If You Use Oral Flea Control — Read This

Red circle with a slash through it over image of a flea and a tick, indicating No Fleas or Ticks.As many readers know, I trust the Whole Dog Journal as a key source of information on dog health and welfare. So when the WDJ issues a warning, I pay attention.

A few days ago, they published this: Hold Off on Those Oral Flea-Killing Medications. This came up just after Dora’s mom sent me a link to the FDA warning. Cali and Dora have both been taking Nexguard.

Cali is lucky to live in Montana, where she does not need heartworm preventive and only needs flea control a couple months of the year (we won’t get into the reasons for WHY that is true, but think cold weather …). That significantly reduces the amount of these nasty chemicals that I have administered to Cali over the year+ that we’ve been in Montana. But not everyone is lucky enough to live in a place that has winter for 8 months a year, so …

Flea control is important, and I am not recommending stopping it completely. I do not have an “answer” — a single recommendation for all dogs. I do have some suggestions, with emphasis on this: What you choose depends on the climate where you live, the prevalence of fleas and ticks, your dog’s reaction to both flea bites and to the different treatments and preventives, and on how much time and effort you are willing and able to invest in keeping your dogs and home flea-free. If your dog is extremely sensitive to flea bites and fleas are abundant where you live, you might opt for stronger methods than if you live in a climate where fleas are less of a problem, for example.

Newer oral flea control products like Nexguard, Bravecto, Credelio, and Simparica are the subjects of the warning. If you are using these, stop doing so until more is known. By “neurologic adverse events,” the warning mostly means seizures, but can also refer to tremors or loss of muscle control, which can mean stumbling or falling. These products are relatively new, and the FDA has received reports of such reactions. Most dogs do not have an adverse reaction, but … there are enough other options for parasite control that why risk it?

Other oral flea preventives, like Trifexis, have their own histories of causing seizures in some breeds of dogs or individuals with a history of epilepsy or other seizures. Comfortis, AcuGuard, and ComboGuard use the same medication as Trifexis. I’ve used Trifexis and Comfortis; I am not thrilled with using strong chemicals on my dogs, but for people who live in, say, Florida, where fleas are a huge problem and many remedies simply don’t work, these are an option.

Prescription topical preventives (Advantage, Advantix, FrontLine) are an option. In many parts of the world, mostly the warm, humid regions, the fleas are resistant to these and the topicals simply do not work. Where they are effective, and if you do not have to use them year-round, they might offer a solution. They have their own problems; they are potent neurotoxins, after all. You need to be careful when you apply them and when disposing of the containers. They are nasty, toxic chemicals. But if relatively easy, spring and summer flea or flea and tick control is needed, at least look into these. Some dogs react badly to these but, unlike with an oral medication, immediate and repeated bathing can reduce this reaction. I don’t recommend the over-the-counter topicals based on bad personal experience (severe reaction in a dog).

A more holistic approach is also a possibility, but this is far more labor-intensive and might not be sufficient in places where fleas and ticks are more prevalent and hardy. This includes regular (1-2 times a week) washing of rugs, pet beds, etc. as well as some combination of natural repellents. Dogs Naturally has some suggestions and warnings in this article: 9 Tips for Safe and Natural Flea Control. Comments at the bottom of the WDJ article mention Neem oil, beneficial nematodes, food-grade diatomaceous earth, and more. I have not tried these and cannot vouch for their effectiveness. Other comments mention amber collars, Only Natural Pet’s flea repellent tags, and Arava natural pet products. Again, no experience with these, though, having looked at the websites, I’d be most inclined to try the Arava products or the Only Natural Pet topical.

I wish there were an easy answer. Think carefully about your dog’s needs and the options for where you live. Please share your experience in comments, especially if you have tried any of the more natural approaches.

 

Advertisements

Are Doggy DNA Tests Worthwhile?

A Puli dog walks on a dirt road.
Is your dog part Puli? Probably not, no matter what the DNA panel says. Creative Commons photo by Rennender

DNA tests started out as a fun way to try to figure out a mixed-breed dog’s genetic makeup. Many people I know who’ve done them have gotten results that made me a little skeptical — high percentages of extremely rare breeds. I am not a geneticist, though, and it all seemed harmless enough.

But.

