What is “Natural” Pet Food?

What is “Natural” Pet Food?

An article published in this month’s Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Society discusses the “Awareness and evaluation of natural pet food products in the U.S.”. It shared several insights into this topic that is very important to me, any responsible, caring pet family and many fellow veterinarians. I thought I’d share the highlights with you to help you in providing the best food for your dog and cat.

The natural pet food segment is the fast growing portion of the pet food industry with sales jumping from $2.0 billion in 2009 to $3.9 billion in 2012. Why? Many people perceive that diets consisting of whole grains (or grain free), whole meat and few byproducts are healthier for their animals. In fact, this has never been conclusively proven. Most of us are guided by our intuition that whole foods and recognizable ingredients are better for our animals just as they are for us. Truth is, no-one knows for sure. Pet food manufacturers take advantage of this by using catch-words (many of which are undefined or meaningless) and pretty pictures on their packaging in order to fool the consumer into believing that their food is better.  As in everything, buyer beware. Some of those ingredients and pretty pictures may make up a very small portion of the food.  You may not actually be feeding a diet that’s as good as you think.

Let’s take a look at some of the terminology used in the pet food industry. While the FDA does regulate some portion of the industry, most manufacturers voluntarily adhere to standards created by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This association has no regulatory functions, but is a voluntary group providing advice and standards for companies.

The AAFCO definition of natural states the following: “a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic.”   Not exactly the pure, minimally processed foods you were envisioning, huh? Corn, soy and animal by-products are all considered natural in this definition, but may not really be so for our animals.

Many of the premium foods also carry great sounding catch –phrases on their packaging. These sound great, but many are not well defined, or actually carry no meaning attached to the quality of the food. Take a look at these:

Term                                  Defined by a regulatory body?                               Definition or description

Ancestral or  Instinctual                            NO                                            Generally mean a diet                                                                                                                                                                         

                                                                                                                         similar to diets of evolutionary                                                                                                                          ancestors or foods self-selected in

                                                                                                                         the wild.


By-products                                                YES                                            Secondary products produced in

                                                                                                                        addition to the original product


Fillers                                                            NO                                            Digestible carbohydrate and fiber



Holistic                                                          NO                                            A philosophy for eating based on

                                                                                                                         nourishing an animal’s mind,

                                                                                                                          body and spirit. Has no bearing

                                                                                                                          on quality


Human Grade                                              YES                                             Must comply with FDA regulations

                                                                                                                           for processing of human food     


Organic                                                         YES                                              Must comply with USDA regulations

                                                                                                                            For production of organic food


Grain-Free                                                     NO                                              Pet food does not contain grains.

                                                                                                                             It does contain carbohydrates

                                                                                                                             Sometimes in even higher

                                                                                                                             Amounts from foods such as

                                                                                                                             potatoes, sweet potatoes,

                                                                                                                             chick and split peas. May be better

                                                                                                                             carb sources but unproven


This demonstrates how manufacturers can use advertising words and phrases that are not really well defined or regulated by any portion of the industry. It may sound good, but is it?  “Holistic” make look good on a package but it is really meaningless when it comes to the ingredients or quality of the food. “Natural”  is almost just as unhelpful.


What should you do?  I always recommended purchasing the best animal food you can afford. Those available from pet stores are generally better than those in the supermarket. Make sure it’s from a major manufacturer. They often are doing the best they can at monitoring the quality and testing of their ingredients. Generic foods can be risky and have been associated with health issues in pets. The number one selling dog food in the country is sold by the largest retailer in the country. It has one of the poorest ingredient lists of any food. Veterinarians often joke that it’s made from shoes and old phone books. While that isn’t true, there is an awful lot of variation in the ingredients in pet foods.  Don’t be misled by phrases such as those above or by pretty pictures on the package.  Look for a food that lists whole meat as the first ingredient. Make sure the package states that the food meets the AAFCO  standards for basic nutrition which means it is guaranteed to be balanced and provide the minimal ingredients your animal needs.


