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Cat Talk

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Cat Talk

Does your cat talk?  If so, what does he say when he is hungry? “Meow?”  What does she say when scared?  “Hiss?” When she is happy does her motor go, “Purr?”   Compared to a parrot who might actually be able to speak hundreds of words, or a dog who might know a hundred words,  the verbal vocabulary of a cat is limited.  That isn’t to say that cat’s aren’t intelligent or that they cannot communicate.

Cat’s have a rich non-verbal  vocabulary.  The classic “Halloween” cat image communicates much about its attitude..  When a cat arches its back, fluffs its tail, flattens its ears, and opens it mouth, you had best beware!  It is likely safer to pet a cat that displays a softer posture, with half-opened eyes and erect ears.

Cats also communicate with chemical signals.  Special glands on their heads and on their paws emit an odor (a pheromone) that we mere humans cannot appreciate.  When a cat smells this scent, it has a calming effect on the cat.  The makers of a product called Feliway synthesized this pheromone and sell it in spray bottles and room diffusers.  It really works.  If you spray it inside a cat carrier before traveling, many cats will relax.  Room diffusers of Feliway will usually calm cats who are anxious about strangers or new surroundings.  I often install Feliway diffusers in the cat rooms at animal shelters and spray the towels I use in exam rooms.

Felines also communicate by marking with urine.  Yes urine.  Both female and male cats will “spray.”  The more cats in the household, the more likely one of the cats will start marking on walls, rugs, couches, and beds with spritzers of urine.  There is nothing more appalling to an owner than to come home and discover that the cat urinated on the pet owner’s bed or in their shoes.

What is the cat trying to say by gifting us with urine?  Many owners wrongly assume their cat is spiteful for some perceived wrong.  But cats have other non-verbal ways of showing anger or fear.  Cats that spray are simply saying, “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.”  The cats are claiming their territory, in a quiet, wet, and smelly fashion.  The tough part for cat owners to accept is that for a cat, communicating by spraying urine is normal behavior.  It is just as normal as meowing, hissing, or purring.  If you punish your cat for spraying, the cat will spray more because you obviously didn’t understand the message.  They will just try again and again, until they think the message has been sent.

So what can you do if you think one of your cats is spraying or marking in the house?  Begin by taking your cat to your veterinarian for an exam.  Let your vet first determine whether the cat has any underlying medical problems that might cause frequent urination that could be  mistaken for marking behavior.  Cats with kidney disease, diabetes, thyroid disease, or a urinary tract infection will sometimes urinate outside the litter box.  Cats that have developed an aversion to their litter box will also start voiding in inappropriate places.  (See my earlier blog on Cat Box Blues.)  If there are no medical issues involved, your veterinarian can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication such as fluoxetine (generic for Prozac)  to help your cat decrease its urge to communicate in this way.

For more information, visit these web sites:

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida. Please LIKE us on Facebook!




Cat Box Blues

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Cat Box Blues

Thinking outside the box is generally regarded as a creative and rewarding activity. Unless it is your cat that is thinking outside his/her litter box. Feline litter box issues are the main reason cats either end up living totally outdoors or get surrendered to animal shelters. Best to prevent the problem if you can. If your feline friend has already decided that the litter box is out-of-bounds, here are a few tips that could help return the cat to the proper potty place.

How many litter boxes do you need? Veterinary behaviorists recommend you have one more litter box than you have cats. Yes, if you have three cats, you need four litter boxes! The boxes need not be all the same. Nor do they need to be in the same spot in your house. Some can be covered. Some can be open models. Many cats are fearful of the mechanical (self-cleaning) litter boxes, though, so don’t make this your only option.

What type of litter should you use? That’s simple. Use the type your cat prefers! Sometimes cats don’t like the feel or the smell of certain litters. To each their own. You might need to set up a kitty litter buffet to test which type your cat prefers for duty. You can do this by getting several cardboard soda flats from the store. Place a sample of different litters in each flat. You might try clay, recycled paper, corn cob, sand, some with odor crystals, some without, some pelleted, some clumping, etc. Paws down, your cat will accept the challenge and christen her preference. Not all boxes in the household need to have the same type of litter, however. If you have multiple cats you might offer a variety of litter types.

Where to place the litter box? You might know where you want the box. But your cat could have other ideas. Tucked away in the laundry room seems like the best spot for many households–until the cat is inside the box when the dryer alarm rings or the washer spins off-balance. Once the cat is startled in the privacy of her box, she may never return to that location. So pick some quieter, more private spaces. Next to the cat’s food and water bowl is not a prime choice either. If your cat is older, don’t make him climb the stairs to get to his box. Also get a low-sided box for cats that have arthritis symptoms. If your cat is already soiling the bathroom rug, you will need to put the litter box on top of the rug! Leave it there until the cat reliably uses the box on the rug, then gradually move the box an inch away each day until it is relocated in a more convenient place.

How often should you clean the litter box? Ideally you will scoop every day, each time the box is used. And you will empty the box and scrub it with soap and water at least weekly. Promise. Because if you don’t, you might later regret it. Cats are fastidious about odors and textures. If they need their box and it is already soiled or smells like bleach, they might decide to go elsewhere. Cat box liners are not recommended either. They might make your messy cleaning job easier, but cats typically don’t like the plastic feel in their space.

Remember, it is relatively easy to train dogs. For cats, just do what they want and everyone lives happily ever after.

Next time I’ll discuss what to do about cats that spray or mark objects (like your shoes) with urine. Spraying is a whole different cat problem that is not necessarily related to avoiding the litter box.

Have you ever experienced cat box blues in your household? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida LIKE us on FaceBook!


Behind Closed Doors

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Behind Closed Doors

Once the exam room door closes, it’s time to get personal with pets and their owners.  Asking questions about a pet’s care at home is an important part of the exam.  That’s why we veterinarians usually ask indelicate questions such as: What does your dog’s poop look like?  Or, how large is the clump of litter  after your cat goes in its litter box?  Veterinarians talk a lot about body fluids it seems. We talk about vomit, urine, diarrhea, nasal secretions, and other unsavory matters with our clients.  I guess once you’ve talked about such nasty things with people, they begin to talk more freely about other personal matters.

Behind the closed exam room doors, many clients choose to share very private  health information with me.  Almost daily I make a diagnosis that mirrors some health issue going on in a client’s family.  For example, if I hear a heart murmur on a pet during my exam, the pet owner might share with me that they also have a heart murmur. If I diagnose diabetes in a pet,  the owner might already  have insulin and blood sugar testing equipment at home because they too have diabetes.  Recently, when I diagnosed liver disease in a cat and prescribed a certain medication, the pet owner broke down in tears and sobbed that he had just lost his wife to liver disease and so still had a bottle of that same medication at home.  At times like that I lose my composure.

Recently, clients have begun to share personal financial information with me once we are behind closed doors.  I think these disclosures increased while the U.S. Congress was also behind closed doors trying to make the debt crisis go away.  Many of my clients are seniors who survive on Social Security or families economically devastated by the Great Recession.  This past week the clients were frightened.  Many of them requested “just the minimum” for their pets because they feared their next check wouldn’t arrive in August.  More clients paid only with cash.  Some clients even told me they are struggling to support their family on $250 weekly unemployment checks, and have done so for the past year.  A few clients said they have lost their homes and are now sharing living arrangements with blended families and blended pets. Yet, these clients still try to provide basic veterinary care for their beloved four-legged family members.    These sorts of disclosures also make me lose my composure.

My job is to advocate for the pets who cannot speak for themselves.  It is up to me to advise pet owners on the best course of action to prevent disease, diagnose problems, and treat medical conditions.  Given the state of the economy these days, my job is tough.  I have great compassion for the clients who are frightened and challenged financially.  I have great compassion for the small business where I work trying to provide a living for all the staff members.  I hope our elected representatives have compassion for all of us.  If they would like to know how the debt crisis affects their constituents, I invite them to spend a few hours behind closed doors with me.  A dose of compassion would be good for what ails us. It’s just what the doctor ordered.

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida  Please LIKE us on Face Book!


