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Neem Oil for Pets: Is It Safe?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Neem oil has been touted as a miracle product, most notably as an insect repellant, but also as a skin soother, treatment for ringworm, and anti-inflammatory. But does it live up to the claims? And even if it does, is it safe to use on your furry family members?

While veterinarians say neem oil can benefit some animals, there are also limits to what it can do. Before trying it on your dog or cat, learn the risks involved and how to use it safely and effectively.

What Is Neem Oil?

Neem oil is a carrier oil extracted from the neem (Azadirachta indica), a tree native to Sri Lanka, Burma, and India, and now grown in tropical regions around the world.

Ayurvedic practitioners use most parts of the tree to treat various conditions, says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, medical director at Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia. In the United States, oil from the seed is used, most commonly as a topical application. “Cold pressed oil is the preferred method of oil extraction, and the oil varies in color from yellow to brown to red.”

Neem oil contains properties like omega-6 and omega-9 essential fatty acids and vitamin E, but most of its benefits are attributed to triterpenes, Pinn says. (Triterpenes are a chemical compound in plants and animals that allows them to manage inflammation.)

“The most common triterpenes are azadirachtin and nimbin,” she says. “Azadirachtin is a powerful insecticide. Nimbin is known to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antifungal, antihistamine, and fever reducing properties.”

These benefits come with a drawback, however. “While there are many properties of neem that make it attractive to want to use, those who use it quickly fall out of love with it due to the strong odor, and difficulty in working with pure product,” says Dr. Melissa Shelton, holistic veterinarian and owner of Crow River Animal Hospital in Howard Lake, Minnesota. Experts liken the smell to garlic, even in its diluted form.

Can Our Pets Benefit from Neem Oil?

Neem oil is most reliably used as a repellant. “Neem oil can be used topically to repel and kill common biting insects, including mosquitoes, biting midges, and fleas,” says McFaddin, who is an integrative veterinarian. It’s questionable whether neem oil is effective at repelling and killing ticks, she adds.

Its effectiveness depends on a number of factors. “The ability for neem oil to be antimicrobial and antiparasitic is variable pending the degree of susceptibility of the organism for which it is being used to deter and the concentration, frequency, and duration of the product’s use,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, veterinarian and owner of Los Angeles-based California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness.
 

Vets advise against using neem oil—or any other herbal remedy—as a sole repellant, and say it should be used in conjunction with traditional preventives. “Mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks carry life-threatening diseases such as heartworm, Babesia, Bartonella, Lyme disease, tapeworm, and many more,” says Dr. Danielle Conway, a nutrition resident at the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. Pet parents who do opt for neem oil as their only repellant should be diligent about regularly checking their pets for parasites, she adds. Blood testing every three to six months is recommended for pets who are not on a monthly medicated flea, mosquito, and tick preventative, says Dr. Katie Grzyb, medical director at One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. “Tests will monitor for heartworm and tick-borne disease,” she says. “The earlier the diagnosis, the easier and less expensive the treatment in most cases.”

Some of neem oil’s properties—azadirachtin, nimbin, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E—suggest that it might also be effective in treating ringworm, local demodectic mange, hot spots, soothing inflamed skin, and reducing itch, says McFaddin. “However, there are no studies documenting the efficacy of neem oil for the successful treatment of these conditions.”

How to Use Neem Oil

Neem oil should only be used topically and ingestion should be avoided, our experts stress. It’s available commercially as topical tinctures, sprays, and shampoos, McFaddin says. Not all products are equal, however. “These products are not generally regulated and purity of the ingredients may be questionable,” she adds. This is why buying neem oil from a trusted source is essential.

If you (and your pet) can stand the smell, you can try to make your own solution at home. Proper dilution is critical, with most vets in agreement that the final product should not contain more than 1 percent neem oil. “Pet owners can make their own spray or shampoo having neem oil in a 1:10 part dilution with another oil like olive or almond,” offers Mahaney.

Conway recommends a do-it-yourself product suggested in Veterinary Herbal Medicine, a reference book by veterinarians Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougere. “Pet parents can make their own topical products by adding 25mL of oil to 400mL shampoo, or adding 1 cup of neem leaf to 1 liter of water, bring to a low simmer for five minutes, and use as a topical spray daily.” Grzyb recommends testing a small area on your pet prior to treating the inflamed regions to see if he has any allergic reaction to the product.

Risks of Using Neem Oil

At the proper concentration, neem oil is generally considered safe. “Neem oil is not listed as a toxic plant product for cats or dogs as per the ASPCA Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline, yet I always recommend cautious use with all dogs and cats under the guidelines of the pet’s primary veterinarian,” Mahaney says.

Another reason to consult with your pet’s vet, and a reminder that natural is not necessarily synonymous with safety, is that “neem oil can interact with insulin, some oral diabetic medications agents, and thyroid hormone supplementation medication,” McFaddin says.

Because the risks of using undiluted neem oil are not known, Mahaney doesn’t recommend pet parents use concentrated products. “If a pet owner is to make their own dilution, then the 1:10 dilution factor should be used.”

In its undiluted form, neem oil can potentially irritate the skin surface, especially on already-irritated skin, or if left on for more than 24 hours at a time, he says. “Additionally, if a non-diluted or sufficiently diluted product is used on a pet and the product is consumed, then a pet could exhibit [excessive] salivation, appetite changes, vomiting, or other health concerns.”

Neem oil has mostly been used on dogs and horses with a fairly wide safety margin, Shelton says. “Cats have not used neem as widely, and for now, we would still recommend caution, as cats groom much more than other species (and are more likely to ingest it). Until safety data and veterinary use is documented further, we would suggest refraining from use of neem unless guided by a veterinarian.”

If your pet is in distress after you apply neem oil—signs include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, respiratory distress, or convulsions—Conway says you should discontinue use.

Neem oil can aid in repelling and killing parasites, but vets recommend against relying on it as your only source of insect repellant. Whether neem oil offers a safe and effective way to treat other conditions is questionable at this point. As with other herbal remedies, there just isn’t enough data available for its use in companion animals. When in doubt, always ask your vet.

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Does Reflexology Benefit Dogs?

By Heather Larson

Alternative medicine practices like massage and acupuncture have proven beneficial for canines. However, the jury is still out on reflexology. A type of massage that’s based on the concept that reflex points in the feet, hands (paws), and head are linked to every part of the body, reflexology is used on both humans and canines. By massaging those points, it is said the practitioner releases tension and can alleviate some medical conditions in the patient. So far, no studies exist on how this treatment affects pets.

In fact, Dr. Narda Robinson, president and CEO of CuraCore Integrative Medicine & Education Centers in Fort Collins, Colorado, says there’s no evidence that the reflexology “maps” commonly used in human treatment have any validity insofar as relating areas on the bottom of the foot to zones elsewhere in the body.

“Transposing a system that is, essentially, invented out of the blue and then applied to the vastly different canine foot, is fanciful at best,” says Robinson.

Because of opinions like Robinson’s and a lack of studies, finding a reflexology practitioner for your dog may be difficult. However, you can safely try some reflexology techniques yourself. If nothing else, it’s another good way to connect with your dog.

Bonding with Your Dog

The most common form of reflexology involves applying pressure to different areas on the bottom of the canine foot.

“Not all dogs like their paws touched,” says Alison Zeidler, a registered Canadian reflexology therapist and instructor of canine reflexology. “Slowly gain their trust by applying gentle strokes from their head and shoulders down their leg and past their paw. That usually shows them how relaxing the touch is and then most dogs will allow you to work their legs and paws.”

Zeidler offers holistic therapies to both people and their pets, including horses, dogs, and cats. She says reflex points in the paws, ears, and head correspond to every joint, muscle, gland, and organ of the body. By stimulating those points, you or a reflexologist can influence that related body part by bringing it into a more relaxed, balanced state.

Benefits of Foot Manipulation

Reflexology reduces stress, Zeidler says. “Just like with humans, poor diet, lack of exercise, and anxiety can affect our pet’s health and well-being. That can result in illness or behavioral issues.”

Zeidler also incorporates other bodywork techniques and energy healing methods into her reflexology sessions with canine clients. These practices encourage relaxation, she says, and also promote circulation, increased energy, trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, encourage deep breathing, and reduce aches and pains.

“By bringing the organs and other systems of the body back into a more balanced state, reflexology promotes self-healing,” Zeidler says. “It’s a great way to help the body deal with many illnesses or conditions.”

 

Risks and Dangers of Reflexology

Reflexology may promote self-healing, but that doesn’t mean reflexologists can diagnose, treat, or cure any illness or condition, Zeidler stresses. If they say they can, beware.

One of the main downsides of reflexology is that your dog may not like it. “I do think it would be difficult to do on pets because many of them don’t like their feet touched, much less strongly stimulated,” says Dr. Doug Knueven of the Beaver Animal Clinic in Beaver, Pennsylvania, who doesn’t use reflexology. “It has been my experience that reflexology hurts.”

That’s why it’s imperative to monitor your dog’s reactions when you’re performing reflexology on him. “Listen to and watch your dog,” Zeidler says. “If he shows signs of resistance or anxiety, like curling his lip or holding his breath, or looks worried, slow down or stop. Never force your dog to accept any kind of bodywork because that defeats the purpose and you’ve broken the trust with your dog.”

Acute or serious illness or injury require diagnosis and treatment by a veterinarian and should not be initially addressed with reflexology.

Calming Dogs with Reflexology

By gently holding or using a very slight pressure and release motion with your thumb on the solar plexus point (under the middle of the large paw pad on any foot), you can help calm your dog. You can also soothe your dog by gently rubbing the tips of his ears, Zeidler says.

Others say rubbing the entire ear can be calming. On her site, Positively.com, dog trainer Victoria Stillwell says that canine ears have many nerve endings. When massaged, those nerve endings can cause the release of endorphins into your dog’s body, increasing his relaxation.

Stillwell suggests moving your finger in a slow, circular motion from the base of the ear outward. Notice where he seems to enjoy the massage the most so you can concentrate there.

Knueven says he thinks of reflexology as a microsystem within acupuncture. “For example, auricular acupuncture uses points within the dog’s ear,” he says. “There are points that can affect every part of the body in the ear, just like the reflexology points on the feet.”

Robinson says veterinarians are drawn to evidence-based physical medicine approaches for dogs like acupuncture, body massage, and photomedicine. Canine reflexology lacks objective value, she says.

Still, Zeidler claims it’s a positive way to spend some quality time with your dog. “Reducing stress helps create a greater sense of well-being for both you and your dog,” Zeidler says.

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5 Signs Your Dog Is Getting Too Much Exercise

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Exercise provides your dog with a myriad of physical and mental benefits. “It keeps joints limber and promotes good range of motion, maintains muscle mass, which can help prevent injury, and helps to maintain cardiovascular health, decrease obesity, or maintain appropriate weight,” says Dr. Wanda Gordon-Evans, an associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Saint Paul.

If that’s not enough to coax your canine companion off the sofa, consider this. Daily exercise can strengthen your relationship and reinforce your dog’s need for routine, says Dr. Robin Downing, hospital director of The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. “One of the reasons dogs and humans get along so well is that we both appreciate structure in our respective worlds. Regular exercise provides a day-to-day predictability that dogs truly appreciate, simply because it is their nature.”

However, this isn’t an invitation to overwork your dog. “One misconception I sometimes encounter is that if a dog is overweight or obese, then the owner must suddenly erupt into a rigorous exercise plan for the dog,” Downing says. “Should that happen, there is real risk for joint injury, back injury, respiratory distress, or cardiovascular problem. Heat stroke is a huge problem (and an often fatal one) for obese dogs who are exercised too rigorously.”

Moderation is key. “Much of the time it is not the length of time performing the task, it is the intensity and impact of the activity that matters,” Gordon-Evans explains. “Walking is much less likely to trigger distress in a dog with heart disease compared with running, jumping, or hard play.”

If you’d like to start your dog on an exercise regimen or just want to make sure your current one is sensible, read on to learn about some signs of overexertion. Experts stress the importance of working with your dog’s vet to create an individualized exercise plan—especially if your dog has health conditions, is old or young, or is a breed that doesn’t tolerate intense exercise very well.

Wear-and-Tear on Paw Pads

For some dogs, playing is more important than painful feet, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian with Truesdell Animal Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. “Some dogs will run until the pads on their feet tear and will then run some more.”

Pad injuries can be extremely painful, says Downing, who is board-certified in veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation and pain management. It’s “like walking on a ruptured blister on the bottom of your foot.” Dogs can’t get off their feet as easily as we can, “which makes any and all walking torturous.”

Look at the bottom of your dog’s paws. Overworked pads may have tears with visible flaps of skin present, may appear red, worn away, or thinner than normal. If infected, you may see swelling or pus. “Think of concrete as being like sandpaper. It can damage the pads of a running, spinning, jumping dog,” says Jeffrey, whose professional interests include preventative care.

Sudden stops can also create paw pad injuries “if the sliding stop is performed often enough to wear off the tough outer layer of the pad,” says Gordon-Evans, who is board-certified in veterinary surgery and veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation.

Sore Muscles

Muscular pain and stiffness is another sign your dog may be getting too much exercise, Downing says. “This typically shows up after the dog rests following excessive exercise. When the dog is ready to get up, the owner may notice a struggle. The dog may refuse to walk up or down stairs, may refuse the next meal because it hurts to reach down to the floor to the food dish. She may even cry out when first moving about.”

In the worst case, Downing says a dog may develop exertional rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the muscle tissue breaks down. “As the muscle dies, it causes excruciating and generalized pain. The breakdown products can in turn lead to kidney damage or failure.”

You can help reduce soreness and stiffness (and other injuries) by unsubscribing to weekend warrior syndrome, says Jen Pascucci, a rehab therapist at Haven Lake Animal Hospital in Milford, Delaware. “Many owners work all week and try to fit in a week’s worth of exercise into two days off. This is not good for the dog because they are usually not properly conditioned but will push through warning muscle and joint pain and fatigue for play time and owner time.”

Some dogs have such a strong drive to work and play that they’ll push through severe fatigue and potential injury, says Pascucci, who is also a licensed veterinary technician. “That is the real danger. It is up to the owner to set boundaries and limit the high-drive dog to avoid over-exercise-related injury and exhaustion.”

Heat Sickness

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are especially a concern during warmer months when dogs can overheat, Jeffrey says. “If the body temperature increases to above 106 degrees, it can be life-threatening. Aside from causing potentially life-threatening hyperthermia, dogs can also become dehydrated or have difficulties breathing.”

Brachycephalic breeds—which include short-nosed dogs like Bulldogs, Pugs, Pekingese, Boxers, and Shih Tzus—are at even greater risk because they can’t cool off as efficiently as others, says Dr. David Wohlstadter, a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Queens, New York. “I wouldn’t ever take a French Bulldog or a Bulldog on a run, I think that’s a terrible idea.” But he’s seen it. “Just because your dog really, really wants to doesn’t mean it’s safe for them,” he adds.

Your dog’s age is also a factor, Jeffrey says. “Very young and old dogs have difficulty regulating their body temperatures, so too much exercise can cause them to overheat as well.”

Joint Injury

The impact associated with extreme exercise can cause strain and sprain in various dog joints. Toe joints are particularly susceptible, but the wrist and elbow are also at-risk, Downing says. “Dogs carry about 60 percent of their weight on their front limbs, which puts quite a bit of stress on those joints. In dogs with very straight rear legs, excessive exercise can lead to problems in the stifle (knee) joints, including strain, sprain, meniscal tears, and tears in the cranial cruciate ligament.”

Some dogs are at greater risk of developing joint injuries. Breeds who are long and low to the ground—like Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and Pekingese—have unusually shaped joints, she adds, “which puts their limbs at risk for easy injury in the face of excessive exercise.” Back problems are also common in these breeds.

If an older dog has osteoarthritis, she says over-exertion can cause immediate pain and actually accelerate the ongoing degeneration of joint tissues.

Young puppies (especially large and giant breeds) need some exercise, “but not too much as it can result in joint problems later in life,” Jeffrey says.

A dog who has sustained a leg injury may limp or favor one leg over the other, says Wohlstadter, who is certified in canine rehabilitation. “Dogs will sometimes put their head down when walking on the good leg and raise their head up when they’re walking on the bad leg.”

Behavioral Changes

Also be aware of behavioral changes. For example, “if your dog normally likes to run with you, but plops herself down on the pavement and refuses to go further, this is something you might want to investigate with your family veterinarian,” Wohlstadter says.

Inconsistent conditioning can contribute to this and to injuries, Pascucci says. “Playing off leash for one hour does not mean one hour of exercise. Most dogs will have bursts of activity and then rest when off leash and left to their own devices. Being free to run and play in the backyard five days a week and then expected to jog with an owner 10 miles one day is a recipe for injury.”

She says a good conditioning plan for active pet parents and their dogs is to alternate days of cardio exercise (consistent exercise for 20 minutes or more) and strengthening with one full day of rest, which is a free day with no planned activities.

Dogs need exercise to maintain peak physical and mental well-being, but the type they should get depends on their condition, health history, breed, and age. “Some dogs are built for heavy exercise while others are not,” Jeffrey says. “Hunting and working dogs have more endurance than the brachycephalic breeds. The hunting and working dogs can exercise for a much longer period of time before showing signs of being tired.”

It’s good to know the signs of over-working your dog, but it’s even better to prevent issues—and the best way to do this is by working with your vet to create a sensible exercise plan for your best pal.

Read more: 6 Signs Your Dog Isn’t Getting Enough Exercise

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Natural Pet Remedies for Flea and Tick Control

While we may not be able to roll back the global warming trend that is making pest season longer in some parts of the country, there are easier, softer ways to treat parasites, and ways in which we can avoid some of the worst pests.

A lot of people are reluctant to use chemical flea treatments because of the possibility of a toxic reaction with the skin. “If it isn’t safe for my children, how can it be safe for my pet?” they ask. Unless it is a full blown flea infestation, you may have good results by using gentler and safer methods for flea eradication and control.

1. Juice ’em Away

Fleas are known to be repelled by citrus. The juice from a freshly squeezed orange or lemon can be lightly rubbed onto your pet’s fur to ward off the buggers. 

Take note that oil extracts from lemons and oranges (and any citrus) are not safe for cats and dogs at all. The oil that is extracted from the rind of the citrus fruit contains limonene, an effective insect repellent as well as an all purpose household cleaner. Limonene is also irritating to the skin, and when ingested, can cause liver damage in cats and dogs. Limonene is found in household cleaning products and insect sprays, in home fragrance products, and may be found in some topical products (i.e., for use on skin). Take great care in using citrus oil products only in areas of the home your pets cannot reach, and do not use it on yourself if your pets will be licking you, or on your pets’ hair or skin in any form. The oil is specific to the cells within the rind of the fruit and can only be extracted using specialty equipment, and so is not found in the fresh-squeezed juice of the fruit. If your pet licks a little of the juice off of his fur, there is very little risk of harm — always keeping in mind that allergies can happen to anyone. If your pet behaves oddly after using or eating anything different, discontinue its use immediately. 

2. Rub-a-Dub Tub

Remember the old cartoons where dogs would jump into water to relieve themselves of fleas? Water really does work. Since fleas do not grasp and hold onto the hair shafts, they fall off in the water and drown. A good dip in a tub of water will wash away most, if not all, of the fleas on your pet. Using a gentle pet shampoo or a little bit of regular dish liquid, along with a thorough brushing (an outdoor brushing is best), will go a long way toward ridding your pet’s body of fleas.

3. A Clean Home is a Happy Home

Around the house, laundering pet beds and furniture covers, and vacuuming and disinfecting the floors — not just around your pet’s living spaces but all over — will help to control the population of fleas (just make sure you do not use products with volatile organic compounds). Always dump the bag or cannister of the vacuum, since fleas can continue to live inside the container.

4. Flea vs. Predator

In the yard, you might consider adding a natural predator of fleas. Nematodes are small worms that feed off of flea larva, and are easy to find at garden stores or pet shops. They are highly effective, with a noticable improvement in flea popualation within two days. Keep in mind that the type of nematode that is being recommended here is termed a “beneficial” nematode. It is not the type that is known for infecting animals, such as the heartworm.

Lady bugs can also be found at your local gardening shop, and are also very effective. Lady bugs feast on soft bodied bugs like fleas, and a mature lady bug can eat an average of 50 insects a day. Finally, fire ants are known to eat flea larvae, so if you have them in your yard, you may want to practice some controlled fire ant management that limits them to some areas of the yard rather than complete eradification of them.

5. Blades of Fury

Ticks hang out in tall grass and use the opportunity to grab on to passersby when they feel body warmth — which they are very good at doing. If you are going to be spending time in wooded or grassy areas with your dog, you might want to fashion some cover-up clothing for your dog in order to avoid ticks. An old t-shirt can be altered to fit your dog’s body, and old socks can be cut to make “leg warmers.” This may not entirely prevent ticks from making their way onto your dog, but it may work to keep most of them off since they have nothing to latch onto, and will slow the rest down so they do not spend as much time on your dog’s skin (the longer ticks stay on the skin, the more likely they are to transmit disease).

6. Essential Oils

Because ticks carry dangerous bacteria, repelling them is a priority. One of the natural repellents that a lot of people have success with is rose geranium oil, which can be applied to your dog’s collar. Do NOT use rose geranium oil on your cat, though. Cats can have a bad reaction to essential oils, primarily because they spend a lot of time grooming, which means that anything on their skin goes into their mouth. With ticks, the best thing you might do is to check your pet a few times a day when you are in an area that has ticks, and remove them promptly. Proper technique is important for removing ticks, so make sure that you consult a veterinarian before doing it yourself if you are not completely sure of how to do it.

Now that you have a few alternate means of combating fleas and ticks, you can feel confident that your pets will remain bug-free throughout the year — especially in the summertime, when there are so many nasty critters to worry about.

*This article has been revised and updated, June 10, 2015

Image: Melody.loves.you / via Flickr

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You, Your Dog, and a Flying Disc

Some dogs are just born to fly. You see them at the park, leaping high into the air to catch a flying disc, reveling in the pure joy of the perfect catch.

Flying disc games, commonly known as “Frisbee games” and “playing Frisbee,” after the popular trademarked Wham-O Frisbee toy, are popular sport, and in most cities across the country, flying disc enthusiasts will hold organized “disc dog” competitions with their dogs.

Dogs that are lean, weigh less than 50 pounds, and have a passion for retrieval are best suited to play flying disc games. What type of disc is best, and how do you go about teaching your dog to play? We will discuss the basics here.

Getting Started

First, make no mistake: while the flying disc is a toy, playing the game is a sport activity. It takes a lot of energy and stamina to be a good disc player. Before you begin training, have your veterinarian evaluate your dog’s physical condition. If your dog is one of the breeds that are prone to hip dysplasia, for example, you will need to have him checked for any potential issues that could be worsened by this activity.

It is also important that your dog has already learned at least basic obedience commands, and that you can rely on your dog to return the disc to you and not go dashing off with it. If your dog is still learning how to control the exuberance of youth and is in the training process, give him time to learn self control and obedience before advancing to more complex maneuvers like disc games.

Second: not just any old disc will do. A soft, flexible disc that is resistant to sharp teeth — made specifically for dogs — is best for playing disc.

Introduce the disc during regular playtime, allowing your dog to hold it in his mouth so he can become accustomed to holding it. Show enthusiasm and praise your dog if he shows an interest in the disc.  In the beginning, throw the disc low, at the dog’s level, as you would a ball. You can also roll the disc on its side — again, as you would a ball — and let your dog chase it across the room or yard.

Once your dog has gotten into going after the disc and returning it to you to toss again for him, you can move to the next level. Try tossing the disc a short distance outside — in the yard or at the park. Give lavish praise when your dog gives chase. You may even want to incorporate training treats when he returns the disc to you. Continue to throw the disc low, at the dog’s height level, and for only a short distance. To avoid potential injury, make sure you are throwing the disc to the dog, not directly at the dog.

Next is teaching your dog how to properly retrieve the disc. Make sure to choose a safe location, where your dog cannot accidentally dash off onto a roadway in pursuit of the disc, preferably a fenced-in area. Here is where training treats can prove to be beneficial in encouraging your dog to return right to you. A long training lead can also help you to reel your dog back. Just make sure it is a non-tangling type of lead. Choose consistent command words to use for bringing your dog back to your side and for commanding the dog to drop the disc.

As your dog gets better at catching, retrieving and returning the disc, you can gradually increase the height and distance at which you are throwing it.

dysplasia

A condition in which growth and development are not up to normal standards

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Witch Hazel for Dogs: Is It Safe?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

You may reach for a bottle of witch hazel to zap a blemish, soothe itching, or treat insect bites and other skin irritations. This herbal remedy can provide relief for humans, but what about our canine companions? Some veterinarians and holistic experts recommend small amounts of witch hazel as a safe and natural topical treatment for dogs, but it’s not without risks. Before attempting to treat any condition at home with witch hazel, talk to your veterinarian about whether it can be an effective remedy for your dog.

