Grain-Free Diet - The Debate About the Danger

The word is out that dog foods that are ‘grain-free’ may be the cause of some cases of DCM or Dilated Cardiomyopathy in dogs.  We wanted to take the time to explain what this means for our clients that have chosen this type of food for their pets.

Let’s talk about what Dilated Cardiomyopathy is. DCM, according to Cornell University, is

“a primary disease of cardiac muscle that results in a decreased ability of the heart to generate pressure to pump blood through the vascular system. The definitive cause of canine DCM is the subject of debate, although a number of factors including nutritional, infectious, and genetic predisposition have been implicated. The fact that canine DCM occurs at a higher incidence in specific breeds suggests a heritable genetic component to this disease, although it is likely that it’s etiology is multifactorial.”

Recent investigations into reports of this disease in dogs eating certain diets (as well as an increase in DCM in breeds not normally known to have the genetic disposition to the disease) has a few fingers pointing to grain-free diets as a potential culprit.  It is however, not definitive at this time.  The FDA is quoted as saying “Based on the data collected and analyzed thus far, the agency believes that the potential association between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.”  Like any issue of this nature, this issue could be a number of things but in order to “play it safe”, a grain-free diet may not be the best option for a pet diet.

The following diets have been listed in the FDA’s recent report (click here for the complete report):

  • Acana

  • Zignature

  • Taste of the Wild

  • 4Health

  • Earthborn Holistic

  • Blue Buffalo

  • Nature’s Domain

  • Fromm

  • Merrick

  • California Natural

  • Orijen

  • Nature’s Variety

  • Nutrisource

  • Nutro

  • Rachael Ray Nutrish

 By no means are we saying these diets are “bad”; we’re simply informing you of the FDA’s findings. Many of these companies do offer alternatives that aren’t grain-free.

Grains have been promoted recently as "fillers", but they do have many healthy properties including essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and fiber.  If your pet is on a grain-free diet, an alternative food with healthy, well-regulated grains may be a good choice at this time. If your veterinarian recommended a grain-free diet for your pet due to a medical condition or allergy, we recommend a conversation to determine if a suitable alternative diet is indicated.

If your pet has been on a grain-free diet for sometime and you feel that there have been some changes with your pet’s health, then we would recommend an exam with your veterinarian to ensure that all is well.  Some symptoms of DCM are as follows: lethargy, weakness, weight loss, collapse, coughing, increased respiratory rate and/or effort, abdominal distention.  These are symptoms of many conditions as well so an exam with diagnostics may be needed to find out the source.  DCM can be a serious and life-threatening condition so if your pet is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, please let us know asap.

To read more about what the FDA has to say about this situation and what as a pet owner you can do, click here.

Fear Free Visits - the How To!

Imagine laying on your favorite blanket, just starting to soak up the morning sun. Perhaps wondering which one of the many other favorite sunning spots you may have to visit today. Then suddenly, and without warning, picked up and stuffed into a small plastic box, carried by a giant moving machine and then unceremoniously plopped onto a cold exam table while various instruments poke into some of your most delicate areas.

Alternatively, imagine being so excited to be driven out on a car trip to your favorite ball park. The thrill is almost palpable in the air! But wait, what is this? This is not the typical way to the park. And I remember this place – they stuck me with needles and said I was fat! No way am I going in there!

As you have probably already figured out, these two scenarios involve a cat and a dog being brought to their veterinarian for an annual wellness exam. No wonder they don’t like it! But it does not have to be like this. Here are a few tips that can make the visit go smoother. This is better for your pet, is easier for you, and helps us to perform a more thorough exam!

  • Prepare your pet ahead of time for travel. For cats, getting them accustomed to the carrier (see Cats and Carriers), and for dogs to the car and leash, are a must. Go for short trips, give loads of treats, and then head right back home!

  • Happy Visits. That is what we call a visit when you drive in, have your canine friend grab a treat, maybe even a quick trip on the scale, and then leave! No appointment needed, no charge, and free treats – what is not to love!

