Accommodating Wobbler’s

Our house has a new fixture.

This is new.

In order to help accommodate Moses’ current reduction in range of motion, the Husband whipped this ramp together the very evening of our initial vet appointments.

It works!

The ramp is now Moses’ sole entry and exit to the house and it helps to cut the incline in half.

Even though stairs are a mandatory vet restriction, the ramp would be inevitable; getting the big guy in and out of the car alone is quite the endeavour – equal parts comical and sad.

But the CT Scan and (probably) surgery are exactly one week away now, and although surgery is of course itself risky, I am focusing on looking forward to getting Mo on the road to recovery.

7 days, buddy

[Update:  it’s not Wobbler’s.  You can read more here.]

15 Minute Walks Suck

Mark your calendars for July 4th, because that is when Moses is going into see the specialist, get a CT Scan, and then probably straight into surgery to remedy his Wobbler’s.

Until then, it’s Metacam, the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and a low-impact exercise regime.  Very low-impact.

And, of course, a bit of a diet to accommodate for the more leisurely lifestyle.  He’s healthy at 185 pounds (185!), but we’d like him to be on the slim side to both ease the load on his joints and prep him for surgery.

I mentioned earlier that our vet made us promise, actually promise, not to exercise him more than two 15 minute walks per day.  And I see why.  After less than two full days of the NSAIDs and you could tell Moses was feeling significantly better; his energy levels have definitely improved.

But we’re sticking true to the 15 minutes, because we don’t want to push him.  Even though he’s feeling better doesn’t mean he is better.  The NSAIDs are good interim relief, but that’s all they are.

And when I say we’re sticking true to a 15 minute limit, I mean we’re trying our hardest.  My first couple attempts came closer to 17 minutes because, well, 15 minutes is ridiculously short.

15 minutes – or 7.5 minutes one way.  Less than a kilometre from home and you’ve already got to turn around and go back.  If it weren’t doctor-ordered, I would feel lazy and neglectful.

Heading back already?!

It’s a far cry from our normal routine of an hour per day.  Not to mention it totally thwarts my 2011 Resolution plan, which I was still sticking to pretty well.

On the other hand, I have found a couple of bonuses.

First of all, it’s been pretty nostalgic.  Being able to only go on short 15 minute walks keeps you pretty close to home.  When we were doing an hour plus, our walks would be about 5-7 km round trips.  But now we’re staying in our neighbourhood and revisiting routes we haven’t taken since Moses was a (relatively) small puppy and couldn’t walk for long times or distances.

Second, it’s short.  Which I suppose would be a much better bonus for me if it was still winter, -30°C, and I could be more easily convinced to stay inside.  But for Moses, it’s the summer warmth he’s not a fan of, so he’s got few complaints about having to head back early when the sun is shining.

Third – and most important – it’s helping Moses, and we can tell.  His scraped toes are healing up, and he hasn’t tripped on a walk in a few days, so it’s good to know we’re not straining his injury or making his condition worse.

Slowly healing up.

It’s also a new and weird routine to get used to, though.  Both the short walks, and the twice-daily ones.  You’d thinking being able to keep track of two walks between two people would be easier than it is turning out to be.

Not to mention, 15 minutes feels so short that I can just dart out the door quickly at lunch, after work, or before bed – even without a need to change into something more “dog walk appropriate”.  This has meant I’ve found myself a whole 7.5 minutes from home without poop bags.  But – lucky for me – I haven’t lost that gamble… yet.

I've taken "15 minute walks only" to mean just the walking part, and not include intermittent sit-stays.

WTF is “Wobbler’s”?

Wobbler’s.  Kind of sounds like an ingenious toy from the ’90s, right?

Not Wobbler's. But kind of what I pictured at first. (Photo:


And if it’s not a fun toy for adults kids, it still can’t be a bad thing, right?


This "wobbles", but it is not "Wobbler's". There is an important verb/noun distinction. (Photo: ProductWiki)


Wobbler’s is, technically speaking, “[t]he syndrome of cervical spinal cord compression due to abnormalities of the caudal cervical vertebrae, their articulations, or both”, so says the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Computer Aided Learning program.

Why do I know this?

Because we are currently waiting for blood tests to confirm Moses’ diagnosis of Wobbler’s.  We should have those results tomorrow, but we have two vets (we always like a second opinion, and we highly respect both our veterinarians) near certain that’s what it is.

Wobbler’s is a neurological condition.

What started out with some limping around Easter has progressed to pretty reduced mobility for our big guy.  Symptoms we’ve experienced include Moses walking with his head carried lower than normal, lazy steps with his front feet meaning he scrapes his toes and knuckles on walks, reluctance to go up/down stairs, jump, or play with other dogs, and occasional tripping on walks as one front leg seems to fold beneath him before it’s planted properly.  Over the recent weeks the tripping increased significantly to about every 10 minutes while on a walk, and he lands so hard he has a couple scrapes on his nose from it.

It is heartbreaking.

Moses has always been pretty stoic, so even if he’s in pain, he’s not going to show it.  He bloated seriously in 2009 and was doing his best to power on with out a peep.  But scraping his toes can’t tickle.  And even though it’s clear he knows to walk and his brain is communicating instructions to his limbs, there is something wrong in the lines of communication.  And his knowledge that something is wrong is indicated by his discomfort with stairs, reluctance to play, and refusal to go in water more than a few inches deep.


