Ask the Veterinarian

You wouldn’t leave the house without a warm coat if it was cold out, so why should your dog? Help your dog keep that chill away with a winter coat. Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

Who knows when the next winter “bomb-cyclone” followed by an arctic cold front will hit Long Island. Here are a few important facts and tips to help our pets get through another winter:

Although dogs and cats have “built-in” fur coats, they are still susceptible to the elements. Prolonged time outside in low temperatures can be as dangerous as it is for us. Certain long-coated dog breeds (huskies, malamutes, German shepherds, golden retrievers, etc.) do much better in the cold weather than short-coated breeds (boxers, Chihuahuas, Boston terriers, etc.).

The very young, the very old and the debilitated have more trouble thermoregulating (maintaining normal body temperature). Frostbite occurs more readily in areas with less hair (e.g., the ear tips, nose, bottom of the feet/pads, etc.). A good tip would be to make sure indoor/outdoor pets should be limited in their time outside unsupervised (especially at night when temperatures drop) and signs of frostbite and exposure should be noted and treated.

The very young, the very old and pets with underlying/debilitating disease should be limited in their time outside altogether. A sudden loss of hair or other irregularities in these areas with known exposure should be examined by a veterinarian (either your regular veterinarian or emergency veterinarian if your regular veterinarian is unavailable). If you have a short-coated breed look for a sweater or coat. These are easily found at pet stores, online or through catalogs.

Arthritis affects older pets more commonly but can affect pets of any age with an arthritic condition. Cold weather will make it more difficult for arthritic pets to get around and icy, slick surfaces make it more difficult to get traction. Care should be taken when going up or down stairs and on slick surfaces. Boots, slings and orthopedic beds can be purchased from pet stores, online or through catalogs. These products will help our pets get a better grip on slick surfaces or icy surfaces and sleep better at night to protect aging bones and joints.

Supplements can be used to protect joints against the effects of arthritis. The most common supplements that are recommended by veterinarians are very similar to the ones we take for ourselves. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are supplements that help to protect the lining of the bones inside joints and maintain the proper amount of joint fluid for lubrication.

Supplements are best started early because they act more as a prophylaxis than a cure. Advanced or severe cases of arthritis may not respond to supplements, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are used in pets for these cases. The newer prescription-strength anti-inflammatories are safer in older pets and do not have some of the disturbing side effects of steroid- or cortisone-based anti-inflammatories. Talk to your vet.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories should be used with caution and only under the supervision of a veterinarian. Pets metabolize these medications differently than humans and some are poisonous at any dose (i.e., acetaminophen and acetaminophen-containing products are toxic at any dose to a cat).

Skin and nails become dry and brittle in the cold, dry winter weather. This makes them more likely to crack, tear or break off. The rock salt used to melt ice can be very irritating to our pet’s feet. Also the snow can cover broken glass or other sharp objects that our pets may run through without seeing it. Try to confine your pets to a safe portion of your yard when playing or walk them on a leash only.

Cut nails regularly to prevent overgrowth. Try to cover your pets’ feet with something or gently wipe or rinse off the bottom of their feet when they come inside if you know they stepped in the salt (the same type of boots made to help geriatric, arthritic patients get a grip on slick surfaces can also protect our pets from sharp objects or irritating materials).

Cold weather can be very difficult on pets with diagnosed respiratory or cardiac conditions. The cold air causes constriction of the airway, and this can exacerbate any underlying conditions as well as indirectly put an added strain on the heart. Older pets or pets diagnosed with either of these conditions should be limited in the time spent outdoors or not let out at all on very cold days. Most pet stores sell Wee-Wee Pads, and I have met many owners that were able to train their pets to use them indoors.

I hope these tips help to get our pets through the rest of this wicked winter we are experiencing.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Studies have shown that having a pet in your life significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I had a classmate in veterinary school who simply described his cat as “good for the head.” What he meant by that statement was when the stress of classes and studying became too much he could always count on his cat to ease the burden. Well, science is backing up this claim. Having a pet in your life can be good for the head and the body.

Let’s start with the head. How do we know that interacting with a pet reduces stress? Well, a recent study revealed that just the act of petting something reduces stress. This study put individuals in a stressed state and then offered them a rabbit, a turtle, a toy rabbit or a toy turtle. Those individuals who petted a real rabbit or turtle showed a significant reduction in stress compared to those that petted a toy rabbit or toy turtle.

Other studies have revealed that people with significant mental illness such as bipolar disease and schizophrenia benefit from pet ownership. Many people with significant mental illness live at home and do not reach out to the health care system and see their social circles shrink. Pet ownership decreases the loneliness and feelings of isolation that come with that.

One schizophrenic in an article I read stated that he was able to keep the voices in his head at bay by concentrating on the singing of his birds. Another study observed the act of walking or grooming a horse has been successful in reducing depression, anxiety and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in both survivors of childhood abuse and veterans.

A third study focused on comparing human social support and pet attachment support in combatting depression in geriatric patients. What they found was there was no relationship between human social support and depression, but there was a significant positive influence in pet attachment and depressed mood.

Now, we can move on to the body. Studies both in the United States and abroad have concluded that just sharing your life with a pet significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as a heart attack or stroke, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and lowers cholesterol. In addition, owning a pet motivates us to exercise more.

The national physical activity guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis states only about 50 percent of Americans get that total.

In contrast to this data, research shows that dog owners walk an average of 22 minutes more per day. Not only do dog owners exercise more, but also the type of exercise is healthier. The type of exercise is described as at a moderate pace, which refers to getting the heart rate up.

This holiday season consider a pet as a gift for yourself. Consider it a New Year’s resolution, as well as a gift.

Thank you to all the readers who enjoy this column. I would like to also thank Heidi Sutton, editor of the Arts & Lifestyle section, as well as all the staff at the Times Beacon Record News Media for another great year.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Long Island is an ideal environment for many species of ticks, specifically the deer tick.

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I commonly get the question, “What month can I stop using tick preventatives?” My answer is always, “That depends.” It used to be that somewhere around late October/November until late March/early April one could stop using flea and tick preventatives. However, with changing climate conditions and parasite adaptation this is no longer true.

The tick life cycle contains four stages: egg, larval, nymph (young adult) and adult. After the larval stage hatches out from the egg, it must feed and go through a molt between each successive stage. Ticks are sensitive to environmental changes throughout their life cycle but, ironically, are most resistant to temperature changes. It has to be below 35°F for ticks to even “overwinter.”

Overwinter is a term that refers to a process many species use to pass through the period of the year when “winter” conditions (cold or sub-zero temperatures, ice, snow, limited food supplies) make normal activity or even survival difficult or near impossible. During the overwinter period all activity nearly completely ceases until conditions become more favorable. If conditions become more favorable (above 45°F) ticks will set out in search of a host.

To kill a tick temperatures must be consistently below 10°F for many days in a row. If the tick is able to bury itself in the vegetation below a layer of snow, even below 10 degrees may not kill them. It is pretty routine even in January to have one or two days that are in the 20s during the day, dropping to the teens or single digits at night followed by a few days in the 50s.

Ironically, as resistant as ticks are to colder temperatures, they are much more sensitive to higher temperatures and humidity (or lack thereof). Eggs will desiccate, or dry out, and die during hot dry periods. The other life stages are at risk for dehydration due to increased respiratory rate in an effort to thermoregulate (control body temperature) and questing (looking for hosts).

Hotter, drier temperatures mean less vegetation. Less vegetation causes multiple problems for ticks: less protection from the elements and less vegetation for hosts.

The white-footed mouse is the primary host for the larval stage of the deer tick. This mouse survives on vegetation, and less vegetation and less resources for the mouse means a subsequent decrease in the mouse population. A decrease in population means less hosts. Less hosts, less ticks survive from the larval stage to adulthood. Fortunately, and unfortunately for us, the northeast United States rarely sees prolonged droughts. Even if we have hot, dry periods during the summer, we usually make up for it in the fall. It is an ideal environment for many species of ticks, specifically the deer tick.

In summary, it is my feeling that the tick season is 9 to 10 months out of the year. You may be able to stop applying preventative during the months of January, February, and March (this depends on temperature), but the rest of the year ticks are active.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Above, Cairo. There are an estimated 600 military dogs on active duty right now in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I recently watched the movie “Megan Leavey” and realized that although recent events have forced many Americans to take sides on loyalty to First Amendment rights versus loyalty to the flag (as it stands for the sacrifice the military, police and rescue services make on our behalf), one belief is united: Man’s best friend has always been there for us, especially in times of war.

A quick review of dogs in the military reveals that their use goes as far back as the Egyptians (as seen in ancient murals) for both offensive and defensive purposes. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Attila the Hun, Spanish conquistadors, Napoleon and Frederick the Great all used dogs during times of war. These war dogs were unleashed on their enemies, used to guard prisoners and even to carry packs with supplies and messages.

In World War I dogs were used by the Germans to help the wounded on the battlefield. The Sanitatshunde, or “sanitary dogs” would head out onto battlefields in search of wounded soldiers. These brave dogs not only carried water and medical supplies to the wounded but also returned and guided soldiers to their injured comrades. One of the most famous American dogs, Rin Tin Tin, was actually rescued from a German training kennel by an American soldier at the end of the war.

The United States started incorporating dogs into the military services beginning in World War II. In 1942, the American Kennel Club and private citizens (including breeders and trainers) established the Dogs for Defense (DFD) organization. Later that year, the DFD was taken over by the U.S. Army Quartermaster. The dogs in the DFD were initially used for domestic sentry duty, but their role was quickly expanded to search and rescue, hauling, scouting and carrying messages. By 1944, thousands of military service dogs were used in the islands of the South Pacific and across Europe to help turn the tide of the war.

During the Korean War military dogs and handlers would routinely lead patrols to alert the troops of the possible presence of the enemy. This was expanded during the Vietnam War into what were termed Combat Tracking Teams (CTT).

The CTT consisted of a military dog, handler, team leader, visual tracker and radio operator. The job of this special unit was to make contact with the enemy, as well as detect any recent enemy activity in the area. Around this time the military also realized the canine’s sensitive sense of smell could be used for more than detecting the enemy. In 1971, programs were developed to teach military dogs to detect both bomb materials and narcotics. After the war U.S. Customs found these drug-sniffing dogs invaluable.

As recently as 2011 a military dog named Cairo (in photo above) was used in the SEAL team Operation Neptune Spear (which was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden). Today, military dogs are used in all capacities previously described. There are an estimated 600 military dogs on active duty right now in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, let’s tip our hats to these true American heroes.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.