Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Winter is Coming, but in the Game of Fleas, It Does Not Matter

The Fleas that Ate Florida- Coming to Theater Soon!

Florida always stands out. Whether it’s in the news, during elections, or just on a map, even those who are not fortunate enough to live in our great state know that Florida is unique. Pet owners become even more aware of Florida’s specialness in January and February, when we have our yearly winter flea resurgence. Few other states are “lucky” enough to have a second flea season.

Fleas are black insects slightly bigger than a sesame seed, which can’t fly, but can run and jump very quickly. They bite and suck blood, and a single female can lay 2000 eggs over the few weeks she is alive. The flea eggs hatch into small worms called larvae, which then form cocoons, called pupae, and mature into adult fleas. 
Flea eggs and larva. Photo from University of Florida

Flea Pupae- little flea cocoons. Picture from University of Florida

North of us, the flea population dies down with winter temperatures. Outside temperatures of less then 32 degrees (freezing) for more than 72 continuous hours can kill fleas, flea eggs and larva. Unfortunately for us, the “thin blood” that causes many Floridians to wear heavy coats when the temperature drops to the 50’s, doesn’t apply to those pesky jumping bloodsuckers, so the flea scourge continues unabated. Combine that with increased wildlife activity from all that fruit your neighbor left on their tree and we often see more fleas in January and February than mid summer.

Pet owners who have dogs itching around the base of the tail, or cats with small pin-prick scabs around the neck and base of the tail, should always consider fleas, even if you are not seeing the little critters crawling around. With people, we would never doubt that someone was bitten by a bee because they don’t have an actual bee on them at that moment. Similarly, dogs and cats may itch at a flea bite long after the flea has jumped, or been scratched, off the pet. Some dogs and cats are especially allergic to flea bites, and a single bite can cause them to scratch themselves until they are bleeding.

Classic Flea Allergy Bald-Behind

Severe Flea Allergy

One tell-tale sign of fleas is “flea dirt.” These little black comma or dot shaped specks are the feces of feeding fleas, and can be distinguished from plain dirt because they turn red when placed on a wet paper towel or tissue. The red is the digested blood meal the flea has taken from a pet (or a person.) Even if you never see a flea, seeing flea dirt means fleas have been present recently.

A whole bunch of flea dirt on a dog. Photo by Gary Alpert, Harvard 

Years ago, we were stuck with sprays and dips to remove fleas, which were a temporary help at best. Sprays for the house and yard still help, but you should use sprays that contain an IGR, or insect growth regulator. IGR prevent flea eggs from hatching, and the  pupae from maturing, and are much more effective than adult-flea killing sprays.

Modern flea medications for pets, either topical or oral, have been a huge help. Many pet owners have reported some of the “older” topical medications (such as Advantage, Frontline, or the Frontline generics like Pet Armor Plus) as being less effective than in past years. Fortunately there are many other choices available; at the time of this article, we've found Comfortis and Activyl to be very useful. It does seem that different things work for different people, so talk to your veterinarian about your options.

We all love sending winter pictures of us at the beach, or dressed in shorts, up to our northern friends and relatives, who are grumbling bundling up and shoveling snow. Unfortunately, the blessing of warm winters comes with several costs, and winter fleas are one of the irritating ones for our four legged friends. Be vigilant; Tampa Bay never gets too cold for fleas.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Ultimate Embarrassment: Humping

Dogs are definitely not people, and live by a different set of social norms than we two-leggers do. Any pet owner can tell you, nothing is quite as embarrassing as when a pet starts humping in front of company. Sometimes they hump another dog or cat, sometimes an object, and sometimes even a person. No matter what the target is, it is always embarrassing.

True humping, in an attempt to procreate, will usually only occur in dogs or cats who have not been fixed. One of the benefits of early neutering of male dogs and cats is to greatly reduce “serious” humping. It does not completely eliminate the behavior though, as there are other causes besides a desire to reproduce.

