Posts

BY MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

Acute hemorrhagic diarrhea syndrome is a combination of vomiting and bloody diarrhea that can seem to come on in a matter of minutes. The resulting fluid shifts rapidly cause dehydration. The most serious cases can be fatal. Fortunately, most dogs do very well with hospitalization and appropriate care.

Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) is a polite way of saying “Bulldogs can’t breathe.” Brachycephalic dogs are the ones that are bred to have extremely short muzzles and flat faces like Pugs and Bulldogs. They frequently come with a set of anomalies including narrow nostrils; soft palates that are long enough to choke on and larynxes that are under so much pressure that they collapse. Lots of brachycephalic dogs have surgery to open up their airways so that they can breathe more easily. Do you own and love a smushy-faced dog? Ask your veterinarian whether BOAS surgery would improve your pet’s quality of life. See also Heat Stroke.

Cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) rupture is an extremely common injury that destabilizes a dog’s knee. In most cases, the ligament has worn out as much as it has been torn. Some dogs manage to hobble around on a CCL injury, but arthritis is almost inevitable. Just to make matters worse, it is quite common for dogs to rupture the ligament in both knees. Luckily, a surgical repair can restore function and reduce the development of arthritis.

Dystocia is difficulty giving birth. While many bitches whelp their puppies without drama, there are others who cannot get the job done on their own. Causes include calcium deficiency, malpositioned fetuses and several other problems, but the most common cause is that the bitch has been purposefully bred to have a tiny body. This causes difficulty accommodating the passage of a puppy especially in breeds with disproportionately big heads. A C-section then becomes a necessity.

Endocrine disease is a whole group of diseases and disorders including diabetes, hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease. A dog’s endocrine system, like a human’s, uses chemical messengers to coordinate body functions. When the system breaks down, the results can be catastrophic. Many endocrine diseases can be diagnosed with bloodwork, and many can be successfully managed though most cannot be cured. Is your dog suddenly drinking and urinating far more than usual? Ask your veterinarian to make sure the endocrine system is on point.

Fleas are tiny, wingless insects that spend most of their lives hiding in an animal’s haircoat feeding on blood. Fleas are tough little critters. They have survived for 60 million years. They transmit diseases and parasites, trigger allergies, make animals miserably itchy and in some cases literally bleed them to death. Fleas are not the least bit impressed by old-fashioned flea collars or home remedies like cedar oil, garlic and brewer’s yeast. It is difficult to even squish them because they have such hard exoskeletons. Sometimes you can’t even see them hiding in your dog’s coat. If you do see fleas, or if your dog seems itchy for any reason, job one is ensuring that fleas are under control. Ask your veterinarian which modern flea control product is best for your pet.

Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV) is sometimes called “the mother of all emergencies.” For reasons that are not always clear, a dog’s stomach sometimes fills with gas and twists on its axis, not only preventing the vomiting that would relieve the pressure but also preventing normal blood flow. It is most common in large, narrow-chested dogs like Great Danes and Standard Poodles. Classic signs of GDV include tense, painful abdominal swelling and unproductive retching that sounds like the dog is trying to vomit but can’t. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy to see. If you suspect GDV, the dog should be assessed by a veterinarian immediately. Minutes count!

Heat stroke can occur whenever a dog can’t pant enough to cool themselves down. This may be when the weather is hot or humid, when the dog is exercising, when the dog has some kind of respiratory problem or—the worst—any combination of the above. Dogs are not as good at cooling themselves as humans are, and they are not at all good about knowing their limits. If you think your dog may have become overheated, wet down their coat, get in the car to the emergency clinic and turn the air conditioning on full blast!

Intervertebral disk disease or IVDD occurs when the cartilage pads that separate the bones of the spine become worn out, swollen or slip out of place. The main reason this is a problem is that the spinal cord and nerve roots can be pinched or crushed, causing anything from pain to paralysis. Dachshunds are the poster children for this disorder, but any dog can get it.

Jaundice technically is not a disease, but a symptom and is known also by the professional term “icterus.” It refers to the yellow color that develops in animals whose bilirubin level is too high. You can see it in the whites of their eyes, in their gums and anywhere the skin is bare and thin. There are two main causes: liver disease and red blood cell destruction. If your dog is looking sallow, it needs to be seen by a veterinarian right away.

Kennel cough is a catch-all term for acute infectious respiratory disease in dogs and commonly consists of laryngitis, tracheitis and bronchitis. It may be caused by any one, or a combination, of viruses and bacteria such as canine parainfluenza virus, canine adenoviruses types 1 and 2, canine herpesvirus and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Affected dogs usually have a harsh cough. Particularly in puppies, more severe illness sometimes occurs. Treatment depends on the details of each case.

Laryngeal paralysis occurs mostly in older dogs. What it means is that the vocal folds which are supposed to open wide with every inward breath don’t do so any more. You might notice that your dog’s bark is harsher or softer. You might notice a wheezing, snoring sound when he exercises. Sometimes owners notice nothing at all until the dog gets overheated or excited and tries to pant to cool down. The harder the dog tries to pant, the more the vocal folds get in his way. This is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention. Luckily, a surgical procedure can improve the situation. See also Heat Stroke.

Mitral valve disease is probably the most common form of heart disease seen in dogs. It usually happens when, over time, one of the valves in the heart starts to get a bit leaky. Many, many dogs, especially small ones, develop a heart murmur in their senior years as a result of mitral valve disease. For some of them, but not all, it becomes a life-threatening problem. If your dog has a new heart murmur or a chronic cough, ask your veterinarian whether a chest x-ray is warranted.

Neoplasia, better known as cancer, is not one disease but a whole category of diseases characterized by uncontrolled cell growth. It is the main cause of death in well-cared-for older dogs, partly because most types can’t be prevented and because it usually doesn’t respond as well to treatment as some other diseases. Exceptions do exist, though, and veterinary oncologists (cancer specialists) work every day to help canine cancer patients live the longest, happiest lives possible.

Osteoarthritis is, unfortunately, extremely common in older dogs, especially large ones. Your veterinarian may call it DJD or degenerative joint disease. You might notice that your pet is stiff and slow to get up after a nap, especially after hard exercise but seems better after they move around a bit. Osteoarthritis cannot be reversed, but your veterinarian can help your dog to stay functional and pain-free as long as possible.

Pyometra is an infection of the uterus. In dogs, it has an unfortunate tendency to turn into a catastrophe very quickly, so by the time an owner realizes the dog is sick, her life is in danger and she needs emergency surgery. Pyometra is unfortunately very common, so all owners of unspayed females need to be on the lookout for the slightest signs of illness, and be prepared to deal with the emergency. In most cases, the best prevention is a routine spay.

Quadriceps contracture can happen as a complication of a fracture of the femur (thighbone). The quadriceps femoris is a group of muscles that extends the stifle (knee) joint, so it is necessary for normal standing and walking. When the thigh is injured, sometimes the quadriceps heals by turning into rigid scar tissue, resulting in a stifle that cannot flex and a leg that cannot be used. Contracture can occur in any circumstance, but it is more common when the fracture is not treated properly. Surgical repair of the fracture not only allows the bone to heal correctly but also allows for critical rehabilitation exercises that keep the joints flexible and the muscles moving.

Rabies remains a serious health concern for dogs and for humans, even though a robust canine vaccination program can protect both populations. In countries where canine vaccinations are prohibitively expensive, rabies kills dogs and humans, horribly and indiscriminately. Fortunately, rabies vaccinations are within the means of most dog owners in the United States, to say nothing of being required by law.

Seizures, or convulsions, can occur in dogs from a variety of causes. The most common cause is epilepsy which in dogs is partly genetic in origin and manifests in young adult dogs, ranging from brief focal seizures to longer, full-body convulsions. Other causes include brain diseases, poisons and metabolic disorders. Unless your dog has a known and well-managed seizure disorder, any kind of seizure activity should warrant prompt veterinary attention.

Tracheal collapse is just what it sounds like. The trachea, or windpipe, is supposed to be round like a pipe for good airflow, but if it becomes soft, it can collapse on itself making it hard for the dog to breathe. And, just like a straw when you suck on it too hard, the harder you try to move air, the more stubbornly it stays collapsed. Unfortunately, tracheal collapse is very common in small dogs and in brachycephalic breeds. If your dog tends to cough or wheeze when he gets excited, ask your veterinarian to take an x-ray to look for signs of collapsing trachea. You can’t make it go away, but there are strategies to reduce its effect on the dog. See also Heat stroke.

Urinary tract disease in dogs often appears as blood in the urine, straining to urinate or marked increase in frequency of urination. The causes may include bacterial infections, bladder stones, anatomic anomalies or any combination of the above. It’s tempting to just ask your veterinarian for an antibiotic, but tests will be needed to pin down a diagnosis and keep problems from progressing.

Vestibular disease refers to any problem that affects the vestibular system meaning that part of the brain and inner ear that controls balance. When humans experience vestibular disease, we often describe it as vertigo. Dogs can develop vestibular disease from serious problems like tumors or strokes but also from ear infections and a benign problem called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease. Owners often assume that a dog that is suddenly too dizzy to stand up has suffered a serious stroke and must be euthanized, but this is not always the case.

Worms are internal parasites that find a way into your pet’s intestines, lungs or, worst of all, heart and blood vessels. Most can be identified through blood or fecal testing, and most can be treated. However, many worm infestations go unnoticed meaning that pets who appear healthy can go around shedding microsopic worms and eggs to infect other hapless dogs… and, sometimes, their humans too! Do your neighbors a solid and ask your veterinarian to review your pet’s worm control plan, especially if you and your pet are regular dog park visitors.

Xylitol toxicity is just an example of the environmental hazards that can poison your pet. Xylitol is an artificial sweetener that is apparently harmless to humans but can cause serious harm to dogs including seizures and liver damage. No sugar-free gum for Max and Bella, please!

Yeast infections in dogs most commonly occur in the ears and skin. Usually the yeast is the kind that lives in small numbers on all dogs’ skin, but in some dogs, at some times, the population grows like gremlins in a rainstorm. There is often an underlying problem such as an allergy. Your veterinarian can identify a yeast infection and provide the proper treatment to relieve your dog of this itchy, stinky misery.

Zoonotic disease is defined by medical doctors as a disease of humans that is transmitted to them by animals. Veterinarians, however, define it as a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans or vice versa. Unfortunately, we can be as much of an infection hazard to animals as they can be to us. For example, some influenza viruses can hop species, and while we know that some types of avian and swine influenza can cause serious illness in humans, we should also be aware that some animal species, like cats and ferrets, can catch some forms of influenza from us. Luckily for our pets, it is uncommon for humans to transmit serious infections to animals.

BY MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disorder in which the heart muscle becomes too weak to pump properly. Treatments exist, but many cases are fatal. It is, unfortunately, very common in Dobermans, Pinschers, Boxers and Great Danes and also occurs in other medium to large dogs such as Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands as well as one small breed, the Cocker Spaniel. Because of the breed’s predisposition, we believe that there is a genetic component to some forms of the disease.

DCM can also be caused by some other problems including a deficiency of certain nutrients: the amino acids taurine and carnitine. In some cases, for example, when a dog is being fed a completely unbalanced diet, it is a simple question of dietary deficiency.

However, there are other cases in which the problem seems to be the dog’s ability to absorb or metabolize taurine properly. Cocker spaniels, in particular, can develop the disease while eating a diet that many other dogs consume without a problem. Taurine levels in the blood can be tested to prove there is a deficiency. Treatment with extra taurine and/or carnitine in these cases has enormous benefits to the heart.

Recently, veterinary cardiologists have been finding DCM at higher rates than expected in breeds that ordinarily don’t get the disease. Most of these dogs had normal taurine levels. Another thing they have in common is that the majority were eating what became known as “BEG” diets which fit into one of three categories:

1. Boutique foods such as homemade diets or those made by small pet food companies.

2. Exotic ingredients not traditionally found in dog food such as potatoes, legumes (peas and lentils), buffalo, venison, tapioca and so on.

3. Grain-free diets of any kind.

Some of the dogs got better when switched to different, more traditional food.

Could there be a connection between these BEG diets and the unusual cases of DCM? A link seems likely. What that link might be remains a mystery since taurine levels were not low in most of these dogs. Veterinary nutritionists and cardiologists are hard at work to sort out all the possibilities. The investigation starts with finding out which foods are most often connected with DCM.

The FDA has released the names of the brands most commonly implicated. Ultimately, we still have more questions than answers about diet-related DCM in dogs. We do, however, have some information that lays out a course for getting some answers as well as protecting our pets.

If you are worried that your dog may have DCM, see your veterinarian. Unfortunately, the signs of DCM in dogs can be vague. Some dogs have no signs at all. Others may have weakness, weight loss, cough, difficulty breathing and fainting episodes. Some dogs with DCM have heart murmurs, while many do not. Of course, not every dog that coughs or has a heart murmur has DCM.

Your veterinarian can take an X-ray of the chest to screen for DCM if your dog is showing signs that worry you. Other tests that may be useful include ECG (also known as EKG), bloodwork and blood pressure measurement. Measuring taurine levels may be useful in some dogs, particularly Cockers and Golden Retrievers.

The definitive test for DCM is an echocardiogram, also known as an ultrasound exam of the heart. Some veterinarians in general practice can perform this test while others refer patients to a veterinary cardiologist or other specialist. Once DCM has been confirmed, testing the patient’s blood for a taurine deficiency is appropriate, but even dogs with normal taurine levels can develop DCM as a result of their diet.

If your dog is diagnosed with DCM, in addition to treating with medications, you should follow your veterinarian’s instructions for feeding. This is likely to mean a traditional commercial dog food. By this, I mean one made by one of the big old-fashioned companies like Purina and Waltham. These are brands containing standard ingredients like chicken, beef, corn and wheat. Even if your dog does not have DCM, veterinarians involved with the research recommend avoiding BEG diets until we understand more about the problem.

Many dog owners are taken aback at suggestions that they should give their pets food made with ingredients like chicken and corn. Heavy advertising by some of the BEG manufacturers has led owners to believe that traditional ingredients are harmful to dogs or that there is some nutritional benefit to feeding an exotic or grain-free diet. There is no truth to this belief. While the idea of feeding your dog like a wolf is appealing, the fact is that dogs are not wolves. I have never heard of a pack of Pugs taking down an elk and eating it. Dogs have adapted to eat chicken and grains, and most of them do very well on them, with the exception of the minority which have allergies or food intolerances.

Some dog owners don’t trust the large dog food companies, especially after hearing about contamination and recalls. Personally, I feel safer giving my dog food from a large company. While the big dog food companies have certainly had some quality control problems over the years, they actually have fewer problems of this type than the small boutique companies. As much as I love the idea of my dog’s food coming from a family-owned startup—cooking in their home kitchen with the recipe that always kept Grandpop’s dogs in fine trim—when it comes down to it, I want my dog eating food that has been made by a company that has a research laboratory with veterinarians on staff. I want nutritional expertise. I want them testing their product for safety, decreasing the chance that any problems make it to market. I want them doing feeding trials to see what happens to a dog that eats their food, and only their food, for months at a time. I want them doing research to figure out what new tweaks they can offer to give my dog a wholesome food that will keep her healthy.

Feeding a dog food made by a large company may not be as satisfying as boutique food. It may not make me feel as if I’m treating my girl like the unique and integral family member she is. But ultimately, it’s not about my feelings; it’s about what’s good for her. I won’t risk her life to follow trends and marketing ploys at the expense of nutritional expertise.

By MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

This summer, a Wisconsin woman died of an infection caused by a bacterium called Capnocytophaga canimorsus, and a Wisconsin man suffered serious illness requiring multiple amputations from the same organism. The infections are believed to be derived from contact with family pet dogs. This is scary stuff for those of us who share our lives with dogs, but there is no need to panic about Capnocytophaga.

Capnocytophaga species are found in the mouths of healthy dogs, cats, and humans. Normally it does no harm, but under certain circumstances, it can cause disease. Studies estimate that up to 74 percent of dogs and up to 57 percent of cats have Capnocytophaga living in their oral cavities. In short, if you have a dog, odds are very good that it carries Capnocytophaga.

In spite of how common Capnocytophaga is, however, serious infections are exceedingly rare. Nobody knows exactly how many cases occur, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received only 12 case reports in 2017, and only about 200 cases have been reported worldwide since this type of bacteria was first identified in 1976.

Capnocytophaga infections can be transmitted by bites from dogs or cats, or through close contact with an animal, especially contact with its saliva. Since humans also frequently carry Capnocytophaga, it is possible to develop an infection without any animal exposure.

Most of the time, Capnocytophaga is not your main concern after a dog or cat bite. Other bacteria, such as Pasteurella, Streptococcus, and Staphylococcus, cause many more infections. Rabies is uncommon in the United States but is so deadly that any possibility must be taken very seriously. Lastly, deep puncture wounds of any origin can result in tetanus.

When Capnocytophaga does cause problems, they can vary widely. Local cellulitis (tissue swelling, redness, and pain) is the most common finding associated with bite wounds contaminated by Capnocytophaga. In more serious cases, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body such as the heart, brain, or joints. When the infection affects the whole body in a condition called sepsis, there can be long-term effects from infection, including gangrene that necessitates amputations; heart attacks; or kidney failure. About 3 in 10 people who develop sepsis due to Capnocytophaga will die.

Most people who are exposed to dog saliva don’t get Capnocytophaga infections because their immune systems protect them. However, there are factors that can affect your immune system’s ability to keep you safe. One of the most serious risk factors is having had your spleen removed as a result of an injury or illness. Other risk factors include alcohol abuse, old age, or immune compromise due to disease such as cancer, diabetes, or HIV, or taking certain medications such as chemotherapy or glucocorticoids. Some people do get sick with no known risk factors.

Capnocytophaga infections are hard to test for. The bacteria are very difficult to grow in a lab. Fortunately, new technologies such as PCR amplification and gene sequencing are becoming increasingly useful for identifying challenging organisms like Capnocytophaga. The good news is that Capnocytophaga can be treated with common antibiotics, and so far antibiotic resistance isn’t a big problem. However, treatment must be started quickly, without waiting for a lab to confirm the infection.

There are ways to reduce your risk of a Capnocytophaga infection. Don’t let your pets lick faces, wounds, or irritated skin, and wash with soap and water after handling your animals. Minor bite wounds should be washed thoroughly with soap and water. See a health care provider if the wound is deep or serious; if it becomes red, painful, warm, or swollen; or if you feel feverish or weak. You should also see a doctor if the dog was acting strangely or is not known to be vaccinated against rabies. Most people who are going to become ill with Capnocytophaga will do so within 3 to 5 days after exposure, but it can take as little as a day. If you have any risk factors such as immune compromise, you should see your doctor right away for any bite wound that breaks skin, even if you don’t feel sick.

By MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

In January, someone tried to take a peacock on a United Airlines flight, claiming it was an emotional support animal (ESA). Last June, a 50-pound dog that was traveling on Delta as an ESA badly mauled the face of another passenger. So much for the friendly skies.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not opposed to the idea of ESAs. Animals can be an incredible balm to the human psyche even when it is in perfect working order. Mental health is extremely complex, and if somebody needs their dog with them to be able to manage, I’m not going to criticize. Fortunately, the TSA views ESAs as aids that allow people to live their lives, going a step beyond the job of “pet,” and so ESAs are allowed in airports and airplanes. Traveling with a disability can be challenging enough without the airlines placing undue burdens on the people who need these animals to get by.

On the other hand, when an airplane cabin starts to resemble a petting zoo, and passengers are being taken away by ambulance, clearly there is a flaw with the system. A big part of the problem, of course, is the irritating phenomenon of people pretending their dogs are ESAs, or even service animals, when they really aren’t.

Why would someone pretend to have an ESA or service dog, instead of admitting that their dog is a pet? For one thing, traveling with a pet can be challenging. People are understandably wary of putting their pets in cargo, given some tragedies that have occurred there. Whether in cargo or in the cabin, there are fees to be paid, and the airline may turn your pet away if there are already too many animals on the flight. ESAs and service dogs, however, sometimes travel for free, and are more likely to be accommodated in the cabin regardless of the number of animals on the airplane or the size and weight of the dog.

This does not change the fact that pretending your pet is an ESA is clearly unethical in all cases, and is criminal in some areas. There is quite simply a limit to the number of animals that can fit on a given airplane before things get disruptive. Like disabled parking permits, those spaces should be reserved for people who actually need them.

In an attempt to reduce abuse of the system, some airlines have begun to use more stringent restrictions on ESAs. Delta, for example, has quite an extensive list of animal species that are not permitted on board. United now requires customers with ESAs to bring “a veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal as well as confirming that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.”

Owners are notoriously bad at assessing their own animals’ behavior, so I can see why the airlines want to get a third party to vouch for the dog, but many veterinarians are wary of going on record stating that their patients have been trained to behave properly. For one thing, even a dog that is well-mannered under ordinary circumstances may find the conditions on an airplane to be a little much. Let’s face it, after standing in line at security, navigating the hubbub of the airport, and then getting squeezed for hours into a cramped space that makes deafening noises and ear-popping pressure changes, even the humans are just about ready to bite somebody. There is no way that I or any other veterinarian can tell whether a dog that behaves nicely in the clinic will continue to do so in flight.

People who genuinely need ESAs will be the ones to suffer if they can’t produce the paperwork the airlines now expect. Even service dogs from an accredited training program, which are expertly-trained to tolerate quite challenging conditions without causing trouble, may find it hard to get on board.

It remains to be seen how to best balance the needs of people with disabilities who rely on their animals to function and the other passengers’ basic expectation of reasonable safety. Veterinarians, representatives of the air travel industry, and disability advocates are attempting to work together to find a way to ensure that genuine service dogs and ESAs are accommodated without putting other passengers at risk. But one thing is clear: pretending your pet is a service animal is not okay.

By MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

To some people, leaving your dog at the veterinary hospital for any reason sounds harsh, like leaving a child at one of those ghastly orphanages in Dickens books. There’s no doubt that most dogs would rather be in their own homes, but we do our best to make them feel at home with us. So what are the accommodations really like at the hospital?

A comfortable bed is step one, and we have bedding in a variety of thickness and layering options. Some dogs want to have enough blankets to burrow under. Orthopedic mattresses are a great thing for older dogs whose joints get creaky. There are a few dogs that simply cannot tolerate being in a kennel at all, and though I strongly recommend teaching all dogs to accept a kennel for this reason, we have worked out ways to confine the kennel-phobic without them feeling trapped.

Many owners bring a blanket or article of clothing that smells like home. I think this is a great idea for a pet that is wary of novelty. Once a pet has settled in, of course, their own smell is on their bedding. Most dogs are quite willing to go back into their kennels after they’ve been out for tests or treatment; they recognize it as their own safe space.

Nobody wants to sit in bed all day, even if they’re sick, so all dogs are walked several times per day if their condition allows. There are a few small dogs that are trained to use pee pads, but even those are given the opportunity to take a little exercise. (Exception: When I had a 5lb puppy hospitalized overnight and it was -5°F, I did not take the little mite outside; she would have frozen solid.)

Boredom can be a problem even with pets that are ill enough to be hospitalized. Visits from the owner help to pass the time. We keep a supply of stuffed animals around, carefully chosen for safe construction, and provide them to any patient who looks like they might want something to snuggle. If snuggling turns to chewing, unfortunately, the dog loses stuffy privileges, but we can resort to treat-stuffed Kongs if the patient’s condition permits.

Speaking of food, the phrase “hospital food” takes on a very different meaning when you’re talking about the animal hospital. It isn’t bland, boring, cafeteria-style stuff like you might see in an old-fashioned human hospital. Since many of our patients are feeling too sick to eat properly, we stock a variety of delicacies to tempt feeble appetites, along with several therapeutic diets for those that are ready to take more substantial meals.

Some of the dogs that visit us are really excited to see that there are other dogs on the premises. They would love to make friends with everyone. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we can’t allow playtime among the patients, but if they want human friends, they’re in luck. Everyone who works at our clinic loves dogs madly. No matter how tired or grumpy we might be at the beginning of our shifts, the sweet faces of our patients help us to focus on the positive. It’s all we can do to get our work done when there are so many ears to be scratched and tummies to be rubbed. When things are slow at the office… well, there may or may not have been a few patients who spent part of their hospitalization sleeping on my lap in the office. I’m not saying.

Some people go a little bit overboard with the comforts they provide their pets at home. I’m pretty sure no dog ever suffered for lack of a $30,000 wedding chapel doghouse (for, of course, dog weddings), a Marie-Antoinette style brocade dog bed (complete with ostrich plumes), or a microvelvet Chesterfield dog sofa (with nailhead trim, naturally). The accommodations at the veterinary hospital will be a bit more spartan than that. (For one thing, everything we use is 100 percent machine washable). But, for all that, I think we do all right at helping our patients to feel at home.

By MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

Like most veterinarians, I genuinely love animals, but the sad fact is that not all of my patients love me back. For every pet that greets me with a wagging tail and happy kisses, I get at least one who gives me side-eye and a stony expression. I can’t blame them, of course. I invade the personal space of every one of my patients when I do a physical exam, and further indignities and discomforts come with almost everything I do. Some patients take it all cheerfully, others tolerate it, and then there are those who put a furry foot down and say, “No way.”

This is where muzzles come in. Some dog owners find muzzles scary. They can look like torture devices, although they don’t actually hurt the dog, and it is possible to buy cute ones. Dogs dislike the muzzle, and owners find this upsetting. “Why do you need to muzzle my dog?” they sometimes ask. “He’s not going to bite you! What kind of veterinarian is afraid of dogs?”

Well, it’s like this. I’m not afraid of dogs; if I were, I couldn’t do my job. I do, however, have a certain respect for what their teeth can do. It’s born of seeing many a dog bite injury in my career: many of them on my patients, some on my co-workers, and a few on myself. Our furry best friends come with teeth that were designed to cut and crush flesh, and they’re pretty good at it. Big dogs of course can be more dangerous, but size doesn’t always matter. Almost any dog can, if motivated, give me an injury that will put me out of work for months.

What are the odds that any particular dog will bite? Unfortunately, that dog’s owner isn’t always the best person to make that prediction. Dogs that are angels at home with their people sometimes make bad choices when they’re in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, feeling threatened, or cornered or in pain. Some dogs will even bite their owners when they’re at the vet’s office. In this game, there are no bonus points for doing things the reckless way so I prefer to err on the side of safety.

Placing a muzzle on an uncooperative dog can actually make the process of providing veterinary care easier on the patient. It isn’t immediately obvious that this would be true, but it is true. Some dogs, when muzzled, just freeze. You have seen this phenomenon in action if you have ever seen a rowdy puppy annoying an older dog until the adult has to give the pup a correction; they do this by taking hold of the pup’s muzzle to make it stop misbehaving. In the same way, some dogs, when muzzled, seem to get the message that it’s time to stop snapping and struggling. That means I can do my job quickly and thoroughly rather than having a prolonged wrestling match that’s far more upsetting to the patient than whatever it was I was trying to do in the first place. Of course, the process works best if the dog is muzzle-trained, and I encourage every dog owner to do so.

But even or especially in patients that won’t give up resisting, a muzzle ultimately reduces the risk of anyone getting bitten. And while I selfishly want to keep my skin intact, I also want to avoid bites for the dog’s and the owner’s sake. Wisconsin state law is quite strict on the subject of dog bites. Any medical care provider who treats a person that was bitten by a dog is legally required to report the bite to the authorities, and the dog is then subject to rabies quarantine. This is expensive for the dog’s owner and means extra visits to the veterinarian’s office for the dog that didn’t enjoy going in the first place. If the dog dies or is euthanized for any reason before the end of the quarantine period, its body must be tested for rabies, a process that can also be expensive for the owner.

Of course muzzles aren’t the only tool I have to keep teeth off skin. I rely on my expert staff to distract and safely restrain pets, and I use all my training and experience to make veterinary care as painless and reassuring as possible for the patients. But there are times when a muzzle is the right choice, and then I don’t hesitate. It’s for everybody’s protection.