Better Health for Your Hound

It's easy to spot a healthy-looking dog: a gleam in the eye, a bounce in the step, and a glossy, healthy coat. That glow is a reflection of a dog's overall health, and a good gauge of what's going on inside and outside. Several factors play roles in your dog's skin and coat health. They are:

  • Heredity
  • Nutrition
  • Internal or external parasites
  • Health
  • Grooming

Although heredity determines the thickness, length, color and texture of a dog's coat, your care can make a big difference in your pet's skin and coat health.

Regular veterinary checkups will help ensure that your dog is disease and parasite free. Flea-bite allergy and external parasites, such as mange, are primary causes of hair loss and skin problems.

Balanced Nutrition for a Better Coat
What's the best thing you can do for your dog's skin and coat health? Feed a high-quality food packed with protein. Dogs are carnivores -- they need protein and thrive on diets rich in animal-based protein sources.

Hair is actually 95% protein! Although coat growth varies from dog to dog, the combined growth of all the hair can add up to 100 feet per day in some dogs. This means that nearly 30% of the animal's daily protein requirement is used just for coat growth during some seasons.

If your dog's skin seems thick or scaly, lacks elasticity, and you see hair loss, these may be signs of a nutritional deficiency. Check with your veterinarian.

Quality pet foods are carefully formulated to be complete and balanced, which means the food includes all the nutrients your pet needs. Ingredients are highly digestible so your dog's body uses the nutrients efficiently.

Dietary Fats Give That Glow
Studies have found that certain fatty acids play a critical role in canine skin and coat health. For some time, veterinarians and scientists have known omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, are important for achieving and maintaining a full, glossy coat.

Recent research has shown a precise balance, of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are important. Supplying a dietary fatty acid balance (or ratio) of between five and 10 omega-6 fatty acids to every one omega-3 fatty acid can be key to a healthy skin and coat.

Fatty Acids and Skin Health
Fatty acid supplements of omega-3s or adding fat, such as corn oil or bacon grease, to the pet's diet rarely makes for a healthy skin and coat. The best way to provide the precise balance necessary is through a complete diet.

A diet with a properly adjusted fatty acid balance may also be helpful for skin health. The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids should be between 5:1 and 10:1. Ingredients that are rich in omega-6 include:  safflower oil, corn oil, poultry fat.

Ingredients that are rich in omega-3 include:  fish oil or meal, flax and canola oil.  It will usually take between 6 and 8 weeks after a diet change to see results in skin and coat health.

Working on the "Outer Dog"
The overall health of your "inner dog" helps create a beautiful, healthy coat, but the care of the "outer dog" is important, too.

Regular grooming removes loose hair, dirt and mats, and distributes skin oils. Grooming lets you check your pet closely, catching any skin problems early. Plus, your dog will love the attention!

Here are some essential tools for grooming:  brush, flea comb, nail clippers, and mild canine shampoo.

As dogs age, their skin may become more sensitive. Select a mild canine shampoo for an older dog. Shampoos made from coconut or palm oils are the mildest. Unusual or "doggy" odors can signal disease, so if odors persist, contact your veterinarian. Do not use human shampoos since they can actually be too harsh for a dog's skin.

When bathing your dog, be sure to rinse thoroughly. Residue left on the skin can be irritating. You may want to follow the shampoo with a hair conditioner to control static electricity and add extra body or sheen.

During the summer, pay close attention to your dog's skin and coat. Many dogs shed a winter coat and others face flea problems, so it's a good time to evaluate your dog's skin and coat condition to nip any problems in the bud.

Attention to your dog's coat and skin from the inside out will produce a healthy, lively dog that is a joy to look at and a pleasure to live with every day!

Health Problems Can Cause Behavior Problems

Behavior problems in dogs are very common; it would be unusual to find even one dog that doesn't do something that annoys its owner. However, dog owners learn to live with minor annoyances -- it's just part of living with a dog. But some behavior problems can be more than dog owners are willing to live with, and in these instances, stopping the behavior could mean the difference between keeping the dog as a member of the family, or not.

Identifying why a dog does what it does is a vital part of stopping or controlling a behavior problem. For example, most canine behavior experts understand that dogs jump up on people to greet them face-to-face. If you watch a puppy or young dog greet an older dog, the puppy will come up under the older dog's face and lick the older dog's muzzle. Puppies and young dogs, when given the chance, will do the same thing to people. When dogs are taught to sit and hold that position before they are petted, they can no longer jump up. When they learn they get petted while sitting, they no longer have the need to jump up and that behavior problem is eliminated.