Benefits of Witch Hazel for Dogs

Witch hazel is primarily an astringent, explains Greg Tilford, a Phoenix-based holistic veterinary educator. “It reduces topical inflammation by rapidly shrinking and tightening skin tissue. This is why it is used as the primary active ingredient in many hemorrhoid preparations as well as face and skin wrinkle removers.”

These healing qualities are attributed to tannins, the chemical that gives plants and fruits their dry, bitter taste. Witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, is a small, yellow-flowered, North American shrub containing a high level of tannins.

Our conventional vet experts do not recommend witch hazel to pet parents, either because they don’t have experience with it, or because its use isn’t backed by rigorous scientific studies. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that witch hazel won’t benefit your dog. In fact, some vets are using it successfully to treat their patients.

Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian who practices in New Jersey, uses witch hazel in her ear cleaners and to reduce swelling on a dog who has been bitten or stung by an insect. “It’s soothing, decreases the itch associated with inflammation, and doesn’t sting.” She says it can also be applied to ticks to loosen their grip, making removal easier. “I also use it to clean the perianal area after emptying the anal glands,” she says. “It cleans well and neutralizes the anal gland odor.”

In addition, witch hazel can be safely used on dogs to reduce the pain and inflammation that result from flea bites and for dermatitis, Tilford says.

Using Witch Hazel on Dogs

Begin with the correct product. Tilford, who is a charter member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Animal Supplements Council (NASC), recommends using witch hazel that’s manufactured and marketed specifically for animals. Herbal, witch hazel-based ear washes formulated for dogs may contain other soothing ingredients, like chamomile extract, marigold extract, and sage oil. Morgan uses a product that combines witch hazel, tea tree oil, and aloe to clean her patients’ ears.

If using human-grade witch hazel, choose a vegetable glycerin-based product, if possible, because it’s safer if your pet accidentally ingests it, Morgan says. If you do purchase an alcohol-based product, choose one with grain alcohol instead of isopropyl, Tilford recommends. “Most commercially available witch hazel products are made with isopropyl alcohol, which is toxic if ingested.”

Witch hazel doesn’t have to be diluted, but it should be used sparingly, Tilford says. “For dogs, it can be applied once or twice daily,” he says. Morgan suggests using a gauze square or cotton ball to apply witch hazel to your dog’s skin. To clean your pup’s ears, “a few drops can be applied in the ears to help dry discharges and soothe inflammation.”

Dr. Ihor Basko, a holistic veterinarian based in Honolulu, Hawaii, often combines witch hazel with aloe vera juice (using a one-to-one ratio) as a simple home remedy for itchy skin.

Risks of Witch Hazel for Dogs

While witch hazel is safe to use topically on dogs and is not known to interact with other medications, there are some risks pet parents should be aware of, vets advise.

Tilford advises against applying witch hazel for dry skin conditions. “It tends to tighten and dehydrate, thus exacerbating such conditions.”

Given in high doses, witch hazel can cause kidney or liver damage, but this applies mostly to internal use. In humans, there have been warnings against using witch hazel during pregnancy and lactation, but these also refer to internal uses, Tilford says. “Unless the dog is actually drinking the product, it is unlikely to cause a problem if used topically.”

Some people use witch hazel as a tea or ethanol-based tincture for conditions like diarrhea or minor gastrointestinal bleeding, he adds. “But its strong astringent properties can irritate mucus membranes if used in abundance. Personally, I only use this herb topically.”

If your dog accidentally ingests witch hazel, signs to watch out for include hypersalivation or drooling, rubbing the mouth or nose on the floor or pawing at the mouth due to pain or ulcerations from the astringent, vomiting and diarrhea, and redness or burns on the skin.  

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Why Do Dogs Eat Grass?

Dogs love to munch away on grass, and some even make it part of their daily routine. Fortunately, most experts believe it isn’t something you should worry about. So why exactly do they gobble up that green stuff in your yard?

Scavengers ‘R Us

Dogs, unlike their catty counterparts, are not carnivores. But they’re not like your garden-variety omnivores, either. For tens of thousands of years, these opportunistic scavengers have devoured anything and everything, as long as it fulfilled their basic dietary requirements.

The modern dog, partly because of evolution and domestication, is no longer like its ancestors, which frequently ate their prey entirely, including the stomach contents of plant-eating animals. Instead, dogs today seek out plants as an alternative food source. Most commonly the plant is grass — since that is what is closest at hand — but wild canines are known to eat fruits, berries, and other vegetable matter, too.

Clearly, dogs can find their nutrients in a wide range of plant foods, but that doesn’t explain why Fido usually throws up after eating grass.

roughage

A type of animal feed that is high in fiber; may include hay or pasture crops

opportunistic

The ability to create a disease where a disease might not normally be found, usually due to an ill timed or unlikely weakness

graze

The eating of grasses and plants that are low to the ground

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Vitamin B12 Supplementation in Pets with EPI

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) impairs an animal’s ability to digest and absorb the nutrients available in food. Because there are insufficient digestive enzymes created by the pancreas, food passes through the body basically undigested. The affected animal will begin to lose weight and have loose, foul-smelling diarrhea. Animals with EPI eat voraciously because they are not able to gain nourishment from the food they do ingest.

Treatment for this condition focuses on the use of enzyme replacements in the food. Replacements are typically required for the remainder of the animal’s life. Other factors will play a role in this disease condition, and your veterinarian will need to monitor your pet long-term to see if additional supplements, such as vitamin B12, or medications are necessary to maintain control.

 

Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) Deficiency

Both dogs and cats with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) are at risk of developing a vitamin deficiency at some point. Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency is extremely common in cats with EPI, and is seen in more than half of dogs with the condition. Because the body can store up the vitamin under normal conditions, it may take some time before it reaches a critically low point. The reason an animal becomes deficient is that vitamin B12 is not absorbed from the food eaten by animals suffering from EPI.

Dogs and cats with EPI may be additionally compromised by decreased production of a substance called intrinsic factor (IF) by the cells of the pancreas. This substance helps the body to absorb the vitamin into the bloodstream. Without sufficient IF, the animal will have even greater difficulty in getting enough vitamin B12. In the cat, the pancreas is the only site of intrinsic factor production. and when the pancreas is compromised, IF deficiency (and thus B12 deficiency) results.

Once a deficiency of B12 does occur, the animal will have difficulty gaining (or maintaining) weight, even when he or she may have been doing well on enzyme replacement therapy. The dog or cat will also become lethargic and confused. This is because vitamin B12 plays an important role in intestinal health, as well as brain function.

Because of this, any animal that is not improving on enzyme replacement therapy should be checked for B12 deficiency to determine if supplementation is necessary. Your veterinarian will need to run blood tests to check your pet’s levels of B12 in the blood. Low levels of vitamin B12 are sometimes associated with another condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This build-up of bacteria can lead to B12 deficiency in dogs as the organisms bind the vitamin and make it unavailable for absorption by the intestine.

Treating Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Those animals who are not properly treated for B12 deficiency will have a very poor prognosis and will not show improvement when only treated for EPI. Because animals with EPI are unable to absorb certain nutrients and have a diminished capacity to produce intrinsic factor, giving them oral supplementation of B12 doesn’t help. Thus, the most effective method of vitamin B12 supplementation is by injection.

Doses are typically given weekly for many weeks, followed by every two weeks for many weeks, then monthly. Your veterinarian may consider teaching you to give your pet these injections at home, depending on the situation. Blood tests will be taken again after the course of injections has been given. This will allow your veterinarian to determine if the animal has reached sufficient levels of B12.

Your pet will continue to receive injections of B12 until levels are high enough and any secondary intestinal problems are improved. Once an animal has a normal level of B12 in the bloodstream, he or she should begin to gain weight and improve considerably, even in the face of EPI.

Image: aspen rock / via Shutterstock

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Valerian Root for Dogs: Does It Work?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

If your dog is terrified during thunderstorms or becomes anxious when left home alone, valerian root may offer relief. It’s an herbal supplement with mild sedative qualities that humans have traditionally used to alleviate insomnia, stress, and anxiety. Integrative veterinarians also recommend it for their anxious canine patients.

Valerian root is not without its risks. You need to watch for side effects, especially if your dog takes other medications or supplements. And because dogs are individuals (just like us), it may not work as well for yours as it does for the pup living down the block.

Before investing in a bottle of valerian root capsules or liquid, it’s important to learn the essentials: Are valerian supplements safe? Are there side effects? And do they even work? Our vet experts weigh in on valerian root’s usefulness for treating anxiety in dogs. Of course, you should run any supplements past your own vet before giving it to your canine companion.

The Science Behind Valerian Root

Valerian supplements, available as teas, drops, capsules, and more, are made from Valeriana officinalis, a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Valerian root is best known for its sedating qualities, and is used to relieve insomnia and anxiety, and control seizures, says Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian with Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners in Sandy Springs, Georgia. It works similarly to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes familiar names like Valium and Xanax.

Researchers aren’t precisely sure how valerian works, but they think it may increase the amount of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. “Valerian root is believed to work via the receptors of the GABA, which blocks nerve transmissions between neurons that stimulate activity. Therefore GABA has a calming effect,” explains Wynn, who is board certified in veterinary nutrition.

According to the NIH, evidence of valerian root’s sedating and anxiety-reducing effects in humans has been inconclusive. And in dogs, studies are non-existent. “All recommendations for the use of valerian root in veterinary medicine are either concluded from human and small mammal studies, or based on anecdotal evidence,” says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, an integrative veterinarian with Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia.

Should You Give Your Dog Valerian Root?

Despite the lack of solid evidence, many integrative vets recommend giving dogs valerian root for anxiety, sedation, and improving nighttime sleep, McFaddin says. “Specific conditions in which valerian root may be recommended include noise phobias—including thunderstorms, fireworks, and gunfire—separation anxiety, visits to the veterinary office, travel, on walks with aggressive dogs, and when hosting large groups of people at home.”

Even though safety studies of valerian root for dogs don’t exist, Wynn says that overall, it’s a safe herb. “The American Herbal Products Association publishes a text that rates safety of herbs, and considers valerian safe in all people, including pregnant women.” But dogs aren’t people, she says. “I am aware of no case reports or studies that address safety in pregnant dogs, so I would not advise using it in this group of dogs.”

If you do give your dog valerian root, watch for symptoms like drowsiness or lethargy, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian based in New Jersey. The herb can interact with anesthetics, so it shouldn’t be given within two weeks prior to a procedure. “It may also interact with sedative or anti-epileptic drugs, making them more potent. Anti-fungal drugs, in particular, may have greater side effects when used with valerian.”

Before starting your dog on a regimen, understand that valerian root isn’t guaranteed to provide sufficient relief. “If the pet has anxiety that is bad enough that the pet will cause harm to himself or others, medication may be required,” Morgan says. “If the pet has seizures that cannot be controlled, anti-seizure medication may be warranted.”

Valerian root is not a panacea. “If I have an owner who reports insomnia, I look for a medical problem because this is the likely cause in animals,” Wynn says. “For anxiety, I never recommend an herb or a drug unless the owner understands that they must institute behavior modification methods at the same time.”

 

How to Give Your Dog Valerian Root

Even though experts consider valerian root to be safe, they do recommend that you contact your vet before giving it to your pet. Aside from the potential for interactions with other drugs and your dog’s individual health issues, dosing can be tricky, and potentially dangerous if administered incorrectly.

“The dose range for the dried herb and tincture is very large and dependent on the dog’s level of anxiety or stress,” McFaddin says. “And a lower dose may be needed if the dog is taking other medication for anxiety or sedation.” According to Veterinary Herbal Medicine, by Wynn and Barbara Fougere, the recommended dose of dried valerian root for a dog is between 1 and 7.5 grams, and for tinctures is between 7 and 15 milliliters.

Still, “None of these doses have been established using clinical trials,” Wynn says. “It’s all guesswork at this point, and only trained herbalists would be expected to start at the right dose.”

Dosing depends on the form of valerian—capsule, drops, or whole-dried root—says Morgan, but generally speaking, “It should be administered three to four times daily in small doses starting a few days before the anxiety-inducing event.” Fresh valerian root is also available, but she says a dosage would be hard to determine.

You can also look at valerian root as just one part of your dog’s treatment plan. “The goal is to improve your dog’s quality of life through reduction of stress and anxiety,” McFaddin says. “In many instances, one herbal or nutritional supplement is not enough. Polypharmacy, the use of multiple lower doses of medications and supplements, may provide the best and safest outcome for your furry family member.” 

A valerian root supplement may be a good option for certain anxiety-provoking situations like trips to the vet, thunderstorms, and travel. Be open to incorporating behavioral modification or other herbs, nutritional supplements, and medications in conjunction with the valerian root. Start by discussing supplementation with your dog’s vet and investing in a trusted brand. If used correctly, valerian root may help take the edge off your dog’s anxiety. 

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Treating Flatulence with Dietary Supplements in Dogs

Often, the dog is blamed when foul smells “perfume” a room. But if your dog has the ability to clear a room with his frequent emissions, there may be something you can do to help make things a bit less “potent.”

Causes of Flatulence

Gases are produced in the intestinal tract as a by-product of normal digestion. As these gases build up and pass through the body, they are expelled either alone or along with feces during a normal bowel movement. And while it remains a normal bodily function, certain animals produce and release an abnormal amount of gas. Persistent flatulence is not a life-threatening condition, but it can be uncomfortable for those living with the potent pup.

One of the main causes of gas in the intestinal tract is air swallowed during eating. Dogs that gulp their food and eat rapidly may have a greater amount of air in their digestive tracts than those that eat at a more sedate pace. Another cause of excessive gas buildup is food quality. If the pet food is less digestible, or has poor-quality ingredients, the animal’s digestive tract may not be able to process it properly, resulting in excessive amounts of gas. Flatulence can also result when a dog gets into the garbage and/or eats something that is not a normal part of the daily diet.

In addition, food allergies may play a role in the development of excess gas in the digestive tract. Flatulence can also come about as a result of intestinal disease or infection that interferes with the normal function of the intestinal tract. If flatulence is a result of a digestive enzyme deficiency, the animal may not be able to properly digest the food he eats.

If a severe case of flatulence is a sudden occurrence, the animal is experiencing signs of discomfort (i.e., groaning, stretching, bloating, vomiting, diarrhea), and has a diminished appetite, consult your veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian can run diagnostic tests to rule out intestinal diseases as well as digestive enzyme deficiencies. Tests that might be recommended include blood analyses, fecal examination, X-rays, etc.

Treating Flatulence

Depending on the situation, your veterinarian may recommend a different diet; a new method of feeding your pet; or the addition of enzymes, probiotics, and/or dietary supplements to the animal’s food. A good-quality, well-balanced diet will allow for easier digestion and reduce the amount of waste being produced.

If the pet is a fast eater, there are several methods available to slow down his eating and reduce the amount of air ingested in the process. Keeping pets out of the garbage and not providing table scraps or human food treats will also reduce the incidences of indigestion, as does regular exercise.

Image: WilleeCole / via Shutterstock