Wednesday, June 27, 2018

4th of July Madness!

Just got off the phone with one of my favorite clients.  She has a new puppy and she wanted to know how to prepare him for the 4th of July festivities.  There will be a big party at their house and a fireworks show.  This pup is a real trooper; he's already done several large gatherings at their home and been the star of the show!  He hasn't displayed any instances of noise sensitivity, so my assumption is that he will likely do okay with the fireworks.  We did review, however, what to do should he become anxious. Here are a few of the things we discussed:

1.  No coddling.  If your dog gets anxious, you coddling them will just reinforce the anxiety.  Be proactive--get them out of the situation as gracefully and confidently as possible.  They need to "cowboy up" and see that you aren't anxious; you will get them to safety without panicking.

2.  If you know your dog is noise sensitive, just assume that fireworks displays, even in the distance, will be too much for them.  Keep him indoors and use fans, TVs, stereos, etc. to help blot out the noise.  Close drapes and windows as well.  Your dog will likely still be able to hear the fireworks, but they will be greatly muted by these actions that you can take.

3.  If your dog is really panicky, get them into a bathroom.  Bathrooms tend to be very insulated from sounds.  Turn on the bathroom fan and sit with your dog if you like. Just remember not to reinforce the anxiety.  Bring a book and just hang out.

4.  Don't let your dog outside to go to the bathroom without wearing their collar, ID tags, and a leash.  If they panic and get away from you, you want that collar and tags on them so that you will be quickly contacted when they are found.  I've known more than one dog to panic and escape from their yard without ID on the 4th of July.

5.  While we only have one week left until the 4th, you can also try some desensitization exercises with your dog to prepare them.  Bring up the sound of fireworks on your computer or on the TV.  Start at a very low volume and gradually increase the volume, helping your dog to see that this is no big deal.  Keep in mind that real fireworks are about sound AND lights, so these exercises really only work on the sound component.

6.  You can certainly try a Thunder Shirt for your dog, although most people find that they have limited success with just using a Thunder Shirt by itself. You may need to speak with your veterinarian about an anti-anxiety medication just to get your dog through this holiday.  You will, however, want to stay away from any medication that makes your dog woozy; you will want to work with your vet to pick a drug that actually makes them tired so that they will sleep peacefully through the holiday.

7.  And finally, many people have had success giving their pets CBD based treats to reduce anxiety and promote calmness.  If you'd like to learn more about this holistic alternative, visit

Years ago, I had a Border Collie who seemed to enjoy fireworks.  I took her more than once to holiday festivities that included fireworks and she seemed to actually have a great time!  While I found this quite unusual, she was really just one of those dogs who would do pretty much anything if it meant doing it with me.  The two collies I have now are not huge fans of fireworks. They bark and patrol.  What's funny, however, is that Desi who is usually the most chill dog on the planet, is the one who seems most anxious about it. Ozzie who can hear a fly buzzing two rooms away and is a champion micromanager, is less anxious about fireworks overall, but does seem to feel that he needs to back Desi up in his vigilance.  Just one more reason to love collies. They always have each other's backs.

I hope that you and your family have a lovely 4th of July holiday.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's mental well-being, I am here for you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Bit More About Dog Bites

I know we've talked before about dog bites, but that was with specific reference to kids and dog bites.  I think it's important to look at dog bites and how they affect anyone who has been bitten, regardless of age.  I also believe that it bears diving a little deeper into who is doing the biting.  That is, are biting dogs more often unneutered? Male?  A specific breed?  A certain age? There seems to be a great deal of misinformation out there about dogs that bite, particularly with regard to breeds.  This kind of misinformation leads to knee jerk reactions such as breed discrimination which puts responsible dog owners who have those dogs as family members at great risk for keeping their dogs.

Here are the statistics as provided by the CDC, Center for Disease Control:

  • the top ten breeds for dog bites are Chihuahuas, Bulldogs, Pitbulls, German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Lhasa Apsos, Jack Russell Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Bull Terriers, and Pekingese
  • 4.5 million dog bites occur each year and of those 81% cause no injury or only minor injuries not requiring medical attention
  • there are more than 30 breeds of dogs and dog mixes incorrectly identified as Pit Bulls, thus leading to an unfair over-representation of this breed in bite statistics
  • popularity of a particular breed as evidenced by AKC registration can lead to a breed being labeled as a "fad breed" leading to over-breeding and then over-representation in bite statistics
A few years ago, a very interesting study was published in the "Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science" that really turned the "knee-jerk, big-dogs bite more often, etc." school of thought on its ear. This study found that the most aggressive dog breed was the Dachshund where one dog in five has tried to bite or has bitten a stranger and one in twelve has bitten or tried to bite their owner.  Chihuahuas were the second most aggressive in this study, followed by Jack Russell Terriers.  Not a German Shepherd, Pit Bull, or Rottweiler in the bunch. Why is that? Well, these researchers think that the reason bigger dogs are thought to be more aggressive is that most research just looks at bite statistics, and most dog bites go unreported, particularly those delivered by smaller dogs. 

I think the bottom line in all of this is that ANY dog can bite.  Understanding WHY a dog might bite is critical to prevention.  Dogs may bite when they are scared, stressed out, not feeling well, needing to protect themselves or their family members, etc. While bites toward people do seem to occur more frequently by young, unneutered male dogs, both male and female dogs of all ages are equally likely to bite if they are protecting a possession or food. 

The conclusion in all of the studies I reviewed seems to be that breed alone is a very poor predictor of aggression and bite risk.  My own experiences over the last almost 30 years in practice certainly backs this up.  My worst bite? A Golden Retriever that bit me three times in the chest.  Biggest scar? A bite and hold from a rare breed Terrier. Most frequent breed that has bitten me? Dachshund.  I've been bitten by two.  Most annoying bite? The Chihuahua who tried to bite my ankle three times, but only got a mouthful of leather boot. And I've certainly seen and treated my fair share of Pit Bulls, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers over the years, but as of this writing, never received a bite from one.   I respect all dogs, regardless of breed. I don't approach or pet dogs that I don't know.  When I go into homes with fearful, aggressive, anxious dogs, I ignore them for the most part as I've found that not paying attention to them takes the pressure off of the situation.  I don't put myself at risk. And when owners tell me that their dog has bitten someone before, I heed that information and advise them accordingly.

Those of you who know me know that I've spent the last year working weekly with a lovely female Rottweiler.  Her owners have spent a great deal of time and effort socializing her, training her, and challenging her to be the ideal companion and guardian of their home. She is sweet and friendly meeting new people, loves to sit on laps, and walks nicely on a leash. She is a favorite with other dogs and their owners at the local dog park.  Would I advise stepping onto her owners' property uninvited? Absolutely not.  However, if you are an invited guest, you are in for a treat.  There's nothing like a 70 lb lap dog showing off her tricks and giving you a tour of her yard. A well-trained dog, regardless of breed, is a wonderful thing to behold.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I Started Out Studying Cheetahs...

While speaking with a client on the phone today, my early career in exotic animals came up.  She was interested in hearing more about what I had done with cheetahs as she loved the photo of (a very young!) me with one of the cheetahs in my study, Kittani. Really brought back memories being able to talk about my research with this client, so thought, perhaps, others might be interested as well.

In the late 1980's, I competed against undergraduate and graduate student applicants across the country for a coveted summer internship at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, studying cheetahs for the Zoo's Director of Research. The project was to be part of the Cheetah SSP, or Species Survival Plan. I was thrilled to learn that I had beat out the other applicants and would be spending my summer studying my favorite animal.

There are so many amazing things about my experience studying these animals,  not the least of which was that I was given pretty much free rein to devise my research question, plan out how to collect the data, and process the data so that it could be published in a scholarly journal.  The Zoo's director was an amazing individual who oversaw my project, but really just left me to do it, trusting me to conduct myself and my research in accordance with the guidelines established by the AAZPA, the American Association of  Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

There was a great deal of interest at that time in the way captive animal species were fed.  My theory was that more naturalistic feeding protocols for animal species like cheetahs would result in better health and enhanced breeding with increased offspring survival. The official title of my study was, "Carcass Feeding of Captive Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus): The Effects of a Naturalistic Feeding Program on Oral Health and Psychological Well-Being." A mouthful (pun intended), to say the least!

As you might have guessed from that title, I fed the cheetahs in my study carcasses; dairy cattle carcasses, to be precise. I had a giant freezer truck full of them and would literally defrost them with a hose and haul them out to feed my study animals.  These animals had all previously been fed something called Zupreem.  This diet, while nutritionally balanced, has the consistency and texture of hamburger which means it did nothing to promote oral health in the animals eating it. I had 15 cheetahs in my study, some born right there in San Diego and a handful that had come from South Africa to become part of the breeding program at the Zoo. The location of these animals was off-exhibit meaning I spent my days about 5 miles down the road from the Wild Animal Park itself in a rugged area devoted to research.  There were enclosures with zebra and Przewalski's horses nearby, as well as condors. One of my cheetah enclosures was so large, with hilly terrain, that it took me approximately 45 minutes to walk the entire enclosure!

While my sample size of animals was small, my results were profound. Feeding a more naturalistic diet did indeed result in better oral health, and more importantly, happier animals that bred and produced healthy cubs.  One of my favorite female cheetahs, Imani, was the first to learn how to feed off of a carcass with my help and she, in turn, taught her cubs to feed off a carcass as well. I cried when I saw the videos of her doing this as I had spent hours coaxing her and the other cheetahs to approach, smell, and ultimately eat these carcasses. To this day, I still get requests for reprints of my study results originally published in 1990 in the journal "Applied Animal Behaviour Science."

I am incredibly proud of the work I did on cheetahs and think back fondly on my time in their company.  It was one of those "once in a lifetime" experiences that I will always cherish.  I have my memories and many photographs. And I always appreciate when someone asks me about the study.  In case you are interested in the conclusions of the study, here is the final abstract from that published paper:

"Based on preliminary observations of 15 cheetahs at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a protocol of behaviors associated with feeding was devised. Five animals were then acclimated to videotaping from which comparisons of feeding on commercial and carcass diets were made. Improved appetites, longer feeding bouts and a greater possessiveness of food characterized the carcass-fed animals. Although the commercial diet is nutritionally balanced, these differences indicate that certain non-nutritive requirements are important to psychological health. In addition, the dental abnormalities and oral infections that are found in the captive population could be an indication of the importance of food texture. By recognizing the importance of food texture, flavor and temperature to the effort expended and interest demonstrated in feeding by captive cheetahs, we may enhance their physical and psychological well-being."

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

School's Out For Summer!

So, school's out which means kids are home.  For some dogs, this is a thrilling turn of events.  They will have partners in crime to let them in and out that back door repeatedly, run around with them in the sprinklers, engage in a game of chase or fetch, and most importantly, reach for those snacks to share. For other dogs, having the kids home is stressful.  Their quiet home will become more active, cutting into their nap time.  And for dogs who don't live with children, those kids out and about on bikes, scooters, and skateboards in the neighborhood may be a real cause for alarm.  Regardless of how your own dog feels about the kids being out of school, here are some general rules of thumb to kick the summer off to a great start.

1.  In homes with dogs and kids, make sure the dogs have some quiet time. If they are crate trained, let them nap there, unmolested by the kids.  If they aren't crate trained, moving them to a quiet bedroom for a couple of hours of uninterrupted rest will help.

2. If you have a puppy and kids at home, don't forget to make sure to keep your puppy on the regular/school day schedule. They still need their naps for proper growth and development, AND most importantly, so they won't be doing the zoomies and biting the kids mercilessly because they are over-tired.

3.  Watch the snacks.  While most dogs are quite happy to share any and all treats with the kids that are home snacking, you may not want your dog eating all of those same things. Remind your kids what snacks the dog can and can't have and how frequently they can have them.  Dealing with a vomiting dog or one with diarrhea from too many snacks is not the way anyone wants to spend their summer.

4.  Remind everyone at home about doors/gates/garage doors etc. being closed so that dogs don't wander off and endanger themselves. A gate or door left slightly ajar is an unnecessary temptation.

5.  Definitely encourage your kids who can walk the dog to do so.  However, make sure they are walking at a time of day when hot sidewalks won't burn the dog's feet.

6.  If you have a swimming pool that is now uncovered for summer, make sure you dog knows how to swim, knows where to climb out, and most importantly add in one or more pool safety devices designed to help dogs get out of a pool without panicking.

7. Even if you don't have kids, your dogs will see more of them during the summer time. If kids make your dog anxious, adjust your walk times to make it more relaxing for you and your dog.  And if your dog is scared of bikes, scooters, and skateboards, work to slowly desensitize them over the course of the summer.

8.  And if your dog really doesn't like kids, don't let kids pet them!  Be proactive and let approaching children know that your dog isn't friendly with kids and move on. Don't force your dog to submit to unwanted attention from anyone!

9.  Conversely, if your dog loves kids, but you don't have any, consider hiring a young person to walk your dog once a day/once a week/etc. This gives you a break, gives the dog some fun adventure time with a young person, and helps employ young people who may be too young for a "real job" but who want to make a bit of money this summer working with dogs!

10.  And if your dog loves kids....a little too much...meaning, your dog jumps up, grabs clothing, profusely licks faces, etc. now is definitely the time to get a handle on those behaviors. Stand on your dog's leash so that they can't jump up, lick faces, grab clothes, etc.  Teach your dog the right way to greet kids and vice versa.

Kids, dogs, and summertime can certainly be the perfect combination...just like ice cream on a hot day.  However, making sure that it goes well requires some effort and planning for smooth sailing.

Cooper loved ALL kids, as well as parades, fireworks, and bicycles.  He was a gem!