DR. CHIP’S CORNER

Your veterinarian has a wealth of understanding.

Do you often wonder what’s best for your pet’s health? Are you puzzled about how to proactively care for your pet, or do you want to know more about veterinary medicine?

Dr. Chip Coombs is Pets Plus Us’ Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), and he’ll pick from your most commonly asked or unique submissions each week. We’ll post his valuable insight and in-depth answers here in Dr. Chip’s Corner, and keep an archive of all his responses for our Community’s reference. 

Meet Dr. Chip Coombs, BSc, DVM - Chief Veterinary Officer

Dr. Coombs has practiced veterinary medicine since 1976, initially in the United Kingdom, then in Western Canada and, finally, in Toronto, where he owned a multi-veterinarian practice for 33 years.

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What causes dogs to eat their own poop?

Although there are medical reasons for a dog to do this, most causes have a behavioural basis. If your dog is on no drugs and hasn't been diagnosed with a disorder that stimulates an excessive appetite, then it would still be prudent to have her stool checked for internal parasites. That still leaves a malabsorption possibility, but if you are feeding a good quality food split over at least 2 feedings a day and the stools have a normal appearance, then having her checked for enzyme deficiencies would be something to rule out at a later date. The cause is quite possibly behavioural, common in puppies either as inquisitive behaviour or mimicking behaviour from watching their mother clean up after her puppies. However, most puppies grow out of this and if they don't there are a number of things to try. One suggestion is to try products like FORBID which when given orally impart an awful taste to the stool. It can work, but it never seemed that successful when I tried it. Based on the principle that every time a dog does eat its own stool, it reinforces the behaviour, the key to is interrupt the actual eating in the hope that over a few weeks (or months) the behaviour will disappear. This means 1. Going out with your dog EVERY time they are outside and cleaning up the muffins the instant they are delivered. You cannot wait. 2) Some dogs need a soft muzzle to be worn when they are outside as an extra precaution from them eating their own stool. This latter requirement is usually more necessary when your dog eats another dog's stool (often due to territorial behaviour). If this doesn't work, and it usually does, I would have the enzymes checked and have a lengthier conversation with your veterinarian about other behavioural modification techniques.

At what age is it best to spay an Australian Shepherd?

Due to the risks of potential breast cancer down the road, most vets will recommend you spay before the first heat which is around 6 months. However, breast cancer is not that common in Aussies. Recent work with Golden Retrievers and Shepherds has shown that spaying them before 6 & 1/2 months might put them at greater risk of developing orthopedic problems such as torn cruciate ligaments. It’s now thought in those breeds to wait until they are closer to 2-3 years of age before spaying. However, no work has been done on Australian Shepherds and this theory does not apply to all breeds. So until such work is done, I would still recommend spaying before and around 6 & 1/2 months of age. 

How do you know if your pet has a tick on them?

Because ticks rarely cause overt clinical signs such as the scratching that you might see with fleas – you actually have to see it. How big it is will depend on what kind of tick it is and if it has had a blood meal. You are looking for a brown/black eight legged creature which could be as small as a couple of millimeters in diameter to as large as half a centimeter that is attached by its head to your dog/cat's skin. If ticks are common in your area, and ONLY if they are common there are good preventive products available from your veterinarian for dogs. You can also buy inexpensive tick removers in pet stores called tick twisters to aid in their removal. If you are visiting areas with long grasses and woody areas, give your dog a thorough physical exam when you return home.

I have a four year old cat that started peeing/pooping on the landing of our stairs after we returned from a 3 week vacation where we had a live-in pet sitter. To get her back into the right habit we put a litter box there. We still have one in the old location but she doesn't use it. How do we start transitioning her back, and any idea why this might be happening?

I suspect your cat was upset that she didn’t get to go on the vacation with you and all you brought her back was a t-shirt :) In other words, the behaviour is probably triggered by anxiety or stress. Your treatment regime is spot on. What I would do would be to move that litter box 6 inches at a time slowly back to the original location. She will most likely follow the movement of the litter box back to the preferred location. 

Is chocolate really poisonous to my dog?

