Gastric Dilation Volvulus, a.k.a. Bloat

Gastric Dilation Volvulus, also known commonly as bloat and torsion, is a scary, life threatening condition that can strike dogs of any size at any age, although it tends to afflict the larger breeds with deep chest cavities. It is the mother of all veterinary medical emergencies. No one is sure exactly what causes it, but the veterinary profession has an abundance of theories. Bloat occurs when the stomach rapidly fills with gas then, because the enlarged stomach is top-heavy, the stomach flips over (torsion), twisting the ends off and trapping the gas. The gas continues to expand, with no exit route, and the stomach can grow to massive sizes. You can easily imagine from there how quickly things can go downhill. Often the twisted stomach tissue starts to die as the blood flow is compromised, and other organs get displaced as the stomach grows. The twisted stomach can block major blood vessels that carry blood back to the heart, quickly sending the dog into shock. Shock can occur within minutes of bloat starting, so this is not a ‘wait and see’ type of medical condition, this is truly a dire emergency.

Most dogs will act uncomfortable, sometimes pacing, trying to throw up but nothing comes. Many people, including vets, often think it’s just a ‘stomach ache’ and instruct owners to give some pepto bismol and call back in the morning. The veterinary and dog breeder world will offer you many suggestions for the prevention of bloat- from elevated feeders and no play for 30 minutes after eating, to feeding non-grain or raw based diets, not letting your dog scarf down food, and not allowing them to drink loads of water at a time. But despite all this bloat can still strike. Tiki, my 10 year old long-haired German Shepherd, is a dainty eater. She often takes upwards of 10 minutes to eat a cup of food, and generally will leave a bit behind. She eats grain free, from an elevated feeder, and being 10 years old with early stages of arthritis, she doesn’t run around much during the day, let alone after she’s eaten dinner. She’s never been a water tanker, taking a few dainty sips at a time before laying down, coming back for more later if she’s still thirsty. When bloat stuck at 7pm as I was fixing dinner, she hadn’t even eaten since breakfast that morning, and certainly hadn’t engaged in any physical activity within the 90 minutes prior.

All I can say of the experience- harrowing to say the least- was that I thank everything in the universe that I was at home when it started. Had I been at work, even with my roommate home all day with her, she certainly would have perished. My roommate is not a dog person, and while she likes dogs, she’s certainly not well versed in their medical anomalies. In fact, if someone hadn’t educated me on this subject in the past, I’d almost certainly have not dropped everything, grabbed Tiki up, and rushed the the emergency vet. Many people aren’t sure what’s going on, and decide to wait and see, or take their dogs to the vet first thing in the morning. By then it’s too late.

When bloat first presented itself, Tiki was laying in her usual corner of the kitchen while I cooked and my roommate worked on her laptop on the table. She started panting- no entirely unusual in Texas for a long haired GSD, even with the a/c on, but something about her expression made my roommate suddenly ask, “What’s wrong with Tiki?”

I looked over at her and sure enough, she was panting lightly, but had the barest hint on her face that she was uncomfortable. I called her to me, and she got up and obediently came, and I kneeled down to put my hands on it. I rubbed her face then ran my hands down her side, and stopped cold at her stomach. It wasn’t overly distended- yet. But it was rock hard. Outwardly nothing looked amiss, the stomach hadn’t grown yet to be noticeable enough just looking at her (although that’s what most people will first notice about bloat- the visibly distended belly. By that time, it’s almost always too late.)

My heart stopped. I knew instantly what is was. It felt like she had eaten a really big meal. My naturally dainty, slender GSD had a thanksgiving dinner belly- hard to the touch and larger than normal. I switched off the stove top, gabbed my keys and wallet, and literally threw Tiki into the back of my car. The e-vet was 20 minutes away and I made it in barely 10, going 105mph down the freeway while Tiki cried in the back. If I had gotten pulled over I was prepared to lead a police chase right to the front door of the vet.

I didn’t bother to park, stopping right in front of the door, grabbing Tiki and running into the vet. Luckily a tech came right out when they heard the door chime. I practically threw Tiki at her, mumbling incoherently about bloat, and the tech immediately took her back for x-rays. Not 10 minutes later the vet and tech were both back with x-rays. The news was dire. Her stomach had flipped completely and she would need immediate surgery, with no guarantee of survival. They wouldn’t know the damage to the stomach tissue or surrounding organs until they got in there. Her blood pressure was already fluctuating, and her blood work came back with some irregularities from the bloat. I signed the consent papers at the same time as they were prepping for surgery. Before I even left the vet they already had her open on the operating table- less than 30 minutes from when her bloat started.

The wait was agonizing. Even with proper medical interventions, survival is less than 80%, if any part of the stomach had died off, survival drops to below 50%. Survival depends greatly on how long the stomach has been flipped, if any stomach tissue has died from loss of blood, and if the dog was approaching or already in a state of shock before the surgery. Without aggressive medical interventions, death is nearly certain once the stomach flips, and the emergency vet confided to me afterward that she wasn’t going to tell me this, but that particular e-vet had seen many cases of bloat- and not a single survivor, mostly due to owners not knowing what was happening and waiting too long to bring them in. Manually trying to flip the stomach using a tube down the throat has limited success, and bloat will nearly always reoccur. Surgery was our only option.

It was an agonizing 3 hour surgery, but the vet didn’t call immediately to tell me the damage was too severe, so I was hopeful. When she did finally call it was to say things went as well as they could have, and Tiki was now sleeping. I could come get her the next morning and have her transferred to my regular vet.

Waiting at home for the hour between when the e-vet closed and the regular vet opens.

Waiting at home for the hour between when the e-vet closed and the regular vet opens.

When I picked her up the vet gave me a list of complications to look out for, such as behavior that would signal a change in blood pressure or signs of shock. I paid the bill (a bit over $4000, for the curious. /gulp) and I took her to my regular vet and they admitted her for the day for observation while I was at work. My regular vet, a 60+ year old James Harriot-type man, told me he, also, had never had a bloat survivor in his practice in 40 years as a practicing vet. He was so impressed that she had survived, that he brought in all the techs and the other vets to come meet her while he gave them a run down on bloat signs and symptoms (which he did while kneeling on the floor with Tiki and wrapping a bandage around her stomach). By the time I picked her up after work, the vet was confident she was mostly out of the woods, to keep monitoring her, and he sent me home with antibiotics, telling me to come back in two weeks to remove the 40 staples that were holding her together.

Feeling well enough to jump not eh bed while I was washing the sheets, but oh! too weak to move! when I need to make the bed

Feeling well enough to jump on the bed while I was washing the sheets, but oh! too weak to move! when I need to make the bed

In addition to antibiotics, she received antacids to help with the stomach acid on her healing stomach. Part of her surgery included gastropexy- fastening the stomach to the body wall to prevent torsion in the future (as reoccurrence of bloat in dogs without a gastropexy reaches nearly 100%, with a gastropexy, it’s less than 5%).

Finally feeling well enough, 3 days post-surgery, to show a bone!

Finally feeling well enough, 3 days post-surgery, to chew a bone!

Tiki developed a minor skin infection during the end of the second week of healing, apparently licking in secret as we never caught her actively licking her staples, so into the cone of shame she went and she received a week of antibiotics.

"I do not like the cone of shame"

“I do not like the cone of shame”

4 1/2 months later and Tiki is doing great. Her hair has grown back, she’s had no bloat reoccurrence, no complications, and she healed perfectly. She will celebrate her 10th birthday this fall!

4 months post-bloat!

4 months post-bloat!


The Big Squeeze: Let’s Talk About Anal Glands

I love dogs and (almost) all things dog, but one thing I did not want to become an expert on is anal glands.  I think most any dog owner is vaguely aware of anal glands.   If your dog is licking their hind end more than usual, or scooting their butt all over your freshly cleaned floor, or smelling like a 10 day dead fish marinated in liquid poop…the culprit is probably their anal glands.

If you have not heard of anal glands (lucky you!), they are at the rear end of the dog.  The smelly end.  They are two little kidney bean sized glands seated just inside of the rectum, at “5 and 7 o’clock around the anus.”  The normal order of things is that these little glands fill up with foul smelling fluid and they then empty themselves out when your dog poops, leaving behind a nice reek for other dogs to sniff.  Except, sometimes they don’t empty themselves.  Sometimes things go terribly wrong.   That’s where the butt-rubbing on your carpet comes in.


Why, dear God, why?!
The stools need to be firm enough to squeeze those glands into emptying themselves.  Firm poop, you want your dog to have it!  If the dog’s diet is too low in fiber, they can suffer chronically from too-full anal glands.  If the dog goes through a bout of diarrhea for any reason, it can leave the glands full and uncomfortable.  Dogs with chronic tummy upset and the resulting soft stools are also at risk.  Obese dogs or dogs who are not exercised frequently can also be prone to poor rear end muscle tone and that can result in the glands not emptying properly.  Some dog’s glands are simply situated “deeper” and “lower” than they should be, and this unfortunately means that when the stool passes out of the dog’s rectum – the full pressure of the bowel movement is not pressing on the glands and they are left with fluid inside.