Of course, as per the usual course, after the initial diagnosis on Friday all I’ve done in my spare time is read about Wobbler’s.

It is apparently more frequent in Great Danes and Doberman pinschers, though top ten breed lists often include mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Bassett Hounds, and other large breeds, and it is always noted it is also found in horses.  An exact cause is unknown, but it is likely genetic and usually involves fast-growing large breed dogs.

Though, from source to source, the jury still appears to be out on the proper use of the apostrophe in the term, it was given the ridiculous name “Wobbler’s” because of the way it impairs the ability to walk properly, often causing the dog or horse to lose stability (wobble) as if drunk.

In more plain English: “Wobbler syndrome (cervical (neck) vertebral instability) is caused by compression of the cervical spinal cord as a result of cervical vertebral malformation-malarticulation or instability. Spinal cord compression injures the portion of the spinal cord necessary for an animal to stand and move normally.”

And treatment?

Moses left the vet today with a prescription for Metacam, which according to its packaging is a “nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) indicated for the alleviation of inflammation and pain in both acute and chronic musculoskeletal disorders in dogs”, and we will give it to him daily with his food.  Many online sources say mild cases of Wobbler’s can be managed or stabilized with corticosteriods, that will reduce the swelling and alleviate the compression, regaining a full range of motion, and several anecdotal stories I read online were about Great Danes living long and happy lives after this treatment.  Moses’ vet prescribed the nonsterioidal anti-inflammatory as a preferable option to steroids because of many of the negative side effects steroids can have, including stomach and skin problems and salt and water retention.

In addition to Metacam, Moses was prescribed a low-impact exercise regime, and we had to promise not to give him more than two 15 minute walks per day – a big change from our regular routine.  And even if we see drastic improvements in his movement and energy levels, she made us promise not to go beyond the two 15 minute walks.  We promise.

Permanent resolution of Wobbler’s can be provided through surgery: “significant spinal cord compression requires decompression, and significant vertebral instability requires stabilization” (from: the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Computer Aided Learning program).  Some dogs do not get diagnosed with Wobbler’s until they are already experiencing partial or complete paralysis, and surgery is the only remedy for these cases.

There are a few experts here in Calgary to see if your dog has Wobbler’s, but unfortunate circumstances have meant both experts recommended to us are out of town at the same time and we are waiting for a consultation that will hopefully be scheduled for July (hence the interim Metacam/low exercise prescription).  We could push for a rush appointment with someone else, but our two vets agree on which experts would be preferred, and since Moses’ symptoms are relatively mild – and assuming he responds well to the Metacam – we won’t be making things worse by waiting for the best to be available.

Upon consultation with an expert, Moses will go in for a CT Scan, and once the exact nature of the problem is discerned, he will remain under anesthetic and go right into surgery.  Luckily, prognosis for recovery after surgery is very good since he is young and perfectly healthy otherwise.  If and when we go down that road, we will have to be diligent with his rehab, too.

Sticking with a medicinal treatment such as Metacam for a long time can help him to regain movement and feel better, but if we want him to get back to completely 100% and going on long backcountry camping trips, surgery appears to be the solution.

Have I ever told you how glad I am we have pet insurance?

Wobbler's sucks. But Moses is still the best.

Online resources for Wobbler’s:

– University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine, Computer Aided Learning program, chapter 63:

– “A collection of information about Wobblers Disease”:

– “Wobbler’s syndrome in dogs”:

– “Wobbler Syndrome: Cervical Vertebral Instability”:

Forbidden Foods

You know, I like to think that most Soapbox readers are pretty dog-savvy.

So, if I were to write about how foods like chocolate, onions, macadamia nuts were dangerous for our dogs, I would think the general response would be along the lines of “yeah, yeah, I know – why am I even reading this?”.

The easy to find Wikipedia entry on food dangerous to pets includes the usual: chocolate, grapes/raisins, onions, xylitol (sweetener), macadamia nuts, apple seeds, peach and apricot pits, and hops (in other words, no beer).

And suffice it to say, if it’s bad for your dog, it’s probably bad for your cat, too.

But there are many, many foods that are potentially harmful to our pets that you don’t find on the typical lists.  And for anyone who has – or is interested in – breaking free of the kibble bag, these ingredients are definitely something to be aware of.

Garlic, for instance. Who knew?  While not immediately fatal, even small amounts over time can result in red blood cell damage in dogs and cats.  And for those of us who have emptied our brains of all highschool biology, it’s the red blood cells that contain hemoglobin and are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body and to vital organs, and damage can result in anemia.  So yeah, they’re pretty important. 

Avocado is another toxic food I wouldn’t have personally listed off right away, but appears on this extensive list compiled by the American Animal Hospital Association.  Avocado finds itself in list of cardiovascular toxins and the list of gastrointestinal toxins.  So remember to keep your pets away from the guacamole on Taco Tuesday.  Also harmful are eggplant (a neurological and gastrointestinal toxin) and the leaves and stems of tomatoes and potatoes.

Actually, the  AAHA list noted above also handily includes which household plants are also potentially harmful, which, while that may not be a major concern for some dog owners, cat owners should definitely take note.  Common bouquet flowers that can be harmful are most types of lillies, Chrysanthemum, Bird of Paradise, bamboo, and whatever the heck a Jack-in-the-pulpit is.


Not to be confused with…


Though, at the end of the day, both are toxic.
Podium… pulpit… whatever.
But I digress.
And the question remains: what do you do if you suspect your pet has ingested a harmful substance such as chocolate or Glenn Beck?
The quick and easy – and correct – answer if you see your pet exhibiting signs of distress or potential poisioning, such as vomiting (more than usual, they are dogs, after all), diarrhea, or general discomfort, is to call your trusty vet.
If circumstances for a vet phone call or visit don’t allow, home remedies are available in extreme circumstances (emphasis on “extreme”).  If it is within 1-2 hours of ingestion, the toxic substance won’t have made it to the small intestine for complete absorbtion yet, and a solution can be to induce vomiting.  To induce vomiting, Michelle Bamberger in Help! The Quick Guide to First Aid for Your Dog, recommends using 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1-2 teaspoons by mouth every 15 minutes until vomiting occurs.  Of course, after this, it is important to ensure your dog stays hydrated and makes it to the vet when possible.
The other question is how much can your dog ingest before you should start to worry.
Moses, for example, is 175 pounds.  So if he finds a rogue M&M on the floor, I’m probably not going to worry, both because it’s cheap chocolate to begin with (actual cocoa content is the concern), and it’s a very small amount relative to his size.
For a great assessment of this very question, and for those of us who enjoy stunning visual displays of data, National Geographic has an interactive chart online.  According to the chart, Moses would need to ingest over 1,400 ounces of white chocolate for it to even give him a bit of an upset stomach.  Just 10 ounces of pure cocoa, however, would be fatal.

At 72 oz of semi-sweet chocolate, if Moses found it in himself to eat this whole bag, we'd be making a rush trip to the vet. (Photo:

For those of you with more, say, “average-sized” dogs, a 50 pound dog would exhibit symptoms after 6 oz. of milk chocolate, and could be subject to seizures after 20 oz.  If your dog weighs 17 pounds or less, the chart shows that less than an ounce of pure cocoa can prove to be fatal if not intercepted.

100g = 3.38 oz, so your dog would have to weigh less than four pounds for this entire bar of milk chocolate to be fatal.

So there you have it.

And if you couldn’t tell, this whole post was really just an excuse to use that interactive and informative National Geographic chart.  Seriously.  Check it out. It’s fun.

Cereal = Human Kibble?

Even fleeting comments can provide great blog fodder.


Now don’t get me wrong – I like cereal.  I like it for breakfast, as a snack (no milk denotes “snack” status), or as a quick meal when I’m pushed for time, out of groceries, or just plain lazy.

But when I put too much thought into it, lots of things about cereal strike me as very similar to commercial, dry pet food.

Is this photo of pet food or cereal?

The first obvious similarities are the physical properties kibble and cereal share.

They’re both processed, mass-produced dry foods that come conveniently bite-sized.  We put milk on cereal, and many people put water on their dogs’ kibble before serving.  Both cereal and kibble provide quick and easy meals, can be purchased in bulk, and unused portions keep and store well.

And both kibble and cereal are marketed to any specialty purchaser in a variety of price ranges.

Looking for a whole grain cereal?  They’ve got that.  Looking for a low-fat or low-calorie cereal to accommodate your diet?  They’ve got that, too.

Looking for a kibble “designed” specially for your dog’s breed, age or size?  Options abound!

And what about nutritional value?  A lot of our favourite cereals are “part of a complete breakfast”, right?  With lots of essential nutrients and whole grains?  Well, this website informs us that many of our trusted brands are not what they seem.  General Mills Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, a personal favourite, is reportedly 42% sugar – but what about all those whole grains? Do they count for nothing?!  I can’t  say this revelation will mean I’ll cease buying it immediately, but I’ll consider cutting back.

And what about those dog foods with pictures of meat on the packaging?

Well, even though the first ingredient of Iams Healthy Naturals is actually chicken, the inclusion of water content for the portion analysis means that after processing upwards of 80% of the volume is lost and it would no longer remain the main ingredient.  And the second ingredient is chicken by-product, which certainly doesn’t include those delicious-looking drumsticks.  The following ingredients listed by volume are rice, corn meal, whole grains, and barley.  What about all that promised meat and protein?

Which brings me to my final similarity between cereal and kibble:  the ingredients.


Corn Meal, Chicken By-Product Meal, Ground Whole Grain Sorghum, Dried Beet Pulp, Chicken, Dried Egg Product, Chicken Fat, Ground Whole Grain Barley, Chicken Flavor, Potassium Chloride, Brewers Dried Yeast, Salt, Flax Meal, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Beta-Carotene, Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin A Acetate, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (source of vitamin B1), Niacin, Riboflavin Supplement (source of vitamin B2), Inositol, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (source of vitamin B6), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid), Sodium Hexametaphosphate, Caramel, Fish Oil (preserved with mixed Tocopherols, a source of Vitamin E), Minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Manganese Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Potassium Iodide, Cobalt Carbonate), Choline Chloride, DL-Methionine, L-Carnitine, Rosemary Extract.

340 cals/cup


Corn meal, sugar/glucose-fructose, corn bran, fancy molasses, salt, oat flour, baking soda, colour, vitamins (niacinamide, d-calcium pantothenate, thiamine hydrochloride, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid), minerals (iron, zinc oxide). BHT added to package material to maintain product freshness.

120 cals/cup

I put in bold above all of the duplicate ingredients between the two products.

Take out anything in kibble intended to represent meat and the two are quite similar, are they not?

What does this say about kibble? Or about cereal?

Pet Insurance? Or Assurance?