People are using — and the testing companies are marketing — these tests in two ways that could be very, very bad for dogs: to attempt to predict dogs’ future health problems and to “tailor” behavioral training. And, according to an excellent column in Nature, the tests are extremely inaccurate.

Let’s start with the problem of trying to tailor behavioral training to the supposed mix of breeds in your dog. Your dog is a unique individual. Whether purebred or mixed, each dog’s behavior is affected to some extent by genetic drives — some dogs want to herd everything; some want to chase whatever moves. It’s also enormously affected by personality and experience. Within a breed, within a litter, even, the personalities and drives can be very different.

A good trainer tailors her teaching to the individual dog, of course, but she bases her work on the dog in front of her — not on some possibly wildly inaccurate list of breed percentages. If a dog is half Lab and half German shepherd, do you reward with food half the time, since the shepherd half might not be food focused? Do you use harsher methods half the time if your dog’s ancestry might lie in a military dog line? It’s silly when you start to parse out what it might mean in day-to-day training and life. A smart dog owner will choose a trainer who uses motivational methods tailored to the dog based on her hands-on experience working with that dog.

But a far more dangerous use of these tests is in attempting to predict future illnesses. The Nature article, and these related articles in the Washington Post and the Undark website explain the problems with this in great detail. In sum:

  • The mapping of a single gene mutation to a specific disease is far from foolproof. Genes express themselves differently in different breeds, so a gene that is linked to a condition in one breed might not behave the same way in another breed. And no one really knows what happens in mixed-breed dogs.
  • Having a specific gene mutation might (or might not) increase the risk of a particular disease. Basing a decision to euthanize your dog on very imprecise data, rather than on the actual dog’s health and symptoms, is cruel.
  • People unnecessarily panic when they get the results that show gene mutations — which might be completely meaningless. They pay for — and subject their dogs to — unnecessary, stressful, and expensive tests, which generally don’t tell them anything conclusive anyhow.

The truth is, genetic testing in humans works much the same way … results are often highly inaccurate; they are not predictive; and they could cause people to panic and get unnecessary “treatment” for a disease they think they might get some day. But as an adult, you get to make that choice for yourself. Subjecting your dog to it — or killing him out of fear of what might happen — is horrible!

The testing companies are businesses. They make money by selling you the tests. They also make money by selling the huge amounts of data they collect on test subjects. Veterinary clinics are also businesses, which many people lose sight of. Some vets are ethical and don’t push expensive tests. Others … not so much. Vets can make money by suggesting further testing, special diets that they sell, treatment … there is a definite conflict of interest that can exploit loving pet owners’ worst fears.

So, if you’re curious about whether your pup has some Puli or Xoloitzcuintli in his past (unlikely), go ahead and do the test. Just don’t base decisions about his medical care on the results. Train, and care for, the dog in front of you — his behaviors, his quirks, and his medical symptoms.

Choosing a Dog Food

I’ve gotten some questions about choosing dog foods, particularly since this post was published: Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? Here are some guidelines (and opinions) I recently provided to people who asked:

  • I’ve seen wonderful results with dogs eating mostly or entirely raw diets. These can be fresh, frozen, dehydrated, or homemade. I personally would not do homemade; it’s a lot of work, I don’t want all that meat in my vegetarian kitchen, and it’s challenging to ensure you are meeting all of the dog’s nutritional needs.
  • For dehydrated, Honest Kitchen is a good brand that is easy to find in good pet stores and online. If you buy directly from the company, you get free treats and other rewards (well, your dog does …).
  • For frozen, Primal and Instinct are nationally available; check in high-end pet stores for local or regional brands. Cali eats Steve’s Real Food, which is not available everywhere. Getting frozen food delivered is really expensive. Learn more here: Dog Food Advisor.
  • For kibble, I can’t say it enough: Choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. They look into ingredient quality and sourcing and manufacturing practices. They really do their homework.
  • Never buy dog food or treats at the supermarket. Health food stores and natural grocers are a possible exception. If you live in a less urban area, feed stores might stock a wide variety of pet foods and treats; watch quality and check ingredients, but these places might be less expensive than high-end pet stores.
  • That said, shop around. I’m considering switching Cali’s kibble to a brand that uses higher quality ingredients than her current Canidae. It actually costs less — and the real attraction is that I can get it at the high end store where I get her frozen food.
  • For dog treats, look for things that are simple: dried meat or fish, locally baked, few-ingredient biscuits. Avoid anything with artificial colors, preservatives, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. (That’s good advice for choosing your own treats, too!)
  • There’s no need to specifically seek grain-free foods, but many of the top brands have little or no grain. I do avoid wheat and especially corn, a common filler in cheap dog foods. Most of that filler ends up on your lawn. And, corn is a common allergen in dogs.
  • If your dog is gassy or has digestive issues, try a diet change. The protein could be wrong, or there might just be some ingredient or combination that doesn’t work well with your dog’s digestive system.
  • Food sensitivities are a common cause of itchy dogs. And ear problems. If your dog seems itchy and you don’t think it’s a seasonal allergy, take a look at her food. Eliminate corn and wheat. And chicken. If that doesn’t help, consult someone knowledgeable about canine nutrition (NOT necessarily your vet!).

