Secrets of the Stool Sample

We veterinarians ask that you bring in a stool sample once or twice a year as part of a complete health assessment of your animal. Why do we ask you to do this? It’s not because of some strange sadistic tendencies – the way we test your commitment to your animals, or because we’re in a stage of arrested development (although as sticklers to detail it could be argued that many are), but because the stool sample can reveal much important information about a patient’s health. While medieval kings had physicians whose primary task was to assess their daily output as a way of making sure the king was healthy, we’re able to examine these samples in a more highly scientific way. It’s helpful if you bring in a fresh sample. The parasites can live a long time in the environment though, so a sample that’s up to a few days old can still yield good results. We always are amused by those dried out cat donations that resemble a Tootsie Roll rolled in crushed almonds. Google “litter box cake” if you need some ideas for next April Fool’s Day.

Once you hand over the bag of that precious cargo, a few different tests are routinely performed. Some of these can be done in the hospital. Some are so specific that they must be handled at an outside lab. Generally, the sample is mixed with a special solution and then processed in a way to encourage any microscopic parasites or parasite eggs to rise to the top of the sample and stick to a microscope slide so it can be examined under a microscope. Take a look at what we can see under the microscope:

Intestinal Parasites:






Single-Celled Organisms




Bacteria – Salmonella, Botulism, etc

Parasites Of Other Organs:


Liver Flukes 

External Parasites:



Ear Mites


(These may be present if an animal ingests these while grooming and then passes them in the stool)

You can see there’s a lot of information contained in that little plastic bag. I’ll discuss each group of parasites in future posts. Once we determine what may be infecting your animal, appropriate medication can be given and preventative measures recommended in order to avoid re-exposure and re-infection.  We can also have specific testing such as cultures and DNA testing performed at our lab to determine the presence of a specific organism that may have not been seen during the microscopic exam. Many of these parasites are also capable of infecting people. Examining and properly treating your animal will also protect you and your family.

What if the sample is negative? This means none of the above was seen during the microscopic examination. Congratulations! This can indicate that your parasite control program is effective and you’re keeping your animals free of these diseases.  However, a negative sample can also just simply mean that the organisms were not shedding eggs in that sample or none were present in the one we examined. It is still possible that an animal is infected but it just did not show up as so in this single test. We often will recommend treatment “just in case” if an infection is suspected in order to avoid worsening problems.

There really is a lot of information to be gained from examining your animal’s stool. Don’t be embarrassed next time you need to bring in a sample. You’re practicing good animal care.  I often amuse myself in thinking that in a thousand years when someone digs up our civilization, they’ll find we revered our animals. Then it will be found that we even had people whose job it was to clean up after those animals and there were even doctors dedicated to taking care of them. So in a thousand years we may be seen as something like people – animals – animal caretakers. Yep, we vets will end up lower than your dog. Which is just fine with us. We’ll still know the secrets of the stool sample.


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Oma School


This past week I had the pleasure of seeing a patient brought in by her people which included three pretty exuberant young boys. The dog was in great shape. I asked each of the boys what grade he was in. The first two answered “second” and “kindergarten”. The third and youngest had the best answer I’ve ever heard, “I go to Oma School”.

As you probably know, Oma is the German word for grandmother. This family had obviously been smart and clever enough to quantify what we can learn from older generations and given it a name – “Grandma School”. What a perfect way to help youngsters learn that what an older person, like grandparents, has to say is important. Life lessons passed on from older members of the family are just as important as lessons covered in school. This young boy obviously has learned to take what his grandmother had to say very seriously. He was proud that she’s been saying he’s a good learner.

I’ve written about the concept of “it takes a village” to properly raise a child and teach them about responsibly sharing their lives with animals. Oma School brings that down to an even smaller level, “it takes a family” to properly raise a child and teach them about proper care for their family companion animals.

My last post shared information about the “Old Grey Muzzle Tour” and what we can learn from our oldest dogs. In a way our aged dogs provide us with their own Oma School.  They too share life lessons and wisdom gained along their way through life just as people do. Now of course I don’t want to infer that Grandma has an “Old Grey Muzzle” (but apparently I have one now), just that imparting wisdom to our younger generations is important. They’re real lessons that are as important as any taught in school.

