Eat this, not that: Easter edition

It may not rival Thanksgiving or Halloween in terms of numbers of ER vet visits generated, but Easter still has its share of pet related dangers, especially when you have a dog or cat who is prone to the occasional counter surfing. If you have a pet who never does this, pat yourself on the back. Good work. Now for the rest of you, the best way to manage the weekend is to make a few simple substitutions so that if Fluffy does manage to grab a bite of something when you’re not looking, the worst you have to deal with is an upset tummy.

Flowers to Avoid: Lilies

Easter Lily

Easter Lily by carriejeberhardt on Flickr

Bright and happy lilies are synonymous with Easter. Used as a filler in almost every springtime bouquet out there, lilies are undeniably beautiful. Unfortunately, they are also undeniably toxic- in fact, one of the absolute worst plants a cat can eat. Every part is toxic- the flower, the leaves, the pollen- and it takes only a small amount to induce renal failure in a cat. It’s one of the rare instances in which I’m comfortable making a blanket statement: if you have a cat, you shouldn’t have lilies in the house.  (more…)

Filed: Blog, Cats, Dogs, Fit Life, Health Tagged: , ,

Scientific progress goes boink: viruses, renal failure, and you

A thin, dehydrated cat presents to the clinic with the complaint of malaise, inappetence, and weight loss.  I tent his skin and watch as I let go, the gummy flap at the nape of his neck sitting still instead of snapping smartly back in place. His breath has the sour smell a vet might describe as “uremic”, common in cats with renal failure as the kidneys are overwhelmed with their job of filtering waste from the blood. Bloodwork confirms what we suspect: this older cat is in kidney failure, and despite the amount of supportive care we have to offer, the bottom line is this: it’s an irreversible disease.

All diseases have their share of distress and frustrations; in feline medicine, renal disease is one of the worst. It’s one of the most common conditions we see in older cats. Although there are specific, known causative agents for some types of renal failure, things like toxins, autoimmune disease, and infection, much of the time we have no idea what causes it. As the kidneys lose function, a litany of unpleasant secondary issues develop: hypertension, anemia, ulcerations, vomiting. Owners do what they can to stay on top of the symptoms with administration of fluids, special diets, and medications, but the overall course is frustrating, uncomfortable, and challenging for both the pet and the owner.

cat's food

"Cat's Food" by Amehare on Flickr

So it was with great interest that I read this abstract from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, out this week: “Feline morbillivirus, a previously undescribed paramyxovirus associated with tubulointerstitial nephritis in domestic cats.” That’s the actual abstract for the bio-nerds types like me who like reading about paramyxoviruses. For those thinking, “huh?” Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience does a great job translating the study and its implications.

To summarize the summary, a group of researchers in Hong Kong went on a hunt for a feline morbillivirus, a family of viruses known to infect humans (measles, mumps) and dogs (distemper.) In a study of 457 stray cats, the virus was found in 12%. So to answer the first question, does this virus exist in cats, the answer is yes. Then they asked, what body systems does it affect?

Here’s where it gets interesting: “A case-control study showed the presence of TIN (inflamed renal tubules) in seven of 12 cats with FmoPV infection, but only two of 15 cats without FmoPV infection (P < 0.05), suggesting an association between FmoPV and TIN.”

Translation: The researchers examined 27 stray cats who had passed away from various causes. Of 12 who were positive for the virus, 7 had signs of kidney damage (58%). Of the 15 who were not positive for the virus, only 2 (13%) had kidney damage. And if I read the abstract correctly, they were further able to isolate viral protein within the kidney cells themselves. Heady stuff.

So we’ll see- if it does turn out that this virus is one of the causes of renal disease in cats, the implications could be big. We have vaccines for measles, mumps, and distemper. The idea that one day in the future we may be able to vaccinate cats and save some from that horrible spectre of death by renal failure is one that fills me with joy.

So rock on, researchers. Pursuing a PhD in a biological science was something I considered at one point, but the truth is I was never possessed of the right temperament for that job. I’ve never been one with the meticulous nature and attention to detail needed to do what they do, but man, when I hear stories like this, I am so glad that someone else does.

Filed: Blog, Cats, Health Tagged: , , ,

What’s in your meal? Aside from BS

Every now and then I get a sample of food for the dogs to try. As I’ve said before, I rotate through multiple brands, and if I’ve written about a specific food on the blog, it’s one I’ve given to the dogs at some point.

I don’t mind trying new brands- my local pet store just started carrying some new brands this week, and I bought a couple to try out. I’m not averse to new foods, as long as giving the label a good once over doesn’t give me reason to feel otherwise. I look for several things: (more…)

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Hill’s Science Diet Ideal Balance Giveaway

The holidays are right around the corner- and to celebrate I have the first of a series of giveaways running between now and the New Year!

To kick us off, I have TEN chances to win either:

So here’s the interesting thing about pet food nutritionists, and this is the same across the board in terms of the big companies I have talked to: they don’t mind corn. They have in front of them the data from years of research and can say with assurance that based on science, it’s not an evil thing.

But here’s the other thing: there are lots and lots of people out there who do not like corn, and no matter what the studies may say, it is not an ingredient they want to feed their pet, for a variety of reasons.

I get both sides, actually. I like data and numbers and science but I also can’t help but intuitively feel certain ways about foods based on my own anecdotal experiences, and at the end of the day, I still encourage people to trust their instincts, as long as they are leading you in the right direction.

I am a veterinarian with a scientific mind sometimes, but I’m also a person who does exactly what drives scientists batty, which is ignore studies and go with my gut. Why not? As long as it’s balanced either way, companies would be out of their minds not to give people what they want. That is what sells.

So I’m happy to see Hill’s add meat first, grain-free, no corn products to their line, because it means this: companies are listening to what consumers want. And the more options there are out there for consumers, the better, I say.

Hill’s has provided me with ten coupon codes, each of which are good for a 12-15 pound bag of either of the above diets from Pet Food Direct. (Note: the dog diet is grain free, but the cat one is not. Check the links for full information.) The coupon code includes shipping, so each is a $49 value.

Want to try it out? Or if not, want to give a bag to a friend or your local shelter? It’s easy to enter, but do it while you’re thinking of it: the codes expire 12/31/11 so this is a short giveaway ending 12/27.


Filed: Blog, Cats, Dogs, Giveaways, Health, Lifestyle Tagged: , , ,

Animal Use in Pet Food Research: The Hill’s Approach

One of my primary goals when I am invited to tour a pet food manufacturer is to see their animal welfare policy in action. It’s probably one of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to pet foods: do you use animals to test your foods? And how do you use them?

There was a time, a little over a decade ago, when animals were used quite a bit by various companies. They were used in various ways, including terminal studies in which the animals were euthanized at the end of the study. (Though I was told by Dr. Karen Johnson at Hill’s Pet Nutrition that as far as she knew, Hill’s has never participated in or funded terminal studies.) How things have changed.

Animal Welfare Policies have become the norm with pet food companies, usually readily available on the company website. Hill’s policy is to use only non-invasive methods for which there is an equivalent human comparison, which is limited to data collection via physical exams, bloodwork, and fecal and urine evaluations. This has become, as far as I can tell, the standard in the States- and I am glad for it.

So why do companies still use animals? And what’s their life like? (more…)

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Hills Tour Part 1. By-products: What’s in a name?

Last week I had the pleasure of joining some of my favorite pet bloggers out in Topeka to tour the Hill’s Pet Nutrition campus. I really enjoy going to these types of events for a lot of reasons: one, I always learn something. Two, it’s really helpful from my perspective to get to meet the individuals behind a brand and get a feel for who these people are and how they embody a company’s vision.

(I own a grand total of two sweaters, by the way, neither of which actually provides any actual warmth. Good thing we spent all our time indoors. I’m such a wuss.)

The Hill’s vision is this: “to make nutrition a cornerstone of veterinary medicine, which builds on Hill’s heritage of leading-edge research.” Hill’s was founded by a veterinarian in 1948, and they now employ over 120 vets on staff. This is a science driven company, and that philosophy permeated every presentation we had during our daylong tour.

I want to cover a couple of things in the next few weeks that will answer questions a lot of you had for me, about how Hill’s uses animals in research and something really cool about how they used genetics research to show there isn’t a reason to make a breed specific diet, but my attention span is short so I’m not covering it all today.

Today, I’m revisiting one of my favorite topics that was covered by Hill’s Principal Nutritionist Bill Schoenherr: Ingredients. Let’s focus on one of the more, shall we say, controversial ingredients and why a company uses them in pet food.


When I was little, my grandfather and father used to hunt deer. They would come back from Maine with a big buck strapped to the hood of the Buick, tell me it was Bambi (I know, right?) and hang it in the garage. Then, while I was sobbing in the corner until my grandmother realized what had transpired and whop them with her big purse, my grandfather would dig in to his very favorite part of the meal: the kidneys.

My other grandfather was from Quebec. Though he didn’t hunt, he sure did savor his pigs’ feet. And chicken necks. And liver. “More for me!” he’d gleefully declare when everyone else in the room declined to have a bite. No wonder my grandmother was so tiny.

By-products, all of them. Viscera, to be more specific. Giblets. I call it nasty, but they called it delicious. My point is, while we are culturally inclined to be grossed out by anything that isn’t nice filets of skeletal muscle, by products can be very nutrient-dense sources of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Liver, for example, used to be recommended to pregnant women as a source of iron, like that’s just what every nauseated pregnant woman wants to choke down. But I digress.

I have in my hands a copy of the 2011 AAFCO Official Publication (thanks Jason! Told you I would use it!) that gives the legal definition of all the ingredients you see on pet foods. Here is the definition of poultry by-product:


Poultry By-Products must consist of the non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter.

Kind of a broad definition, right? I asked Bill if there was any sort of official stipulation as to what percentage of by-products would be feet versus livers, and he said no.

So here is where it gets tricky: by-products can be a good source of nutrition, a nutrient dense protein source. Or it could be a pile of chicken feet, which is good as a calcium source, but not much else.

According to Bill, Hill’s deals with this by making additional stipulations on their suppliers for minimum protein requirements for their by-products- if it’s just feet, a big pile of calcium, it won’t pass muster and the product is rejected. There are high quality by-products and poor quality by-products. All by-products are not made the same.

Now here’s where it gets even trickier: here’s the definition of poultry:

Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, feet, heads, and entrails.

So everyone wants to see a named meat as the first ingredient- that’s what all the label reading guidelines tell you to do. Something that says, “chicken” could be what you get in the grocery store. That’s what you picture, right? Or it could be a pile of bones and skin of which all the good parts were pulled off to send to the local Krogers, with a little bit of back meat hanging on. You know, the carcass you toss in the trash after you’re done eating your roast chicken. There’s no official minimum requirement for muscle or protein on that, either.

Depending on the quality of your sourcing, by-products could actually be a higher quality ingredient with more meaty stuff in it than something labeled chicken. Now it’s getting Inception-level complex.

Who do you trust? And why do you trust?

So how do you, the consumer, know what a company is using? You don’t. It comes down to trusting the company and the people who make the product, whether or not you believe they are making those choices to select a high quality ingredient from an ethical supplier.

And that, my friends, is a tricky proposition, isn’t it? This is why companies are asking bloggers and journalists in and promising transparency, in an attempt to create that trust in a world where information is much more readily available than it was a decade ago. People want that. I know I do.

I will say this: Hill’s did promise transparency in their presentation, and I believe they provided it. Everyone I heard from was very honest about the process, both good and bad, and answered every question put to them. I hope they continue to provide that and to use bloggers as a conduit to answer questions and continue a dialogue.

I’ll touch on organic versus human grade and holistic labeling in another post. This may or may not have you on the edge of your seat, but really, I find it all utterly fascinating. It’s like some crazy sleight of hand trick.

To see what the other attendees had to say, check out their blogs:


To Dog With Love


Good Dogz

Ask A Vet Question


In the meantime, since I have a manual in front of me, are there any product definitions you’re dying to know about? Ever wonder what leather hydrolysate is, for example?

Filed: Blog, Cats, Dogs, Health Tagged: , ,

Take a bite: Home Cooking and a BalanceIt Giveaway!

Lots of people like to cook for their pets, but most people don’t do it every single day. Of those who do, most do so because they have to, a pet with kidney disease who also has food allergies and diabetes, that sort of thing. Occasionally there is the person who just likes to do it, like the chef who makes seared sea bass for his two incredibly spoiled schnauzers every day. I admire that dedication, which is significant.

More common are people like me, those who do it every once in a while for giggles at times like Thanksgiving- and yes, I’ll be coming up with something for the dogs because why not, it’s a holiday. And then they will go back to their regular food until Christmas, when I make them gingerbread. Because cooking is a show of love, even if you only do it twice a year.

Gingerbread 2010

(Yes, I made those both last year in a peppermint induced fit of insanity.)

For those sorts of occasional treats, balance isn’t a big deal. But when you are making a maintenance diet, a complete and balanced diet is vital.

I recently wrote an article on the topic of home cooking for Good Dog Magazine, and rather than re-invent the wheel I’ll just give you the link because I worked on it for quite a while, and I’m very proud of it, and it has tons of information about how to go about the process if home cooking is something you’re interested in. I had to interview a bunch of people for it, which as you know is a show of journalistic effort I don’t undertake on a regular basis, so you know it’s something special.

For the article, I interviewed Dr. Sean Delaney of Dr. Delaney is a board certified veterinary nutritionist who just happened to be a resident in training when I was a senior student at Davis, and he remains just as friendly and knowledgable and excited about nutrition as he was that day one hundred million years ago when we were in a cramped room in the hospital annex with some Flintstone-era nutrition software doing nutrition consults.

We talked about food. We talked about online recipe sites and books. We talked about kabocha squash (did you know it caused neurologic signs in a group of labradors? Brand new info here, guys. You heard it here first.) I kept the poor doc on the phone for an hour but it was so interesting, and I love nutrition topics, and I know you do too.

Dr. Delaney has since developed newer web-based versions of nutrition software that creates custom recipes for veterinarians as well as for consumers. BalanceIt has about 500 recipes to choose from, all designed by a board certified veterinary nutritionist and best of all, balanced. When clients tell me they want to cook for their pets, this is where I send them because I know they’re getting information from a trusted source. After the melamine fiasco, I’ve been mentioning this site more times than I can count.

It’s a neat site because, as you can see above, you can really customize your options. You select the protein source and the carbohydrate source, enter your pet’s age and weight, and out comes a list of choices that fit your criteria. If your pet has a medical condition, you can ask your vet to create an appropriate recipe on the section of the site that is just for veterinarians.

So here’s their gift to you all: with the holidays bearing down, perhaps you are looking for a little something special for your dog or cat’s festivus plate. Dr. Delaney is offering all pawcurious readers one free recipe from the Pet Lovers BalanceIt site– a $20 value! The diets can be made using BalanceIt supplements or human supplements- you’ll get options for both.

Just enter the code “pawcurious” at checkout. And don’t forget to give them a like over on Facebook and tell them I said hi!

Will you get the English dinner? The Surf and Turf? Which recipe are you going to try? Have you ever cooked for your pet?

Filed: Blog, Cats, Cooking, Dogs, Fit Life, Giveaways, Health, Lifestyle, Pawcurean Tagged: , ,

Ask Dr V: Nutrition, rotation diets, and high protein

Today I’m showing Part 2 of the Ask Dr V series. I believe, though I haven’t checked it against the itinerary, that I should be on my way to the Ngorongoro Crater as we speak. Unless a chimp shoved me off the mountain earlier in the week, in which case these pre-published videos will be on a whole new level of macabre.

Which, by the way, my shade would find utterly hysterical.

YouTube Preview Image
Filed: Ask Dr. V, Blog, Cats, Dogs, Health, Videos Tagged: ,

It’s National Holistic Pet Day!

I finished a comprehensive course in veterinary acupuncture in 2006. It was intense. Thinking about health from a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine standpoint as opposed to our standard Western approach is just such a different mindset, but once you think about it, it makes sense. Our bodies are not a collection of closed systems that function independently of one another, yet we’re trained to treat them that way. Once you step back and see the entire organism as a collective effort, your entire approach takes a shift.

August 30th is National Holistic Pet Day, celebrating the myriad ways we take care of our pets’ bodies, minds, and hearts as well as the way we function as part of a larger pet community. Given that I just got back from a conference celebrating that very thing, it’s a perfect fit.

Holistic health its core simply means taking the big picture into account, which makes perfect sense to me. It’s hard to think changing a pet’s diet will make a significant difference if they get no exercise and live in a high stress environment. They’re all puzzle pieces. It’s really not that different from our own lives, right? “I’ll have a double double, a chili cheese fries and a diet Coke. DIET, please. I’m watching my figure.” etc.

A recent survey of 700 pet owners asked them what they currently do to contribute to their pets’ overall well-being.

Out of 700 respondents, 74.8% have dogs and 57.7% have cats

78.7% of pet owners surveyed exercise their pets regularly

2.1% take their dog for Doga (Dog+Yoga!)

26.2% learn about holistic living at their local pet food or natural food store

59.5% use non-toxic household products

48.9% use natural supplements for skin, coat or digestive care

43.7% take their pets for regular dental check ups

54.8% play mind stimulating activities and games with their pets

5.7%  take their pets for acupuncture

44.8% help a local rescue or shelter

47.6% use all natural shampoo and grooming products

Well, you all know how I feel about doga, but I’ve done the rest to varying degrees. Do you have a favorite health-promoting activity? Any you’re dying to try?

Filed: Cats, Dogs, Health Tagged:

Guest post: 5 Reasons to love a kitty with the wobbles

Today I’m happy to feature a guest post from Amanda Maurer, discussing one of my favorite topics: the joys of adopting a special needs pet. Cerebellar hypoplasia is a common condition that- well, wait, I’ll just let her tell you. Enjoy!

Special needs pet owners view their pets as just that: special. They’re an extraordinary group of pets that are often overlooked because they’re different and consquently may have more needs than “normies.” But here’s a secret: They make great pets — especially cats with “CH” or cerebellar hypoplasia.

You see, three years ago I came across a Petfinder profile for a tiny, gray tabby named Scrabble. His picture was precious, but what really grabbed my heart was his story. He was a special needs cat born with cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological condition that results in clunky fine motor skills because of an underdeveloped cerebellum. His profile said he walked like a drunken sailor and loved playing with plastic ties from frozen orange juice cans. I knew he was the one.

But he was special needs. I’ll admit, it made me hesitate. Could I handle a special needs pet? There was a great deal to learn and consider.


Filed: Cats, Daily Life, Health Tagged: , ,

The Litterbox Chronicles, Part 3: A Nightmare on V Street

Apollo is 13 years old now. He had never marked the house as a kitten, not with the introduction of a new dog, or even a new cat to the home. When I moved after vet school, he would very occasionally mark, but only when my mother-in-law brought a package over that must have smelled like one of the cats in her household. No big deal.

It wasn’t until we moved into our current home that his marking behavior picked up significantly. I’ve ruled out medical problems for him- multiple times, so I’m left with the conclusion that his desire to drench the house in his special parfum de peuw is the result of some primitive instinct in his little furry cat-head. Marking can be a manifestation of stress or insecurity. So what’s different about this house now in 2011 as opposed to my other home in 2002? (more…)

Filed: Cats, Daily Life, Health Tagged: ,

The Litterbox Chronicles, Part 3: The Box Buffet

While the world has been in chaos and disarray, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to spend pondering the smaller issues in our household: namely, Apollo and his marking. But I have been passively conducting an experiment with the litterbox, otherwise known as the Litterbox Buffet.

When you are trying to make your cat’s bathroom the Happy Place, one of the key questions you need to ask is “What kind of toilet do you like?” It would certainly make it easier if you could simply present the cat with a catalog and let him point to the Toto, the Kohler, or the Dagobert Throne.

Let’s hope the Throne is not the potty of choice.


Filed: Cats, Health, Reviews Tagged: , ,
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