Tips for weight loss in cats

Tips for weight loss in cats
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Obesity in pets is at an all-time high and this extra weight decreases the life-span of pets and causes a multitude of health problems (such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, and joint disease). Smaller pets seem to become overweight more easily and have a harder time shedding the weight and this is most often due to overfeeding and lack of exercise, but there can be underlying medical reasons so it is best to rule out any medical causes before starting a weight loss plan. It is very easy to overfeed your cat because the correct amount of food they should be receiving seems like such a small amount to us, but you have to keep in mind how small they really are and how few calories they burn. A pet’s metabolism also starts to slow down much earlier in life than humans, so by the time they are a year old the amount of calories they require is much lower than when they were kittens. The type of food you are feeding is also very important since most cat foods solid commercially are just a dog food base with some extra protein and the carbohydrates found in dog food result in weight gain since cats are true carnivores. I recommend the Hill’s M/D diet since it was specifically designed for cats and does not have these unnecessary carbohydrates, but instead was formulated based on the nutrition found in mice (what a cat’s body is used to digesting and using as a fuel source for the body). This helps to keep the weight off and not have all those carbohydrates turned into fat stores by the body. Knowing that having just an extra 10% higher level of body weight can decrease the life span of your cat by years, we are committed to helping your cat successfully achieve and maintain a healthier, more ideal weight and body condition. We love our pets and want them to have the best quality of life possible and sometimes that takes some tough love in the form of not overfeeding them (even when they beg with their adorable eyes or follow you around loudly protesting after starting to decrease their food). Just remind yourself that feeding them appropriately is the best way to show your love because being at the ideal weight is what is best for them! You can also find other ways to show your affection, such as dedicated play time each day (which has the added bonus of helping burn more calories) – I recommend at least 20 minutes of activity together a day and find most cats love to chase a laser pointer! The following are some helpful tips for getting those unwanted pounds off your furry friend!

1. Get everybody on board!

It is important that every member of the family knows how dangerous being overweight is for the health of your cat so that everyone will stay focused during the process. Helping your cat lose weight takes time and dedication and can be very frustrating since it is a life-long process to get the weight off and keep it off. If someone is sneaking treats on the side, adding a little extra to the food bowl, or feeding people food, the chances of a success are slim. This is why you want to sit down and have a serious talk about why this is so important and the reality that it is a huge commitment so that the troops are rallied and do not have unrealistic expectations.

2. Factor in the food.

There are many different changes to the way you feed your pet that can help your cat lose weight. These include feeding less food overall (which means that you have to measure out how much food your cat is receiving each day), changing the way you feed your cat (such as switching to meals versus free feeding) or changing your cat’s diet altogether to a food that is less likely to be stored as fat. If you do change the diet, you want to do this gradually over 5-7 days, slowly removing more and more of the old type of food and replacing it with the new diet. Cats do not like change and will let you know that they are unhappy with a disruption to what they have been used to, but they will adjust as long as you do not give in. Every time you give in, it makes your cat that much more determined to bug you until you cave because they know it worked before. This is just like a gambler at a slot machine – if it took 1000 pulls to get a payout the first time they played the slots, a gambler is not going to think twice about pulling that lever even longer the next time since it did finally pay off for them before!

3. Getting physical.

Most cats spend at least 16 hours asleep each day, so they are not expending very many calories at all. The activity level for cats in single pet homes (or in homes where the pets do not get along) is even less since they do not have that additional stimulation. That is why it is so important to incorporate more activity and enrichment into your cat’s lifestyle. You want to be sure to spend a minimum of 20 minutes a day encouraging your cat to be more active. Some of the ways to stimulate your cat’s normal instinct to hunt and stalk is to encourage play with moving toys or laser pointers – some cats will even play fetch with a balled up piece of paper! Other ways to get your cat moving is to make them work for their meals through placing your cat’s food at the top of a climbing tree or putting it in a food puzzle that they have to manipulate in order to get their kibble to come out. These small changes in your daily routine will help your cat get back to and stay at a healthy weight, and they’re also an excellent opportunity to bond with your cat and form lifelong attachments between you and your cat.

4. Stay positive and be patient – weight loss is a long process and maintaining a healthy weight is a life-long commitment.

You are not alone in your journey to have a cat at a healthy weight, we are here to help! Also, everyone who is dedicated to getting weight off their cat and keeping it off has periods of frustration and times where it seems nothing is helping and you want to give up. This is normal and we are happy to give out pep talks! Despite everyone’s best efforts, there will be challenges during this process, and it’s important to stay focused on your cat’s weight loss goals and reach out for assistance if needed. Regularly scheduled weigh-ins with us will help ensure you are staying on track – or if you have gotten off track, allow us to help you get back on track. Never forget that this process takes time and you need to have realistic goals. Typically we want to see a loss of 10% of body weight over 6 months and you do not want to have your pet lose weight too quickly (which can cause liver disease). Also, be sure to celebrate each milestone as you reach it along the road to your goal – you deserve it!

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Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety

By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Elgin Veterinary Hospital

Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral issue that can affect both dogs and cats, although it is much more commonly recognized in dogs. It is a disease that often requires long-term (and sometimes even life-long) therapy/management. This disease affects up to roughly 20% of dogs and usually begins to show signs around the same time a dog is becoming socially mature (between 1 to 3 years of age). Separation anxiety is defined as the physical or behavioral signs of distress that are only seen in the absence of a pet’s owner(s); however, there are cases where separation anxiety only occurs in the absence of the individual in the household who the pet views as the primary caregiver. This can be either a real absence, when an owner is away from the house, or a perceived absence, when the pet is not able to see or be near the owner. A perceived absence, for instance, would be when the owner is in a pet-restricted area of the house not visible to the animal or when the owner is outside while the pet is inside. The development of separation anxiety and other anxieties often do not have a clear cause and are simply due to the fact that many animals are genetically predisposed to developing anxiety disorders. However, the disease may manifest after a traumatic event that occurred around the pet in their owner’s absence. Unfortunately, for many pets, no traumatic event is ever needed to spark this disease. Some steps that you can take to help avoid separation anxiety as soon as you have a new pet include: kennel training your pet so he/she is comfortable in a kennel and views it as a safe place, rewarding signs of confidence when alone (for example, offering praise or a treat as you walk through the room your pet is independently playing in), not creating any additional attention when you come and go, and encouraging your pet to spend time in isolation (for example, having your pet eat and sleep in a room by him/herself).

The clinical signs that may be observed in a pet with separation anxiety include: vocalization, destruction, inappropriate elimination, excess salivation, self-induced trauma, and/or a heightened sense of arousal such as pacing, going from window to window, and/or an inability to relax. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are also more likely to have other types of anxieties, such as thunderstorm phobia or noise phobia. It is important to remember though that in cases of true separation anxiety, clinical signs are only present when the owner is not near or close to the pet, and often times signs of distress can begin immediately before the owner is about to leave the home. It is true that many pets suffer from more than one form of anxiety, so it is important to keep in mind that if any of the common clinical signs of distress are present all the time or most of the time— not just when the pet is left alone— it is more likely that the pet is suffering from a generalized anxiety or panic disorder and should be addressed differently than separation anxiety.

The most commonly observed clinical sign (and the most frustrating for owners to manage) is generally some form of destructive behavior. This behavior can range from minor forms, such as chewing on inappropriate items like shoes, to more serious forms of destruction like destroying drywall and/or other structural components of the house. It is very common for a pet suffering from separation anxiety to also vocalize a great deal after the owner departs and unless you have a neighbor who brings this to your attention or you are routinely videotaping your pet when you are absent (which is recommended to do intermittently throughout the life of your pet), you may have no idea that your dog is barking his/her head off in response to being left alone. Sometimes the signs of separation anxiety are seen as signs that may be the result of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-type behavior, such as licking or chewing excessively on themselves (commonly their sides, legs and paws). These types of behaviors can psychologically bring some level of comfort to an anxious pet; however, if these signs are seen they should be investigated further to be sure an underlying medical condition is not the culprit of the behavior.

Owners with pets that do suffer from separation anxiety are often unaware of the severity since many clinical signs of distress leave no physical trace. Typically, the most anxiety an animal experiences is within the first 15 minutes of an owner’s absence, but this varies with each individual, and can occur at some level during the entire period of the owner’s absence. The only way to properly diagnose separation anxiety is with a thorough history of a pet’s behavior when the owner is absent. This is where video recordings of your pet can become very useful. Getting into the habit of periodically videotaping your pet throughout his/her life when you leave the home can make a huge difference in early detection if your pet does develop separation anxiety or another behavioral disorder. There can be predisposing factors or triggers for separation anxiety, so knowing a detailed history of your pet’s experiences and exposures is important information for your veterinarian to know. Video recordings can not only provide a very accurate timeline of a developing anxiety disorder, but can be a valuable tool for you and your pet’s veterinarian during treatment since the recordings can show various distress signs and help identify particular stressors for your pet that can be helpful during the treatment therapy. Periodic videotape recordings allow the most effective treatment of each individual patient by learning the extent of particular distress signals, identifying particular stressors, and ensuring the correct pace of treatment. For example, every pet is different and it is key that the treatment recommended by your vet does not progress too quickly for the pet to handle and that the tools meant to help pets cope with their anxiety are in fact beneficial. Catching anxiety disorders as early as possible are critical to the long-term management of the disease and it is well known that the longer an anxiety disorder is left undiagnosed and untreated, the more difficult it becomes to manage and treat.

For many pet owners the most difficult and frustrating clinical sign to deal with is destructive behavior. Many owners immediately condemn their pet to a kennel or crate as punishment after they discover the damage. However, a crate should never be used as punishment in any situation and confining an animal that is comfortable being confined can make anxiety worse. Again, this is why pets should be introduced to a kennel at an early age and so they have time to become accustomed to it and view it as their “den” or safe place. If you do use a kennel while you are not home and start to notice your pet has signs of trauma such as broken teeth, unexplained cuts, and/or torn or broken toenails they are likely injuries due to their separation anxiety becoming compounded with the stress of being confined and trying to get out of the kennel/house/room. Using a kennel as a tool for confinement for when your pet is left unattended can be very helpful in cases of separation anxiety to limit destruction and to provide an area the pet views as comforting, but it can only be used if it does not worsen the anxiety.

When it comes to choosing and purchasing a kennel, most pets prefer a wire cage that allows them to see the surroundings as opposed to the crates that have solid walls (like crates used when an animal is cargo-boarded on a flight). It can also be helpful to cover a portion of the crate with a blanket so there is part of the crate that is darker and quieter, but the pet still has the option to look around. Some suggestions on how to introduce the kennel as a happy and rewarding environment include feeding your pet in the crate, having toys that your pet loves to play with that are only available when they are calm in their crate, and leaving the door open at all times (when it is not being used for confinement) so that your pet can enter and leave the crate on their own terms. By training your pet early on in their development to stay in a kennel when you are away from the house, when he/she is going to bed for the night, and during times when you need him/her to be separated from certain situations— such as company that is scared of dogs— the kennel will become a place that your dog feels safe and secure, and is viewed as a normal part of his/her routine. You never want to use the crate as a place for punishment so you need to have a separate area that you can place your pet for “time out”. You also never want to introduce it as a training tool while your pet is in an anxious state or displaying any signs of distress due to the kennel. If your pet views the crate as a negative place, you are more likely to see secondary injuries occur as a result of your pet trying to escape from the kennel to find a safer environment and you will have a much more difficult time re-training the way your pet views the crate and being able to use it as part of therapy.

The goal of treatment for separation anxiety is to decrease the anxiety felt by your pet so that he/she no longer responds to being left alone with any of the signs of distress, and is both calm and happy even when you are not present. One important thing to remember is that in order to obtain the results of a calm and relaxed dog, it is going to take time, a fair amount of patience, and it may involve life-long adjustments on both your side and your pet’s. Anxiety disorders are not something that can be quickly fixed and can often relapse even after you have gotten your pet to a point where he/she is relaxed with or without you present. Early intervention and consistency are keys to the success of treatment. Behavioral modification and the use of medications that help your pet to have less anxiety overall are both pillars of therapy.

One common aid in long-term behavioral therapy includes teaching dogs to relax while making eye contact with owners in any situation when the dog shows signs of anxiety. In order for this to be successful owners must know what to look for in an anxious dog. These signs include: facial cues (Are the ears upright or held flat back on the head?), body postures (Is the dog standing in a regular position with the tail up? Is he/she hunching down towards the floor?), pupil size and shape (Are the eyes normal in size or extremely dilated?), and changes in respiration (Is the dog breathing normally or distressed and panting excessively?). If any of the signs of anxiety can be clearly recognized, you should immediately remove the pet from the stressful situation until they relax while constantly keeping their attention and eye contact. For example, if your pet becomes anxious when other pets or people are walking toward him/her on a walk, you should turn and walk away until the dog starts to relax while maintaining their attention and good eye contact. And remember, pets that are undergoing behavioral intervention for an anxiety disorder should never be exposed to an unnecessary circumstance that is likely to cause distress, especially during training sessions.

Most of the time behavioral modification alone is not enough to successful get a handle on separation anxiety and medications prescribed by your veterinarian are necessary. The types of medications used with pets suffering from anxiety disorders help not only to decrease distress, but also allow the animal to more easily develop new pathways in the brain that create a healthier way to deal with different situations and allow behavior modification to be more successful. It is important to keep in mind when using anxiety relieving medications that it can take up to several months to reach full effect. In the meantime, it is important to not put your pet in situations where he/she will experience any separation anxiety. This can be one of the hardest things for owners when trying to treat separation anxiety since almost all people do have to leave the house for school, work, or other normal day-to-day activities – which puts your pet in a situation where he/she will experience distress. It is best to use a pet sitter, doggie daycare, day boarding at your veterinary clinic, or taking your pet with you if possible or leaving them with a friend until the medications can fully take effect and alleviate the amount of anxiety your pet feels. There are a variety of drugs that may be helpful in situations of separation anxiety. Sometimes it can be helpful to fast-acting anxiety medications just during the period it takes for the long-term medications to reach maximum efficacy. Scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you recognize that your pet is experiencing signs of separation anxiety is a very important step towards starting treatment and breaking the cycle of anxiety. Your veterinarian can decide the best course of medical and behavioral intervention for your pet’s individual needs. It is important to keep in mind that the use of drugs without behavior modification will not provide a solution to any behavioral problem, especially separation anxiety.

There are many common activities that we as pet owners do on a routine basis that can make separation from us more difficult for our pets— even for pets that do not have an anxiety disorder. There are many preemptive measures that you can easily change to help deter a pet from becoming anxious or developing anxiety disorders. Pets should always feel confident being left alone and should enjoy their own independent time away from us. This means that any behavior that reinforces an unnatural dependency between the pet and the owner should be stopped. Some ways that pet owners unknowingly reinforce dependency include allowing them on the furniture, allowing them to sleep in the bed with them, and rewarding them if they follow them from room to room with praise, petting, or treats. In order to teach a pet to become more independent, it is critical to have separate areas that are “people only”, such as on the furniture or in the kitchen, and to not reward a pet for “clingy” behavior. It is equally important to establish comfortable places around the house and encourage pets to learn to stay and relax in those places regardless of where the people in the home are located. If you notice that it is one individual in the house that the pet appears most bonded to, the major responsibilities for that pet (such as feeding, walking, medicating, etc.) should be done by other members of the household. This can help teach the pet that it is not necessary to be overly dependent of one owner in order to be “rewarded” with food or a walk outside. Another easy behavior to change (or preferably never start!) is praising the pet when leaving and returning to the home. Making sure that there is no fanfare associated with leaving or returning home can be very helpful in deterring and treating separation anxiety. That means not paying any extra attention to your pet before leaving the house and only acknowledging your pet once he/she is showing calm behavior upon returning home. Since the most anxiety occurs during the first 15 minutes after departure, finding a novel toy or a toy that will occupy your pet’s mind during this initial time after you depart can be helpful. I highly recommend using interactive toys that dispense kibble or a Kong™ toy with frozen low-sodium chicken broth or low fat cheese in the center.

In pets that are exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, it can be very helpful to start desensitizing them to the cues that you are getting ready to depart since the departure is the beginning of their anxious cycle. You should first identify the stressful cues by paying close attention to what your routine is when you get ready to depart. Watch closely for subtle indications that your pet is feeling distressed during any part of this routine. If you always grab your keys, purse, or wallet before leaving the house these become cues that your pet then perceives as the beginning of your departure, thus inciting their anxiousness. One way to help your pet to not react to these cues is to start to do them randomly throughout the day when you are not leaving the house. For example, if your routine ends with you grabbing your keys before you head out the door, start grabbing your keys randomly throughout the day when you are not planning on leaving, but you are simply going to the other room to watch television or cook dinner. The more often a cue occurs without a departure, the less significance it carries to the pet.

You should always reward calm behavior that your pet displays and never punish your pet for showing anxious behavior since this is likely to increase distress. For instance, if your pet is playing with a toy in a different room or relaxing on his/her bed or in his/her crate, you want to reward this behavior with calm, quiet praise and give the occasional low-calorie treat (for example, baby carrots, plain cheerios, or pieces of your pet’s kibble). Keep in mind that you always should speak to an anxious pet in a calm and quiet voice, even when offering praise, since pets pick up on human feelings and cues. The more calm you remain in situations that causes your pet stress or their energy level to peak, the more calm your pet will act since they like to mimic and please their “pack leader”.

Separation anxiety can be a frustrating disease, but if you are able to understand the actions or items that trigger your pet’s anxiety and actively work with your pet to decrease his/her anxiety, you will be on a good path towards modifying negative behaviors and improving his/her separation anxiety. The key things to remember are to remain patient and to trust that you can help your pet reach a calm and confident state of mind through consistent training and/or anxiety medications. If you are confident throughout their therapy, they will be confident as well. Remember to constantly reward calm behavior and continue to decrease anxious situations as much as possible to avoid the chance of relapse. Make sure to utilize video recording while you are away so you can be sure that your pet’s treatment is benefiting them. Do your best to desensitize your pet to departure cues and distract them from your departure by occupying them with interactive toys or low-calorie treats. If your pet isn’t properly kennel trained, start getting him/her used to being kenneled and help them to become more independent while you are present. Again, it is extremely important to begin rewarding any relaxed independent behavior from a young age in order to decrease the likelihood of a pet developing separation anxiety. However, if a pet does develop separation anxiety addressing it slowly with both behavioral modification training and medications can help your pet to live a comfortable and stress-free life, and hopefully even be able to eventually live medication free as well. It may take a great deal of time and patience, but the rewards make the challenge totally worth it!

Signs of Dental Pain in Pets

Signs of Dental Pain in Pets
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Dental disease is a major issue in our pets with most pets having some degree of dental disease by the age of three (smaller dogs tend to develop dental disease earlier in life and often have more serious dental issues). The fact that dental disease is so common makes total sense since unlike humans, pets do not brush their teeth multiple times a day or visit the dentist for a professional cleaning twice a year. Dental disease has been linked to heart disease, liver disease, diabetes and many other serious, even life-threatening, illnesses so oral health is about much more than just a pearly white smile! Consider the fact that our pets can’t tell us when they are suffering from dental pain, it is important to have bi-annual examinations by your veterinarian who can observe changes in the mouth (which allows them to recommend the appropriate treatment plan) and also know the signs to watch for at home that may indicate there is an issue.

One big issue is that animals hide illness so well that they may be suffering from serious dental issues, but show no signs at all. Dogs, cats and other companion animals, such as our exotic pets, rarely show signs of dental pain until the disease has become extreme and we certainly do not want our babies to be suffering in silence! Not showing pain is a survival mechanism, an instinctual behavior that our domesticated animals have in common with their wild ancestors, but unfortunately it results in our pets suffering needlessly. This is another reason it is so important to have bi-annual examinations with your veterinarian, so that disease can be caught and treated or managed as early as possible. Some of our exotic pets (such as rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs), have open-rooted teeth that grow daily throughout their life so being sure that they are on the correct diet that will allow their teeth to wear down correctly and having the mouth examined at least every six months is even more critical. Exotics tend to hide disease even more so than dogs and cats since they were prey species in the wild. Overgrowth of their teeth can result in painful ulcerations in the mouth and even entrap the tongue to the point they are unable to eat at all.

Many pet owners recognize that their pet has halitosis, or bad breath, but do not realize that it is a sign of a much more serious underlying health issue. The foul odor is a byproduct of the bacterial metabolic process occurring in a pets’ mouth and that bacteria not only causes dental disease, but is also able to enter the blood stream and result in disease in other areas of the body. In pets with periodontal disease, there is more bacteria in the mouth than there should be and so the odor increases, as does the risk of disease secondary to the bacteria. Bad breath should not simply be attributed to “Doggy breath” or “Tuna breath” – foul breath is never normal and needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian so that an individualized plan to treat and manage the disease can be made and carried out.

Some pets may have some abnormal or altered behaviors that are clues to something not being quite right in their mouths. Some of these signs include chewing on one side of the mouth, dropping food, running away from the food dish or not eating as well as usual, crying when yawning, hiding, not grooming themselves and acting “grumpy”. You may also notice excess salivation or increased pawing at the mouth or rubbing the mouth on objects (such as the couch, ground, etc.). Since many of our pets are excellent groomers, be sure to check the fur on the front paws for signs of moisture or a change in color (similar to a rust color) that indicates that they are using their paws to clean up any evidence of excess saliva or discharge from the mouth. As an owner you know your pet better than anyone so if you notice anything that resembles these or any other abnormal behaviors, call and schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away. Always trust your gut – you are the voice for your furry friends!

Another sign to watch for is any bleeding from the mouth. Bleeding from the mouth is usually due to periodontal disease, but it could also be evidence of fractured teeth, lacerations or ulcers on the tongue or gum tissue or the presence of an oral mass. Watch for thick, ropey saliva, spots of blood found on toys or beds or drops of blood in the water or food dish. If the periodontal disease is severe enough, you may notice bleeding from the nose or a bloody discharge when your pet sneezes. Early signs of dental disease include inflamed gums which become much more fragile and more likely to bleed and once the gums are compromised, the risk that the bacterium in the mouth poses to the rest of the body increase tremendously. The goal is to recognize dental disease early and be able to address it before it progresses to an even more serious issues.

Regular professional veterinary dental cleaning and polishing is recommended to keep the mouth in tip-top shape, but there are also recommendations that your veterinarian can make to help keep the amount of dental disease to a minimum. These include certain treats or chews that have enzymes to help to break down tartar, special prescription diets that are formulated to improve dental health, and individualized antibiotic therapy that targets the mouth. Often times owners do not realize how much dental disease is affecting their pet until after a veterinary team addresses the pet’s oral issues and the pet immediately starts to act more youthful and lively. We are here to help keep your pet in the best health possible and that includes paying close attention to what is going on in the mouth – another reason we are sure to examine every patient from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail at every visit!

Tips for Directing Where Your Cat Scratches

Tips for Directing Where Your Cat Scratches
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

We all love our feline friends, but they can be very destructive with their scratching so we wanted to help provide some useful tips to help prevent this. The name of the game is to pick an appropriate scratching post to satisfy your cat’s itch to scratch and avoid them picking a place that doesn’t work for you!

1. Pick the right material for the post. First think about the places your cat scratches now so you can figure out what his/her preferred material to scratch is. There are tons of options of scratching posts with different materials, so scout out posts and coverings that mimic his/her favorite scratching surfaces. These surface types can range from sisal to cardboard to carpet-covered posts (and some cats even prefer wood or leather).

2. The structure of the post matters. Pay attention to whether your kitty craves vertical scratching surfaces or horizontal ones. Some cats will enjoy a mix of both, and if that is the case you will want to provide multiple types of posts.

3. What height does your cat like to scratch at? Do you have a cat that likes to stretch high and far above his/her head or one that likes to use surfaces lower to the ground? If your kitty likes to stretch out before scratching, then he/she might prefer a higher post – just be sure the post is sturdy so it won’t wobble or fall while your cat is soothing his/her scratching urge. There are also posts that lay flat on the ground and others that form an “S” shape providing different levels to scratch.

4. Location, location, location! As they say in real estate, location matters! You want to place the scratching posts at places where your cat is already scratching. Cats tend to crave attention, so it is best to post his/her post in highly trafficked areas – such as where the family spends time together. This way the kitty “furniture” is on the scene, close to you and the action!

Helping Pets who Have Lost A Companion

Helping Pets who Have Lost A Companion
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Losing a pet is hard on the entire family and can be especially hard on your other pets since we cannot express to them what has happened so they are often confused on top of grieving the loss of their buddy. Oftentimes they will wander aimlessly around the house or yard trying to find their companion and may even stop eating, drinking, or interacting with us normally. The good news is that there are some things that you can do to help your pet through this difficult time. Sometimes when highly attached pets are separated, even for a short period of time, we see what is called a “distress reaction” and this can be markedly worse when a pet has passed away. Signs of a pet’s distress often resembles human grief, with signs such as changes in sleeping and eating habits, disinterest in usual activities, and a reluctance to be alone or away from human family members. There have been multiple studies conducted to see if allowing surviving pets to be present during euthanasia or to see and sniff their friend’s body after death helps the pet to better understand what has happened and decrease their distress, but none of the studies have shown that this helps change the reaction of the surviving pets.

Steps that have been shown to help in cases of distress include keeping your routines as consistent as possible, even though it is very natural to want to alter your behavior, especially towards your surviving pet(s) after such a profound loss. Although it is human nature to want to comfort your pets if you notice that they seem distressed, you want to try to only spend time with them when they are behaving in normal and desirable ways. If pets receive more attention from you when they are depressed, inactive, or destructive, your pet may learn that these behaviors are a way for them to get more attention from you. You want to preserve the activities that you and your pet engaged in before, not only to have their lives disrupted or changed as little as possible, but to continue to be able to create opportunities to provide positive reinforcement when your surviving pets are participating in their normal activities. Exercising together may help both of you feel better and allow both of you to focus on the special bond between you.

You also want to keep your pet’s diet and mealtimes the same as they were since pets often take comfort, especially in times of change, in being able to count on the familiarity of their normal feeding routines. Some pets will have a decreased appetite after losing their companion and it is never healthy for a pet to go for too long without food. With cats you can see serious medical consequences within 24 to 48 hours of not eating at all, though with dogs you generally will not start to see issues unless they have not eaten anything in several days. If your pet has not been interested in eating following the death of his or her buddy, it is tempting to offer table scraps and treats. However, if pets learn that not eating results in being fed human foods (that are not good for them) or an excess of treats, they may become less likely to eat their regular meals and hold out for something better! It is better to make their regular diet more desirable if you do have to intervene. This can include adding a small amount of low-sodium chicken broth to the regular food (and even heating it up a little to increase the smell) or mixing in some healthy options with the regular food (such as fruits or vegetables – like green beans, canned pumpkin, or carrots) so your pet thinks they are getting something special but it is an option that is good for them. If these tricks do not work, you can add a small amount of white rice and boiled chicken to the food and see if that helps. White rice and boiled chicken are easy to digest, so it is unlikely to cause vomiting or diarrhea, and is low in fat so it is less likely to cause pancreatitis (a common disease pets develop if fed other, non-vegetable, people food). Fruits and vegetables are good options since they are low in calories and fat, which also makes them safe to use with weight-loss plans, but you want to avoid grapes/raisins, avocado, and anything in the onion/garlic family.

If you have multiple surviving pets, there is often a shift in power and it is critical to allow your surviving pets to work out their own relationships and then respect the new hierarchy that they establish. When several animals live together, they often form very specific relationships and each one understands his/her place on the totem pole. Therefore, when a member of the group dies, the group can become temporarily unstable. This might result in conflicts involving growling, hissing, barking and even mild attacks. If this happens in your household, it is best to not get involved as long as everyone is safe. If the situation becomes so intense that you are concerned that one of your pets may be harmed, it is best to talk to your veterinarian about what you can do. It will take time for your surviving pets to redefine their relationships with each other and what role they will play in the household. What is most important is that the two-legged members of the family respect the new roles. For example, if there is a new “top dog” in the household and the others pets are submissive to that animal but the people in the household keep greeting a different dog first (or feeding it first, letting it outside first, etc.) the pets will continue to try to show the new pecking order to the owners through conflict.

Everyone responds to grief in a different way and this is as true in animals as it is in people. It is important to understand that it will take time after a loss so great for all of you to adjust. Be mindful of signs of distress in your surviving pets and try to provide them with as normal of a routine as possible so that they will feel more secure. Spend time enjoying each other and know that we are only a phone call away if you need anything.

Avoiding Stress Triggers for Cats

Avoiding Stress Triggers for Cats
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Cats do not like change and are more prone to stress and anxiety than one might think. Cats tend to hide these feelings well, but they can come out as behavior issues such as inappropriate elimination (not using the litter box), aggression, and/or overgrooming. We want to do everything we can to be sure our cats are living happy, healthy, stress-free lives. There are some things that we often do inadvertently that can contribute to a cat’s anxiety, so these are just a few tips to help make for a more peaceful life for your kitty.

1. Do not punish your cat. Punishment is never effective since swatting and hitting your cat only teaches it to fear your approach. Also, if you do not catch your cat “in the act” when you are trying to correct behavior, your cat will have no idea why he/she is in trouble. Animals do not correlate past actions with your interactions with them – they can only learn to behavior more appropriately if the correction (using only positive techniques) occurs immediately and consistently at the start of the behavior. Also, telling your cat “no” during bad behavior only interrupts the behavior and does not help him/her learn good behavior. Instead, you want to stop the negative behavior and immediately show your cat what you want it to do. You also want to be sure to reward your cat for appropriate behaviors whenever you notice them. Cats are very curious and agile – so give yours places to go and things to do, and keep potentially dangerous items picked up and put away. The less appropriate stimulation the environment provides, the more likely your cat will get into trouble. Be sure to set aside at least 30 minutes a day for play time with your cat (chasing a laser, playing fetch, letting him/her pounce at a toy or feather you are dangling or dragging, etc.) and provide environmental enrichment through window perches, food puzzles, or playing “find the food bowl” by changing up the location of the food dish so your kitty has to hunt for it.

2. Do not assume your cat knows English. It may seem like a simple statement, since we all know that our pets are non-verbal, but animals are very smart and can learn word associations if taught; however, they do not inherently understand what humans are saying – they must be trained. Animals communicate using body language and are very good at figuring us out based on our body language and tone of our voice. Most people do not think to teach their cats to sit or to do anything else on cue. Most people would be surprised at how easy it can be to train a cat to perform specific behaviors on cue and it is also helpful at times to pair hand gestures with your verbal commands. Just be sure not to assume your cat understands what you are saying without teaching it what you want it to do first – that will only lead to frustration for both of you!

3. Do not grab your cat’s head to tousle its hair or try to pet in areas or for lengths of time that your cat does not tolerate. In cat colonies, most interactions between cats just involve rubbing faces so keep this in mind when interacting with your cat. Your cat may enjoy being gently scratched around the chin or ears, but certainly does not enjoy having their head (or any other part of their body) grabbed and rubbed. Some cats will tolerate long strokes from head to tail, but most do not enjoy this as much as a chin rub and won’t enjoy it for long if they do allow it. Most cats get irritated by an extended period of repetitive stroking because this is not what comes naturally to them from when they were interacting with other cats in the wild. Also, most cats are very protective of their belly and do not enjoy having it rubbed. As with any animal, there are exceptions to every rule but pay attention to your cat’s body language (such as starting to twitch the end of their tail or flatten their ears) and know when they have had enough. Also, try to avoid hugging your cat because cats like to be able to move and escape situations. Therefore, when we hold them tightly, they may become stressed – anticipating that something bad is going to happen or worrying that if something negative does happen they will not be able to retreat.

4. Never neglect your cat’s litter box. Nobody likes to use a dirty toilet – especially your cat. Just imagine not flushing your own toilet for three or four days! Ideally, the litter box should be scooped every time you notice waste. Otherwise, they should be scooped at least twice daily. They also need to be completely emptied and cleaned with diluted bleach (just be sure to rinse with lots of water after cleaning it) every week. In addition to keeping the litter box clean, regular scooping also allows you to identify early signs of illness such as diarrhea, constipation, or excessive or lack of urination. The other rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than you have cats and to be sure to have them in convenient locations. You want to have a litter box on every level of the house that your cats have access to and pick a quiet spot. Do not pick a spot for the litter box that works best for you, but think about it from your cat’s perspective. A cat that has to negotiate humans of all ages, other pets, stairs, or loud appliances might feel like the journey us a suicide mission every time it needs to eliminate. Also, you may favor a covered litter box but most cats prefer a lid-free litter box.

5. Do not play with your cat by wiggling your fingers or toes! This type of play may seem innocent enough at first, but your cat will begin to think this is an acceptable way to play and may start attacking your hands and feet – biting and scratching them. You have to remember that cats naturally grab prey using their teeth and claws so they won’t think anything of continuing to use their mouth and/or claws on you if you have introduced this as a game. If your cat starts to attack your extremities or starts to bite or claw at you, ignore your cat all together (stop all interaction) and find an appropriate chew toy to offer your cat so he/she knows that hands and feet are for loving – not biting!

6. Do not leave your cat home alone with a jumbo – sized portion of food and one litter box while you go on vacation for a long weekend. It is true that cats are much more self-reliant than dogs, but for cats that eat quickly, this can be stressful because they will have no food left by the end of the weekend. Cats can become deathly ill if they don’t eat every day, so if you are going to be gone more than a day invest in a automated feeder that is on a timer. This can also be helpful in avoiding overweight cats because you can program in exactly how much food your cat should be getting each day. Also, a self-cleaning litter box may be a reasonable option if you travel a good bit, but don’t rely on it all the time. It is important that you pay attention to the frequency and quality of your pet’s eliminations so you can identify any changes that could indicate stress-induced health problems such as cystitis, constipation, and diarrhea.

7. Do not use strong-smelling cleansers, deodorizers, and products containing alcohol. Cats’ noses are sensitive, and these scents can be offensive to them. Be careful about the use of these products in your home or on your person. Some cats may even find the smell of hair spray, perfume, or cologne unpleasant.

8. Do not add new cats to your home without an introduction period. When an unrelated cat appears and tries to join a related group, it is in the cats’ nature to attack and force the outsider to leave. Without a proper period of controlled, gradual introduction, the chance of aggression between cats and stress increases. You want to first get the cats used to the smell of each other by rubbing each cat down with a piece of clothing to swap scents. Next it is good to have a controlled way that they can see each other and paw at each other without having full-body contact – this is best done by securing a door slightly open with a cat on each side. This allows them to see each other and start to interact while still being able to retreat if things get too intense. You want to work your way up to having both cats in the same room and it is best if you can have a harness on each cat so you can stop any interaction that gets too aggressive. As your cats warm up to each other you can have more relaxed, supervised play sessions. Once you notice your cats grooming each other or snuggling up, you can be fairly confident they have established a good relationship. Just be sure not to pay all your attention to your new addition, making your current cat (or any other pets) jealous and more likely to lash out.

Tips for a Quiet Car Ride

Tips for a Quiet Car Ride
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

We never want our pets to be stressed and car rides can be very stressful for them. Noise is a major anxiety trigger for pets during car travel so we wanted to give you a couple of tips on how you can help reduce your pet’s stress.

What pets hear on their car ride influences their anxiety level before they ever arrive at their destination, whether it is the veterinary hospital or a play date. You may not be able to avoid some car noises, such as highway noise (rumble strips are especially bad) and other environmental sounds – including sirens, horns blaring – and/or construction equipment. If you can keep your pet calm on your drive, they may be less stressed overall. This is especially helpful if you are heading to the veterinarian since they may be an easier patient than they would be if they were already feeling amped up.

One thing that you want to do is speak in your normal voice. It may feel very natural to want to reassure your pet with baby talk, but this can actually work against you. While your pet may not understand your words, your pet may have learned to associate your tone and type of talk, along with body language, with the idea that something bad is about to happen. When you talk to your dog it is much more soothing to use a matter-of-fact tone and relay instructions (such as “play with your toy” or “settle down”) with confidence and then offer a reward for the good behavior. Pets pick up on our anxiety, so the more calm and collected you are the better your baby will feel.

It can also be helpful to try to distract your pet with calming noise so they do not notice the loud environmental noises as much. You may try playing calming music in the car to ease tension for you and your pet. Consider music designed for pets or classical music that offers calming qualities and drowns out excess road noise that may be nerve-wracking for your pet. It is important that the music you pick does not become associated with the stress of a car ride, so it is critical to play this music around the house during a routine day. For smaller pets it can also be helpful to have them in a secured carrier covered with a towel or blanket to decrease the noise and stimulation.

It is best to start getting your pet used to car rides at a young age, but you want to start with short trips and then work up to longer trips or trips that result in arriving at a location that may be stressful for your pet (such as grooming appointments or veterinary visits). It can also be helpful to take trips to the veterinary hospital for a fun, reward-based visit where there are no procedures or treatments taking place. This will help your pet to have more positive associations with unfamiliar places.