  • Calm the beast within. Feel-good pheromones like Feliway for cats or D.A.P. for dogs, aromatherapy such as lavender, and/or supplements such as melatonin can be helpful.

  • To stay or not to stay. Some pets do better during the exam with their owners, and some do much better away from them. Talk with your doctor about your thoughts, and what has worked with your pet in the past.

  • Training. This is something that should be done well before a vet visit. This will include, of course, the basics – sit, stay, and recall on command. But by extending out to such things as a “training mat” or clicker training, you can direct a pet’s attention and reward the good behavior.

  • Prepare yourself. Oftentimes our pets can sense our anxiety or distress, and will react accordingly. You may be concerned about how the pet will behave, or an impending diagnosis, but you will need to put on your happy face (fake it till ya make it!). Also being prepared means getting to the appointment 5 minutes early and having your questions or concerns prepared so that the visit will be efficient with no need to rush.

  • Drugs. Sometimes we just need to take it down a notch. Medication can help take the edge off, but by itself will do very little with an already revved up pet. Talk with your doctor about some of these options if needed, but I typically use this as a last resort.

Oh, and coming to the hospital a little hungry is not a bad thing! It makes those treats of ours taste just that much better!

If you start using these tips when your pet is still a puppy or kitten, they will grow up only knowing that our vets are the magical provider of manna – also called treats! And remember, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – a happy, healthy pet!

Some books/resources on fear-free training:

Dr Sophia Yin

A Little Wednesday Humor

We decided to take a slight break from the serious and share a story that was sent to us by one of our clients..because laughter is truly the best medicine.

“Omg.... The neighbors have been complaining that my dog had been barking non-stop. I hate the electric zapping bark collars, so I purchased a humane citronella collar. When a dog barks, it shoots a blast of citronella under their nose and apparently, they don't like it.

This morning I was getting the collar ready and filled it with the citronella liquid. And that's where my morning should have ended. But no, it's me, and I begin to become curious as to “how” the collars actually work. So, I'm standing by my back door "barking" at my dog's collar. Nothing happens. I make sure it's turned on, check the fill level, and go through the "getting started" check list one more time. Again, I bark. Nothing happens. Now I'm not quite sure, why I had this next thought, but I did...I put the collar on. I seriously extended the band and fit the growl box against my throat and barked.

Apparently, the collar only works if it feels vibrations, because I immediately received a blast of citronella to the face. I began coughing, which only caused the collar to continue squirting bug spray over and over into my nasal cavity. I'm now on my hands and knees in my back yard, trying to breathe, and to make matters worse, the dog is barking. So, between coughing and telling her to stop, I've emptied over a dozen blasts of citronella to my face. During all of this ruckus, I'm trying to undo the clasp of the collar, which has somehow managed to weld shut during this whole fiasco. I finally get the collar off and threw, yes, I threw that inhumane thing across the yard, and lay in the grass sucking in the cool morning air. In the middle of thinking this is probably the dumbest thing I've done in a while, I hear laughter.

MY NEIGHBOR SAW THE WHOLE THING! He was laughing so hard he couldn't breathe. Between gasps, he tells me, "I was gonna come help, but every time I started to climb over the fence, you'd set it off again and then I would start laughing and couldn't make it." So now, not only are my eyes red, but my face and ears are too. After checking to make sure I was ok, we parted ways and I went in to shower so I wouldn't smell like ode de' Tiki Torch.

Lesson learned: next time (yes, there will always be a next time with me) make sure that: 1. Don't fill the collar before trying to set it off. 2. Remember your neighbor is not a good source of help in a comedy crisis situation. On the plus side, I won't have a mosquito problem for a few days! 😂😂😂😂”

Happy Wednesday everyone!

Hot Happens FAST!

With the hot weather starting here in North Carolina, we thought it best to visit that “hot” topic of heat stroke in pets. An excellent source for information can be found below. Awareness is the best prevention. Please share this with everyone!

“Every year, too many dogs suffer and die from preventable cases of Heat Stroke. It happens in hot cars, while out exercising, on airplanes, and in a variety of other situations. What they all have in common though, along with the heartbreaking nature of these cases, is that the overwhelming majority of these tragedies can be prevented.

On their page you’ll find vital information and tips that can help you protect your own pets from the devastating effects of Heat Stroke, as well as the resources and tools to get involved in changing the dynamic and conversation to help protect pets the world over.

They keep this page updated with new stories, studies, and resources as they become available. We encourage you to have a look around, share your stories, get involved, and show these resources to your friends and family.

Together we can make a difference and stop these senseless and preventable deaths, as well as the anger, heartbreak, and suffering they leave behind. “

Click here for all the ins and outs that you need to know to prevent heat stroke!

Spring & Summer Parasite Control

Spring and summer are the times for barbequing, going to the beach, and bugs! Fleas, ticks and other assorted creatures make their way out of winter hibernation to infest our pets and home. But there are ways to help!

Make Fleas Flea!

Flea infestations need to be handled from three different angles to get control of these little pests. First – treat the pet. This consists of monthly topical medications such as Bravecto, Frontline or Revolution, which safely eliminates the fleas and interrupts their reproductive cycle. Talk to your veterinarian to determine which product is right for you. Second – treat your home. Dusting the carpets with Borax, vacuuming all areas (including couches/chairs) every two weeks, and washing all bedding can be very effective. Using a household flea spray may be used in severe cases. Third – treat the yard. In summer months and with severe infestations, several effective products can be sprayed on the yard and in play areas.

Tick Patrol

Ticks can spread many kinds of diseases, including Lyme disease, ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Most monthly flea preventatives also help repel or kill ticks as well. Certain collars also have effective tick treatments. Physically removing ticks before they have a chance to feed will prevent the spread of these diseases. Check your pets for ticks after being outside.

Mosquitoes Revenge

With the knowledge that West Nile Virus may be able to infect our pets, and that both dogs and cats are susceptible to heartworm disease, mosquitoes can be more than just annoying. Mosquito repellent is difficult and possibly toxic, especially to cats. Avoidance and giving a heartworm preventative is more effective.

Give us a call today to find out what parasite prevention is best for your pet!

The "F" Word!

You all know the one I am talking about, the elephant in the room (so to speak). Fat. Overweight. Obese. Husky. They all mean the same – your pet is too large! This happens to the best of us with the best intentions. A few extra holiday cookies, one less walk per week, and the weight starts to add up. Before long, your dog has a spare tire, your feline friend’s belly is rubbing the ground while walking, and the neighbors are starting to talk. And we all know the issues of this added weight: arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

The way I console myself (“My name is Brian, and I too have had a fat pet…”) is that this is a very natural method for animals to store energy when the getting is good, to help with the lean times. Except that our pets very seldom (I would argue never) have lean times! Their food bowl seems to fill up twice a day regardless of their hunting skills, weather or season – things that would normally help regulate how many calories they might consume.

Sooo… how do we tell if our pets are fat? A scale? Nope. Body weight can be very misleading. Gaining a pound of fat versus a pound of muscle gives the same number. I much prefer using a Body Condition Score, which is a way to quantify their relative muscle to fat ratio. The chart is located below. What I also like about this method is that it can be used at home, with no cost and is very easy to perform. We would like most of our pets to score around a 5.

OK, once we know whether (or perhaps confirm) our pets are fat, now what? The simple answer - less calories in and more calories out. The more complicated answer – the right food in the correct quantity, and the proper amount of exercise for the individual. In other words, every pet is different, and has different needs and abilities. Your veterinarian can help you to customize their weight loss approach, and to ensure there is not a medical reason for this weight gain, such as arthritis or thyroid problems. However, I will give some generic recommendations.

Less calories in. This generally means a bit less than you are now feeding. Most research shows that a 10-20 percent decrease in total calories taken in will lead towards weight loss. I tend to focus that decrease on foods that are not very good for them to start with. Less pizza, chips, crackers and cheese. That does not mean you can’t give treats – my pets would stage a coup if I did not give them a daily snack! But you can use raw carrots, small bits of lean meat, rice cakes, or even some of their regular food held back from breakfast. Also using treat balls or Kong toys with some peanut butter in it can give them a food reward but takes them some time and energy to get it. Notice I did not say diet food. For the majority of dogs and cats, diet food is not necessary and may be contraindicated.

PANTING - It's what dogs do!

Yes, who got kicked off Dancing with the Stars might be more interesting than this topic, but it is one I get asked about a lot. Who wants to hear their beloved Labrador Retriever panting all night long, or see their 1-year-old Jack Russell seemingly out of breath over nothing? What does it mean? Should we be worried about it? Can we fix this annoying but possibly very important issue?

Panting can be a sign of a medical problem, such as heart disease, lung issues, obesity, Cushing’s disease, and others. It can also be a sign of anxiety, stress or other behavioral issues. We certainly don’t want to forget about pain from orthopedic or surgical causes. To differentiate among these potential problems, a thorough history and full physical exam are a good start. Often this can tip us off to behavioral causes or some of the more common physical conditions. Sometimes a combination of testing can pinpoint the issue. Blood tests, for example, can tell us about thyroid conditions, excess steroid hormones, or even infections. Chest radiographs, or x-rays, can diagnose heart or lung conditions. More advanced testing such as specific tests for Cushing’s disease or heart rhythm tests (ECG) may be needed.

If the history, physical exam, and tests are all normal – what else might be happening? Sometimes it is something as simple as having a long/thick-coated pet in a warm environment. Overweight dogs and cats certainly have more difficulty with any weather change. Along with obesity often comes lack of conditioning or athletic ability, and those pets often get winded much faster. Older pets can also suffer from those conditions as a normal part of the aging process.

My own Golden Retriever, Baxter, used to pant nearly continuously. Strangely, it would worsen whenever I watched a movie or was on the phone. After I conducted a thorough history on myself, a full physical exam on him, and some testing – I found absolutely nothing wrong with him. He continued to pant until he passed at 16 years of age. Sometimes, dogs just like to pant!

Cats, Carriers and Travel

Many cats are fearful of car rides and veterinary visits. Cats can be trained to be much more comfortable with their carriers, cars, and the veterinary clinic. It takes a little preparation and patience, but will greatly improve your cat’s comfort level and our ability to care for your pet. Here are some tips and links that will help you to help your cat! Of course, if you have additional questions, just call us anytime!

The steps to improved carrier behavior:

1. Start carrier training as young as possible. Starting as kittens teaches your pet that the carrier is just another fun hiding place, or play area, rather than a confined punishment space. Carriers that load from the top or especially those that come apart in the middle are helpful, as veterinarians can then take the top off and start their examination with the cat comfortably sitting in the bottom. Put the carrier in a room that the cat likes to be in, perhaps in a sunny location, with a soft piece of bedding to encourage exploration and voluntary use.

2. Encourage daily entry. Every day, put a piece of kibble or a treat in the carrier. When the cat eats it, calmly praise/pet it and give it a few more treats. If the cat doesn’t take the treat right away, just walk away; if you try to persuade the cat, they will become suspicious! It may take a few days, but the cat should start to eat the treats, although maybe when you are not watching.

3. Gradually close the door. Once the cat happily goes into the carrier when you are around, gently close the door, give a treat, and open the door so that the cat does not feel trapped.

4. Extend the door‐closure period. After several days of this, leave the door closed and walk out of the room for a few seconds before returning and giving another treat. Gradually work up to carrying the carrier to a different place in the house.

5. Begin car rides. Over days to weeks, move on to placing the carrier in the car, then short car rides, then a ride to our veterinary clinic for a treat (and petting from our staff if your cat is comfortable with it). If at any point your cat becomes nervous (crouching, ears back, etc.), go back a step and give treats until your cat is more comfortable with that level.

6. Cover the carrier when traveling. When you start taking the carrier in the car, place a towel over it; cats usually feel safer this way.