Choosing a Protein

  • Some people prefer to feed a diet with multiple protein sources. When Cali had digestive issues as an adolescent, I decided that that made it too hard to know what was causing the problem.
  • I tend to avoid chicken-based kibbles, since many dogs are sensitive to it and since a lot of the larger dog food manufacturers aren’t using the highest quality chicken. I don’t want my dog eating meat from animals that were loaded with hormones and steroids, for example.
  • Very few dogs need exotic proteins. Don’t spend the money unless you know your dog is allergic to the more common, and more affordable, meats.
  • Pay attention to your dog. If she’s always hot, seeks the cool spot in the house, or gets hotspots or other inflammatory problems, avoid lamb and other “warm” proteins. Beef and turkey are neutral. Duck and most fish are “cool” proteins. On the other hand, if your dog loves the sun and wants to sleep under the covers and suffers even in a Florida winter, do look for lamb-based foods. You might think the idea of warming and cooling foods is mumbo-jumbo, but it has definitely helped both Cali and her sister Dora resolve recurrent hotspot issues. I’m a believer.

Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free?

A golden retriever carries her food bowl
Fill that food bowl with health, high-quality proteins and veggies.

A spate of atypical cases of a serious heart condition in dogs is raising the question of whether grain-free dog food formulas are somehow responsible. The FDA is investigating a possible link between diet and the disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dog breeds where the condition is extremely rare. DCM causes the heart to become weak and enlarged; it can cause heart failure. Symptoms include coughing, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Breeds that have a genetic predisposition for DCM include Irish wolfhounds, great Danes, and boxers. According to a New York Times article on the potential link with grain-free diets, concern was triggered when a large veterinary cardiology practice noticed an unusual number of cases among other breeds, including Labradors and golden retrievers.

There’s no definitive link, and researchers are exploring whether the absence of grains in the diet could be problematic. Another potential problem: the legumes, like lentils and peas, that are used in large quantities to replace the grains in these foods. One avenue of research is whether the legumes inhibit the production of taurine, an essential amino acid that most dogs get from the meat in their diets or synthesize from amino acids in other proteins in their diets. To do this, they need to get enough real meat protein in their diets. To further complicate matters, not all meat proteins contain the same levels of taurine; poultry has more taurine than lamb or beef, for example.

What’s a concerned dog owner to do? Choose a dog food carefully, considering only the dog’s nutritional needs and ignoring food fads. For example:

  • Choose a quality dog food brand that uses specified (named) meats and meat meals as the top ingredients. Use the Whole Dog Journal‘s list of approved dog foods, and you will not go wrong. Don’t use supermarket brands, which are full of fillers like corn and wheat (common allergens), artificial colors, sugar, and other potentially harmful ingredients.
  • Choose a protein that is right for your dog. It’s unlikely that your dog needs an exotic, and expensive, protein like kangaroo. If your dog has shown signs of food allergy, sure, try a “novel” protein — but that just means one she hasn’t eaten before. Switch from chicken to fish or duck or lamb.
  • I tend to favor foods with one or two proteins, rather than those with four, six, or more. This is simply convenience: If my dog were to develop a sensitivity, it’s easier to find a novel protein if she hasn’t been consuming lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, bison, and fish at every meal.
  • Ensure that the food has enough protein and that most or all of it is from high-quality meat sources. Many dogs do well with kibbles that are 25 percent to 30 percent protein; higher-protein foods are great for some dogs and not for others. Puppies will grow too quickly on a high-protein food. Educate yourself. Consult a vet or canine nutritionist, talk with knowledgeable experts at small pet stores that focus on high-quality foods (I’m not talking about those boutiques with a room full of doggy clothing and luxury accessories and only one or two very pricey foods), and read the Whole Dog Journal and Dogs Naturally.
  • Make sure the other ingredients in the dog food are of good quality and, preferably, sourced in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. I’ve avoided any and all food products sourced in China since the melamine and other contamination scares several years ago.
  • Pay attention to whether your dog runs hot or cold. A vet who treated Jana for many years (and who was Cali’s pediatrician) talked with me about “warming” and “cooling” foods. This turned out to be a wonderful guide to choosing proteins for my girls, who both were “hot.” Since moving to duck a few years ago, for example, Cali has not had a hot spot.
  • Don’t treat your dog like a person. I am a committed vegetarian, but I know that neither Jana nor Cali had any desire to become vegetarians. While I have no desire to go gluten- or grain-free, if I did, that would not extend to my dogs. Dogs are omnivores. Give them a balanced, varied diet, avoiding things (like chocolate) that are known to be toxic or harmful to dogs.

As to whether we should avoid the grain-free foods — the jury is out on that question. My advice would be to look at the specific food(s) you are feeding and see whether it meets the Whole Dog Journal’s criteria for a high-quality food. If so, and your dog is healthy and energetic, has normal digestive processes (translation: look at her poop) and a shiny, healthy coat and bright sparkly eyes, don’t make changes. If your fancy boutique food was selected based on the marketing copy or you’re simply following the latest diet craze, reconsider.

What does Cali eat? For breakfast, she gets a Steve’s Real Food Turducken patty. For dinner, she gets a heaping cup-and-a-quarter of Canidae Sky limited ingredient duck formula. Yup, they’re grain free. They’re also chock-full of high quality, nutritious ingredients. She also gets fish oil, joint support and digestive enzyme supplements, eggs, cucumber, plenty of cookies (not grain-free!) and coconut popsicles (ice cubes made with coconut water), and all the fresh raspberries she can reach.

Read more about the potential problems with exotic diets here: “A broken heart.”

Wrong on So Many Levels …

a poster announces that service dogs are welcomeI was in St. Petersburg when the Tampa Bay Times ran this story about a “service dog” whelping a litter of puppies at the Tampa airport. Columnist Daniel Ruth’s response is spot-on. This is so, so wrong.

The initial article said that the dogs’ owner claimed both dogs (the puppies’ dad was present for the whelping) were service dogs; it also said the puppy-mom was a service dog in training. The initial article says that the owner has mobility issues; Ruth’s column mentions blood pressure. It’s impossible to know which is accurate or whether the owner meets the ADA definition of a person with a disability. It’s also impossible to tell whether either or both dogs do anything to mitigate the disability. While the reporting could be more clear, part of the problem is that the various laws covering public access and air travel with service dogs are so vague and poorly written that they are a nightmare for gatekeepers — and an engraved invitation to fakers. (I’m not saying this person was faking; I am saying it is nearly impossible to know.)

The second problem is that it’s legal in some cases for people to use two service dogs and request public access with both simultaneously. I know that people might have multiple disabilities that a dog or dogs can help with. And if you’re an owner-trainer and want to train a dozen service dogs for yourself, I don’t think any law should stop you. But I also advocate for some common sense in access laws.

I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of service dogs. Even the best dogs get spooked in airports or on planes, and I know that it’s hard enough to find and train one dog for the really difficult, demanding job of working while traveling, through an airport, and on an airplane. Expecting someone to be able to safely handle more than one dog in these circumstances, while dealing with the many hassles of travel — that’s just not reasonable. It’s not fair to other travelers or to airline staff. No one can predict what will happen. I’ve seen “service” dogs react aggressively to working dogs, kids come out of nowhere to grab the dogs in a hug, people interfering with dogs by doing everything from reaching to pet to trying with gestures and noises to distract the dog to actually enticing working dogs with food.

Add to that the exploding number of emotional support animals traveling these days — a concept that many people, including Ruth, in his column, have trouble separating from service dogs — and I’m surprised that any dog can navigate air travel without losing her cool. Expecting a person, any person, to keep tabs on multiple service dogs with all of that going on, and keep everything under control so that the traveler, dogs, and everyone else is safe? Not realistic.

