The Health Effects of Obesity on Dogs: Killing our dogs with kindness

Various studies have estimated that the incidence of overweight and obese pets in the United States is somewhere between 35 to 65%. This  gives a new twist to the observation that pets tend to look like their owners, since the rate of overweight, obese Americans hovers around 68%.

Why do our pets become overweight? Well, for most dogs it’s simply a matter of more calories consumed than expended. Dog food companies are continually making their products more palatable and if the family doesn’t regulate what the pet consumes, it’s very likely the dog will indulge himself. High calorie dog treats, table scraps and raiding the cat’s food bowl (mucho calories per cup) all contribute to the problem.

Take all these sources of excess calories, add a relatively sedentary lifestyle and, voila – a fat dog. There are few diseases, like hypothyroidism, that can contribute to obesity. While these types of problems are rare, it’s  a good idea to have lab work done to ensure the obese pet has no underlying metabolic problems.

How to tell if your pet is overweight

The best way to tell if your pet is overweight is to extend your fingers and then place the flat of your hands against the sides of the pet’s chest. You should be able to feel ribs. If you can’t or if you need to really press around with your finger tips to feel ribs, the pet is likely overweight. If you’re still not sure, your veterinarian can help give you some insight regarding your pet’s desirable weight range.

Excess body fat is unhealthy and can be a killer

Effects on the heart and respiratory systems

All that extra fat makes the heart and lungs work harder. The pet is less able to compensate for mild cardiac and respiratory problems. Healthy dogs at normal weights are reasonably good in compensating for sub-clinical heart and airway abnormalities, but extra body weight hinders the body’s ability to deal with these conditions so that obese pets are more likely to to become ill.

Some small breeds have a predisposition to a problem in which the cartilage in the trachea is weak and spongy. Exertion and excitement will cause the trachea to collapse. The classic sign associated with this problem is a characteristic ‘goose-honking’ noise as the airway collapses on itself. The problem is much worse and can be life-threatening in obese little dogs.

In general, a compromised cardio-pulmonary system reduces exercise tolerance, which reduces calories burned, which results in more weight gain – a vicious cycle.

Joint problems

Arthritis    A recent study evaluating beneficial interventions families can use to help pets with arthritis found that taking off extra pounds was the most important way to make the dogs more comfortable, increase their mobility and enhance their quality of life. The extra weight presses the cartilage and bony surfaces against each other in the joints, causing excruciating pain in obese dogs. Think how miserable you would be if you had arthritis and were required to carry 20 to 30 pounds around with you at all times.

Some theories suggest that the presence of excess fat itself may play a direct role in causing inflammation in joints. Arthritis is more common in large breed dogs. Therefore, it is very important to keep them at a lean, low-normal weight throughout their lives.

Ruptured ligaments    A common injury in dogs and human athletes is a torn cruciate ligament. This important structure stabilizes the knee. It can be torn during rough play or heavy exercise, but obese pets can tear it by simply jumping off the couch. It’s a very painful condition requiring surgery to repair.

Back problems

Back problems are not uncommon in pet dogs, especially certain breeds such as  Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Beagles and Shih Tzus. The most serious problems involve damage to the cushioning disc between the vertebrae (Sometimes referred to as a “slipped disc” in humans). Depending on the severity of the disease, the pet might suffer anything from mild pain to sudden paralysis of the rear legs. Overweight dogs are more likely to develop disc disease and have a poorer recovery rate after surgery.


Studies have proven that dogs maintained at ideal body weights  live longer than their overweight peers, and do not show signs of chronic illness till later in their lives.

Miscellaneous issues

Besides some of the obvious serious changes I’ve mentioned, obesity can result in many sub-clinical changes effecting the pancreas, insulin, hormone secretion, blood fat (triglycerides, lipids) and chemical messengers of inflammation. Some of these changes may even lead to pancreatitis and diabetes.

Overweight pets also have higher anesthetic risks, higher medical costs and a higher incidence of complications during surgical and medical treatments.

Easy weight loss plan:

  • Weigh your pet
  • Add up everything the pet consumes on an average day
  • Reduce the diet, treats and other edibles by 10%. Consider switching to a low calorie diet.
  • Increase the daily exercise (check with your veterinarian if your pet is morbidly obese)
  • Reweigh the pet in 6 weeks
  • If there is no significant weight loss, reduce consumables by another 5 to 10%
  • Repeat until the pet reaches his normal weight

Quality of life vs. Quantity of life

Do you want ‘quality of life or ‘quantity of life’ for your pet? You can give him both by keeping him at a healthy weight. Put away the treats and get out the leash for your pet’s health and your own!