I’ve been asked more than once about whether or not I’d recommend pet insurance, and I’m always sorry to say that there’s unfortunately no clear answer to that question.  Not that you’ll get from me, anyway.

Moses is insured.  And personally, I’m very glad he is, because that didn’t always used to be the case.  And then – BAM!  Bloat.  At midnight.  On a Friday.  In another city.

Yep, we sure wish we were insured then.  Because even though we would’ve had to fork over the cost of his emergency surgery up front anyway, at least we would’ve got $5,000 of that back under our current plan.

To Buy or Not To Buy?

But I can really see why many people opt not to get pet insurance.  Heck, that was our first decision, too.  And our cats still aren’t insured.

The reasoning is simple: if you have a well-trained dog and put them on a good quality diet, those are insurance policies of their own.  The quality diet can prevent against many illnesses and allergies, and a well-trained dog is less likely to get into some sort of rare kerfuffle or incident that could result in medical attention.  Simple.

If you have a pure bred dog and did extensive breeder research beforehand, there’s another important precaution taken care of.

Easy initial and daily preventative measures can mean a long, healthy, high quality life for your dog, and also mean that pet insurance for you just might turn out to be a waste of money.

Alternatively, to prepare for any sort of “freak” incident, many people simply put away what they’d pay in premiums into a savings account, so the money is there if you need it, but still in your possession if you don’t.  That was our plan, too, but when Moses bloated at 18 months old, we had barely $500 in the Contingency Account.  So perhaps a large lump sum early on is the way to go with this plan.

For us, however, it took one Several Thousand Dollar Event to change our minds on pet insurance (even though we have yet to make a claim on it – knock on wood).  And, unfortunately, I know more people who didn’t have pet insurance and later really wish they did, than who did purchase a plan and later found it to be an unnecessary expense.  Of course, I also know many people who don’t have pet insurance and have never needed it and are quite content.

So I’m afraid I can’t offer any clear advice; it’s a pretty personal decision.

However, I can offer some important considerations.

Finances. If you’re rolling in dough and won’t be financially affected by paying several hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for a procedure, I probably wouldn’t worry about it.

If you’re leaning towards insuring your pet, you also have to consider your long-term investment and what you can afford monthly or annually in premiums.  For example, $40 per month over the course of a 14 year lifespan would mean paying the insurance company $5,760 at the end of it all.  Do you think you will recover this amount in claims?  Or is your “peace of mind” worth that much?

Your Pet’s Age.  Just like our own health insurance, premiums for pet insurance are cheaper the younger your pet is, so if you’re on the fence, it’s often better to make a decision sooner than later, and see if the policy has any guarantees about premium increases over time.  Some breeders, like ours, even insure your puppy for you up to 6 months old, so it could be an easy procedure to just maintain that policy.  Some companies won’t even insure a pet once they’ve reached a certain age, so it’s worth looking into.

Old age will also be a consideration, because even if a certain procedure is covered and can prolong your pet’s life, questions about quality of life may arise.  Insurance is nice because it takes out the “can we?” when it comes to a major medical procedure, but you can’t neglect the “should we?” considerations.

Medical History.  You have to disclose any pre-existing medical conditions beforehand when applying for insurance or you risk voiding your policy, so it’s best really best to obtain the insurance before anything arises.  We disclosed that Moses had previously bloated, so our insurance coverage now excludes future episodes of bloat (obviously).  Thankfully, his stomach is now tacked and future bloat isn’t a huge concern for us, but this could be a deal breaker with many other medical issues.

Breed.  Shop around when considering a policy, and check to see how different companies assess insurance for your dog (or cat)’s breed.  When we were looking, some companies listed Newfoundlands (among several others) in a riskier category as other breeds, and wouldn’t cover certain things like bloat or hip dysplasia regardless of the particular dog’s medical history.

Lifestyle.  Is your dog well trained?  Does he or she get a quality diet and plenty of exercise?  Are you diligent about keeping him/her out of harm’s way?  If so, you may not want to bother with insurance.  What about considering who else looks after your pets – dog walkers, dog/cat/house sitters?  Sure, unusual and unpredictable things can happen, but, on the other hand, how much are you willing to pay for the rare just-in-case scenario?  This is why our cats aren’t insured:  they stay in the house, are fed well, are miscellaneous stray-mixes, and neither of them have any self-destructive habits such as eating plastic, live electrical cords, or poisonous plants, so serious medical problems or injuries really aren’t a major concern for us.  Could we have made the wrong bet?  Sure, but that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get there.  (Fool me once…?)

Type of Coverage.  Like any other form of insurance, pet insurance comes with many different levels and inclusions and exclusions.  If you just want to insure for the just-in-case scenario, but take on daily preventative care issues yourself, most companies can accommodate.  If you want 100% coverage, including regular medical check-ups, dental care, and even massage or acupuncture (not kidding!), they have that, too.

Vet Considerations.  Some companies allow you to see any veterinarian you want, which means you can keep your current one (if you like them).  Read the fine print and make sure the company you’re considering doesn’t just allow for claims from certain vets in your area, unless you’re already using one or want to make a change.

Past Experiences.  This will probably be the biggest factor: experiences you’ve already had with your pets, or perhaps ones your close friends or family members have had.  If your gut simply tells you to get insurance, and it will make you feel more secure, then just find a good option and go for it.  If you’re certain it will be a waste of money, then who is to say otherwise?  It’s Colbert’s “truthiness” at its finest.