It can be difficult to identify the cause of all behavior problems, however, because not all are associated with normal canine behaviors. Many behavioral experts feel that about 20 percent of problem behaviors may be caused by a physical problem. For example, most people know that epilepsy can cause seizures, but not all seizures are convulsions. A seizure may show up as twitching, or a blank look in the eyes or a frozen appearance. These signs may look like the dog is ignoring you or taking an aggressive posture. Epilepsy can also cause changes in the dog's emotions, showing up as fearfulness or aggression, sometimes even uncontrollable rage.

There are some other physical problems that can cause behavior problems:
  • A loss of vision (especially a sudden loss) can cause either fearful or aggressive behavior.
  • A hearing loss can cause startle reflexes, sometimes aggressively.
  • Arthritis can cause pain, leading to frustration and aggression.
  • A brain tumor or other problems in the brain can lead to severe behavioral changes.
  • A bladder or urinary tract infection can lead to a loss of housetraining skills.
When behavioral changes occur, especially when they happen without any obvious cause, dog owners should consult with their veterinarian first, before talking to their dog trainer or behaviorist. When talking to the vet, be very specific about the dog's behavior. Mention anything you see, no matter how tiny it seems. Sometimes all those little things you noticed, when put together, make a much clearer picture of what is going on with the dog.

Once the health problem is identified, the veterinarian can provide guidance as to what happens next. Depending upon the problem, your vet may recommend medical treatment only; or may recommend medical treatment first, followed by assistance from your trainer or behaviorist. You may want to put your veterinarian and trainer or behaviorist in touch with one another to discuss the dog, so that they can both agree on what should be done.

A Puppy Health Primer

The day you bring home a little puppy for the first time is a memorable one. It's exciting to add a new four-legged member to the family. And in these first days, it is critical to begin laying the groundwork for how you will care for your precious puppy's health and medial needs.  Here are a few of the basic essentials to get you started.

Finding a Veterinarian
Just like you, your new puppy needs high-quality health care. Ask a friend or your local humane society to recommend a veterinarian. Be sure to give consideration to the location of the clinic. A drive across town during a medical emergency could delay urgently needed treatment.

Once you've narrowed your choices, take time to visit the veterinarian's office, inquire on services offered, and talk to the doctor and staff about your new puppy. If you like what you see and hear, arrange a time to bring your puppy in for an initial examination. It's a good idea to visit the veterinarian within the first three days after you bring your puppy home to make sure it's in good health. The veterinarian will probably check:

  • Stool. A fecal exam will reveal the presence of internal parasites.
  • Body. A head-to-tail physical exam includes inspecting your dog's coat and feeling the body for abnormalities. The doctor will check the eyes, ears, mouth and heart as well as examining the anus for signs of intestinal parasites.

Once an exam is completed, your veterinarian can advise you on immunizations, the importance of spaying and neutering and future health care visits.

Spaying and Neutering
For most pet parents, the expense, time and expertise involved in breeding dogs responsibly is beyond their reach. Here are some advantages to having your puppy spayed or neutered:

  • For females, there will no longer be a mess to deal with during their 21-day heat cycles, which occur approximately every six months. The heat cycle begins in females sometime after six months of age.
  • Spaying a female before her first heat cycle will reduce the chance of mammary tumors or uterine diseases.
  • Neutered males tend to be less aggressive than un-neutered males.
  • With a neutered male, the urge to mark territory may lessen.
  • A neutered male is less likely to want to roam in search of potential mates.

Most veterinarians say dogs should be spayed or neutered by the time they are six months old. Both operations are performed under anesthesia and may require an overnight stay at the veterinarian's office. Recovery time is quick, with most dogs resuming normal activity in a few days.

Spaying (for females) consists of an ovario-hysterectomy. Neutering (for males) involves the removal of the testicles. When you bring your puppy to the veterinarian's office for the first thorough examination, this is a good time to ask the doctor to explain the details of these procedures.

Giving Your Puppy a Pill
Most puppies don't like taking medicine.  And who could blame them.  But the good news is that when you use the right technique, that bitter pill can be much easier to swallow.  Here's how.

Step 1: Begin with a play session and praise your puppy to relax it. Then get on the same physical level as your puppy. With a large puppy, kneel next to it while the dog is in the sitting position; with a small puppy, place the pup on a grooming table or a countertop.

Step 2: Place one hand over the top of the puppy's muzzle. Hold the pill in your free hand and then gently open its mouth with that hand.

