Archive for May, 2009

Taking Care of Your Exotic Pet, For Example, Your Guinea Pig, Which is Not Really All That Exotic

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

In keeping with this year’s wellness theme, this newsletter is about the care of “exotic” pets…kind of an overarching view of my thoughts on wellness care beyond cats and dogs.   We have talked about keeping dogs and cats healthy through appropriate diet and exercise.   Let’s talk about expanding our healthy lifestyle mindset to other species.

We will use guinea pigs as our template, because I like them, and they are cute.   My point in doing that, I guess, is to emphasize that if an animal is appropriate for a pet (Please do not adopt a tiger cub or Komodo dragon…or a prairie dog, for that matter) there are similar steps to take, regardless of species, to become a proficient pet owner.

I would say we are about fifty years behind in the pet care of species that are not dogs and cats.  That is, fifty years ago, dogs and cats dealt with nutrition and lifestyle issues that, thankfully, I have only seen in veterinary textbooks.  Because we have honed our care of these common friends so well, we are often able to have them in our lives for the full extent of their domestic lifespan, and well beyond the lifespan they would have in the wild.

Our other pet friends are not as fortunate.  Exotic pets often become ill because we just don’t know as much about taking care of them as we do about dogs and cats.  I think we are on the cutting edge of extraordinary advances in this area, and with all of the information that is out there, knowledgeable experts and the accessibility of information on the internet, we can make that half century leap, and take as good of care of our exotic friends as we do of our dogs and cats.

In fact, you, as owners of these pets, have been as helpful to me as anything I have learned in my veterinary training, experience, reading and continuing education.  You are proactive about learning about the care of the pets you own, and have been so generous to share what you learn and what you experience.  It seems only natural that we should take it even farther…share with each other and with other pet owners and potential pet owners.  If I never have to treat another rabbit with bumblefoot, or guinea pig with scurvy, or lizard with bone disease, and you (and everyone we reach) never has to watch a pet struggle through these or other husbandry-related diseases, it will be well worth all the work we put in together.

So here is my guinea pig “example.”  I hope that if you actually own a guinea pig, the information is helpful to you.  But for all of us, I hope it gets us thinking about how we can set up all of our pets for the best possible odds of a long, healthy life.

We own one guinea pig, a male American Shorthair named Piggy.  He is five years old, and I have not told him that the “average” lifespan of guinea pigs in captivity is five to eight years.  We are all hoping to have him around long after our daughters have left for college…maybe their own kids could even meet him.  As of today, he is healthy and happy, so I will tell you what I have learned from my obsessive reading, veterinary training and experience, and hanging out with Piggy.

First, and most importantly, guinea pigs need Vitamin C.  Guinea pigs and primates are the only mammals whose bodies do not manufacture this particular vitamin.  Most every guinea pig resource tells us that they will get enough Vitamin C from their food/water supplement/fruits/vegetables.  Here is the hitch.  There is not enough in their food.  There is not enough in their water supplements.  There is not even enough in the awesome citrus and veggie snacks you feed them.

Close this newsletter and grab your car keys.  Or if you are way cooler than me (odds are you are), track this down on the internet and have it shipped to you…chewable 25 mg Vitamin C tablets.*  Your piggy needs twenty-five milligrams of oral vitamin C a day.  I know…I usually make broader statements.  25 milligrams.  Not water drops.  Not orange wedges.  An actual chewable tablet.  Of course my reasons for insisting are selfish.  If you all start today en masse, and I never again see another scurvy-related problem, I will be indebted to you forever.

Vitamin deficiency related diseases are some of the most heart-breaking to treat in any species, even humans, I hear.  Here is a list off the top of my head of some conditions caused by or worsened by low levels of vitamin C.  For the final draft, maybe I will try to be more scientific and look up every possible disease.  Probably not.  For starters, that’s not really my style, and I am afraid it would make this kind of boring.  But more importantly, I suspect that even the brightest and best of the scientific/exotic/veterinary community does not know the full extent of the good vitamin C does for a guinea pig, or you and me for that matter.

Back to the list:  upper respiratory disease, pneumonia, dental disease, conjunctivitis, unthriftiness, pododermatitis, arthritis and other joint-related diseases, immune-related conditions and bladder issues.  Vitamin C is also involved in maintaining a strong immune system, wound healing and recovery from illness in general.

OK, you have your vitamin C.  Next most important (yes I believe that one little tablet is more important than the entirety of the rest of the diet), is the rest of the diet.  Your guinea pig needs an endless supply of timothy hay.  Really, a bottomless bowl.  Some owners use “hoppers,” those little wire things that hang on the outside of the habitat and allow the guinea pig to pull hay as needed, without the hay supply getting wet or soiled.  That is way more sophisticated than what we do, but we stuff two tissue boxes full of hay, and Piggy pulls the hay out as he eats.  Sometimes he will eat two entire boxes of hay in one day!  We refill them every morning, and at the end of the week, we start over with new hay and new boxes.

Of course you need a fresh water supply.  A water bottle seems to work best, as piggies are a bit too messy for a water dish.  If you are used to smaller rodents, guinea pigs will seem to drink ALOT, so make sure to check the supply every day.

Next, have a small bowl for piggy pellets.  He or she needs only two tablespoons of pellets a day.  That is half of one fourth of a cup.  MOST owners give their piggies as many pellets as they want.  And most guinea pigs are overweight.  Cut back gradually until he or she gets just that small scoop once a day.  And if he or she is on a seed diet, switch to pellets over a couple of weeks and use the seed mixture for a treat.  The seeds are not bad for them, but they are high in fat, and not as nutritionally balanced as the pellets are.  The pellets are important for two reasons.  They contain the correct mix of trace minerals and vitamins other than C that are also important for your piggy’s health.  And just as importantly, they love pellets, and we need our guinea pigs to be happy.

Last, and still important, are treats.  Fruits and vegetables are fine.  Carb-based treats are fine.  Commercial guinea pig treats are fine.  Everything in moderation.  You would think we would know more about guinea pigs, being…guinea pigs…but I am extrapolating from what we know of dogs and cats for this next part.  If guinea pigs are also sensitive to the toxic effects of some foods, as I suspect they are, they should not have any of the following:  chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, garlic or macadamia nuts.

As far as creating an ideal habitat, guinea pigs often enjoy running happy laps around their homes and popcorning (jumping straight up in happy piggy jumps, one of the cutest things you will ever see).  They also like to have a little hiding space.  Base your final habitat size on these factors.  If your pet seems cramped at all, you could always upgrade later.  Piggy’s home is two feet wide, two feet high and four feet long with a plastic bottom and wire mesh sides and top.  There is room for his two tissue boxes, his snack/vitamin/pellet bowl, his water bottle, his igloo, and his happy piggy antics.

For flooring, no wire!  With adequate Vitamin C, a great body condition and a comfy floor, your pet will never need to deal with infectious pododermatitis (bumblefoot), a horrible disease that often ends in euthanasia due to the severe pain involved.  For bedding, no wood shavings!  It is irritating to their respiratory systems and little feet.  Carefresh bedding is a great absorbent paper-based product, by far the best bedding available.  Piggy uses Carefresh bedding, and it keeps him comfortable and not stinky for about a week.

Guinea pigs often need their nails trimmed, like dogs and cats do.  If you are not comfortable doing it at home, bring them in and have it done.  Also check the bottom of their little feet and make sure they appear healthy.  I know they are weird looking, but you will get used to how they look on a good day, and know if anything abnormal is going on.

Also check your guinea pig’s body condition score.  Unlike a dog or cat, he should not have a visible waist.  But he should have ribs you can feel (but not see) and should not have a big tummy behind his ribs, but be a cute elongated egg shape.

As long as you have him out and are giving him a mini-check-up, make sure his coat and eyes are bright and shiny.  Look in his mouth and make sure his cute little teeth are not longer than normal.  When he comes for his veterinary exam, we will check all of these things too, and also use a speculum to look at his back “cheek” teeth.

Speaking of checkups, I recommend you bring your pet in when you first adopt him or her for an initial check up and every question that you can think of, and then every six months and any time you are concerned about his or her health.

Guinea pigs are skilled at hiding symptoms of illness, so I would recommend you bring them in at the first sign of anything weird.  Most experts will tell you that the reason they hide symptoms is they are prey animals and cannot afford to show any weakness.  But he is in your living room!  Up away from the dog and the cat!  I think he is hiding symptoms because he is so kind he doesn’t want to worry you.  Tell him to quit being so selfless, and let you know if he does not feel well.  And if he will not, you will just have to continue being super-vigilant, and bring him in at the first sign of disease.  Better a false alarm than a serious illness not caught.

If you are going to breed your guinea pigs, do more reading than this cursory introduction!  Keep in mind that female guinea pigs need to have their first litter of piglets BEFORE they are eight months of age.  Their pelvic canal fuses together at about this age if they have not given birth, and after this occurs, they cannot safely give birth to piglets.  (I KNOW they are called pups!  I like to call them piglets!)  If they have given birth by this age, their pelvic canal does not fuse, and they typically will be able to safely be bred from then on.

Also, be careful with new pairs of guinea pigs.  Females can become pregnant as early as one month of age!  So make sure you have the piggies you think you have or you may end up with the old familiar “hamster” story…”I adopted two males/two females/one baby female, and now I have five!  Do you want one?  Look how cute they are!”

Long-haired guinea pigs need to be brushed often.  They need to be treated immediately if mats develop.  Guinea pigs are susceptible to dental disease, trauma, respiratory diseases, bladder stones, uterine cancer, urinary tract infections, intestinal parasites and external parasites, most notably scabies.  This is characterized by intense itching, hair loss and sometimes even seizures.  It is very treatable, but fatal if left unchecked, so if you notice your piggy itching, get him or her in right away!

Also, guinea pigs are VERY heat-sensitive, even more so than dogs.  They should not be outside in the summer, and they should not even be in a sunny window.  If you suspect your guinea pig has become overheated, bathe them quickly in cool (not cold) water, and rush them to the veterinary hospital.  Though this will give him the best odds possible, sadly, I have never seen or heard of a guinea pig surviving heat stress.

Guinea pigs are very social.  They like to have piggy friends, so consider adopting two or more.  Beware the too-small-for-the-number-of-piggies-habitat and the dreaded hamster story!  But if you can adopt a friend for your friend, that would be twice as fun!

They like to be in busy areas of the house or church or classroom.  Make sure you talk to them often.  They can be shy, but can almost always be acclimated to gentle handling, and will enjoy snuggle time.  I realize I am inviting trouble by admitting this, but I have NEVER been bitten by a guinea pig.  And I have been bitten by most every other type of pet!  They just don’t think to bite, and if they did happen to get scared or startled, it would be difficult to get a good chomp in with their peace-loving, hay-chewing itty-bitty mouths.

I know that if you are a guinea pig owner, you are a good one, and completely invested in his or her well being.  I also know that if you are not yet a guinea pig owner, you may be thinking of getting one.  Make sure you check with your family…fellow teachers…pastor…first!  And have fun.  They are one of my favorite types of pets ever, and we love having Piggy in our family.

I will try (by “try” I mean call Dave and have him do it!) to set up sections of the website to discuss the practical care of other specific pets.  As of now, as you know, there is a newsletter on how much I like birds (with no practical information on how to actually take care of them), and another newsletter on how much I like hamsters (with no practical information on how to actually take care of them, but a very helpful section on how to make them a rabbit costume.)  They were, however, very fun to write!  Maybe it is time for me to grow up, and start giving you more practical info.  Then again, maybe not…

January 25, 2010 Jennifer VanCleve is my awesome friend who runs Westwood Church’s Preschool Program.  She asked me yesterday to check if her guinea pig Peanut was pregnant.  (She had accidently been left with a male guinea pig at a preschooler’s home.)  She was not.  I left her the above “note” on an index card.

OXBOW ANIMAL HEALTH: We have an extraordinary resource for guinea pig information right here in Nebraska!  Check out the website for Oxbow, and let me know if there are other websites or resources you would like me to add here.

CAREFRESH As of May, 2010, I am working with Carefresh!  I love it!  E-mail me ANY small pet questions you have!

***GREAT NEWS!!!***January 25, 2010 I just got an e-mail from the veterinarian who oversees national pet care at PetSmart.  I have been, um, bugging her for a while about Petsmart carrying Oxbow Vitamin C.  Here is part of her e-mail…

“The best news of all is that the Oxbow vitamins are coming in spring I think so we are making good strides. As always we welcome any of your comments or questions. Happy Monday :)”


It is indeed, a Happy Monday.

My Life After May

Friday, May 1st, 2009

May 1, 2009…I started this newsletter in April before I knew What’s Next…so here it is from the beginning.  It is good to know it has a happy generic cialis for order ending!

As many of you know, I will be done working at Oakview Banfield on May 20, 2009, and hopefully starting at a different veterinary hospital in May or June.  Thank you for all of your encouragement!  My career is amazing because of you.

All I know so far is that I would like to stay in Omaha, and I really do not want YOU to have to commute far from Midtown/West Omaha, if it can be helped!  All of Omaha is close to my heart, of course, but I love Midtown, where we live, and I love West Omaha where I grew up and where I practice now.  And most of you are in one of these two parts of town too.

I do not mind driving, so I am looking in a pretty wide radius.  But I would like to stay close enough that if you join me on this new adventure (I SO hope that you will!!) you will not have to have too long of a car trip with your sick pup/scared kitty/temperature sensitive pocket pet…I love Banfield, and I love my coworkers.  To a person, they are as passionate about pets and medicine as I am, and incredibly talented.  I will miss them all very much.  That has made this a very difficult decision for me, but I am absolutely sure it is the right one.

If you are a Banfield or PETsMART person reading this, know that I plan to continue bringing Noodle for grooming, keep bringing the entire herd to the Petshotel, come for more puppy classes, and shop at PETsMART as much as I do now.  I already have May Day baskets started for all of you, and will come celebrate with you when the new PETsMART opens on 168th and Maple Street.  My goal is to have you say, “I thought she left…

It’s official.

I’m working Wednesdays!  :)

Appointments, um, by


Keeping Your Kitty at a Healthy Weight

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I have had writer’s block over this very newsletter for TWO MONTHS and I finally realized why.  I have had great personal success treating feline obesity.  The catch is I have had a data base of one, and thus feel as though I do not have the experience to tell you how to treat or prevent obesity in every individual kitty.

Cats are much more difficult weight loss candidates than are dogs.  There are a myriad of different diet options and exercise options, most of them mirrored after what works in dogs or people, which, as you know, are entirely different species than cats!  Also, cats are not always as amiable to trying new things as dogs are.

With dogs, a slow, steady weight loss is most ideal, however, rapid weight loss is not as dangerous a situation as it is in cats.  As Amanda Kehm reminded me to mention, fatty liver, or hepatic lipidosis, is a condition of cats that may develop when cats metabolize their fat stores more quickly than their body can process them.  The fat byproducts build up in the liver, and interfere with the liver’s function.  This happens most often with weight loss secondary to an induced diet or a primary disease.  Hepatic lipidosis is treatable, but it can cause significant discomfort, and in extreme cases can even be fatal.  Do not let this scare you!  This disease becomes extremely rare when an otherwise healthy overweight cat is aided in slow, steady weight loss using appropriate means.

Russ and I have owned only one cat, the awesome and beautiful Max the Cat.  He had been one of two blood donors at Iowa State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.  When I graduated, we adopted him and brought him with us to Littleton Colorado.  He has had only two health-related issues in his life, dental disease and obesity, admittedly both very huge issues for a cat.  So Max gets his teeth cleaned under anesthesia once a year.  And when he became overweight, we switched him from Science Diet Maintenance to Science Diet Light.  He has always enjoyed playing, so we did not change anything about his exercise habits.  The diet change alone was enough to bring Max back to a healthy weight within a year.

I know…I usually write in broader strokes, in generalities that can apply to every pet, but here is my new idea, for this newsletter at least…Let’s write this one together.  Tell me what has worked to encourage your cat to exercise and what foods and feeding schedules have helped them to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.  I will put your stories right into this newsletter word for word.

If you are frustrated with trying to help your cat lose weight, or if your cat has developed diabetes, heart disease or arthritis, three of the most common sequelae to obesity in cats, tell me that story too.

And tell me what more you would like to know about this area of veterinary medicine.  When I was planning this newsletter, I pictured everyone with an overweight pre-diabetic kitty being able to say, with relief and confidence, “Oh, good.  Now I have a plan.”  And I have been staring at a blank screen, because I just couldn’t write the newsletter that would get us all there.  But I am confident that we can.

I think the most good can be done for the most cats if we all pool our ideas, and come up with some great ideas together.  This topic is much more developed on the canine side of veterinary nutrition, though I believe that veterinary nutrition is making amazing strides on the feline side.  My guess is that in five years, we will have as good of answers to feline obesity prevention and treatment as we do for canine obesity prevention and treatment today.  I also believe that you and I are a part of that answer.  How exciting!  Thank you in advance for your help!

Erika Workman, Pet Nurse says,

“Hmm…getting kitties in shape. That’s kind of a hard one…My kitties keep themselves in shape by playing together… I just have really active kitties, so mine are in great shape. When I had Beau, he was a fattypants, and hated to be outside, so I would take him outside and shut the back door, carry him to the back fence and let him go. He would run to the door, I would go get him and repeat until I felt he’d had enough exercise. Very healthy, and entertaining!”

Russ Finch says,

“Pippin, the cat I had as a kid, was never fat that I remember, but thinking back I see two reasons why.  First, the cat had two main foods that it would consistently eat; donuts and ice cream.  That sounds like a recipe for a fat cat, but in order to get these items, she had to run up, steal them, and run away out of reach to eat them – fast food :)   Second, we played with that cat constantly, which she usually liked.  Her favorite game was fishing.  I put a cat toy on the end of a long fishing line, wound it around the railings, up and down steps, down the hall, through the kitchen… whatever.  Then I got her to follow it as I reeled her in.  She was always active and I think that made all the difference.”

Amanda Kehm of Oakview Petshotel says,

“We’ve had a few board with us recently, and each is trying to lose too fast!  So…no success yet.”

Jodi Finch says,

“Putter was fat. Grandpa spoiled him rotten. Earl was not fat, he was cool. Large, but cool.  Earl and Putter got lots of exercise. They loved to chase things – it didn’t matter what. If it moved, they chased it. Earl was particularly fond of hiding behind things and ambushing people when they walked by… then running like his tail was on fire.”

Caroline Merchant, DVM says,

“I had 2 fat cats. One became hyperthyroid and lost weight, then got cancer and lost more weight. The other cat became diabetic and lost weight. I don’t recommend those methods, although the diabetic seems to have gotten under control and kept the weight off by eating exclusively canned food (feline k/d).”

Daniel Muller says,

Leonard loves to eat. In fact, it is the ONLY thing he is passionate about. He finds little interest in fancy toys or catnip. Giving Leonard a scratch on his (extremely large and round) belly will certainly leave you with a few bite marks. When he is out of food, he will let you know:  a high pitched, almost un-feline like whine and the execution of any lamp, cup, plate, book, phone, etc resting on a table or desk.

I try to only feed Leonard twice a day:  a half cup in the morning and a half cup after work.  This has proven to be an overzealous approach to feeding this beast.  Every morning, around 3:30 I hear crashing and smashing.  Leonard is hungry.  And breaking my stuff.  I like my stuff, so I feed him again.  If I do put my foot down and say “no! you are too fat! no more food today,” he feasts on a house plant or rummages through the trash.

I have Leonard on a weight control formula cat food, but my 22 pound tabby cat is not shedding any weight.

I say…

You all are very wise.  The most frustrating cats are the ones, like Leonard, who have such great owners, and with whom we are doing everything right, and they still are not losing weight.  They too can be brought back to a healthy weight though.  Do not give up!  I will keep this newsletter “open” as long as everyone has ideas.  If you want help with your individual kitty, let me know!

My broad (haha) recommendation is to bring your kitty in for a wellness check-up.  We will weigh him or her and determine his or her body condition score.  See “I Promise Not to Say Kilocalorie to You” for instructions on determining body condition score.  It is very simple, and is determined the same for dogs and cats.

From there, we will determine if the food your cat is on is appropriate or if a different food is needed.  We will talk more in person about this one:   There are high fiber and, more recently, high protein (Catkins-haha) diets for weight loss in cats.  Either can be appropriate, and there are drawbacks to both.

With dogs, we may switch them from free-feeding to meals, or decrease the amount of food per meals.  Scheduled meals may not be the way to go with cats.  They naturally enjoy and are suited for eating several small meals through the day and night.

And exercise is good for ALL of us, but as you know, the best way to get a cat to yell their mantra at you (“CATS ARE NOT SMALL DOGS!”) is to put a leash on one!  So we will find some FUN exercise options.  Before you know it, your cat will once again be sleek and fit…and ready for a well-earned nap.