Can you believe it has taken me this long to work Colbert into my blog?

Really, the hard part when considering pet insurance is to think about it as objectively as possible.  And this is tough not only because our pets are generally considered beloved family members, but also because each company selling pet insurance “fear mongers” to a certain extent, playing on your love for your pet and how you “want the best for them”.  You do have to remember that these companies wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a profit to be made.  Like we put off writing our own Last Will and Testament, considering the what-ifs is just one of those necessary evils of being responsible.

No, it is true, I will never come right out and tell someone not to get pet insurance, simply because if they do turn out to be part of that population that opt out and then something terrible happens, I could never live with the guilt; I prefer to err on the side of caution, thus accounting (now) for Moses’ insurance policy.

On the other hand, I can’t (won’t) tell you outright whether to get pet insurance, either, but I will certainly advise to do as much research as possible and be sure you’ve made an informed decision, whatever that decision may be.

In conclusion: there are more questions and considerations than answers.  Sorry ‘bout that.

Moses had both had and not had insurance. Each time, we've been content with our decision.

My Dog is Fat

Moses is fat.  How embarrassing.

At least he has a good personality.

Actually, we always used to have trouble keeping the pounds on him, and he historically has been on the slim side.  Moses has never been overly food motivated and often skipped meals by choice – even after the switch to a 100% raw diet.  If he wasn’t in the mood for chicken, we’d just try again in the morning.  If we tried to increase quantity at meal times to put some weight on him, he’d just skip more meals. In the spring, when he had more interest in… well, the ladies, he’d go a day or two without any interest in food.  He had better things to worry about.

In November 2010 when we weighed him, he registered in at 163 pounds, which was close to his usual 165-170 pounds – our healthy ideal range for him.

But we were looking at him the other day and noticed a little extra girth through the midsection.  We did a home assessment, checking to see how well we could feel his ribs, and noticed that they did seem to be buried a bit deeper than usual.  (For a great article on how you can use this technique to assess your dog’s weight, go here.  Your dog’s ribs should feel akin to the way the bones just under your knuckles do when you make a fist.)

Undying curiosity took me to use the scale at our neighbourhood vet today and the big guy clocked in at 176 pounds – a lifetime record high!  That means he gained 13 pounds over about 2 months, increasing his weight by almost 8%.

While Moses is a large breed dog, and is on the big side when compared to the Newfoundland breed in general, we’re going to slim him down, with our ideal weight for him being close to or just under 170 pounds.  More exercise and less food are on the agenda, and it will be easy enough to reduce meal sizes or even impose a skipped meal now and again to achieve this

Although 6 pounds may not seem like a large concern, even a few extra pounds can have an impact in your dog’s wellbeing, with respect to both joint health (especially in the giant breeds) and lifespan in general.  Just like with people, a few extra pounds on your dog can increase the risks of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, damage to bones and joints, and decrease their stamina, liver function, and resistance to viruses and bacteria, not to mention a decreased quality of life in general.

After putting a plan in place, I became very curious as to how Moses gained the weight in the first place.  I mean, the cause obviously stems from us, the owners, since we alone determine his feeding and exercise schedules.  It’s not like he secretly binges on Doritos in the middle of the night when we’re not looking …right?

So what have we done?  What changed?

Looking at his feeding schedule, it doesn’t seem to be that.  His usual feeding regimen has been maintained, and he doesn’t get extras in the form of table scraps regardless of the time of year.  Moses has been fed five pounds of raw food per day (provided he eats it) for months, and until now there has been no real weight gain or loss, aside from usual 2-4 pound fluctuations.

What about exercise?  Well, that could certainly be a factor.  Moses always gets his 60 minutes of walking every day – without exception – but when the temperature hits or exceeds the -20°C mark, it’s rarely more than that.  It’s been a relatively cold winter in the Great White North, so regardless of how well suited Moses himself is to sustain several quality hours outside when it’s -30°C, we still call it a day after about an hour.   Well, I suppose with my new resolution (which is going swimmingly, by the way), it’s now a 65-minute minimum, but that’s not likely to be an adequate change to shed some serious weight.

Then I had a thought: one other thing has changed in Moses’ routine lately.  He was neutered in mid-November.  Could that have played a role in the weight gain?

According to the Dog Whisperer’s website, no.  The argument there is that often the diet doesn’t change and weight gain ensues, but not because the dog was fixed; it is actually because you are feeding an adult dog puppy proportions.  This may be true for folks who neuter their dog at a younger age, but I am skeptical about this argument in our situation since we didn’t get Moses neutered until he was 2 years and 8 months old, and already on his “adult diet”.

Most other sources out there suggest that the change in testosterone production post-neuter can actually play a role in weight gain after surgery, due to the effects on the dog’s metabolism.  The hormonal changes after castration often result in increased appetite and slowing metabolism.

Based on our experience, Moses’ appetite has certainly increased since he was neutered.  His previous habit of skipping the occasional meal has since ceased, and he seems much more food motivated generally.  So while we’ve always fed him 5 pounds of food per day, after taking into account skipped meals, he probably was getting 30 pounds per week or less, instead of the intended 35.  Nowadays, it’s always the full 35.

So there you have it.  Without even really realizing it, we actually have increased the amount we have been feeding him.  Taking into account the seasonal exercise decrease, I would say the weight gain is officially accounted for.  Mystery solved.  Lesson learned.

Snowshoeing with Fatso this holiday season

Spay/Neuter: When, not Why

In typical fashion, I am going to start with a caveat:  unless you are planning to breed your dog, yes, you should absolutely have him or her neutered/spayed.  It’s simply the responsible thing to do in order to help curb the population of unwanted pets and “oopsie” litters; we should leave the breeding up to responsible, educated breeders.  And with initiatives such as Calgary’s new no-cost spay/neuter program, there are fewer and fewer excuses to be made.

In fact, since we have decided to officially abandon our breeding aspirations for Moses (and end his unfruitful show career), at 2 ½ years old he’s going in for the ol’ snip-snip in a couple of days (with breeder consent, of course).

So the question is not if you should get your dog (or cat) fixed – Bob Barker had that right the whole time.  But there is a considerable debate about when: as young and soon as possible?  At 6 months?  After a year?  For females, after her first heat?  For males, a month after they start to lift their legs to pee?  Personally, I was always told that, especially for males, the larger the breed, the longer you should wait (18 months, barring any serious behavioural challenges); is that actually beneficial?

The traditional vet recommendation was always 6-9 months, but as it turns out, there is actually no scientific or medical reasoning for this figure aside from the fact that it’s generally just before the age of sexual maturity.  And, these days, early spaying and neutering is becoming more and more common.  And that’s what I want to discuss.

Early/Pediatric/Prepubertal Neutering

Means: spaying or neutering between 7 and 16 weeks old (provided the animal weighs more than two pounds and, for males, both testicles have dropped).

The Good

The number one benefit to early spaying and neutering is clearly population control.  While vets and commercial pets stores seem to be just getting into this trend, rescue agencies have been performing pediatric spaying and neutering much longer.  Because the compliance with post-adoption spay/neuter schedules and contracts for rescue animals is often lower than 40%, upwards of 60% of rescue adoptions never get fixed.  And no matter how watchful an owner may be, an accidental litter is always a possibility with an intact dog.  So, to prevent this, many rescues spay and neuter all pets before adopting them out.  This is simply pragmatic from a rescue point of view, and it is unreasonable to expect shelters to house animals until they reach 6 months/one year/18 months/whatever in order to fix them and then adopt them out.  Simply put, prepubertal neutering is a useful and effective way to prevent pet overpopulation.

In addition, early spaying and neutering may come with some physical and mental benefits.

Anaesthesia recovery in young animals is usually more rapid, with fewer complications.  Surgical complications are statically lowest for puppies neutered by 16 weeks.

Spaying females before the first heat nearly eliminates the risk of mammary (breast) cancer.  (However, I should note that another study suggests this risk is reduced as long as the spay is before the dog is 2.5 years old.) 

In addition, prepubertal spaying of female dogs prevents ovarian or uterine tumors.

A 2004 AVMA study showed that prepubertal spaying and neutering seems to play a role in reducing obesity – while all spayed/neutered pets as a whole are more overweight compared to their intact counterparts, the study shows that those spayed and neutered early were less so.

Other behavioural benefits include reduced separation anxiety, escaping behaviours, and inappropriate elimination (i.e. when frightened) in dogs that underwent pediatric spaying and neutering.

And generally, it is believed that for best behavioural results, it’s best not to wait past a year of age to neuter males, and many sources say early neutering of males is ideal to prevent potential aggressive and sexual behaviours.  This is because once a hormone-triggered behaviour has continued long enough, you can be dealing with a firmly entrenched habit that will not fade even after neutering (scent marking, for example).  Frequently, though, neutering at any age still helps with other types of behaviour problems often associated with intact males, and this behaviour result applies simply to neutering before sexual maturity, not within the 7-16 month period at issue.

The Bad

A handful of studies have shown that the traditional spay/neuter age of 6 months, as well as the modern practice of pediatric spay/neuter, appear to predispose dogs to health risks that could otherwise be avoided by waiting until the dog is physically mature, or perhaps in the case of many male dogs, foregoing it altogether unless medically necessary. 

AVMA researchers in June 2010 advised waiting until after 3 to 4 months of age to spay female dogs, finding more incidence of infectious disease in dogs neutered early as compared to dogs neutered at a traditional 6 month age.  Interestingly enough, they found no increased risk of disease or other health problems in cats neutered early.

Several studies have showed increased urinary incontinence/urinary tract infections in females spayed early, resulting in a similar recommendation to wait until at least 3 months of age to spay.  This is thought to be because females spayed before the onset of puberty are more likely to have a juvenile or recessed vulva.  Another study on this issue found that the risk increases the earlier the procedure is carried out, also recommending that female dogs be spayed no earlier than 3 to 4 months old.  I should note that a later study compared female dogs spayed between 4 to 6 months and after 6 months, and showed no increased risk between those two groups.  Incontinence, however, is often a major concern in most studies because it can be a lifelong condition requiring ongoing treatment.  The study even went so far as to say that this concern “may be particularly prudent for a shelter that does not have an excess of puppies and is focused on reducing medical and behavioural conditions that could lead to relinquishment of adolescent and adult dogs.  Conversely, for shelters with excess puppies, the advantages of [prepubertal spaying/neutering] of all dogs before adoption may outweigh the risk of urinary incontinence.”

A larger number of studies have shown early neutering (as early as 6 weeks) can lead to the growth of slightly longer legs and less “masculine” muscle development.  A 1991 study found that bitches spayed at 7 weeks grew significantly taller than those spayed at 7 months.  This is because sex hormones promote the closure of the growth plates at puberty, so the bones of dogs neutered or spayed before puberty continue to grow.  Therefore, dogs that have been spayed or neutered well before puberty can frequently be identified by their longer limbs, lighter bone structure, narrow chests and narrow skulls.