Yes, chocolate can be very toxic your dog. Chocolate is composed of many things, but the ingredient that makes it particularly toxic is the cocoa. It may or may not be bitter depending upon the amount of sugar added. The darker the chocolate, the higher the concentration of cocoa, so the more poisonous it is. So, baker's chocolate and semi-sweet eating chocolate have a lot of cocoa in them and are very toxic. Although milk chocolate has relatively little cocoa, it should still be kept out of reach of pets, as it too can be fatal if enough is consumed. A rule of thumb is if your dog consumes as much as 1 ounce/lb of body weight of milk chocolate that is a true medical emergency. Eating even a tiny amount of bakers chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate is also an emergency. If a dog has ingested chocolate, they may show symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, agitation, increased thirst, an elevated heart rate, and in extreme cases, seizures or death.

If you think your pet has ingested a toxic substance, contact your veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline. If you are a Pets Plus Us member, your call is free as part of your Blue Ribbon Benefits. Refer to your User Guide for the phone number or call us at 1-800-364-8422

If you don’t have Pets Plus Us insurance coverage, you can contact the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-800-213-6680 with any questions or concerns. Please be aware there is a $39.00/per case fee but it may save your pet’s life! 

Occasionally, my dog puts his head down and snorts several times. It sounds like he is choking. Is this serious?

As you probably know, dogs get allergies just like their owners. Part of how we manifest allergies is with a sneeze which is usually accomplished with the expelling of air through the mouth and nose. Dogs often do exactly the same thing, but during allergy season some dogs do what is called a “reverse-sneeze.” This is a rapid inhaling of air and can sound like an abrupt snort, usually two to six in a row. Because people don’t do this, this can be alarming when you first observe this odd sneeze-like expulsion of air. One might suspect your dog is a little startled by it as well.

One solution that works very well for many dogs is using a human antihistamine, like Claritin. The dose can be obtained from your veterinarian. If this reverse sneeze is not periodic but perpetual, with accompanying nasal discharge, then there may be something wrong in your dog’s nasal passages or pharynx which means you definitely should discuss the situation with your veterinarian.

I have a 6 year old Border Collie and am thinking of having her fixed. She has had no litters previous. I have been researching the pros and cons, but don't know what to do. What is your opinion?

This is a good question and the decision is often affected by misinformation. To have her spayed will involve a general anaesthetic and likely one night of hospitalization. The drug protocols used today are such that she will be virtually pain free from the beginning to the time the sutures are removed. It would be unrealistic to say there are no risks involved, as there are risks in everything we do. That said, the risks are very small and if you have confidence in your veterinarian and the anaesthetic and surgical protocols that he/she uses, then the surgery should be routine. Certainly her personality, playfulness, etc. will not change as a result of the surgery. In terms of "pros", the list is long. You no longer have to go through her heat cycles every 6 months, along with worrying about every self-respecting male dog wanting to come around to play. She is free from any risk of developing ovarian, or uterine cancer or uterine infections; all of which can be fatal. The only "pro" reason that no longer applies to her is that the risk of breast cancer will remain even though you have her spayed at 6 years. Studies have shown that a female dog needs to be under 3 years of age for the surgery to have a preventive effect. Ideally, in the future, if you had your female dog spayed before her first heat, then there is essentially a zero chance she would develop any of the above life threatening ailments. If she were my dog, I would have her spayed and I would wait until she is mid-way between her heat cycles.

My dog is very itchy and won't stop scratching and biting herself. What can I do to help her?

The first challenge is to figure out why your dog is scratching. We assume dogs only scratch with fleas, but there are many reasons why dogs scratch their skin other than fleas. We are in the Fall of the year, and that means that there are all sorts of allergens that can trigger an allergy in your dog , just like it does with people. People sneeze and wheeze with allergies – dogs scratch. Dry skin can do it, but that is probably more common in the Winter time. I would strongly suggest you take your dog to the vet, who can actually look at the skin, and then decide what is most likely the cause. If it is allergies there are many drugs that can be helpful. Including an antihistamine called hydroxyzine. Omega 3 fatty acids can be helpful as well. In severe cases, your vet may have to use anti-inflammatories like prednisone (hopefully short term only). 

I have a multi-cat household and the past couple of days I have been noticing some inappropriate urination outside the litter box. What should I do?

Your problem is a common problem in multi-cat households. In fact, inappropriate urination is a common cause for cats to be euthanized. So solving this problem asap is very important because if it is a behavioural problem it can be very difficult to correct. The first challenge is determining which of the cats is spraying or inappropriately urinating. This can be done if your house layout allows by isolating individual cats away from the area of inappropriate urination to see if you can find the culprit. If this doesn’t work, ask your veterinarian for some fluorescein which you can give orally to one cat at a time and use a ultra violet light to shine on the urine spot. The urine will now illuminate. Once you have determined who the culprit is, it is important to have a urinalysis done to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for the behaviour. If the urine is normal (I suspect it will be ) you are dealing with a behavioural problem. The behaviour is likely a result of stress. Your cats may seem to get along just fine to us, but if you are a cat this may not be the case. The very least you should do is have at least 2 more litter boxes than there are cats in your house. You can try isolating all the cats away from the point of inappropriate urination. You can ask your vet for pheromone sprays in the hopes that they may calm the cat in question. There are many other behavioural techniques you can try, but time and space does not allow me to list them all. Please discuss with your vet asap. 

My cat throws up a lot. Sometimes it's hair balls, but most of the time it is partially digested food. Should I try switching foods?

I suspect that if your cat throws up a lot that she has IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) In fact, every cat that throws up a hairball has a mild case of IBD. The causes of IBD are not fully understood, but are likely immune related. The treatment in severe cases requires the use of anti-inflammatories, for example prednisone. However, in milder cases they can be controlled through diet. I would suggest that if the vomiting is persisting on a diet that you have been feeding for at least a month then it would be worthwhile making a gradual transition to a new diet. This might even involve going from canned to dry or dry to canned, if acceptable to your cat. Veterinarians carry a large variety of hypoallergenic and intestinal friendly diets. I would suggest discussing availabilities with your vet. Regardless of the diet you choose, I would feed very small amounts frequently throughout the day and for this an automatic feeder would be ideal.

My boyfriend has a 5-year old male cat, who is moving into my home with my 10-year old female cat. On one occasion, his cat came to my house and seemed to think that he "owned the place". He went after my female, and was hissing/growling at her. I was afraid he was going to attack her, so I kept them separated. Do you have any tips for successfully living with these 2 cats under the same roof?

I won’t start off suggesting you find a new boyfriend who doesn’t own a cat! As he would probably hunt me down! But as you have no choice but to assimilate these two cats, the best suggestion I can make is to have them sniff each other through closed doors for the first 1-2 weeks. After which you really have no choice but the to open the door and allow them to greet each other under supervision. The reason for the supervision is because if things get really nasty, which is unlikely you are there to break things up. You can anticipate that there will be some hissing and some growling – ignore it. In the vast majority of cases the 2 of them will work it out on their own, and other than the initial supervision and keeping their nails clipped, I would let them work it out between each other. One of them will end up being dominant, the other submissive and hopefully life lives on happily ever after. 

What would cause a dog to lick obsessively between the paws (fingers)? We clean them and put lotion on them nightly, but he still insists on licking them in the evening? Is that normal?

There are many reasons why your puppy dog would be licking his paws. One of them could be boredom, but that is not as likely as allergies. The number 1 clinical sign of a dog that has allergies (atopy) would be licking the feet, and secondarily, rubbing the face. When you say he only does it in the evening, is this because there is no one home during the day to know if he is licking? If it is only during the evenings, it may be more behavioural as a so called displacement behavior. In other words, he wants to play, you’ve had a hard day at work, and want to rest. So he gets frustrated. If the feet get irritated in any way, take him to see your veterinarian. 

We recently purchased a dog and want to take him with us in the car this summer. Are there any precautions we should take?

With the warmer weather finally upon us, it’s only natural that we want to take our four-footed family member with us wherever we go. But even though our pet may travel well, there will be days that it’s best to leave them at home. If it’s a warm or hot sunny day and you have many stops to make, having your best friend along can create logistical problems. The main issue here is heat stroke, as your car can become as hot as an oven within a matter of minutes. Whenever possible, leave a responsible person in the car when a stop is necessary, even if you park in the shade and leave the windows partially open. Better still, use a drive-thru if available, and shop in pet-friendly stores. Even if it’s a mere 20 °C outside, a car parked in the sun can reach an inside temperature of 46 °C in a matter of minutes! For more information, a great site to check out is mydogiscool.com.

Signs of heat stroke include excessive panting, weakness, stupor, dark red gums and a body temperature of over 40 °C. It’s easy and worthwhile to learn how to take a pet’s temperature, but if you think your dog has heat stroke, take him to the nearest veterinary hospital immediately. The best prevention is to NEVER leave a pet alone in the car, even for a few minutes. You not only will avoid this life-threatening problem, but you’ll also avoid having one of your car windows smashed in by a ‘good Samaritan’ who notices your dog sitting in the locked car.

Another worthwhile tip is to purchase a seat belt for your dog and attach it to one of your existing seat belts. It will not only keep him safe in the event of a car accident, but it will also keep him from jumping around and distracting you while you drive. Having water on board and making frequent pit stops will also ensure you both enjoy the open road!

My dog gets ear infections all the time. Am I doing something wrong?

Ear infections can be very uncomfortable, so your mission to find a solution is a good one and will be appreciated by your dog! Ear infections can occur or re-occur for a number of reasons. Dogs who naturally grow a lot of hair in their ear canals (e.g. Poodles) are prone to ear infections because the hair traps wax and moisture inside the ear canal which then becomes a perfect environment for yeast and bacteria to grow.  Dogs who spend a lot of time swimming, especially in the warm summer months, are also more prone to infections due to the excess moisture that encourages bacterial growth. Dogs with floppy, furry ears (e.g. Spaniels) may also suffer from chronic ear infections as they have less air circulating into their ear canals.

Beyond the physical and behavioural characteristics of your dog that may lead to recurring infections, the most common underlying cause in many breeds is allergies (e.g. common with Retrievers). The answer lies in determining what the allergy is (food, environmental, drug) and preventing your dog from being exposed to the allergen. For this, your veterinarian will need to do diagnostic testing. In cases where the allergen (the trigger factor for your dog’s allergic response) cannot be removed (e.g. house dust), drugs like antihistamines (e.g. hydroxazine) and omega-3 fatty acids can be very helpful. Your veterinarian can also teach you how to safely and properly pluck and clean your dog’s ears on a routine basis to create an environment that resists the development of infections.

My cat drools a lot. She is eating/drinking okay and seems so happy. Is this serious?

If your cat seems completely normal in all other respects, then it is less likely to be serious. However, it is not considered normal and, as such, may well indicate there is a problem that may get worse over time.

Cats will drool, seemingly, for any reason, especially if they lick or chew certain plants. They will also drool if they are feeling a little nauseous, or it can also be due to a psychological stimulus. This could also be caused by your cat feeling stressed or anxious. Ask anyone who has tried to pill their cat! Something caught in the teeth/mouth can be a cause, as can poor condition of the teeth and gums (so called periodontal disease). If the gums or teeth are the culprit, then your cat likely has a painful mouth and needs veterinary attention. Unfortunately, there is also the possibility that there is a growth in the mouth and this would also need prompt attention. In young cats who drool, there is also the possibility of liver issues.

As you can see, there are numerous possible causes. If you are not aware of an obvious psychological cause, then remember that healthy cats do not usually drool, so it would be wise to have your veterinarian do a thorough physical exam.

I have two English Springer Spaniels. They are siblings, spayed, and nine years old. Molly is 44 pounds and has a few small jelly-like lumps, and Belle is 53 pounds and has many all over her on her stomach, rib cage and leg. They are both very active and healthy, eat wellness food and pee and poop normal. I don't want to put them through the rigorous tests and possible removal process of the cysts which quite possibly could all be benign. What do you think the best course of action is?

These little jelly like lumps may be nothing more than small fat tumors called lipomas. They may also be cysts which are also insignificant. However, it is possible that they may be something more serious, for example a mast cell tumor. One doesn't fool around with such growths. To determine what they are is a very simple procedure. It’s called an FNA (Fine Needle Aspirate). It does not require sedation or anaesthetic – they won't know it's even happening. They are not rigorous tests, but simple and can be very helpful in determining what these lumps are. I would strongly recommend having the FNA’s done by your vet. It won’t hurt a bit!

My cat has brown runny stuff coming from his eye. Is this serious?

It's hard to say what the material is that is coming from your cat's eye. If it has recently occurred, it is likely conjunctivitis (like pink eye in people) and you should have it checked out by your veterinarian to make sure that there is no scratch or ulcer on the eye. He/she can also dispense the appropriate medication to clear it up. If this is chronic, it could be many things - from a herpes virus to a blocked duct. Either way, I would recommend you have it checked out.