I take every opportunity such as career fairs, school visits, 4-H programs, hospital tours, Girl and Boy Scout Patch and Merit Badge classes to help teach our youngsters about proper animal care.  I never thought of it as “Oma School”. Now I always will. We should all take mentoring any younger generation person with the seriousness and dedication of a school teacher. My own kids groan loudly whenever they hear me say “I’m just teaching you.” But I know someday they’ll be in a situation and say, “Ahh. Now I understand” just like I have when finding myself using something I learned in “Oma School”. What a great term for an important part of the wonderful circle of life.



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The Old Grey Muzzle Tour

The Old Grey Muzzle Tour

I recently had the pleasure of attending a thought-provoking session presented by Dr. David Waters as part of the Old Grey Muzzle Tour 2015. Dr. Waters is a veterinarian and cancer research innovator that spends time each year touring the country to visit with the oldest living Rottweiler dogs. His group chose to study Rottweilers because they are a representative large breed dog that has a higher incidence of cancer than many other breeds. By studying these dogs in their environments during their lives and continuing to study them after they pass he hopes to gain insight into what helps some dogs live longer than others. This may turn out to be a good model for finding clues as to why some people live longer than others. Ultimately it may shed some light on what we may be able to do proactively to help both our dogs and ourselves enjoy a longer “healthspan” – the length of life enjoying good health. The concept is to not only live longer, but continue to encompass good health, activity and the joys of everyday living throughout that long life.

Dr. Waters visits with and studies dogs that are equivalent to one hundred year old people. Some are even closer to one hundred and ten. These oldest dogs can be our greatest teachers. He hopes to unlock what helps these dogs live well to such a great age leading to methods which may help us prevent cancer in the future. “Prevention, the avoidance of cancer altogether, is 2 steps ahead of lethal cancer .The idea of cancer prevention has been relatively slow to take hold in the oncology community. In contrast, cardiologists have been tuned into preventing heart attacks for a long time – they’re way ahead of us in their progressive thinking,” Waters said.

Dr. Waters and his team at the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation ( have teased out some tantalizing clues as to what may have helped these dogs live so long. I won’t present them as “bullet points” as Dr. Waters pointed out we often consider such points as absolute fact when actually we often really don’t know the correlation or importance of information. Here are some ideas which their studies seem to indicate help dogs enjoy a longer healthspan: females may benefit from delaying spaying until later in life, dogs benefit from living with other dogs and having a “purpose”, dogs with calmer, mellower dispositions may live longer, actions taken and diseases encountered in the younger part of life may influence in unknown ways later in life.

One of their most interesting findings is that these older dogs may not actually avoid cancer, but that their bodies have found a way to live with cancer. Necropsies (the veterinary equivalent of an autopsy) on many of these dogs showed they harbored sometimes more than one type of cancer, yet these cancers never developed into a lethal problem. These are fascinating findings teased out in unconventional methods.

Dr. Waters and his team is trying also to reshape the dialog of medicine and research; to not only think outside of the box, but to acknowledge there isn’t even a box. I encourage you to follow Dr. Waters on his journey through the tour’s Facebook Page

If you have a chance, take a few moments to view his TEDX talk at

I guarantee you’ll have your eyes opened to some new paradigms in research as well as developing some novel thoughts in helping our dogs enjoy healthier, longer lives. After all, this is the goal of every veterinarian and animal lover.







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Yes, time is ticking. But it’s not that tick I’m referring to, but those dangerous critters that will soon be on the attack. Our heavy snow cover is making the calendar hard to believe, but every plant and animal knows that spring is coming. Our outdoor animal friends are getting prepared for, well, you know what.

Unfortunately this also means that ticks and other parasites are about to come out of their semi-hibernation and will wake up hungry! After over-wintering without a meal both juvenile and mature ticks will need to start feeding to get their growth processes restarted.  Many ticks are not killed by our winter conditions and there will be a new crop waiting to literally suck our blood.

There are several tick species that call the Hudson Valley home with some new ones beginning to pop up in this region too. Most dangerous is the Deer Tick. We know that nearly 40% of the deer ticks in our area carry Lyme Disease and possibly other diseases as well. Other ticks carry serious diseases, such as Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, Babesiosis and others not yet detailed. Have you read about the recent death of a Kansas resident who was infected with a newly discovered tick borne disease called Bourbon Virus? Unfortunately, it’s even more dangerous than its namesake. Learn more at

 While all of these tick borne diseases  can cause serious illness, Lyme disease is the best known. This bacterium can infect people, dogs, horses, sheep, goats and cattle. Cats seem somewhat resistant.  The ticks need to attach and feed (nice term – for sucking blood) for at least  24 hours to transmit the disease. Fast detection and removal is key to preventing  transmission of this  disease.