Finally, the most egregious part of this story: Who boards a plane with a dog who’s that pregnant? It’s not that hard to know when a dog is due to whelp. Gestation is about 60 days. If your dog has been bred, don’t travel after about 6-7 weeks. And that doesn’t even address the bigger issue: Any professional service or guide dog trainer will tell you that a working service dog should be spayed or neutered. Regardless, a pregnant female shouldn’t be working that close to her due date. And if she is a service dog in training, as some accounts said, she shouldn’t have been allowed to fly anyhow; no law gives access to service dogs in training. (In a probably vain attempt to forestall criticism, I will state that I think that trainers should be able to fly with dogs-in-training, but that is a whole separate issue.)

A service dog partnership is not a one-way street. The dog helps the person in a way that only a dog can. The dog also provides companionship and love. In return, the person owes the dog care and respect. I don’t doubt that the owner of these dogs loves them and appreciates their service. But she did not fill her obligations as their guardian and steward and advocate, nor did she show respect for the dog when she let a working dog become pregnant and then attempted to fly with that dog so close to her due date. The person’s needs do not always come first, and in this case, the owner was selfish and irresponsible.

As a person who cares deeply about the human-canine connection while also deeply respecting the work dogs do for us, I become angry when I see or hear about any dog owner who treats her dogs that badly, whether they are service dogs or pets. (I’m not alone; the Times apparently heard from lots of others who were outraged.) While travelers who saw the puppy birth might have thought it wonderful, miraculous, cute (or gross), that this poor dog had to whelp her puppies in such awful, public conditions is outrageous.

What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

How does getting a second dog change your relationship with your first dog?

Jana and Cali, aged 9 weeks, play tug

A reader recently asked me how my relationship with Jana changed when I brought Cali home. Cali was an 8-week-old puppy; bringing an additional adolescent or adult dog into the family would probably affect the older dog differently.

I expected Jana to want nothing to do with the puppy, but within a day, she was gently playing with Cali and allowing her to share her bed. Jana was a fantastic big sister, and, as I said in response to this question, we “co-parented” Cali.

This mostly worked out well. Jana definitely helped Cali learn where to toilet, for example; Cali was a very clean puppy who had no accidents. I taught Cali many of the house rules, such as which furniture dogs could and could not use (this did not always go so well); Jana taught her other house rules, such as the “egg rule” — anyone who makes eggs has to make enough to share with all family members. Cali has, in turn, taught that sacred family rule to Koala.

Jana and Cali, aged 9 weeks, rest after playingJana was protective of Cali and taught her to play tug and keep away and other essential dog games. She led by example, showing Cali that the play tunnel was fun, not scary, and that nail trims and toothbrushing led to tasty treats. When we went to the dog beach, Jana provided thorough instruction, including demonstrations, of how to get soaked and then wriggle in the sand to ensure maximum coverage and sand retention for the ride home. Cali has surpassed her teacher in this endeavor.

As for my relationship with Jana, well, we were the grown-ups, nurturing and educating the baby. Jana and I shared many eye-rolls watching Cali’s puppy antics. We took walks together to enjoy some adult time, and I tried to reinforce Jana’s status as the second-in-command. Jana was not shy about asking for belly rubs, games of tug, or walks to the places she wanted to go. Cali is pretty easygoing, but she did try to steal Jana’s bed and claim more than her share of attention, and she sulked if Jana or I rebuked her.

Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's bedI think what’s hard about adding a dog of any age is giving each dog individual attention. Jana and Cali were very different personalities, in addition to being at completely different stages of their lives. Jana was slowing down, due to arthritis and age, just as Cali became an active (very, very active) adolescent and young adult. I hated leaving Jana behind to do active exercise with Cali, and I hated denying Cali the hiking and other activities that Jana and I had enjoyed when she was young. So we made a lot of compromises. I took Cali to agility and Jana to nosework classes. I took everyone to the beach. Every day, we walked, at Jana speed, to a park where Cali could race after her ball while Jana socialized with the other adults (humans) and a couple of other older goldens. I’d like to think that each of my girls got what they needed and deserved, but I am sure there were times when one or both felt that her sister was claiming too much time or attention.