5 Factors That Put Your Dog at Risk for Summer Heatstroke

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Many dogs love summer as much as we do, but high temperatures  can present a problem for our canine friends.

We talked with Dr. Debbie Mandell, staff veterinarian and adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, about what factors can increase your dog’s risk of heat-related injuries and even death. Heatstroke is one of the many problems that veterinarians at Ryan see in the 13,000 emergency cases that come through their doors each year. Here are five factors that Dr. Mandell says can put your dog at risk for heat stress.

What Makes Some Dogs More Vulnerable

1. Congenital defects or underlying respiratory problems. One of the top risk factors, Dr. Mandell says, is upper-airway problems. You may coo at every adorable, flat-faced dog on your block, but breeds like Pugs, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Boxers can suffer from brachycephalic airway syndrome. Unlike humans, who sweat when we’re hot, dogs use their respiratory system to get rid of heat — and these flat-faced breeds’ airway abnormalities put them in danger of heatstroke when they’re exposed to higher temperatures.

Another underlying respiratory condition that can land dogs in big trouble is laryngeal paralysis, which is common in medium and large breeds like setters, Labradors and Pit Bulls. Additionally, small dogs like Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians and Maltese are commonly affected by collapsing tracheas. In both of those situations, Dr. Mandell explains, the dogs will pant to release heat, and their panting causes swelling in the airway, which causes them to pant harder, which results in more swelling. "They enter this vicious cycle where they get worse and worse really quickly," Dr. Mandell says.

2. Not being acclimated to hot weather. "On the first hot day, everyone wants to go for a run with their dog or play outside in the yard," Dr. Mandell says. "Dogs are not going to stop, even when they can’t breathe or are about to collapse."

It’s up to you, then, to know the signs of heat stress, so you can help your dog cool down before it becomes an emergency. Those signs include excessive panting and drooling, a fast pulse and gums that have changed in color from pink to bright red. Vomiting and bloody diarrhea are signals that the heat may have started to affect internal organs.

3. Being kept outdoors without access to shade and water. It can be dangerous for an indoor dog to overexert himself in hot weather, but pets who are primarily housed outdoors are also in danger. "As much as we try to discourage it," Dr. Mandell says, "there are people who have outdoor dogs." Keeping a dog outside in the summer, especially without appropriate access to shade and cool water, is a risk that’s not worth taking.

4. Being left in the car. Speaking of risks that aren’t worth taking, it is never OK to leave a pet in a hot car. "It’s been documented that the temperature inside a car can reach over 120 degrees in minutes," Dr. Mandell says. "If you have that window cracked a tiny amount, it’s really not going to help." Fortunately, Dr. Mandell says, thanks to lots of recent news stories about dogs (and even children) being left in cars, she’s not seeing as many of those cases.

If you see an animal locked inside a hot car, there are steps you can take to help rescue it safely. The Humane Society of the United States, and the ASPCA recommend that you write down the car’s make, model and license plate; attempt to locate the owner; and call animal control or your local police department for help.

5. Obesity. While it is not a congenital defect like brachycephalic airway syndrome, obesity can certainly put your pet in harm’s way when it comes to heat stress. It makes dogs more susceptible to many issues — like joint and back problems — and heatstroke is no exception.

Dr. Mandell explains it this way: While some heat can escape through the respiratory system through panting, "70 percent of the heat loss in dogs and cats occurs by radiation and convection through the skin." When the core body temperature rises, blood vessels dilate, the heart pumps harder, and there is increased blood flow to the skin, where heat is lost to the environment. In obese dogs, the large layer of fat under the skin serves as insulation and can prevent some of that heat from getting to the skin to be released.

One last note: An extremely thick coat of fur can cause the same situation, so you should also watch closely for signs of heatstroke if you own a furry breed like the Newfoundland or Great Pyrenees.

And if you think your dog is experiencing any of the signs of heatstroke, contact your veterinarian or local emergency clinic immediately.

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A Different Animal: Cancer in Pets and People

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Cancer can strike every organ in the body, and each different type of cancer carries a different prognosis and requires a different treatment. That’s because, although we tend to lump all cancers into the same basket, each one is a separate disease. That is true when we look at cancers within the same species (such as all human cancers or all canine or feline cancers) or when we start comparing the same kind of cancer across species (such as skin cancer in humans and canines). In this article, we take a brief look at how cancers that are important in people usually manifest differently in our pets.

The Human Side

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a group that tracks cancer diagnoses and outcomes among humans, the top five cancers in people are breast cancer in women; prostate cancer in men; and then lung, colorectal and skin cancer in both genders. That probably doesn’t surprise you, since your doctor is likely always talking to you about various screening tests, such as the mammogram or colonoscopy, or about the risks of cigarette smoking or not wearing sunscreen. Organizations like the NCI record and publish information about human cancer rates in the United States to help assess the impact of new treatments and prevention strategies.

No PSAs for Persians

There is no national organization that tallies the occurrence of cancer in pets like the NCI does for humans, but veterinarians know that the top cancers you should worry about in your pet are very different from those you should worry about for yourself. You won’t hear me recommending, for example, a screening colonoscopy for your Curly-Coated Retriever or a PSA (prostate specific antigen) test for your Persian. That’s because colorectal and prostate cancers are very uncommon in pets. Since pets don’t smoke, lung cancer is also uncommon. But there are other cancers that are common in both pets and people. Let’s take a look at the top four among those that we veterinary oncologists worry about.

Girls’ Club

Just as in women, breast (mammary gland) cancer is a commonly diagnosed cancer in dogs and cats — if you live in a region where spaying and neutering is not part of a routine pet preventive health care program. Removal of a dog’s ovaries before her first heat cycle during a spay procedure dramatically decreases the occurrence of breast cancer. That is why one common recommendation from veterinarians is to spay your puppy at about 6 months. Spaying also reduces the occurrence of breast cancer in cats. Breast cancer is the most common tumor found in female dogs and the third most common cancer in cats. In humans, it is one of the top three cancers in women, but obviously, preventive measures differ. In humans, we normally use screening mammograms as an early detection tool.

Lymphoma: Not a Good Prognosis

In cats, one in three cancer diagnoses is lymphoma, a cancer of a portion of the immune system known as the lymph system. It is most often diagnosed in the feline gastrointestinal tract, but any organ can develop the cancer. Dogs, too, can develop lymphoma. For example, both of former President George W. Bush’s Scottish Terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, died from the malignancy.

Despite the incurable nature of lymphoma in cats and dogs, chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment. Chemotherapy can offer pets who are suffering from the disease an improved quality and quantity of life. The typical dog receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma lives an extra year, which is a long time in dog years. In comparison, some forms of human lymphoma are curable, while others are not.

On the Surface

Although skin cancer is common in both pets and people, how it manifests as a disease is different. I rarely see skin cancer in pets caused by overexposure to the sun. The most common skin cancer I see in my daily oncology practice is mast cell tumor (MCT), mostly in dogs and occasionally in cats. Physician oncologists, however, rarely see that tumor in their practices. Most humans have never heard of a mast cell, but nearly all of us have felt their negative effects, since those are the cells responsible for allergic reactions ranging from from those to bee stings to hay fever. A mast cell tumor in pets occurs in the skin or just below the skin and is one of the tumors pet owners can identify just by petting their animals.

Mast cell tumors may just be a bump in the skin that looks like any other benign fatty tumor, but more commonly they are pink to red and may be scabby. A simple in-office test known as a fine needle aspirate can help in the early identification of an MCT. A veterinary pathologist will evaluate the aspirate and, if necessary, recommend surgical removal of any mast cell tumor. Surgery is often all that is needed to cure your dog of the tumor, but in some severe forms, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also needed to control the malignancy.
Melanoma can be a concern in pets, but it is rare compared to its occurrence in people. Unlike the skin spots that alert human patients and physicians to its presence, melanoma in dogs is usually found in the mouth or nail bed. In cats, the most frequent location is in the iris, the colored part of the eye. 

Bone Cancer: the Same in Dogs and Kids

Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, is a disease in pets that shares some similarities to the disease in people. Osteosarcoma in dogs serves as a model for the disease in children due to its similar behavior in both species. It is diagnosed more commonly in dogs than in children, and the good news is that research to improve treatments for dogs with the disease has been translated into new and better treatments for children, showing yet again how our enduring friendship with dogs is beneficial.

For example, ongoing investigation into naturally occurring canine osteosarcoma in dog patients has allowed for the testing of surgical methods that are readily translated to pediatric osteosarcoma — something that can’t be done with rodent models of the disease. The most notable contribution of dogs to the treatment of human osteosarcoma is the pioneering of limb-sparing surgery to remove tumors without removing entire limbs. The NCI has funded that groundbreaking research.

Next on the horizon for osteosarcoma is the investigation of genetic abnormalities leading to the disease and the development of molecularly targeted therapies against those abnormalities.

In dogs, an early sign of osteosarcoma is limping due to pain resulting from the destruction of the bone by the tumor. Although difficult to discuss with fear-fraught pet families, amputation of the leg can dramatically improve quality of life for dogs afflicted by the disease.

Chemotherapy slows the spread of osteosarcoma, and lucky dogs may experience a year or more of good quality of life.

But Some Things Remain the Same

Though we can see that cancers in pets and people differ in many ways, basic common sense when it comes to prevention and early detection in both species is the same. If you, the diligent pet owner, are concerned about your pet’s cancer risk, see your veterinarian for a complete examination and a conversation about minimizing risks. For more on detecting cancer in your best friend, review the Ten Warning Signs of Cancer in Pets.

Help Prevent These 5 Pricey Parasite Problems

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Fleas and ticks are more than just an annoyance to pets — and to pet owners, who have to listen to the scratching or remove the ticks. These unwanted critters are a potentially significant source of disease, misery and expense.

As the weather warms up, flea and tick season kicks into high gear. And that’s when claims at Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) for health problems related to these pests pick up, too.

As chief veterinary officer for VPI, I have both professional and personal experience with fleas. VPI’s offices are in Southern California, one of those places where the external parasites that plague pets never feel the effect of snowstorms and freezing temperatures on their life cycles. But even in parts of the country that experience a deep freeze in the winter months, fleas and ticks are a perennial problem.

Fleas and Ticks, Coast to Coast

When we discuss fleas and ticks, we’re not talking about just two kinds of creatures: The Companion Animal Parasite Council has identified eight species of ticks and five species of fleas that prey on pets. Some of these parasites aren’t terribly picky about where they land, either — neither the “cat” flea nor the “dog” flea stick to the species it’s named for, and ticks hop indiscriminately onto pets and people. As a result, people and pets often share some of the diseases caused by the pathogens that these parasites transmit, including Lyme disease.

People and pets also, of course, share the scratching. You’re probably already feeling itchy just reading about fleas and ticks, so I’ll go right to our VPI claims data for 2013. In order of frequency, here are the top five flea and tick related claims:

  1. External Parasites, General. Many pet owners who bring their animals in because they are scratching are surprised to find out that their pets have fleas. They may assume that their animals could be protected by being kept exclusively indoors, or they have used a flea-control strategy that wasn’t effective, such as a folk remedy (rather than a prescription provided by a veterinarian). Average claim: $73.
  2. Flea Allergy Dermatitis. For many pets with fleas, sound veterinary advice on effective flea control resolves the problem. Unfortunately, some pets have bigger problems: They are allergic to flea saliva, which causes skin irritation and inflammation that can lead to more aggressive scratching and chewing, followed by infection. Average claim: $102.
  3. Ehrlichia. The first of the tick-borne diseases shows up at No. 3. Ehrlichia, along with anaplasma or other so-called rickettsial diseases, are caused when ticks infect the animals they feed on with microscopic organisms. Dogs with Ehrlichia are typically brought in for fever, lethargy, depression, lack of appetite and weight loss. Average claim: $223. 
  4. Lyme Disease. Most people are familiar with Lyme disease in humans, but many are not aware that dogs can be infected, too. Lyme disease is also caused when ticks infest the animals they feed on with the microscopic organisms associated with the disease. Dogs with Lyme disease can have symptoms that include fever, shifting leg lameness, swollen joints, enlarged lymph nodes, lethargy, depression and lack of appetite. Average claim: $209. 
  5. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Dogs all over are brought to the vet with fever, joint and muscle pain, not just in the Rockies. In fact, less than 5 percent of human cases of this disease are from the Rocky Mountain region; the southern Atlantic coastal states account for the highest number of cases in humans, although Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest share a relatively high ranking as well. Average claim: $397.

Parasite Prevention Is Key

Veterinarians stress preventive care for good reason, and that’s especially true when it comes to fleas and ticks. While a simple, overlooked flea infestation often can be resolved by following your veterinarian’s advice, for some of the other health issues on this list, prevention is truly the only way to go. In the case of flea allergy dermatitis, for example, every flea bite can trigger a flare-up of misery. That makes flea control a critical part of maintaining quality of life for these pets.

Ask your veterinarian about recommendations for effective parasite prevention and control. Though most of these strategies will likely involve flea-and-tick preventives, other strategies, such as frequent vacuuming and removing ticks promptly, can be highly effective as well.

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