Pet Care: Controlling Fleas, Pregnancy in Cats, Homemade Dog Food and Removing Ticks

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The most helpful thing you can do for a cat that's delivering is to leave it alone.
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The doctor is in: Veterinarian Looney answers reader's questions.
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Don't let irritating fleas give your dog the summertime blues.

Think back to the time of living with your parents, of birthday celebrations, family meals, and holiday gatherings. You can probably recall most, if not all, of the places and individuals involved. What’s even nicer is that nine times out of 10 a certain four-legged friend appears in these familiar images. As I write this article, the veterinary staff and I are in the throes of one of our busiest seasons of the year, which incidentally commences with “Be Kind to Pets Month.” Puppies and kittens appear left and right; heart worm and flea season is at its height; families, including the dog and cat–often even the bird and hamster–are heading out on their summer vacations.

Even though late summer is one of the busiest seasons, it also happens to be one of my favorites. I suppose that’s because it brings to light and reaffirms this one simple fact: Pets are more than just simple members of the family. Anyone who’s had a pet appreciates the unconditional love and loyalty they offer. Often the understanding and responsibility that children take on from caring for a pet spills directly onto their relationships with siblings and peers.

So here’s hoping that the summer strengthens all your familial ties and brings you new memories to become nostalgic about. I know the joy I derive from reading your letters, which often show me just how much a part of the family your pets actually are. This always furthers my belief in the overwhelming value of the human–animal bond.

Dear Andrea:

I have a puppy with a flea problem and I’m interested in some remediesperhaps in herbal or collar form. I could use any suggestions you have for controlling these pests.

Cindy Phifer

Morganton, NC

Dear Cindy,

Fleas are the cause of the most frequently diagnosed dermatological conditions in dogs and cats. These nasty pests not only provoke inflammation and itch in our pets, but in the absence of canine and feline hosts, they’ll attack humans. An even worse problem than the initial irritating flea bite happens in the process of the biting: the flea secretes saliva into the dermis of the animal. This saliva contains chemicals similar to allergen substances which remain in the dermis and cause a residual irritant reaction known as “flea allergy dermatitis.” This usually causes more self-inflicted inflammation than does the initial bite of the flea. Therefore, controlling these pests revolves around two points: killing the flea and its larvae and making the animal more comfortable.

Unfortunately, these parasites are not so easy to control, especially in the blistering heat of summer. However, we can manage to keep their numbers down to a bare minimum. The key is to maintain a year-round plan inclusive of both animals and the environment.

The bad news is that the flea problem has been increasing in severity over the past few years; the good news is that there is a multitude of products available for treatment of both pets and infected areas in the home or yard. Most of the topical products (sprays, powders, and collars) contain one of the following ingredients: pyrethrums (a chemical extracted from the chrysanthemum) or its derivatives, limonene (a derivative of citrus fruit pulp), or organophosphate’s. In addition, some newer products contain insect growth regulators that interfere with the development of the flea. While it’s worrisome to think you’re placing potentially toxic substances on your pet’s skin and hair, most of the formulas have relatively low mammalian toxicity if used correctly. Nonetheless, they’re very toxic to insects.

Several natural ingredients or herbal remedies–among them garlic, brewer’s yeast, onions, and thiamine–have been studied for flea control. None have been found to be effective and most impart nothing but horrid breath to dogs and cats.

Flea collars are generally inadequate if used alone. Basically, you must consider exactly where the heart of the problem is–how much time the flea actually spends on the animal. Did you realize the adult flea spends almost all of its time off of the animal? That’s right–95% of a flea’s life cycle is spent on the carpets, furniture, and maybe even your clothing. A favorite saying among veterinarians is: The best place for the flea collar is anywhere but the pet.

Another problem with flea collars is that for the short time the fleas are on the animal, they gather at the back end, near the tail, thighs, and along the rump (all areas that claws and feet don’t reach too well). The only way a collar could truly be useful would be if you hung one every two inches along the animal’s body (which is not all that practical and pretty unsightly).

Reason number three is that flea collars have their active ingredient incorporated into a slow-release matrix that may effectively weaken immature fleas but lacks the quick-kill property of sprays, baths, or powders. The only thing collars really have going for them is their convenience.

My best suggestions for flea control are:

Treat all pets in the house with a reliable product (from your vet or pet shop) that has good immediate knock-down effect to kill adult fleas and a residual effect to kill larvae. Flea combs and shampoos can be used as well as powders and sprays. (Note: Use only one product at a time on your dog or cat; a combination of products can be fatal to your pet.)

Wash or steam clean the pet’s bedding or rest areas.

Vacuum the house, paying special attention to under furniture, crevices, etc. Adding moth balls or a flea collar to the vacuum bag helps kill fleas in the bag, but be sure to seal and dispose of the bag after you finish.

Treat the house and yard. Premise sprays are available as well as flea bombs. This is probably the most important aspect of control–remember where the flea spends a majority of its time.

Keep up the regimen–and best of luck with this ongoing battle.

Dear Andrea:

Our three-year-old Siamese,Lucy is expecting in late August. Being first-time grandparents, we’re a little nervous. What are some signs of labor? When should we intercede? What if a breech birth occurs ?

Annie Harris
Phoenix, AZ

Dear Annie,

Although Lucy is well equipped by nature to handle pregnancy, the female cat, or queen, faces many challenges and stresses during this period in her life. By providing proper care, nutrition, and housing for the expectant mother, you can help ensure that she successfully produces strong, healthy offspring. The queen should have an appropriate box to nest in, large enough for her and large enough to house the kittens until weaning (four to five weeks).

Some signs of labor in the queen include nest making, a drop in body temperature, increased nervousness, increased frequency of urination, and possibly even a whitish to gelatinous vaginal discharge. When she starts showing these signs, first stage labor has begun; there may be intermittent uterine contractions, but usually you won’t be able to visualize these. This stage may last anywhere from 24 to 36 hours prior to actual delivery.

Unless problems occur, birth should be allowed to occur free of human interference. True labor or second stage begins when the queen strains, a placental sac or head appears, and muscular efforts produce a fetus. The actual delivery may take anywhere from five to 30 minutes. When should you intercede? Almost never! Nature has a way of handling the birthing process just fine in most cases. You may keep an eye on mom (from a distance, if possible). Both dogs and cats will lick away membranes covering their young and may eat the afterbirth; if absolutely necessary, intercede by moving any straying newborns forward to mom’s front end, allowing her to “jump start” them a little easier.

As for breech births, they are common and natural among animals having litters; 30% to 50% of kittens delivered are born in a posterior presentation.

If the active stage of labor seems prolonged (greater than one or two hours), if mom seems depressed, or if a dark discharge or a bright red discharge appears, call your vet. Medical and/or surgical intervention maybe necessary. It is inappropriate for anyone, even someone trained in animal birthing, to interfere and “assist” by pulling kittens out or by pressing on the abdomen during the delivery process. Remember, the best help is to do no harm.

Dear Andrea:

Our six-year-old golden retriever came in from a romp in the woods yesterday, and as I removed some briars from her coat I noticed a large tick embedded under her hair. I tried to remove it but unfortunately left part of it in the skin. What should I do?

–Robin Joss

Henniker, NH

Dear Robin,

When you find a tick on your pet, you should do is clip the long hairs around the area so you’re better able to see it. Usually what we see above the animal’s skin is just the tick’s hind end engorged with blood. What we don’t see, but need to grasp, is the head of the tick, which is often burrowed under the animal’s skin. It’s best to avoid contacting the organism with your own skin. But you can remove the entire pest by grasping it as close to the skin surface as possible with fine tweezers or forceps and gently pulling it out.

Some folks will attempt to drown the tick by pouring alcohol on it while it is still embedded in the dog. This often annoys the dog and does nothing to the tick; if you’ve ever felt alcohol on an open laceration, you know what it feels like! Others will attempt to burn the tick in order to remove it. Not only may this cause significant burns on the animal, but it often forces the tick further into the animal. (After all, if someone were yelling fire behind you, wouldn’t you move forward?)

Needless to say, there are times when the head of the tick or part of it may remain embedded after removing the rest of the parasite. Thoroughly cleanse the area with soap and water or a mild disinfectant and begin hot packing two to three times a day.

Often, the body will wall off this intrusion and the tick will be extruded on its own. Rarely does a new tick emerge from the site, as the old wives’ tale goes. If the area begins to look red, swollen, or painful, see your vet. A small abscess may have formed, either due to some part of the tick remaining under the skin or in response to inflammation, and may require surgery.

Frequently, owners are alarmed when a small bump appears on the spot where the tick was found. This doesn’t necessarily mean the entire tick wasn’t removed. Rather, this parasite can cause inflammation of the skin and provoke fibrous tissue to form around the bite, especially if it has been embedded for longer than a few hours. Depending on the prevalence of Lyme disease in your area, consult your vet as to possible vaccination for this disease.

Dear Andrea:

We have two large dogs that love to eat. I recently retired and the cost of dog food is getting expensive. Is there a way I can make it myself and still give them all the nutrients?

— Kathy Drum

Woodland Park, CO

Dear Kathy,

If you choose to give your dog a homemade diet, have a vet or veterinary-nutritionist come up with a recipe that will offer a complete and balanced diet.

A common scenario I hear with respect to home cookin’ is that the owner prepares a diet using food they perceive as healthy or that’s inexpensive. The result is a nutritionally unbalanced diet and a spoiled dog. Once the pet becomes ill due to nutritional deficiencies, it is really unwilling to change back to the supermarket brand and it becomes more dehydrated and ill. So speak to your vet about the appropriateness of the diet for the breeds of dogs you have, their ages, their health status, and optimum weight. Before making dog food in bulk, consider cost and time commitment, Last, experiment to see if the animals enjoy it. Here’s one nutritious recipe to get you started:


1/4pound ground beef, chicken, or lamb
1 cup cooked white rice1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons dicalcium phosphate (Your vet can supply this balanced daily supplement,

which contains all vitamins and minerals that meet the minimum daily requirement for the

adult canine.)

Trim the fat well from meat and cook thoroughly before mixing with other ingredients. Yield: 2/3 pound dog food. Note: The average 60- to 80-pound dog requires between 1 and 1 1 / 4 pounds of food twice a day.