Pet Dental Cleaning Without an Anesthetic – Good idea or bad?


Dental tartar is an unavoidable fact of life for us, as well as our pets. There will come a time in in every pet’s life that tartar will accumulate on the teeth and need to be removed by a veterinarian. Cooperative humans can have their teeth cleaned without an anesthetic, although the less brave may need to bolster their resolve with a bit of sedative. But it’s difficult to convince a dog or cat to sit still long enough for the doctor to perform a thorough dental exam and cleaning.

Proper scaling
For maximum benefit, tartar must be scaled from the tooth below as well as above the gum line. The tartar you can’t see can be more detrimental to the pet’s oral health than what you can see. The area below the gum line is where dental disease is most likely to get started and where proper scaling is critical. Ignoring this part of cleaning can result in gum disease, dental abscesses and lost teeth, especially in cats and small breed dogs.

Tartar is very tightly adhered to the surfaces of the teeth. During the process of scaling, microscopic scratches occur on the enamel. Because of this, scaling should always be followed by polishing. If not polished to a smooth surface, these scratches provide a surface for rapid re-accumulation of tartar.

Benefits of scaling under an anesthetic 

  • Molars (located in the rear of the mouth) can easily be accessed for complete cleaning.
  • All surfaces of all teeth can readily be examined.
  • Gingival probing can be done for the presence of pockets and disease along the gum line.
  • X-Rays can be taken to check for retained teeth, dental cysts, abscesses and root disease.
  • A complete oral exam can be done to identify tumors and other types of oral disease.

Downside of Non-Anesthetic Scaling (NAS)

  • The instruments required for scaling are sharp. Minor, quick movements by an awake pet can result in gum lacerations and other oral injuries.
  • The skill of non-veterinary, lay personnel can be an issue. You don’t want anyone messing around in your pet’s mouth who doesn’t have a full understanding of dental anatomy, oral disease, proper instrument use, etc.
  • The procedure is incomplete because scaling below the gum line isn’t done, X-Rays can’t be taken, rear teeth are not readily accessible and the mouth can’t be completely examined. The signs of dental disease can be very subtle and easily missed in a non-anesthetized patient.
  • For many pets, NAS ends up being more of a cosmetic procedure that does not address the important aspects of oral disease prevention. It gives a false sense of dental health.

Anesthetic Safety
As you can see, to effectively clean your pet’s teeth, the procedure must be done under an anesthetic. Modern anesthetics used for veterinary procedures have a wide margin of safety, especially when combined with state of the art monitoring and support. For example, all of our patients that are under an anesthetic are connected to digital monitors that measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate and run an electrocardiogram. We also place an intravenous catheter and infuse fluids during the procedure to maintain proper blood flow to the liver, kidneys, brain and other vital organs. In addition, pre-anesthetic blood work makes us aware of any sub-clinical health problems that might exist before we actually begin an anesthetic procedure.  While these extra measures can add some cost to the dental prophylaxis, it allows us to provide the highest level of safety for our patients.

Dental Care at Home
Brushing your pet’s teeth is the most effective way of removing plaque and preventing tartar formation. There are special brushes and toothpastes (liver, fish flavors) made especially for dogs and cats. Dental gels and oral rinses can be used that act as anti-plaque antiseptics. Special types of diets are available that help remove plaque are good choices for some pets. You can also give your pet certain types of toys, rawhide and treats to help maintain good oral health.   For more info, go to:    Home Care for Dogs by the AVDC

February is National Pet Dental Month.  Please give us a call or send an email if you have more questions about your pet’s oral health care or if you would like to set up an appointment for a professional dental exam and cleaning.

More Information:
AAHA standards: Anesthesia and intubation for dental procedures
American Veterinary Dental College
Veterinary Oral Health Council

Chocolate Ingestion – How to tell if your pet is at risk

Monty-CastroIt is commonly known by most pet families that chocolate is toxic for cats and dogs. Signs of poisoning include diarrhea, rapid breathing, vomiting, muscle rigidity, accentuated reflexes, seizures, rapid heart rate, cardiac failure and death.


The theobromine in the chocolate is the culprit. As little as 10 mg per pound of theobromine can cause serious illness or death. Milk chocolate contains about 40 to 65 mg of theobromine per ounce. That makes about 1.5 to 2 ounces of milk chocolate toxic for the average cat. Unsweetened baker’s chocolate contains about ten times more theobromine, making it much more dangerous. The toxic amount  varies between pets depending on age, health and other factors. In a home situation, it can be difficult to gauge whether the pet has ingested a lethal amount.

Well, the ASPCA Animal Poison Center has a free Dogs and Chocolate Risk Wheel available that can help determine the pet’s risk. You just dial in the weight of the pet, the type of chocolate and the amount the pet ate. The answer will help you determine if you have a minor problem or a serious em

To order the wheel, you can:  call   888.426.4435 or email ergency.   

There is no antidote for chocolate toxicity. Treatment involves supportive care. Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has eaten chocolate.

Unfortunately, no wheel for cats, yet.

4th of July Tips for Pets & Their People

English: Downtown Miami on July 4, 2007

English: Downtown Miami on July 4, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The excitement and noise that accompany 4th of July celebrations can be very frightening for some pets. Loud, unexpected noises and flashes of light may even cause pets to escape from the home, yard or leash putting them at risk for injury or loss.

Here are measures you can take to help make the 4th of July safer and more comfortable for your pet:

  • For maximum safety keep your pets indoors in a quiet area away from crowds.
  • If your pet is used to sleeping in a crate, it may feel safer inside the crate during the noisy parts of this holiday.
  • Close the blinds, turn on a radio and give a Kong toy filled with food to distract it.
  • Keep the pets away from fireworks and NEVER toss a lit firecracker when a loose dog is nearby.
  • Make sure only the human animals have access to party food and alcohol. Keep them away from hot grills and fires, as well as sunscreen and insect repellents.
  • Clean up after the party. Bones, spoiled food, alcohol and undetonated fireworks can pose a danger if eaten.
  • Pets that suffer from high anxiety and panic attacks may benefit from anti-anxiety medications. If you suspect your pet is a candidate, please call early to have a prescription filled. Newer medications can relieve anxiety without causing significant sedation.
  • Make sure your pet is microchipped! This is a very easy way to ensure your pet’s safe return if he or she becomes lost. Here are some scary statistics: only 15% of dogs and 2% of cats turned into shelters  are returned to their families.  This low percentage is in large part due to pets being found without any identification. Don’t let your pet become another statistic, and don’t put all your  trust in a collar with ID.  Collars can easily be lost. Please schedule a time NOW to have your pet microchipped before the holidays.  Microchip implantation is a quick, relatively painless and inexpensive way to help insure your pet will be returned to you if it strays.

    Radiograph of a cat with an identifying microc...

    Radiograph of a cat with an identifying microchip located above the spine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Ears Bring Me Tears

Franco-HultmanTwo of my last ten patients this week were brought to Westwood Animal Hospital because they had some type of ear problem. A third visited to have routine cleaning done to prevent problems. Itchy, painful, smelly ear problems are one of the more common reasons for visits to the veterinarian. These conditions are typically very irritating for the pet and she will shake her head, scratch, rub her ears against the ground, whine and cry. The inside of the ear is usually inflamed and may have a moist or crusty discharge. If the dog scratches hard enough, a blood vessel in the ear flap may break causing it to swell with blood. This big blood blister is referred to as a hematoma and usually requires surgical correction. The discomfort can be so severe that the pet may lower its head when reached for and may growl or snap.

Some breeds are more susceptible to ear problems and these include Poodles, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels,  Basset Hounds and Chinese Shar-Peis.

There are a variety of reasons why ears may become inflamed and these include bacterial infections, yeast infections, food allergies, environmental allergens, hormonal problems, tumors and parasites, like ear mites.

Gelsy-Jacques4Since there are many underlying causes of ear problems, it is important that appropriate diagnostics are done so an effective treatment plan can be chosen. The pet won’t get better if you just assume it has ear mites and treat with an insecticide when it actually has a yeast infection. The first step is to examine inside the ears with light and magnification, using an otoscope. In most cases, the next step is to swab material from the ears for staining and a microscopic exam. The microscopic exam can be a very important diagnostic tool, but its value becomes limited if the pet’s ears are filled with medication right before it actually comes in for an exam. So it’s usually best to postpone treatment until a veterinarian has had a chance to to check the ears.

