Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
A DOG NAMED FLY AND THE GENETICS OF HEALTH
To proactively manage your pet’s health issues, be aware of breed characteristics and the potential pitfalls of body structure.
IHAD JUST FINISHED RE-SPLINTING A BROKEN TOE ON A SWEET poodle puppy named Sirius when I looked up to see the receptionist waving to me from across the room. She put her hand over the receiver and said, “There’s a guy on the phone. He’s just pulling up out front. He’s not a client—he’s a dog walker—but he’s panicked because his client’s dog may be dying and we’re the closest vet.”
Three vets were on duty that day, but I was handling all the ER cases. I grabbed my stethoscope and a technician and ran out to find him. He was already through the front door and we helped him carry the large dog into an open exam room.
I didn’t know the man, but he was clearly traumatized. As he lifted the lifeless dog onto the table, I knew three things. I knew why the dog was dead. I knew I was probably the only person in the world who could ease this man’s distress. And I knew that because the beautiful Labrador under my stethoscope was, in fact, my dog.
It is possible to be too good at something. Fly was that kind of dog. He was number one at retrieving. If you tossed a piano into the bushes, he would, I’m sure, manage to successfully drag it joyfully back to the porch. His entire body was built to be an exemplary field dog. His brain was wired for this single-minded purpose. His powerful yet gentle jaws could carry a banana soufflé over rocky terrain without disturbing it.
Over muscles rippling with health, his ebony hair coat was sleek as an otter’s, appearing both wet and dry. His swimming silhouette at the surface of the water moved like the shadow of a large bird speeding overhead. For Fly, fetch was more compelling than any other activity, including eating. Bred to be the perfect retrieving machine, he was brilliant at it.
In reality, all dog or cat breeds are the result of years of mixing breeds to achieve certain traits.
Fly’s field trainers, stationed a few hours away, had begged to buy him from us. They’d never seen such drive and ability. But my husband and I and our children loved him; he was part of our family. Until this point all our pets were the delightful cast of characters we collected as strays and rescues, as a by-product of my profession. But Fly was offered to us by a distant relative who knew that Matt was thinking about a dog for field trial work. Fly, a purebred Labrador, had been partially trained and needed a home.
Fly was an ideal dog for our family. We all loved him immediately. Every day he met my son at the front door and they would wrestle like wild puppy-brothers. The exuberance he brought into the house was wonderful. We didn’t realize that his best attribute, that of excessive energy, would ultimately prove to be his worst liability.
The trouble started when he was about eight months old. His trainers told us he was doing a typical field training run—perfectly executed, of course—when he suddenly collapsed. After a few minutes of just lying there, unable to use his legs, he collected himself, stood up, and seemed totally normal. They called immediately to let us know.
Silently outraged, I thought that somehow they had overworked our boy-genius. I even worried that they might not have fed him properly in order to increase his already overstimulated interest in retrieval. Their vet examined him and found nothing wrong, but I insisted on seeing Fly. When we picked him up, I was certain I’d have him cured and back in the field in a day or two. But of course, being a veterinarian’s dog, his condition was complicated and mysterious. Ultrasounds, cardiac workup, blood tests, urinalysis, and radiographs were all performed and yielded normal results. He looked terrific. An excellent specimen, he was more handsome and more driven to retrieve than ever.
So, perhaps he had just been hungry that day? I hoped that was true, but on a hunch I sent off one final sample to a researcher in Minnesota. He was an expert on a rare condition that could explain Fly’s collapse. It seemed unlikely, but I had to follow my intuition.
Still looking the picture of health, Fly went back to his trainer, with the caveat that they feed him more and work him less. Matt would come in a couple of days to work with them. They were extremely careful, but Fly collapsed again on his second day back. After another episode during a minor workout the following day, Fly had to stop training for good.
After ruling out everything else under the sun, I concluded that Fly’s malady was indeed the rare condition that the Minnesota researcher had written about: Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC). There was no cure. EIC seemed to be an unmapped inability of the muscle cells to maintain their vital energy in the face of stimulation. It was typically nonfatal but would end Fly’s career in fieldwork and significantly limit his ability to do the one thing he loved—play fetch.
The condition worsened whenever his enthusiasm for play became too intense. And, of course, he spent every waking hour trying to convince everyone—passersby, the mail carrier, our cat—to throw something for him. It was heartbreaking. Selective breeding had made Fly perfectly suited to do this one activity, but doing it would kill him. I wished I could have explained this sad irony to Fly.
We had good friends, Fran and Simon, with two dogs who loved Fly, so we shared ownership with them. Luckily, when Fly played with other dogs he never became overexcited enough to collapse. He could safely be allowed to romp. Even though I could tell he was severely affected by his disorder, he managed to adjust and have a good time. All of us were careful not to overtax him. We discovered we could make him relatively happy with one or two small throws, without dire consequence.
One summer weekend we were away and Fly stayed with his other family. Their dog walker, Scott, whom I had not met yet, knew how to deal with Fly’s condition and took him to the park often. Fly begged to play fetch, using every language in the doggie book. He collected objects and dropped them in front of Scott, pleading with his deep, soulful eyes. Then he sat in taut readiness, hopeful and desperate at the same time. He was starved for something to retrieve. Just one toss?
Scott was a kindhearted person and chose a nice stick. But on this day, one small toss was all it took. The mysteriously faulty body chemistry shut down his muscle function, and not only did his legs stop, but his heart stopped, too.
I took my stethoscope off Fly’s chest, stifled a sob, and said, “This is my dog.” Scott looked stricken. “I know it’s not your fault,” I said. “And I know Fly died doing what he loved.”
Fly’s genetic mix was created using our human yardstick and human goals. His parents and grandparents were bred together because of their incredible drive to retrieve and their beautiful physiques. The result was Fly, an über-retriever. It turns out we’re not as good as Mother Nature. Fly was significantly marred. His genetic makeup, resulting in his perfect retrieving body, was not determined by evolution’s careful work.
Breeds are created using our human yardstick and human goals. It turns out we’re not as good at genetic mixing as Mother Nature.
The breeders unwittingly had bred out nature’s natural defenses and lifesaving adaptations, in favor of a narrow vision for the breed. None of this was done on purpose, or with ill intent. The breeders I know are gentle, wonderful people. They are faced with choices and they make the best ones they can. But, as owners, we should recognize that our pets may have breed-specific traits that can overshadow biological functions.
Most dogs, unlike Fly, can survive well with their breed peculiarities. Some need more management. Whether it is a purebred or a mix, there are certain traits in all breeds that you can identify. These traits can cause health problems, but with proper information and action, they might be mitigated. Fortunately, a predisposition does not mean the animal will necessarily develop the medical condition. It is possible to overcome many deficiencies.
Why do so many miniature schnauzers have diabetes? The giant schnauzers—who appear to be the same breed, only biggified—have a tendency toward B12 deficiencies. If we could identify the risks carried by each breed’s genome, perhaps an ounce of prevention could mitigate the health consequences. Dogs and cats are known to have over twenty thousand genes. This is where the new field of nutrigenomics may prove useful. There are huge implications for this fascinating science in preventive medicine and functional nutrition.
Do judge a breed by its cover. Based on our pet’s physical characteristics, we can often influence our pet’s health predispositions with a few ounces of prevention.
We choose specific pets according to our personal taste. Some people don’t mind a dog that drools, but others can’t stand a sharp bark. For some of us, days of quiet companionship are more important than having a good mouser. Everything from the ability to frighten a burglar to being able to fit in a teacup is determined by genetics. Fly will always be remembered by our family as the dog who flew too high. His middle name was Icarus.
BREEDS, GENES, AND HEALTH
WE SPAY AND NEUTER most dogs and cats for good reason—to decrease the number of homeless animals. Animals that are bred now do not choose each other for their fitness or even their ability to cope with the crazy food we feed them. We choose their mates for them based on looks, drive, temperament, bone structure, or other criteria.
Dogs and cats have not been bred for their tolerance to a kibble diet (nor should they be), or for their ability to walk on hot blacktop, to fight the effects of annual vaccinations, or to become vegetarians. At least not yet.
It would be beneficial to recognize the essential nature of the genetic mixes we bring into our homes. When people aren’t prepared for the issues that come with a specific breed, pet homelessness looms in the future. If we acknowledge each pet’s biological background we will only expect it to do what it can, according to its physical, behavioral, mental, and emotional qualities. Birds gotta swim and fish gotta fly—I mean penguins and flying fish.
The border collie likes a job; the greyhound likes a couch.
A ferret will steal your wallet for the shiny money inside (it happened to me).
A sugar glider will not thrive alone—it takes a village of sugar gliders.
Though his grumblesome stubbornness and escape-artist exploits make great cocktail party stories, a Siberian husky shouldn’t be expected to retrieve.
Terriers, miniature schnauzers, poodles, Chihuahuas, and Pekinese are known for their sharp-pitched barking. If you know your walls are thin and your neighbors are sensitive, beware of acquiring these breeds.
MASSAGE FOR HEALTH
Take a good look at your pet. You may not be able to see the wolf in your Dobie-basset mix, but the streamlined wild physique has been changed into squatty angulated legs, unstable vertebral discs, and long floppy ears.
Massage is one tool to help mitigate any negative health effects of these individual structural differences.
Face—extra skin folds? Massage in tiny circles around the face to improve lymphatic drainage and circulation and to avoid skin fold infections.
Ears—heavy, floppy ears? Chronic ear infections? Take the earflap and circle it like a windmill to open up the ear canal’s crenulations, improving air flow and circulation. This creates a less hospitable environment for yeast and bacteria.
Spine—long neck/long back? Make small circles with one or two fingers on either side of the spine. Massage a circle about every 1–2 inches down the back of a long-backed dog or cat. They may be predisposed to spinal arthritis, neck instability, inflamed discs, or disc disease. Help the body clear inflammation with this massage.
Tail—looped over the top, low and firmly attached curl, long waving wand, sturdy whip, or not even visible? Massaging around the top part of the tail base just where the back meets the tail can improve circulation and health of tightly adhered tails, tails that curl excessively, and tails with heavy fur. Massage boosts circulation and normal nervous function to the surrounding skin, anal glands, and muscles.
Provide some gentle traction on the spine by pulling gently along the tail. This puts mild tension on the fascia around disc spaces, improving circulation and fluid flow around the spine.
Legs—dragging or knuckling, mild incoordination, stilted gait? Gently squeeze the feet and pull gently on each toe a few times a day (as long as your pet is amenable to this) to reestablish nerve pathways between the feet and the head. If inflammation or circulation is compromised along the spine, the brain loses its quick connection to the feet. A foot massage can rekindle neurologic pathways from the feet to the brain.
A complete massage is a great idea for any animal that has genetic conditions affecting circulation, behavior, or musculature, or an animal that is aging and suffering from arthritic changes, has scarring from trauma or recent surgery, or has circulation compromised by heart disease, cancer, or growths. Even without these factors, massage can work wonders—it’ll make for a happy pet.
Cancer is prevalent in boxers. Start early with an anti-inflammatory diet.
It is possible to obtain clues from the physical structure of your pet. This will help you with their care. You will also better understand what you can and cannot reasonably expect from them.
An owner may want a dog that loves to swim, so they should know that most bulldogs sink like a stone.
German shepherds tend to be thinkers. They like complex tasks with obstacles to overcome, or they will make their own trouble.
Some breeds, such as Afghans, may like to live with one owner, whereas other breeds, such as Labradors, may prefer the chaos of family life.
A long-backed dachshund cannot be expected to enjoy having its lower back “hugged” by a toddler in the house.
Use a harness in the brachycephalic (smush-faced) breeds. Breathing can be difficult and they can have small or poorly developed tracheas. Using a harness is easier on the windpipe than a collar and leash.
Cats with a fur pattern like an Abyssinian—there are several colors, but most of the ones I treat have a slight striping on the face, warm reddish undercoat, and black ticking all over, a very distinctive look—should be considered slightly wild and in need of constant stimulation. You might consider installing a fish tank, which is fantastic cat TV, but put a lock on the top.
Traits that are normal in one breed can be entirely abnormal in another.
A border collie constantly pacing the perimeter would be normal but that behavior in a basset hound might suggest he’s feeling ill at ease.
Working breeds will probably appreciate a job to stay healthy. And toy breeds, well, they just need an allowance.
Constant respiratory noise in a pug is a given because of its smush face, but in a Labrador may be a sign of a throat condition called laryngeal paralysis.
Great Danes tend to think they are lap dogs, and will curl up in surprisingly small spaces. Even though they are a giant breed, they don’t require a giant house (but maybe a giant lap). On the other hand, some tiny dogs need tons of exercise and a large yard and a kingdom to rule or think they rule.
An animal that is a perfect fit in one home may be a disastrous fit in another.
Are you thinking of choosing a smush-faced Persian-mix kitty? They’re cute as can be, but keep in mind that the breed is predisposed to the following:
tear duct overflow
polycystic kidney disease
progressive retinal atrophy (PRA)
upper respiratory issues
When I say predisposed, I don’t mean those conditions will necessarily afflict your pet. The best defense is, as always, to feed the right diet. Be proactive and you may never see any severe health problems. Here are some other tips for smush-faced breeds:
Keep the teeth clean.
Keep them well hydrated by providing extra water bowls and warm water in canned or raw food.
Monitor air quality; avoid smoke, heavy perfumes, air fresheners, chemical cleaning agents, and off-gassing new carpets (this can also be problematic in terms of skin irritation).
Groom the thick hair regularly.
I STRONGLY SUGGEST THAT when you want a pet, you go to a shelter and pick out an animal from the thousands that need homes. Shelter pets range from newborns to geriatrics, from slightly trained to fully trained. Some come from happy backgrounds and some have troubled pasts. Any of them will be grateful to have a home instead of a cage or worse. Those that don’t find homes are often euthanized.
There are a number of breed review websites online, and hundreds of breeds. Start with your ideal pet in mind. If you are at a shelter, look for a combination of breeds that fit that ideal. There are good qualities in every breed and combination.
A happy pet home is about managing expectations.
Choosing which type of pet you will take into your home is important for you, but also for the pet. There is nothing worse than trying to live up to unrealistic expectations.
I serve on the board of directors of Chicago’s largest no-kill shelter, PAWS Chicago. I have seen animals of many breeds go to great homes and happy lives. PAWS found a loving home for Red, a pit bull shot in the spine while protecting his owner from a burglar. Red’s rear legs were paralyzed but he lives a full life in his new home in the country. He even has his own Facebook page. There are so many benefits of adopting a dog from a shelter. I recommend you find out what shelters are in your area and make a forever home for a lonely pet.
Wherever you choose to look for your pet, don’t just go out and fall in love with the first cute face you see. I know sometimes it’s unavoidable, but it’s a good idea to ask yourself these questions in advance. You and your pet are likely to be happier in the long run.
Do you want a purebred or a mixed breed?
A dog or a cat, goat, or bunny?
Do you mind feeding meat to a pet?
A guard dog or a cuddler or both?
Big or little?
An active dog or a couch potato?
A shedder or a hypoallergenic type?
How much time can you devote to your pet’s exercise?
A quiet dog or a barker?
A puppy or an older dog?
Long hair or no hair?
Two kittens instead of one?
I suggest that you always get two kittens. They don’t have to be from the same litter, but they should both be under a year. Two kittens are infinitely more fun than one kitten and even more fun than a barrel of monkeys (and I’d know). They amuse each other, they still bond with their human, and they are more fun to watch than any television show.
Two puppies instead of one? Getting two older dogs is a lovely idea. But think twice about getting two untrained puppies.
I suggest only getting one puppy at a time, even if you separate them by just a few months. It can make a huge difference in training, bonding, and a lifelong attachment. Two puppies that grow up together tend to bond to each other and think of the world as “us and them.” Training two puppies at once is nearly impossible, and doing separate training for each dog is difficult for most owners. Getting one puppy allows that puppy to have a place in your hierarchy and an interest in learning your commands.
Several of my clients decided to get two puppies at once and were overwhelmed by how difficult it was. In fact, several of my most famous clients adopted shelter puppies in pairs. The complications involved in training two dogs at once were quickly obvious to my client Billy Corgan, even though he had an abundance of patience as well as resources. Like all my clients, he put in a great deal of personal time and means into making it feasible. The inter-dog bonding issue was a struggle, but he was successful in the end.
Before choosing a pet, it’s a good idea to think about your lifestyle and where you live. Be aware that each animal is a unique personality and you may not get exactly what you want—but you may get what you need.
Dogs see in black and white. Not true. Dogs do see colors, but they have dichromatic vision, which means they may find it hard to distinguish the range of colors from green to red but they probably see blue and yellow well.
If you live in a very hot climate or don’t have air-conditioning, you should rethink any of the smush-faced (brachycephalic) breeds we’ve been talking about such as bulldogs and pugs in the dog, Persian and Burmese in the cat. They don’t have enough nose surface area to help cool off by panting. And the same goes for the northern breeds/Alaskan breeds and some giant breeds such as malamutes, huskies, and Saint Bernards with thick, warm coats. Remember, if you keep them thin, they can handle the heat better. Overweight animals are surrounded by a fat, insulating layer.
Even mild dehydration can skyrocket a dog’s internal temperature, as their only way to diffuse their heat is through panting over a moist mouth, or sweating through their feet.
Always keep plenty of water available for all dogs and cats on hot summer days. A cat’s water requirement can increase sevenfold just to survive a very hot day. For dogs it may only be double the amount, but they need more than usual on a hot day.
If you live in a predominantly cold climate, remember to buy a wardrobe or nice blankies for your Chihuahua, Mexican hairless, shorthair breed, or your Peterbald cat.
THE EYES HAVE IT AND THE NOSE KNOWS
Certain breeds of dogs, such as greyhounds, borzoi Afghans, whippets, salukis, and deerhounds, have traits that go hand in hand with their primary reliance on sight. They are visually stimulated, always looking for the flip of a rabbit’s tail.
For these breeds speed is more important than endurance. Don’t let them overexert themselves. They love the chase but are easily overheated and are highly reactive. Don’t let them run loose, and be careful in summer.
Greyhounds, and the sight hounds in general, are known for their ability to relax on a comfy bed. Ironically they don’t need tons of exercise. They do like a quick running romp in a fenced-in enclosure (otherwise they will run away), but it’s usually over in a few minutes.
Greyhounds playing together often wear cage muzzles partly because they can be aggressive to each other and partly because their skin tears so easily.
Never leave a greyhound, or any pet, in a car in the summer. They quickly become critically ill when overheated.
Breeds such as bassets, German shepherds, coonhounds, beagles, and Labradors are, even more than other dogs, led by their noses.
They are stimulated by the scent of their prey. They have endurance to follow a trail. They need a job and are happy to work, but their main job is to find food.
Good training is critical—no begging allowed. Feed only at certain times and in a certain location. Try to provide a perfect diet.
I was visiting my friend Brian’s summer home when we got a lesson in scent-hound determination and food motivation. Having cooked a lovely roast, we set it on the table and went down to the waterfront to tell the other guests that dinner was ready.
When we made it back up the stairs, we saw the screen door to the kitchen was bent and almost completely off its hinges. We soon noticed that the roast was the only thing missing. The neighbor’s beagle (four doors down, with adjoining yards at the back) had raced to her home with the roast in her mouth, tail wagging furiously, as if to say, “Thanks for cooking it just the way I like it!”
Seconds before the heist, the beagle burglar had been at home with her family. She suddenly sniffed the roast in the air and bolted out of the door. The neighbors weren’t worried because she often visited Brian’s dogs. No real harm was done, of course. The pizza was delicious.
A MIXED BREED PET may get all the best attributes of each breed, or all the worst, or a mix. I know plenty of Labradoodles that, despite their hype, still shed and have arthritis and allergy problems sometimes from an early age. I always hope for hybrid vigor and improved health in a mixed breed, but one never knows for sure if it will happen. I personally think the mystery mutt is intriguing. Some of my all-time favorite animals are of unknown ancestry.
On the other hand, it’s interesting, and useful in terms of providing care, to know about your pet’s particular genetic mix. It’s not necessary to know the exact name of the breeds involved. You can learn much about your pet just by looking at its physical traits.
The newer DNA blood and saliva tests for breed identification to date seem to be moderately accurate at best. They can help in deciphering a lineage for many adopted pets. Breed identification is an emerging science and may improve with time. I used my own seventy-pound mutt, Henry, to see how one of these tests worked. I had no history on him because he was a stray I was fostering and decided to keep. He looks like a large fuzzy coonhound mixed with a German shepherd. His breeds came back as: 50% Chihuahua, 25% shar-pei, 12.5% Pomeranian, and 12.5% Rottweiler. I could only believe the Rottie part.
Henry may be a Chihuahua at heart, but I don’t buy him winter coats, and he doesn’t bark for no reason. I do make sure he doesn’t overheat in summer and I let him run and smell to his heart’s content at our local beach. At 70 pounds he’s awfully big for a Chihuahua. He is inordinately fond of Mexican food, though.
REGARDLESS OF THE THROW of the genetic dice, your pet might turn out to be the greatest on the planet. It has definitely happened to me.
Finally, I’d like to contradict myself somewhat by saying that if you fall head over heels in love with a pet, no matter what the breed or species, and are compelled to take it home, feel free to disregard some, most, or all of the advice above. You may have just found your soul mate.
Dogs and cats from shelters are unhealthy mutts. Not true. Shelter pets are often there for reasons unrelated to health or behavior. They can be purebred, mutts, or of unknown heritage. They will all be very grateful for a home.