How can you prevent ticks and some of the diseases they carry?

Dogs: Use an external product. Topicals such as Frontline and Advantage have never been very impressive. My patients have had the most success with the Seresto Collars and Vectra topical control products. I’ve used the Seresto Collar on my dogs for two summers now and have seen an impressive reduction in the number of ticks on them. This collar lasts up to 8 months and is waterproof. There are two new oral medications that are said to control ticks but neither is labelled  for control of deer ticks.  I also recommend the Lyme Vaccine for dogs which will be exposed to ticks. This vaccine has become more effective with reduced side effects. Discuss your tick control options with your veterinarian before the season starts. Many people are reluctant to use chemicals and insecticides due to possible side effects. While these may be valid concerns, the risk of contracting a disease of known seriousness seems more important than unknown risks from control methods. The herbal collars available are completely ineffective.

Horses and livestock: Most topical dips and sprays have some efficacy against ticks. Make sure the label lists effectiveness against tick species. Remove ticks  as soon as possible when observed. Keep pastures mowed to decrease contact. There are no approved vaccines for livestock. The dog vaccine has been used with some apparent success in horses. Discuss which insecticide is safe for your farm animals with your veterinarian.

People: Avoid exposure when possible by staying out of tall grass and weeds. Keep lawns, fields and trails mowed. There is always a recommendation to wear light colored clothing and tuck your pants into your socks when walking and hiking. I have yet to find light or white colored hiking pants (who’d want to) and find that when I tuck my shorts into my socks it’s really hard to hike. Applying insect repellents with DEET are helpful although may not be safe for children or perhaps for adults tool. Try to remove ticks as quickly as possible. Examine yourself  thoroughly after being outdoors. The CDC has a new recommendation that treating with a single dose of doxycycline within 24 hours of a tick bite may prevent Lyme disease from developing. Discuss this with your physician if bitten. There is no evidence yet that this may prevent the disease in dogs, but seems to make sense and I will sometimes use this approach with my patients. There is no current vaccine available for people .  I did receive one years ago during the testing phase with no ill effects. There is discussion that one may be brought back to the market in the near future.

The clock is ticking. Now is the time to begin thinking  about insect control and avoidance techniques before the season gets into full swing. Ticks carry many devastating diseases. The best way to avoid the disease is to prevent tick bites. Start planning your defense now!


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Cat Declawing – Just the Facts, Cat

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently within the veterinary community in New York State regarding a bill banning the declawing of cats within the state which has been introduced in the state assembly. Assembly Bill A01297 can found on the following link:

This bill would make New York State the first state in the nation to ban this procedure. Some localities in California and elsewhere have restricted this surgery, but none on the state level. While the procedure remains somewhat controversial, there is great misunderstanding about what it entails. Here are the facts supported both by the New York State Veterinary Medical Society (on whose board of directors I serve as the representative from Orange, Sullivan, Ulster, Putnam and Dutchess Counties) and the American Veterinary Medical Association:

FACT: Declawing is a major surgical procedure performed only by a licensed veterinarian while the patient is under general anesthesia. It does involve amputation of the last part of each toe in order to completely remove the nail bed and prevent the claw from re-growing. It is similar to removing the end of each finger at or just beyond the last knuckle. Because of this it is never a decision that is taken lightly.

FACT: The procedure is painful. With up-to-date pain medications and protocols we are able to minimize the pain just as in any surgical procedure whether performed on animals or humans. We use regional nerve blocks with drugs like Novocain, and injectable and oral pain medications similar to those given to humans after major surgery. Cats respond well to these medications and are up and walking on their feet the same day. Full healing takes about two weeks after which there is no indication of further pain.

FACT: While it does involve amputation of the end of the toe it is not a disfiguring procedure. Once completely healed it’s virtually impossible to tell a declawed cat from one with claws.

FACT: Declawing a cat does not change its behavior. A declawed cat will still use a scratching post and rub its paws on furniture, etc.  This is actually a territorial behavior as a cat is rubbing scent glands in its feet on surfaces to send messages to other cats – “Hey I’m here”. They do not do this to sharpen their claws. A declawed cat will jump normally, run and play like every cat. They even seem to do well outdoors. I have seen declawed patients still able to climb trees and hunt. Behaviorally it’s impossible to tell a declawed cat from one with claws.

FACT: Declawing a cat can save a life. Humans that have suppressed immune systems, bleeding disorders or are more susceptible to infections are at risk from becoming ill from even an innocent small cat scratch. Declawing a cat can allow such a person to continue to enjoy sharing a house with a cat while reducing the risks involved. If a declawed cat is less likely to be left outdoors or turned over to a shelter because of these health risks or destructive behavior, the procedure can even save that cat’s life too.

FACT: Declawing is a rarely done procedure. As people have become more aware of behavioral modification techniques and sensitive to what’s involved in this surgery, it’s become a very rare occurrence. Our hospital performs less than five per year. The decision to proceed with declawing a cat is never taken lightly. We always discuss alternatives with our animal lovers. We are able to determine alternatives to declawing in most cases.

Declawing a cat is a serious procedure. It should never be taken lightly. It is not cruel, inhumane and dangerous. Performed properly with great pain modification it can improve the lives of both cat and cat lover. It doesn’t need to be legislated out of existence. The veterinary community already has taken steps to perform this only when absolutely necessary.




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What is a COHAT?

You often hear how important dental health is for our animals. Many of you likely have had your dog or cat’s teeth cleaned or had a “dental” performed. As the annual Pet Dental Health Month comes to a close, here’s the full story about why dental care is so important for our companions.

Over time, and without regular brushing, tartar or calculus will build up on animal’s teeth just like it will on your own teeth. This starts as a discoloration and continues to build up until there is a thick, brown almost cement-like layer on the teeth surfaces. This tartar can start irritating the surrounding gum tissue leading to inflammation (gingivitis) and infection. This will eventually lead to problems in the tooth root resulting in tooth loss, pain and discomfort. Ever have a toothache? It feels the same for our animals. If an infection starts, bacteria can be spread through the blood stream lodging on the heart or in the kidneys leading to severe health issues and even death. Horses, rabbits and rodents can develop sharp edges on their teeth which need to be smoothed down. These too can lead to weight loss and infection if not treated. Studies have shown that bad oral health shortens an animal’s lifetime. Taking good care of your animal’s teeth can help ensure a long, happy lifespan together.

Once you “flip the lip” and see that there may be a tooth issue in your companion animal it’s important to consult your veterinarian as soon as possible. She’ll recommend a COHAT and develop a proper treatment plan. So what is a COHAT?






A proper COHAT involves several steps:


For all of our companion animals a true COHAT can only be performed under anesthesia. They don’t like the sound of the equipment any better than you do. It’s pretty hard for you to sit still in a dentist’s chair isn’t it? Imagine what that would be like for our animals. It’s much safer for both the animal and veterinary staff for the patient to be under anesthesia. Some places and groomers may discuss teeth cleaning without anesthesia. A proper job can’t be done this way. It’s the wrong approach. Your veterinarian will require an exam and possibly bloodwork prior to the procedure to determine the safest anesthetic regimen for your animal.


A licensed veterinary technician (LVT) and a veterinarian will closely examine each tooth for wear, fractures, cavities, and looseness. The gum line will be probed for pockets which can lead to infection. Radiographs (xrays) may be done to assess the tooth roots just like at your dentist. The entire oral cavity will be examined for tumors and inflammation.


The teeth will be cleaned using both hand and ultrasonic scalers just as at your twice yearly teeth cleaning. A polish will then be applied to slow down redevelopment of the tartar. Teeth that need special treatment may need filling, sealing or extraction. Special situations may warrant eventual referral to a board certified veterinary dentist. It’s similar to you being referred to an endodontist.

Horses often need to have their teeth “floated” which removes the sharp edges that have developed with wear. This is often done with some sedation as you can imagine how pleasant it must feel. This procedure can only be performed by a veterinarian.