The pet needs to see a veterinarian (before attempting any type of treatment) if you notice:

  • The ear is painful
  • There is a foul odor
  • The ear is very itchy and uncomfortable
  • There is fluid in the ear
  • There is a lot of debris in the ear

Treatment is determined by the cause of the problem the condition of the ears. If the ears are full of debris, they might require medicated irrigation  If all the inflammatory junk (a technical term) is not removed, medication won’t make contact with ear lining and will be less effective. While ear drops are most commonly prescribed, some pets may also require medication to treat an allergy or a diet change. Medication for pain or itching might also be prescribed.

To prevent problems, clean your pet’s ears as needed. Mineral oil on a cotton ball is very effective in cleaning the wax from the inside of the ear flaps and the openings to the ear canals. Be careful not to force anything deep into the canal. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to control allergies. For some dogs, it can be very helpful to instill a drying agent after baths and swimming. A product I like for this is Epi-Otic(TM). It’s also a very safe cleaning agent.

Lower Your Heart Risk – Adopt a dog

RamboAccording to a recent study by the American Heart Association, owning a dog may protect you from heart disease, even more than other pets.

According to Rambo, guest blogger and feline extraordinaire, “Phooey.” OK Rover, so you get somebody out for a walk once in awhile which has a positive effect on the heart and reduces cholesterol and the bad fats in the blood, but that is no comparison to the cardio workout I can give someone when he tries to tries to give me a pill or catch me to put me up for the night.

I know they also suggested that dogs produce a stress-reducing sense of calm and contentment. Blood pressure and heart rate are reduced, and adrenaline-like hormone release is decreased. Yeah, but I’ll bet a dog can’t even come close to the serenity my family experiences when they come home to find speakers haven’t been shredded, shoes contain no hairballs and the curtains are dry. Now that’s bliss – and you are certainly welcome.

And what about the stockbroker study, forty-eight stressed, hypertensive stockbrokers were divided into groups. Members of the group with a dog or a cat were much calmer in stressful situation. My insider sources tell me that rumor has it that the brokers who lived with cats were even less stressed – undoubtedly because of, as anyone knows, the cat’s ability to give uncannily accurate investment advice.

If you simply want to decrease your blood pressure, lower you cholesterol get in better shape and reduce your stress, adopt a dog, but if you want all that plus the exceptional experience of living with one of God’s most extraordinary creatures, I humbly suggest that you adopt a cat. Or you can give a health promoting feline gift to your cigar smoking, beer drinking, couch potato uncle – you may save his life. Of course if you save someone’s life you are responsible for that person for the rest of your life. Hmm, maybe stick with the tie for his birthday.

Rambo, thanks for your unbiased counterpoint.

-Dr. Hunthausen

Heartworm Disease: A big threat for dogs transmitted by a small insect

BrownDogIt’s springtime again and along with the warmer weather (OK, at least it’s supposed to be warmer) we’ll soon be seeing the emergence of mosquitoes. Besides being highly annoying little drones, they can also transmit a very dangerous parasite – the canine heartworm.  Heartworms cause a lot of damage and infestations can be fatal.  They used to be a problem almost exclusively in the south eastern United States, but their range has rapidly increased and the parasite has now been identified in all 50 states.  

The adult parasites live in the heart and major blood vessels of the lungs. They produce microscopic larvae which circulate in the dog’s blood stream. When a mosquito takes a blood meal, it will also ingest heartworm larvae, and when it bites another dog the larvae are transmitted,  Within 6 months the tiny larvae grow to be adults (8 to 10 inches) in the heart and blood vessels and the cycle begins again.

Early in the disease, the dog may not show any symptoms, but as it progresses, the heart is impaired and arterial walls are damaged.  Blood vessels may become blocked either by the worms themselves or by blood clots.  Blockage of large vessels can cause death, sometimes very suddenly. Signs of infection include coughing (sometimes bloody), weight loss, poor exercise tolerance, difficulty breathing, fainting and general wasting.  To complicate matters, heartworm larvae occasionally carry a parasite of their own known as Wolbachia which can exacerbate heartworm disease.

Treatment is available, but is expensive and can be risky especially if the pet is in an advanced stage and showing advanced signs.  During the course of treating for heartworms, veterinarians often concurrently treat with an antibiotic to kill the Wolbachia.

Fortunately, safe, effective medications are available to prevent the disease. Medication should be given once a month, year round.   Preventative medication kills larvae, but not the adults so it’s important to have a test for adults performed before starting a preventative medication and then, every year thereafter. Another benefit of giving heartworm preventative year round even outside of the mosquito season, is that almost all heartworm preventatives also prevent infestation by a variety of intestinal worms.

To find out more, go to: