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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!


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


Protect Your Dog from Parvo

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Protect Your Dog from Parvo

Today I spent lunch discussing  Canine Parvo Virus with a friend who just had a new foster puppy in her home break with Parvo. My friend had agreed to foster the puppy from a shelter in Northern Florida until it could get a permanent home.  She had the best of intentions.  But when the pup arrived, it immediately stopped eating.  Within 24 hours it was vomiting and lethargic.  Her vet diagnosed the puppy with Parvo and  hospitalized it.  Four days later, the puppy is still under treatment at the veterinary hospital.  It is bad enough that the pup’s veterinary care is expensive and the puppy could still die.  But my friend is also worried that she accidentally exposed her personal dogs and all of her neighbors dogs to this highly contagious virus.   And she is worried about bringing the puppy back to her home if it does survive, because the puppy will be contagious for a couple of weeks after it feels better.   She was devastated and ready to quit being a foster mom for rescued dogs.  I tried to assure her that Parvo is preventable.  Here is what I told her.

Parvo isn’t a predator.  It isn’t some alien beast that stalks your pet.  But, parvo is a nasty virus that can make your pet extremely ill.  With aggressive (a.k.a, expensive) veterinary care most dogs survive the illness.  It is a highly contagious virus that is difficult to kill with commonly used disinfectants.   The virus mostly affects unvaccinated dogs, puppies, and dogs with weak immune systems. Well-vaccinated dogs and dogs that survive the infection once are immune to the disease, but they can still shed the virus in their feces.   The virus is common on the ground and on the floors of kennels– anywhere a dog may have defecated, Parvo virus can be lurking.   It is the reason that shelters and kennels pick up dog droppings, scrub with a cleanser, and disinfect with diluted bleach or a product such as Virkon or Trifectant everyday.  The risk of Parvo virus is why your veterinarian warns you not to let your puppies off leash or around other dogs until the puppy vaccination series is completed at 12 or 16 weeks of age.

Dogs exposed to the virus begin developing symptoms within a week of exposure.  Unfortunately, before the dog appears very ill, it is already shedding the virus in its feces.  The virus can live for months on the ground.  A contaminated yard or kennel can stay contagious for up  to a year if not properly disinfected.  It is not wise to bring puppies into a contaminated area for at least 6 months.    Most shelters won’t let puppies play on the ground because sand, dirt, grass, and gravel cannot be easily disinfected.  Puppies get to play on surfaces that can be scrubbed and sanitized because it is too risky otherwise.

A dog infected with Parvo virus develops severe vomiting, bloody diarrhea, fever, and dehydration.  The virus kills rapidly growing cells in the lining of the gut and in the bone marrow.  Bacteria from the gut escape into the blood stream causing a massive infection.  At the same time, the bone marrow is unable to produce enough white blood cells to fight the overwhelming infection.  The dog quickly becomes septic if not treated with intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and sometimes plasma transfusions.  Some veterinarians also prescribe antivirals.

Every 4-way or 5-way vaccine is designed to protect your pet against Parvo.  The  DA2PP or DA2PPL vaccines each protect against four different viruses (Distemper, Adenovirus type 2 (also known as Canine Hepatitis), Parainfluenza, and Parvo). The 5-way vaccine adds protection against a bacterium known as Leptospirosis.  All five protections are generally recommended for dogs living in Florida, but exactly how often to give and specifically to which dogs is based on risks and age.  A dog that was properly vaccinated when young then boosted as an adult at least once with a quality vaccine will likely be protected against Parvo virus for at least 3 years,  if not longer.

Check with your veterinarian to be sure your dog is properly protected against infectious diseases.  Remember, giving too many vaccines can be just as bad for your pet’s health as not giving enough vaccines.  And, don’t let puppies play around other dogs until your veterinarian says it is safe.  Before you bring a new dog into the household, check with your veterinarian first to find out how to prevent spreading diseases that might come along for the visit.

For more information about Canine Parvo Virus, visit these websites:

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


Custom Bred Mutts

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Custom Bred Mutts

By Terry Spencer, DVM

Visiting the very pet-friendly town of Carmel,  California is a treat for dog lovers like me.  Many of the restaurants have items on the menu just for your dog.  Most of the inns allow pets.  Dogs are welcome to romp on the beach.  Boutiques sell trendy pet supplies.  And you can play “Name That Breed” as you stroll the sidewalks downtown people-pet watching.

When I lived near Carmel, I used to  like to play with people by walking one of my dogs along the Carmel streets. “Lucy” was small, perky, white, and full of spunk on her leash.   To me, she looked  like a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a Chihuahua.  Her paperwork  from the Monterey County Animal Shelter from where I adopted her merely said she was impounded as a stray from the town of Greenfield in a more inland part of Monterey County.   Whenever asked by curious Carmel pet admirers,  “What breed is your dog?”  I typically responded, “She is a Greenfield Terrier,” and just kept walking. That answer was probably a bit mean.   I imagined those curious people rushing home to their breed identification books searching for more details about “Greenfield Terriers.”  Since there are so many different types of Terriers, the “Greenfield Terrier” certainly sounded plausible.  However,  “Lucy” was just a “Custom Bred”  mutt, not a purebred dog.

If I could have cloned “Lucy” the Greenfield Terrier” I bet I could have sold her clones very easily–even if she wasn’t a breed actually recognized by the American Kennel Club.  Currently, designer-breeds of dogs are very popular.  Each week, I examine new puppies that clients have purchased with breed names such as:  Morkie (a cross between a Maltese and a Yorki), or Schnoodle ( a Schnauzer crossed with a Poodle), or Bug ( a Boston Terrier crossed with a Pug), or a Cavashon ( a Cavalier King Charles crossed with a Bichon Frise).  The list of possibilities is endless.  All of these puppies are adorable.  But surely people who pay hefty purchase prices for these custom-bred dogs recognize they are paying for mutts, don’t they?

A purebred dog will be able to reproduce with another dog of the same breed and produce offspring that look like the parents or the grandparents.  While not clones,  the puppies should all breed true to conformation.  Thus two Beagles will produce puppies that look like more Beagles.  But two Bugs that mate will produce puppies that look only like second-generation mutts.   If you cross a Bug mutt with a  Bug mutt, the next generation will  not necessarily resemble the earlier  generation of Boston or Pug.  Designer dogs are not true breeds of dogs, no matter what the selling price.  They are just “Custom Bred”  for looks and profit.

Irresponsible breeding of dogs for looks and profit can result in heartache for purchasers and suffering for the dogs.  Over the past few months I have examined multiple designer puppies with serious health issues.  Some of the puppies had treatable problems, such as intestinal infections or tooth problems .  But others had serious orthopedic issues, for which the new pet owners were not financially prepared.  One puppy  had a birth defect in its shoulder joint that resulted in a lame front leg that needed  expensive orthopedic surgery.  Another puppy became paralyzed at five months of age because its cervical spine was malformed.  I was able to temporarily stabilize its neck by fashioning a brace out of a paper cup.  But a consultation with a neurologist gave no hope of any long-term recovery, and so the puppy was euthanized.  The pet-owner was devastated.

Bottom line:  if you want a healthy puppy, adopt from a shelter or buy from a responsible breeder of purebred dogs.  Good shelters and good breeders will give you some limited health guarantees and want you to see their facilities.  Responsible breeders and shelters do want to make a profit, but they are also interested in maintaining good reputations for quality animals.  Irresponsible breeders focus on your money and don’t stand behind the health of the puppies.   Such breeders probably won’t let you see their breeding facility or meet the parents.  Such lack of transparency should make you question whether the seller is running a puppy-mill that doesn’t humanely care for the dogs.

For more tips on how to select a healthy puppy, visit these links:

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.