Nanu and Suszu - also note the "demon eyes"

The most important thing to remember about humping is that it is often not sexual. There are many other possible causes, and one of the most common is play behavior. Dogs, just like toddlers, who don’t realize the social implications of what they are doing, will put themselves in socially awkward situations without hesitation. It doesn’t have the same social stigma to them, and therefor is just playing. It is common to see dogs as young as 8 weeks trying to hump each other, and this is months before they would undergo puberty, and even have an understanding of what they are doing.

What's love got to do with it?

Dogs will also hump each other as a form of establishing dominance. This is not as simple as to say that a dominant dog will always hump a submissive dog though. With some groups, if the dominant dog is very secure in their position, they may allow the submissive dog to hump them as play behavior. Since there is no question about who the dominant dog is, the humping does not have the same connotation. Some dogs will even hump objects as an attempt to establish a pecking order. I’ve known many Yorkies who carefully rule over a pack of stuffed animals this way.


Humping of people and legs can be play, or an attempt at establishing dominance, but often it is attention seeking. Many dogs have learned that while jumping around and making noise can be ignored, few people ignore a dog humping their ankle or shoe. As any behavior that always works to get attention, it becomes more and more often repeated.

Rarely, a spayed or neutered dog will have a medical issue that causes hormones to be secreted, and may lead to a sex drive similar to what an unaltered pet will have. This behavior needs to be checked by your veterinarian, as it can indicate a severe medical condition.

Having your dog or cat hump your house guests will never be really acceptable. Perhaps some of the blushing can be reduced as you explain that Fluffy is really just playing, and not actually amorous.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome: Dog and Cat Alzheimer’s

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is disease many pet owners accidentally ignore. The symptoms begin subtlety, and progress slowly. Often people mistake this disease for “just getting old,” and miss the opportunity to manage this serious problem.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CDS, is a form of dementia in older dogs and cats, similar to Alzheimer's in people. Early symptoms seem like frustrating behavioral problems, and often include a loss of house-training or litter-box training, nighttime restlessness and noisiness, and a decreased reaction to stimuli. Many pet owners confuse the early stages of this disease with a hearing loss, since their pets seem less reactive to noises. They mistake the house-training problems to “being old” or just spite. As the disease progresses, the sleep-wake cycle becomes more disturbed, with some pets sleeping most of the day and being awake, often barking, yowling and whining, during the night. They may forget their normal routine, expecting meals at random times and then not eating at meal times. Some pets become exceptionally clingy with their owners, while others become more withdrawn and distant. 


These symptoms are not specific only for CDS. Night time vocalization in cats also occurs with a hyperthyroidism, caused by benign thyroid tumors. Problems with blood pressure or other brain diseases can mimic the symptoms of CDS as well.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is especially common in older cats. Senior cats should be screened for this regularly. The cat is a younger cat with normal blood pressure, and is actually up for adoption. His name is Binx
The end stages of CDS are disheartening; pets may become lost in their own house. One of the classic symptoms in dogs is to go to the wrong door, staring at a closet thinking it leads outside, or looking at the hinge side of a door and expecting it to open. Some pets will get “trapped” in corners or behind furniture, and will not be able to figure out how to back up and get out. Affected dogs and cats may lose the ability to recognize their owners or pet housemates, and maybe become scared of these “strangers”

The cause of this brain malfunction is similar, but not exactly, like a human with Alzheimer's. A protein known as beta-amyloid builds up in the brain and prevents the neurons, or brain cells, from communicating properly. Neurotransmitters, which are the chemical signals these neurons use to communicate, are lessened as well. Basically, the nerve impulses of the brain are generally depressed, and everything for the pet becomes “foggy.” The exact causes of these changes is not known. 