A small number of uncontrolled studies have shown a link with early neuters (for these researchers, that meant before 14 months of age) and some forms of cancer and joint problems, with one citing that dogs neutered before one year old have a significantly increased risk (3 to 4 times more likely) of bone cancer, which is common in larger breed dogs.  According to one study, which combined the high breed risk with the increased early spay/neuter risk, Rottweilers spayed/neutered before one year old have a 28.4% (males) and 25.1% (females) risk of developing bone cancer.  This research suggests a cause-and-effect relationship, as sex hormones are known to influence the maintenance of skeletal structure and mass, and also because their findings showed an inverse relationship between time of exposure to sex hormones and risk of bone cancer.

In a study of beagles, surgical removal of the ovaries (as happens in spaying) caused an increase in the rate of remodelling of the pelvic bone, suggesting an increased risk of hip dysplasia with spaying.  Other studies have found that spaying/neutering before 5 ½ months of age is associated with a 70% increased aged-adjusted risk of hip dysplasia compared to dogs spayed/neutered after 5 ½ months of age, though there were some indications that the former may have had a lower severity manifestation of the disease.  It is suggested that neutering a giant breed male dog early (6 months for example), rather than at 18 months to two years, can almost ensure the dog will have structural or joint problems fully manifested by age six or seven years.  Yet another study has showed the incidence of hip dysplasia increased to 6.7% for dogs neutered before 5 ½ months compared to 4.7% for dogs neutered after 5 ½ months.

Spaying was also found to cause a net loss of bone mass in the spine.  Because the spay/neuter of immature dogs delays the closure of the growth plates in bones that are still growing, those bones end up significantly longer than those in intact dogs or those who are spayed/neutered after maturity.  Since the growth plates in various bones close at different times, spaying and neutering that is done after some growth plates have closed, but before other growth plates have closed, may result in a dog with unnatural proportions, possibly impacting performance and long term durability of the joints.

In terms of behaviour, one study found aggression towards family members actually more frequent among male dogs neutered before 5 ½ months, and prepubertal neutering was associated with higher rates of barking or growling at visitors and excessive barking that bothered household members. However, for dogs in the study that were not determined to have any aggression issues, there was no association between the ages of neutering and excessive barking.

It should also be noted that many dog professionals suggest that beyond the age of three is when the most trouble occurs in a non-neutered male. The high testosterone levels and hormonal changes in the male dog at three years of age often builds up, causing territorial and aggressive traits, so for behavioural concerns, this should be the longest one should wait.

The Possible

There are a number of unfounded claims out there that neutering a male dog before 2 years old will affect his “working ability”.  Though there seems to be nothing to actually prove this, and no reasoning I could find behind it, many sources still recommended that for “working” or “athletic” dogs to hold off spaying or neutering until about 14 months old.

My best guess is that this has to do with testosterone, which is the hormone responsible for the different physical and mental (and sexual) characteristics males tend to have in abundance (and females less so).  It promotes sex drive, fat loss, helps with gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass and bone density, most of which can be important physical considerations for the owners of working dogs.

Some trainers and behaviourists also have concerns about mental development of dogs that are spayed or neutered to early, in that they do not psychologically or behaviourally mature, and retain many puppy behaviours.  However, these seemed to be mostly based on personal experiences and hypotheses, with no actual studies performed or cited.

The Pitfalls

When researching this subject I found that while there seemed to be many sources, it turned out that people were just quoting the same handful of studies – often verbatim.  This signalled to me that no position is solidified when it comes to health benefits and concerns regarding prepubertal spaying and neutering.  Basically, more (and more long-term) research should be done.

The End

Despite the potential for concern, the American Animal Hospital Association takes an official position in support of “the concept of neutering cats and dogs as young as 8 weeks of age in order to help reduce the overpopulation problems in companion animals”.

And quite frankly, for many the overarching concern of unwanted pets and rescue animals is simply enough to promote early spaying and neutering in animals.  I do not disagree with this sentiment.

However, for individual owners of commercially purchased or breeder bought pets, I encourage them to look into the issue and decide for themselves based on their dog, its breed, its lineage and health history, and any vet recommendations.

Personally, as the owner of a giant-breed dog that is already at a decent risk of joint issues and hip dysplasia, I will not get my dog (or future dogs, I suppose) spayed or neutered early – and probably not until the 18 month mark at the earliest (barring any exceptional health or behavioural issue).  Even a slight increased risk in bone or joint issues is enough to deter me, and I would recommend the same for any other large- or giant-breed dog owners who ask.

In the end, I came across this conclusion which I think sums up my official position quite perfectly:

Animals housed at humane societies [and other rescue organizations] should be treated as a population.  Societal benefit resulting from [prepubertal spaying and neutering] of unowned dogs and cats … outweighs all other concerns.  Male and female dogs and cats should be spayed or castrated before being offered for adoption by humane organizations.

Pets should be considered individually, with the understanding that for these pets, population control is a less important concern than is health of each animal.  Dogs and cats should be maintained as household pets.  Responsible owners should ensure that their pets are provided appropriate and regularly scheduled veterinary care.

Sources, References, and Further Reading

Responsible Dog Ownership: Spaying and Neutering 

Long Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay/Neuter in Dogs:

The Controversy is Over: Prepubertal Neutering is the Surgery of Choice:

Long-term risks and benefits of early-age gonadectomy in dogs:

Determining the optimal age for gonadectomy of dogs and cats:

Click for K9 Cuisine

Alright folks, time to take quite literally less than a minute to help out some dogs in need.

In response to Adopt-A-Shelter-Pet Month, the kind people at K9 Cuisine have offered to donate 5,000 lbs of food to two shelters: Half-Way Home and Homeward Bound, both located in Missouri.[1]

And I don’t mean 5,000 lbs of grain-filled, bad-for-your-dog kibble (i.e. Pedigree), I mean actual good quality pet food!  Have you checked out K9 Cuisine yet?  If not, you should.  It’s a great website with lots of resources on pet nutrition for both cats and dogs.[2]

For those living in the continental US, you can even order your pet’s food from them – they specialize in gluten-free, selling brands such as Horizon, Origen, and a number of great frozen and dehydrated raw food options.

But just because we Canadians can’t buy from them doesn’t mean we can’t support their cause and help deliver quality food to pets in need.

In order for K9 Cuisine to donate their 5,000 lbs of food, they’re asking for 5,000 Facebook fans.  That’s all. 

So all you need to do is visit their Facebook page and click “Like”.  Easy.  Here’s the link:

At my last check, they had only had 2,117 fans, which is less than half.  Not good enough!

So, take 30 seconds, “Like” K9 Cuisine, and allow some shelter animals receive a decent meal.  And then share with your friends so they can help, too.


November 1, 2010 Update:  Congratulations to K9 Cuisine for reaching over 5,000 Facebook fans before the end of October! All who supported will be happy to know shelter pets are getting fed as a result.

Preventing Puppy Mills

Preventing Puppy Mills – Blog the Change for Animals

This month, Richmond, B.C. became the first Canadian city to agree to ban the sale of dogs and puppies in pet stores.[1]  The by-law is expected to be finally adopted in November and take effect April 30, 2011.[2]

While pet shop owners who financially benefit from these sales may not be impressed, this is an important step when taking action against puppy mills.  We Canadians are actually behind our neighbours to the south in this respect, with many American cities having long ago banned the sale of puppies in pet stores, including cities in California, Florida, New Mexico and Missouri.[3]

How does this help?  Well, pet stores are just one of the many mediums through which puppy mills are able to sell their puppies.  And I should note, there is a similar concern about “kitten factories”, as well.  While many puppy mills still flourish through online sales, banning the sale of puppies in pet stores remains an important step in prevention and public awareness.

What is a puppy mill and why is it bad?  Well, essentially a puppy mill (or kitten factory, for that matter) is a high-volume breeder.  Dogs are bred in sub-standard and inhumane conditions, often in dirty, cramped kennels, literally living in their own feces.  The parents (the “breeding stock”) experience zero socialisation with other animals or human beings, and are malnourished and over-bred.  There is no concern for hereditary health conditions or inbreeding; the goal is to produce and sell as many puppies as possible.  Look it up – horrors will make your stomach churn.

The products of these puppy mills – the puppies often seen in those pet store windows – are yes, an extremely sad case, but not an ideal pet.  These puppies are taken from their mothers long before the recommended age of 8-10 weeks, to ensure they are still adorable for those window shoppers.  This early removal results in numerous potential behaviour problems.  In addition, the squalid conditions they are born in and the disregard for proper breeding standards often result in serious undiagnosed and hereditary medical health problems.

While bans like the one in Richmond do not completely prevent the problem, they are a significant step.  They create awareness, put a dent in puppy mill sales, and often allow rescue organizations to fill the void and adopt out more dogs. 

These bans also prevent the “impulse purchase” of companion pets, effectively – I believe – preventing many instances of bad owners and animal cruelty in private homes.  Owners who did not properly think through their purchase and what they were getting into are a large supplier of rescue dogs in the first instance.

So what can you do?  Lots!

1.  Lobby your local government (i.e. city council) for bans similar to those in Richmond, B.C.  Lobby your federal and provincial government for better regulation of commercial breeders and stronger animal cruelty laws.

2.  If you’re considering a pet, look for a reputable breeder or seek out a rescue organization.  Reputable breeders and many rescue organizations will make you fill out long applications and interview you before determining whether or not you’re a suitable candidate for one of their dogs.  This is not a bad thing.  If you’re not sure what to look for in a breeder, do some research.  There are lots of helpful resources out there.[4]

3.  In addition to not buying from a pet store, avoid the other mediums for puppy mill sales – largely the internet and newspaper ads.  Be aware of pets sold through Kijiji and similar websites, and always insist on making a location visit prior to picking up your new family member.  Ask to meet the puppy’s parents.  If they are willing to give you your puppy prior to it turning 8 weeks old (at minimum), walk away.  There are lots of puppies out there in need of a good home.

4.  Don’t support pet stores that sell companion animals.  At all.  Many pet stores opt to feature pets from local shelters, or just sell supplies – this is great!  Give your business to them.

5.  Speak up!  If you suspect a puppy mill, report it.  The Humane Society of the United States actually has a toll free number you can call to report suspected puppy mills: 1-877-MILL-TIP.[5]  Don’t let them go unreported.  In Canada, make reports to your local SPCA or Humane Society.  You can also report suspected cases of animal cruelty to your local Animal & By-Law Services.

Be the change for animals: