Elderly Dog Care, Dehorned Goat Care, and Other Pet Health Questions

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As with people, proper elderly dog care requires some adjustments to diet and exercise.  

The following pet health questions were submitted by readers.

Elderly Dog Care

Dear Andrea:

My Labrador retriever turned 11 years old in July. She’s a little hesitant to jump around after balls and a little slower getting around in the morning, but overall, she’s great. What is the best way to care for her as she gets older? Are there special diets that can help?

–Benjamin Monroe
Fairbanks, AK

Dear Benjamin:

The average life span of the domesticated dog or cat is about 12 to 15 years. And while older pets shouldn’t become a health obsession for you, they do have a few different health care needs.

Vaccinations should be kept up to date. Rabies boosters should be given every one to three years depending on the type of vaccine and local health department laws. The annual vaccines for the dog and cat are combinations of vaccines for distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, parvovirus, and respiratory infections. Regular heartworm checks (usually via blood testing) should be performed and heartworm preventive medication should be prescribed annually for all dogs. Flea and tick control is also important. Beware of the heavy duty dips and sprays though, as many older animals cannot tolerate the toxicity associated with such products. It is safer by far and much more effective to treat the environment instead of the pet, but the environment, for these pests. This means vacuuming regularly (with a few moth balls or a flea collar always present in the vacuum bag) and hot-washing the animal’s bedding.

Proper nutrition is extremely important as older animals are more sensitive to nutrient imbalances and higher levels of phosphorus, protein, sodium, and energy. Lower energy, high-fiber diets are appealing, but remember that our domesticated animals are descendants of carnivores: there must be a limit to the fiber! Any home-cooked meals must be supplemented with the correct vitamins too. Exercise is needed to maintain muscle tone, enhance circulation, and help prevent obesity, but you need to adjust the amount and type to fit your retriever. Try to reduce climbing stairs, jumping fences, and overexertion in extreme weather conditions.

As in people, regular dental care throughout a pet’s life greatly assists in preventing tooth loss, tartar accumulation, and periodontal disease. Regular chewing of hard diets, knuckle bones, or teeth-cleaning biscuits may reduce tartar accumulation significantly. Dental disease is more of a problem than it appears. It not only results in substantial oral pain and weight loss, but the bacteria that accumulate on the diseased teeth and gums are easily swallowed and spread to organs (heart valves, kidney tubules, sections of the liver) that are not functioning as well as they were earlier in the animal’s life.

The most important thing you can do for your older pet is to pay extra attention and note any changes in eating habits, activity, sleep, or elimination, as well as to provide that sense of care and touch that so many of our older animals go without. Nothing can replace the gentle touch or kind voice of a family member for any of our pets, but especially for the older animal in the household.

Dehorned Goat Care

Dear Andrea:

We dehorned our Nubian doe about three weeks ago. She seemed fine after the surgery but went down about a week ago. How could we avoid this in the future with other animals we dehorn?

— Eric Stafford
El Dorado Hills, CA

Dear Eric:

Animals go down after this procedure commonly from two causes: infections (tetanus and others) or myiasis (migrating fly larvae). Tetanus is an infection caused by clostridium bacteria to which goats are particularly sensitive. Adult goats that are dehorned are left with a large hole in their skull that connects t o one or more main sinuses and the nasal cavity. Once this hole begins to seal over in its attempt to heal, bacteria enter the sinus, particularly if the dehorning was difficult or not cleaned properly after the procedure. These bacteria proliferate and produce a potentially fatal toxin that causes the animal to appear spastic, often falling down and having seizures.

Certain blowflies will also lay their eggs within the open sinus if it is not kept meticulously clean. Once the larvae develop, they migrate through the nasal passages and possibly even into the nervous system, creating a nasty bone infection and causing depression, seizures, and meningitis.

Both of these conditions can be prevented by judicious cleaning or flushing of the openings made in the dehorning process. You might even reserve dehorning for the winter months when there is less of a fly problem. In the spring or summer, if you need to dehorn older animals, fresh wounds should be daubed with scarlet oil or another repellent. It is helpful to place a cotton pad over each horn hole and wrap gauze snugly around the head like a bonnet for a few days. Alternatively, you can try to reserve dehorning for kid goats. The removal of the horn bud at this stage in the goat’s life is safer, as it creates little danger of larvae entering a sinus or of causing an infection.

Pregnant Dog Diet

Dear Andrea:

Our dalmatian is pregnant and we would like to give her a vitamin supplement before the puppies arrive. Do you think this is a good idea?

–Shauna Williams
Macon, GA

Dear Shauna:

Pregnant females require a special growth diet during late pregnancy and while nursing. By feeding them an adequate diet, you avoid the need for dietary supplements. And why aren’t these supplements such a good idea? Well, they can result in dangerous excesses or deficiencies of other nutrients. For example, certain excesses of zinc can result in copper deficiencies. Calcium or vitamin D supplements can lead to soft-tissue calcium deposits or bone resorption. The addition of calcium to the diets of dogs prior to whelping (delivering) may result in what is known as “milk fever” once the puppies begin nursing heavily. In this syndrome, the mother can become life-threateningly weak and can even have seizures once the pups are born.

Since fetal development is relatively slow during the first five to six weeks of life, feed her a high-quality adult formulation diet during this period. But in the final three to four weeks of gestation, mom should change over to a growth/puppy diet to supply her with increased energy and nutrient requirements. In addition, she should also be eating more so that when she delivers, she is eating between 15 and 25% more food than before she was pregnant.

Dry dog foods contain somewhere between 18 and 28% protein; this is generally higher than that of semi-moist or canned foods. Though dry foods are slightly less palatable than canned foods, they may be healthier for mom and more economical. Look for labels that say the food was evaluated by American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards and bears the claim “complete and balanced.” Provide plenty of fresh water for mom during her pregnancy and try to feed her on a regular schedule two to three times per day.

Balanced Bird Diet

Dear Andrea:

My parakeet eats only seeds. I was told by a friend that this isn’t the best diet for her, but she looks healthy and I don’t know what else to feed her. Any ideas?

–Elizabeth Choy
Chicago, IL

Dear Elizabeth:

Approximately 98% of the health problems seen in pet birds are due to poor nutrition. Seeds are almost total carbohydrate and fat. Imagine feeding yourself nothing but potato chips! Start getting your bird healthy by providing the four basic food groups every day. As funny as this sounds, many birds love peanut butter, tiny pieces of cooked meat, vegetables, and cottage cheese! The fruit and vegetable group is extremely important and means much more than iceberg lettuce. Try to feed your bird alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, kale, carrots, apples, cherries, and oranges. Any leftovers at the table? Unlike with dogs and cats, don’t be afraid to share with your feathered friends. My parakeets are very partial to pasta and eggs.

Many birds will resist the change at first but will eat the right food if persuaded. In many ways, they are similar to children and need some guidance in proper diet. Most important, be persistent and make any food changes gradually; add things to the seed diet over time. Offer the food in different shapes, sizes, and ways (steamed or fresh). It’s difficult to change these junk food addicts, but your perseverance will provide a longer, healthier life.

Toxoplasmosis Prevention

Dear Andrea:

My obstetrician suggested that we put our cats up for adoption once I became pregnant, due to the risk of toxoplasmosis. However, I am very attached to our two black and white kittens, now 8 months old, and I need to be sure this is the right thing to do.

–Janice Fiore
Point-aux-Trembles, Quebec

Dear Janice:

While infections with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii may cause severe disease in cats, most cats with the disease show absolutely no clinical signs. However, the disease is what we call a zoonosis, meaning that it is transmissible from cats to humans; this is where a majority of the hype comes from. Toxoplasmosis can be a serious disease in people who have compromised immune systems (caused by chemotherapy, organ transplant, or AIDS, for example) and can severely harm the human fetus if a pregnant woman comes into contact with it. But if you understand how the organism is transmitted and diligently follow simple preventive measures, the risk of ever contracting the disease itself is greatly reduced and you shouldn’t need to part with your much-loved kittens.

The Toxoplasma protozoan can only survive its entire life cycle if part of that cycle takes place in the cat’s small intestine. An infected cat will shed eggs in its feces. However, the eggs themselves will not become infected until 24 hours after they exit the cat. Thus, meticulous cleaning of the litter box will greatly reduce the risk of infection. Ideally, no one pregnant or with a compromised immune system should clean the litter box, but using disposable gloves and washing your hands well after completing the task will also help. Your veterinarian can also run blood tests to detect if your cat is truly an infected animal.

The truth is that most cases of human toxoplasmosis do not come from contact with an infected cat or its feces. Most human infections come from eating undercooked or raw meat. Infected farm cats defecate in a pasture or stall and grazing animals, such as cows or sheep, ingest the contaminated vegetation or soil. The protozoan then enters the muscle of the grazing animal and if the meat is undercooked after being slaughtered, the consumer can be infected.