7. Add toys, treats or bedding into the carrier. If your cat has favorite toys, treats, bedding, or brushes, please bring them to the clinic when you visit (for training visits and the actual exam). This will give your cat more familiar things that he/she associates with good feelings.

8. Consider using Feliway® (pheromonal anti‐anxiety spray) just before traveling. Medications such as Gabapentin can also be helpful.

9. Pick your carrier carefully. If it is from the Reagan administration, and has rusty bolts holding it together, time for a new one. The newer carriers have quick-release sides that come apart in a jiffy, and allows us to do exams with the cat still in the bottom of the carrier with just the top removed.

Heartworm Disease in February??

Skiing, sledding, snowboarding, drinking hot chocolate by a roaring open fire – all wonderful things to do in the winter.  Unless you live in the Triangle….  Yes, we have once again had a warm ‘winter’ as we tend to have seemingly every other year.  This also brings out the inevitable question with my clients – should I continue heartworm prevention year-round?  Can it be stopped in the winter?

 My first answer is to ask a question – when is winter in North Carolina?  I truly don’t know!  Looking at the high temperatures in February for the last few years in Durham (81o, 81o, 73o, 72o), I certainly have no clue.  We just can’t predict when it will get cold, and stay cold.  The temperature must be below 57 o F to stop mosquito activity (yes, heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes).  All it takes is a few warm days for them to come back out!

 My second answer to the original question is not based on science, but based on human nature.  And by that, I mean my behavior.  I remember to do things when I do them consistently and usually with a few reminders to boot.  If I stop for a few months, I have a high tendency to forget to restart.   I know my clients are the same way, as I get several dozen folks every summer (yes, several months into mosquito season) that come in with a pale look on their faces and tell me they forgot to restart their heartworm prevention. 

 So what do I recommend?  Monthly heartworm prevention, every month, no question.  It is always easier to prevent disease than to treat it. 

 Here are a few tools and information to help:

 Email reminders (works for any medication, not just heartworm prevention):

 Information on heartworm disease:

 iPhone app:

Remindmypet (free)

 Android phone app:

Med Minder (free)

Brushing your pet’s teeth… Who does that?

I grew up in a time when veterinary care for your dog meant getting a rabies “shot” and that was about it!  We didn’t give heartworm prevention or flea/ tick prevention.  We certainly didn’t spay or neuter our pets and if someone had mentioned brushing our dog’s teeth, they would have been laughed out of the neighborhood.  Veterinary care has come a long way since then and so have my ideas about what is best for a long, healthy and happy life for my pets and dental care is way at the top.

 I never realized just how connected oral care, or your pet’s oral care, is to the entire health of the body.  Who would ever link kidney disease or heart disease to how clean your teeth are?  And let’s face it, most of us would never know our pet had tooth pain if it depended on whether or not they would eat that tasty biscuit you were giving them.  They mask pain so well, a defense mechanism ingrained in their DNA.  The health of a pet’s mouth is just as important as their heart, liver, or anything else vital in a pet’s body.

 It isn’t just clean teeth either!  Pet teeth are a lot like ice bergs, you only see the tip and there is so much more hidden below the gum line.  That is why I am a big advocate for dental radiographs.  It is the only way to see if there are hidden problems that need to be addressed.  Teeth can degrade under the gum line while the part you see looks normal.  Little pockets of infection can sit deep in the mandible.  Bone erosion, cancer, and so many other life threatening problems can be found with a few simple radiographs.  So why would you not do them?

 And of course there is the “dog breath” issue.  Nothing like coming face to face with a pet whose mouth smells like they have been eating out of the local dump for the past few years.  That smell is bacteria.  Nasty bacteria that will go straight down the throat and into the blood stream and into places like the pet’s heart and kidneys.  Not the best place to have bacteria.  So that bad breath is not just part of the pet, it mean something significant!

 So when your pet’s Veterinarian suggests dental care for your pet, please take it very seriously, because we do, and your pet would too.

cat mouth.jpeg