By Dr. Narda Robinson
Our bodies are built to heal, and given the right opportunities, they usually do.
We are constantly confronting a dizzying array of pathogens. If we are healthy, we have a good chance of fending off these disease-causing agents. Our normal defense mechanisms keep our body's systems humming happily. This is as true in pets as it is in people.
Even though the length of a pet's life depends on numerous variables -- and many fall outside of our control -- we do have opportunities to improve quality of life if we tune into health and tune out stress.
Stress, whether physical, mental or emotional, upsets both the mind and body. Individuals may resort to self-destructive behaviors to cope. As a result of stress, pain increases, blood pressure goes up, and circulation to and from our organs diminishes, further compromising their ability to normalize function after illness. Physical problems become harder to treat and often turn chronic in the face of unrelenting stress.
These days, drug companies are more than ready, willing and able to sell us medications for stress, but why not find ways to stop the problem at its source?
Here's how stress affects our canine companions and what we can do about it. Next week, I'll talk about how stress affects cats.
-- Eyes: Television (flashing lights), boredom (lack of visual stimulation), cigarette or other sources of smoke and pollution, as well as blindness, are stressful.
Some natural ways to relieve eye stress: Shut off the TV, provide walks in nature and safe toys in a healthful and stimulating environment. Stop smoking and provide fresh air. For blind dogs, keep furniture in the same place so dogs learn the layout and cope better if medical treatment is not an option.
-- Ears: Stressors include the TV (again), loud music, other dogs barking, humans arguing, loud children, video games, car alarms, home construction, slamming doors and thunderstorms.
As the canine music therapy folks at "Through a Dog's Ear" (www.throughadogsear.com) advise, take a "sonic inventory" to pinpoint noise pollution. Once you realize how much and how often your dog's ultra-sensitive ears endure the cacophony of human existence, you can work to eliminate this form of stress. Replace noxious noise with quiet or slow, specifically formulated music. You'll be surprised by how rapidly the change alters the psychological atmosphere for the better.
For dogs who are afraid of thunderstorms, try an anti-static cape such as the Storm Defender (www.stormdefender.com). Although the reduction of static was thought to help, research instead suggests that the benefit of snug-fitting canine capes and related apparel involves the comfort of tactile pressure.
-- Nose: Strong odors are the problem, including perfumes, excessive or irritating essential oils, hair spray, air fresheners, and cigarette and other types of smoke.
Instead of masking odors with air fresheners, eliminate their source. What's bad for your dog to inhale is also bad for you, after all. For anxiety and fear, some owners believe their dogs are calmer with a product called D.A.P., for dog-appeasing pheromone. Lavender aromatherapy has shown value in reducing restlessness in dogs in shelter environments, as well.
-- Mouth and digestive system: Poor diet and bad teeth and gums are a source of stress, as is the lack of fresh water. Having to compete with other dogs for food and fear of being attacked while eating is also stressful.
Natural ways to relieve mouth-related and digestive system stress include regular dental examinations and cleanings as needed. All dogs need fresh, clean water and well-balanced nutrition, as well as peace and safety while eating.
-- Whole-system stress: Acute and chronic illness is uncomfortable and stressful. Temperature stress and climatic factors such as wind and exposure to rain, snow and ice produce different types of stress. Untreated or undertreated pain takes a long-term toll on health. Excessive exercise ("weekend warrior syndrome") or imprudent rehabilitation practices can worsen spinal disease and joint pain and cause fear, stress and more pain.
Relieve stress with a comfortable living area and a supportive bed, with a temperature-controlled setting safe from the elements outdoors, regular moderate exercise, medical and home massage and other body-benefiting treatments. Some dogs enjoy heating pads or the application of cold on painful areas.
A final point: It's important not to dismiss an illness by attributing it to "just stress." If your pet's not right, see your veterinarian.
(Guest columnist Dr. Narda Robinson is director of the Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. She is a member of the PetConnection.com advisory team.)
Seed junkie bird not really addicted
Q: My double-yellow Amazon, Gomez, is crazy for sunflower seeds. I feed him a pellet food sold by our veterinarian, plus lots of fruits and veggies. But he'd kill for sunflower seeds! I've read that they have an addictive substance. Is that true? It isn't hard to believe, knowing how nuts my bird is for them. -- G.K., via e-mail
A: The rumor that sunflower seeds are addictive to parrots has been floating around forever. I guess the answer depends on how you define "addictive." If you mean is there a substance in the seeds that alters the body's chemistry (like nicotine or morphine), then the answer is no. There's just no evidence that sunflower seeds can exert that kind of hold on a bird.
But if you mean addiction in the more casual sense -- like my "addiction" to chocolate -- then you're probably on to something. Many birds find sunflower seeds to be the yummiest of treats, but not all do. My late Senegal parrot, Patrick, wasn't at all interested in sunflower seeds -- but you'd better get out of his way when almonds or safflower seeds are available!
Seeds are fine as a treat, by the way, but should never be the sole diet for a parrot. You've got the right idea: a base diet of high-quality commercial food complemented by a wide array of fruits, vegetables, and healthy "people food" such as pasta, breads, cooked eggs and so on. Use seeds as treats in training, since they're "high value" to a working bird. -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Human medication can threaten pets
-- Medication meant for people, both prescribed and over-the-counter, had the dubious honor of being the top-ranked pet poison for 2009, according to calls to the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (www.ASPCA.org/APCC). Last year nearly 46,000 calls involved medications meant for people. At No. 2 on the list was insecticides, with 29,000 calls. The most common poisoning problem with these products was the misuse of flea and tick medications, typically a cat made ill by the use of a product meant for dogs. Food items ranked third, with 17,000 calls about common food toxins, including chocolate, grapes, raisins, avocado and products with the sweetener Xylitol, a common ingredient in gum. Rounding out the list were plants, including lilies, which are extremely poisonous to cats, and the improper use of veterinary prescriptions.
-- North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine requires all veterinary students to complete training in disaster response. According to DVM360.com, the students are taught to work with both people and animals in disasters and learn skills such as setting up mobile animal shelters located near emergency shelters for displaced people. They also learn how to respond to an epidemic in animals and stop the spread of disease that may jump to people.
-- Rabbits rejoice! The first eight veterinarians to earn a new specialty certification in rabbits and other small mammals have completed their training. The new "exotic" specialists have extra training in treating the maladies of common small pets, not only rabbits but also hamsters, rats and other "pocket pets."
-- A gene in dogs has been linked to compulsive disorder. A 10-year study at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine found that Dobermans with compulsive tendencies had a higher frequency of a risk-associated genetic marker compared with normal members of the breed. The research may allow for earlier intervention for obsessive compulsive behavior, as well as treatment or prevention of compulsive disorders in both dogs and humans. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
Hot dog: Watch for heat stress in spring
Winter can turn to spring with an abruptness that catches many by surprise. And that means it's always important to beware of your dog possibly overheating when you're still not thinking it's that hot yet.
While most people know not to leave a dog in a car on a summer day, fewer realize how hot a car can get on a day that's merely warm, even with the car windows cracked for ventilation. For your pet's safety, leave him at home rather than leave him in the car.
Exercise is always good for dogs, not only for their health but to help avoid behavior problems. But dogs don't function as efficiently as we do in the heat, so remember that exercise is best left to cool mornings and evenings in the warmer months.
If your dog isn't in shape, work up to long sessions gradually, either early in the morning or late at night, and watch carefully for any sign that your dog is in trouble. Carry water, and offer it often.
If your dog does get overheated -- heavy panting and a glassy-eyed look are the signs -- put lots of cool -- but not cold -- water on him and find a veterinarian quickly.
Overheating is a true medical emergency, and your dog's life is on the line. Don't wait to see if he gets better. Get help right away. -- Dr. Marty Becker
BY THE NUMBERS
Who buys for pets?
If you've noticed that ads for pet-care products seem aimed at women, you'll probably not be surprised to know that's because most pet-care products are purchased by women. The primary shopper for pet-care products is a woman 78 percent of the time, and the average age of that purchaser is 47. The percentage of women primary shoppers by type of pet:
Small animal 85 percent
Cat 81 percent
Bird 80 percent
Dog 78 percent
Reptile 82 percent
Source: American Pet Products Association
PETS ON THE WEB
Got a hamster? Check this site
In Britain, the National Hamster Council (www.hamsters-uk.org) claims to be the oldest hamster club in the world. I'm not sure who keeps those kinds of records, so I guess we'll just have to believe them.
Hamsters have long been a popular pet, especially for children. But even in the days of the Internet, good basic care information on these little cuties can be hard to ferret out.
But not here! This site offers lots of solid information on hamsters, their care and feeding, plus more than anyone really needs to know on showing them. If you live in the United Kingdom, you can put your hamster up against others at more than two dozen officially sanctioned hamster shows a year. Who knew?-- Gina Spadafori
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.