cause similar symptoms.

A biopsy would let us know for sure that we were dealing with pancreatitis, but it’s a very bad idea to anger the pancreas. Poking and prodding at it to obtain a biopsy sample can trigger inflammation and make the condition much worse. Usually, our goal is to be as noninvasive as possible with both diagnosis and treatment.

Helping Cats Heal

Often, the best we can do is to start treating the cat’s symptoms while we wait for the results of the fPLI test. For instance, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-emetics if your cat is vomiting or pain-relief medication if the abdomen is tender. Antibiotics may be prescribed if your vet suspects that bacteria from the intestinal tract have traveled up the bile and pancreatic ducts to the pancreas, causing infection and inflammation. Cats who aren’t eating may need hospitalization for tube feeding.

Intravenous fluids are important, too. Giving fluids makes up for any fluid loss the cat may have experienced from vomiting, diarrhea or simply not drinking enough water. It also helps to improve blood flow through the pancreas.

If you’re lucky, your cat will have only a single acute bout of pancreatitis. Unfortunately, some cats develop chronic pancreatitis. That’s a low level of constant inflammation that can cause the cat to become deficient in digestive enzymes. Cats with chronic pancreatitis may need enzyme supplements to help them digest their food.

Pancreatitis isn’t easy to diagnose or treat, but it’s something your veterinarian may consider when nothing else seems to explain your cat’s illness.

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Video: Never Leave Pets Alone in Hot Cars

Never leave your pet in a parked car. Temperatures inside parked cars can rise rapidly and cause heatstroke, organ and brain damage, and even death. Just imagine how terrible being trapped in a hot car would be — and then imagine wearing a fur coat at the same time!

Our pets would never leave us in the parking lot. Let’s not do it to them.

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15 Adorable Cats and Dogs Keeping Cool in the Heat

May 23 is National Heat Awareness Day, and humans aren't the only ones who can become sick when it's hot outside. Pets can suffer from heat stress, too. To remind you to keep your dogs and cats safe from the heat, we found 15 photos of pets staying cool on hot summer days.

EmbeddableSlideshow: 15 Adorable Cats and Dogs Keeping Cool on Hot Summer Days (EMBEDDABLE SLIDESHOW)

Pets Beating the Heat
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Unmasking Melanoma in Pets

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With the summer season upon us, the Centers for Disease Control has started to issue warnings about sun safety to help protect Americans against sun-induced tumors such as melanoma. Since pets don’t sunbathe or go the tanning parlor — both risky behaviors when it comes to skin cancer — and are covered in fur, how could that dark spot on your Fluffy or Fido be a melanoma? Melanoma in dogs and cats does not look like it does in people, but it can still be deadly. Here’s how you can recognize the dreaded disease in your best friend, despite its resemblance to other problems.

Seeing Spots?

In my daily oncology practice, I often see pets because of a concern on the part of a human family member about dark spots that have appeared on a pet’s skin. The good news is that skin melanoma is quite uncommon in dogs and cats. There are some common pet skin conditions that often look like a possible melanoma, however, and they can get everyone concerned. For example, orange tiger cats commonly develop flat, round, pigmented areas surrounded by normal skin on their lips, gums, nose and eyelid margins. Known as lentigo simplex, the benign lesions require no treatment and do not transform into melanoma.

Another noncancerous skin abnormality often mistaken for melanoma in a dog is a macule, a round to oval, flat, pigmented area that often occurs after a skin infection. Before the skin developed pigmentation, the area may have been red, itchy and surrounded by a flaking, peeling ring. The lesions are not cancerous, but the infection may require antibiotic treatment. Macules are most readily seen on sparsely haired canine tummies.

Open Wide for Hard-to-See Melanomas

You can help your doctor detect a melanoma on your own skin, since nearly every inch of human skin can be seen. Your dermatologist can then biopsy suspicious lesions. The most common location for melanoma in your dog, however, makes this kind of easy discovery nearly impossible. That’s because melanoma is the most common oral tumor in dogs. (To a lesser degree, oral melanoma is also occasionally seen in cats.) In a reluctant patient, getting a good look in a dark mouth for a black tumor is no easy task. A bad case of hound halitosis may wind up being your first clue of a melanoma in the mouth. Oral melanomas are most commonly black, raised masses that frequently bleed. Pet owners may notice blood-tinged saliva or blood on their pets' teeth. Your veterinarian may need to sedate your pet to see the tumor and perform a biopsy in order to make a diagnosis. Surgery, radiation therapy and a melanoma tumor vaccine are just some of the common treatments for oral melanoma, but more and better treatments are needed, since a cure is rare. 

Right Before Your (Cat’s) Eye

Feline ocular melanoma may be the most difficult form of melanoma to recognize. At first, the iris  the colored part of the eye — may look as if it simply has a freckle on it, but, as time goes by, that freckle expands over more and more of the iris. If you notice a dark spot on your cat’s iris, consultation with a veterinary ophthalmologist is critical to determine if there is a malignancy. If an iris melanoma is diagnosed, frequent ophthalmologic examinations are required to determine if the eye needs to be removed in order to stop the spread of the deadly tumor. Although heartbreaking, removal of the eye can keep your cat alive and well for many years. 

Not Just a Broken Nail

Tricky melanoma may also masquerade as a broken toenail in your dog. Melanoma of the toe typically occurs at the junction between the toe and toenail. The tumor weakens the nail, which snaps off without provocation. Both a broken toenail without an apparent cause or a broken toenail and a very sore, swollen toe could be signs of a melanoma. When you take your dog to his veterinarian for a broken nail, don’t be surprised if he recommends an X-ray. The image will uncover any bone destruction typical of melanoma in the toe. Removal of the toe and treatment with an anticancer vaccine can result in prolonged survival in many dogs.

Any Concern? See Your Vet

Although the locations of melanoma in a dog or cat differ from the typical locations in people, melanoma is an aggressive cancer regardless. Whenever you notice a lump, bump or other abnormality in your pet, it is best to have your veterinarian check it out to keep your pet as healthy as possible.

More on Vetstreet.com :
* 3 Ways to Reduce Your Pet's Cancer Risk
* 10 Strange Dog Behaviors Explained
* Legendary Animal Threatend By Strange Cancer
* 5 Smartest Dog Breeds

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