Once your animal is back home, it’s important to develop a good oral health care regimen just like you do for yourself. Regular brushing with a pet toothpaste or baking soda is most important. Human toothpastes can upset their stomachs. You can also rinse with approve products and even use specially prepared chew products. I always recommend products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. You can find a list on

Studies have shown that chewing bones, rawhide, antlers and hard kibble have no effect on tartar build-up. Only you can keep your animal’s teeth in good shape! Ask your veterinarian how to do that. Remember, you’ll be helping your companion live a longer, healthier life.



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It Really Does Take a Village

It Really Does Take a Village

I’ve thought about this phrase, an African proverb made famous by a New York politician, a few times recently. I’ve been practicing veterinary medicine in Orange County for twenty years. Our location is right outside the Village of Maybrook. My children attended Maybrook elementary and continued through the Valley Central Schools. It’s both amazing and heartwarming how any time I come across a student or now young adult that attended school with them, these youngsters are always willing to stop, say hello and fill me in on their lives and families. I’ve watched them grow up, sometimes even pitched to them during their T-ball days, and now as young adults they’re still respectful and pleasant. I’ve realized that in a small way, even in an “advanced” society like ours, we’re lucky to still be part of a village. I’m sure that it’s this way in all of the towns in our area. We’re so fortunate to live where and as we do.

Think about it. Your local community, neighbors, classmates, and fellow soccer moms make up the “village” that helps our youngsters grow, learn and develop into responsible adults. We’re in this together. In ways you may never realize, you have a meaningful effect on those people around you.

Many of these young adults are now bringing their own companion animals into our practice. As part of their village we helped teach them about responsible pet care when they were young. Their parents and neighbors modeled good animal care and now they’re doing it on their own. That’s really heartwarming. Here’s a youngster that at one time was literally swinging from the exam room table now doing the right thing for her beloved cat. It takes a village to help pass this on.

Responsible animal care means not only providing the proper care for your companions, but also  assisting stray, feral and wild animals when needed. A good villager makes sure the neighbor’s dog has good shelter and fresh water during the cold weather these days. I’ve seen people do this. We’ve seen feral cats rescued from near freezing and wild geese that can’t get to open water or food. It takes a village to watch over all of its animals as well as its children.

This really shows how much we are ALL in this together. American society, politics and the world at large can seem so fragmented these days. It’s so much “us against them”. This can make one want to just shut the curtains and hunker down.  But you can’t. It takes a village to care for our children. It takes a village to care for our animals too. Keep up those life lessons. You’ll never know when one of those “kids down the street” will become that young adult that greets you with a smile and lends a hand. Keep up the good work!



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If You’re Drunk You Cannot Buy a Puppy

If You’re Drunk You Cannot Buy a Puppy

I recently heard this amusing song by clever, comedic singer-songwriter Christine Lavin. It’s based on a sign she once saw in a Greenwich Village Pet Shop. The song continues on to outline other things you can’t (or shouldn’t) do if you’re drunk. It started me thinking. Not so much about drinking but about responsible pet ownership. Buying a puppy while you’re drunk amounts to an impulse buy. Choosing to bring a companion animal into your home should never be done on spur of the moment basis.“Dad can we keep him?” “Oh, mom, look how cute!”.  “She looks so sad, let’s take her home.”“I promise I’ll take care of it.”  “You’ve always said I could have a pet.” I’ve heard these plea bargains in many a pet store. Yes, I do often “lurk” around pet stores to see: 1) how well the animals are cared for, 2) How knowledgeable the staff is, 3) to see if the store is complying with the law, 4) To see how the public reacts to animals and makes choices.  It’s usually an eye-opening investigation.  It always leads to me wanting to shout out, “Choosing to bring a companion animal into your home should never be done on a spur of the moment basis!” (or something similar using much less and shorter words).

I’ve shared my thoughts and statistics about responsible pet ownership in some of my previous posts. Remember that you need to budget $300-500 per year for any kind of companion animal.

This includes, the proper diet, environment, housing, fresh water, routine veterinary care, and love, attention and regular exercise.  Choosing to share your life with an animal is a commitment. This can range from a 1 year commitment to share your home with a mouse, 9-15 years for a dog, 12-18 years for a cat, 20-30 years for a horse, 30-50 years for a parrot, and 70-150 years for a tortoise. Now multiply those years by the average annual animal care cost above and that cute little kitten in a box in front of Shop-Rite is going to cost you a potential minimum of $6,000 dollars over its lifespan. No animal is ever free. Choosing to bring a companion animal into your home should never be done on a spur of the moment basis.

