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Finding balance for our pets

by Audrey Thomasson

Your pets probably are experts at finagling a treat out of you. But when it comes to discomfort or pain, they can’t tell you how they feel.

Pets, like human beings, also have their own set of health issues.

In order to identify the most common pet problems in this region, we reached out to area veterinarians Dr. Bill Armstrong of Heathsville Animal Hospital in Heathsville and Dr. Jim Davidson of Crossroads Pet Clinic in White Stone.

Fortunately, many of the most common things they see every day are not serious, but are easily preventable. However, if left untreated theycan cause serious problems.

Improvise for an elderly dog who still loves to go on walks.

1. Skin problems or allergies
Does your pet have an itch it can’t scratch? Have you searched for fleas but can’t find any?

You may be surprised to learn most skin problems are due to parasites, skin infections and allergies.

“About 33% of my daily cases are dermatology, primarily allergy in nature,” said Dr. Armstrong.

Like humans, some animals develop a hypersensitivity reaction to environmental antigens such as inhaled allergy. It’s primarily seasonal and is caused from such things as pollen, mold or dust mites that can trigger itching and rashes.

While it may be February, Dr. Armstrong said he has already seen pollen in the air.

“Under the floodlight the other night, I saw a mass of white floating down and it wasn’t snow. It was pollen,” he said.

Dogs can also develop allergies to common dog food ingredients such as soy, corn, wheat, beef or chicken, triggering skin problems. “For a dog that is itchy year round, explore the possibility of food allergies and try changing their food,” he recommends.

Cat owners will be happy to learn their furry companions are not as prone to skin allergies.

2. External Parasites
If allergies aren’t the problem, Fido may just have fleas.

“Fleas are a significant problem for all pets and were very severe in this area last fall,” said Dr. Davidson. “Fleas bite their host to feed on blood. This results in irritation, annoyance and itching. Some pets become allergic to flea saliva. Even the bites of three to four fleas can cause an intense reaction, leading to constant scratching and biting. Irritation of the skin can then result in secondary bacterial and yeast infections, which make the skin condition even worse.”

Fleas also carry a tapeworm that pets get by ingesting a flea, he said.

Dr. Davidson warns that pets can pick up hundreds of fleas just by walking through areas where wildlife reside since fleas also infest foxes, raccoons, opossums and other wild animals.

Because flea eggs and larva live off the host, he recommends treating all pets with an adulticide for knockdown and growth regulators to prevent eggs and larvae from maturing. Also, thoroughly and regularly vacuum the areas where your pet resides. Don’t forget to treat the yard with granular insecticides. Limiting pet access to wildlife habitats will help, as well as taking measures to keep wildlife from under porches, steps or around the house.

Ticks transmit Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and several other diseases.

“Some of the topical products that kill fleas also kill ticks and need to be applied every 30 days. Year-round application is advocated,” he said.

Obesity is the number one health issue for pets, too.

3. Heartworms
Heartworms are a serious and potentially deadly disease in which parasites infect the animal’s heart and arteries and can lead to heart failure and death. It is transmitted through mosquito bites and, if unchecked, the larvae can develop into large worms. Symptoms of heartworm disease in dogs range from coughing to lethargy, collapsing and depression—moping or not greeting you at the door. In cats, you’ll see chronic vomiting.

“Our area is endemic for heartworms,” says Dr. Armstrong. “We see it every year even though there’s awareness out there.

Though not always successful, treatment options include medications to kill the parasites and, in advanced cases, surgery.

The disease is preventable with a once-a-month pill you can obtain with a prescription from your vet. Other options include daily oral medications, topicals or injections.

“The economy has resulted in a decline in compliance,” Dr. Armstrong said, thus more dogs are being infected.

However, Dr. Davidson adds, “Treatment is much more expensive and can have serious side effects including death. It is estimated you can provide 10 years of preventive medication for what it costs to treat one time.”

While the disease is prevalent in area dogs, Dr. Armstrong notes that only about 10% of cats get heartworms.

4. Internal parasites
“Internal parasites such as hookworms, roundworms and whipworms can cause weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea,” says Dr. Davidson. “Hookworms and roundworms are transmissible to humans.”

Fortunately, the monthly preventive medicine for heartworms also prevent intestinal worms, according to Dr. Davidson.

“Every dog in this area needs to be tested regularly for internal parasites and be given monthly prevention all year long,” he said.

Rescued dogs make great companions.

5. Dental Disease
According to Dr. Davidson, dental disease is one of most common diseases in cats and dogs, second only to obesity.

“Eighty-five percent of pets develop some form of dental disease by three years of age. Regular dental care prevents pain, which is important since dogs and cats are experts at hiding pain,” he said. 

Additionally, dental care protects the mouth, heart, kidneys and liver from bacteria associated with dental disease. “This contributes to your pets’ overall wellness and leads to a longer more comfortable life.

Dental care for pets is an important part of their preventive care, providing life long benefits.

6. Obesity
Pets have the same problems with obesity as humans—leading to heart disease, diabetes and joint problems, according to Dr. Davidson.

“I have never seen a dog or cat that can open a can of food or sealed container of dry food,” he noted. “You have control over your pet’s calorie intake. Do not free feed your pet. They need to be fed in measured amounts at regular times and they need daily exercise.”

Many people show love for their pets through food. “A long-term study by Purina showed that a group of Labradors fed amounts to maintain ideal body weight lived on average 18 months longer than a group that was allowed to free feed,” he said.

Haven gets around in a wheelchair made just for her.

7. Parvovirus
Parvovirus is a fatal disease impacting mostly puppies, but is one that is easy to prevent.

“It is alive and well in the Northern Neck,” said Dr. Armstrong.

Canine parvovirus is highly contagious, attacking the upper intestines and stomach. Puppies that are not protected by maternal antibodies through their mother’s milk or vaccinations are the most vulnerable to parvovirus. Symptoms may include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory distress and even cardiac failure, said Dr. Armstrong. Hospitalization is often required since mortality is high if left untreated.

Humans can’t get the disease, but it may linger in a dog’s environment for months. It’s also not uncommon for dogs to contract parvovirus from the streets, especially in areas where many dogs are allowed to run free.

8. Problems associated with free-range pets
Many of our pets’ issues stem from allowing them to roam freely through the same areas inhabited by wildlife.

Deadliest of all is the automobile.

“I see so many of them hit by cars or trucks,” said Dr. Armstrong.

When a pet has been hit by a car, its first instinct is to flee and to ignore pain. In nature, this action protects them from predators, but for domesticated pets it can sometimes harm them when owners don’t realize they’ve suffered serious injury because the pet doesn’t show signs of pain.

It’s important to take your pet to a veterinarian immediately after the accident, even if the dog seems to be fine.

posted 02.20.2013

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