Thanks Joanna Oh

There are several different ways to manage and treat CDS. High levels of powerful antioxidants (such as Astaxanthin) have been shown to reverse some of the symptoms, with sometimes amazing results. Hill’s Science Diet has developed a food called B/D (Brain Diet) that helps as well. Anipryl (selegiline) has been approved by the FDA to treat CDS in dogs, and some other drugs may help as well. As with people with dementia, environmental enrichment and “exercising” the brain may also be of use.

We have had good results with OmegaMaxx

Cognitive dysfunction can be a truly disheartening disease. No pet owner wants to see their four legged friend fade away into confusion and dementia. Early intervention can help, but pet owners should watch for the symptoms, and not just assume their pets are “getting old.”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Real Scary Alien Invaders Aren’t Flying in UFO’s: Part 1 - The Bufo

The recent sighting of large numbers of bufo toads in Tampa reminds us that some of the scariest alien invaders are not little green men, but rather large grayish-brown toads. These invaders are significantly affecting our natural Florida wildlife, and can be a real danger to our pets as well.

Bufo toads, also known as cane toads, giant toads or marine toads, originated in South America. They were purposefully released in south Florida in the 1950s to try to control pests in sugar cane fields, and quickly spread out of control. Decades later they have spread throughout southern Florida. Luckily for the Tampa Bay area, central Florida is the upper edge of their range, and bufo toads are less prominent there than further south . Bufo toads are grayish-brown, warty, and can grow quite large; adults can be 4 to 6 inches length, but some have reached more than a foot long and the size of a dinner plate. 

Bufo toads are highly prolific, and lay from 8,000 to 35,000 eggs at a time on the surface of water in long jelly like strings. The eggs hatch in 1 to 3 days. There are reports that the cane toads eggs can kill koi in ponds.
AP Photo from The Tampa Bay Times
Cane toads do resemble our native southern toad, though the southern toad is typically smaller (2 to 4 inches) with two ridges on its head behind it’s eyes. Toads larger than 4 inches are likely bufo toads. Do to the similarity in appearance, when in doubt it is best to not allow your pet to interact with toads.

Credit: USGS/Florida Integrated Science Center

Credit: USGS/Florida Integrated Science Center
These toads are voracious carnivores, eating bugs, lizards, frogs, birds and rodents. They will eat pet food and garbage if it is left out. These toads have a devastating effect on a natural lizard and frog population, though their most frightening characteristic for pet owners is their means of defense.

Click HERE to listen to the call of the Giant Toad.
(Thanks to the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation)

Behind the bufo toads eyes are 2 large glands which produce a milky white liquid called bufotoxin. This substance is released when the toad is threatened. Pets who ingest this bufotoxin by biting or even putting the toad in their mouth may have severe effects. Dogs and cats may foam at the mouth, or begin shaking their head, clawing at their mouth and drooling. If you can look in your pet’s mouth, you may notice the gums change from normal pink to a brick red color as the pet’s heart rate and blood pressure increase. The toxin can lead to seizures and even death; immediate care is critical in these situations. A pet owner should rinse their pet’s mouth out as quickly as possible with a hose. You should point your pet’s head down so that the water runs out of the mouth. If your pet is having seizures, too forceful of rinsing could drown your pet, and therefore should be done cautiously. Immediate transportation to your veterinarian or animal emergency hospital is needed after rinsing. Ingesting a significant amount of bufotoxin is 100% fatal if untreated. Any people who come in contact with bufotoxin should also wash their hands well immediately.

Cane toads are a problem in Australia as well
The best way to minimize the bufo toad threat is to prevent your dogs and cats from interacting with wildlife. Cats can be kept inside, and dogs should be prevented from hunting. Terriers are notorious for attacking wildlife, so if you see your terrier heading into "hunting mode" you should look to see what they are stalking. Leaving open dog or cat food outside will attract the toads, as well as coyotes, possums, raccoons and other wildlife which can pose a threat to our pets. Feeding your pets inside can protect your and your neighbors pets.

You can safely see live bufo toads at the Lowry Park Zoo
Bufo toads are just one of the many wild creatures that can cause problems for our pets. Coyotes, alligators, snakes and raccoons all can cause injury to our 4 legged friends. Attracting these animals to our yards with left out dog or cat food is an invitation for problems; keep your pet food inside.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Update on Max: 2

Max has healed from his surgery, but his pathology results came back with “dirty” margins, which means the cancer cells were still present despite the multiple extensive surgeries. We took Max to Dr. Cane at Blue Pearl Veterinary Specialists in Tampa. With Max’s type of cancer, radiation therapy can delay recurrence for years in 85% of cases, so we are trying. He’ll be traveling to Tampa on weekdays for 1 month to be sedated and receive radiation. Hopefully it will help.

He’s in good spirits. It is hard seeing a dog act so normal, not even knowing how sick he really is. The naiveté of dogs is both a blessing and a curse. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Crossdressing Bunny's Ears and Being Way Too Dedicated to Your Job

Most dog and cat owners who have pets that shake their heads or paw at their ears think first of mites. Ear mites are like disgusting tiny crabs which live in the ear. They can cause intense itchiness and pawing at the head. Ear mites are more common in kittens and stray dogs and cats, since you have to catch them from close contact with another infected animal. Ear mites are NOT common in adult cats and dogs; they typically have allergies or infections (or infections caused by allergies) causing their discomfort.

This is important, because many pet owners will treat their pets ear scratching with over-the-counter ear mite medicine, and then be surprised when it doesn't work. 

However, bunnies are a different matter, Especially rabbits that have been bought off of Craigslist (more on Craigslist in a future post.)

Dutchess had crusty, scabby painful ears since the owner purchased him. On exam, we first discovered Dutchess had testicles, and should be named Dutch. It may sound funny, but it is fairly common for many owners to find out that their "Petunia" is actually "Pete" the first time they come for an appointment.

Dutch, a little insecure in his masculinity after being mistaken for a girl for almost a year

Dutch's ears were itchy, and the scabbing was painful. We did get a small sample to examine under the microscope, and it confirmed what we highly suspected. Ear mites in rabbits can become severe, eventually spreading outside the ear across the face. Luckily, they are easily treatable with medication and good cage hygiene.
Ear Yuck

That would make my ears itchy. There is a 1993 Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association (JAVMA) , article about a veterinarian who infected himself with cat ear mites. He reported, besides the intense itchiness from the mites biting the insides of his ears, that he could feel the mites crossing over his face from one ear to the other while he slept, and could hear the crunching noise as they scrabbled through his ear canal. He treated himself, and then reinfected himself, several times. Surprisingly, after the first few times he infected himself, the itching started to lessen, and he became a chronic ear mite carrier.

So, besides the fact the ear mites are completely disgusting and vile, we have learned that there are veterinarians who are much much more dedicated to their job than I am. Beyond any self-preservation, I am married, and while my wife is very nice, she does have her limits. I would prefer to stay married; do not expect me to add to the human self-inflicted-ear-mite research.

If you still need to be grossed out further, here is a case of inadvertent human ear mite infection.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Update on Max

We have had some issues with his surgery. Excessive movement, as well as the Collie’s inherently obsessive behavior, has led to the incision site opening up. We had to add some strength holding sutures, which are placed further out from the incision to help hold it together. We augmented these stitches with small pieces of tubing to help keep them in place.

We also had to add a drain, which is a length of flexible flaccid plastic tubing which allows built up fluids to escape.

Lastly, he’s been condemned to the dreaded “cone of shame,” which I always hate using. Dogs do hate them, for multiple reasons. Besides making it difficult to get around, it also makes everything incredibly loud. Try putting one on yourself- it’s an excellent amplifier.

Most importantly, and unfortunately, Max’s histopathology results showed that some cancer remains, even after such a dramatic surgery. He will be consulting with a veterinary oncologist in the next few weeks to discuss other treatments.