If you have questions ask your veterinarian. Be aware that the pet food industry courts us vets pretty heavily so you may not receive an unbiased opinion.  (We’ll talk about “prescription” diets in a future post. Raw diets too.)  If your veterinarian doesn’t seem very knowledgeable, ask another. We all have to educate ourselves on animal foods too. After all, we have our own to feed.                             




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Not to Feed Your Animals on Thanksgiving


Be sure to thank your companion animals during the holiday. Please don’t thank them with food.  We all know that animals are often the definition of unconditional love. We often can’t thank them enough. We also know that to too many of us food is love.  Did you know that some of the foods that are customary to eat on Thanksgiving can actually be harmful to animals?

Take a close look at the picture above. Find anything there that surprises you?  We see many patients with gastro-intestinal issues right after every holiday. It’s easy to think that it’s fair to share a little leftovers with your dog or cat.  Parts of a turkey or other meat which are particularly fatty such as skin, drippings, fat trimmings, etc. can actually cause inflammation of the pancreas as well as the intestines leading to painful pancreatitis that often requires several days of hospitalization.

Bones are generally not good for dogs and cats, particularly the cooked ones. Poultry bones can splinter which can cause severe intestinal distress and in rare cases, punctures and life-threatening infections.

Many spices and desserts such as chocolate can be directly toxic to cats and dogs. Even onions, whether cooked or not, can be toxic even to the point of death. If in doubt whether something is safe for you companions, don’t share.  Yes, it’s true that your pup can go outside and eat the grossest, rotten carcass she can find  and be ok yet many human foods can cause problems.  Bottom line, don’t share table food as tempting as that is.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s a holiday without any religious or government ties. It’s simply a day to celebrate family, friends, food and football.  Make sure you celebrate your animals too. Just don’t share any foods that can cause them harm.  They’ll be thankful that you didn’t.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dr. Google and the Smoke Monster

Dr. Google and the Smoke Monster


Are you the type or patient/animal caregiver that likes to do a lot of internet research prior to making an appointment for an examination?  Great! That shows that you are really invested in finding the right answer to you or your animal’s health issue. So is your doctor. Chances are your doctor will also be searching for some answers on the internet at some point. One veterinary school professor recently complained that when he asked students a question during rounds, rather than stating the answer, they googled it first. Be aware that “Dr. Google” (health answers resulting from an internet search) can be both a help and a hindrance in getting to the bottom of a health issue. Perform your research wisely and use the information obtained carefully.  Here are some simple dos and don’ts for you to help you in your research:


Use proper and widely recognized and monitored websites to begin your search. WebMD is a good place to start and has a section for animals. Most universities and veterinary schools have sites with good searchable information on many diseases. So does NIH (National Institutes of Health).



Think that your search as led you directly to the exact problem your animal has. While it probably got you pretty close, it can’t have made a diagnosis without physically examining your companion. Nothing can take the place of a physical exam. In fact, this is required by New York State Law for both people and animals before a diagnosis and treatment recommendations can be made.  Forums where non-professionals can share their experiences and thoughts on conditions are not great places to get good information.  It’s easy to be swayed by persuasive posters. Most are not doctors and most posts don’t contain information obtained from evidence-based medicine, only personal experience.


Bring a list of all the information you’ve collected. It can serve as a great starting point for a conversation with your doctor/veterinarian. It can also allow her to explain why some of those illnesses on your list don’t apply in this particular situation. I love to see a client come in with a sheaf of paper. It indicates that he really cares about his animal.


Bring only a portion of the information. We can’t help you understand this without seeing all that you’ve found.


Allow you doctor to develop her own list of possibilities (called the differential list or problem rule-outs) before sharing your list.


Fall victim to the smoke monster. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of information you’ve found on the internet. Locking in on a single diagnosis and forcing your doctor to comply can have dangerous consequences. You may have to saw your way through a dense jungle of mis-information before you go to the right side of the issue. I have seen doctors misled by a client’s self-diagnosis. While the initiative is commendable, the results can be disastrous.


Understand that sometimes your information may just not apply to the situation at hand.  We may have totally different views of the same health issue.


Be insulted that your doctor may disagree with your thoughts. Don’t become angry. It’s best to work together to find the right diagnosis and treatment plan.


Understand that some doctors can be threatened by your opinions and well researched information. However, a good doctor will be appreciative of your dedication and assistance. It’s impossible for us to know everything about every disease or condition. It’s important for us to work together as a team in order to properly treat every problem. Good health care is a combined effort from patient/client and doctor.


Give up. If you’re not satisfied with a diagnosis, treatment or outcome get a second opinion. Not from Dr. Google, but from a board certified specialist familiar with treating the condition you’re dealing with. How do you find this doctor? Why on the internet of course.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ebola Virus and Your Dog and other Animals

Ebola Virus and Your Dog and other animals


I’m sure that you are aware that Ebola Virus has finally made it into the U.S.  We have been expecting it to escape from Africa for a long time. In today’s global village it’s extremely easy for biological agents to spread from source areas to the entire planet in a short period of time given the ease of human travel. In some regards, it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken so long for Ebola to begin its spread. This is a credit to containment procedures that were in place before it began its spread in Africa. What’s surprising is how, given this long period before beginning an epidemic, our government and health care system still does not seem to have been completely and adequately prepared. This is much more alarming than the arrival of the disease itself.

Viruses and other infectious diseases are spread from animal to animal (remember humans are animals too) through either direct contact or indirect contact. Some diseases can be carried and spread without making the host sick.  Animals that carry and spread disease are known as vectors. Inanimate objects that can carry and spread disease are known as fomites.  The humans which were infected with Ebola in Africa and carried it to the U.S. are the vectors for this disease.  It’s not yet clear whether non-human animals can serve as vectors although it’s likely.  You most likely have some experience with a  vector borne disease common in our area – Lyme Disease.  Several different animals serve as vectors in its transmission; some are necessary for the organism’s development. Ebola doesn’t seem to need any intermediate vectors or hosts and transmission appears to be through direct contact with infected body fluids. Which leads us to the big question:

 Can animals be infected with, carry and transmit Ebola Virus?”

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association are closely monitoring the situation in an attempt to learn more about this.  It is thought that Ebola virus emerged from non-human primates and or bats in Africa so we know they can be infected.  There is a study indicating both infection and the presence of antibodies in dogs in Africa in the epidemic area. Because of poor and differing sanitation techniques, these dogs may have had direct contact with contaminated tissues, possibly even ingesting portions of infected patients. This scenario would not happen in our country.

Currently, there is no evidence that dogs, cats or other companion animals can be infected and spread the disease to other animals and people. Animals that have been in contact with infected individuals are being monitored and tested closely. While an Ebola patient in Spain’s dog was euthanized out of precaution, the dog belonging to the nurse infected in Texas is in quarantine and being monitored for any disease to help answer this question. At this time we don’t really know the answer to the question.  We do know that  primates and bats can be infected. The medical and veterinary professions currently don’t feel this is likely in our pets and are actively investigating this issue.

So don’t panic. The media is over-hyping this situation as is customary. Many more people die from the flu in this country (30,000!) every year then are likely to develop Ebola during this epidemic.  Rest assured that our profession is continuing its vigilance in containing this infection and monitoring other infectious disease threats.  Orange County is home to one of only a few USDA animal quarantine sites in the U.S. adjacent to Stewart Airport. We have highly trained disease containment specialists already in place in our area should Ebola or any other infectious disease appear here. We’re better prepared here than many areas of the country.  You don’t have to worry. But stay informed, cautious and take any precautions that may be advised. I’ll continue to monitor developments as this epidemic develops and will keep you informed. Stay safe with Pets Power. You can find the CDC’s statement on Ebola Risk with Pets on this link: http://files.dvm360.com/alfresco_images/DVM360/2014/10/14/4fd95878-3d91-4501-b5d0-3e8c855d13bc/Ebola%20handoutAJFV2.pdf




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Obesity,not Curiosity, Kills the Cat (or Dog)

Obesity, not Curiosity, Kills the Cat (or Dog)

Do you know that over half of the dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight? But it’s not fair to say,” well, if only half of my dog is overweight, the other half is ok”. Doesn’t work that way. Just like for the majority of us, weight gain has become a major health issue for our animal companions. It carries the same health risks for animals as for people. Veterinarians are seeing an increase in diabetes, heart failure and degenerative joint disease associated with this weight gain. Heavier animals live shorter lives. Would you like to spend a few extra years with your beloved companion? Get on the program. Become a “life coach” for your animal. There will be multiple benefits for both of you.

There are many factors which can contribute to animal obesity such as feeding habits, lack of sufficient exercise, surgical alteration, slow metabolism, genetics and hormonal disorders. If you valiantly try to help reduce your animal’s weight without success, a veterinary examination is in order to see if there is a metabolic or hormonal reason for the problem.

You can take a simple quiz at www.stopcanineobesity.com to determine if your companion is overweight. These same principles apply to cats as well. Here are some of the signs your animal has a problem:

  • Is he/she a breed prone to obesity such as retrievers, beagles, basset hounds, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, shelties and terriers or a cat (all cats are at risk)?
  • Do you have a multi-animal house?
  • Is your dog or cat over 5 years old and still being fed the same type and amount of food as when he/she was younger?
  • Feel your animal’s ribs. Is it hard to feel where one stops and the next begins?
  • Stand at your animal’s side. Is there a “tuck-up” under the belly or does it sag or have a square shape?
  • Do you often feed table food or multiple treats each day?
  • Do you just pour the cat or dog food into the bowl?
  • Does your animal have trouble standing up or jumping up on the couch?
  • Does your dog get less than 30 minutes of daily outside exercise/play time?

If you can answer yes to any of these, Houston, we may have a problem. But not all hope is lost. There are many simple ways to help both you and your companion regain that svelte figure.

  • Feed a controlled amount of the right quality food. Your veterinarian can make individualized feeding plans for your animal by determining its caloric needs and determining how to meet them. It’s actually easier with animals than it is with us. Their prepared diets are consistent and easy to control.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise. A gradual increase in exercise will help burn off those un-needed calories while you are working on improving the diet.  Just like for yourself, shoot for 30 minutes several times a week. Cats can be encouraged to chase a toy, light beam or ball. Consult with your veterinarian for the proper program for you companion.

Weight loss is hard. Everyone knows that. Everyone also knows that it will improve the quality of life for your entire household. The advantage for animals is two-fold. It’s much easier given the controlled diets they eat and YOU are in control of the program. Imagine if you had a personal coach that controlled what you ate each day and encouraged your exercise. You are your animal’s personal coach. Take that responsibility seriously and improve the life of your companion.


Obesity in Pets

            Animals gain fat internally prior to showing any outwardly signs of weight gain. Being overweight as a pet can predispose them to a lot of the same problems overweight people face; such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, kidney disease, and heart failure.


RIBS – Easily felt with no fat covering
TAIL BASE – Bones are raised with little tissue between the skin and bone
SIDE VIEW – Abdominal tuck
OVERHEAD VIEW – Significant hourglass shape


RIBS – Easily felt with slight (<1/2″) fat cover
TAIL BASE – Smooth but bones can be felt under a thin layer of fat
SIDE VIEW – Abdominal tuck
OVERHEAD VIEW – Well-proportioned waist is present


RIBS – Difficult to feel with moderate (>1/2″) fat cover
TAIL BASE – Some thickening, but bones can be felt under a moderate layer of fat
SIDE VIEW – No abdominal tuck or waist
OVERHEAD VIEW – Back is slightly broadened


RIBS – Difficult to feel under thick fat cover
TAIL BASE – Thickened and difficult to feel under a thick layer of fat
SIDE VIEW – Fat hangs down from the abdomen and there is no waist
OVERHEAD VIEW – Markedly wide


5’4” Woman

5’9” Man

12 lb Pomeranian

249 lbs

290 lbs

90 lb Female Lab

186 lbs

217 lbs

15 lb Cat

218 lbs

254 lbs

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I Always Wanted to be a Veterinarian

“I  Always Wanted to be a Veterinarian”

Veterinarians hear this phrase almost daily. Many people say, “I always wanted to be a veterinarian” and then proceed to explain why that just never worked out for them. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. We’re lucky our profession is so desired. I always wonder if proctologists, plumbers and dentists hear the same thing. We also hear about the youngsters that are thinking about joining our profession. This is a great thing. Veterinarians usually enjoy encouraging students to consider what our profession has to offer them. Most people aren’t really aware what it actually takes to become the veterinarian they always wanted to be.

While it’s great to desire to enter our field because of a love of animals, that alone won’t get you far enough. It takes a large amount of difficult education to become a member of this great profession. Here’s a run-down of what we usually share with prospective students:

To become a veterinarian you must:

  • Have great grades in high school in order to be accepted at good college. Love of science is important.
  • Spend at least 3 and usually 4 years in college. Students can major in anything, but must fulfill the prerequisite courses of the veterinary schools they are considering. Coursework is heavy in the sciences.
  • Obtain first-hand knowledge of the profession by working or volunteering in a veterinary setting. Many schools have specific requirements, for example 400 hours in companion animal practice and 400 hours in farm animal practice. Veterinary schools want to be sure you know what you are getting into.
  • Veterinary School involves another 4 years of study. That means it takes 7-8 years of college to obtain a veterinary degree.
  • Pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, our National Board Exam.
  • If interested in specializing in a field such as cardiology, internal medicine, etc. an additional 3-5 years of study and a specialty exam is required for certification.

    The veterinary curriculum is unique in that students study all animals from mice to elephants and are licensed to treat all of them upon completing the above requirements. We also are licensed to practice medicine, surgery and dentistry from the beginning. Veterinarians are true general practitioners able to do so much more than physicians upon completing our studies.

    This study does come with a hefty price. The current fees for veterinary school are currently around $300,000. Students are graduating with a heavy debt load. The average starting salary for veterinarians is around $68,000. This is less than half of the starting salary for physicians and many other professions making it difficult for many new veterinarians to make ends meet. The profession is addressing this issue but currently has no good solutions at hand. The median salary for veterinarians in this country is currently around $85,000 according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Being a veterinarian can provide a good living, but involves long hours, hard work and dedication to achieve success.

    Yes, I always wanted to be a veterinarian too. And I am. It’s hard work, took a lot of effort to achieve where I am today, but, like most veterinarians, I love my work. We meet new challenges every day. I suspect many people aren’t able to say that about their jobs.

    Want to learn more? Ask your veterinarian! Great information is also available at: www.iwanttobeaveterinarian.org and  http://www.vet.cornell.edu/admissions/index.cfm.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rabies, Bats and Your Cat

Bats, Cats and Rabies

The great outdoors is the place to be this time of year. Whether enjoying your back yard or hiking in our beautiful area parks, you should be aware of some hidden dangers easily found nearby. Rabies disease is one of these. Rabies is real and all around us. The virus which causes rabies can infect all warm-blooded animals including people. Infection is obtained through contact with saliva from an infected animal which ends up in the nervous system after migrating through the body. It wreaks havoc on the brain leading to unusual behavior, aggression, seizures and ultimately death. There is no treatment for rabies. This is a serious and scary disease which you can prevent by observing some simple precautions.

In our area, rabies is usually transmitted through contact with wild animals which can carry the virus for awhile before dying.  Common carriers are bats, foxes, skunks and raccoons with bats being the most infected. Domestic animals can be infected with the most common one being cats. Why cats?

Our rabies vaccination program for dogs has been very effective in protecting both dogs and people. In fact, this program functions as a type of national defense against this disease for people. Last year over 50,000 people died worldwide from rabies. None of these were in the U.S because of our effective program for dogs. In New York State, cats are required to be vaccinated too. But because local municipalities aren’t set up to enforce this, many cats go unvaccinated. Consequently, many rabies positive cats are seen each year by the State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center where all testing is performed.

Indoor only cats should be vaccinated too. You may have bats in the belfry or just in the attic but if one gets into your house you and your cat may be exposed to rabies. If a cat is unvaccinated a six month, hands-off quarantine will be enforced. Keep your cat’s rabies vaccination up to date to avoid this difficult situation.

To protect yourself and family from rabies:

  • Don’t handle or approach wild animals
  • Don’t handle a bat if in the house, but keep it confined for capture and testing. Call the department of health to find out how.
  • Keep your dog, cats and farm animals current on rabies vaccinations.
  • People can get vaccines too. Vaccinated people only need to receive 2 post-exposure injections vs the 4 that are normally received. These injections are now given in the upper arm making the process more tolerable.
  • If you are bitten by any animal, wild or domestic wash the wound with warm water and disinfectant immediately. Contact your physician as soon as possible. Delays can lead to serious consequences.
  • Contact the Orange County Department of Health if you have concerns about possible rabies exposure.

    Enjoy the outdoors, but be smart and be safe

  • Sept. 28 is World Rabies Day, designated to raise awareness of rabies around the world. It’s a serious disease in many countries. Visit the World Rabies Alliance to see how you can help:
  • http://rabiesalliance.org/world-rabies-day/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ten Ways to Scare Your Veterinarian

Ten Ways to Scare Your Veterinarian

With Halloween only a month away and so many top ten lists and quizzes popular on the internet I thought I’d share some ideas on how to liven up your next veterinary visit.

Ten Ways to Scare Your Veterinarian (but please don’t):

10. Make an appointment for your pet rats to be examined. Show up in the         examination room with an empty carrier saying “ Gee, they were in here when I  walked in.”  (works well with snakes too)

9. Keep checking your cell phone during the examination. This will be easy because it will be constantly ringing anyway.  Answer it and say,“ I’m at the vets. No she’s fine. If you don’t stop calling me I will beat you blue when I get home. Love you, bye.”  Or,“ I hope the police don’t find me here, my license has been suspended for six months.”

8. Laugh hysterically when the vet reluctantly performs a rectal examination on your animal.  Say something like, “That’s funny, he doesn’t squirm so much when I do that at home.”  Remember it requires at least eight years of college for the veterinarian to do that rectal exam.

7. Wait until the appointment is totally over before saying, “Thanks, but I have no way of paying for this.” Or, “No, I don’t believe in credit cards and I don’t have a checking account.”  We’re sorry you may be out on disability but please let us know that there are financial concerns at the beginning of your visit.

6. Allow your children to run around screaming, touching everything and to swing from the exam table. So what if that exam table cost $6,000, it’s your kid right?

5. Walk in the door with a scruffy kitten with a snotty nose and eyes crusted shut. Say, “I just found this kitten, but I can’t take care of it.” Of course most vets will take it in and help this kitten. We are all softies at heart. But we can’t provide free care for every animal.

4. During the examination, suddenly look at the walls. Say, “SHH, I can hear something in the walls, don’t you?”  “Could be rats, or snakes, or kittens.”

3. Pull your car as close to the entrance as possible. Try to drive into the building if you can. Make sure you make it hard for anybody else to enter. After all, you have a real emergency, Scruffy broke that nail two days ago.

2.  If the office closes at 5:00 pm, call at 4:51 pm. Say, “Pudding just had really       bad, bloody something from his back end. I’m coming right over.” Of course we’ll wait for you. Show up at 6:00 pm. Explain that Pudding has had diarrhea for a week and you thought she should be looked at before the weekend because you’re leaving for Italy.

  1.  Laugh hysterically as your dog lunges at the veterinarian when she walks in the room. Repeatedly say, “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok”, thinking you’re calming your dog down when you’re really saying, “Hey, it’s ok to try to bite that vet.” Laugh when your cat tries to bite the staff. Say, “She’s never bitten anyone.” Well, isn’t there a first time for everything? Bring a dog in with a muzzle on, growling and lunging at everyone. Hand the leash to your kid.  Now we’re all scared!



    All of these things have actually happened to me. Sometimes multiple times during my career.  Being a veterinarian can be a scary proposition. We and our staffs are risking physical harm every day. That’s ok, we love what we do.  It would be great if you try to make our days just a bit less scary. Talk to your veterinarian about how you can help do this before your next appointment.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Shinrin-yoku for You and Your Dog

Shinrin –Yoku for You and Your dog


We’ve known for a long time about the health benefits of sharing our lives with companion animals. Studies have shown that they reduce blood pressure, boost immunity and may even lengthen lives. Walking your dog has been shown to have multiple health benefits for both you and your dog. New evidence is indicating that where you walk your dog may have even larger positive impacts on your health. While studies have concentrated on humans I’m sure that the same health benefits are enjoyed by dogs. 

I’m writing about a reasonably new concept coming out of research started in Japan. They have developed the concept of “Shinrin-Yoku” which is translated as “forest bathing”. No, that doesn’t mean jumping in a bathtub outside like in those strange commercials, but going out into the forest and enjoying nature in some specific ways. There is an organization that even certifies individuals on how to lead Shinrin-Yoku walks- www.shinrin-yoku.org.  It’s fairly easy to find wonderful trails in our area and try some of these techniques for yourself.  I’m attaching some terrific information from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation below. So get out this weekend and take a walk in one of our area’s beautiful forests with your dog. It will improve the health of every one. 

Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health

Most of us sense that taking a walk in a forest is good for us. We take a break from the rush of our daily lives. We enjoy the beauty and peace of being in a natural setting. Now, research is showing that visiting a forest has real, quantifiable health benefits, both mental and physical. Even five minutes around trees or in green spaces may improve health. Think of it as a prescription with no negative side effects that’s also free.

Health Benefits From Forests

  • Boosts immune system
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves mood
  • Increases ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Accelerates recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increases energy level
  • Improves sleep

How Do Forests Make Us Healthier?

Numerous studies in the U.S. and around the world are exploring the health benefits of spending time outside in nature, green spaces, and, specifically, forests. Recognizing those benefits, in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries even coined a term for it: shinrin-yoku. It means taking in the forest atmosphere or “forest bathing,” and the ministry encourages people to visit forests to relieve stress and improve health.

Research is casting light on how spending time outdoors and in forests makes us healthier:

Exposure to forests boosts our immune system. While we breathe in the fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.

Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at the trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic, effect. Studies examining the same activities in urban, unplanted areas showed no reduction of stress-related effects. Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that forest bathing trips significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.

Spending time in nature helps you focus. Our lives are busier than ever with jobs, school, and family life. Trying to focus on many activities or even a single thing for long periods of time can mentally drain us, a phenomenon called Directed Attention Fatigue. Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.

In children, attention fatigue causes an inability to pay attention and control impulses. The part of the brain affected by attention fatigue (right prefrontal cortex) is also involved in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studies show that children who spend time in natural outdoor environments have a reduction in attention fatigue and children diagnosed with ADHD show a reduction in related symptoms. Researchers are investigating the use of natural outdoor environments to supplement current approaches to managing ADHD. Such an approach has the advantages of being widely accessible, inexpensive and free of side effects.

Patients recover from surgery faster and better when they have a “green” view. Hospital patients may be stressed from a variety of factors, including pain, fear, and disruption of normal routine. Research found that patients with “green” views had shorter postoperative stays, took fewer painkillers, and had slightly fewer postsurgical complications compared to those who had no view or a view of a cement wall.  

What happens if we lose trees?

The invasion of the emerald ash borer, or EAB, (Agrilus planipennis) since 2002 has provided an unfortunate opportunity to look at the effect of tree-loss on human health. EAB is a non-native, wood-boring beetle that kills all species of ash (Fraxinus) trees within three years after infestation. In some communities, entire streets lined with ash were left barren after the beetle arrived in their neighborhood. A study looked at human deaths related to heart and lung disease in areas affected by EAB infestations. It found that across 15 states, EAB was associated with an additional 6,113 deaths related to lung disease and 15,080 heart-disease-related deaths.

More Research is Needed

While the research in Japan is groundbreaking, we need more research on trees growing in the Northeastern US. We share some of the same genera with Japan, like pine, birch and oak, which all give off different phytoncides, but we have different species. The more we know about our local trees, the more applicable the science will be.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Salmonella – a Serious Threat From Reptiles and Amphibians

photo by T.A.Z. Photography

Salmonella – a Serious Threat from Reptiles and Amphibians

My last post discussed proper reptile and amphibian care. One of the most important aspects of that care is protecting you and your loved ones from a potentially serious zoonotic disease carried by these animals. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that can be transmitted between animals and people.  Common examples are Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus and E. Coli bacteriosis. While there are over seventy listed diseases that are of concern, one which has received much media attention lately is the disease caused by a genus of bacteria known as Salmonella.  Reptile and Amphibians are carriers of this bacterium.. Anyone coming in contact with these animals is at risk of contracting this potentially serious disease.

Salmonellosis, the disease caused by this bacterium, results in severe gastrointestinal distress, bloody diarrhea and sometimes kidney failure. Severe cases can even lead to death. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that over a ten-year period two-thousand human deaths occurred as result of infection.  Interestingly, this genus of bacteria is named for Daniel Salmon, the first person to graduate with a veterinary degree in the US from New York State’s own College of Veterinary Medicine in 1876. Salmonella can infect many animals. People are commonly infected by contact with improperly prepared poultry, meat and eggs. Recently, an outbreak of infections has occurred from contact with small turtles.

     All reptiles and amphibians are carriers of this bacterium and readily shed it in their droppings. Infections had become so prevalent that the sale of small turtles with shells less than four inches was outlawed in 1975. Recently, there has been an increase in the Illegal sale of these pets through the internet, flea market, trade shows and fairs.  An outbreak of this illness in multiple states over last summer sickened over 300 people, most of them children. Children often find these animals irresistible and will kiss them, place them in their mouths and even swim and bathe with them! Because of their less developed immune systems, kids are especially susceptible to the serious effects of infection.

All pet reptiles and amphibians can be considered sources of this infection. Some illegal sellers are trying to convince buyers that their turtles are “Salmonella free”. This is not possible. This organism is carried in every reptile’s body. How can you protect your family from this serious animal-borne illness? The CDC lists several recommendations that can save lives and allow these pets to live safely with people:

How to prevent Salmonella infections transmitted by reptiles and amphibians

  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching or feeding amphibians or reptiles, anything in the areas where they live and roam, or water from their habitats.
  • Keep hand sanitizer next to the enclosure and get kids in the habit of using it every time!
  • Keep these pets out of the kitchen and other areas where food is handled.
  • Tanks, feed and water containers and any other equipment should be cleaned outside the house in a utility sink or outdoors. A dilute solution consisting of ¼ cup bleach in a gallon of water will sterilize all surfaces.
  • Don’t allow children less than 5 years of age, older adults or those with weakened immune systems handle reptiles and amphibians.
  • Don’t let them reptiles and amphibians roam  free in your house and never bathe them in the kitchen sink. If bathing them in the bathtub, disinfect it afterwards with the above named solution.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
  • Blog Author

    Dr. James Zgoda

    Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A. Animal Behavior 1980 Rutgers Univ., M.S. Zoology 1981 Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, D.V.M., 1985 Owner and chief veterinarian of Otterkill Animal Hospital in Campbell Hall, NY ... Read Full
  • Categories

  • Archives