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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!


Who’s Afraid of F.I.P.?

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Who’s Afraid of F.I.P.?

By Terry Spencer, DVM

Recently a reader of this blog asked me to discuss FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis).  I am happy to oblige and appreciate the suggestion.  If you have topics you would like to learn more about, please let me know in your comments. 

(FIP) is a deadly virus that affects mostly young cats and kittens.  The FIP virus doesn’t act much like any other virus common to pets.   Affected cats don’t survive the infection, although they can linger with symptoms for some time.  Unfortunately, there currently are no vaccines that protect against this virus, and there is no exact way to diagnose the infection while the cat is still alive.  FIP remains a diagnosis of suspicion until confirmed after death with a necropsy. The cat must be the right age, coming from the right background, and with the right symptoms to be considered possibly infected.   It is definitely a frustrating disease for veterinarians to diagnose and for pet owner’s to experience.

FIP is a form of the very common Feline Corona Virus.  Almost every kitten is exposed to Corona Virus soon after birth. Corona Virus lives in the GI  (gastrointestinal tract) of cats, usually without symptoms and is spread by cat feces.  A few cats will have symptoms of mild diarrhea or sneezing, but most cats show no symptoms of Corona Virus at all.  Because it is such a common virus, testing a cat for antibodies to corona virus does not verify a diagnosis FIP.  Having a blood titer that is positive for Corona Virus simply means that a cat was previously exposed to Corona Virus.  A higher titer doesn’t mean a cat
has FIP.  It just means the cat might have an active or recent infection of Corona Virus.

For a few cats, the normally mild form of Corona Virus seems to mutate to the deadlier FIP. For these unlucky cats, their own immune system carries the disease throughout their bodies.  The virus then affects internal organs in one of two ways.  In the “wet” form of the disease, the cat’s chest and/or abdomen begins to slowly fill with a sticky, yellow, fluid.  By the time this becomes noticeable, the cat already has difficulty breathing, eating, or moving.  Veterinarians can temporarily drain the fluid from body cavities, and testing the fluid can help support a diagnosis of FIP.  In the “dry” form of the disease, there are no outward symptoms.  The cat slowly deteriorates, and blood work shows multiple organ failures.  Biopsies can support the diagnosis.  Sadly, FIP is almost always fatal.

Feline Corona Virus seems more likely to mutate to FIP in cats exposed to large numbers of other cats.  FIP is more common to cats that once lived in a colony, rescue, shelter, or other facility where many cats mingled.  And, research also seems to point to a common genetic link among the affected cats.  Only those cats with a genetic susceptibility to the virus that are also exposed to the form of the virus that is more likely to mutate, develop FIP.   It happens to a few unlucky cats every year.

For now, there is no way to predict which cats will be affected. The best a pet owner can do to prevent the disease is keep your cat well fed, well vaccinated, and away from other cats.  If you must bring a new cat into the home, keep the new cat isolated from your other cats until your veterinarian gives you the OK to let them mingle.   FIP isn’t the only disease that cats freely share.  So a short quarantine time can prevent many problems when introducing a new cat to the household.

Veterinary scientists are busy working on better diagnostics, treatments, and preventions.  Fortunately, FIP is still a rather rare infection.  But those unlucky few cat owners who experience the disease are forever scarred.

So who is afraid of FIP? I am.  I hate to diagnose it, and I hate that I can’t prevent it.

To learn more about FIP, please visit Cornell University’s Feline Health  Center  at:

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

A Micro-Ounce of Prevention

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A  Micro-Ounce of Prevention

By Terry Spencer, DVM

(Fair Warning:  This blog post includes MATH! If you are math phobic, please relax.  There is no test at the end!)

My son is learning to cook. After one memorable mistake, he learned the difference between a teaspoon (t) and a tablespoon (T) of salt.  That tiny difference in
measurement was very noticeable in the recipe.  Thus, he learned that accuracy can avert disasters.    I hope he applies that lesson to many other aspects of life.

Accuracy is vitally important for preventing medication errors. You certainly wouldn’t want your veterinarian to make any errors in dosing your pet’s prescriptions.  Because it is so easy to transpose a number or misread a prescription, medical professionals have multiple safeguards in place to help prevent dosing errors.  Quality control systems include requiring two staff members to approve a prescription, counting pills twice, and completing annual continuing education courses in pharmacy rules and regulations.  Safeguards also include training staff to answer the 4R’s before giving medications;  1. Is this the right drug to give?  2. Is this the right patient?  3. Is it the right amount to administer?   4. Is this the right route?  Math is very  important for dosing medications accurately.  Calculating a correct dose of medication requires basic algebra.  Multiple times each day I convert pounds (lbs) to kilograms (kg), and then calculate the number of milligrams (mg) or millilitres (ml) required to give an animal based on the strength of the drugs I have  available to use.

For example, to give a 15 mg/kg dose of antibiotic to a 50 lbs dog, I use the following formula:

(50# / 2.2 lbs/kg) 15 mg /kg = 340 mg dose to give.  So if I have a 100 mg/ml solution to use, then I need 340 mg/100 mg/ ml = 3.4 ml.

I don’t guess.  I do the math each time.  No shortcuts allowed.  And I usually triple check my calculations because I worry about making an error.  After
all, a misplaced decimal point could mean the difference between drawing up 3.4 ml and 0.34 mls in a syringe.  Only one dose is correct.  The other dose could  result in harm.  The veterinary oath implores me to “First do no harm.”  I take that seriously.

If I go through these gyrations each  time I give a dose of medication to your pet, why would a pet owner be willing to take short cuts?  It seems like a risky choice.

This week, I learned of just such a risky choice that resulted in a trip to the veterinary emergency room for two pets.  It was a penny wise, but prescription foolish choice.  The pet owner opted for “do-it-yourself” veterinary medicine to save some bucks.  I don’t blame them for trying.  Prescriptions are expensive.

This pet owner noticed that the active ingredient in popular prescription heartworm prevention for dogs was also sold over-the-counter in feed stores for use with livestock. The difference was that the dog medication is dosed in micrograms (mcg) and the livestock medication is dosed in milligrams (mg).  The difference is a thousand fold.  It is the same difference between a thousand dollars or a million dollars—just three little zeros.   While the active ingredients in the two medications are the same, the strengths are completely different.  The pet owner gave what looked to be a very tiny amount of the cheaper livestock drug to each dog.  A few hours later, both dogs began to seizure and nearly died.

This was a disaster that could have been averted by simply checking with a veterinarian first.  Perhaps the pet owner should go to my son’s cooking class.
A micro-ounce of prevention is better than mega-bucks spent in the emergency room because of a dosing error.

I’m happy to report that both dogs survived due to the skill of the emergency veterinarian who earned every penny that night.    Let livestock take their medicine.  And let small animals take their own medicine.  Remember, accuracy can avert disasters.

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

Flea Buster

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By Terry Spencer, DVM

“Scratchy, scratchy, itchy, itchy, my pet got fleas in New Port Richey!”

This must be the mantra for the month of May.   Most of my recent appointments were for cats and dogs that were literally tearing their hair out and chewing themselves raw.  The pets felt miserable, and the pet owners had lost sleep listening to Fluffy or Fido chew, “snarf,” or scratch all night long.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the pet won’t stop scratching and 1 being the pet never scratches, most of these pets were an 8 or above on my ”itchy scale.”

The pet owners come to me to give the family some relief.  I can do that!   Excuse me for this; but “Who ya gonna call?  Me, the Flea Buster!”

Surprisingly, most of these itchy pets are not using regular flea control.  The pet owners uniformly report that they never see fleas on their pets. The pet owners think  that bathing their pets with flea shampoo, using a flea comb, and keeping the pets indoors most of the time will prevent their pets from getting a bite from a flea.  Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.   This is Florida, where every bug known to man lives, thrives, and mutates to the likes of  Godzilla. That includes pesky, lowly, fleas.

You don’t have to see fleas on your pet to have a flea problem.  Think about it.  When you get bitten by a mosquito, the bug is long gone, but you still itch for days.  The same is true for your pets. Most of the flea life cycle is off the pet.  The flea jumps on its target, bites long enough to get a blood meal, and then jumps off to lay thousands of eggs in your house or yard.  These eggs can lie dormant for months waiting for just the proper moment to hatch and start the life cycle
again.  Most bug bombs, sprays, shampoos, and dips only kill the adult fleas, not the eggs or the larvae.  Flea combs only help you find the adult fleas that might be on your pet at that moment.  Shampoos and dips don’t prevent new fleas from jumping on your pet as soon as soon as he/she dries.

Here, in Florida, if you are not using a good quality, monthly flea-control product on your cat, dog, or ferret your pet will get fleas.   If your pet is itchy and you have missed some doses of flea control, then the cause of the itch isn’t an exotic allergy or food sensitivity…it is fleas  until proven otherwise.

Consult your veterinarian to help you decide which of the many flea control products on the market are right for your pet.  There are topical drops and pills you can give.  Some of the products are only available by prescription.  Some of the products are available over-the-counter.  But check with your veterinarian first, even before using the over-the-counter products.  Several popular over-the-counter flea products are deadly for cats!

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

Raccoons are Rocky

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Raccoons are Rocky

By Terry Spencer, DVM

Before I became a veterinarian I did things that now would make me cringe.  For example, one morning while hiking I found this adorable, nearly hairless lump of flesh in the leaf litter under a large oak tree. Possessing the curiosity of a cat, I scooped it up and examined it.  The tiny eyes weren’t yet open, but they had a distinct darkly pigmented mask over the skin.  It was definitely a newborn raccoon.  Seeing no mother raccoon nearby, I took the baby home and raised it.  It was a lot of work feeding it every few hours, wiping its tiny bottom, and keeping it warm.  But it lived!  I brought it home scraps of fish and scallops from the seafood restaurant where I worked putting myself through college.  I taught it how to wash its food in water bowls.  It followed me everywhere I hiked—even without a leash.  Then, when he was old enough, he took off to do whatever raccoons normally do.  At first, he would visit nightly on my deck stopping long enough to picnic on some pieces of dog food.  Eventually, he stopped visiting.  I always hoped that meant he had become a self-sufficient raccoon who just had a rocky start in life.

I would never do that now.  During veterinary school I learned all the reasons why people should not handle wild raccoons.  Knowing what I know now, it is a wonder I survived my youth.  I was a female Dr. Doolittle with a death wish.

Some researcher should certainly study the immune systems of raccoons.  How is it possible that these creatures can carry several types of diseases that are deadly to other species, yet seldom show any symptoms?  Those adorable masked creatures apparently act like cockroaches.  Raccoons have adapted to living in urban, suburban, and wild areas all over Florida. And wherever they live, they can spread disease.

Here in Florida, raccoons carry rabies.  Rabies is a virus that is almost 100% fatal to mammals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and humans.  Since rabies is zoonotic (it is possible for an animal to spread the virus it to a human), it is a major public health concern. Oddly enough, raccoons seem to carry the disease and remain symptom free. This is one reason the Florida Wildlife Commission does not allow the trapping and relocation of raccoons.  Every time you move a wild raccoon, you increase the risk of spreading rabies.  The Florida Department of Health works jointly with the Florida Wildlife Commission to vaccinate wild raccoons by placing oral rabies vaccine “bait” where wild raccoons will eat the smelly fish-flavored cubes.   The program seems successful.  Over the past few years, the number of documented rabies cases attributed to a virus strain from raccoons has dropped in those locations where rabies baits were placed.  That doesn’t mean feeding or handling raccoons is safe, though.  Not every raccoon has taken the bait.    That is why veterinarians vaccinate your dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, and cattle against rabies; so your pets can’t catch rabies from wildlife and spread the deadly virus to you.

Raccoons also spread canine distemper virus.  Distemper virus can be deadly for dogs that are not properly vaccinated.  Distemper virus starts out looking like a simple “kennel cough.”  Usually it goes away in a few days, although some dogs get pneumonia first.  A few months later, just when the dog seems fine, distemper returns with tremors, seizures, and death.  Puppies are at greater risk of serious problems from distemper virus than adult dogs. .  Dogs that survive distemper are likely immune, but may shed the virus for months.   Here in Florida, I have witnessed widespread outbreaks of distemper virus in dogs.  Fortunately, your veterinarian can vaccinate your dog against distemper.

Wherever raccoons urinate, they can spread a deadly bacterium called Leptospirosis.  “Lepto” is also potentially zoonotic to you, the pet owner.  Your dog walks on the same ground where the raccoons urinate and then becomes infected.  Once infected, this bacterium affects the dog’s kidneys and liver.  When your infected pet urinates, it can expose you. I see symptoms of Leptospirosis in dogs here in Pasco County quite often.  Again, your veterinarian can vaccinate your pet against Leptospirosis.

Lastly, raccoons spread roundworm eggs in their feces. One particular species of raccoon roundworm, known as Baylis ascaris, is particularly dangerous for children.  Because raccoons tend to defecate in “latrines” where they deposit their feces regularly, microscopic roundworm eggs become highly concentrated.  Children playing in the dirt accidentally get exposed to these high concentrations of roundworm eggs.  Once swallowed, the roundworm egg hatches, travels to the child’s brain, and causes permanent damage. When I lived in Northern California a few years ago, a 3-year-old girl went blind after playing in her own back yard and becoming infected with raccoon roundworm.  I don’t want this to happen to any of my clients here in Florida.

After you read this you will probably think I am a raccoon bigot.  Really, I am not.  I am just a veterinarian, trained to protect the public from zoonotic diseases and to protect animals from infectious diseases.  This is what I do.  My relationship with raccoons these days is a bit rockier than it once was, but I still adore them.  I just watch from a distance.

Ready Yet?

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Ready Yet?

Every morning this week I anxiously checked my blackberry patch, looking to see whether the berries were ready to pick.  I taste-tested a berry just yesterday, but it was still too tart.  Before testing this morning, however, a neighbor told me that the blackberries are ripe and ready.   I guess both the neighbors and the birds have been checking, too!  It is good to have support in such matters.  Berry season comes and goes very quickly.

Readiness for other matters in life is a bit more predictable.  June 1st is an important annual readiness date because this date marks the beginning of Hurricane Season.  On June 1st, I check my family’s Disaster Readiness Kit.  Florida is a disaster-prone state.  Not only do we Floridian’s need to be ready for hurricanes, but we must also be ready for brush fires, floods, tornadoes, and every other natural plague.  A few years ago there was even an earthquake in the Gulf of Mexico.  Can’t a Florida family get a break?

So, am I ready yet for a disaster?  Do I have enough supplies to support my two-legged and four-legged family members for at least 72 hours without power or water?  Do I need to update my family evacuation plans?   Now is the time to check.

Every June 1st, these are five items I check in my Pet‘s Disaster Kit:

  1.  Vaccine Records   Do I have proof of current vaccines for each pet?
  2. License Tag   Do I have a current license for each pet and is that tag attached to the collar?
  3. Microchip   Does each pet have a microchip inserted? Have I scanned for it lately?
  4. Registration   Is the registration information for each microchip updated in the registration database? (A microchip only works if it is properly registered so someone can find an owner of a lost pet.)
  5. Photo   Do I have a current photo of each of my pets? 

I keep proof of these important items in a water-proof file box that includes my other important family papers.  This box goes with me if I evacuate.  I also keep these items on a free application called Paw Card in my SmartPhone. Yes, there is an app for that!    The Paw Card application lets me instantly send an e-mail of my pet identification and health information anywhere it might be needed.   If you don’t have a SmartPhone, check with your veterinarian.  The veterinarian’s website might have a Pet Portal you can use to store your important pet ID and health information.  Pet Portal access is free to clients of most veterinary practices.

Every June 1st I also update my Family Evacuation Plans.  The plans must include my pets.  Notice I said PLANS.  You need more than one evacuation plan for when the one you had planned is not possible when disaster strikes.

                1   You need one plan for sheltering in place and supporting your family completely for 72 hours  without electricity or water.  (Visit for help with making a family plan and a business plan.)

                2.  You need another  plan for sheltering out of the evacuation area, preferably just a bit inland  so you won’t have to drive too far while the rest of the citizens of the coast are also jamming the roads.  This could be with a friend, a family member, a fellow church/club member, or a pet-friendly hotel.  (Visit   for a list of pet-friendly hotels, but remember  these spaces fill quickly.  Also check with your church or other community organizations to see whether they promote match-ups between members who need a safe place to evacuate and those with space to share. )

                3.  Finally, you need to plan for which Red-Cross Evacuation Shelter you would go to as a last  resort.  Does that shelter allow pets?  If not, where can you safely board your pets?  (Visit to find the locations of the Red Cross Public Evacuation Shelters in Pasco County.)  Don’t expect a public shelter to be your first plan, though. Public shelters should be your last resort.  And most public shelters still do not allow you to bring your pets.  Check with your veterinarian about recommendations for pet boarding  facilities located outside of evacuation zones. 

 Be safe.  Check your Family Disaster Kit and update your Family Evacuation Plans on or before June 1st every year.   If you need help getting ready for a disaster with your pets, always check with your veterinarian for advice. 

Are you ready yet?

Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey     727-863-2435