Dogs Can Improve the Mental and Physical Health of Kids

Just by owning a dog, you are improving your chances of living a longer life. Consider the statistics. Your chances of having a heart attack are reduced by 4 percent, likely due to more regular exercise. A survey of 1,000 Medicare patients found that 40 percent of all respondents with pets went to the doctor far less often than those without a canine friend around. Nursing homes that have companion animal programs are able to reduce their usage of prescription drugs. The good news about dogs just goes on and on.

Now, several compelling studies indicate that dog ownership is particularly beneficial to children, with positive health impacts likely extending into adulthood.

Dogs Protect Against Respiratory Infection Linked to Asthma
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, recently conducted a study that found that the house dust from a home with a cat or dog is distinct from the house dust in homes without pets. That in itself is common sense. But when they further investigated the differences, the scientists discovered that microbial agents in the pet-contributed dust contained microbes, which appear to protect against infection. The illness in question is a common respiratory virus associated with the development of asthma in kids.

Kei Fujimura, a researcher on the study, speculates “that microbes within dog-associated house dust may colonize the gastrointestinal tract, modulate immune responses, and protect the host.” A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics supports the overall determination.

Eija Bergroth of Kuopio University Hospital in Finland studied 397 children from their birth onward. A diary was kept for each child, mentioning the frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections, together with info about dog and cat contacts during the first year of life. Kids that were in contact with dogs and cats had fewer instances of infection and, as a result, required fewer antibiotic treatments.

Bergroth and team suspect that “animal contacts could help to mature the immunologic system.” It’s therefore possible that early exposure to pets stimulates growing human bodies to jumpstart the immune system, which can then better kick into action to ward off illnesses with a health boost that could extend into adulthood. Some individuals are allergic to pet dander; for these people, the problems probably would outweigh the benefits, but the majority of people are not allergic to dogs.

Dogs May Help Prevent Cancer
Marion Vittecoq and Frederic Thomas of the Tour du Valat research center, who have investigated the possible connections between human health and pets, mention a National Institutes of Health Study by G.J. Tranah and team. It found that dog and cat owners have a reduced risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The longer the duration of pet ownership, the lower the risk that the individual will suffer from this type of cancer.

Could dogs help prevent other types of cancer? Hopefully future studies can help answer that intriguing question.

Dogs Promote Good Mental Health
So far, we’ve been addressing how dogs can benefit our physical health. Studies also show that canines are good for our mental health too. For example, psychologists at Miami University in Ohio and Saint Louis University conducted multiple experiments to see how pet ownership affects people. Almost to 400 individuals -- with pets and without -- participated.

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell of Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

With a dog, we have the added bonus of gaining a new best friend. You probably even consider your dog to be a treasured family member, and for good reason. “Dogs are among our closest social companions because we have bred them for tameness and,

over generations of selection, they have become even more socially compatible with humans,” says Jon Day, a former researcher at Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. “Such social relationships may be characterized by generally harmonious collaboration under

conditions of balanced interests where social partners provide support for each other.”

Day therefore touches on the other positive aspects of pet ownership, such as comfort, companionship and a pleasant, vibrant life force to share one’s days with. The fact that canines may also improve our mental and physical health only adds to the reasons why you should pet your pup frequently with joy and gratitude … and maybe even consider adopting another dog.

Credit: Kasana88    

Innovation Showcased at New Pet Hospital

One of the first patients brought to the newly opened pet hospital of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF/SPCA) in January was a gray Tibetan terrier suffering from smoke inhalation. The pup had been rescued by the San Francisco Fire Department and was brought into the hospital’s state-of-the-art intensive care unit. He was treated in one of the facility's new oxygen cages -- a plastic cage that looks somewhat like an incubator.

"It's a more effective way for a pet to get oxygen really quickly," says Judy Goodman, the SF/SPCA hospital administrator.

A Gold Standard for Pet Care
The $29 million Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center is one of the most modern pet hospitals in the country, with cutting-edge features designed to better serve pets and their human companions in times of need. "It's amazing working here and seeing the positive effect that we have on animals -- whether they have an owner or not," Goodman says. "At our hospital, we do a lot of work caring for the sickest animals, whether they come in from our city shelter, shelters around California or with their owners."

Spay and Neuter Services on Demand
An estimated 20,000 animals come through the SF/SPCA's medical services department through the hospital and spay/neuter clinic each year. The new building, named after an SF/SPCA board member, replaces an old pet hospital around the corner. That older facility was originally built in the 1930s and was marked by dim lighting, narrow hallways, cramped surgical rooms, and waiting lists for services.

Thanks to the expanded facilities, the spay/neuter clinic expects to be able to double the 6,500 surgeries they performed last year. Jennifer Scarlett, DVM, associate director of veterinary services, says, "Our goal is to get rid of the wait list. We want to have on-demand spay/neuter services. When someone calls, we want to be able to say, 'Bring your pet in tomorrow.'" 

Special Suites for Special Needs
The new hospital was designed to better serve ailing pets and their owners by allotting enough space so that pets can receive special services when needed. These facilities now include:

  • Euthanasia room Given that emotions run high when a pet owner has to put a dog down, there is now a special room for euthanasia, called the Tranquility Room, Goodman says. Located off the main corridor in a quiet corner of the hospital, the room is furnished not only with an examination table but also a soft couch and seating area. "It's not an easy visit to make to the vet," she says. "We wanted to make sure we have a room that was a little more comfortable to the people and animals going through this."
  • Dentistry suite Just like humans, dogs and cats need dental work. They can suffer from dental disease, require cleanings or need tooth extractions. A new dental suite off the main wing allows veterinarians to perform these services with "all the bells and whistles," Goodman says.
  • Kibble Kitchen The new animal care center is equipped with a special kitchen stocked with the latest assortment of prescription and allergenic foods. The "Kibble Kitchen" is stocked with large plastic bins that resemble those found in the bulk food section of a supermarket or health food store. "One way animals are cared for is with special diets," Goodman says.

High-tech Equipment
The SF/SPCA, with the help of supporters and the Roberts family, was able to equip the animal care center with some of the latest medical technology to bolster pet care. Computers are now standard in every exam room. In addition, the images from the new digital X-ray machines can be downloaded onto computer systems so that veterinarians can view or email those records to other facilities.

Here is a rundown on some of the other innovative new features:

  • A device that cleans surgical equipment automatically
  • New ultrasound machines, which help veterinarians perform procedures and diagnose problems with organs
  • Monitoring equipment in the surgical suites allows all veterinarians and technicians to see the procedure performed by displaying it on a computer monitor
  • An elevator to move dogs up to surgical suites (whereas in the former hospital, dogs had to be carried up a flight of stairs). "With a 100-pound Rottweiler, that could be a problem," Goodman recalls.

Although even the most innovative technology in the world cannot save every ailing pet, on the whole, there are more happy endings than sad at the new facility. With pride, says Goodman: "It's really amazing to see what we can do for these animals.”

New Surgery Repairs Dog Knees

A year ago, when computer programmer Brad Kantor’s eight-year-old golden retriever, Goldy, began limping after their long morning walks, Kantor, who lives in Wayne, N.J., figured his once-lively pup was simply getting older. When Goldy began dragging his back leg as he walked, though, his owner suspected there was something more going on than just the normal aging process. “I took him to the vet,” remembers Kantor. “She watched him walk and then felt around his bad knee. She suspected he would need surgery.”

Goldy is not alone. Each year, more than one million dogs develop hind leg problems due to what, as it turned out, Kantor’s dog had: a debilitating knee condition called a cranial cruciate ligament (or CCL) deficiency. While surgery is a painful fix, a new, less invasive procedure is making the operation easier on pooches. Below, Dr. James Cook, the University of Missouri-based veterinarian and orthopedic researcher who developed the procedure, explains the injury and his innovative solution.

Human athletes often injure the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (or ACL), and the CCL problem in dogs is comparable. However, while ACL tears are the result of one unfortunate accident, like a fall down the stairs or a twist on the basketball court, CCL deficiencies are usually due to a degenerative process that develops over the years as athletic dogs leap to catch flying discs, tear around corners and engage in other high-impact activities. “It’s the most common orthopedic injury in dogs,” says Dr. Cook. “It can occur in any breed at any age, though it’s most common in larger dogs like Newfoundlands, goldens, Labradors and Rottweilers between the ages of two and nine.”

While CCL deficiencies can’t always be avoided, the best way to stave them off is to keep your pet at a healthy weight. “Don’t let your dog get heavy, and keep the muscles around the knee strong with hiking, swimming and leash climbing,” advises Dr. Cook, who points out that the slender greyhounds belong to the only large breed not afflicted with CCL problems. “You can’t strengthen the ligament, but you can strengthen the muscle around it.”

Dr. Cook also recommends that you make sure to feed your canine a food with enough protein. According to the National Academy of Sciences, a minimum of 10 percent of your adult dog’s caloric intake should come from crude protein. “A quality commercial pet food does everything possible for a dog’s overall nutrition as well as the bones and joints. The science that goes into these products is incredible. It’s nice as a vet -- we don’t have to formulate anything for dogs but can just advise our clients to feed the commercially available products.” Ask your veterinarian about the healthiest weight for your dog, and get recommendations for a weight reduction formula, if necessary.

Small dogs that are overweight are sometimes treated conservatively with diet and exercise modifications. For the larger breeds more prone to the injury, though, the best solution is usually surgery. Traditional methods involve cutting the bone, and this can lead to complications -- from bone fracture to joint damage. Dr. Cook’s technique, known as Tightrope CCL, relies on drilling and small incisions rather than cutting the bone. Because of the drilling, a canine must weigh at least 40 pounds to be a candidate for the Tightrope technique.

“The other surgeries work well, but I was drawn to switch to Tightrope because the complications are less serious,” Dr. Cook says. “When you cut the bone and something goes wrong, the animal can be nonfunctional afterwards, and it can be severe enough that the dog has to be put down.” He adds, “Also, the public is generally interested in less invasive techniques these days. So, that, too, was part of my consideration in developing this.”

While the surgery is a cure, without rehabilitation, a dog will not heal. CCL surgeries like Tightrope require 10 to 12 weeks of post-op limited activity. “The dog should be walking short distances and only on a leash. It should be in a crate when you’re not around to monitor activity,” emphasizes Dr. Cook. “Don’t fall for that sad face and let your dog out!”

As the weeks of rehabilitation progress, your best friend will most likely experience a 95 percent return to full function. It will also be officially arthritic. At this point, Dr. Cook says, it becomes important to attend to that condition, both with weight management and feeding foods containing glucosamine and chondritin sulfate, which are extracts from fish tissue and cartilage that are acknowledged building blocks for canine cartilage.

As for Kantor’s dog, Goldy, he’s back in fine form after undergoing one of the older procedures to stabilize his knee. “I don’t throw things for him to jump for anymore,” says Kantor. “But we can still go for slow-paced walks before I go to work.” These are walks that both owner and pooch now appreciate more than ever.

Doggone DNA

King Sigfred, a Los Angeles Great Dane, starts his day with the first of his three small, high-protein, high-fiber and low-carbohydrate meals. His water bowl contains just enough water during mealtimes -- about a cup, in his case -- and he doesn’t exercise for two hours after a meal, to promote proper digestion.

His housemate, miniature schnauzer Clara, on the other hand, receives her insulin injection and eats at 7 a.m. sharp. After her morning meal ritual, she goes for a 45-minute walk. She does best with no changes, sticking to the same calories and exercise every day to maintain regular blood sugar levels.

In both cases, the dog’s owner, accountant David Carleton, takes such measures to prevent his dogs’ hereditary conditions from worsening. Great Danes are predisposed to bloat, while Schnauzers have a tendency to get diabetes. However, as with King Sigfred and Clara, hereditary issues need not weigh down on your pet and disrupt your lives.

Learn the DNA ABCs
It first helps to understand a bit about genetics, which is at the root of the entire problem. Genetics can refer to inherited variation in DNA, a specialized acid that contains the instructions used in the development of all living organisms. Genetic predisposition means that your dog is at risk of getting a health problem due to its breed and that breed’s associated genes. Just as diabetes, epilepsy, cancer and arthritis can run in certain human families, these conditions can pass down through dog families, too, even if your pet is a mutt with multiple breeds on its family tree.

All breeds are susceptible to genetic-associated ailments. There is no way to tell if a puppy will have any of the predisposed diseases, since genetics is strictly luck of the draw. Two littermates may or may not have the same genetic makeup. Also, being predisposed just means a risk that is higher than normal. By the same token, a dog that is not predisposed can get diseases with a genetic component. Nothing is cast in stone when it comes to genetics.

Diseases and Conditions Linked to Certain Breeds
Here are a few common breeds with some of the disorders they may inherit:

  • American pit bull terrier allergies, cleft palate, thyroid and hip problems
  • Basset hound hair follicle disorders, glaucoma, back troubles
  • Beagle cataracts, deafness, epilepsy, heart disorders
  • Bloodhound bloat, hip problems, eyelid troubles
  • Border collie deafness, cataracts, hip problems
  • Boxer allergies, hip troubles, deafness, sinus issues
  • Chihuahua glaucoma, baldness, heart disease
  • Cocker spaniel (American) eye problems, epilepsy, hip disorders, thyroid disorders
  • Dachshund deafness, back problems, baldness
  • German shepherd hip problems, epilepsy, cataracts, heart disease
  • Labrador retriever joint problems, hip disorders, skin troubles, epilepsy
  • Poodle heart disorders, deafness, epilepsy, immune system problems
  • Saint Bernard cataracts, digestion troubles, hip problems

Two of the most common genetic-linked health issues among virtually all breeds are hip dysplasia and allergies.

Hip Dysplasia
Hip dysplasia is abnormal development and growth of the hip joint -- common in larger dogs -- that can cause painful arthritis and movement problems. Dogs typically show signs at five to eight months of age. You can’t prevent the condition, but you can keep it from getting worse. “The big issue is nutrition,” said Dr. Greg L. Harasen, DVM, an orthopedic veterinary surgeon in Regina, Saskatchewan. “Dogs on high-energy rations as puppies, which grow at a more rapid rate, have more severe changes in their hips. The rations don’t cause the problem; they make the changes worse.” He explains that the problem is that some people feed their pups too much, elevating their dogs’energy and calcium levels, which forces the undesired rapid growth. Be sure to feed your pet according to manufacturer and veterinary guidelines.

For appropriate cases, there are surgical fixes to get your dog walking more easily again. Another remedy for adult canines is weight control. “In dogs with degenerative changes in their hips, the more they weigh as adults, the more clinical signs they tend to have,” says Dr. Harasen. Prevent obesity by not overfeeding your dog, by making sure that you account for all food consumed, including treats and kitchen handouts. Be sure that your dog gets enough exercise as well.

Sophie, a four-year-old dog owned by Susan Shalaby, a teacher in West Allis, Wis., has the hip dysplasia that affects many Bernese mountain dogs. Shalaby keeps Sophie at a healthy weight. “We take slow, short walks, and I adjust to her speed,” says Shalaby. “She takes a glucosamine supplement.” Two different pain relievers gave Sophie tummy upset, so Shalaby is researching others. Sophie whimpers when a metal brush is used over her hips, so a softer brush is used instead. “We’ll probably put a ramp in so she won’t have to deal with stairs as she gets older.”

Allergies can also be inherited, with flea allergies among the most common for dogs. Amy Tiedt, a veterinary technician in Brooklyn, Wis., knows her West Highland white terrier, Fred, is wildly allergic to fleas and dust mites. Just two fleas can cause him to start scratching badly enough to need antibiotics. Dust mites make him just as miserable. Total flea control is critical. “I use topical flea preventive religiously and mark the calendar so applications are never late,” says Tiedt. To avoid steroid use, Fred gets daily fatty acid supplements and antihistamines as needed.

For dust mites, Tiedt regularly washes Fred’s dog bed, washable toys, her bedspread and bedding. Dust mites thrive in humidity, so in humid weather, Tiedt turns on her air conditioner. She vacuums with a HEPA filter and bathes her pet every so often with a hypoallergenic shampoo. She also says, “Fred gets an antihistamine before therapy visits because he’s allergic to something there. It’s all about managing his environment.”

Bad Genes, Not Bad Dogs
Fred, King Sigfred and other dogs prove daily that a hereditary disease doesn’t automatically mean that you and your dog must suffer. Sometimes you can prevent or delay conditions by following specific medical and nutritional recommendations. Your veterinarian can advise you, but the day-to-day management is up to you.

Stem Cell Research and Your Dog

Stem cell research often conjures images of political firestorms and futuristic science, yet it's a field that's already offering hope for humans and dogs alike. While the ideal of fixing spinal injuries and curing disease may be a long way off, dogs treated with stem cells are enjoying a new lease on life.

Pepper, a 10-year-old standard poodle, is a case in point. Crippled with arthritis in both his hips, Pepper came to James Gaynor, DVM, M.S., medical director of Animal Anesthesia & Pain Management Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., with his owners, who fully expected to have to put their pet to sleep. Conventional treatments hadn't worked, or had made their dog even sicker. In fact, Pepper's owners were so certain nothing could be done that they bought another puppy. "At our 60 day recheck, the owner was hugging me and crying out of happiness because, in her words, we gave her back her dog," Dr. Gaynor says. "The only problem was she now had Pepper and a puppy."

Healthy Bones
It wasn't long ago that dogs like Pepper with arthritis had few options beyond conventional anti-inflammatory treatments -- including a variety of non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Metacam, Previcox, Rimadyl and phenylbutazone; steroid medications such as Prednisone; and disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs (DMOADs) such as Adequan Canine -- that sometimes don't work. Now stem cells are providing an alternative. One California-based company, Vet-Stem, uses stem cells from dogs' own fat to treat animals in pain.

According to Julie Ryan Johnson, DVM, vice president of sales and marketing, studies have shown that fat is very rich with stem cells, making it an ideal source, and one that is nearly free from controversy, given that most of us don't mind having a bit of fat removed. "The way we do this is a veterinarian will send us a sample of the dog's fat," Dr. Ryan Johnson says. "We isolate the stem cells from that and then send the stem cells back to the veterinarian who injects them back into the dog -- for example, into an arthritic hip or elbow."

Once in the dog, the stem cells communicate with other cells in their environment. While it's not known exactly how they work, they do decrease the dog's pain level. "It's provided the veterinarian with another solution for helping these animals that have pain or difficulty moving," Dr. Ryan Johnson says. "Most importantly, for the dog and the dog owner, it offers quality of life."

The Possibilities
Richard Vulliet, Ph.D., DVM, professor and director of the Laboratory of Veterinary Cytotherapeutics at UC Davis, says stem cells haven't cured any diseases yet, but researchers are working hard to change that. "I think that stem cells in general will rewrite the medical textbooks in the next 10 to 20 years," Dr. Vulliet says. "They will have an impact on human, canine, feline and equine health and will allow us to treat diseases that we can only dream about at this time."

Tony Kremer, DVM, an Illinois-based veterinary surgeon, says that as research progresses into the origin of diseases, there is hope that stem cell therapy might one day be used to treat diabetes and muscular dystrophy in dogs. "It is hoped that this research can repair or replace diseased organs, severed spinal cords, or brain cells destroyed by Alzheimer's disease in humans and dogs," he says.

Dr. Vulliet works with adult bone marrow stem cells to investigate potential cures for diseases that cause misery for many dogs. Your dog may soon be able to get breakthrough treatment in the following areas:

  • degenerative myelopathy, a debilitating autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, particularly of German Shepherds;
  • enlarged and weakened hearts in Dobermans;
  • lung and metabolic disorders.

"In the past several years, we have developed methods for recovering a therapeutic amount of bone marrow stem cells and safe, relatively non-intrusive methods for administering the cells," he says. "We are now starting to enroll patients in these areas." In terms of fat-derived stem cells, progress has been made in several areas of canine health, including muscle inflammation and a disease known as immune-mediated anemia, which is when the immune system destroys red blood cells, leaving your dog weak and listless.

There has been a lot of excitement over umbilical cord blood banks -- centers that collect and store the blood from the placenta and umbilical cord after birth as a future source for blood stem cells -- but don't expect that to translate to the dog world anytime soon. "When the puppies are born, you would have to match that umbilical cord to the puppy and that might be a little complicated since there are often multiple puppies in a litter," Dr. Ryan Johnson says.

Taking the Plunge
If you are going to consider stem cell therapy for your dog, it pays to think ahead. "The fat in the abdomen holds stem cells so my recommendation is if, for example, a female dog is going to be spayed, as long as someone is in there, grab that fat, ship it to the lab and bank those stem cells," Dr. Gaynor says.

You'll also want to think about the risks involved in putting your dog through stem cell therapy. Dr. Vulliet says putting safety first is the primary concern. After it was found that injecting stem cells into the coronary arteries of university-owned dogs created mini heart attacks, the procedures were stopped until the technique had been improved.

According to Dr. Gaynor, there are three things to consider. The first is the same as any operation -- the general risks associated with anesthesia needed to perform the procedure. "But there always is some anesthesia risk, especially as patients get older and sicker, but we can minimize that with good anesthesia," he says. The second is the risk posed by the surgery itself. The biggest health threat he has seen is fluid pockets forming at the site of the surgery, which is a relatively minor problem.

Finally, there are the stem cells themselves. "Because they are the dog's own stem cells, there's virtually no risk," he says. "The biggest thing we've seen is a few dogs whose nails grow faster than expected; that's as bad as it seems to get." With the benefits likely outweighing the risks, there's a good chance that many dog owners, perhaps even you, will be exploring canine stem cell treatments in the not-too-distant future.