Frequently Asked Pet Questions

My dog is overweight and I am concerned about the health risks of obesity. Should I be concerned? What is the best way to get the weight off?

This is an excellent question, because the number one nutritional disorder we see is OVER NUTRITION. In the United States we are blessed with an abundance of food. Even the poorest people in our country suffer the health problems of obesity. Obesity in dogs is not just a cosmetic problem. There are serious health implications of being overweight. Studies have shown that hip dysplasia is 4 times more common in obese dogs than it is in lean dogs. Also, obese dogs die an average of almost 2 years younger than thin dogs. Fat is not just a storage depot for extra calories. It is a big producer of free radicals. These are chemicals that contribute to aging and health problems such as cancer. The age of onset of chronic diseases like heart failure, kidney and liver failure, and cancer occur almost 2 years earlier in obese dogs than in dogs that are fit. Some dogs are obese due to a medical condition like low thyroid hormone, or excess cortisone. Be sure your dog has a physical exam before starting a weight loss program. Sometimes blood tests are needed to rule out a medical condition.

Almost every one of our clients is in disbelief when we tell them that their dog is overweight. We are simply used to seeing mostly overweight dogs, so we think our dog must be OK. The “rule of thumb” for gauging obesity is that you should be able to feel you dog’s ribs easily without seeing them. Once we have determined that a diet is in order, we can tailor it to your dog’s specific needs and goals.

Exercise is of great value and you should be sure your dog is getting plenty of activity. As they say “it takes muscle to burn fat.” For dogs and humans, the same general principles of dieting apply. We used to think that is was simply a matter of taking in less calories than you burn up. Now we know that taking in less calories alone will result in loss of lean body mass as well as fat. We want your dog to maintain muscle, not lose it. The best weight loss diets are those that reduce calories AND INCREASE PROTEIN. The best way to reduce calories is to decrease the amount of fat that you eat. A gram of fat has 2.5 times the calories as a gram of carbohydrate or protein. It is also important to reduce the amount of soluble (easy to digest) carbohydrates. These are the starches like rice, corn, potatoes etc. As with human diets, think high protein, low fat, high fiber, low soluble carbs. This makes beans among the best weight loss foods around. Beans are very high in protein, they are non-fat, high in fiber and low in soluble carbs. Other foods that can be included in your dog’s weight loss program are: anything in the squash family such as zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, sweet and dill pickles, acorn squash; frozen mixed vegetables (these can be fed frozen, steamed or microwaved); most fruit (avoid raisins and grapes as these are poisonous to dogs).

Things that you can use to flavor the beans or veggies include stewed tomatoes (Italian or Mexican flavorings work well), fat free chicken or beef broth, soy sauce, mild salsa, ketchup, etc. You may add herbs and seasonings if your dog prefers. Garlic and onions should be kept to a minimum as these can cause anemia if fed in large quantities. Don’t worry about the salt content of canned vegetables unless your dog has congestive heart failure.

Some clients fear the possibility of gas and flatulence if dogs are fed beans. This does not occur commonly. We find this to be more of a problem just by changing brands of dog food than with feeding a bean diet. Green beans are a good component of a weight loss program, but they are not as nutritious or as good of a protein source as other beans. I prefer canned beans because they are pre cooked and ready to serve. Just about every type of bean is acceptable. Pinto, white, northern, black, red, refried beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas etc. Carrots should be cooked or canned if possible because large pieces of raw carrots can cause and intestinal blockage. Frozen beans and other vegetables are fine too.

There are many commercially prepared weight loss foods for dogs on the market. You can try these first if you prefer, but whatever method you choose, be sure to weigh your dog regularly to monitor their progress. You are always welcome to bring your dog in to the clinic to use our walk-on scale. Have the receptionist record your dog’s weight in the medical record. As always, if you have any questions or concerns call us at the clinic: 703-330-6767

We are planning on having children and were told that cats can carry a parasite that could be harmful to the fetus.  Do we have to get rid of our cat?

No you do not have to get rid of your cat!!  What you are concerned about is a protozoon called Toxoplasma gondi.  While this organism can infect many different animals, it only goes through its complete life cycle in cats.  Humans become infected with the organism by eating under cooked meat, or from cat feces.  The infection only rarely results in illness in people.  It is estimated that between 50% and 80% of adults in the United States have acquired the infection, but disease is only seen in patients with immune deficiencies.  The biggest risk of Toxoplasmosis infection occurs when the infection is acquired during pregnancy.  There is significant risk of birth defects during the first trimester of pregnancy.  There is much less risk to the fetus if the infection occurs in the second trimester, and virtually no risk during the last trimester.

Some couples want to have their cat tested for the disease, but this is usually of no value, because cats only shed the organism during the first 3 weeks of their infection.  Cats become infected through eating rodents.  This is yet another reason for keeping your cat indoors.  When a cat eats an infected rodent they will pass spores of the Toxoplasma in their feces.  The organism is not contagious until 24 hours after the cat has defecated.  Once it undergoes sporulation, it can now infect people or other animals.  Since farm cats occasionally defecate in animal feed, livestock become infected when they eat the contaminated grain.  Once the organism infects the cow, sheep, pig, or goat, humans can then eat the infected meat.  Cooking the meat well done kills the organism.  People can become infected via cat feces if the neighborhood cat is using their garden for a litter box.  Wearing gloves while gardening, as well as thorough washing of hands and vegetables will prevent human exposure.

Physicians will often test women for Toxoplasmosis when women become pregnant.  You are actually better off if you are positive on the test, because it means you have been exposed and are immune from acquiring the infection.  If you are negative, you and your baby are vulnerable.  It is best to get tested before you become pregnant if at all possible.  Once you decide to have children, you should take the following precautions:

  • Assume that you are at risk.
  • Assume that your cat is actively shedding Toxoplasma organisms regardless of blood test results.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling your cat.
  • Wear gloves when gardening.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after gardening.
  • Wash vegetables before eating.
  • Cook meat well done.
  • If possible, get someone else to scoop the litter box.  If not possible, wear gloves, scoop twice a day, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling the litter.

As always, you should consult with your physician for specific advice for your particular situation.  For more information visit the CDC website: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/toxoplasmosis/factsht_toxoplasmosis.htm