What can be done?
Prevention!  The dog’s poop needs to be firmer.  This can mean a total diet change, either to a different kibble formula or even to a raw food diet.  It can mean supplementing the existing diet with more fiber.  Pumpkin is touted as the go to diet additive to introduce more fiber into the dog’s diet.   Always use pure pumpkin, never pumpkin pie filling.  Diggin’ Your Dog makes an easy to use pumpkin fiber supplement.  My dog and I are extremely happy with a powdered fiber supplement called Glandex.  The most important thing to remember is that every dog is different, and while it can be frustrating to find the right solution to keep your dog’s anal glands happy, it is worth the trial and error.

When your dog is scooting, licking/chewing and cannot get those glands empty…someone has to manually empty them.   This means a trip to the veterinarian’s office where the staff can express your dog’s glands, and teach you how to do so at home if you so choose.   Some groomers express the anal glands.  If you do learn how to express your dog’s glands, remember to be patient, use plenty of praise and treats (especially peanut butter or squeeze cheese that takes focus to consume.)  Have a gentle assistant help you to restrain your dog and feed him treats while you do the expression.
However! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  Expressing a dog’s glands if they are not showing symptoms of discomfort/fullness is extremely unnecessary.  If your dog’s anal glands are working as they should be, just leave them do their job be happy about that.  Manual emptying of the glands can cause tissue trauma and swelling and there is no reason to do so unless it is truly necessary.
This will not be considered a how-to on how to express a dog’s anal glands!   I highly recommend getting an experienced veterinarian, technician or skilled groomer to show you how to express your dog’s anal glands if it is necessary.  The glands can be expressed externally or internally.  External expression is exactly what it sounds like: pressure is placed on either side of anus until the fluid expresses (if the glands are very full you can actually feel them).   It is less invasive, but in my experience, less effective – external expression does not always completely empty the glands.  Internal expression is also exactly what it sounds like: straight to the source!  Finger inside of the dog’s rectum while the thumb places opposing pressure on the gland externally with slight pressure applied until the gland expresses the fluid.

I don’t have to tell you: Manual expression is not fun for man or beast.   Most dogs are not likely to take the finger probing without a struggle.   When the fluid expresses it often shoots straight out of the rear end and it is best to stay out of the way! (TU’s Katie’s wise words: Make sure your mouth is closed when you express anal glands!)  It takes some practice to learn to express a dog’s glands, and it helps if you can grow four extra hands.

And sometimes, things go extra terribly wrong.
My dog Molly is a poster child for bad anal glands.   She came to me as a very young shelter puppy, a stray on the streets of a big city.  She always had a difficult tummy.   We tried a lot of different foods and she still had chronically soft stools as a pup, often diarrhea.  She often licked her hind end and was able to relieve her full glands this way.  She was rather tidy and efficient about it even if she was smelly - we called it “busting a gland.”  We have visited the vet or groomers countless times for manual expressions.  The vet tried to teach me how to express them myself one time and it was a miserable failure.  I DIY just about every aspect of dog care and grooming, but anal gland expression was the one thing I said “No!” to.

Molly is the perfect storm.   She continues to be very prone to stomach upset and gets soft stools rather easily from dietary changes or too many treats and she also has very deep set, recessed anal glands.  She is a challenge to manually express, even for the experienced.  It is amazing that we went 6 years without a major issue.

A few months ago my husband chose to share three chicken skins with Molly.   (Sigh.)  She had a few days of diarrhea followed by soft stools and then she was busy “bustin’ a gland” like nobody’s business.  Then she started….leaking.   Gland fluid on my couch covers, blankets, bathrobe, floor, crate padding.  On my pillow.  One night I woke up and my pajama pants had a big smelly wet spot on them from where Molly had her butt cozied up to me.   Yuck!   This was excessive, but it just felt like another chapter of Molly being kind of gross and having butt trouble.   I took her to the vet and had her glands expressed and was dismayed that the very next day she continued leaking.  This went on for about two weeks before Molly woke me up at 3am with her licking and when I turned on the light, her tail and hind end were covered in blood.   Whoah.

Back to the vet office and this time we made an appointment to see the vet rather than to just have her glands expressed.   The vet on duty that night told me he had never expressed more difficult glands on a dog, and he told me that Molly’s right anal gland was badly infected.  And let me just tell you, an infected anal gland is a pain in the butt, literally.  There is a lot of bacteria in the area, the dog is licking at it and irritating the tissue even further.  If an infection progresses without treatment, the gland can actually abscess and rupture externally.   Ouch.

The treatment for Molly’s infected anal gland began with several courses of different oral antibiotics and warm compresses to the anus.  I soaked a washcloth with hot water, wrung it out and placed it right underneath Molly’s tail and applied gentle pressure for 5-10 minutes each evening.  We visited the vet weekly for manual anal gland expression to evaluate Molly’s progress.   I groaned every time I saw blood fly out onto the exam table – that meant the infection was not going away.  When the first two rounds of (different) oral drugs did not work, we moved on to direct “infusions”.   Infusing the anal gland involves using a small catheter to access the anal gland’s emptying duct and packing the gland full of antibiotics directly.  The rectum has to be pulled out slightly in order for the vet or tech to be able to access this duct – not very fun for the dog at all.  Molly’s infection took two rounds of infusions before the fluid that was expressed was a mixture of blood and regular fluid.   It was the first sign of improvement!  Another infusion, and the next week, all regular fluid.  It took nearly two months to resolve.  I did not think it would ever resolve.

For the first month after the infection cleared up, I was instructed to express the glands weekly.  By now I had gotten over my shyness of doing Molly’s gland expressions myself.  I wanted to be able to keep an close eye on that gland fluid to be certain that the infection was not returning.  Weekly expressions are definitely not necessary anymore – if I notice Molly “bustin’ a gland” I take her into the bathroom and express her glands for her now.  And if she is not fussing at her hind end, we leave well enough alone.   Less manipulation to the tissue back there is best.

If infections or abscesses become a recurrent issue, it is possible to surgically remove the anal glands.  This was very much a Last Resort decision as far as I was concerned.  The anal glands are uncomfortably close to the nerves that control the anal sphincter.  In other words…if there is a complication your dog could become unable to control their bowel movements.  I am hopeful that Molly and I will never have to face that sort of decision, and that her anal glands stay happy and empty for many years to come!

Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 3

This is the final part in my three-part series on our experience with “Old Dog” Vestibular Disease. If you’ve missed the previous posts, you can find them here:

Part 1
Part 2


Dahlia at the beginning of Week 4

As we headed into week 4, I was starting to feel really positive about Dahlia’s prognosis. The vet had assured me that most dogs make a near-complete recovery and as long as the dog is showing improvement after those first crucial 72 hours, they are likely to continue improving. This was certainly what we’d seen with Dahlia! She had conquered the stairs to the outside. She was able to get around the lower floor of our house with no real issues. She was happy going on walks and doing a bit of play with Ben in the backyard.

But she was not still at 100%. And we were all too well aware of that. Her head was still tilted, though it had become less extreme. She still had not attempted the stairs to our second floor. I was still sleeping in the downstairs guest room with her. And she had not been in a car since Christmas.

We were very careful with Dahlia through her convalescence. She is a dog who came to us with very little confidence and while she had gained so much during her 7+ years with us, Vestibular Disease shook her rather seriously. And so we did not want to try to get her upstairs or into the car before she was really ready to do it. Maybe we were too conservative. Maybe others would have pushed the issue earlier. But I think we ultimately made the right choice for her.

day 34-2

Day 34: Playtime!

It was the middle of the 4th week after this whole thing began, that Dahlia tried the stairs to the second floor. I still remember it clearly. Ben raced up the stairs as he usually does (Ben does nothing slowly!) and I went upstairs to find him a treat for bed. When I turned around, Dahlia was starting up the stairs. I absolutely panicked. My plan for getting her up the stairs consisted of one person being at the top of the stairs tempting her with treats while the other person stayed directly behind her in case she got wobbly and fell. Because Dahlia is a stubborn dog who does things on her own terms, she just decided to do it with no one behind her in case things went badly.

I rushed down and got behind her just as she got a little wobbly and stopped. She didn’t fall, thankfully. But it was clear at that point she wasn’t ready to continue. I managed to get her to turn around and walk slowly (one step at a time) back down the stairs.

It was scary. She didn’t get all the way up. But she did it. On her own with no coaxing. Dahlia wanted to get better and so she simply did.

Day 34: Head almost straight!

Day 34: Still sitting a little awkwardly, but her head is basically straight!

It was sometime during the following week that we decided to work more on getting her upstairs. We knew she had it in her and so we gave her a few more days to sleep downstairs and then decided to see if she could do it. She was hesitant and afraid to start up them. Her first experience did not go all that well and she had lost some confidence. So we put her on leash and got out the big guns. The “big guns,” of course, were the treats I used in her agility classes: Hormel dried beef. She loves that stuff. And so we got it out, waved it under her nose, got her really excited and after a bit of hemming and hawing, a bit of wobbling around, she did it. Once she got going, she just kept going (me in front of her tempting her with treats, my husband holding the leash and staying at her side to catch her if she fell) and she got to the top with no real problems.

The next morning was, of course, the next big challenge: Getting her down the stairs. I went down stairs to get some more treats out of the refrigerator and was heading back to go upstairs to put the leash on her and help her down. And lo and behold, Dahlia was making her own way down the stairs. Slowly. One step at a time. But she did it. On her own steam, with no one having to coax her down. She knew she wanted those treats. And so she came down to get them.

