DEAR DR. FOX: I like dog shows, but I wonder why so many breeds have their whiskers snipped off before they go into the ring. Don't they need them? -- B.K., Washington, D.C.
DEAR B.K.: Dogs' whiskers serve many important functions. Veterinarian Leslie Gillette, DVM, wrote an excellent article for PetMD.com on the subject, a part of which I will share here:
"Dog whisker follicles contain clusters of tactile receptor cells (Merkel cells) that are essential for sending signals to the brain. If a whisker is touched by another object, or air currents move a whisker, that vibration transmits nerve impulses from a dog's whisker follicles to their brain. Whiskers can detect the size, shape and speed of nearby objects based on the movement of air currents.
"Whiskers in different areas give a dog specific information about their environment:
-- "Muzzle whiskers: Mystacial whiskers along the muzzle extend toward an approaching object to help determine the shape, proximity and texture of nearby surfaces as a dog moves their head back and forth. These whiskers help dogs detect food and water and measure distances.
-- "Eye whiskers: Superciliary/supraorbital whiskers detect potential threats to the eyes by responding to tactile stimuli or air currents. When the whiskers are moved, they send signals to a dog's brain that trigger the blink reflex to close their eyelids.
-- "Cheek whiskers: Genal whiskers help with peripheral perception of the environment, such as navigating through tight spaces and keeping a dog's head upright while swimming.
-- "Chin whiskers: Interramal whiskers grow from a mole under a dog's chin. These moles contain clusters of cells that provide sensory and tactile information to the brain. They are incredibly useful in detecting food, water and other objects that are out of the normal field of vision."
Dr. Fox here: I also theorize that some of these vibrissae may act like dowsing rods or bio-sensors, enabling animals to detect bioelectrical and geomagnetic fields so they can better navigate their territories.
There is no reason for show dogs to have their whiskers trimmed, and this practice may border on being an inhumane mutilation. As Dr. Gillette asserts:
"Removing whiskers by any means may cause significant stress to a dog. It affects their sensory function and can cause disorientation and a temporary disruption in normal activities like hunting, swimming and play. In some dogs, trimming whiskers may cause aggression as a stress response. From an animal welfare perspective, trimming or plucking whiskers is considered an amputation of a functional sensory organ rather than a cosmetic improvement, and it has been banned in several European countries."
The American Kennel Club might improve its reputation from being more than a registry for pedigree dogs by prohibiting whisker trimming in local and national dog shows.
DEALING WITH CANINE DEMENTIA
DEAR DR. FOX: During the last couple of months, our 12-year-old terrier mix's nighttime behavior has changed. After 7:30 or 8 p.m., he begins to pace, pant and keeps going to the door to be let out. We stopped letting him out until the last "out" of the night since it doesn't appear he has to relieve himself. He will sometimes settle down, only to get up and start all over again.
About twice a week, he gets up in the middle of the night and paces, pants and paws the bed. We let him out briefly, then he seems to settle down. A few times, he has woken us up three times in one night.
His weekday routine is: one 15-minute walk in the morning, outside in the backyard around 3 or 4 p.m., dinner around 4:30 p.m., a 40-minute walk around 5 p.m. and another 15-minute walk around 9:30 p.m. On the weekends, he spends more time in the backyard, but this doesn't seem to alter his night behavior.
Until recently, he has always been able to sleep at night for 10 hours without trouble. His last blood work was six months ago, and everything was normal.
About six months ago we switched him to Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula for seniors, which he eats with cooked chicken mixed in. He has never been interested in eating in the morning, though we have always left dry food for him in his bowl in case he gets hungry.
We have read about this behavior in dogs with dementia but are not sure if this is the issue. I have not seen an article about this on your site. What steps do you suggest? -- D.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan
DEAR D.S.: From what you describe, it seems quite apparent that your dog is showing clear signs of dementia. It is encouraging that his blood readings show he is in relatively good physical health. I have advised many owners whose dogs have begun to behave like yours to try giving 3 mg to 6 mg of melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime; this can help all get a good night's sleep. Melatonin is also an excellent antioxidant. I would add other antioxidants to your dog's daily diet, such as a teaspoon each of raw grated carrot and crushed blueberries plus a few drops of fish oil and 100 mg magnesium. The latter can benefit both the brain and heart.
Two supplements that also benefit people and have a calming effect are L-theanine (from green tea) and tryptophan (from turkey meat). So I would substitute turkey for the cooked chicken you give your dog, and also give him 50 mg to 100 mg of L-theanine and tryptophan daily with food.
If these measures do not result in significant improvements within 10 to 14 days, discuss with your veterinarian putting your dog on anti-anxiety medication. Begin with a low dose while continuing with the treatment I have suggested.
Also, giving your dog a slow, relaxing massage before bedtime, as per my book "The Healing Touch for Dogs," may prove beneficial. Human patients spending extended time in the hospital can develop a disorienting "hospitalization dementia," which daily massage therapy has been shown to significantly ameliorate.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
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