Step 3: Place the pill in the center of the tongue as far back as you're able to reach. Then close your puppy's mouth and hold it shut while you blow gently but quickly at its nose. This will cause your dog to swallow before it has a chance to spit the pill out. Give your dog a treat immediately afterward to ensure that the pill has really been swallowed. End each session with play and praise.

Fighting Fleas
The common flea not only causes your dog discomfort, it can also transmit disease, pass on tapeworms and cause anemia, especially in vulnerable puppies and older dogs. Regularly inspect your dog for any signs of fleas. Intermittent scratching, biting and gnawing, plus evidence of flea dirt between your dog's back legs or on top of its rump, are telltale signs of fleas. If your dog is constantly biting and gnawing itself or you can actually see fleas, you've got a full-blown infestation. To check out your dog for fleas, stand it in a bathtub and vigorously rub your hands through its fur. If little dark dots fall on the tub floor, they're likely either fleas or flea "dirt" (which is the flea's excrement). You'll know it's a flea problem if the "dirt" turns red when you add a drop of water.

Prevention is the key to winning the battle against fleas. There are prescription products that prevent fleas from biting or reproducing. They are given to your dog in either oral or topical treatments, once a month, to break the flea's reproductive cycle.  Ask your veterinarian for more information.

Meanwhile, there are many misconceptions about keeping these pesky critters away.  Here's the truth about the two most common myths:

Myth: Garlic and onion repels fleas.
Reality: Feeding your dog garlic or onion will only result in bad breath. It will have absolutely no effect on fleas and, in fact, feeding large amounts of onion to dogs can be toxic.

Myth: Brewer's Yeast repels fleas.
Reality: There is no evidence that feeding your dog Brewer's Yeast repels fleas.

Paying careful attention to your puppy's health will get your new family member off to a great start.

Oh, My Dog's Aching Back!

An overenthusiastic night of boogying down, an exercise move that went wrong or even just sleeping in a funny position can all result in back pain. Imagine what might happen to your dog when it turns around too swiftly when you call, takes a too-sharp left turn to avoid the cat or does something else to aggravate its back. Add to that the fact that many dogs are prone to back problems, even without prior injury, due to their breeding and genetics and you'll understand why back troubles are so common in canines.

Dogs can suffer from slipped disks, called intervertebral disk disease (IVDD). These may lead to muscle spasms, as well as pinched nerves. "They do not get sciatica, per say, but often face vertebral malformations, vertebral luxations (dislocations), fractures, cancer of the vertebrae and even pain-causing changes in structure of the vertebrae," says Aaren DuMont, DVM, a veterinarian practicing in Raleigh, N.C.

Dogs Most Prone to Back Problems
Back problems are most common in low, long dogs. Very active dogs are also prone, especially those that do a lot of jumping. Some specific conditions are more readily seen in certain breeds. For instance, Dachshunds are the most common breed to develop back problems, usually facing intervertebral disk disease, according to Dr. DuMont. Basset hounds can also develop this disease.

Great Danes and Rottweilers are prone to Wobblers disease, marked by changes in vertebral structure in the cervical region or neck. "This disease causes them to have a wobbly gait, which is how it got its name," explains Dr. DuMont. Toy poodles are more apt to develop vertebral malformation in their neck, which unfortunately is difficult to treat and therefore carries a poor prognosis. Large breeds, especially German Shepherds, are likely to get lumbosacral disease - a change in the lumbar region of the vertebral canal, which causes painful pinched nerves.

Signs Your Dog Is Experiencing Back Pain
How are you to know if your dog is having back troubles? Dr. DuMont suggests that you look for these possible symptoms:

  • Gait changes
  • Looking uncoordinated, such as if your dog is carrying its tail differently, knuckling its paws, and/or arching its back when walking or laying down
  • Acting uncomfortable when sitting or laying down (for instance, they may constantly fidget and adjust their position, as if they can't get comfortable)
  • Having trouble urinating or defecating

Action to Take When Your Dog Is Hurting
As soon as you notice any of the possible symptoms, restrict your dog to a cage or obstacle-free room as soon as possible and seek veterinary care. Until you and your vet can determine what could be wrong, Dr. DuMont recommends, "Try and prevent your pet from jumping on furniture or running up stairs. Leash walk only, and make sure your animal gets plenty of rest."

Treatment For a Dog with Back Pain
As with humans, how back pain is treated in dogs varies from patient to patient. Sometimes the course of action may be conservative, while other times it may be aggressive, according to Dr. DuMont. In some cases, simply confining your canine to a cage for a few days or more may do the trick. In other instances, using anti-inflammatory medication and/or muscle relaxants may be necessary. Or your vet may tell you that your dog needs to lose some weight to alleviate the pain. If this sort of intervention does not help, surgery may be considered, but it depends on the condition and severity of your dog's problem.

Preventing Doggy Back Troubles
The number one cause of back problems in dogs is most likely obesity, so keep your pet well exercised and don't overdo it on the food, treats and especially table scraps. Many experts believe that vitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective and can actually upset the delicately balanced nutritional requirements of your dog. Instead, buy a reputable pet food that is nutritionally complete and balanced. Calcium and phosphorous are often linked to bone and back issues, so check these out on labels to make sure the balance is right. There should be 1.1 to 1.4 parts of calcium for each 1 part of phosphorus in your dog's chow.

Alternative Health Care for Dogs

Visits to the acupuncturist and the chiropractor aren't just for humans anymore.

Interest in alternative health options for dogs has grown so much that the American Veterinary Medical Association now recognizes alternative medicine as a valid form of treatment, as do the 800-plus members of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.  But what exactly are the options -- and when might they be right for your canine companion?

What's Available
According to, Michael Dym, DVM, a New Jersey-based veterinary homeopathy specialist, when vets talk about alternative health care, they're typically talking about the following:

  • Acupuncture involves placing needles into the body's energy channels to relieve pain, increase blood flow, relieve muscle spasms, stimulate nerves and regulate the immune system. Though the prick of a needle may cause momentary discomfort, many animals become immediately relaxed, or even fall asleep, after the needles are in.
  • Homeopathy is a system of medicine that looks at the patient's entire emotional and physical symptom history -- from the beginning of a dog's life onward -- as one illness. A sequence of herbal remedies is then prescribed over many months, or even years, to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself.
  • Holistic medicine also focuses on stimulating the body's innate healing capabilities, but it does so by looking at -- and ultimately adjusting -- everything that is going onto or into your pet's body, such as diet, vaccinations and oral and topical pesticides, like heartworm and flea medications.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners do a physical exam to determine where there is too much heat or dampness in the body, indicating disease-causing blockages of chi, or energy. Based on their findings, they prescribe a course of herbs to restore the energy flow.
  • Veterinary chiropractic is relatively new for dogs that have vertebrae out of alignment or other spinal problems. Treatment often is by hand or with a hand-held tool. Some dog chiropractors believe spine misalignment is linked to other problems, including ear infections, organ dysfunction and constipation.

When to Visit the Holistic Practitioner
"From puppyhood on," says Dym. "A holistic veterinarian can help you make the best choices for your dog from the beginning [of its life]."

The second best option is to visit an alternative practitioner as soon as your dog begins manifesting symptoms of a chronic illness (skin diseases and allergies being the most common of these for dogs, but any chronic or infectious symptoms that are not mechanical -- e.g. a malformed hip -- can be addressed with alternative treatments). What is key is to get an opinion from a holistic veterinarian before beginning any potentially long-term conventional treatment.

If you or your dog become unable to tolerate a conventional treatment, it is not too late to see an alternative practitioner, though what they can offer at that point may be limited. "I get a lot of visits from people at the end of their rope," says Dym. "After years of therapies, I'll tell them that I can improve their animal through supplements to help with the negative effects of the medications, but in some cases, by that point, the bodies are too sick to get healthy on their own. In those cases the patients may still need their medications to allow them to live comfortably." 

What to Expect From Alternative Treatment
While traditional practitioners will give your canine drugs to suppress its symptoms, a practitioner of alternative medicine will determine root causes, and prescribe dietary and lifestyle changes -- as well as possibly herbs, acupuncture or chiropractic treatments -- in order to eliminate the problem altogether. Says Dym, "Clients will spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on drugs to suppress symptoms, but these drugs are Band-Aids. They don't work at making the immune system stronger."

Once you and your pet have started an alternative treatment, a good deal of patience may be involved. "Treatment can last months, and improvement might not be immediately evident," explains Dym. "Before choosing, say, homeopathy and acupuncture, pet owners should become comfortable with the fact that medicine does not have to be about, for example, killing bacteria, but rather about helping the body be better able to withstand that bacteria." That understanding will enable a smoother treatment relationship between doctor and dog owner.

When to be Conventional
Alternative treatments, of course, are not always the best medicine. "You need conventional medicine when there are mechanical things, like malformed joints -- there are wonderful orthopedic treatments for dogs. Additionally, if there is too much pathology, or a condition requiring surgery, conventional medicine is also more viable, though homeopathy can help with the healing process," says Dym. Consult with your veterinarian, or a specialist, when in doubt as to whether an alternative treatment might be right for your pet's specific condition.