Monday, April 29, 2013

Kitty Corner: Asthma and Bronchitis

Obstructive and allergic lung diseases affect many cats and are sometimes called “asthma,” “bronchitis,” or “bronchial asthma.”  Unfortunately, these diseases are not easily classified and probably represent a variety of lung disorders. They do share a common finding of “hyper-responsive” or “over-reactive” airways.

When the airway of a cat is sensitive to certain stimuli, exposure to these agents leads to narrowing of the airways. The inciting agents are usually direct irritants to the airways or things that provoke an allergic response in the respiratory tract. Regardless of the cause, the end-result is the same: muscle spasms in the bronchi (breathing tubes), buildup of mucus, and accumulation of cellular material. The inability to clear the bronchi of this material leaves the cat susceptible to secondary infections.

Are some cats more likely to get asthma?

Obstructive lung disease is most common in cats from two to eight years of age. Siamese cats seem to be at higher risk for developing asthma and bronchitis. Some reports indicate that it is more common in female cats. Obese and overweight cats also seem to be at greater risk for developing respiratory disorders.

What are the clinical signs?

Although "wheezing" is the most common sign of asthma in humans, in cats the primary indicator of asthma is coughing. Coughing is a significant finding since there are relatively few causes of coughing in the cat. Many cats assume a squatting position with the neck extending during these coughing episodes. Wheezing, though not typically observed by cat owners, is easily heard with the stethoscope. Any episode of open-mouth breathing in cats should be a cause for concern and you should inform your veterinarian immediately if this occurs.

What causes asthma?

There are a number of stimuli that can lead to asthma in cats, such as: 

  1. Inhaled debris or irritants such as dust from cat litter, cigarette smoke, perfume or hairspray, carpet fresheners, and perfumes in laundry detergent 
  2. Pollens or mold 
  3. Infectious agents (viruses, bacteria) 
  4. Parasites (heartworms, lungworms
How is asthma diagnosed?
Several tests may be performed to diagnose allergic lung disease in the cat.

In most cats with a history of coughing we take a chest X-ray and sometimes perform blood, urine, and fecal tests. These tests will assess the general health of the cat and may provide clues as to the underlying cause. One particular type of white blood cell, the eosinophil, is commonly found in higher than normal numbers in cats with allergies, and helps us distinguish allergies from other causes of asthma in cats. Also, in some cats, special tests will be performed on stool samples for evidence of lungworms.

  • Heartworm test – This is not indicated for all cats, as heartworms are very rare in cats in the TriValley area. In areas where they are common, however, even cats that stay completely indoors are still at risk. A cat experiencing the clinical signs of asthma should be tested for feline heartworm disease in most cases.

  • Feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus tests – These tests are helpful in determining the overall health of the cat.

  • Thoracic radiography (chest X-ray) – Characteristic changes in the lungs are common on x-rays. Also, x-rays can be suggestive of other types of heart and lung disease.

  • Bronchoscopy, cytology and airway lavage (washing) – Bronchoscopy is a procedure that allows us to look down the airways of the anesthetized cat with a fiberoptic scope. After a visual examination of the airway is completed, the lining mucus of the bronchi may be sampled with a small brush. The mucus can be examined under a microscope (cytology). Finally, a small amount of sterile saline can be flushed into the airways to retrieve samples of material from deep in the lung. This material can be cultured for micro-organisms and can also be carefully studied under the microscope.
In some cases, an underlying cause for asthma cannot be identified, despite a complete and thorough diagnostic workup. Even when the underlying cause is not identified, many cats can achieve a reasonable quality of life with medical management.

How is asthma treated?
Successful management of allergic lung disease employs one or more of the following therapies.

  • Avoidance – Any factors known to trigger or aggravate breathing problems should be avoided. In some cases, this may mean trying different brands of cat litter, eliminating cigarette smoke from the home, etc. The previous list (see “Causes”) details some factors that should be considered. It is important to pay close attention to environmental factors that may aggravate the condition.

  • Bronchodilators – These drugs are used to open up the airway and allow the cat to move air more freely. They should be used faithfully and as directed to obtain maximum effect.

  • Corticosteroids – Most cats with asthma are effectively treated with corticosteroids (“cortisone” or “steroids”). These can be administered via daily use of an inhaler, or given systemically (injections or tablets). However, use of systemic corticosteroids may create two problems. Corticosteroids can worsen secondary bacterial infections; therefore, prophylactic antibiotics are used in cases where a bacterial infection is suspected to also be present. 
Steroids have a beneficial effect on decreasing inflammation, dilating the airway, and decreasing mucus production. In many cats, they are given daily. When the cat’s temperament is a concern, long-acting injections can be given as an alternative to pills. These drugs have potential for some side effects and should not be withdrawn abruptly.

Emergency treatment may employ bronchodilators, oxygen, rapid-acting glucocorticoids, and epinephrine. If your cat has heart disease, the attending veterinarian should be advised since epinephrine is best avoided.

Will my cat recover?
Cats with obstructive lung disease are usually manageable. Sometimes a “cure” may be achieved if a specific underlying cause can be identified and treated.

Ask the Vet: Pet First Aid by Kristel Weaver, DVM, MPVM

I hope you will never need to administer first aid to your pets, but if an emergency should occur, it’s important to be mentally prepared.  These first aid tips are intended to get you and your pet safely to a veterinarian for medical care.

When a dog or cat is in pain, they may fight or try to bite.  I have seen the sweetest animals become aggressive and bite the people they love when they are scared and injured.  So it is very important to be cautious, especially around the mouth, with a dog or cat that is hurt.  You can create a muzzle with a necktie, stockings, or rolled gauze.  Never muzzle an animal that is vomiting.  You can create a kitty burrito by wrapping a cat up tightly in a blanket or towel.

How do I deal with the following emergencies?

Bleeding – If your pet has a wound that is bleeding excessively, apply direct pressure.  Don’t worry about cleaning it or treating it with antibiotic ointment, the first step is to stop the bleeding.  Apply a clean thick gauze pad to the wound and either hold the pad in place with manual pressure or use a bandage to secure it in place.  It may take 3 to 5 minutes or longer to get the bleeding to stop, so once the pressure has been applied, leave it there and don’t peek.

Broken bones – If you think your pet has a broken bone the goal is to get your pet to the veterinarian with as little movement as possible.  A poorly placed splint can cause more harm than good, so if the fracture is not bleeding externally, it is best not to touch the broken area.  For cats and small dogs use a small padded carrier for transport.  For large dogs use a heavy blanket or bedspread as a sling, put the dog in the center of the blanket and with two people pick up the corners to lift the dog into the car and to the veterinarian. 

If you think your pet has neck or spinal trauma, place them on their side on a firm surface (for small animals try a cookie sheet or box lid) and secure them so they cannot move.  Use a calm voice to be reassuring as you drive to the closest veterinary hospital.

Choking – If your pet is still breathing and he is not choking, try and let him get the object out himself.  Signs of choking are that your dog or cat is unable to breathe, is pawing at his mouth, or is turning blue. When an animal is choking and conscious they are more likely to bite.  Look in the mouth; if you see something pull it out with pliers or tweezers (not your fingers).  If your pet collapses because they cannot breathe, aim their head towards the floor by picking up their back legs and sway them back and forth to let gravity pull the object out.  If that doesn’t work thump their back with the palm of your hand several times, still aiming their head towards the ground.  If this doesn’t work, try a Heimlich maneuver by holding your pet with his back to your chest, make a fist in the soft spot below the ribs and push in and up with both hands.  Be very gentle doing this on small dogs and cats.

Heatstroke – If you think your dog is suffering from heatstroke, hose him off with cool water, especially in the groin and armpits. Do not submerge them in ice cold water as this can make the situation worse. Offer cool water to drink.  Cover him with wet towels, changing them out for cool ones every few minutes as you drive to the veterinarian with the air conditioning on.

Seizure – If your dog or cat has a seizure you won’t be able to make it stop, so don’t try.  You simply need to wait it out and make sure they don’t get hurt.  Move them away from sharp objects and prevent them from falling off furniture.  If possible, turn their head towards the ground so they do not inhale vomit or saliva.  Finally, use a stopwatch to time how long the seizure lasts.  It will feel like an eternity, but chances are it lasts less than a minute.

Not breathing – If your pet is not breathing and unconscious, open their mouth, pull their tongue out and check for something stuck in their throat.  If their airway is clear, hold their mouth closed and breathe into their nose until you see the ribcage gently rise.  Continue to administer breaths every 4 to 5 seconds while someone drives you and your pet to the closest veterinarian.

Toxins – If you pet gets a toxin on his coat or hair, wash him off using warm water and dish soap.  If a toxin gets in the eyes, flush them with sterile saline.  If your pet ingests something that may be toxic call animal poison control (888) 426-4435 as you head to the veterinarian.  The veterinarian will need to know what it is that your pet ate and how much, so bring the packaging with you.

Hopefully these tips help you to be prepared for an emergency.  In many communities you can take a pet first aid class to practice some of these skills.  Remember to stay calm and to use a soothing voice to reassure your pet in an emergency.

Dr. Kristel Weaver is a graduate of the Veterinary School at the University of California, Davis where she received both a DVM and a Master’s of Preventative Veterinary Medicine (MPVM).  She has been at Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care in San Ramon since 2007.  She currently lives in Oakland with her husband and their daughter, Hayley. If you have questions you would like Dr. Weaver to answer for future articles, please email

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fun Facts, Features, and Figures of Ferrets! by Megan Armor, DVM

What is a ferret?

A ferret is a type of carnivore related to the weasel, otter, and badger. They were initially domesticated to hunt rats and mice in people's homes, farms, and ships. They are very efficient predators and, unlike cats, can fit into very small spaces where rats and mice like to hide. Domestic ferrets have also been bred to help hunt rabbits for food and for their pelts. Today, the majority of ferrets are used as companion animals.

What makes a ferret a good pet?

Ferrets are small, clean, and truly seem to like human interaction. They have very engaging and endearing personalities, plus they're cute! They also can get along well in groups with each other, cats, and dogs. They are very playful animals. If you would like an active, soft, cute critter that will have hours of fun exploring your house and getting attention from you, a ferret might be a good choice.

What might make a ferret a bad pet?

Ferrets can bite, and they have sharp teeth. They also may be less than patient with the grasps and attentions of a small child, so they're not ideal pets for families with little children. They can also be very naughty. Their small size and elongated bodies are perfect for slipping into tight spots that you may have trouble getting them out of! They like especially shiny objects and can steal your jewelry, keys, or other small objects and hide them away from you. Sometimes they even swallow objects they shouldn't and get blocked. Ferrets are illegal to own in certain areas, including California. It is legal, however, to take your ferret to the vet for care and for your veterinarian to treat ferrets.

What does a ferret eat?

Ferrets are true carnivores, which means they are designed to eat whole prey animals and a commercial diet should reflect that. They have a very short digestive tract and cannot handle lots of carbohydrates and fiber. Their diet should be high in fat and good-quality protein, either a ferret-specific kibble or a freeze-dried carnivore diet made for ferrets. They should NOT eat cat or kitten food. Sweets and fruits, while appetizing and readily eaten, may cause obesity and diarrhea and should be minimized.  

How do I house my ferret?

A ferret should be kept in a well-ventilated cage when you cannot monitor them with a place to burrow, nest and sleep, plus a litter box and toys. A non-clumping litter - like pellets, is best.  However, ferrets are playful, curious animals and they should NOT be confined to their cages continuously but rather given space in the house to roam and play. A well ferret-proofed play area is free of foam-containing furniture, such as couches and chairs, and other soft toys that a ferret might eat. You should also avoid rubber bands, ear plugs, shoes and any rubber or foam material that is the most likely to be ingested and block a ferrets' intestines. At least two hours of play time is needed per day. If you cannot give your ferret at least two hours a day to run around and play, you should not keep a ferret.

What kind of sicknesses does a ferret get?

The short answer is a lot. Ferrets have a short life expectancy, about four to six years, and the majority of ferrets will end up being affected by one or more types of cancer as they age. Common types of ferret cancer include lymphoma, pancreatic insulinomas, and adrenal gland tumors. Ferrets also can suffer from heart disease, dental disease, gastroenteritis (diarrhea), diabetes, kidney disease, and bladder or prostate problems. Ferrets can also contract the human flu virus!

Does my ferret need vaccines?

Yes. Ferrets should be vaccinated for both distemper and rabies viruses annually. 

How often should my ferret see the vet?

Because of a ferrets' short life-span and high incidence of disease and neoplasia (cancer) that ferrets can get, it is recommended that your ferret have a preventive care exam every six months, or twice yearly. Additionally for ferrets older than four years of age we recommend annual blood tests. Glucose monitoring is important for any lethargic older ferret. Endocrine (hormone) testing is also available for ferrets with hair loss on the tail or other signs suggestive of adrenal gland disease.

Where can I go for more information on ferrets?

For more information, check out the Northern California Ferret Alliance's website: they are a great source for information and adoptions. We also recommend the Golden Gate Ferret Society:

Dr. Megan Armor is a 2006 graduate of the Veterinary School of the University of California, Davis. She previously graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of California, San Diego with a B.S in Biochemistry and Cell Biology. An experienced veterinarian, Dr. Armor has a special interest in treating pocket pets such as ferrets, rabbits, and guinea pigs, in addition to cats and dogs. She grew up in the Bay Area and currently lives in Walnut Creek with her Labrador Gator, Boxer Ringo, orange tabby Catface and an Oscar-fish named Robby

My Dog is My Copilot: Guide Dogs by Cyndi Davis

Sweeney is a guide dog in training
International Guide Dog Day is April 28th. Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care has a long history caring for Guide Dogs in Training. We love and celebrate this amazing program. One of our staff members, Cyndi Davis, is a Leader of Alameda County 4H Guide Dog Puppy Raisers and has helped raise 15 guide dog puppies. In honor of International Guide Dog Day she has written about her experiences.

My dog is my copilot. For most of my major life accomplishments, my dogs have come with me. Guide Dogs for the Blind allow hundreds of puppy raisers each year the opportunity to experience the love and companionship of a puppy for a little over a year. In the much too short time each of my dogs have spent in my life, each has taught me countless lessons that cannot be learned from books or even the most patient of mentors.

I learned responsibility, loyalty, dependability, honesty, hard work, and my good sense of humor all from my dogs. With the help of my constant companions I developed the courage to fight for the causes I believed in the most and to step outside my comfort zone and experience new things. I remember just before starting college taking my puppy Bayna back for formal training in San Rafael. I told her we would be starting college together, even if we were going to different schools.

I remember knowing something was missing my first year in college, and not knowing just what it was. I was enjoying meeting new friends, living in a new place, loved my major, but something did not feel right. The absence of my ever-present pooch had more of an effect than I realized. I knew I needed to find a local puppy club to become involved with as I missed my guide dog family and spending time with people who just might love their dogs almost as much as I do.

In college I was able to continue raising puppies as transfer dogs. Transfer dogs are puppies that come to you at an older age (puppies usually come to us around 8 weeks of age), this was perfect for me because each dog came ready to attend classes. Each puppy taught me more about life, and myself than I could possibly put into words. At the same time, each of those puppies created hope in someone of being able to achieve independence once again. 
Sweeney rests after a big day

The hardest thing I have ever had to experience in life is giving up my dog because they were ready for training. However, I have never looked back on my decision to continue to raise puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. When each puppy completes training, there is a graduation ceremony where you are able to meet the person who has been matched with your dog. The dogs absolutely lose it - they are the worst behaved dogs in the world in that moment. They completely forget everything you have worked so hard to teach them as they jump into your arms, lick your face, run in circles, tangle you in their leash, and pretty much go crazy. It is in that moment when they regain their composure and, without command, return to sit with their new owner that you know - this dog is their copilot.

Each year Guide Dogs for the Blind breed about 1,000 puppies. These puppies are placed in homes with 1,400 puppy raisers that socialize these pups and teach them basic obedience. Every year around 300 new guide dog teams graduate, to add to the nearly 2,200 working teams.

Not only does Guide Dogs for the Blind provide a once in a lifetime chance to see the gift that a guide dog can truly be for someone seeking independence, they give puppy raisers the chance to experience the gift these dogs can be first hand.

Guide Dogs for the blind are a nonprofit organization with a training campus located in San Rafael, California. Guide Dogs is run on private donations that allow them to provide service animals, free of charge, to men and women who are able to rely on these dogs for new-found independence. If you are interested in helping out Guide Dogs for the blind through volunteering, or by making a tax deductible donation, please contact them through their website:

Ask the Vet – Heartworm Disease by Kristel Weaver DVM, MPVM

Every year at your annual preventive care visit, your veterinarian most likely recommends a heartworm preventative for your dog. So why do veterinarians feel this is so critical? Why is heartworm prevention a key component of maintaining your pet’s health?  If your pet is already on a heartworm prevention program – great job! If not, here are some specifics on heartworms and why it is important to give your dog that monthly dose.

What is a heartworm infection?
Heartworms are a type of roundworm that looks similar to angel hair pasta.  These worms live in the blood vessels around the heart, and inside the heart itself.  The worms cause a blockage of blood flow leading to right-sided heart failure.  When a dog has heart failure from heartworms they will cough, breath faster than normal, have a distended belly and will be unable to exercise.  If left untreated, heartworm infections can be fatal.

How do dogs get heartworms?
Mosquitoes spread heartworms.  Once a carrier mosquito bites a dog, it takes six to seven months before there are adult worms living in the heart.  The adult heartworms then make baby heartworms, called microfilaria, which swim in the blood and can be picked up by a mosquito bite and spread to another animal.  Heartworm cannot be spread without going through a mosquito.

Can it be spread to people or cats?
Humans are rarely infected with heartworms.  The worms cannot complete their lifecycle in humans and become walled off as a round nodule in the lungs.  Cats can get heartworm infections but are much more resistant than dogs.

How is it treated?
The treatment plan for an individual dog is based on the severity of the infection.  Typically, dogs are given a drug to kill the adult worms (Immiticide), antibiotics for secondary infections, and heartworm preventatives to kill the microfilaria.  After getting Immiticide, tiny chunks of dying worms are present in the lungs and can cause difficulty breathing.  Dogs must be kept calm, quiet, and rested for one to two months after getting the treatment to avoid side effects as their body breaks down the dying worms.

How is it prevented?
There are multiple heartworm preventatives on the market.  These are safe and easily administered (usually a chew or a topical ointment).  Collies and other herding breeds can have negative side effects to the drug used in heartworm preventatives at high doses.  The low doses used in heartworm preventatives have been proven safe for all breeds.

How much heartworm disease do we see in the San Francisco East Bay?
Our clinic sees a handful of heartworm infections each year; while it’s not a huge problem it definitely does occur.  In the southern part of the United States heartworm disease is really common.  In a year with heavy mosquitoes we could have an outbreak here in the Bay Area.  If you travel with your dog you could be taking him/her to areas much more infested with heartworms.  Keeping your dog on monthly heartworm prevention is ideal for optimum health.  These preventatives have an added benefit of being a general dewormer.

Talk to your veterinarian about which preventative is best for your dog.  Preventing a heartworm infection is much easier and safer than treating the disease. Like Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

Dr. Kristel Weaver is a graduate of the Veterinary School at the University of California, Davis where she received both a DVM and a Master’s of Preventative Veterinary Medicine (MPVM).  She has been at Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care in San Ramon since 2007.  She currently lives in Oakland with her husband and their daughter, Hayley. If you have questions you would like Dr. Weaver to answer for future articles, please email