So what if you’re not drunk and want to buy a puppy? Do your research. There’s lots of information on line:,, there are even breed match sites to help you select a good breed for your family: Be sure to ask your veterinarian and her staff for recommendations. Visit your local shelters but take time to get to know an animal before adoption. Work out your family budget beforehand. Make sure you can make the commitment both in time and financially to provide everything your new companion animal needs. And remember, if you’re drunk you cannot buy a puppy. Choosing to bring a companion animal into your home should never be done on a spur of the moment basis.


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The first Arctic cold snap of the winter is now upon us. Just as hot weather can pose problems for our animal companions, cold temperatures can create some health risks as well. I’d like to share some tips from the American Veterinary Medical Association for keeping your animal safe during cold weather. Please add your comments and tips as well.


Cold tolerance can vary from animal to animal just as it does from person to person. I spend the winter at home in shorts and a t-shirt while my life wears 3-6 layers. Your dog and other outside animals can differ just as well.  Learn your animal’s tolerance and adjust accordingly. You may need to shorten your walks. Small dogs and short-coated breeds may benefit from a dog coat. Older animals can have their arthritic issues worsened by cold weather just like us. Pain medications may need to be adjusted accordingly.  Animals with health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature. So do very young and very old animals. If you have questions about your animal’s temperature limits and susceptibility, ask your veterinarian.


Animals are pretty good at figuring out how to regulate their temperatures. Make sure you give them some options like sleeping in front of a warm vent, heat source, etc.  Outdoor animals should have access to shelter out of the wind  with warm bedding to help them regulate their temperature. Indoor temperatures can also drop during cold spells. Animals that require strict temperature regulation like fish and reptiles may need to have their heat sources adjusted. While it’s true that dogs, cats and other animals are wearing fur coats, they are still susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. Even “arctic” breeds with thick coats can have trouble in cold weather if not well adjusted. Don’t leave any animal used to being indoors, outdoors for long periods during freezing weather.


If your car is left outdoors, bang on the hood before getting in. Hopefully, this will scare away any hitchhikers. Outdoor or feral cats and other wild animals will seek the warmth of a hot engine to spend at the night. There can be horrific injuries from fans and belts when you start your car.  Try to scare them away first.


Your dog’s feet are most susceptible to the cold because of their contact with the frozen ground. Check for cracks, bleeding and wounds regularly. Ice can accumulate between their toes. You can decrease this by trimming the hair short. Sometimes applying Vaseline to the feet before going out can decrease the accumulation. It may be a good idea to wipe your dog’s feet after going out to remove any salt/sand that may have accumulated. There are supposedly “pet-safe” de-icers on the market. These are urea based compounds and while they may be easier on your dog’s feet, they don’t melt ice. Don’t bother with them. Simply clean your dog’s feet, monitor for any irritation and things should be just fine.


Car anti-freeze is highly toxic to animals. It’s also sweet and pretty tasty. (And yes I do know this. While in vet school I worked on a research project to find an additive to make it less likely to be ingested. This work led to the addition of bittering agents to anti-freeze which you can now find added to many products.) Clean up any spills thoroughly and keep containers sealed and out of the reach of animals and children. Animals will be spending more time indoors, so continue your usual precautions to avoid exposure to household toxins.


If you’ve made a family emergency kit to be ready for power outages and severe weather remember to include enough food water and medicine for your animals for at least five days. 


If your animals must remain outside, make sure the have complete shelter and protection from the elements. Dog houses should be raised off the ground and insulated if possible. Bedding for all out door animals should be thick, dry and changed regularly. Access to fresh, unfrozen water must be continued. This means either changing the water frequently or  using tank heaters or heated bowls. Outdoor animals will have higher calorie requirements to keep warm. You may need to offer more food, or food that can provide more energy such as higher fat feed.


Above all else, use common sense. If it’s cold for you, it’s cold for our animals. Since you provide everything they need to survive, it’s important to be aware of what needs to change during this cold weather. Ask your veterinarian if you have specific questions about what would be recommended for your animal. I encourage you to share any thoughts and tips that have worked for you here under the comment section. Stay Warm!




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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.                             




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    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
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