Just be quiet

One thing that I have learned from years of working with insecure, reactive and fearful shelter dogs is the value of just being quiet.  Just relaxing with your dog is one of the best things you can do for your dog’s emotional stability and well-being.  And it’s not bad for you, either.

You don’t need to be a constant source of entertainment for your dog, and you don’t need to provide constant stimulation.  In fact, it immensely helps your dog for you both to be in a mildly stimulating environment, like a park or green space, and just relax.

Anytime you take your dog for a walk, your pup is constantly receiving new stimuli.  His nose, ears and eyes are taking in new information all the time you are out of the house, and his brain is actively processing all that data.  You don’t need to do anything else, except be a steady and positive companion.  I’ve found that being a quiet and calm influence in information-rich environments can help a nervous or reactive dog to find his “off-switch” and learn that he can live in the world without becoming anxious or over-excited.

When weather permits, take your dog on a walk to a quiet, pleasant place and just sit.  Read a book – a real book with pages.  Don’t look at your phone, get any work done, watch any videos or read anything that has a string of nasty and stupid comments at the end.  Just relax and find your own off-switch.  Let your dog sniff and explore within the range of his leash and do whatever he’s going to do.

After a while, you’ll find that he is just scenting the air, listening to new sounds and watching things that are interesting to him.  If he’s being at all reactive to any of that, take him to a new spot and start over.  It may take some time, but you’ll find that he will eventually sit or lay down and relax with you.  Watch the shape of his eyes and the corners of his mouth, along with the position of his ears.  You’ll be able to tell when he’s just quietly enjoying the day.  With you.

This will do wonders for your relationship with your dog, and will help him to learn how to be less reactive to stimulus.  If he sees that you are not stressed or bothered by the people, animals and things you encounter, he will take that as a reference for his own behavior.  This is good therapy for you both.

If You Love Your Cat, Keep Him Indoors

One of the most enduring myths about our pets is that housecats need to be allowed to roam free in our neighborhoods.  The fact is, they don’t.  In fact, being let outdoors will shorten their lives, along with those of a lot of other animals.

Studies of the life expectancy of roaming cats vary, with some claiming that their life expectancy is as low as two to five years (Watson, nd; Loyd et al, 2013a), however this is complicated by the difficulty that researchers have in distinguishing between feral cats, strays and pets that are allowed to roam outside the house.  But all of these cats face the same dangers and threats to their health and lives.

The leading cause of death for roaming cats is by automobiles (Tan, Stellato & Niel, 2020).  Lesser, but still serious risks are becoming trapped or lost, drinking dangerous substances, being poisoned, fighting with other cats or wildlife, or being preyed upon by wild predators, such as foxes, coyotes or raptors (Loyd et al, 2013a).  They are also at high risk for exposure to diseases and parasites, many of which can be passed to their human families, such as tularemia, rabies, ringworm and other human-transmissible pathogens or parasites (Gerhold & Jessup, 2012).  One of the greatest threats to human health from free-roaming cats is toxoplasmosis, an intestinal microorganism that can spread throughout households from an infected cat (Aguirre, et al, 2019).  All of these factors represent serious threats to their health and well-being and significantly shortens the life expectancy of any cats that are allowed to freely roam their neighborhoods.

And there is also the damage they inflict on other animals.  Unlike dogs, cats have been domesticated for only a few thousand years and have retained their predatory instincts to a much greater extent.  When allowed to roam, they’ll establish a range of up to 1,500 meters from their homes and spend much of their time hunting (Nicholas, 2019).   And they are efficient killers of the birds and small animals that make up the ecosystem we live in.  A 2012 study showed

Cats retain their predatory instincts and will stalk and kill small animals regardless of how well they are fed at home.

that cats will actively engage in hunting small prey regardless of how well fed they are at home (Kitts-Morgan, Parsons & Hilburn, 2014) and, on average, will kill two prey animals per week (Loyd et al, 2013b).  A 2016 study of animals admitted to a Virginia wildlife hospital showed that cat attacks were the second leading cause of small birds and animals being treated (Mcruer, Gray, Horne & Clark, 2016).

The bottom line is that allowing your cats to roam not only endangers them and shortens their lives significantly, it places you and your family at risk for diseases and parasites.  They also prey on small birds and animals, and represent a risk to the ecosystems in our towns and neighborhoods.  There is no good reason to allow them out of the house, and every reason to keep them indoors.