Ironically, I was pretty sure the down part would be much tougher than the up part. But Dahlia proved me wrong as she so often does.

day 34

Day 34: Playing with Ben!

By the time weeks 5 and 6 rolled around, Dahlia was regularly racing into the backyard with Ben. She was still a bit wobbly at times and when Ben would do his trick of running 90 mph at her and leaping at her head, she’d fall over. But she got up quicker and would race off after him. Here’s a video shot on day 28 after this whole thing started. You might think the dog running at the camera at first is Ben, but you’re wrong! (And you’ll realize that when the second dog comes flying past the first one.) You can see how much she’s improved since the video I posted last week. She’s much steadier on her feet and while she still struggles a bit and is a bit wobbly, she’s able to run at a pretty decent speed (especially considering she’s running on snow!).


Nearly 8 weeks in: A straight head!

By the end of week 6, she was regularly going up the stairs on her own. We were able to fade out the need for treats to coax her upstairs and every day it seemed like it was just that much easier for her to get started up them. She now goes up the stairs at just the mention of bed time. No treats, no coaxing, and no wobbling at all. And she races down them if she so much as senses someone might be going into the guest room closet (where we keep the treats).

We also noticed that head tilt is almost completely gone. There’s still a bit of a tilt inside, but outside it has disappeared and inside it’s almost not noticeable. This does not happen for all dogs or cats (or, as I found out in doing some research many other animals: rabbits, sheep, cows, and other animals have been affected by this same disease). Some will always retain a small head tilt (and some quite a big head tilt — see Marnie the Dog) so if it doesn’t resolve itself for your dog or cat, don’t be too dismayed!

Day 47: Finally in the car!

Day 47: Finally in the car!

This left one last thing to conquer for Dahlia: car rides. After Christmas (day 10 of this ordeal). she had not attempted getting into the car. I wanted to make sure she was confident enough to get into it. After seeing her try to get up on the couch and then decide not to do it again, I didn’t want to have the same issue with the car. When Dahlia started to attempt the couch again and got on it successfully, I decided it was time to see if she could do it.

So one day, while my husband was out walking Ben, I grabbed some of her favorite treats and took her out to the car to see what happened. I opened up the doors to the car and turned to see if I could help her. But nope. Dahlia did not need any help. She leapt up into the car like she had never ever had Vestibular Disease. She also had no trouble getting out of the car, landing solidly on the ground without stumbling even a little bit. We went to Petco to celebrate. She got a lot of attention from the people she met there and a few delicious treats.


7 weeks in: Racing around the backyard like this never happened!

This is where Dahlia is now. She has her old life back. She can go places with us. She can go upstairs and sleep on her bed at our side. She can run around the backyard with Ben. She gets steadier all the time with running, as you can see in the following videos, shot 7 weeks post-diagnosis.

She is happy and healthy and sometimes it’s almost like this never happened. Just the other day she leapt a branch in our backyard like it was a standard agility jump. I keep saying to people “You wouldn’t know anything is wrong with her.” But the reality is there isn’t anything wrong with her anymore.

But here’s the somewhat sobering reality: our vet told us that this rarely comes back. We left the vet’s office that day feeling relieved that we may never have to face this down again. But having spoken to many people whose dogs and cats have experienced this has led me to believe that a recurrence is not as uncommon as we were led to believe. So will it ever return? It’s hard to say. Knowing now what I know, I feel more prepared to tackle the disease. But at the same time I sincerely hope we never have to go through this with her again. It has been frightening and frustrating and was simply awful to watch for a time. Dahlia is now about 99% better than she was the day that it started. Hopefully if it ever recurs, she will get back to her usual self as quickly.

Throughout Dahlia’s convalescence, I spent a lot of time on the internet doing research and talking to other folks who had been through this. Some of the sites I found that have been indispensable to me are as follows:

Vestibular Disease in Dogs Support Group. This Facebook group was the main thing that kept me going through the past two months. The people there have all been through it, some are still going through it. New people join all the time (and not just with dogs; there is no equivalent cat group on Facebook so some cat owners have joined this one — Hint to cat owners: Create one! I bet you’d be a great resource for cat owners who didn’t want to post in a dog group!). And many people (including myself) stick around after their dogs have recovered to cheer on and support those who are currently going through it.

Lassie, Get Help – Vestibular Disease: Leave a Light On. Besides just the blog post, reading the comments to the post were incredibly helpful. Just seeing that others had been through this and that their dogs were ok made me feel better about the whole thing.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll: Top 10 Things You Should Know About Vestibular Disease. This is a great, very informative PDF about the disease.

I hope these posts have been informative for anyone who has not experienced this disease and perhaps a comfort to those who have. Please stop in and comment if you wish to. Let us know about your dog’s (or cat’s or rabbit’s) experience with this disease and how they’re doing now!

Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 2

Last week I wrote about the absolute scare Dahlia gave us when she woke up and couldn’t walk and the first week of her recovery from Vestibular disease (if you missed the post, you can read it here).

This has been a long, hard road for us. And especially for Dahlia, though she has fought it every step of the way. No one wanted to return to normal more than Dahlia did and her fighting spirit helped her near-constant progress.

day 8

Day 8: Awkward running, but a short run nonetheless!

The second week brought about many great changes for Dahlia, though there were many struggles. Early in the week, she was still refusing to go into my husband’s study, but he decided to bring her out back with Ben through the outside gate. She was so happy to be outside that she tried to chase Ben. She was wobbly. She was unsteady, but she wanted to play. It was the first time since this happened that we actually attempt anything playful. During that first really hard week, we weren’t sure she would ever play again. I remembered wondering if she’d play tug, if she’d ever bark. She was silent during that first week and while Dahlia has never been a noisy dog (see my post on teaching Dahlia to bark, among other things), she has learned to bark in excitement. Seeing her so quiet was hard.

Christmas at my mothers - a very comfortable Dahlia!

Christmas at my mothers – a very comfortable (and tired) Dahlia!

The worst part of the week revolved around Christmas. Because we didn’t want to leave her out of the festivities, we opted to bring her over to my mother’s house (across town). which meant a car ride. As I mentioned in my earlier post, dogs with vestibular disease do not like being lifted off the ground. And as Dahlia had never really been picked up by us, it was especially difficult on her. She really wasn’t ready to attempt a jump up in the car, so we had to lift her in. This involved her rolling, almost falling out of the car, and at least three attempts before she was situated into the car. It also meant a difficult time getting her out. To reduce the stress, I stayed the night at my mother’s place with Dahlia while my husband went home with Ben. That meant two car rides instead of four. It was absolutely the right decision for Dahlia. Now you might ask Should you have taken her at all? That’s the question I still don’t have a proper answer for. Dahlia would not have wanted to be left behind and I was not comfortable at that point leaving her for several hours. So in the end, we decided the stress of getting her into the car was less than the worry about leaving her behind. And outside of the stress of getting her into and out of the car and being nervous coming down the hallway, Dahlia was comfortable at my mother’s place. She begged as usual and, a new thing: she was comfortable walking on the hardwood floors in my mother’s kitchen (anything to beg for food!).

And a Christmas miracle! When I came back from a walk with Ben, Dahlia got very excited and played tug with her Mama. It was the first time she’d shown any interest in toys or playing her favorite game! I will admit that I had tears in my eyes as I played with her (and I apologize for my voice in this video — you might want to listen on mute!).

You can pretty clearly see that her head is tilted to the side as we play. That’s not normal. That’s a result of the vestibular disease. It is something that may or may not resolve as the dog recovers.

day 12

Day 12: Sitting, but the head tilt is still pretty prominent.

By the end of the second week, we were taking up rugs in the house and Dahlia was getting around with little difficulty. Her head was still tilted awkwardly and I despaired of ever seeing her head actually straight again. She wasn’t going up stairs. She wasn’t going into my husband’s study. But she did, finally, sit. Which seems like such a small thing. But many dogs with vestibular disease have trouble with sitting. It takes some decent balance to sit down like that and for the first couple weeks, Dahlia either stood or laid down. But finally. Sit. It was awkward. But she did it. And she did it on her own!

And…perhaps the biggest change that week? Dahlia played tug with Ben. She was so excited to see me when I got home and they were both so worked up (and Ben brought me a toy, as he so often does), that she simply turned to Ben and grabbed the toy he had and a wonderful game of tug began!

Day 18: Beggars!

Day 18: Beggars! (You can see how tilted Dahlia’s head is in comparison to Ben’s)

The third week brought about even more changes. Dahlia started to pursue more play with Ben and more play with us. She was getting steadier on her feet and as she regained confidence, she started to act more like her usual self. When she was excited, she’d race down the stairs into my husband’s study after Ben. It’s like she simply forgot to be scared of them in the moment. And then she’d race outside and try to chase Ben. She was still pretty unsteady on her feet at faster speeds (and especially in the opening of the video where she’s trying to move on the small hill down into our yard). But as you can see in this video, while she’s still pretty wobbly and not giving huge amount of chase, none of it seems to faze her and she eggs Ben on by barking and spinning around to follow his path. (And Ben, as you can see, is having great fun with it, even if she isn’t giving chase!) You’ll also see her shake her head once and lose her balance. In the first week, she would have fallen over. But here she stays on her feet.

While the stairs to the second floor were still a bit beyond her, she was able to sleep in the downstairs guest room with me. Which was huge…for me! I’d been sleeping on the couch in the living room with her for nearly a month but she was finally comfortable walking into the more enclosed space of the guest room and so we moved into there. Sleep came easier for both of us, I think!

Day 19: Awkwardly perched on the couch!

Day 19: Awkwardly perched on the couch!

She also started to get up on the couch, though the couple of times she did it, she struggled a bit. We’re not sure what the issue was exactly. Either she couldn’t quite judge the distance or (and this may be more likely) her back legs weren’t quite able to push off properly. So she ultimately ended up flinging herself onto the couch and just laying wherever she ended up. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing for her and she only did it a few times before deciding she would rather stay on the floor.

She started barking more during this week and especially on command. I wasn’t sure she’d ever get to do any of her old tricks and while some (like standing on her hind legs) may be forever beyond her balance abilities, barking was not. Here’s a short video, shot on day 20. You can see her head is still tilted funny, but she’s excited and happy to bark for the treats we received in the mail from a Secret Santa exchange.

And then…she got naughty. I took Ben out for a walk one day and came back to find Dahlia had pulled a bag of pizzelles (a crispy Italian waffle cookie made with vanilla and, you guessed it, butter) off the counter and proceeded to tear it open and eat half the cookies before I got back. Instead of being upset over such a transgression (though I was sad over the loss of the cookies!), I was thrilled that she had enough of her in her to do it.
In just three weeks, Dahlia had come so far. From not being able to walk to being able to play a bit with Ben, she had made great progress. But there was still more recovery ahead of her!
Read the third and final part here.

Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 1

I will never forget the morning of December 16. My husband woke up around 5:00am and discovered that Dahlia had vomited. No big deal, probably something she ate. He ran down to get some stuff to clean it up and I went to check on Dahlia.

And that was when I discovered her condition.

She couldn’t stand. She tried to, but her back legs wouldn’t get underneath her and she kept falling over.

Her head was moving strangely, like she was following something darting around the room.

I remember calling to my husband, shouting that there was something seriously wrong with Dahlia. I kept trying to get her up and she finally just lay there, head bopping around in the half light of our bedroom, not moving while I panicked.

It was a stroke. I was absolutely sure of it. My husband carried her downstairs. She was dead weight in his arms. He doesn’t even remember the trip downstairs or out to the car. He barely remembers the drive to the emergency vet.

But I do. I remember feeling both panicked and numb at the same time (how is such a thing even possible?). I remember being sure that we were losing our best girl, that the end of the road had come far too early (at only about 9 1/2) and far too quickly (she had been running around the yard playing hard with Ben just the night before). When we pulled up to the vet, I was sure we were about to get terrible news. They whisked her away from us to check her out before we had much of a chance to even think and we were taken to one of the rooms to wait for her return and the vet with her.

I don’t know how long we waited. It wasn’t very long, that much I do remember. The techs brought Dahlia in to us and laid her on a blanket. We both sat on the ground with her. I wanted to cry.

The vet came in shortly thereafter.

And she was smiling. I remember thinking Why are you smiling? We’re losing our best girl…

But we weren’t. And that was what the vet was there to tell us. As it turned out, Dahlia had something called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease (or IVD for short). Sometimes called “Old Dog” vestibular disease, IVD is an inflammation of the nerve going between the inner ear and the brain and is something that tends to strike older dogs (and cats). In most cases, there is no known cause (hence “idiopathic”), though it can sometimes be caused by an inner ear infection.

The symptoms are pretty clear-cut in most cases and come on rapidly:

  • Rapid, uncontrollable eye movement (called “nystagmus”)
  • Dizziness and loss of balance
  • Staggering (some liken this to a “drunken sailor” walk)
  • Circling in one direction when attempting to walk
  • Rolling
  • Head tilt
  • Nausea/vomiting

It was that first one I hadn’t noticed, likely because it was dark in the room, but it explains the strange head movements I saw. Her eyes were trying to orient her body to a room that was spinning rapidly around her.

My dog had vertigo. I’ve suffered from vertigo on occasion due to my hearing issues, but only for short periods. It’s intense. And it’s scary. But I know what’s going on when it happens. Dahlia didn’t. Her world had been turned upside down and ours with it.

But the good news is that while these episodes come on quickly, they also resolve…well…fairly quickly. Generally, the nystagmus should disappear within 3-4 days and at that point, you should see marked (though not complete) improvement.

I am, of course, the type of person who immediately went on the internet and looked up more information on the disease and tried to find progress reports for people’s dogs who had gone through this same thing. One thing I found was that a lot of people had had this happen to their dogs. One thing I didn’t find were very many progress reports. I felt a little bit like I was in the dark staggering about with my dog and hoping I was doing the right thing by her.

So I thought I would document Dahlia’s progress here on Team Unruly. I will admit up front that it is a month out from her original diagnosis and she is much improved, so never fear there! My girl has a strong will!

I won’t lie. The first week that Dahlia struggled through this disease was one of the hardest weeks of my life. We brought Dahlia home rather than leaving her at the vet’s for supportive care (which was an option and never feel bad if you take them up on it). They gave her some sub-q fluids, a shot of Cirenia (for nausea), and recommended 25mg of Meclizine (an over the counter medicine used for motion sickness) a day for the first few days. The hope was that she would feel a little less nauseous and therefore eat something while all of this was going on.

That first morning when she came home she didn’t seem too bad. I remember being relieved that she wasn’t “as bad” as everyone else’s dogs I’d seen videos of. She walked into the backyard. She was wobbly, but she could walk. She even managed to find a place to do her business. And when we went inside, she ate some hamburger. I remember being so happy that this was such a mild case and expected her to be back to her old self in a short bit. But that’s not how the disease goes. And in Dahlia’s case, it worsened over the course of that first day.


Day 4

By that evening, she was at her lowest point. She could barely walk and when she did, she only walked in circles. She developed a dramatic head tilt (in fact, the whole front of her body looked tilted oddly). She couldn’t get down the stairs, so we had to carry her down to go outside. This was an absolute nightmare for Dahlia. And it is for many dogs with IVD. When the world is spinning, they orient themselves by having their feet firmly on the ground. Removing that ground made her panic. But she wouldn’t walk with a towel underneath her belly. And she was terrified to go down the stairs (and we were terrified she’d hurt herself if we let her try). So we had to carry her. She rolled in our arms. We came close to dropping her a few times as she panicked. But we got her outside each time and she was, thankfully, able to find a place to pee on her own.

Two days later, her eyes had slowed down, though there was still some movement, and that seemed to steady her a bit. She still couldn’t take the stairs to the outside and it was still an ordeal to get her out, but she wanted to go further once outside. Instead of just finding a spot to pee out front, she would get about two houses down and around the corner before laying down in exhaustion. Then we’d walk her back and carry her back inside.

Because our house is two stories and our bedroom is upstairs, I ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room with her on the floor near me. I didn’t sleep well those first nights. I was constantly on alert, woke up at every little movement. Dahlia, thankfully slept through the night. Or at least, she did for the first two nights.

At this point, she ended up with diarrhea, likely from all the stress (maybe from the medication), which just added to the difficulty. This was really the lowest point for us. I was exhausted and stressed out, afraid to sleep for fear she’d have another accident or try to get out or that she was overly stressed. It almost seems like a blur a few weeks out from it, like it happened in another lifetime.

Day 4 was when we finally turned a corner. Her eyes stopped moving and while they still seemed a little glassy and she was definitely not “herself,” she was fighting to get back to normal. She pulled her “stubborn Dahlia” trick of standing there and refusing to move unless I went the way she wanted to go. We walked around the whole block. And that afternoon she insisted on going down the steps to the outside on her own. I held onto her collar and stayed with her in case she slipped. And she did stumble a little, but she made it down the steps without having to be carried down and when we returned, she made it back up the steps with only my hand on her collar. Which was simply massive progress at this point. It meant that there was less stress on her and one person could get her out.

We also put down rugs all over the house because she wanted to move around more, wanted to visit us in the dining room or beg for scraps in the kitchen. We found all our old rugs and covered our hardwood floors with them.

It seems like such a small thing, really. Getting down the stairs on her own. Walking around the house. Things she’s done every day of her life. But this was what we were down to: celebrating those little tiny moments.

Day 6

Day 6

We had more to celebrate in the coming days. On the fifth day, her eyes lost the glassy look. She was more alert and with that came better balance. She walked further, she was interested in meeting other dogs and people, she squatted and peed with one leg in the air (see: the tiny moments!). She was able to control her speed better. The first few days of this consisted of walks where she would lurch forward, lose her balance, stagger, stop, and then lurch forward again. Day 5 showed a dog who could control her walking speed again. It meant the walks were slow, but she was able to stay walking at a steady pace.

On the sixth day, she went for a mile-long walk. We’ve always allowed her to make choices for walks and that was her choice that morning. I was at work all day and when I arrived home, Dahlia was at the door to greet me. She had not had the energy or interest in getting up to go to the door since the whole thing began so having her there meant so much.

The seventh day began with a vet trip to take care of the diarrhea issue as it wasn’t clearing up on its own, despite trying a bland diet. She wasn’t able to get into the car, so we had to walk her to the car and lift her in, which continued to be very difficult for her. She panicked and rolled and it took a few times to get her in and out. But the vet visit itself was good. They pronounced her in excellent health. She’d lost weight (thanks Ben!) and the vet said except for the head tilte and her being a little wobbly, there was nothing wrong with her. We got antibiotics and were on our way.

We noticed some more small changes around the house that day. She was willing to walk into the kitchen, which is a tile floor. She contemplated going down the steps into David’s study but for some reason they made her nervous, so she stood at the top and watched from there instead. And she was less hesitant getting around the house. Her head tilt was still rather pronounced, but we noticed that while it was quite dramatic inside still, outside her head tilt was getting better. This is something many have noticed in the community that I belong to for dogs with this particular disease. Some will struggle more inside, some more outside, but it’s not unusual to find that your dog seems much better in one place, but still struggles in a different place.

So at the end of that first week, things were better, but certainly nowhere near normal. I was still sleeping downstairs, still on the couch because she didn’t feel comfortable in the more enclosed guest room, and she still had a long way to go. But Dahlia has a strong will and she was working her way back to normal.

Read Part 2 here.

Product Review: Vetri-Bladder Chews

Some time last year, Herbie started having accidents in the house. Considering that I can count on one hand the number of times that she had accidents in the house during house training, this was cause for alarm.

I immediately collected a urine sample and brought it in to work with me, assuming that we would find evidence of a UTI. As a white pit bull with a history of allergies, it wouldn’t have surprised me. 99% of the time, when Herbie experiences a problem (itchiness, hot spots, rashes) it can be remedied with Benadryl. With a UTI, antibiotics would have been the appropriate course of action, and I wasn’t about to start her on them without confirming the diagnosis first.

To my dismay, the results came back negative for bacteria. Whatever was going on was not a simple infection.

Herbie was spayed at a very young age before I got her. For a shelter puppy, it made sense, but having the procedure done early came with certain risks. When reducing her water intake before bed and taking her out more frequently didn’t work, I started to fear that she had developed spay incontinence. Herbie was four years old, and it was the most likely culprit.

I started to search for a daily supplement that would help with spay incontinence and that would potentially reduce the risk of UTI’s at the same time. I didn’t want Herbie on heavy duty medication, but I couldn’t have her peeing in the bed, in her crate, and on our carpets!

I wound up settling on the VetriSciene Vetri-Bladder bite sized dog chews, which were conveniently available through my favorite pet-supply website of all time,


The ingredients included Red Clover and Soy Protein, both of which are a good source of isofavones, compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen. Since estrogen is lacking in a spayed dog, I was hoping these ingredients would in fact help our problem.

At $22.50 for a 60 count bag, the chews came to about $0.38 per dose for Herbie. The label instructions call for one chew per day per 50 pounds, which is exactly what Herbie needs.

I was admittedly skeptical of the effects of an over the counter product that seemed to have plant-based ingredients, but the difference was immediate. I just give Herbie one chew with breakfast every day. She wags her tail when she hears the zipper open, and definitely thinks it’s a special treat I give her and not Julio.

The accidents stopped right away, and paying $20 every two months to save our upholstery has definitely been worth it. Of course, it means Herbie is a happier girl too. I felt terrible for her when she would pee in the house. Her eyes would get really big and she’d try to run in a panic away from her urine, which would only make things messier.

I do think Herbie has gained some weight since starting the chews, but she’s also almost five years old and isn’t getting as much exercise as she used to, so I’m not sure the two are related.

Of course, I am not a veterinarian and I cannot give you advice on what supplements or medications to give your dog for any medical condition, but if you are experiencing what may be spay incontinence in your female dog, and you are looking for a place to start, I do highly recommend the Vetri-Bladder chews.

Team Unruly is not being in any way sponsored or encouraged by, VetriScience, or affiliate companies. This is a product I found on my own and paid for. This is an honest review arising from a need I had with my own dog!

Fighting SAD – how my dogs help me to survive wintertime

Every year when the days grow shorter and the air gets colder I am reminded of the reason that I pursued becoming involved in agility.  The reasons that people get involved in dog sports are varied far and wide, from those raised from childhood on up and those becoming involved later on in their lives.  When I started agility it was something that I had wanted to do with my corgi Ein for a very long time.  But what finally made me reach out of my comfort zone and enroll in a Foundations Agility training class was that I needed something to cling to during winter time

“Seasonal Affective Disorder”
or SAD is a variety of depression that is directly related to the changes of season.  It can strike as fall and winter set in and even when spring arrives.  Many of the range of classic depression symptoms can show up.  I am a person fortunate to not be subjected to depression regularly, so it can be scary and upsetting to experience the intense apathy and gloom that settles over me when the days get shorter.  I feel desperate to cling onto the last rays of sunshine that escape far too early on winter days and when they are gone I feel at a loss for how to fill the long hours between sundown and bedtime.  That is not sensible, but depression is not a sensible disorder by any means.

Ein’s Foundation Agility class provided an amazing change for me in the winter of 2012.  One night a week we would drive through the darkness to training class and I could enjoy a whole hour of fun with my dog.  There were nights when I truly felt too gloomy to even go.  But having that scheduled training class each week pushed me to attend and sure enough, as soon as I was there, I was always glad that I went.  Since Ein and I had never done any training beyond home taught basic manners when he was younger, a whole new world was opened up to me.  Our class fluctuated between obedience and rally obedience lessons, and foundation agility skills.  Ein and I not only had our weekly class, but plenty of “homework” to focus on during the rest of the week, and it opened up a whole new world and hobby for me.

For me, anything related to my dogs is fun so they are truly my rock and focus when I feel seasonal depression taking its grip on me.  Below are some of the things that I (try to force myself to) do each winter to fight off those apathetic feelings that creep their way in.

Training Classes
I love to take my dogs to training classes, and I tend to increase on the amount during the winter time.  There are so many types of dog training classes out there from basic obedience, to tricks and manners classes, to the more focused dog sport classes.  Currently I attend two agility classes per week and may add something else in there during the most depressing and cold of the winter months.  It is so valuable to me to be able to escape the cold and darkness into a bright training building to work and play with my dog.

Tricks, Tricks, Tricks!
I don’t think enough can ever be said about how relaxing and bonding trick training can be.  The benefit of those good feelings is doubled for me during winter time.  If you are goal focused, as I tend to be, you can even work on Trick Dog Titles!  More than a few Team Unruly dogs have enjoyed achieving them and it can keep you in good ideas of what trick to work on next.  I have been pulled out of many a gloomy mood by forcing myself to pick up the clicker and play around with shaping a trick with one of my dogs.

Therapy Visits
I have mentioned that Perri is a registered therapy dog and taking her to visit senior citizens in nursing homes has as much benefit for me as it does for them.  Perri and I make her visits year-round, usually one time per week.  I love our visits always, but in the winter time it is more special and heart warming than usual for me to enjoy the happiness that my dog can bring to people.

Dog Projects
I love to make things for my dogs, even if I do find some projects to be a little overwhelming.  We have a whole range of posts on dog projects that you can enjoy doing, and your dog will appreciate whatever you make for him!  Baking dog treats is also very relaxing for me in the winter time – it makes the house warm, it smells good, and my dogs never turn their noses up at a tasty home baked treat.

Part of the reason I get so downcast in winter is because I am cut off from my walks in the woods, and that means that the amount of exercise that my dogs and I get is reduced also.  Keeping my dogs in good shape is very important to me, and conditioning indoors is just as fun for us as trick training is.  Sarah wrote an excellent post in July about some conditioning exercises and tools, and FitPaws is a great resource for equipment and training advice.

Got Poodle?
I certainly never added Perri to my family to fight my SAD, but her ever growing coat does keep me busy.  I can easily burn away two to three hours on a total bath, blow out and groom on Perri.  I enjoy spending the time with her and trying new ideas with her coat and keeping her as nice looking as a “tomboy woodland poodle” can manage.
Each winter the transition is difficult for me.  I am losing my outdoor training sessions, my quickie evening hikes, my dog swimming time and just the simple enjoyment of being outside without my nose hurting.  I hate it, it sucks.  But my dogs motivate me to do some things that make it suck a little bit less, and I am so grateful to have them.

Pediatric Neutering and the Performance Dog

INTRODUCTORY DISCLAIMER: I am not a veterinarian and I do not play one on TV. I am not an expert in canine sports medicine, either. What follows in this post is Just My Opinion based on some amateur Internet research, personal observations, and kicking around the dog sports world for a couple of years. Here be anecdata, beware all ye who navigate these seas.

Having said that, here’s my opinion: pediatric neutering sucks, especially for performance dogs. Pongu was neutered at almost exactly 16 weeks old, down to the day, and as we start transitioning out of Rally and obedience into the agility phase of his career, I find myself wishing more than ever that he’d been allowed to develop normally. He wasn’t, and I am concerned that it’s going to cause us some problems down the road as we move into a more athletically challenging sport.

I’m well aware of the many, many reasons that shelters and rescues choose to enforce a mandatory across-the-board policy that all dogs must be spayed or neutered before adoption. I don’t really have a huge problem with that. I’ve seen more than my share of irresponsible pet owners who really, truly needed to have the choice taken out of their hands, because there was no way they could be relied upon to successfully manage intact dogs in their households. It’s often the least responsible people who get the most adamant that they can handle it, too; I feel like it’s got to be some kind of Dunning-Kruger variant in effect there. I am, accordingly, totally sympathetic to the position of rescue volunteers and shelter workers who argue that the best option is for people to have no option.


While Pongu’s pediatric neutering is pretty far down the list of his handicaps in dog sports (as far as Pongu the Insane is concerned, his mental problems drastically outweigh his physical limitations), it sure doesn’t help. If I were looking to adopt a sport dog in the future, I’d steer far away from rescues and shelters that enforced mandatory pediatric speuters, and that’s a near-universally held view in the dog sports world. As far as dog sports competitors are concerned, pediatric speutering is frequently a dealbreaker, and that’s not great, because it means that some of the best homes in the world are closed off to dogs in organizations that have those policies.

The argument I want to make here is twofold: (1) To the extent that our mutual goal here is to get dogs into the best possible homes, it might not be a bad idea for shelters and rescues to be a little more flexible when dealing with adopters who are knowledgeable, responsible, and have legitimate, carefully considered reasons for wanting to delay speutering until their dogs are fully mature; and (2) to the extent that shelters and rescues want to adhere absolutely to their policies and not make any exceptions, they would be well advised to consider the opposing point of view and the research substantiating that position, so that they can articulate to those prospective adopters why they feel that the benefits outweigh those drawbacks. In other words, if you’re going to say “no,” best make it an informed and reasonable “no,” so that those prospective adopters don’t go away feeling like the shelters and rescues are just being ignorant and intractable.

There’s really no reasonable dispute that pediatric neutering causes dogs to develop differently than animals that are left intact until after reaching sexual maturity. Regardless of breed or mix, you can spot pediatric neuters at a glance. They’re abnormally leggy and gangly, the males tend to have “bitchy” appearances and more finely boned features, and their muscle development is impaired, particularly in males. (As an interesting historical sidenote, castrati — 17th and 18th-century male opera singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their singing voices — were also widely recorded as having similar alterations to their physical development. They, too, tended to be unusually tall and leggy.)

Tall and leggy and kiiiiind of a giant nerd: that’s my Pongu!

There’s likewise no dispute that speutering has a number of effects on dogs’ health, although here it’s a bit of a mixed bag and the correlation/causation distinctions are sometimes unclear. A 2007 survey of over 50 peer-reviewed veterinary studies found that rates of osteosarcoma were significantly higher among speutered dogs, particularly pediatric speuters (which is not surprising, considering that one of the developmental effects of pediatric speutering is significantly elongated bones), and also found higher rates of hemangiosarcoma and hypothyroidism, among other serious issues. However, speutering also had some positive health effects: it reduced certain behavioral issues, reduced the risk of perianal fistulas among susceptible breeds (a point of particular interest to me, since GSDs are my favored breed and they are notoriously prone to perianal fistulas), and eliminated the risk of pyometra, a potentially lethal problem for intact bitches.

Another study that focused specifically on Golden Retrievers found significantly higher rates of hip dysplasia and lymphosarcoma among pediatric neuters and, interestingly, a spike in hemangiosarcoma rates among females that were spayed as adults, but not among intact females or females that had been given pediatric spays. Of particular interest for performance people, this study found a much higher rate of cranial cruciate ligament tears among pediatric speuters than all other dogs; it is hypothesized that this finding might be linked to the effect of neutering on the dog’s growth plates.

Yet another 2007 survey of veterinary studies observed the higher incidences of osteosarcoma and CCL tears among pediatric speuters, and suggested that the increased rates of those problems was likely connected to the elongated bones that pediatric speuters develop. The same study observed higher rates of urinary tract infections among female dogs that were spayed before puberty, and suggested that this might be caused by the fact that female puppies spayed before reaching sexual maturity never develop adult genitalia.

However, the JAVMA survey also noted that speutering of pets may be a realistic necessity for many shelters and rescues dealing with the pet-owning public, because compliance rates for people who sign contracts promising to spay or neuter their adopted pets are dismally low (less than 60%, according to that source, which seems reasonable as an average of what I’ve seen across different regions. In the Philadelphia area, I’d expect that number to be significantly higher; however, in the Southern rural areas where most of my fosters originate… well… let’s just say I’m not surprised if some of those homes would drag the nationwide average down to way below 60%).

So what does all this mean?

It means, if you’re into performance sports, that your pediatric speuter is going to develop into a substantially different form than one who’s left intact until after puberty. Your dog may have an increased risk of hip dysplasia and is significantly more likely to get injured over the course of his or her career. Your dog will have longer legs and finer bones. He or she will have trouble building and maintaining as much muscle as a normally developed dog would.

If we’re talking about challenging, high-level sports, these are not trivial considerations. I’m not yet at a point where I can make any reasonable prediction as to whether Pongu’s gangly proportions would affect his top speed on an agility course (and honestly I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to determine that, given that my dog is a nutjob and his assorted anxiety problems slow him down much more than his janky legs ever could), but it surely wouldn’t surprise me to find out that they do.

I don’t have serious competitive aspirations for Pongu in agility. I can’t; it wouldn’t be realistic for him. We’re mostly just out there to have fun and learn how to play this sport together. Also, he’s crazy, so it’s not like having one more problem on our giant mountain of Issues makes a huge difference.

But I still don’t want to see him get hurt. Additionally, it’s very likely that I will have serious aspirations for my next dog, and in that case, pediatric speutering would be an absolute dealbreaker for me. I’m not doing anything that would ding my Imaginary Future Dog’s chances at having a long, happy, injury-free career. And the scientific evidence pretty clearly supports my own observations and anecdata that pediatric speutering would very much hurt those chances.

For a pet home, this might very well not matter. There are still some potential health risks, but they’re mostly in the realm of “might” and “maybe”: increased risks for some things, decreased risks of others, no ironclad guarantees either way. Plus, the shelter/rescue does have a strong and legitimate interest in ensuring that the dog doesn’t breed, and that someday-in-the-future speutering doesn’t get lost in the swirl of kids and jobs and family commitments that can sometimes knock a pet dog pretty far down the priority ladder.

But for a sport home? Nope. The difference in physical development is guaranteed, and that alone makes it a total no-go.

And, frankly, it’s more than a little annoying to me when I get the simplistic Speutering 101 “herpty derp it will solve all your behavioral problems and have zero health drawbacks! In fact pediatric neutering is better because they heal faster!” canned explanation from rescue and shelter volunteers on this subject.

I’ve been in rescue for years, and I’ve been in dog sports for years, and I kind of want to just grab their shoulders and yell “DUDE. STOP. Not your target audience for that spiel.”

There are people who need to hear the spay/neuter message. It’s an important message; I am in no way claiming otherwise. There are many, many communities and audiences who still need to be sold on that one.

But there are many others where that message is ten to fifteen years behind the times.

This is a subject on which a diversity of opinions exists. That’s a good thing. We’re all in different places in our lives and we all have different goals and priorities. But I do think, on pediatric speutering particularly, it’s important to recognize that the diversity of opinions among informed and educated dog people exists for a really good reason: because there is no one clear-cut right answer for everybody. There are, in fact, a lot of awfully legitimate reasons that someone might not want to neuter their future sport dog at 16 weeks old.

I wish I’d known enough to understand exactly what I was agreeing to back then. It wouldn’t have changed anything — that shelter has an ironclad, non-negotiable policy on speutering before adoption, and there is no way that I would not have adopted Pongu, because that little goober was destined to be My Dog — but I do wish that I had known what it meant to neuter a dog at four months old. I think it’s important to know, and that it’s a real disservice to both dogs and owners that this complicated issue so often gets reduced to its most simplistic dimensions.

Should my dog have been fixed? Absolutely. There is nothing about him that warrants breeding, and as a first-time owner I didn’t need to try wrangling an intact dog in a city condo. (Next time around? Sure. First time? No thanks. I know some of my limitations.)

But should it have been done when he was four months old?

Not if I’d had my choice.

Ticked Off!

The title of this post — Ticked Off! — is probably the only joke I’ll make about ticks for the foreseeable future. It is no longer a joking matter in my household!

We recently moved from Lansing, Michigan, to a “country” town in Massachusetts. I say “country” because Massachusetts country is still pretty developed and not much at all like rural Michigan! But we lived in the city of Lansing back then, with almost no yard to speak of, and we exercised our dogs by walking on sidewalks or going to the park to let them run around. Now that we live in Massachusetts, we have an enormous yard ringed by a forest and the pups can spend a lot more time burning off their energy outside.

This is probably a really good way to get covered in ticks.

This is probably a really good way to get covered in ticks.

Heavenly, right?

It would be, if our yard were not infested with deer ticks! We didn’t notice it when we moved here because it was the middle of summer, but now that we are deep into Fall, we are at peak adult deer tick activity. See, nymph activity peaks in mid-summer, larvae activity peaks in August-September, and now it’s the adults’ turn to hog the limelight. They should fall off around the end of December, but they survive the harsh Massachusetts winters pretty well and, of course, once we get to February the whole cycle will begin again – adults feeding, reproducing, and contributing to the summer spikes of nymphs and larvae. Gross!

Graph by the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

Graph by the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

Even though our dogs don’t romp in the woods, they pick up ticks in the grass, from fallen leaves, and from brushing up against bushes. Every time Cerberus comes in from the yard, he has a tick or two crawling on his fur – adult deer ticks, about the size of a sesame seed, darkly colored, and practically indestructible! (Or so it feels when I’m trying to crush their tiny horrible terrible bodies. HULK SMASH!) For some reason they don’t seem to like Fly as much, even though her fur is much shorter and sparser than Cerb’s plushiness. She must taste bad.

Of course, we use a topical flea and tick treatment on both dogs (Frontline Plus), so although we frequently see ticks crawling on the dogs, we’re yet to find one that has actually attached and fed. That should be relief, but the problem is that the dogs bring the ticks inside and then they get on us, and there’s no such thing as human Frontline – or any sort of medication that is going to make me feel okay about BUGS IN MY HOUSE.

So what to do? Well, I talked it over with my vet and she had a few ideas, although part of it will just be accepted that we live in the wilderness now (er, the thickly-settled New England wilderness) and ticks are part of life. We’re going to keep up with topical treatments, of course, although my vet recommended Advantix over Frontline. We also vaccinated both dogs for Lyme disease. We did not vaccinate for Lyme in Michigan because we lived in a low-risk area and had low-risk lifestyles, but now vaccination makes much more sense – if you’re considering this route, consult your vet and see if it makes sense for your dog. Between the vaccine and the topical treatment, I’m fairly confident both dogs are protected, but I’ll keep up with yearly blood tests to make sure we’re still good (both dogs had clean blood tests last week – hurrah!).

As for the yard and the house? That’s a little bit more difficult. We’re going to look into having the yard treated, because we feel like the number of ticks we’re seeing on the dogs is higher than normal. It’s possible our yard is infested and needs to be treated by a professional pest company. There are also commercially-available yard sprays and powders we could try, although reviews on retail websites are mixed.

As humans, our options are limited. We don’t get to use Frontline or Advantix, and there’s currently no approved Lyme vaccine for humans – bummer, right? So we’re stuck being careful to check ourselves over when we come inside, checking the dogs and ourselves for ticks whenever we come inside, and…. er, crossing our fingers, I guess. Wish us luck!

Listen up, guys: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog breed.

The other day, I was listening through some back episodes of the Judge John Hodgman podcast (which, PS, is awesome and beloved by almost everyone I know, including my 85-year old grandmother: go check it out!) There have been a couple of dog-themed episodes of the show, and the one that popped up on my iPod, A Danderous Precedent (ep. 111) was one of them.  The case in the episode involved a nice couple who were interested in getting a dog, though the husband in the couple had what sounded like legitimately horrible and debilitating allergies to furry animals, and had also had a bad reaction to the allergy shots he’d tried (which ended up in multiple hospitalizations for anaphylaxis.) But they had solved the problem, the cheerful young couple proclaimed! They were just going to get a Goldendoodle, which was a breed that, according to some stuff they’d read on the internet, was totally hypoallergenic! Also, Husband Of Couple had grown up with a cocker-poodle cross and hadn’t had any allergy issues, so Cheerful Young Couple had decided that, QED, Husband would be OK with any poodle cross.  The verdict, incidentally, was semi-reasonable, though not perfect: John Hodgman declared that before they got the dog, they needed to spend a bunch of time with a lot of Goldendoodles to make sure Husband actually could tolerate them, and that they should make sure they had a Plan B in place in case it turned out Husband couldn’t handle the dog they brought home. However, even though everyone was nice and reasonable and thoughtful, this episode made me want to throw my iPod across the room. This is not the first time I’ve heard “I’m allergic, so I have to buy a [fill in the blank/probably a doodle]” argument–I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard it, either–and I always find it maddening. Because here’s the thing:

There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.

If you happen to be interested in dog-science stuff, this should not be news to you: the intersection of dog allergies and breed/size/hair type has been studied for years, and overwhelmingly, the science indicates that breed and allergic potential have basically nothing to do with each other. The academic in me requires that I now link to some of those studies, though in many cases, you’ll need a PubMed or Lexus subscription to read the whole thing. However, if you’re interested, here’s a few, and you can at least read the abstracts in all cases:

  • Lindgren, et. al: “Breed-specific dog-dandruff allergens”. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 82, Issue 2, Pages 196–204, August 1988. Conclusion: “There was no significant correlation between [allergy-inducing] skin prick test results and symptoms related to a specific dog breed.”
  • Heutelbeck, et. al: “Environmental Exposure to Allergens of Different Dog Breeds and Relevance in Allergological Diagnostics”. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, Volume 71, Issue 11-12, 2008. Conclusion: “Factors related to individual dogs seem to influence the allergenicity more than breed or gender.”
  • Johnson, et. al: “Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs”. American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy. 2011 Jul-Aug; 25(4): 252–256. Conclusion: “No classification scheme showed that the level of dog allergen in homes with hypoallergenic dogs differed from other homes.”

Many reputable organizations and news outlets have been reporting on these findings and trying to debunk the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ idea: if you don’t believe me and don’t want to read a bunch of studies, here’s The New York Times, here’s our old pals at WebMD, and here’s the Mayo Clinic (though, Mayo Clinic, “just keep your dog outside!” is not actually a good solution to dealing with allergies).  Unfortunately, a lot of times, popular or casual journalists–your Dog Daily, your AKC blogs, your Dog Channel, your random piece on Yahoo! that your aunt forwards you–will start an article out by saying, “Some scientists say that there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog” and then immediately pivot to “but here’s a list of breeds that may be a good call for allergy sufferers!”. This is obnoxious and confuses the issue, because, repeat after me: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog. There are no breeds that are ‘better’ for allergy sufferers, period, and to say otherwise is at best, misinformed and at worst, disingenuous. To understand why this is, we have to start by looking at the science behind what dog allergies actually are.

So What Does It Mean To Be Allergic to Dogs?

The biggest misconception about dog allergies is that allergy sufferers are allergic to the dog’s hair; this is why some dogs (like poodles) whose coats are similar in texture to human hair and who primarily shed into their undercoat, are mistakenly labeled ‘hypoallergenic’.  Another misconception is that the source of allergens is dandruff, dead skin cells that flake off the dog and float around in the environment.  There is a little truth in both of these things, but neither is 100% right: the biggest allergy offender is actually a sebaceous protein called Canis familiaris 1 (usually shortened to Can f 1). This stuff is present in the dog’s body and leaches out through the skin. Our bodies work similarly: if you’ve ever complained about your face being oily or you’ve gotten one of those extra-gross gooey zits, you’ve had first-hand experience with sebaceous proteins coming out of the skin in unpleasant ways.  Once the Can f 1protein is on the skin, it can stick to hair, which can then come in contact with human skin when the dog sheds or when you touch him (hence, the association with shedding); it can also stick to dried-up skin cells that fall off the body (hence, the association with dander). Can f 1 also shows up in urine and saliva; given that all dogs are a tiny bit gross, these things also have a way of coming in contact with human skin pretty regularly.

What’s the upshot of all this? Basically, it’s that Can f 1 is pretty much impossible to avoid, unless you have a dog that has no skin and does not produce urine or saliva (in which case, take a closer look: that’s either a photograph of a dog or one of those ‘invisible dog on a leash’ things you get at the fair).

They’re Invisidoodles!

Thus: you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hair-not-fur dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a dog who doesn’t shed much, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a supposedly ‘low-dander’ dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hairless dog, and you are DEFINITELY not safe from allergens if you buy a doodle puppy off the internet. At the end of the day, Can f 1 is everywhere, it wants to get on you, and unless you live in a hyperbaric chamber, if you get a dog….it probably will.

Poodles & Doodles & The Whole Kit ‘n Kaboodle

One of the things you might have noticed if you’ve been paying attention at all to the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ debates is that people seem to have a touching faith in the power of poodle genetics to instantly prevent allergic reactions. This was definitely the case with the couple in the Judge John Hodgman episode I was listening to: they were absolutely certain that, as long as there was a touch of poodle in the mix, any mixed-breed dog would have no problem living with a man who went into anaphylactic shock after getting microns of dog sebum in an allergy shot.  Common wisdom makes it sound like poodles are whatever the opposite of Kryptonite is: one dash of poodle and you’ll be protected from allergies for the rest of your life! That is hyperbolic, of course, but if you spend much time online looking at claims from doodle breeders, it starts to drift into sounding like fact.

So, let’s look at the science. Are poodles, in fact, magic? Are they even ‘hypoallergenic’ in the sense that people generally mean? There have actually been several studies on this: one of the most compelling to me has this whopper of a title: “Characterization of extract of dog hair and dandruff from six different dog breeds by quantitative immunoelectrophoresis identification of allergens by crossed radioimmunoelectrophoresis.” [Blands, et. al: Allergy, Volume 32, Issue 3, pages 147–169, June 1977].  This is an older study, but its results were pretty impressive and it spawned a bunch of other studies that basically replicated its findings. Short version: the study got large sample sizes of several different dog breeds, including poodles, and tested each individual dog for levels of Can f 1.  What it found is that levels of Can f 1 were WILDLY different among individual dogs, even within the same breed; they also found a broad spectrum of the allergen even among dogs who were related, which suggests that levels of Can f 1 are probably not genetic (thus, if you’re an allergy sufferer and neither of the two parent dogs trigger your allergies, their puppies might still make you sneeze.) Interestingly, this study also found that, among all the dogs tested, poodles had the greatest discrepancy in Can f 1 levels: that meant that a few poodles had some of the lowest levels of the allergen in the study, and a few poodles had among the highest levels.  So much for magical non-allergenic poodle coats!

If you’d like to see some more recent findings on the subject, the second study I linked above did a similar breed-specific test using fancier and more up-to-date technology: they got basically the same results.  Now, poodles are less sheddy than some other dogs, in the sense that they shed primarily into their undercoat.  However, unless you want a VERY matted poodle, you have to brush that coat out pretty regularly, which means that you are going to come into contact with all of that shed hair and those dead skin cells eventually: Danielle will tell you allllllll about that. And again, in terms of allergen production, poodles are all over the place.

So, if poodles do not actually have magic non-allergenic properties, why is it that doodles are hypoallergenic? The short answer? They are not. Yes, Labradoodles were initially bred in Australia with the intent of creating a guide dog who enjoyed the work and was hypoallergenic.  Guess what? It didn’t work.  Earlier this year, the behaviorist Stanley Coren interviewed Wally Conron, the person who initially crossed Labs and poodles for the guide dog experiment, for Psychology Today.  This article is pretty fascinating, so I’m going to quote it extensively:

Conron immediately discovered that since the Labradoodle is a hybrid and not a pure breed, the resulting puppies did not have consistently predictable characteristics… Even in the nature of their coat — the reason why the Poodle was originally part of the mix— there is lots of variability. Labradoodles’ coats can vary from wiry to soft, and they may be curly, wavy, or straight. Straight-coated Labradoodles are said to have “hair” coats, wavy-coated dogs have “fleece” coats, and curly-coated dogs have “wool” coats. Many Labradoodles do shed, although the coat usually sheds less and has less dog odor than that of a Labrador Retriever. In the Labradoodle there is also no certainty that the dog will be hypoallergenic. Conrad explains that the raison d’être for having these crosses in the first place was to prevent allergy symptoms, and that characteristic cannot be guaranteed by simply creating a Poodle cross. He complains, “This is what gets up my nose, if you’ll pardon the expression. When the pups were five months old, we sent clippings and saliva over to Hawaii to be tested with this woman’s husband. Of the three pups, he was not allergic to one of them. In the next litter I had there were 10 pups, but only three had non-allergenic coats. Now, people are breeding these dogs and selling them as non-allergenic, and they’re not even testing them!”

Jen has written very thoughtfully about the difficulties that exist both in finding a reputable doodle breeder and being a reputable doodle breeder, and I won’t rehash that here. What I will add is that even doodle breeders who are trying hard to keep their dogs’ coats consistent and low-allergen are not having much luck (at least in the US) getting consistency past F1. Here’s what that means in layman’s terms: let’s say you have a Lab dad and a poodle mom. Lab dad and poodle mom have a litter of five Labradoodle puppies, and all of them have perfect non-allergenic coats (this doesn’t ever happen, but let’s just pretend for the moment). Second litter: five more puppies, all with perfect coats. Terrific! However, for a breed to really take off AS a breed, you need to go beyond that. You need to have a second Lab/poodle pairing, and they also need to produce puppies with perfect coats, and then you need to breed one Labradoodle puppy from pairing one and one Labradoodle from pairing two, and all of their puppies need to have perfect coats, and then, once you’re dealing with the great-granchildren of the original pairs, then maybe you’ve got the foundations of a breed. Otherwise, when the original Lab dad and poodle mom die, you don’t have a breed; you just have a handful of puppies whose success can’t be replicated.  Getting past those initial first litters has been hard for doodle breeders; once you start getting into grandkids and great-grandkids of the initial pairing, the coats start getting all wonky again.

And that’s just the dilemma that faces ethical breeders who are at least trying to have some consistency: I’m sure nobody will be shocked when I say that the internet and the classifieds and the pet stores and the puppy mill brokers are freaking awash in doodles. The people creating those puppies are not working hard to create the perfect coat (and temperament, and health profile, and and and). They are happy to sell people on the myth of the hypoallergenic doodle, pocket the two grand per puppy they usually get, and use it to keep creating more dogs who cannot live up to the standards they’re sold under.

Well, my Aunt Mildred once had a Shih Tzu and I wasn’t allergic to him, so now I know I’m not allergic to Shih Tzus!

This is something that comes up a lot: people have a good, non-sneezy experience with one dog of a particular breed and, based on that experience, they decide that that’s the one breed they’re not allergic to.  In a way, it’s sort of sweet: people really, really want a dog, regardless of their allergies, and so they cling on to anecdata and the memory of that one dog that didn’t give them hives in a way that they might not do if they were feeling more rational.  However, we know from the studies we looked at earlier that there’s a lot of variance in Can f 1 levels between individual dogs even within the same breed. What this means is that Aunt Mildred’s dog may actually have had pretty low levels of Can f 1, enough that they didn’t trigger your allergies.  That said, the Shih Tzu you buy in an effort to replicate that allergy-free experience may be an individual who has a ton of naturally occurring Can f 1 and you can’t even go in the house with her.  Because you can’t make useful predictions based on breed, you can’t really use breed as a benchmark to decide whether or not you’ll be safe.

However, what this means is this: unless you have the worst allergies on earth, there are individual dogs out there who are naturally low in Can f 1, and there are probably quite a few dogs out there who won’t trigger your allergies: you just have to figure out who they are. There are two good ways of doing this, and in my opinion, one of the best ways is to make friends with the people at your local shelter.  I want to be up front about this: my own bias is that nearly all casual pet owners and a whole lot of performance/sport people can find the dog they want in rescue or at a shelter.  However, I think shelters are especially good calls for people with allergies: you can meet adult dogs, you can hang out with them, in some cases you can take them on outings and in many cases, you can foster them for a week or two and see how you do with them in the home.  Some of the dogs are going to be Can f 1-heavy and some are going to be Can f 1-light, but the distribution isn’t going to be any different than it would be at a breeder’s, and you’ll have a bigger sample to choose from.  If you explain your predicament to whoever’s in charge of adoptions at the shelter, I bet they’ll be willing to work with you: if you bring a dog home for a trial week and it works out, terrific! You’ve found a dog! If you bring a dog home and spend three days sneezing, the dog gets a fun little vacation from the shelter, probably gets spoiled a little, and when you’re ready, you can try another dog.  If you are really, really set on a particular breed, you can always ask breeders if they have retired show dogs (usually ‘retired’ dogs are just a few years old) or if they have adult dogs who are looking for pet homes; then, you can ask if you can try them out in your home for a week or two.  The one thing I probably wouldn’t recommend is getting a puppy, either from a shelter or from a breeder: in almost all breeds, there’s a significant difference between puppy coats and adult coats, and your allergies may go haywire once your cute little puppy’s adult coat comes in.

I had a Portuguese Water Dog as a kid; have I built up an immunity to Portuguese Water Dogs?

First of all, sing it with me: individual dogs have different levels of Can f 1, so you may have a stronger allergic reaction to different individual dogs. Are you new?

Beyond that, however, is the question of whether children who were raised with dogs have a little more tolerance of Can f 1.  Interestingly, this seems to be a matter of some scientific debate.  One thing that is clear is that being raised with dogs has some effect on your tolerance level: however, some studies say that being raised with dogs and their weird hair and saliva and allergens and microbes helps bolster your immune system and makes it less likely that you’re going to develop adverse reactions.  Other studies suggest that being raised with said allergens and weird microbes can cause a child’s immune system to, more or less, have a total freak out and thus, the child become super sensitive and twitchy around those allergens. This study suggests that children who are born into households containing dogs often develop an immunity to Can f 1, but kids older than three get hypersensitized to it if a dog is introduced into their environment later. If you’re interested in this, you can find an excellent review of these different studies here. Regardless, the fact that you did fine with Polly the Portie as a kid doesn’t necessarily grant you safe passage among Porties from here on out.

What other things can I do to keep from sneezing all over my dog?

If you’ve got a dog already and you’re a little allergic, the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help minimize the issue.

    • Wash your dog! There actually was a study done on this recently: it indicated that if you wash your dog twice a week, you will achieve “a modest reduction in the level of airborne Can f 1“.
    • Keep your dog away from upholstery, if at all possible. I am currently being squeezed into a corner on the couch by two of my dogs, and the third is upstairs snoring and shedding all over my bed, so I am not a good role model for this, but fabric tends to collect Can f 1 like gangbusters. If your dog is a couch hog like mine are, you can opt to throw blankets or couch covers over the top and wash those frequently. Also, if you can swing it, hard-surface floors are way better for allergy sufferers than carpeted floors. All of the allergy/athsma orgs recommend keeping your dog out of the bedroom, especially: if you are like me, good luck with that, but it’s probably pretty helpful.
    • HEPA filters. Here’s a lit review on those: it turns out that they’re pretty effective in helping cut down the levels of Can f 1 in the air. Many vacuums have them; you can buy them for your vents; you can get freestanding ones (often pretty cheap at thrift stores: I have three and I don’t even have allergies); if you’re feeling really fancy, you can get whole-house filtration systems.

And yes, that’s a lot of extra work, and it’s kind of a pain, and sometimes, late at night, you might find yourself looking at pictures of cute puppies on the internet and reading about how these guys have perfect hypoallergenic coats, and you might feel your fingers reaching for your credit card, because it is really nice to have a dog, even if dogs make you sneezy. But if you find yourself there, please, just close your browser and repeat after me: There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.