Pet Health: Feline Leukemia, Feeding Rabbits, Bad Breath in Dogs and More

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Killer breath? It may be time to bring out the baking soda.

After speaking recently at several grade schools in my area, I realized that children are often more in tune with pet care than most adults. Completely unaware of the strong bond they’re building, children just naturally seem to relate more closely to their four-legged friends. So as spring and summer months bring out the child in all of us, I hope to see everyone romping around outside with those non-human members of the family.

Unfortunately, the on set of summer also brings several health hazards to our pets. Believe it or not, one of the biggest potential dangers is the pesticide we spray on our lawns.

As we begin to revitalize our yards, it’s important to be aware that the poisons that kill rodents, snails, and other garden pests are also lethal to dogs and cats who snack curiously on the bait. Even herbicides require special caution. A rule of thumb: Keep animals away from recently sprayed gardens and lawns for two to three rainfalls following the spraying.

If you think your pet has already come in contact with a recently sprayed lawn or flower bed, check his or her feet, belly, chest, or other areas that may have touched the ground (such as long basset hound ears) for burns or irritation. Wash these areas with mild soap or dish detergent and water to reduce the inflammation. Then rinse off the soapy area thoroughly with water to avoid exchanging one cause of irritation for another.

‘Tis also the season of heartworm, which means our annual MOTHER reminder: Check your pets! Heartworm–which earned its name from the fact that it causes severe heart and lung damage in affected animals-is a parasite spread via mosquito contact. Be especially cautious if you live near river beds and water basins, where mosquitoes breed.

Bring your dog to the veterinarian for a blood sample; once you’re certain that your dog is free of heartworm, your vet will prescribe a daily or monthly preventative to be used throughout the rest of the season.

Lastly-and it may sound obvious-keep those pets cool. Pets need plenty of water and shade, especially after long hours of running around.

Dear Andrea:We just acquired a rabbit and now believe she is having trouble eating. We feed her food pellets, some of which go down, but she is a messy eater. She will not chew on wood sticks and has a hard time with carrots. What can we do?

–Jill Taylor; Morgantown, West Virginia

Dear Jill:

It’s difficult to diagnose what exactly is wrong with your rabbit at a distance, but I’d suspect a trip to your vet is in order. Your long-eared friend may be suffering from a number of ailments, the most common of which is overgrown incisors. Most domestic rabbits suffer from this problem, some to a worse degree than others. Often, even the premolars and molars overgrow and trap the tongue in doing so. The overgrowth is not a result of the rabbit’s unwillingness to chew; it is usually the cause. She may be unable to chew because her long teeth are painfully cutting her tongue, gums, or lips.

It may be that her lower jaw is shorter than her upper jaw, arid so they are not meeting correctly. Most rabbits with this problem need their teeth trimmed every three to five weeks, or at least examined during this time frame. Don’t let this problem go too long. A starving rabbit is a stressed rabbit, and therefore more likely to become ill. The vet can trim your pet’s teeth easily and painlessly.

Other problems which may hinder the rabbit’s ability to eat are tooth abscesses, infections, or nerve damage. Check food pellets to be sure they aren’t old or rancid, and be sure she has plenty of fresh water.

Dear Andrea:Two weeks ago, my cat, Lucas, was diagnosed with feline leukemia. I heard this is a fatal disease. Can you tell me more about it? What are my alternatives? Must I have him put to sleep?

-Linda Christenson; Norfolk, Virginia

Dear Linda,

Feline leukemia is an infectious viral disease which can be seen in cats of any age. Transmission occurs through saliva or oral and nasal secretions. If a cat gets the virus, the virus replicates in its lymph nodes and bone marrow. While some cats can “fight off” this virus with their immune system, others have a weakened immune response; the virus goes on to replicate further in their cells, and they develop feline leukemia. Not only does this make cats incapable of fighting other diseases, but the virus also causes tumor cells to form.

Common signs of this disease include an inability to handle stress, simple colds or flu hanging on or recurring frequently, frequent fevers, or recurring bacterial, or other viral, infections. Some cats can carry the disease for a long time before showing any signs of illness. There are several tests for feline leukemia. The most common is the ELISA, which tests white blood cells for infection. A second test, the IFA test, is known as the “gold standard” for detecting this type of leukemia, and is used to confirm a positive ELISA test. In the IFA, the white blood cells from a blood sample will fluoresce under a certain type of lighting if the animal’s cells have been infected. As for Lucas, I suggest you ask your vet to do another test if he has only been tested positive once. Also, make sure the second test is performed on blood, not saliva or tears. If Lucas does indeed have this disease, you do not have to put him to sleep. Many cats with feline leukemia go on to live happy, comfortable lives for months or even years following diagnosis. While unfortunately there is no cure at this time, there are treatments-antibiotics, steroids, etc.–which make the lives of infected cats more comfortable, albeit shortened. What’s more, the most common tumor associated with feline leukemia, lymphosarcoma, is one of the most treatable (though not curable) cancers in small animals. Lastly, it is important to realize that feline leukemia is infectious, especially among other cats in the household. So if you have other animals, have them vaccinated and keep Lucas confined to a specific room or area.

Dear Andrea:I have a five-year-old Norwegian elkhound who constantly develops skin growths that eventually burst, emitting a waxy material. This problem has resulted in three surgical procedures for removal of the growths. My veterinarian assured me this is normal for a Norwegian elkhound, but I am worried. Will this continue? Is surgery always necessary?

Marlene Smith ; North Arlington, New Jersey

Dear Marlene,
Norwegian elkhounds are predisposed to two types of skin tumors. The first type is known as a sebaceous adenoma. Normally the sebaceous glands produce an oily secretion responsible for retaining moisture in the skin and giving the hair-coat a glossy sheen. However, sometimes a group of cells within the gland becomes hyperplastic, producing more secretions, and forms a tumor. This appears as a firm nodule, elevated above the skin surface, which may contain a waxy viscous plug of material. The cause of these tumors is unknown, but they are usually benign in both dogs and cats. The second type of skin tumor common to elkhounds is called keratoacanthoma. Most of these tumors appear as masses under the skin, often with a pore opening onto the skin surface. This pore may contain a hardened keratin plug of material. The cause of these tumors is also unknown, although heredity seems to play a large part. While they are usually benign, animals that have many tend to develop new tumors at other sites on their bodies throughout their lives. Treatment for both of these types of tumors may include surgery, cryosurgery (a controlled type of tissue freezing), or electrocautery (using an electric current to cauterize, or burn, tissue). Some vets will inject the tumors with certain chemotherapeutics (an agent used in chemotherapy) in an attempt to reduce their growth and prevent recurrence; so far, surgical removal remains the basis of treatment. Recently the oral supplements of vitamins A and D have shown promising potential in reducing recurrence or regrowth. Many supplements are available; your veterinarian can suggest several types and discuss proper dosage, as toxicity of both vitamins A and D do occur with over supplementation. Certain vitamin A rich foods, such as fish oils, egg yolks, corn, or liver, may occasionally be appropriate for your dog’s diet (as along as her weight is appropriate) and may alleviate certain skin conditions which seem to precipitate tumor formation. Supplementing with essential fatty acids (found in oils such as corn and safflower) may be useful in the case of keratoacanthomas,but again consult your vet as to dosage and frequency of administration.

Dear Andrea: Our 13-year-old dog, “Muttley,” appropriately named for her mixed ancestry, has terrible breath! We’ve tried to feed her a few more milk bones, but things are just worsening. Is there anything we can add to her food to clear the odor?

–Kevin Moore;Bismarck, North Dakota

Dear Kevin, Before thinking about adding something to her food to cover up the odor, it’s important to find out exactly what is causing Muttley’s bad breath. For starters, dogs and cats, like humans, are prone to dental disease, and this is probably the most common cause of halitosis in animals. In fact, some experts have estimated that 60% to 75% of the small animal population needs a regular cleaning. Any dog over two years of age probably has some form of mild to moderate dental tartar and may even have more serious oral problems. Silly as this all sounds, many of our four-legged friend’s may be in real need of some tooth brushing (your veterinarian can show you how). Personally, I recommend plain old baking soda on a slightly abrasive piece of cloth, two to three times per week. A recent study shows there is some benefit to using “tartar control” dog biscuits as well-in moderation of course. Bad breath may also be a sign of other serious illness in dogs, including renal (kidney) disease, bronchitis, pneumonia, etc. So if Muttley’s breath doesn’t clear up after a few good brushings, have her checked out.

Dear Andrea: Tucker, my golden retriever, was diagnosed with inhalant allergies last summer. He’s not sniffling or sneezing, but he is itchy. Could this be a problem?

–Ida Wheeler; Spokane, Washington

Dear Ida,
While allergies are a problem, there are simple solutions. First a few words of explanation about allergies: Whereas people react to inhalant allergies with their respiratory system, dogs and cats (even some large animals) react with their skin. Estimates vary, but a majority of animal health-care folk believe that 2%-15% of the canine population suffer from allergic dermatitis, or atopy, as it’s known in veterinary medicine. It can occur in any breed of dog, but a few breeds are at increased risk, including Irish setters, Labrador retrievers, dalmatians, and, of course, yours truly, golden retrievers. The hallmark of inhalant allergies in dogs is “itchiness.” There are other signs as well. When dogs become allergic to pollens, grasses, weeds, etc., their coat becomes discolored due to saliva staining, or even raw or reddened from chewing on the area around the irritation so much. Most dogs become allergic early on (by the time they are one to three years old) and may be much worse during a specific season. Ask your vet to do skin or blood testing on Tucker to identify the specific allergens affecting him. Following this, you may try to avoid those allergens. However, if Tucker is allergic to something such as grass or weeds, it may be tougher. Your vet may want to prescribe antibiotics, antihistamines, a topical medication, or even start Tucker on a series of “allergy injections.” The best topical I have found is cleanliness and air (and maybe a bit of aloe). If a “hot spot,” a localized area of excoriation, forms, clean it with mild soap, dry it manually but gently, and increase the air circulation by clipping long hairs over the wound until medication can be prescribed. Best of luck with Tucker.

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