If you have a cat that has been allowed to roam and would like to make the transition to keeping him indoors, The Wildlife Center of Virginia has published a step by step guide to accomplish this:  Steps to Bring Your Outdoor Cat Indoors | The Wildlife Center of Virginia

 

References

Aguirre, A.A., Longcore, T., Barbieri, M. et al (2019). The One Health Approach to Toxoplasmosis: Epidemiology, Control, and Prevention Strategies. EcoHealth 16, 378–390. doi.org/10.1007/s10393-019-01405-7

Gerhold, R. W. and Jessup, D. A. (2012).  Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats.  Zoonoses and Public Health 60 (3). doi 10.1111/j.1863-2378.2012.01522.x.

Kitts-Morgan, S., Parsons, E. and Hilburn, K. A. (2014). Sustainable Ecosystems:  Free-Ranging Cats and Their Effect on Wildlife Populations.  Paper presented at the 2014 ADSA-ASAS-CSAS Joint Annual Meeting

Loyd, R. A., Hernandez, S. M., Shock, B. C., Abernathy, K. J. and Marshall, G. J. (2013a).  Risk Behaviors Exhibited by Free-Roaming Cats in a Suburban US Town.  Veterinary Record (2013).  Doi:  10.1136/vr.101222

Loyd, R. A., Hernandez, S. M., Carroll, J. P., Abernathy, K. J. and Marshall, G. J. (2013b).  Quantifying Free-Roaming Domestic Cat Predation Using Animal-Borne Video Cameras.  Biological Conservations 160. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2013.01.008

Mcruer, D. L., Gray, L. C., Horne, L. and Clark, E. E. (2016).  Free-Roaming Cat Interactions with Wildlife Admiited to a Wildlife Hospital.  The Journal of Wildlife Management 81 (1).  pp 163-173.  doi:  10.1002/jwmg,21181

Nicholas, J. (2019). What Cats Do When They’re Out at Night.  Preventive Vet.  Retrieved from What Cats Do When They’re Out at Night (preventivevet.com)

Tan, S. M. L., Stellato, A. C. and Niel, L. (2020).  Uncontrolled Outdoor Access for Cats:  An Assessment of Risks and Benefits.  Animals 10 (258).  doi:  10.3390/ani10020258

Watson, S. (nd) Should You Have an Indoor Cat or an Outdoor Cat?  WebMD.  Retrieved from Indoor Vs. Outdoor Cats: Health and Safety (webmd.com)

It’s Tick Season. Protect your pets from tick-borne illnesses.

It’s Tick Season

If you live pretty much anywhere in the United States, you are in tick country.  These little parasite arachnids are not only a pest, they present a serious health risk for both humans and their pets.  There are numerous tick species in the US that present varying levels of threats to us, our pets and wildlife (Mayo Clinic, 2021).   I’ll be discussing what they are and how they feed in for a little bit; if you’re a little squeamish you might want to skip down a couple of paragraphs.

What are they?

Basically, they’re bloodsuckers.  They are opportunistic feeders that are found in tall grass, low-hanging bushes and leaf litter, along the edges of wooded areas and in gardens; that will crawl onto any animal that brushes up against the plant material they’re using at the time (New York State, 2011).  Once a tick finds itself on a promising host animal, it will crawl to a protected area on that animals skin and plant its mouth into the skin.  The tick then injects its saliva into the bite, alternating with sucking blood from its victim.  The saliva facilitates feeding by suppressing any local pain or immune system response, allowing it to remain attached and feeding for days at a time.  This saliva also acts as a transmission mechanism for various tick-borne pathogens (Bonnet, Kazimírová, Richardson & Šimo, 2018).  The tick will remain attached for up to 10 days, while it becomes engorged on its hosts blood before dropping off.

Aside from feeding off their hosts, ticks present a serious danger.  They are a disease vector for a number of diseases, such as Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, along with others, that can affect both us and our pets (CDC, 2020).  These illnesses are contracted by the ticks’ victims as the ticks remain attached while feeding.

How to Prevent Tick Bites

There are a number of things you can do to protect your pets from ticks:

First off:  Keep your lawns mowed and gardens trimmed to reduce the risk of ticks being present in them.  Clear any piles of leaves or brush.  Don’t allow your pets to roam in areas where ticks are likely to be found. If possible, put a fence around your yard to prevent deer from visiting and depositing ticks.

Second:  If your pets have been in an area with low plants or high grass, check them for ticks.  In fact, check them regularly.   As I said above, ticks tend to attach themselves to dogs in protected areas, including in the ears, around the base of the tail, under their front legs, on their bellies, and a few others (CDC, 2019).  Your pets can also be treated with topical sprays and powders to kill any ticks they may have picked up.  However, you should consult your veterinarian before using any such preventatives regularly.

Third:  Have your veterinarian prescribe a flea and tick preventative and keep your pets on them year-round.  It is important to follow your vets’ advice in this and obtain these medications from a trusted source.

  • Your vet should be fully knowledgeable of any medications that your dogs is currently taking and is the best source for understanding the risks to your dog. He is in the best position to know what particular flea and tick medications should be prescribed.  For example, collies and related breeds often have a genetic anomaly that causes a deadly reaction to the drug Ivermectin; and preventatives that contain Ivermectin should be avoided in dogs with this genetic condition.  Your vet will be able to ensure that you are using safe and effective preventatives.  Also, as discussed in my March 2021 article on Seresto collars (March, 2021 | The Animal Nerd), medications are also prescribed based on your dogs size and related factors.  This is something that is best left to professionals.
  • There have been frequent reports of counterfeit pet medications being marketed to pet owners, with ingredients that can range from being completely ineffective to downright dangerous. Use trusted sources, such as your veterinarian or a reputable pharmacy for flea and tick preventatives, along with all of your pets’ other medications (EPA, 2004).
  • Another reason to use veterinarian-prescribed preventatives from trusted sources is that they are proven effective and safe. There are a number of internet sources that cite “natural” or “home-made” tick preventatives, with no evidence that they are either safe or effective.  Look for preventatives that have “Approved by the FDA” on their label (Roberts, 2018).

Fourth:  Have your dog inoculated against Lyme Disease.  There is a safe and effective Lyme vaccine that will keep your dog protected from that tick-borne illness.

What to do if you find a tick on your pet?

So, if you find a tick on your pet, what do you do?  Remove it as quickly and safely as possible.

Using a fine-tipped tweezers, grip the tick firmly by the head at the point where it is attached to your pet’s skin, and gently and firmly pull it upward and away. Do not squeeze the ticks’ body as that can cause infectious material or pathogens to be injected into your pet.  And do not twist while pulling, as that can result in the tick’s mouth breaking off and remaining in the dog (Although this sounds gross, it is not a big deal.  If they’re left in the dog, the mouth parts will eventually dry up and fall away, or you can just remove them like a splinter.  Still, its best to avoid this happening.)

You can also buy special tools such as “tick keys”, which are small devices that you can use to safely pull the tick away from your pet’s skin.  One advantage to these items is that they can be carried on your key chain for handy use.

Once the tick has been removed and disposed of (e.g., flushed), keep an eye on the site of the bite for a few days.  Normally, there will be a small rash or skin irritation that clears up within a couple of days.  However, if a circular red rash or a bulls-eye rash persists, consult your veterinarian as that can be an indication of a disease process or infection.

And, lastly, be familiar with the general symptoms of tick-borne diseases.  This is important for your family and your pets.  I can tell you from personal experience that these are serious medical conditions that can severely harm your pet.

References:

Bonnet, S., Kazimírová, M., Richardson, J. and Šimo, L. (2018).  Tick Saliva and Its Role in Pathogen Transmission.  In N. Boulanger (Ed.), Skin and Arthropod Vectors , Academic Press, London, UK

CDC (2019a).  Ticks, On Pets.  Retrieved from Preventing ticks on your pets | Ticks | CDC

CDC (2019b). Symptoms of Tickborne Illness.  Retrieved from Symptoms of Tickborne Illness | Ticks | CDC

CDC (2020). Diseases Transmitted by Ticks.  Retrieved from Diseases Transmitted by Ticks | Ticks | CDC

EPA (2004).  Fact Sheet:  Retailers and Counterfeit Pet Products.  Retrieved from U.S. EPA – Fact Sheet – Retailers and Counterfeit Pet Products

Mayo Clinic (2021).  Slide Show:  Guide to Different Tick Species and the Diseases They Carry.  Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.org/tick-species/sis-20147911?s-8

New York State (2011).  Be Tick Free – A Guide to Preventing Lyme Disease.  Retrieved from Be Tick Free – A Guide for Preventing Lyme Disease (ny.gov)

Roberts, C. (2018).  Should You Use Natural Tick Prevention for Your Dog or Cat?  Consumer Reports.  Retrieved from Use Natural Tick Prevention for Dog or Cat? – Consumer Reports