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Ethology and veterinary practice: When bonds that worked no longer do

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One of the basic tenets in ethology reminds us that we can say nothing about what an animal’s behavior means unless we know the context in which it occurs. But what does that actually mean?

In an effort not to overwhelm my clients, I usually define context as the recognition of what preceded the perceived problem behavior, the behavior itself, and what follows it. “What follows it” includes their responses to the animal’s behavior.

However, as a clinician, I also must acknowledge that context involves a lot more. Unlike those who study animal behavior in controlled settings, practitioners seeking to unravel what caused an animal to display a particular problem behavior at a particular time don’t have the luxury of eliminating all but one or two variables and ignoring the rest. We first need to determine all the variables that could contribute to the problem in any way.

Often people think of companion animal environments in strictly physical terms — e.g., urban, suburban or rural; house, apartment, dormitory, etc. However, relative to behaviors, environments also include any mental/emotional components and their related physiological changes.

Furthermore, this comprehensive environment is dynamic. Even if Mr. Abernathy’s dog, Alice, was born, raised, lived and died in his home which he describes as “unchanged during her lifetime,” both of them will have experienced multiple macro- and micro-environmental changes during that period. Moreover, every one of these possess the potential to effect the most vital component in the resolution of any problem behavior the animal might develop: the physiological and behavioral effects these changes may have on bond between them.

Let’s consider some examples of how these changes may play out in the companion animal behavioral realm, beginning with Mr. Abernathy and Alice. Fourteen-year-old Alice didn’t actually develop fear-based aggression the day she bit the plumber who came to repair Mr. Abernathy’s leaking faucet.

A comprehensive history revealed that Alice had taken a proprietary view of her owner ever since she reached maturity years previously. Throughout that time, Mr. Abernathy doted on his dog instead of training her, and “managed” rather than addressing her aggressive displays by confining her to her crate whenever he expected company.

Meanwhile, Alice and Mr. Abernathy aged together. Although the dog remained physically healthy for a dog her age, she wasn’t the same dog that she was in her prime physically, mentally or emotionally when the biting incident occurred. Nor was her owner the same person.

During that same period, Mr. Abernathy’s health declined, which caused him to dote on his dog even more. Moreover, he did this with the encouragement and full support of his healthcare providers and family enchanted by all those positive media reports about the benefits of animal companionship on human health.

Meanwhile, her owner’s increased dependency made Alice more protective. This combination of increased human and canine vulnerability made Alice more anxious. And that, in turn, lowered her stress threshold.

Consequently, we don’t have a case of one-size-fits-all, fear-based aggression here. We have a complicated, specific, human-canine case that resulted in a dog who displayed fear-based aggression. We have a dog whose fear-based aggressive tendencies have been tolerated and inadvertently reinforced for years. We have a dog whose arthritis in her hips doesn’t compromise her ability to move freely in her home and yard. But it does compromise her ability to lunge to protect herself and her owner.

That also makes her more likely to aggress sooner that she did when she was younger. And we have an anxious owner in his late 70s on multiple medications for various health problems who forgot to confine his dog but desperately loves and needs the animal for his own well-being.

He also wants her aggression “fixed” immediately because home-healthcare looms on the horizon. So does potential trouble with his homeowner’s liability insurance provider if any bite inflicted by Alice requires medical care or is reported to the authorities.

Our second example looks at changes in the physical, mental, and emotional context at the opposite end of the spectrum that also can foil the one-size-fits-all approach to problem behaviors. It involves that population of single folks whose lives revolve around their dogs and social activities related to them.

Using usually positive but occasionally negative other-reinforcement training approaches, they spend hours each day transforming their puppies into stars in agility or other canine competitive sports.

Then, the unexpected happens. The owner meets a Special One and they start seeing each other. Pretty soon they move in together, then decide to marry. The young adult dog who had claimed the owner all to himself since he was a puppy now must cope with someone he perceives as a competitor for his owner’s time and attention. He’s not aggressive toward the partner. But he’s not overtly friendly, either.

The new partner initially does everything to gain the dog’s trust, but nothing seems to work. Meanwhile, the dog’s original owner alternates between feeling guilty for exposing her dog to such a major lifestyle change and anxious about his lackluster response to someone she cares about so much. She doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or hurt when her partner eventually chooses to ignore the dog.

Then several years later, the couple adds a baby to their household, and the now 9-year-old dog begins protecting what he considers his owner in earnest. He positions himself between her and her partner when they attempt to hug each other.

This progresses to full canine body blocks and nipping the partner’s feet and lower legs to keep him away. Nor is this more aggressive behavior related to the baby’s presence. He responds to the partner the same way even when the baby is napping or enjoying some quality away-from-home grandparental time.

Initially, the dog treated the baby with indifference. However, as the baby has become more motile, he becomes edgy when the baby gets too close to his owner. Not surprisingly, the owner’s guilt and anxiety grow as her vision of herself, her partner, the baby, and dog living happily ever after fades. Because she and her partner both see this as strictly the dog’s problem, they also want it fixed immediately.

In both of these examples, we see an increasing bond phenomenon that occurs in animals with behavioral problems: The owners have become so caught up in what their animals mean to and say about them that they lose sight of the animals themselves.

Mr. Abernathy perceives Alice as his reason for living; singletons whose lives center around their dogs and their dogs must change their orientations when a new person is added to the household. How the dog handles this can generate negative human-human feelings as well human-animal ones that may limit solutions. Further complicating matters, emotional contagion occurring between anxious humans and animals may aggravate the very problem behaviors they want stopped.

Admittedly, getting a comprehensive history that addresses these bond concerns as well as physical and behavioral components alone won’t solve these problems. But it will result in more meaningful, comprehensive approaches compared to taking a one-size-fits-all approach and hoping for the best.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Seasonal companion animal behaviors

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With the arrival of spring, the number of calls regarding animals displaying problem behaviors often increases. Both cats and dogs may become more aggressive toward members of their own species, including those with whom they live.

Multiple natural cycles of varying length contribute to the behavioral unrest. In the wild and free-roaming domestic animal populations, the physiological and behavioral changes associated with some of these cycles first support the territorial displays that occur in the early spring.

But how does spaying and neutering affect companion animal responses to these same events?

Experience suggests that some dogs and cats may experience a state of persistent territorial unrest. As resident pets note the increased activity in the wild and free-roaming domestic animal population, some may become edgier and more protective of what they consider their own territory.

For some this may mean their yards; for others their homes. A third group that marks territories on walks with their owners or during solitary free-roaming walkabouts may become more reactive to other animals in general or known animals they previously ignored. Yet another group may become more protective of their owners.

Further complicating matters, local changes may produce noticeable changes in animal behavior. For example, wild animals living in the Northeast U.S. experienced a bust in seed production after several boom years.

During the boom years, more seed-eaters, such as turkeys, squirrels and all kinds of smaller rodents, survived long enough to have more offspring who did likewise. Their predators also responded to the increase in their food (i.e., prey) supply by doing likewise.

When the bust came, all of these animals had to scramble to compete for a reduced food supply. But where to find such food?

Unfortunately, this often meant the animals were forced to seek food much closer to human homes and activities than they normally did. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, two much longer cycles than the seed boom and bust ones, further contributed to many companion animals’ unrest this spring.

Increasingly, residential construction occurs on land previously occupied by wildlife. The infrastructure and services needed to support those people may claim a sizable piece of existing wild habitat, too.

And even though we typically associate these incursions with single-home dwellings, increasing numbers of housing developments and multiple family dwellings now include green spaces that preserve small areas of habitat that attract wildlife. Residents preferentially may choose these locations specifically so they can enjoy all the different birds at their feeders and the site of turkeys, deer, occasional bear and other wild animals in a nearby meadow or woodland.

But with the seed bust, increasing numbers of those now-hungry animals overcame their already somewhat dulled fears of humans and came into people’s yards more often. Where seed-eating prey species went, naturally so went their predators. Many of these animals came at night when the pet owners were at work or sleeping.

However, regardless of when the intruders came, many resident animals were aware of their presence. Some of these dogs and cats would monitor the intruders’ movement from inside the house.

If the homebound animals couldn’t track the interlopers until the latter left the animals’ property, the family dog or cat would track the aliens’ progress as far as they could. Then, they would mark those limits with urine, stool, or claw marks.

When dogs went out to relieve themselves or cats took their daily walk outdoors, they smelled the intruders’ scents; they read the often threatening territorial messages the intruders left behind. Or, the fear-scented ones emitted by an animal caught by a predator.

Other times owners unwittingly would track the intruders’ pheromones in on their muddy shoes and wipe them off on welcome mats by the door. Some resident cats and dogs only would give the mat a dedicated sniff; others would pee on it. One timid but determined dog preferred an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach and attempted to drag the mat outside every time his owner opened the door for any reason.

Additionally, rodents of all kinds seeking food and shelter took advantage of even the smallest openings that permitted entrance into human homes. Although cats with good hunting skills considered locating and dispatching the intruders’ quality enrichment, few owners agreed.

However, rodents that ran up and down within the walls where the resident pets couldn’t reach them created even more unrest for animals and humans alike. Some dogs and cats would sit motionless and stare at walls or cupboards they knew harbored intruders, a behavior that unnerved their owners. Others tracked the rodents’ movement with high-pitched barks or tried to dig through the walls, two more animal behaviors that few owners found endearing.

Another result of wildlife seeking food in human-populated areas was even more dramatic: surprise encounters between wild animals and cosseted pets on opposite sides of sliding glass doors. In these cases, the response of the wild animal was more likely to be shock than predatory.

Owners describe the stench of anal glands and urine on both sides of the door. After such encounters, some spooked dogs and cats who once felt secure enough within their homes not to display any marking behaviors shrank their territories by creating and marking new ones within that space.

Often, they limited their territory and marking to the owners’ bedroom or even that person’s bed. Needless to say, dealing with the influx of wildlife and discovering the beloved pet was peeing in their beds did nothing to lessen owner stress.

As with the other animal behaviors associated with this wild-companion animal interface, it also affected the bond between these animals and their people. Most people recognized that their fascination with the wildlife led them to set up the feeders and feeding stations that attracted them.

At the same time, though, they perceived their own animals’ behavioral response to that encroaching wildlife as unacceptable or even shocking. Furthermore, they wanted it stopped immediately. They didn’t realize that if their companion animals didn’t value their homes and those people, and feel so incapable of protecting it, they wouldn’t mark to otherwise signal a willingness to protect it.

Although some of these responses to seasonal changes in the environment in the Northeast may seem dramatic, other areas of the country and world have experienced even more extraordinary upheavals.

Heavy snowfalls or severe flooding may add to the seasonal changes that normally affect and sometimes destabilize wild and domestic animals of all species. But because companion animals may live such cosseted lives compared to their wild counterparts, it’s easy to forget that seasonal changes related to the natural world can and do affect their behavior and bonds with their people at those times.

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Diversity in dentistry on the rise

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Think about your dentist when you were a child. Can you remember? If you can, I’d be willing to bet your dentist was a man. Am I right?

According to the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI), 49 percent of U.S. dental school graduates in 2017 were women. That’s up from 37 percent in 1997. Forty years ago, only 7 percent of graduates were women. That means, give or take, only 7 percent of practicing dentists at that time were women.

The increasing number of women pursuing careers in dentistry is shifting the demographic makeup of the dental workforce. In 2018, 32 percent of all dentists were women, up from 16 percent in 2001. And by 2037, female dentists are expected to make up 46 percent of the dental workforce, according to HPI data.

“The increase in diversity in our profession is fantastic,” said Dr. Jennifer Enos, Arizona Dental Association president-elect. “It allows many opportunities for growth and innovation with the varying backgrounds and perspectives.” This diversity also allows for women dentists’ particular needs, such as balancing a career and family, to take more of a front-row seat.

Dr. Enos called on her own experience as a contrast. “I started in dentistry in 1999 as an assistant,” she said. “I knew one female dentist and there was very little ethnic diversity.”

Women in Dental Leadership

Dr. Enos said there’s a myriad of reasons why women should pursue leadership roles in organized dentistry, including giving back to the profession through advocacy and having a hand in improving public health.

In addition, the opportunity to gain perspective and experience, along with meeting with legislators, participating in volunteer events and attending member events, are invaluable, Dr. Enos said. “Ultimately, there’s the opportunity to continue to learn and grow,” she said. “I hope more women continue to take the opportunities.”

Later this year, Dr. Enos will be one of 13 women serving as presidents in their state dental association — the most in the ADA’s 160-year history.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: The behavior-territory-history connection

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It’s difficult to analyze any perceived problem behavior without recognizing the role the animal’s territory plays in it. This difficulty occurs because establishing and protecting the territory is a top animal priority.

Moreover, this includes the mental and emotional as well as the physical space. If animals don’t know where they fit in relative to any people or other animals in their space, their territory is no more secure than a space with physical hazards they must learn to negotiate safely or avoid completely.

When people think about their pet’s territory, though, they often think about it in general terms — e.g., only in the here and now, and strictly as it relates to their home and yard. This may suffice if their animals are from established local sources. In that case, those people and area practitioners already may be familiar with the breeders, previous owners, or animal control officers who picked up the lost or stray animals and took them to a local shelter.

However, for veterinarians practicing in areas that attract a large population of transported dogs and cats (perhaps to a lesser degree), reliable territorial histories may be hard to come by. Ask Ms. Doe where her animal lived before she got him, and all she knows is that he came from a rescue organization “down south somewhere.”

Aside from (maybe) providing a broad geographical location, she can offer little regarding the animal’s life prior to when she adopted him. If she adopted her transport animal from a local shelter to which the dog was shipped, any history she received about him may focus almost exclusively on what happened to him after he took up residence there. If she picked him up at a drop point in a parking lot, her new dog’s history may be limited to what the person driving the transport vehicle can provide.

It goes without saying that key differences may occur in the process triggered when animals with limited histories are presented for medical vs. behavioral problems. When animals with limited histories are presented with medical problems of unknown origin, the possibility that the animals may carry a disease that could pose a threat to others may be a primary concern of veterinarians and the animals’ adopters. Although public health concerns may head the list, concerns about any threat the new addition’s illness may pose to other animals in the household and the community also exist.

In the medical problem scenario, practitioners with only general geographic information regarding the transport animal’s origins can contact multiple sources regarding diseases and parasites common in those areas, their routes of transmission, public health significance, symptoms, diagnostic tests, treatment, prognosis, and prevention.

However, when it comes to behavioral histories, a more casual view may prevail every step of the transport animal’s journey from birth to the adopter’s home. Sometimes practitioners and members of the public get so used to hearing and accepting sad stories in place of concrete facts that they even may consider “he came from a rescue” or “she came from a shelter” a valid history when, in fact, it tells them nothing.

The rescue puppy or kitten could have been born under an abandoned porch, in a rescue facility filled with other animals of the same or different species, or in a foster home with or without children or other animals. The adult animal could have been transported from a different state or even country, and spent weeks or even months being bounced through multiple foster locations where the animal was exposed to multiple people and events, some better than others.

Instead of a detailed history that includes the animal’s behavioral and bond responses during this period, only some sad story may accompany these animals as they move through the system. Sometimes these stories replace histories that don’t exist because any records kept by those involved in the process were nonexistent or incomplete. Other times, these stories attempt to present known or suspected behavioral problems in a manner that downplays their seriousness or how long they may take to resolve.

With behavioral problems, nothing exists comparable to the veterinary medical resources available regarding the diseases common in a geographical area and how to diagnose, treat, and prevent them. Lacking such resources, it can take a great deal of time and energy to determine the kind of basic information most practitioners take for granted when addressing medical problems.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. No matter how strong the bond some people who adopt these animals may have with the image elicited by the sad story, many lack the strong bond with and commitment to an animal that comes with a comprehensive, reliable history. It’s that concrete knowledge that enables them to trust their animals and go the extra mile for them.

Barring that history, practitioners can only do their best. Often, it’s possible to use an understanding of what the animal is doing now as an indicator of past experiences. The key here is the ability to ignore the considerable emotional charge these animals often carry and analyze their behaviors objectively.

Instead of thinking about these as problems, think about those circumstances where those behaviors would have been adaptive instead of maladaptive. For example, a more aloof dog from free-roaming, warm climate roots who chews the window and door frames in an effort to get out of her new home may do so simply because she hates being confined. Period.

She never experienced confinement in her native environment and her experiences with it since her capture did nothing to convince her this was a quality way to live. Although hardly a complete history, at least it provides a starting point.

In the long run though, it’s better to take more preventive approach. Remind local shelters or rescues that offer these animals to the public that they have — or should have — a strong incentive to find out where these animals came from originally and how many different environments they passed through before their organizations put them up for adoption. Educate clients seeking to add an animal to their households about the role a reliable behavioral history plays in their future animal’s and their own success.

Many companion animal adopters consider animals from nonlocal sources potential members of their families: They want to adopt a pet, not a project. The only way to help ensure this means that those involved from the beginning to the end of the process demand that a quality medical and behavioral history accompany the animal.

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Travel2020: Take the horse, leave the pig at home

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The phrase “when pigs fly” could become a reality in the near future, but for now, flying livestock will be restricted to miniature horses, according to one airline’s new service animal policies that will go live on April 1.

American Airlines announced the new policies in light of an increasing trend of passengers who prefer to fly with their support pets. To that end, fully trained service animals and emotional support/psychiatric service animals may fly in the cabin at no charge if they meet the requirements. Those requirements are:

  • One emotional support or psychiatric service animal per person.
  • Animal must be a cat or a dog or a trained miniature horse.
  • Animal must be clean and well-behaved.
  • Animals must be able to fit at your feet, under your seat or in your lap (lap animals must be smaller than a 2-year-old child).
  • If the animal is in a kennel, it must fit under the seat in front of you with the animal in it.

Image credit: American Airlines

Meanwhile, these animals cannot:

  • Be seated in an exit row
  • Protrude into or block aisles
  • Occupy a seat
  • Eat from tray tables

In a press release, American stressed five points on the matter.

Alaska Airlines is also reviewing its support animal pet policies following a lawsuit launched after a 5-year-old girl was allegedly mauled by a pit bull at the airline’s gate in Portland in 2017. The $1.1 million suit was filed in late February.

Delta Air Lines also saw a pit bull attack incident unravel in recent years as a passenger was mauled by another passenger’s support pet. Delta said in a news report about the incident that it carries about 700 service or support animals daily, or nearly 250,000 annually — up 150 percent since 2015. The airline noted an 84 percent increase in animal incidents since 2016.

Last year, United Airlines caught attention for refusing to allow a support peacock to board. Delta Air Lines might have had a different take as peacocks, the airline reasoned, could not be classified as farm poultry and, although exotic for a pet, could not be ruled out as a support animal.

To find out the latest in pet policies on American carriers, here is a list of links that will assist. To find out about policies on international carriers or business class flights, please check with your airline.

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What you need to know about diabetes in cats

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It is vital for cats and other mammals to maintain a steady level of blood sugar (glucose), as glucose plays an important role in many processes in their bodies. Diabetes mellitus is a disease that results in high blood glucose levels and is a common disease in cats.

To fully understand diabetes, it is important to know how blood sugar is controlled. In healthy individuals, blood sugar levels are tightly controlled by two hormones, glucagon and insulin. These two hormones act in opposite ways to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

When blood glucose rises, insulin is secreted from the pancreas. This tells certain cells in the body to absorb glucose, therefore lowering blood glucose. When blood glucose drops below normal, glucagon is released from the pancreas.

This signals glucose to be released into the blood stream and brings blood sugar levels back up to normal. Thus, diabetes occurs when the body is unable to produce enough insulin to control blood glucose levels or the body cells are not responsive to the insulin that is produced.

In cats, the most common type of diabetes closely resembles type II diabetes in humans. Type 2 diabetes occurs when cells in the body become insulin resistant. In other words, cells become less responsive to insulin and do not take up blood glucose as readily.

This is very different from Type 1 diabetes, in which the body destroys pancreatic cells and not enough insulin can be produced to control blood glucose levels. Diabetes in dogs typically resembles Type 1 diabetes in humans.

What Causes Diabetes in Cats?

There are multiple factors that can increase the risk of diabetes in cats including age, breed, and body weight. Of these factors, obesity is the most significant, with overweight cats having a greater risk of developing the disease compared to cats with an ideal body condition [1].

Contrary to popular belief, various studies have found that diet type (i.e. kibble vs. wet food) does not impact the prevalence of obesity in cats [2, 3]. Rather, an inactive lifestyle and excessive caloric intake remain the most significant risk factors for obesity in cats [4, 5].

Therefore, it is very important for pet parents to manage their cats’ calorie intake and body condition to help mitigate the risk of diabetes.

Carbohydrates and Feline Diabetes

Because cats are obligate carnivores, there exists a common misconception that they should not consume carbohydrates. This has led to the suggestion that the consumption of high carbohydrate diets may increase the risk of diabetes in cats.

However, the evidence shows that healthy cats can efficiently digest and absorb carbohydrates [6]. In fact, it has been shown that the consumption of various levels of carbohydrates provided by a variety of ingredients has a minimal effect on blood glucose levels in cats [7].

Furthermore, in cats fed either a low or high carbohydrate diet, no differences in insulin levels were found [8]. These results suggest that carbohydrates do not negatively impact the insulin response or result in persistently high blood glucose levels in healthy cats.

Several studies have also been conducted to specifically evaluate the potential role of carbohydrates in the development of diabetes in cats, and all have come to similar conclusions. High carbohydrate intake is not considered a risk factor for the development of feline diabetes [9] and the greatest contributors to insulin resistance appear to be obesity [10] and increased consumption of dietary fat [11].

Management of Diabetes

There are multiple methods to manage feline diabetes which include both medical and nutritional interventions. Of these management regimes, insulin therapy has proven to be the most effective method of treatment to help control blood sugar in cats [12]. However, for owners who would rather not turn to medical treatment, there are some nutritional interventions that have proven to be effective for diabetic cats.

Although the evidence shows that healthy cats can efficiently use dietary carbohydrates, diabetic cats may have difficulty doing the same [13]. Therefore, providing diabetic cats with lower levels of carbohydrates may be an effective method to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream and help manage diabetes [13]. Several clinical studies have shown beneficial effects of feeding low carbohydrate diets to diabetic cats, with many cats going into remission [14, 15].

Though there are documented benefits to feeding a low carbohydrate diet to diabetic cats, it is important to remember that carbohydrates are not the only macronutrient that should be considered.

When dietary carbohydrate level is decreased, fat and/or protein levels must increase. This can become an issue when diets with low levels of carbohydrates have high amounts of fat, which has been shown to contribute to insulin resistance [11].

However, a high protein, low fat, and low carbohydrate diet may not be the ideal choice either for a diabetic cat. In older cats especially, diabetes and kidney disease are issues that can often both be present.

In these cases, a high protein diet would not be beneficial because they are also typically high in phosphorus, which is not recommended for cats with kidney disease. Therefore, dietary management of cats with diabetes must consider all health conditions and should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Although low-carbohydrate diets have proven to be beneficial for some diabetic cats, controlled blood sugar and, in some cases, remission can also be achieved by feeding higher carbohydrate diets designed to manage the disease [6]. Rather than containing high amounts of easily absorbed simple sugars, these specially formulated diets include complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre to help manage both obesity and glucose levels in cats [6].


Overall, there are multiple factors that can lead to the development of diabetes in cats. To reduce the risk of the development of the disease, it is most important to promote physical activity and manage caloric intake to help maintain an ideal body weight. For cats with diabetes, there are multiple methods to help manage the disease that should be discussed with your veterinarian.


1. McCann, T.M., et al., Feline diabetes mellitus in the UK: the prevalence within an insured cat population and a questionnaire-based putative risk factor analysis. J. Feline. Med. Surg., 2007. 9(4): p. 289-99.
2. Cave, N.J., et al., A cross-sectional study to compare changes in the prevalence and risk factors for feline obesity between 1993 and 2007 in New Zealand. Prev. Vet. Med., 2012. 107(1-2): p. 121-33.
3. Robertson, I.D., The influence of diet and other factors on owner-perceived obesity in privately owned cats from metropolitan Perth, Western Australia. Prev. Vet. Med., 1999. 40(2): p. 75-85.
4. Kienzle, E. and R. Bergler, Human-animal relationship of owners of normal and overweight cats. J. Nutr., 2006. 136(7 Suppl): p. 1947s-1950s.
5. Russell, K., et al., Influence of feeding regimen on body condition in the cat. J. Small Anim. Pract., 2000. 41(1): p. 12-7.
6. Verbrugghe, A. and M.J.V.s. Hesta, Cats and carbohydrates: the carnivore fantasy? 2017. 4(4): p. 55.
7. Asaro, N.J., et al., Carbohydrate level and source have minimal effects on feline energy and macronutrient metabolism. J. Anim. Sci., 2018: p. sky365-sky365.
8. Coradini, M., et al., Effects of two commercially available feline diets on glucose and insulin concentrations, insulin sensitivity and energetic efficiency of weight gain. Br. J. Nutr., 2011. 106 Suppl 1: p. S64-77.
9. Slingerland, L.I., et al., Indoor confinement and physical inactivity rather than the proportion of dry food are risk factors in the development of feline type 2 diabetes mellitus. Vet. J., 2009. 179(2): p. 247-53.
10. Hoenig, M., et al., Insulin sensitivity, fat distribution, and adipocytokine response to different diets in lean and obese cats before and after weight loss. Am. J. Physio.l Regu.l Integr. Comp. Physiol., 2007. 292(1): p. R227-34.
11. Thiess, S., et al., Effects of high carbohydrate and high fat diet on plasma metabolite levels and on i.v. glucose tolerance test in intact and neutered male cats. J. Feline. Med. Surg., 2004. 6(4): p. 207-18.
12. Marshall, R.D., J.S. Rand, and J.M. Morton, Treatment of newly diagnosed diabetic cats with glargine insulin improves glycaemic control and results in higher probability of remission than protamine zinc and lente insulins. J. Feline. Med. Surg., 2009. 11(8): p. 683-91.
13. Laflammme, D., Focus on Nutrition: Cats and carbohydrates: implications for health and disease. Compend. Contin. Educ. Vet., 2010. 32(1): p. E1-3.
14. Bennett, N., et al., Comparison of a low carbohydrate-low fiber diet and a moderate carbohydrate-high fiber diet in the management of feline diabetes mellitus. J. Feline. Med. Surg., 2006. 8(2): p. 73-84.
15. Frank, G., et al., Use of a high-protein diet in the management of feline diabetes mellitus. Vet. Ther., 2001. 2(3): p. 238-46.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Shadowy feline behaviors

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My first encounter with an animal displaying shadows of normal behavior occurred early in my veterinary medical career. During a routine examination/vaccination appointment, a client told me she had to teach her Himalayan cat how to use the litter box when he was a young kitten.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Behavior and bond challenges in multi-dog households

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Last month’s article considered the inverse relationship between the amount of energy an animal expends when displaying a perceived problem behavior and the animal’s level of confidence: the less confidence in their ability to cope in a particular physical and mental environment, the more energy these animals will put into their coping strategies.

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Pet nutrition myths: A review of the facts — part 3

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Many pet parents today are interested in learning about optimal nutrition for their furry loved ones, and the first place they seek answers is often on the internet. Unfortunately, there are a variety of blogs and courses published online that may disseminate inaccurate or biased information. There is a lot of information out there, so how does one sort out fact from fiction?

While nutrition science isn’t perfect, it’s the best approach we have to figure out how to best feed our pets. The following review is the last part of a series featuring evidence-based approaches to some common myths found online about pet food and the pet food industry.

Myth No. 21: The pet food industry in North America is largely self-regulated.

The pet food industry is regulated by multiple bodies, including the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and the European Pet Food Industry (FEDIAF).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the Competition Bureau of Industry Canada and Health Canada are the government agencies involved in the regulation of pet food sold in Canada and abroad. There are, in fact, multiple government agencies monitoring the safety of pet food, making it a highly regulated industry in North America and throughout the world.

Myth No. 22: AAFCO focuses on the bare nutritional minimum because it doesn’t set maximums for every nutrient.

AAFCO recommendations were developed according to scientific research published by the National Research Council (NRC). AAFCO recommendations typically exceed NRC requirements. Therefore, when a food meets AAFCO minimums, in actuality it often exceeds animals’ nutrient requirements as supported by years of scientific research by the NRC (NRC, 2006). Maximum values for nutrients are established when there is a health risk associated with consuming too much of the nutrient.

The optimal intake range varies from nutrient to nutrient, with some nutrients having a very wide range and others a very narrow range. Without understanding ingredient interactions and the unique attributes of a specific animal, it is very difficult to determine what the optimal nutrient intake is for an individual pet.

Myth No. 23: Unless you calculate dry matter percentages on a bag, you cannot tell if a food meets AAFCO minimums.

All pet foods that meet AAFCO nutrient requirements will carry a nutritional adequacy statement. For example, “This food is complete and balanced according to the AAFCO nutrient profiles for Adult Maintenance/Growth/All Life Stages of dogs.”

You can look for this nutritional adequacy statement on pet food labels to determine if a food is complete and balanced without the need to calculate dry matter percentages.

Myth No. 24: If chicken is first on the ingredient panel, it may not actually be the first ingredient due to the inclusion of water.

Ingredients on a package are required to be listed in descending order by weight (AAFCO, 2018). This means that if chicken is the first ingredient, chicken is included in the recipe in the highest quantity according to weight.

This rule is the same for pet food and human food. Fresh meats naturally contain a high percentage of water and this water contributes to the total weight of the meat. Fresh meats in pet foods provide an excellent source of high-quality protein and enhance the flavor of the food.

Myth No. 25: Recipe descriptors (i.e. large breed, senior, etc.) have no nutritional requirements and are simply a ploy to charge more money for a product.

The AAFCO dog and cat nutrient profiles are divided into two categories — growth and reproduction, and adult maintenance. There are not specific nutrient profiles published for different body sizes, breeds, or life stages.

However, it is well established that various characteristics of an animal can affect their nutrient requirements. Large-breed dogs are a good example. AAFCO has set upper limits for calcium that are specific to large-breed puppies to promote healthy bone development (AAFCO, 2018).

Another example is that senior diets are often formulated to have reduced calories and fat compared to adult maintenance diets, to support senior pets’ slowed metabolism and help prevent weight gain. Thus, while there are no published regulations for what certain diet “descriptors” mean, they do provide nutritional benefits specific to pets in those categories and are not simply a ploy to charge more money for a product.

Myth No. 26: Carbohydrates may not be included on the label because pet food companies do not want to report the carbohydrate content of their food.

There are only four nutrients that AAFCO requires on a pet food label — moisture, crude protein, crude fat and crude fiber (AAFCO, 2018). AAFCO does not permit labelling of carbohydrate levels; however, it does permit labelling dietary starch and sugars in the Guaranteed Analysis, which are types of carbohydrates.

AAFCO does not allow a claim of “low carbohydrates,” “low dietary starch,” or “low sugars.” Furthermore, AAFCO has specific rules about making comparison claims for carbohydrate, dietary starch or sugars (i.e., the amount present in one food compared to that in another food). Since there is often a lack of space on packaging for all the required information, pet food companies must be selective about which information to include.

Since carbohydrates are not listed by AAFCO as an essential nutrient, even though the body has a physiological requirement for glucose, carbohydrate is often excluded from the label. However, reputable companies will provide full nutrient information, including carbohydrates, on their website or if contacted directly.

Myth No. 27: To avoid feeding oxidized foods, it is recommended to feed much earlier than the best-before date.

The best-before dates for pet food are not set arbitrarily. Shelf-life stability tests are conducted and peroxide values (which indicate when a food has become rancid) are measured to determine the shelf-life of a food. This testing ensures that the food is stable from the date of manufacture until the best-before date.

Myth No. 28: A dry dog food should contain no more than 30 percent carbohydrate, and a wet dog food should contain no more than 7.5 percent. A dry cat food should contain no more than 15 percent carbohydrate, and a wet cat food should contain no more than 1.5 percent.

Currently, there is no scientific research that identifies an optimal level of carbohydrates for cats or dogs. There is no evidence to substantiate a “30/7.5 percent” or “15/1.5 percent rule.”

There is, however, research to support the fact that both cats and dogs can readily digest and metabolize carbohydrates, even at high levels (Asaro et al., 2018; de-Oliveira et al., 2008). Carbohydrates provide a highly digestible, readily available energy source.

During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the preferred energy source for certain body cells, including the brain. In addition, the consumption of carbohydrates allows protein to be spared for producing and maintaining body tissue, rather than being used for energy production. In humans, some digestion of carbohydrates begins in the mouth. Dogs do not have this oral enzyme, so carbohydrates are only broken down in the small intestine.

Dietary fiber is a unique type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by a dog’s enzymes. However, it has many benefits. Fiber can help with weight management, improve digestive health and aid in the control of blood glucose levels.

Myth No. 29: Veterinary diets use low-quality ingredients and the biggest difference is the price.

Animals do not need ingredients, they need nutrients. This is especially important for pets with certain diseases that can be improved through dietary modification.

Veterinary diets may contain ingredients that are the same as ingredients in non-therapeutic diets, but the recipes are different to create diets with specific nutrient levels to treat a particular disease state. Veterinary diets often do not meet AAFCO nutrient profiles and therefore must undergo clinical testing to ensure their safety and efficacy. Substituting for a commercial diet that has similar ingredients is not a suitable option for treating animals with disease.

Myth No. 30: Supplemented vitamins and minerals on the ingredient list makes the quality of the food questionable.

Vitamin and mineral supplementation is used in pet foods to balance the nutrient composition and to ensure the healthiest pet foods possible. These supplements act like a “nutrition insurance policy” to provide essential nutrients in the correct ratios required by dogs and cats.

While our goal is to use nutrient-rich ingredients to minimize the need for supplementation, nutrition and food science tells us that optimal nutrition cannot always be achieved by natural food sources alone, making supplementation of pet food necessary.

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Pet nutrition myths: A review of the facts — part 2

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Many pet parents today are interested in learning about optimal nutrition for their furry loved ones, and the first place they seek answers is often on the internet. Unfortunately, there are a variety of blogs and courses published online that may disseminate inaccurate or biased information. There is a lot of information out there, so how does one sort out fact from fiction?

While nutrition science isn’t perfect, it’s the best approach we have to figure out how to best feed our pets. The following review is part two of a series featuring evidence-based approaches to some common myths found online about pet food and the pet food industry.

Myth No. 11: Pet food is not safe because it does not require FDA approval before going to market.

Pet food, like human food, does not need approval by the FDA before going to market, though it is the ethical responsibility of food producers to ensure only approved ingredients are used and safety measures are met. Regulatory agencies review and test foods on the market to make sure they comply with their labels and do not contain contaminants.

However, all food is susceptible to a recall if a regulatory body determines that it poses a hazard to human or animal health. Hundreds of human food recalls occur in North America every year, compared with only a handful of pet food recalls. It is in everyone’s best interest to keep the food supply as safe as possible for ourselves and our pets.

Though mistakes can happen, nutrition and food science technologies developed over the past several decades have created a safe food supply to feed millions of humans and their pets.

Myth No. 12: Extrusion sometimes can’t get rid of all anti-nutritional factors in plant-based ingredients.

The presence of anti-nutritional factors is often raised in relation to plant-based ingredients in pet foods. For example, some people are concerned about lectins (a type of carbohydrate-binding protein) in peas.

Lectins are believed to have evolved to protect the plant by causing intestinal discomfort in animals that eat them. However, lectins must be consumed raw in large quantities to produce this discomfort, and moderate heat treatment, such as that used to make dry and canned pet foods, inactivates the anti-nutritional properties of lectins (Roy et al., 2010).

In fact, controlled amounts of anti-nutritional factors may have health-promoting properties. Data in humans suggests that when properly processed, lectins may help to prevent or treat certain diseases such as heart disease and diabetes by helping to control obesity (Roy et al., 2010). Preliminary research has shown that lectins also may have anti-cancer and immune-boosting effects (Roy et al., 2010).

Myth No. 13: Synthetic vitamins are dangerous and do not provide the same benefits as whole foods.

The word “synthetic” does not automatically mean that something is inferior. Vitamin manufacturers have developed sophisticated technologies to produce the most useful and stable forms of individual vitamins, which are well utilized and handled by the body.

Many factors are taken into consideration when designing a vitamin or mineral premix, including the nutrient quality, bioavailability, stability, and physical characteristics. Whether it is a vitamin, mineral, or other nutritional supplement, strict quality control is put in place to ensure consistency and safety.

Furthermore, since many nutrients react with other food components, adequate stabilization protects the nutrient from degradation and is critical to ensuring correct nutrient levels in the food. There is no research to support defining synthetic vitamins as dangerous when fed in appropriate levels for dogs and cats. Any nutrient can be harmful if fed in excessive levels, whether the source is from foods or supplements.

Myth No. 14: Kibble is not very digestible.

A lot of research has been performed to examine the digestibility of kibble and it is in fact highly digestible. Research has demonstrated that the protein, fat and starch digestibility in kibble is upwards of 90 percent in cats and dogs (Asaro et al., 2017; Sá et al., 2013).

Fiber, by definition, is not digested, playing a critical role in digestive health and promoting regularity. Fiber can be particularly important for small breed dogs susceptible to anal glad issues by helping create a bulkier stool.

Myth No. 15: Processed foods have a higher risk of mycotoxin contamination.

The risk of mycotoxin contamination is not related to the processing of pet food; rather, it is related to quality control practices for ingredient sourcing. Testing for mycotoxins in ingredients is a key step in producing healthy and safe food for both pets and humans.

Myth No. 16: Processed foods negatively affect the microbiome.

Many aspects of food and an animal’s overall diet composition affect the microbiome, including nutrient content, prebiotic/probiotic content, and processing methods. Although food processing will impact the microbiome, research in this area is still relatively new and it is unknown whether processing has negative effects.

While processed foods in the human food industry are often viewed unfavorably because many of them are high in fat, salt, and sugar, this is not the case for most pet foods. There are many advantages to processing food. Processing technologies have evolved significantly over the years to create safe, convenient, nutrient-dense foods, and help secure a stable supply.

Processing can increase the digestibility of some macronutrients, allowing them to be more readily absorbed (Tran et al., 2008). Cooking food is a key step in maintaining food safety by destroying harmful pathogens; undercooked meat is a well-known source of pathogens for both humans and animals. Additionally, processing allows manufacturers to incorporate fiber into kibble, which can subsequently act as a food source for the beneficial bacteria in the GI tract, thereby promoting a beneficial microbiome for the animal.

Myth No. 17: Carbohydrates in the diet cause a disruption of the microbiome, and impaired nutrient absorption.

Studies have shown that consumption of a diet high in carbohydrates can increase the evenness (the balance of bacteria type) of gut microbiota in dogs (Li et al., 2017). A lack of dietary carbohydrates results in intestinal bacteria using amino acids as their energy source, leading to an increased production of ammonia, a foul-smelling compound excreted in the urine. Additionally, we are not aware of any research that supports a negative correlation between carbohydrate content and nutrient assimilation in cats or dogs.

Carbohydrates, namely starch and dietary fiber, are important components of pet foods. Although carbohydrates are often considered “fillers,” they do play a critical role in your pet’s body. In particular, carbohydrates provide a highly digestible, readily available energy source. Foods rich in complex carbohydrates are also an important source of essential nutrients.

Fat and carbohydrate are the preferred energy sources for the body, but protein can also be broken down to provide energy. However, animals are unable to store excess amino acids. What is not utilized for tissue maintenance must be dealt with by the liver and kidneys.

When compared to carbohydrates and fats, protein as an energy source is metabolically expensive due to the structure of amino acids. The body must first break protein down into amino acids to be utilized for energy. If the amino acids are not needed by the body for another purpose, the nitrogen portion of the amino acids is converted in the liver to an end-product called urea which is excreted in urine, and the carbon portion of the amino acid is converted to fat.

Nitrogen, from urea and other sources, is an environmental contaminant. Overfeeding protein by reducing carbohydrates not only serves as an inefficient use of energy but also leads to increased nitrogen (i.e. urea) excretion and environmental ammonia levels. The more protein that is fed above requirements, the more urea is excreted. High concentrations of urea in the urine result in yellow and burnt spots in grass.

Myth No. 18: If you feed your puppy less food, they might not get enough calcium.

AAFCO minimum calcium recommendations for puppies have been established based on years of research. Switching to a food with higher calcium can be detrimental to puppies and lead to skeletal diseases, especially in large breed puppies. It is important to continuously monitor your puppy’s weight and body condition score to ensure they are not gaining excess body fat, a sign of overfeeding. Extra calories can increase the rate of growth in puppies which is associated with abnormal bone development.

Myth No. 19: Food should not be frozen as it can increase oxidation and add moisture to food.

Freezing is a centuries-old method of food preservation to prevent microorganism growth. It is one of the safest methods of preservation; without it, tremendous amounts of food would be wasted.

Cold temperature storage helps keep food fresher for longer and keeps food safe by decreasing the water activity and reducing the multiplication, resistance, and survival of potentially harmful organisms (Leistner, 1992). Appropriate packaging prevents the gain or loss of moisture. Moisture loss, or ice crystals evaporating from the surface of a product, can occur during frozen food storage which causes freezer burn and a loss in product quality. However, this is easily prevented with proper packaging.

Fat oxidation is what contributes to food going rancid. Fresh meats and fish spoil quickly at room temperature due to bacterial growth. This can be slowed using refrigeration, but the shelf life only extends by a few days.

On the other hand, freezing greatly extends the length of time a food can be stored. While fat oxidation and a decrease in omega-3 fatty acid content can occur in frozen foods that have been stored for many weeks, there are significant benefits to freezing for maintaining food safety and quality of fresh meats and fish. Freezing at lower temperatures and rapidly freezing food helps to reduce fat oxidation. Since many people and their pets do not live next to an ocean or lake where fresh fish is abundant, freezing helps increase accessibility to these types of nutritious foods.

Myth No. 20: Because tests don’t distinguish between pathogenic and non-pathogenic Salmonella, many of the raw foods that are recalled may not pose a risk for illness.

There are two species of Salmonellaand over 2500 serotypes, or strains. All 2500 serotypes can cause disease in humans; therefore, no strain can be considered non-pathogenic (WHO, 2018).

The decision to recall a food is not done lightly; a pet food company would not recall a food unless they were concerned about its safety for the public. Furthermore, the FDA guidance documents for testing for Salmonella span both Human foods, and “Direct-Human-Contact” animal foods, including pet food. Therefore, the same validation processes that apply to human food also apply to pet food.

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