Pet Health

Stem Cell Treatment Helps Arthritic Dogs

posted September 21st, 2013 by
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by Kiley Roberson

Cassie the Rottweiler is only 2 and a half years old, but her slow and limping steps make this should-be playful pup look like a senior citizen. Cassie suffers from osteoarthritis in both elbows and had a torn ligament in her back leg. Cassie was born with elbow dysplasia that required surgery on both elbows.

Then she tore her ACL six months later, requiring a third surgery. Although surgery was helpful she still had limited mobility from daily pain. She required lots of pain medication, but Cassie’s vet, Dr. Joe Landers of Tulsa’s Heritage Veterinary Hospital, says there’s an alternative.

“Stem cell therapy,” explains Dr. Landers. “It’s taking the individual’s own cells stored in fat, activating them and then injecting them back in, so they repair damaged areas as well as decrease pain. Similar to how a cut heals on your finger, for example, but in a joint.”

Dr. Landers’ clinic (and staff veterinarians Dr. Stephanie Bradley, Dr. Jessica Zink, and Dr. Julie Merrick) is currently only one of two veterinarian hospitals in the entire state that practices this type of regenerative procedure, but it has proven successful across the country for pets and people. Even sports stars like New York Yankees’ pitcher Bartolo Colon and PGA golfer Tiger Woods have received such treatments.

The key is obviously the versatility of stem cells. Stem cells are essentially the body’s repair cells. They have the ability to divide and differentiate into many different types of cells based on where they are needed throughout the body. Stem cells can divide and turn into tissues such as skin, fat, muscle, bone, cartilage and nerve, to name a few. They even possess the ability to replicate into organs such as the heart, liver, intestines, pancreas, etc.

Dr. Landers says it’s important to note that as everyone ages—pets and people—their joints, as well as other organs and tissue, deteriorate to varying degrees. “In geriatrics, the joints are often very worn and have lost mechanical function,” Dr. Landers explains.

“So they can only be repaired so much. Often just the pain relief is enough to help the patient get up and moving and interacting again. But we do caution clients on expectations; a young dog will be much more mobile after treatment than an older dog.”

For pets like Cassie, stem cells can make all the difference in quality of life. “The most common use for pets now is treating degenerative joint disease or arthritis,” says Dr. Landers. “Good candidates for stem cell therapy are older dogs who are not responding well to medical therapy, like antiinflammatory medications, any longer, or dogs that surgery will not help. It’s also great for younger dogs like Cassie with early arthritis in helping to slow the progression of the disease.”

The stem cell treatment that Dr. Landers performs was actually developed by MediVet America of Lexington, Ky., one of several companies that sell equipment and training to veterinary clinics around the world. MediVet has more than 500 clinics and participating vets, like Dr. Landers, who have performed over 5,000 stem cell procedures so far.

A typical stem cell operation like the one Dr. Landers recommended for Cassie takes several hours. To start, the veterinarian will anesthetize the pet. He will then surgically remove a couple of tablespoons of fat. This is a quick and simple procedure that is generally easier than performing a spay. They will then spin the fat cells in a centrifuge to separate out the stem cells that are naturally present in fat. This generally takes a couple of hours.

Next, the cells are mixed with special enzymes to “digest” any residual fat and connective tissue, which are then “activated” by mixing them with “plasma rich platelets” extracted from the animal’s blood cells. The mixture is stimulated under an LED light for 20 minutes or so to further concentrate the stem cells. Finally, the newly awakened cells are injected back into the damaged joint and also intravenously.

The therapy works well because stem cells are the only cells in the body that have the ability to transform themselves into other types of specialized cells, making them a potent tool for repairing damaged and deteriorating joints. There are 50 to 1,000 times more stem cells in the fat than bone marrow, a source that was used more when the procedure first became popular.

While still largely unavailable to owners, stem cell therapy from fat cells has been offered to our furry friends for several years. With fewer regulatory hoops to jump through in veterinary medicine and no contentious religious debates, experimental procedures are often tested and perfected on animals decades before they’re green-lighted for use on humans.

One of the things veterinarians and owners alike praise about the MediVet procedure is it is done all in one day. Thus a larger number of viable cells are available and are not lost in shipping and processing in an outside lab. Stem cells can also be banked for future injection, so the animal does not have to endure extraction again.

While every animal is different, MediVet says they’ve seen positive clinical improvements in 95 percent of the arthritic cases performed nationwide. Some owners have even reported seeing a difference in as little as one week. While quick results are possible, Dr. Landers cautions that this type of treatment is not a cure and isn’t right for every pet.

“This therapy will not work on a pet with cancer,” Dr. Landers says. “The stems cells will actually increase the tumor and make it worse. Also, the animal needs to be healthy enough for anesthesia, and we do blood work beforehand to check internal organs. There is a risk, as with any anesthetic procedure, but we monitor the pets closely and keep them under for as short as possible.”

Cassie was a great candidate for stem cell therapy. Dr. Landers performed the procedure in his office and the whole process went off without a hitch. In just a few weeks, Cassie was already showing progress. “She has done fantastic,” Dr. Landers says. “She plays again and can even go up the stairs.”

If you’re interested in stem cell therapy for your pet, talk to your veterinarian. You can also read more about the procedure on the MediVet website at medivet-america.com.

“Stem cell therapy is important for pets,” says Dr. Landers. “It gives a powerful option to pet owners to treat chronic pain and thereby increase their pet’s overall quality of life.”

Reiki for Rover

posted September 21st, 2013 by
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by Lauren Cavagnolo

Photos by Foshay Photography

Eyes closed, legs crossed and palms open, Karren O’Sullivan sits on the floor deep in meditation surrounded by kennels of barking and howling dogs. A 3-monthold Lab Retriever desperately paws at the blanket she is sitting on. Meanwhile a Catahoula stares her down, quietly growling, and various other dogs continue their barking and whining.

Her calm presence amid the chaos of anxious and confused animals is quite a sight and garners several curious stares from passersby.

Moments later, animals begin to settle down all around her. She has turned her back slightly to the growling Catahoula and has offered her hand to the puppy who craved her attention.

O’Sullivan is a level III Reiki practitioner, making weekly visits to the shelter to offer the holistic therapy to homeless cats and dogs since January.

“To be loved by an animal is truly a blessing,” says O’Sullivan. “And that’s why I’m here. I don’t care if people think I look strange sitting down in an aisle in a meditation space.”

Reiki, which is Japanese for spiritual energy, uses a variety of methods such as meditation and breathing techniques, to create a relaxing and healing space. Animals can then choose how they participate, if at all.

“I am just the facilitator of this beautiful spiritual energy and offering, inviting the animal to participate in the space if they choose,” O’Sullivan says. “Animals already have very highly developed senses, and energy is their language. They don’t have a verbal language like humans. And so they sense energy like fear or peace or calm or worry or relaxation. They completely get it.”

Shelter animals who receive Reiki therapy may be able to eat and drink more, begin to perk up, gain a sense of hope and get more rest.

“They’re scared to death here,” says O’Sullivan. “This is a very anxious environment.”

With Reiki, “they can start eating more. The medications the vets are giving them are working faster; they will get rebalanced many times. It’s helpful, and then the next day someone may come in and adopt them,” according to O’Sullivan.

Reiki therapy does not take the place of traditional veterinary care, but is complementary. Reiki practitioners do not diagnose or treat animals. In fact, it isn’t even necessary that they know exactly what is ailing an animal, says O’Sullivan.

“We are there to create this space of calmness and relaxation so that the own animal’s body takes over, and its own immune system becomes strengthened, and their own way of healing themselves becomes stronger,” O’Sullivan says. “When you are relaxed and feel good, you heal faster.”

Manager of City of Tulsa Animal Welfare Jean Letcher says the shelter is lucky to have O’Sullivan as a volunteer.

“Karren is a gift to TAW, and we are going to take advantage of that gift

at every opportunity we can,” Letcher says. “The talent and work she does to maintain the calm in the chaos is amazing and to share that with the animals is a benefit to them. These animals are stressed, and we know that depresses the immune system.”

Letcher says O’Sullivan’s visits not only benefit the animals, but the staff as well.

“Her presence has impacted the staff in that they see her just being with the animals. And for both people and animals, it’s a wonderful and calming presence,” she says.

Outside of the dogs and cats seen at the city shelter, O’Sullivan has offered Reiki therapy to a variety of animals including her own gecko and rabbit, horses, a cardinal, a dove, a paralyzed hog, goats, an owl and butterflies.

Most recently she offered the holistic therapy to a baby hummingbird knocked out of his nest after a heavy July storm. The tiny bird was safely delivered to Oklahoma Veterinary Specialists and later thrived under the care of a WING IT volunteer.

O’Sullivan also offers her services to pet owners who feel their animals could benefit from the therapy.

Kris Allison sought out O’Sullivan when traditional methods of training just didn’t seem to work for her Hurricane Katrina rescue dog.

Allison describes her dog Yoshi as a typical bossy, territorial cattle dog. The problem was helping Yoshi to get along with Allison’s much older dog Greta.

After four sessions of Reiki therapy, Allison noticed a difference in the two dogs’ interactions with each other.

“They got to a point where they were more interested in being around each other,” Allison says of her two dogs. “They interacted a lot more, and it was just much more peaceful. The last part of [Greta’s] life, Yoshi was just much nicer to her. It was a wonderful experience to have that taken care of and not have to worry about that.”

Allison, who is also a TAW volunteer, has since gone through Reiki therapy training with O’Sullivan and says she has used it on both foster dogs and herself.

“As long as you maintain that calm focus, you can see the shift in their behavior and their personalities,” Allison says. “It’s definitely helpful.”

O’Sullivan says she hopes to spread the practice of Reiki to more people like Allison and the community at large through teaching.

“Teaching is really driving me right now,” says O’Sullivan. She has already taught one class at TAW for staff and volunteers with another on the books.

Her dream is to teach the practice of Reiki to veterinarians, staff and volunteers at every Tulsa-area rescue.

“I would love to teach their staff so they have another tool that they can use not only for the animals but for themselves,” O’Sullivan says. “They are in a very high-stress position.”

The two-day class is limited to 10 people because of the amount of content covered and personal attention provided. Those interested in future classes may email O’Sullivan at osullivan. [email protected] or call (918) 636-1220.

Playing Keep Away

posted September 21st, 2013 by
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by Anna Holton-Dean

When I set out to write this article, I intended to focus on the effects of “people food” when eaten by dogs. After speaking with veterinarians, I discovered their concern was far more reaching than food.

Of course, they want pet owners to know common foods harmful and even toxic to pets, but they also want them to be aware of the cases they see on a usual basis which could be avoided if pet owners performed their due diligence. In the end, it could possibly save your pet’s life or, at least, a costly vet bill.

Let’s start with the basics. You probably already know many of these foods to avoid for Fido. Thanks to the ASPCA, here’s a handy list of 10 foods found in most households which are harmful to dogs and other pets.

Avocado is toxic to dogs, horses, rabbits, fish and mice. This is due to a compound called persin, an oil-soluble toxin found in specialized cells within the avocado fruit and its skin. It can cause damage to many animals’ heart muscle cells and cause heart failure. In other species, it can cause inflammation of the mammary glands, according to aspca.org.

Although there have been reports of dogs developing heart failure after ingesting a large amount of avocado, most dogs who ingest it develop no serious injuries. In light of the facts, the ASPCA suggests dogs avoid avocado. The possibility of your pet swallowing the pit is reason enough to avoid the fruit, which can cause blockage in the digestive tract, requiring surgery.

Raw Bread Dough The danger in dogs ingesting raw bread dough lies within the warm, moist environment of the stomach where yeast multiply, resulting in an expanding mass of dough. The ASPCA says expansion of the stomach, if severe enough, could result in decreased blood flow to the stomach wall, causing the death of tissue. Expansion of the stomach could also press on the diaphragm, resulting in breathing difficulty.

Chocolate intoxication is most commonly seen around holidays where candy would be in abundance, such as Easter, Christmas, Halloween or Valentine’s Day, the ASPCA says. The compounds in chocolate that cause toxicosis are caffeine and theobromine, both chemicals are called methylxanthines.

A good rule of thumb to remember is, the darker the chocolate, the more dangerous it is. According to the ASPCA, if your dog displays more than mild restlessness after eating chocolate, see your veterinarian immediately.

Ethanol (Alcohol) Ingesting even a small amount of alcohol can cause significant intoxication in dogs. The ASPCA says drinks like White Russians and egg nog (those with milk) are the most appealing to dogs. Alcohol intoxication may cause vomiting, loss of coordination or disorientation (much like humans). The most severe cases could induce comas, seizures or death.

If you believe your dog has alcohol poisoning, he or she should be monitored by a veterinarian until recovered. It is important to note that hops, used in brewing beer, are also life-threatening for dogs if ingested.

Grapes and Raisins Recently, grapes and raisins have been associated with kidney failure in dogs. The exact cause of the kidney failure isn’t clear, nor is it clear why some dogs can eat the fruit without harm while others experience life-threatening problems after eating even a small amount of raisins or grapes. Further unexplainable is the fact that some dogs can eat the fruit with no ill effects, then later on eat them and become sick.

With the cause of illness still a mystery, the safest bet is to keep grapes and raisins away from your dog completely. Dogs that ingest the fruit and develop toxicosis usually develop vomiting, lethargy or diarrhea within 12 hours of ingestion, according to the ASPCA. With progression of the sickness, dogs may become more lethargic and dehydrated with increased urination, followed by possible decreased or absent urination.

Death could occur in three to four days, or long-term kidney disease may develop. Veterinary treatment should be prompt.

Macadamia Nuts The good news here is that macadamia nut ingestion is unlikely to be fatal in dogs. However, it may cause uncomfortable symptoms for up to 48 hours, the ASPCA says. Symptoms may include weakness in the rear legs, the appearance of pain, possible tremors, and a low grade fever. While symptoms will subside over the 48 hours, dogs may benefit from veterinary care, including intravenous fluid therapy and pain medication.

Moldy Foods Numerous molds grow on food. Some produce toxins called tremorgenic mycotoxins, which can be serious or lifethreatening for dogs if ingested. Without a known way to determine whether a particular mold is producing tremorgenic mycotoxins, the safest route is to avoid feeding moldy food to dogs, the ASPCA says. Remove any debris or trash that your dog could possibly eat (from fallen walnuts or fruit to road kill). The signs of tremorgenic mycotoxin poisoning can begin as fine muscle tremors and progress to total body tremors, even convulsions leading to death. Most dogs will respond well to veterinary treatment.

Onions and Garlic All members of the onion family (shallots, scallions, garlic, etc.) contain compounds damaging to dogs’ red blood cells if ingested in sufficient quantities. According to the ASPCA, follow this rule of thumb: “the stronger it is, the more toxic it is.”

“Garlic tends to be more toxic than onions on an ounce for ounce basis,” the ASPCA article adds. It’s uncommon for a dog to eat enough raw onion or garlic to result in serious problems but exposure to concentrated forms, such as dehydrated onions, onion soup mix or garlic powder, may put dogs at risk for toxicosis. The damage to the red blood cells may not be apparent for three to five days.

Dogs affected may appear weak, reluctant to move or easily tired after mild exercise. Urine may be orange–tinted to dark red. Veterinary care is necessary and blood transfusions may be needed.

Xylitol This all-natural sweetener is used in sugar-free gums, baked products and is also used as a drink sweetener for those looking to avoid calories or synthetic alternatives. While it’s a good choice for people as it does not affect their blood sugar levels, in dogs it can lead to a rapid, severe drop in blood sugar levels.

Dogs may develop disorientation and seizures within 30 minutes after ingestion of xylitol, the ASPCA states. However, it could take up to several hours after ingestion. Large quantities could cause liver failure. Any dog ingesting xylitol should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Fatty Foods/Fat drippings BBQ, fat drippings or scraps of meat can be hazardous if eaten by dogs, Dr. Troy McNamara of Animal Emergency Center cautions. Vomiting, diarrhea and even pancreatitis could develop. So make every effort to clean the grill and keep Fido away from leftovers or drippings that may be in the trash.

Beyond Food… Trash As just mentioned, the trash can be a danger zone, McNamara says. Too often he treats dogs and other animals that have eaten something out of the trash can. “Most people know that dogs like to get into the kitchen trash for leftovers, but they also love bathroom trash,” he says.

While unpleasant to think about, he says pet owners must be vigilant to keep feminine hygiene products and used disposable diapers away from pets’ reach. Bathroom trash needs to be tightly secured if pets are near, or the end result may be surgery. “Feminine hygiene products are very absorbent and swell inside the dog’s stomach and intestines, causing blockages and rupturing the intestines. Baby diapers are similar and very absorbent,” McNamara says.

Medicine Medications are another area of concern. Common household pain relievers, such as Tylenol, Aleve or Ibuprofen, are toxic to pets (Tylenol being lethal in cats). McNamara says aspirin is safest, but with any medication, it is best to consult your veterinarian before administering.

Take that one step further and prescription medications may be even more dangerous. Keep all medications in an area your pet cannot reach. “Sleep medications, antidepressants, blood pressure or heart medications are all concerning, McNamara says.

It may go without saying, but veterinarians see pets that have ingested illicit drugs. Any and all drugs should be kept away from pets.

Rodenticides/Mouse Poison McNamara says it is common to see dogs that have ingested rat poison. Most often it leads to bleeding disorders where the blood will not clot, resulting in hemorrhaging and death. “This is 100 percent treatable,” he says, “in the early stages with a prescription medication. However, if left untreated it requires intensive care, transfusions and sometimes is still fatal.”

Common Plants Berries from common plants, such as nandina or burning bush, are toxic to dogs, Dr. Jana Layton of Riverbrook Animal Hospital says. These two particular ones are toxic to dogs, cats and horses. She says burning bush can cause heart arrhythmia, vomiting and diarrhea. Nandina berries may cause seizures, coma or respiratory failure.

Your best line of defense is to know the specific plants your pet encounters around your home. The ASPCA has a detailed list of 17 hazardous plants, which can be accessed at www.aspca. org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/17- poisonous-plants.

Also found in the yard, mushrooms that grow wild should be kept away from pets, Layton says. Its effect is on the liver and may take up to 72 hours to become apparent.

Foreign Bodies Layton and McNamara both find that dogs like to eat things. Period. “Not only food but weird things—coins, fish hooks, silverware, small toys,” McNamara says. Gorilla Glue, a cassette tape ribbon, a Reebok footie sock—all things which Layton has had to surgically remove or treat after ingestion. The bottom line is that pet owners must be vigilant to keep hazardous foods and household items away from pets when possible. Look for signs of distress, pain or sickness in your pet and be quick to seek veterinary care. It could save his or her life.

A FRIEND for a FRIEND

posted July 15th, 2013 by
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by Stacy Pettit

Karl Villadsen has come to grips with the reality that he will struggle with being HIV positive for the rest of his life. However, Karl has always had one consistent friend while battling this lonely disease—his dog Sigmund Freud.

“(Pets) give that unconditional love, no matter what,” Karl says. “You could have the worst day in the world and be running a 110 [degree] fever, and that dog still loves you and will stay by your side when you can’t get out of the chair.”

Now, after being Karl’s loyal friend for 15 years, the aging dog needs a little extra care these days—care that is difficult for Karl to provide after the cost of his own treatments and medicines. It is during times like these that one local organization jumps in to help.

“We take care of it all,” says Jason Eddingfield, co-director of A Friend for a Friend.

For Jason, that means personally delivering more than 1,500 pounds of dog and cat food throughout the month to pet owners with HIV and AIDS, and the organization does not stop there. A Friend for a Friend pays for vet bills and necessary grooming services. Volunteers walk dogs if the owner is in the hospital for an extended period of time, and they change cat litter for people who are too ill to do it themselves.

Today, the organization has grown to help about 100 clients throughout the year, but for Founder and co-director Alice Bates, the life of the organization began through the life of just one person. At the time, Alice was searching for a way to honor her son David Wilder who died in 1991 after his own painful battle with AIDS.

“I wanted to do something to make his life and death more than just life and death,” she says.

So when a friend told Alice a man dying from AIDS was distraught and fearful that his ill dog would die first, Alice jumped in to pay the vet bill. Word of her kindness spread to a news station, and they picked up the story. Soon, Alice started receiving phone calls from people asking to volunteer or requesting Alice’s help with their pets. Then two 12-year-old boys stopped by to tell Alice they could help by walking dogs as the pets’ owners stayed in the hospital.

Purely by accident, Alice had found her way to honor David.

Even now, 88-year-old Alice is surprised the organization was successful during a time when AIDS was only discussed behind closed doors.

“Things were not easy back then, but they were done with such love that it worked,” Alice says. “I had no idea that this would still be going 22 years later.”

Today, the organization generates most of its donations through a fundraising event held in September at Panera Bread. A Friend for a Friend also works with the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, as well as local veterinarians, grocery stores and groomers to get discounted rates and donated food and supplies.

Having these connections is essential to the physical health of the pets, and important for the mental health of clients who often consider their dogs and cats to be part of the family, says Brad Mulholland, client and volunteer for A Friend for a Friend.

While the client list has grown over the past two decades, Alice says she has gained numerous friends through the organization. But she has also had the difficult task of saying goodbye to many of these friends, and she gets emotional when she talks about the dogs that have sat by her feet at their owners’ funerals. During these times, much like the months after her own son’s death, Alice has pushed through the grief to carry on the life of another. After a client passes away, Alice ensures that the organization will find a new home for the loyal and loving pet.

“It has sad, sad times, but it’s so rewarding,” Alice says. “I have friends I would have never had; I know people I would never have known, and I’ve learned a lot.”

For more information about A Friend for a Friend, call (918) 747-6827.

Danger in Dog Days of Summer

posted July 15th, 2013 by
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Summer in Oklahoma means fun in the sun, but for man’s best friend, that fun can easily take a nasty turn for the worst. Dogs love to be with their owners, but owners beware — taking your dog out and about in hot summer temperatures can be a deadly choice.

According to Dr. Lauren Johnson of Hammond Animal Hospital, heat stroke in pets requires immediate emergency treatment. Because dogs are only able to sweat to a very minor degree through the pads of their feet, they do not tolerate high temperatures as well as humans do. Dogs resort to panting to exchange warm air for cool air, but when outside air temperatures are close to or exceed a dog’s normal body temperature, cooling by panting is not an efficient process.

So what are some of the common situations that can set the stage for heat stroke in dogs? Dr. Johnson lists the following:

• Being left in a car in hot weather. Even if outside temperatures are in the 70s, the temperatures inside the car can soar to dangerous levels within minutes, even with windows open.

• Exercising strenuously in hot, humid weather. Remember, your dog does not sweat anywhere except from the pads of his feet.

• Being a brachycephalic breed (short or “smashed” nose) especially Bulldogs, Pugs, or Pekingese, because they can’t dissipate heat effectively.

• Suffering from a heart or lung disease that interferes with efficient breathing.• Being confined on concrete or asphalt surfaces.

• Being confined without access to cool shelter, shade and/or fresh water in hot weather.

Symptoms of heat stroke begin with a dog panting heavily and having difficulty breathing. The dog’s tongue and mucous membranes will appear bright red. You may see very thick saliva and vomiting. With heat stroke, a dog’s body temperature will quickly rise to levels ranging from 104° to 110°F and the dog may be unsteady and disoriented. As shock sets in, the lips and mucous membrane turn gray and the dog may collapse, have seizures, or fall into a comatose state. Death can quickly follow.

Dr. Johnson says that emergency treatment is crucial. Immediate measures must be taken to cool the dog. “Move the dog out of the heat, preferably into an air-conditioned building,” said Dr. Johnson. “Cool the dog by spraying him with a garden hose or immersing him in a tub of cool water for a couple of minutes, but not ice water.” She also suggests that cool packs applied to the dog’s groin area may also be helpful, as well as wiping his paws off with cool water.

If possible, you should immediately monitor the dog’s rectal temperature, continuing the cooling process until the dog’s temperature falls below 103°F. After initial cooling, transport the dog to a veterinarian for further emergency treatment and support. According to Dr. Johnson the dog is not out of the woods once the initial heat episode sub-sides. Consequences of hyperthermia can manifest hours or even days later and include kidney failure, spontaneous bleeding, irregular heartbeat, and seizures.

Dr. Johnson is quick to advise that prevention is obvious-ly the best medicine. During hot temperatures, it is best to let your pet stay at home. Exercise your pet in the early morning or later in the evening when temperatures drop, and always make sure your pet has easy access to fresh water. If your pet starts panting heavily or falling behind in a walk, it’s time to head indoors.

The Pet Prescription and Returning the Healing Favor

posted May 27th, 2013 by
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by Anna Holton-Dean

The Pet Prescription

Your formula for good health might only require a little “lab” work or “cat” scan.

Pet lovers know the obvious physical benefits of owning a pet. As you walk Fido, you will reap the reward of burned calories. But wait, there’s more. The scientific research of pet ownership’s effects on health continues to grow, showing lowered blood pressure, less risk of heart disease and reduced anxiety. These benefits aren’t from your daily walks, but rather the bond between you and your four-legged friend.

“Owning a pet gives you a sense of purpose and belonging that can increase feelings of positivity and lower stress levels, all of which translates to health benefits,” Dr. Allen McConnell, a psychology professor at Miami University, says.

Current research backs up this notion. Women asked to solve a math equation with their dogs nearby experienced less stress than women who worked with a human friend in a study conducted by the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology and neuropsychological researcher at the University of British Columbia, has published nine books on the people- animal bond, and he explains that when people interact with a friendly animal, their blood pressure lowers and their muscles relax.

However, this isn’t shockingly new information. Pets have been used for over 150 years in medical settings, according to NPR.org. “One could even look at Florence Nightingale recognizing that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill,” Dr. Aubrey Fine, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University, says.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that scientific research began to explain the human- animal bond and benefit.

NPR.org states one of the earliest studies in this area, conducted in the 1980s, found heart attack patients who owned dogs lived longer than those who did not.

Pets have an effect on a chemical level. Owning a pet decreases cortisol, the damaging stress hormone, and increases dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical. Prevention.com says you can maximize the benefits of your pet’s presence by reaching out and petting him or her. Do not simply vent your cares aloud to your pet. Petting results in an increase of immunoglobulin A, an immune-boosting antibody.

While one might assume it’s the soft fur that activates this response, it isn’t this alone, but rather the simple power of touch. Stroking a pet snake could bring down its owner’s blood pressure and heart rate, according to a study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Dr. Coren says it is the power of touch that establishes love and comfort, resulting in the desired physical benefits.

More good news shows that people who interact with animals experience a boost in oxytocin, the hormone that promotes love and trust—also linked to reduced blood pressure and heart rate—intertwining the physical and emotional benefits.

While oxytocin’s immediate results are good, its long-term effects are even better, Rebecca Johnson, head of the Research Center for Human/ Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine, says.

“Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier,” she says.

If being in a state of readiness to heal sounds like a state you want to be in, try anthropomorphizing your pet. “People get more physical and psychological benefits the more they [do this],” McConnell says. Creating an emotional bond with your pet just as you would a human friend pays hefty health dividends.

If you’ve ever wanted to dress up your furry friend or bake a doggie birthday cake, now you have medical reasons to do so. Go ahead and throw the pet party of your dreams… for your health’s sake, of course. Sources: Prevention.com, “How Your Pet Can Heal You” NPR.org, “Pet Therapy: How Animals and Humans Heal Each Other” TulsaPets May/June 2013

Returning the Healing Favor

Dr. Jana Layton of Riverbrook Animal Hospital shares insights from her own experience

of how animals receive healing from their human counterparts

 

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about my years in practice is the difference cats’ people make in their recovery. Most people think of cats as extremely independent, as if they could care less about humans, but I’ve witnessed the opposite to be true. I’ve seen many cats over the years that needed to be hospitalized for a few days, and they get depressed! They typically won’t eat, hide in their litter boxes and sink deeper into depression.

Having their owners visit even just once a day, many times, resulted in my witnessing them eating from their owners’ hands. Their eyes went from glazed over indifference to bright eyed and willing to go on for another day of treatment. Reversely, it is encouraging to the pet owner and to all of us in the hospital. I believe there is healing that happens for all involved.

I have one diabetic feline patient whose owners went out of state to visit family. While they were gone, he developed life-threatening pancreatitis and went into kidney failure. Unable to return home immediately, his owners asked if I would visit him in the emergency care clinic—I have treated him for five years—so he could see someone he knew who cared about him.

When I arrived, he was curled up in the litter box, facing the corner of his cage with tubes coming out of several places. He seemed so depressed; no one thought he would recover. As he looked at me and my technician, I saw recognition in his eyes. I turned him around to face us, and we loved on him a while.

When we were ready to leave, I turned him back toward the wall, and he got up and turned himself around to look at us! There was a noticeable change in him from dull and lifeless to what appeared to be a sense of hope. As we were leaving the hospital, I spoke with the vet in charge, and he was not very hopeful about the cat’s recovery, as he had never seen one this bad recover.

Other people the cat knew came to visit over the next few days. His owners returned home, and he recovered. He is as happy and healthy as he was before he got sick!

Another case that stands out in my memory is of a 12-year-old Labrador diagnosed with a rare type of cancer in her cartilage that invaded her spinal cord and hips. She did well for a year after diagnosis, but eventually became non-weight bearing on the affected hind leg and had difficulty getting around. She was otherwise happy and not in pain, so quality of life was still present.

In this case, also, her owner had to leave the country for two weeks for work, and Emma, the Lab, stayed with a friend. A week after her owner left, Emma fell down outside and could not get up. The friend brought her in to see me, and we determined the tumor had affected the entire spinal cord, leading to nerve damage in both hind legs, leaving her unable to stand or walk.

I Skyped with her owner who was in Scotland, and she knew the time to euthanize Emma was near, but couldn’t bear the thought of not being there for Emma when Emma had always been there for her. We talked about how she was still eating, and I couldn’t find her to be in pain (the lone benefit of the cancer invading the spinal cord).

Because she wasn’t in pain, we decided to take things one day at a time. As long as she was eating and pain free, we would wait until her owner returned home. While Emma’s appetite declined over the coming days, she held on. By the time her owner returned, she had stopped eating, had discharge coming from both eyes and looked like she wanted to die.

As soon as Emma saw her, she perked up, started wagging her tail and made every effort to get up and leave with her. She was leaving this hospital even if she had to drag her hind end behind her to do it! Emma did return home with her owner although she couldn’t walk, and the two of them enjoyed two more weeks together without Emma suffering. I saw healing for both of them in this.

Emma was not healed of cancer or able to walk, but she was able to be happy again even if just for a few more days. Again, the owner had a vital, irreplaceable role to play in Emma’s life to the very end of it, which, in turn, healed her owner’s heart.

We all need to feel we are vital, important, needed and necessary in this life, and our pets are a gift to teach us that role. They are such an example of resiliency, free spiritedness, unconditional love and forgiveness in this sometimes harsh reality that we so often live in.

How could we not heal from them?

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