Feline Behavior Part 3: House Soiling and Furniture Scratching

House soiling and furniture destruction are two very common reasons that owners give up their cats.  I have never been to a talk on feline behavior where these topics were not discussed, and for very good reason: nobody wants to live in a house that smells like urine, or where they are unable to have nice looking furniture.  Some people tolerate more than others, but I have never met anybody who enjoys these behaviors.

black cat in litter boxGoing Outside of the Box

So why do cats urinate and/or defecate outside of the litter box?  There are several possible reasons: medical, environmental, and territorial. I will discuss these, as well as what steps cat owners take to encourage cats to go inside the box.  If you are not having litter box problems with your cat and don’t feel the need to make changes, even if what you are currently doing is the exact opposite of what we are recommending here, the old saying holds “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  But if you are having trouble in this area, hopefully you can find some new tips to help.

The first step is a thorough veterinary exam to eliminate medical problems.  There are a variety of medical reasons a cat might stop using the litter box: urinary tract infections, anal sac issues, constipation, bladder stones, kidney disease, diabetes and sterile cystitis, just to name a few.  It is important rule out medical causes and treat any problems before trying behavioral modification.  If you jump straight to the behavior modification you will just be causing undue stress on yourself and your cat, when a vet exam and treatment can help resolve this issue much faster.

Once medical problems have been treated or ruled out and the house soiling is still present, there are two aspects to consider.  One is litter box avoidance, where your cat knows where the litter box is and can access the box, but doesn’t want to use the box.  The other is territory marking.

As you look at the litter box setup in your house, what is the ratio of cats to litter boxes?  A good idea is to have at least one litter box per cat, plus one extra box.  This isn’t possible for all owners and all houses, but try adding at least one more box to your house, and not right next to the other box.  Cats, like humans, prefer a degree of privacy from other cats when using the box.  Also, avoid putting litter boxes near noisy appliances. An unbalanced washing machine is sure to drive a cat out of the litter box, and he might not come back!  When you add the new box, try a new type of litter in it.  Some cats have litter preferences, but don’t rush and change all the boxes to new litter, especially if the cat is sometimes still using the box.  There are cats who prefer to urinate in one type of litter, and defecate in another.  Cats have very sensitive noses, so avoid litters with heavy perfume, and try a litter with a different texture to it. As anyone who ever left a child’s sandbox uncovered can tell you, many cats prefer a sandy texture.

Making sure that there is enough litter in the box is important. Cats like to dig around and bury their excrement, and if the litter is too shallow they might look for somewhere else to go.  Aim for 4 inches of litter in the box.  Also check out the size of your litter box in comparison to the size of your cat. Make sure the box is big enough so that your cat can stand all four feet in the box and turn around.  This is especially important if the box is in a corner: nobody wants to use the toilet with their nose pressed against the wall!  If your litter box has a hood over it, try removing that as well, since in addition to making it hard for a cat to move around in the box, the hoods can trap odor.  Speaking of odors, most people know that if a litter box isn’t cleaned often enough, cats will avoid them, but did you realize that if you use strong smelling cleaners that can also drive cats away?  Citrus smells are a common cat deterrent, so make sure that what ever you are using to clean the box is not a citrus scented cleaner. In fact, if you are having issues with the litter box, try cleaning it every 2 weeks with just plain hot water avoiding disinfectants and cleaners all together. (but be sure to scoop it every day!)

Finally, make sure that your cat can access the boxes. If you have older cats, age related conditions like arthritis might make them not want to climb a flight of stairs to find a box.  A litter box with high sides might seem like a great way to keep the litter in the box, but if the sides are too high, it might also be keeping your cat out of the box, so consider cutting an access hole in the side of the box to make stepping in easier, or finding a box with a access entry which is lower than the sides.  Follow up any changes you make with a good cleaning of the area where your cat went, but wasn’t supposed to go.  Be sure and use an enzymatic odor neutralizer designed for cats when cleaning.

If you cat doesn’t have a medical issue and everything about your litter box setup is under control, then your cat might be urine marking.  Look at where your cat is urinating outside the litter box: is your cat finding a quiet, hidden place, or is your cat urinating or defecating on your clothes, bed or near windows?  Usually if you cat is urinating/defecating on personal items or near windows they are marking.  Urinating on things says “this is mine,” so if this is happening, look for what is threatening your cat.  Did you just get a new roommate? If so, try to have the new person interact with your cat in a positive manner, having them feed and play with the cat.  Are there strange cats outside the window?  If this is the case, try blocking your cat’s view of the outside.  There are also medications that can help with this, so talk to your vet.  Be sure and spend some one-on-one time with your cat as well.

grey cat clawing couchDestructive Behavior

Scratching is a normal cat behavior. Cats mark their territory visually with their claws, and they leave a scent mark behind from glands on their paw pads.  But many owners don’t want their cat to claim the living room couch.  There are two things that need to happen to stop a cat from clawing the couch: the couch needs to be less desirable to the cat and the cat needs more appropriate things to scratch.   Cat trees and scratching posts work great, but only if your cat uses them.  To encourage use, make sure they are sturdy, and at least 36 inches high.  Try getting several posts, with a variety of materials, at least until you know what type of material your cat prefers.  To make the couch less desirable, try putting double stick tape, or aluminum foil over the areas your cat is scratching. You can also try putting the scratching post right in front of the part of the couch your cat is scratching can encourage you cat to use the post. Once your cat gets used to using the post, you can try moving it to another location if you want.

SoftPaws are small plastic caps that can be applied over your cat’s nails.  This can be a great solution for determined cats, and you can apply at them at home, or have your veterinary staff apply them.  Each application usually lasts 4-6 weeks.  If stress is increasing your cat’s need to scratch, anti-anxiety medication can help, so talk to your veterinarian.

Hopefully this information will help you understand your cat better, and help you  solve any problems you may have been having, so that you and cat can live together for a long and happy time.

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Feline Behavior Part 2: Aggression

cat hissing(This is part two of what I learned at Dr. Dodman’s 8 hour Feline Behavior Seminar in May 2011).

Anytime a cat suddenly becomes aggressive, it is a good idea to visit your veterinarian. Pain and other medical conditions should always be ruled out first.  Your 13 year old cat might not have been acting painful before you got a new kitten, but keeping up with, or away from a rambunctious kitten could have caused some arthritis to act up, so in this situation you might not be dealing with something that is simple territorial aggression. Other diseases can cause aggression too, so definitely get it checked out.

Feline aggression can be broken down into several types: dominance aggression, sexual aggression,  territorial aggression, redirected aggression, and fear-related aggression, as well as the pain and medical induced aggression discussed above.

In dominance aggression, your cat acts like he wants to be “top dog” and get what he wants when he wants it. The first thing to do about this is to avoid confrontation. This might sound backward, but nothing good comes of getting scratched and bitten by your cat, so avoiding these situations is best.  Increasing the amount of exercise your cat gets, either by encouraging play or by getting more cat trees they can climb will help.  Provide resources conditionally, meaning don’t feed or pet your cat when he is misbehaving, wait until your cat is performing the behavior that you want and then reward that behavior, encouraging him to substitute bad habits for good ones.

Sexual aggression includes behaviors such as jumping on top of other cats, or biting on the back of the neck and yowling. If you are planning on breeding your cat and he is showing signs of sexual aggression, you might have to keep the cats separate.  If your cats are already neutered and showing this behavior, (it is usually a neutered male being aggressive to a female) Dr. Dodman recommends trying a product called BoarMate.  It is a pig pheromone, used in breeding farms, but if you put just a very tiny amount on a cloth and dab it on the cat who is not being aggressive, usually the female, it seems to make the male back off.  We recommend always talking to your veterinarian anytime there are behavioral changes, just to make sure there isn’t something else going on.  If after talking things over with your vet, you decide to try the BoarMate, be warned, some people who have reviewed the product claim it smells like faint cat urine. Sexual aggression is usually resolved by having all the cats spayed or neutered.

Cat chasing another catTerritorial aggression happens when one cat has claimed turf and another cat moves in.  This can happen very frequently when cats are allowed to roam outdoors and can lead to infectious diseases, ugly wounds, weeks of antibiotics and expensive vet bills! (which is why we recommend that cats stay indoors) But with cats that are indoors only, this can happen too. Sometimes a new cat comes into the house and introductions happen too quickly.  It makes sense if you look at it from the cat’s point of view: a complete stranger moves in, eats your food, sleeps in your bed and is using your bathroom!  Most people would react badly to this as well.  It can also happen with cats that have lived together for awhile, and a new couch or cat tree is purchased, or the owners move and the cat’s life gets shaken up. Fights can break out between cats that previously got along.  The best course of action is to separate the cats, give them their own space, with a closed door between them. Feed both cats near the door and encourage play under the door.  You can tie a string to two toys so that when one cat plays with the toy, it moves on the other side of the door.  You have to switch the cats about once a day, so they can explore the other cat’s area and get used to the smell of the other cat.  Then you start cracking the door open a little bit, so they can see each other, but not interact. Screens work well for this.  The goal is to eventually have the door open, but with a screen, so the cats can see each other and smell each other but not fight, and then you graduate to supervised time in the house.  If fights break out at any time, you have to go backward a few steps. Most people find that it takes about four months to fully resolve this with cats who have not already gotten into a fight, whether it is two new cats, or two cats that used to get along, if the owner caught it quickly enough.  If fights happened between the cats, possibly during a time when the owner wasn’t home, it can take much longer to resolve.

Non-recognition is an interesting phenomenon which happens when one cat is away, usually at the vet, and when the cat comes home, the other cat in the house reacts like it is a strange cat coming in.  Usually if the cats are kept apart overnight, everything will be fine in the morning.  Occasionally an extra day is needed.  Nobody has figured out why this occurs, but the current belief is that is has to do with all the strange smells the cat is exposed to, so by giving the cat a day at home, the strange smells fade and the issue resolves itself.

Redirected aggression can seem similar to territorial aggression, especially if the owner wasn’t home when the incident which initiated it happened.  Cats that used to get along can seem to hate each other all of a sudden. Usually what happens is the cat sees something through a window that evokes aggression, like another cat, or a dog, and when the cat can’t get to the animal that he wants to fight with, he turns on the other cat. The treatment is the same for the territorial aggression as outlined above.

cat scared and hiding under the couch

This cat is scared and hiding under a couch. She might display fear-related aggression if you try to pull her out, so be careful in situations like this.

When dealing with cats with fearful aggression, figuring out what the cat is scared of is key. The more you can reduce what scares her the less they will act out. Giving her a nice safe place to hide is helpful.  There are other steps that you can take to reduce fearfulness, including counter-conditioning (very gradually introducing what your cat fears, starting from a safe distance, paired with a reward so the cat eventually associates the “scary” thing with yummy treats). There are also medications that can help, if necessary.

Predatory “aggression” is not really aggression – it is a natural cat behavior. With true aggression there is a mood change of some sort, but with predatory aggression, this is business as usual for the cat.  It is in their instinct to hunt and kill things, but owners don’t really enjoy it when their cat decides to hunt their feet or hands. Most kittens go through this phase, and with young cats, you can redirect them with toys and other appropriate objects to play with.  Never let your kitten think that hands are feet are okay to bite. Consider getting kittens in pairs; this way they can stalk and “hunt” each other and learn from each other that biting hurts!  Sometimes it really does work out to let cats communicate these things to each other.

Coming in part 3, what to do when your cat is tearing your furniture apart or not using the litter box!

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Feline Behavior Part 1: The Cat’s Senses and Social Life

brown and white catI never thought a lot about cat behavior, beyond expecting my cats to use the litter box and not claw me or my furniture to shreds, so when I saw that Dr. Dodman, a world-renown behavior specialist from Tufts University was offering an 8 hour seminar on feline behavior, I was intrigued.   Eight hours on how cats think!  The longest class I had seen on feline behavior previously was 2 hours, and it seemed very comprehensive, so I knew I had to see what Dr. Dodman had to say about cats.

The Cat’s Amazing Senses

The morning started out with a overview of how cats evolved, and their senses. Their eyes have a lot of rods (a type of photoreceptor in the eye which function in low light and are used in peripheral vision), so they can see peripheral movement well. He also believes that cats can see ultraviolet light, which is more prevalent at dawn and dusk, which could be why cats evolved to be more active during those times.  Their pupils dilate well so they can see in very low light, and if you have a cat that is giving you grief at dawn, waking you up for food, or at dusk, suddenly wanting to play, by controlling the light in your house, you can help change these behaviors.

A cat’s hearing is not as sensitive as a dog’s, but they can hear in the ultrasonic range. Kittens actually make sounds in this range, as do animals of prey.  The movable pinnae (external ear cartilage) helps cats figure out where the sound is coming from.

Vocalization in cats falls into 2 basic categories: pure calls and complex sounds.  In pure calls, which are simple sounds and usually aggressive, you have the hissing, spitting, growling, and shrieking. You also have the chatter, which since many cats do this tgray kittenoward prey could also fall in the aggressive category, and the squeak.  Purring also falls into this category.  Purring happens when cats are happy, but it also releases endorphines, which actually creates analgesia (pain reduction).  They also purr when stressed.  In the complex sounds category, there is the meow, which has over 100 different variations!  One thing that meows have in common is that they are rarely directed at other cats. Meowing is a noise that is usually directed toward humans or other mammals.  The “mew” and the “moan” are also included in complex sounds.

Olfaction, the sense of smell, is just as important to cats as sight. Cats communicate hugely by sense of smell; they mark with their face and paws, and through urine, fecal matter and anal sac expression.  There are two areas on the face that cats use for marking: the area by the ears, which usually has less fur, and the cheeks.  Usually cats use the area by their ears to mark living creatures and the cheek area for inanimate objects. Urine marking is usually a claiming gesture, “This is mine,” so remember that next time you cat pees on your clothes!  Fecal marking usually means “Go away,” and anal sac marking usually happens when the cat is frightened.

The Social Life of Cats

After Dr. Dodman reviewed how cats sense the world around them, and how they mark their area of the world, he went on to review the social behavior of cats.

Cats can be solitary creatures, but they can and will form bonds with other cats. Usually the tightest bonds can be seen between relatives.  But meeting new cats can be problematic, as you may have heard when you are awakened by outdoor cats fighting in the middle of the night! (please note that for safety, we recommend that all cats stay indoors)

When cats are allowed to wander outside, how far do they go?  By implanting tracking devices on indoor/outdoors cats that lived in Australia, a group of researchers found the answer – on a day-to-day basis cats will wander up to two miles. This is called their home range.  They use this area for hunting, playing, mating (if not neutered) and exploration. Cats don’t actively defend their home range, so why does an outdoor cat come home with abscesses and other fighting two cats sittinginjuries?  It turns out that inside a smaller area called the home range is a cat’s true territory. This is the area they will ac tively defend from other cats. (they also have a social area, and even personal space!)

What happens when cats meet in their home range?  Cats can communicate across a distance using body language, but often the communication is so subtle that people miss it, and find it weird that there are cats, seemingly locked in staring contests across distances.  The best way to describe this is similar to communicating via email: you can say a lot, but emotion doesn’t translate – to humans at least. But this subtle communication speaks volumes to other cats about the boundaries of each cat’s true territory and personal space.

So do cats have a true society, or just an aggregation (a group of animals that live in an area, due to there being plenty of food and shelter but that don’t really interact with each other)?  For many years it was assumed that cats lived in an aggregation, but studies are showing that there are actually cat societies: they have rules, but also they will hunt as a community, and care for each others kittens. How does this help you understand the cats living in your house? Behavior problems often stem from some sort of violation of cat society “rules.”  When people comment on their cat behavior in a negative way, it usually falls under one or more of 3 categories; aggression, not using the litter box or destructive behavior, i.e., scratching the furniture. I will discuss these problems in the next post.


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Losing Mestena

Sara, age 3 riding Mestena

I knew Mestena for nearly my whole life. Here I am riding her when I was three years old.

It is 6pm and I am feeling antsy, like there is something big that I have forgotten.  I cannot relax and I am walking around my house a little lost, but there is nothing for me to do, nothing forgotten, and no way to burn off the energy that I am feeling.  I should be used to this feeling; I get it every day between 3pm and 9pm, the longest stretch of day for me to get through.  You see for the last 15 years I have had something big to do at this time, something so important my entire life was scheduled around it.  I had to take care of my horse, Mestena – but in March I lost her to acute liver failure.  In reality, saying goodbye was the easy part. Figuring out how to rearrange my life without her, finding things for myself to do, that is the hard part.   And while this nervous energy is quietly driving me crazy I have not done much to calm it.  I have co-workers with horses, family with horses, friends with horses and I am sure that any of them would be happy to let me spend some time with their horses. They would be happy to let me burn off some of this energy, but I have not ever asked.  Mostly because I am not ready – even after 6 weeks the pain is too fresh and those horses, while I am sure they are wonderful, are not mine.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said “It is better to have loved than lost” – I kind of want to punch him, because I am not sure that the love is worth the pain. Rose Kennedy said “Time heals all wounds”, I want to punch her too.  While I know that in those words there is truth, I have lost enough to know that time heals and I would not trade my past experiences for anything, right now the loss just sucks.  I know that is not a very elegant word, and I have searched my mind for a better way to phase that, but there is not.  Death sucks.  It does not matter if it is a long drawn out illness and you battle it with everything you have, or your pet seems fine one day and the next you are hearing the vet say “there is nothing we can do.”  It just sucks.

But I know the truth in these quotes. Mestena shaped so much of my life and so much of me, that I cannot imagine my life without her.  She gave me confidence, strength, goals to work toward, a strong work ethic and independence.  Mestena was a shoulder to cry on, a friend to goof off with, someone to love and to give love to, and an escape.  Going to the ranch where she was boarded was like going to another world –  a peaceful, quiet place where I had time to think, time to deal with stress. A transitional period between work and family.  When work was stressful I knew that afterward I got to see her, and process my day in peace.  When family was too much, I could escape to the ranch and lose myself there.  When cell phones first became popular, there was no cell service at the ranch, so I could not worry if someone was trying to get a hold of me, it would have to wait.  Even when the ranch had cell service I did not tell anyone.  The ranch was out time, Mestena and me.  Now it is gone and in addition to the loss of Mestena, there is the loss of the break from reality.  At home there are dishes to be done, carpets to be vacuumed, laundry to be washed –  the list goes on and on.  And while I am grateful for all the chores, because it gives me something to do in the evenings, I miss the calmness of the ranch, the one place where I always knew where I stood, had all the answers, understood the rules.

So I am grieving for more than the loss of Mestena. There is a lifestyle loss as well and it hurts, but I am afraid to let go of the grief, the feeling that I am forgetting to do something, because even though I am not ready to let another horse into my life, I do not want to forget those feelings, the lifestyle that I once had. It would be like forgetting her.  And I’m not ready for that.

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Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats

In a recent seminar I attended regarding enrichment for shelter cats, I gained some interesting information on how to enhance the environment of felines in a shelter or hospital-setting. I left inspired to explore this topic further and try the ideas in hopes of enriching and improving the life of my indoor kitty. Hopefully these ideas will inspire you to do the same for your cat. Environmental enrichment includes providing your cat with perches, food dispensing toys, training, hiding places, socialization and more.

Indoor cats can easily become bored, but there are many ways to enrich their environment, providing entertainment and mental stimulation.

While the feral feline living outdoors spends up to eight hours foraging and solving life’s problems, the typical house cat has very little to do. The indoor cat has the privilege of a much safer, comfortable lifestyle, protected from becoming “road-kill,” getting lost, getting into fights or contracting diseases. However, this lack of activity can turn inspire inappropriate behavior or turn your cat into a bored, overweight slug. Lack of exercise can lead to weight gain, and obesity predisposes cats to diabetes, joint problems and other health issues.

Hunting is a big part of a cat’s life; even indoor cats need to engage in hunting types of activities. Instead of just filling the food bowl in the same spot every day, make your cat work for his food. Using puzzles, food fishing boxes or interactive toys filled with food is not only a great way of getting your cat moving but it will stimulate his mind at the same time, as it require your cat to “work” the toy in order to get the food. A common food toy is the hollow ball with a small hole through which the food spills as the cat rolls the ball around. The cat is rewarded with food for his efforts.  The location of the interactive feeder can alternate, that way your cat has to search out the meal as he would for his prey in the wild.

Cat playing in a bag

A simple brown paper bag can give provide hours of entertainment.

Toys such as feathers, laser pointers, and toy mice are another ways to encourage your cat to exercise. Do not underestimate the simple things such as a paper bag, box or a scrunched up piece of paper.  Only keep a few toys out at the time and rotate them so there is always something new to play with. You may need to experiment with different types of toys to find the type that your cat prefers. If your cat seems uninterested in these toys at first, or doesn’t have enough energy to play for long, don’t give up. As your kitty becomes more fit, the play will increase.

Other forms of entertainment for your cat include providing a sitting area by a window or placing a bird feeder outside a window on a patio for your cat to watch.  Providing perches, shelves or cat trees at eye-level or above will give your cat more opportunity to move through higher elevations in your home. Most cats enjoy resting in a higher location and surveying their domain. Your cat will get exercise moving up and down these locations and will enjoy the space as well. Remember to provide hiding areas as well.

The basic needs for a cat’s well-being include more than just a healthy diet, exercise, clean litter box and fresh water. Cats need to scratch. It is an innate behavior of cats as it serves to groom the front claws, leaving visual and olfactory territorial marking as well as stretching the muscles and tendons. It also serves to remove the outer sheets from the claws and may be used as a greeting or play behavior. Cats prefer horizontal and vertical scratching areas of various lengths made out of wood, sisal rope, and rough fabric; texture preference may vary from one cat to the next. Encourage your cat to use appropriate items for scratching by placing them near favorite areas or by putting a pinch of catnip on it, attaching a toy at the top or spraying it with some cat pheromone spray such as Feliway.

Cats communicate through visual, tactile, olfactory and auditory means and finding things that stimulate each of these senses may be very useful for enrichment. Watching “Kitty TV” or giving access to windows or patios can be an example of a visual enrichment. Tactile communication includes rubbing up against others, grooming, and nose touching, which is used as a greeting. Cats are social creatures and they need daily human interactions and love.

Playing a CD with natural sounds or listening to bird songs on the patio can be a type of auditory enrichment. Last but not least, the olfactory sense. Cats have a keen sense of smell and this is one of their primary ways of communicating. Rubbing some catnip on a toy or exposing your cat to a new scent on a piece of clothing for example, can make your cat extra curious and playful while stimulating their senses.

cat on leash

Walking outside on a harness and leash is a safe way for your indoor cat to get exercise and mental stimulation.

Have you ever tried clicker training your cat? Teaching your kitty new behaviors and fun tricks is a wonderful way of stimulating her mind, burning calories and strengthening the bond with your cat.  How about getting your cat used to a harness to go on walks? It’s a fun way to visit places, exercise and explore the great outdoors while your kitty is supervised.

Environmental enrichment provides animals with physical and mental well-being. It can keep your cat entertained while providing mental stimulation and exercise, making your cat more comfortable in your home, reducing potential stress and maintain overall wellness.

Good Luck!

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Introducing Dogs and Cats

Before you decide to bring a new cute kitty to a household with a preexisting dog (or vice-versa) you should consider your dog’s personality and breed. For example, does your dog have a high prey drive? Does your dog get aggressive? If so, you might want to think twice before bringing a cat into your home.

Dog and cat snuggling

Dogs and cats can live together peacefully and even become best friends.

Sight hounds (Greyhounds, Afghans, Whippets, Salukis, Scottish Deerhounds, to name a few) are more troublesome around cats. Sight hounds were originally bred to hunt small furry critters and it is their instinct to immediately go after anything that moves fast.

Allow your cat and dog enough time to get used to each other by keeping the cat and dog separated at first. Let your cat settle in to the new environment by keeping him or her in a room with a closed door, providing a litter box, water and food that can be accessed without confronting the dog.

Let your dog explore the new scent of the cat by letting him sniff near the door of the room.  You can also let the dog sniff a towel that the cat slept on or give the cat something that belongs to the dog, such as stuffed toy.

As the cat gets comfortable in the room, (usually after a couple of days, but it may take longer) let the cat in the room with the dog. Make sure your dog has had plenty of exercise and is calm at this time; keep your dog on a leash if you feel unsure about what your dog will do.

If your dog is having a hard time remaining calm when the cat is around, do some training (sit, down, watch me, touch) in the presence of the cat. This will help distract the dog and focus on you instead. Remember to have plenty of tasty treats for you dog to reward for appropriate behavior (being calm, not chasing after, not barking etc.). You might need to use the most yummy treats you have.

To keep the cat safe and comfortable, always allow kitty to be able to get away from the dog. This can be accomplished through keeping the door open to the cat’s room and/or having a high chair or a cat tree. Supervise ALL visits until cat and dog are happy with each other and continue to provide an area for your cat to be able to escape from your dog if necessary.

It may not always be love at first sight, but following these simple steps can help your dog and cat live together nicely and respect each other.


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Protect your pet, yourself and your family from parasites

This past April, I spent a week exploring Zion National Park in Utah, sometimes backpacking, sometimes camping, with a spa day thrown in between.  Essentials: sleeping bag, hiking poles, food, and water filter!  When you have 30 pounds of gear on your back, the last thing you want to do is carry three days’ worth of bottled water on top of that.  The solution?  A filter with an absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller, as recommended by the CDC.  Why? Parasites!

I wanted to share my backpacking story to point out that people have to worry about parasite control too.  Shortly after I returned from my trip, I received a call at the office asking about a special on Channel 5 news about a cat parasite that can be transmitted to people:  http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2012/05/15/healthwatch-human-behavioral-change-my-be-tied-to-cat-parasite/ Thankfully, eating undercooked meat is a much riskier behavior in terms of catching this parasite than owning a cat, but this isn’t the case for all types of parasites.

Parasites are everywhere.  The eggs come from the stool of an infected animal (anywhere from 1- 10 billion per day!) and can persist in the environment for years, even despite varying temperatures of the changing seasons.  We will never be rid of them, but we can control their numbers and our exposure.  Drinking unfiltered or untreated waters is one of the known ways people contract parasites, but it is not the only way.  You can also contract them by eating undercooked meat or improperly washed fruits and vegetables, from eating with contaminated hands (think of all the surfaces you touch during the day), or inadvertently swallowing untreated water while swimming.

Parasite control in pets is as important as drinking clean water. Think of all the times your dog has retrieved his ball (or anything else) from the ground with his mouth.  Or of all the birds or mice or even insects your cat has caught and eaten.  It’s no wonder they’re more at risk than we are.  Compare this to people:  according to the CDC, as many as 14% of people in the United States have been exposed to Toxocara, a type of roundworm.  These are people who have access to clean water and wash their hands before dinner!  Is your pet this clean?  How can we protect them?
We can’t hide them in giant hamster tubes like the Trifexis commercial:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPwgPe8XZ20, but we can get rid of parasites with a heartworm and intestinal worm preventative given monthly.  This effectively kills the worms your pet has picked up throughout the month.  Not only does this protect your pet, but your family and community as well.  You only need as little as one egg to contract a parasite.  The longer your pet is untreated, the more eggs in the environment.  Wildlife (raccoons, coyotes, squirrells, feral cats, etc.) typically keep parasite exposure virtually impossible to avoid, but having a pet can increase those numbers in your yard or your local park exponentially.

My advice?  Protect your pet, protect yourselves, and protect your community with a monthly preventative.

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Lessons learned (too) close to home

two cats

Oliver (left) and Lily (right)

One the benefits of a Professional Oral Prophylaxis (POP), also known as a “dental,” is finding previously undiagnosed diseases and treating them. Cats usually have 30 teeth and dogs have 42. Any single one of these teeth could be diseased. The signs of disease may be absent or subtle and many people, including veterinarians, will miss them or misinterpret them.  Last year, I examined Oliver and Lily, two unrelated six year old cats from the same household. They always had their annual wellness examinations and had been fed high quality dry food diets their whole life. On physical exam they appeared healthy other than mild tartar on their teeth and mild gingivitis. The owner did not routinely brush their teeth. I recommended a POP after routine preoperative blood tests were normal. I noted that the teeth and periodontal disease did not look bad at the exam and that this should be a routine cleaning procedure.

feline resportive lesion xray

A painful resorptive lesion in Lily's mouth. This tooth had to be extracted.

Surprisingly, at the dental procedure a number of problems, including painful resorptive lesions, were found using probing and dental x-rays. These lesions are often not visible on a visual exam until they are at a very advanced stage, and x-rays are required to properly evaluate this condition. Multiple tooth extractions were required in both cats. After the procedure the cats went home and seemed friskier, friendlier and more relaxed. The owner was very pleased and vowed to have his cats teeth cleaned every year to prevent unnecessary painful lesions requiring tooth extractions. What makes this story especially interesting is that Oliver and Lily are my own cats. Thinking back, I wonder why was I surprised. Oliver was howling every night waking me up at 2 AM. Lily was shy and afraid of contact. Could it be that mouth pain was contributing to a poor quality of life? Why did I miss the lesions on the oral exam before surgery? I am a veterinarian – don’t I have x-ray vision? Don’t I talk to the animals?

feline resorptive lesion x-ray

Oliver also had resorptive lesions, only visible on x-ray, requiring extractions.

First lesson learned: monitor your pet closely for behavior changes – they can be indicative of pain or discomfort.

Second lesson learned: Have your pet’s teeth cleaned before tartar is visible, starting at age two, once a year if they are a cat or a small dog, and every other year in large breed dogs, even if they appear healthy at a physical exam.

Third lesson learned: Do more to protect your pet’s teeth at home between dental treatments. There are many food, treat, tooth brushing and other home care products available.

Finally, don’t be surprised when a problem is found on a “routine dental.”

Since their POPs, I started Oliver and Lily on dental diets: Hill’s t/d and the latest Hill’s Healthy Advantage Feline Diet. At Lily’s last recent POP she did not require additional extractions. Oliver’s POP is scheduled next week on Valentine’s Day. I am sure he will treasure his present.

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February is Pet Dental Health Month…

Happy dog

Taking a proactive approach to dental health can lead to a longer, happier life for your pet.

…but every month should be dental health month! Dental disease is the most common disease in pets and one that can be treated and even prevented. By the age of just two years old, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease. In addition, 10% of dogs have a broken tooth with pulp (nerve or root canal) exposure. Dental disease can lead to painful infections of the mouth and can even become life threatening, potentially causing severe health problems, including heart, lung, and kidney disease. Dental examination and cleaning can also help detect oral cancers, which are the fourth most common type of cancer in pets. In fact, some dentists believe that chronic mouth infections may even lead to oral cancer. These facts and much more information from Dr. Brook Niemiec, a well-known veterinary dentist are available here. I highly recommend that every pet owner read this. I had the pleasure of attending a very informative lecture by Dr. Niemiec at our local Santa Clara Valley Veterinary Medical Association meeting just this month.

Pets can’t brush their own teeth (but you can do it for them, and we highly recommend this. But only use pet toothpaste, never human toothpaste). Imagine what our teeth would look like if we never brushed them! Here at Sunnyvale Veterinary Clinic (SVC) we feel strongly about the need for early diagnosis and treatment of dental disease in pets. In fact, our dental program is one of the foundations of our preventive health plan. Because dental health impacts the overall health and quality of a pet’s life, we perform dental exams as a part of each annual exam. And in order to raise the level of awareness and improve the diagnosis of undetected oral disease we recommend annual professional oral prophylaxis procedures for all cats and small breed dogs and biannual procedures for all large breed dogs. This is recommended for dogs and cats with healthy appearing mouths. (more on this in my next blog post … even healthy looking mouths can have big problems!) Patients with obvious disease such as periodontal disease including gingivitis, fractured teeth, discolored teeth, and retained deciduous teeth require immediate attention.

Dental procedure

Here, I am extracting a diseased tooth while RVT Sara monitors anesthesia and does dental charting.

Most of us humans get our teeth professionally cleaned every six months, even though we brush and floss every day. For pets, though they could benefit from twice yearly cleaning, it is a little more of an ordeal; most won’t just lay there for a cleaning, and even if they did, the only way to really get the teeth and gums properly clean is to clean below the gum line with professional dental tools, which requires anesthesia. In order to make the procedure safest for patients, blood tests to screen for diseases which would place the patient at risk during anesthesia and surgery are required. Anesthesia and surgery have become safer with the advent of veterinary specific monitoring equipment, human grade anesthetics available for use in pets (we use Sevoflurane for all dental procedures, currently considered the “gold standard” in veterinary anesthesia), and highly trained registered veterinary technicians (we have four). The combination of effective screening of patients for high anesthetic risk and implementation of the above advancements for anesthesia monitoring and anesthetics ensure the safest possible experience for your pet during any anesthetic procedure at SVC. Our expectation is that for a routine oral prophylaxis, regardless of the age of your pet, the procedure will be safe and your pet will be returned to you alert and healthier than when he or she arrived. For higher risk patients, the procedure is delayed until the patient is stable or the anesthetic protocol is modified to meet the different needs of these patients.

monitoring equipment

We use top-of-the-line monitoring equipment and anesthetics to make sure pets are safe and comfortable during dental procedures.

When required, our doctors and technicians are trained and equipped to treat persistent baby teeth, fractured teeth, worn teeth, discolored teeth, tooth resorptive lesions, periapical abscesses, oral masses and periodontal disease. We are not trained and equipped to provide specialized oral surgery such as root canals at this time, but we can provide a referral to a local veterinary dentist if a tooth that may qualify for this type of treatment is discovered.

In summary, every single pet will need some form of dental therapy in his or her lifetime. Periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed problem in small animal patients age three and older. By emphasizing dental examination and therapy as a foundation for preventive health, your pet can lead a healthier and longer life.

You can read more about the dental services we offer on our web site.

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We are Sunnyvale’s first AAHA Accredited Practice!

AAHA Accredited LogoWow! It has been a long time since we have posted to our blog. But we have a good reason … we were busy getting ready for our AAHA Accreditation!

On November 10, 2011, we were granted Accreditation by AAHA, the American Animal Hospital Association. This prestigious, voluntary accreditation is attained by only 15% of animal hospitals in the United States. An AAHA evaluator came to our practice for an entire day and observed us working, audited our medical records, and performed a thorough inspection of every room in our hospital. She evaluated our standards of patient care, cleanliness, dental services, pain management, anesthesiology, surgery, radiology, staff continuing education, customer service, leadership and more.

Back in August, our AAHA evaluator came and toured our practice for a pre-evaluation inspection. She was very impressed with our facility, our staff and the protocols we already had in place. We did not need to make any  major changes to meet the standards of accreditation by AAHA because we had always made it our mission to provide the highest level of care available to our patients. We decided to really throw ourselves into the process though, and made it our goal to surpass the required standards in all categories. For example, in the category of continuing education, we developed an in-house online training program for our employees so that our whole team can easily keep up with new developments in the field, changes in protocols or policies and safety information.

What does this mean for our clients and their pets? We have earned official recognition for our dedication to upholding the highest standards of care and service for you and your pets. We have always practiced high quality medicine and will continue to do so. We will be re-evaluated by AAHA at least every three years to make sure these standards are being upheld, and you can rest assured that they will be!

For more information about AAHA, please visit www.healthypet.com

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