Budgeting for Pet Care

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Budgeting for Pet Care


We pamper them. We bring them wherever we go. We surprise them
with something new on special occasions. They even get holiday presents. They
are our pets!  (Taken from the American Pet Products Association website)

Yes, the trend is that pets are definitely members of our families.  So, just be thankful that your dog or cat doesn’t want a car to drive or a college diploma!  Such add-on expenses could be deal breakers for pet owners.  Nevertheless, it  can be expensive to keep a pet.

Everyday I counsel pet owners about the cost of veterinary care.  I give estimates, work with owners to create affordable treatment plans, and try to give the best veterinary care the family can afford.  I see families juggling to provide for pets, children, and spouses on their family income.  Families often tell me they didn’t know that pet ownership could be so costly.  Sometimes I witness senior citizens getting health care for their pets before they get health care for themselves.  That just breaks my heart!

So in this blog, let me speak to you as would one of my heroes, Suzie Orman.  I love listening to her straight forward, common sense approach to financial advising. How can your family budget for pet care?  Let me suggest a couple of options.

Option 1:  Consider purchasing a pet health insurance policy. 

Pet-health insurance is now available from a variety of insurance companies.  Pets adopted from shelters often come with a 30-day policy from 24 Pet Watch.  Home Again Microchips include coverage for emergency veterinary care should your pet become lost and injured.  Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) is perhaps the oldest provider in the pet insurance industry.  There are other policies promoted by the ASPCA and the AKC (American Kennel Club).  Some employers even offer pet-health insurance as an employee benefit.

However, do your homework before purchasing a policy.  Read the fine print and be sure you understand whether there are any breed-related exclusions.  For example, you might buy a policy for your new Bulldog puppy only to find that the most common health problems of that breed (related to breathing difficulties) are not covered or that your policy doesn’t cover “wellness care” such as vaccines. It is also important to note that pet policies seldom pay the veterinarian up-front for expenses. So be ready to pay for the policy, pay for the vet care out-of-your pocket, and then apply for a reimbursement from the insurance company.  Also, it is probably in your budget’s best interest to purchase the policy when your pet is young and healthy.  If you wait until a problem develops, you might encounter more exclusions and higher premiums.

Option 2:  Open a Pet-Health Care Savings Account of your own.

The American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimates that American pet owners  will spend about $50 Billion dollars in 2011 on pet care.  That number flabbergasts me!  Most of the money ($30 Billion)  is spent on  retail pet food and pet supplies.  Only $14 Billion is spent on veterinary care.  The rest goes for grooming, boarding,  training, and purchasing of animals.  (Clink on the link to see a graphic.)   Spending on Pets

For the veterinary piece of the pie, pet owners report they spend $200 – $250 annually for each pet they keep.  And if their pet needs a surgical procedure (such as a dentistry, laceration repair, blood work etc.) they might spend another $400 to $450.  If you consider that very young ( less than a year) and very old (over 8 years) pets will need more veterinary care, then you might expect to spend the higher end ($600 to $700 annually) for younger and older pets, but only $200-$250 annually for middle-aged pets.  Let’s say your pet lives 13 years; that would amount to your needing $5000 to $6000 over the life expectancy of your pet for veterinary medical expenses.

So open a savings account and deposit your spare change each night.  Think you might be able to find a dollar or two everyday to put into that account?  If you did, you could save MORE than enough to provide excellent veterinary care for the life of your pet.  Giving up just one item from the vending machine at work each day would help you save enough.  It doesn’t sound so expensive when you think of it in those terms.

Option 3:  Limit Unnecessary Purchases

Review the pie graph in this blog one more time.  Most of the pet care dollars go toward RETAIL food and supplies.  Does your cat really need that $10 plastic mouse or would a plastic cap from an empty milk jug offer just as much entertainment?  Does your dog really need that $50 bag of organic salmon and potato diet the clerk recommends or would a premium brand (such as Science Diet, Eukanuba, Nutro, etc) fill his bowl just as well?   If you aren’t sure, ask your veterinarian for advice.  If you save some of your hard-earned dollars in the pet store, then you will have more dollars available to make sure your pet gets all its basic health care needs met.  Sadly, I have seen pet owners spend $200 or more on retail pet supplies for a new puppy, only to scrimp on not getting the puppy sterilized, filling a prescription for  flea and heartworm medication, or enrolling in puppy-training classes.  Scrimping on prevention is a bad trade-off.  The fancy collar and leash might look good today, but it won’t stop your pet from having an expensive health or behavior problem later.

For more on this topic, please visit:

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida   LIKE us on Facebook!


My Pet Peeves

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Writing this particular blog makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.  I don’t like discussing controversial subjects.  But,  I would like to discuss some common pet-related actions that annoy me because they result in harm for pets.  Since pets can’t speak for themselves, it becomes my duty as a veterinarian to advocate for them.  So please let me address a few of my “pet” peeves.  I would appreciate reading your comments.  Do you share my pet peeves?  Do you have a few  more of your own?  I’d love to hear about it!

My  “pet” peeves include:

  1. Dogs riding unrestrained in the back of pick-up trucks.   Really, there should be a law against this in our County.  When the dogs fall out or are thrown out of the truck into traffic it is never pretty.  Most of them die.  The few that don’t die receive fractures and serious injuries to their pads and skin. I’ve had to treat many animals for such unnecessary injuries.  I don’t think it is legal for passengers to ride unrestrained in the beds of trucks, so why should we allow it for animals?
  2. Pets riding on the laps of drivers.  It is not OK to talk on your cell, text, or cuddle your dog while driving.  They are all equal distractions.  I don’t want my family on the road with distracted drivers.  I  also don’t want anyone to crash because they had to pull a barking dog back into the window (remember that scene from Marley and Me?), or because the pet stood on the electric window control and got stuck, or because the dog was thrown to the floorboard of the car under the brake pedal–just as the driver slammed on the brakes.  Like children, pets should be confined to the back seat and away from the windows, or else strapped in carrier or harness while traveling in a car.  Otherwise, they pose a  serious distraction to the driver  and can become potential projectiles during an accident.
  3. Dogs left chained and unattended.  Any tethered, unattended dog is more likely to bite than a dog that is free-roaming and able to escape a perceived threat.  For this reason, even a normally well-behaved dog that is left tied outside a store while the pet owner goes inside can pose a threat to passersby. If the dog becomes fearful, it cannot escape its tether so its only defense becomes biting.  An alarming number of  children are seriously injured by dog bites each year, and many of these injuries are caused by dogs left tied.  And dogs who remain chained  for long periods tend to be poorly socialized, bored, and  territorial of the small space allowed them. I’ve even treated dogs that were accidentally strangled by their chains.   It is a sad life for the dogs.  And it is a public health hazard for people who come near a tethered dog.  In some places, it is a crime to leave a dog tied up and not immediately visible to the owner.  I wish that were true here.
  4. Retractable leashes. These are not leashes.  They are more like zip-lines for dogs.  The pet is really not under  control while walking on one of these devices.  I’ve  cared for dogs severely injured when they zipped to the end of the line and were attacked by another dog they had set out to greet .  One memorable exam left me bound like an insect in a spider web after two dogs wearing zip-lines wrapped themselves around my ankles.  It was chaos in that exam room!   I can only imagine what goes on when multiple dogs wearing zip-lines are walking down the sidewalks.

Thanks for letting me voice my pet peeves.  I only want what is best for the pets and for public health.

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, FL

727-863-2435   Please LIKE us on Facebook !

Do You Speak Medical?

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Do You Speak Medical?

I regret that I never mastered a second language.  English is it for me.  French class nearly ruined my GPA as an undergraduate.  In veterinary school, I paid one of my classmates from Spain to try to teach me Spanish.  She worked at it; I worked at it; but,  it seems the spot in my brain for language development may have closed.

Once on a trip to Germany I was proud  I had mastered some phrases.  Roaming the streets  while searching for the entrance to a castle I practiced one of my German phrases on a nice older couple.  In my best accent, I asked them in German where I might find the entrance to the castle, please?  But, I hadn’t counted on the fact they would answer me in German!  My face instantly registered my shock.  And the nice woman said to her husband in English, “She is American.”  Next she proceeded to give me directions in English.

Yesterday, it finally occurred to me that I do know another language.  I am proficient in Medical.  Sometimes when I speak Medical, clients and staff look at me with the same look I gave to the nice German couple.  Next, I try to translate in English.

My veterinary professors warned us about speaking Medical to clients.  I recall an anecdote about a veterinarian asking a client to bring a fecal sample from their pet.  The client looked at the veterinarian with a blank expression.  The vet then proceeded to translate.  “Could you bring us a stool sample?”  Still, the blank look.  “A poop sample?”  No change in expression.  “How about a sample of number 2?”  Then the light finally went on for the client.

It cost me a lot to learn Medical.  It took eight years of college and at least $150,000 in student loans.  And when I speak Medical to my colleagues, it is a sort of short-hand that helps us understand exactly what we are seeing and doing.  Yesterday, I sedated an older labrador retriever that was having problems breathing.  Chest X-rays looked fine, but an exam of his throat clearly showed “bilateral laryngeal paralysis.”  With just three words, I can communicate the diagnosis to a veterinary specialist who can help this dog.  But saying those same three words to my client produces the same shocked look I gave the Germans.  I begin to translate.  It takes me another 15 minutes of counseling and some written hand-outs and photographs to communicate that the dog cannot open his airway enough to move air properly and will need a surgery to relieve the problem.

I am so proud to be bilingual now!  It is my job to translate Medical so clients can help their pets.

If you have trouble understanding Medical, be sure to speak up and ask your doctor for a translation.  If you still don’t understand, however, there are some great resources on the Web to help you.  Here are some sites that might help you:  Sponsored by The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)  Sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)  Sponsored by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN)


Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida



Thunder and Noise Phobias

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Thunder and Noise Phobias

It’s finally the return of the rainy season here in Florida.  I love that time of year when you can set your clock by the afternoon thunderstorms.  This is the “lightning capital” of the U.S., though.  So, every storm brings another anxiety-ridden few hours for some pets.  They cower, tremble, hide, and generally feel miserable while their pet owners fret over what to do.  And if the cracking of regular thunder boomers isn’t enough to terrify pets, think about what happens around New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July–because the sales of fireworks are not restricted here in Florida.  For weeks around those holidays some neighborhoods sound and smell  like war zones.  Pity the poor noise phobic pets and their owners!  These are times when some pets try to escape, and later find themselves checked in to the closest animal shelter, lost and frightened.

What can a pet owner do to help a pet through such noisy events?

  • If your pet is still young, try to prevent noise phobias from beginning.  During the critical first 4 to 6  months, make sure to calmly expose your young pet to loud noises so they won’t be frightened later as an adult.
  •  Be calm yourself, offer immediate food treats and praise for relaxing while loud noises occur.
  • Train your pet that a crate or a kennel is a safe and comforting place to be anytime–and reward them for going to their assigned dens during loud noises.  Reward them in their dens with special treats and toys.
  • “Jolly” pets through loud events, as you might a young child by playing or distracting them during a stressful time.  If your pet experiences a loud event calmly and associates it with comfort, then future noisy events should  be less of a problem.
  • Microchip your pet.  Update the microchip registration every year.  Also be sure your pet is wearing an ID tag and proper license tag.  Proper identification will help get your pet back to you should they make an escape attempt during a stressful event.
  • If your pet already shows symptoms of noise phobia, employ a good dog trainer to set up a desensitization/counterconditioning program  for  you and your pet.  Such programs might take several weeks or months of practice before achieving good results.
  • Try a “storm jacket” or “thunder coat” to swaddle your pet during noisy times.  “Dog muffs” are also available to help dampen noise for pets.
  • Ask your veterinarian to prescribe a sedative or tranquilizer to give your pet during very stressful times, such as Independence Day.  Certain sedatives help pets relax and focus enough to receive training.  Others sedate so heavily the pet becomes sleepy and cannot focus on training.  Work with your veterinarian to pick the correct medication for your situation.  Your veterinarian will need to do a complete physical exam of your pet before prescribing any medications.

Welcome to summer in Florida!

For more information, visit these websites:

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic