Archive for the ‘Important Questions to Ask You Vet’ Category

A Primer on Canine Tetanus

June 26, 2016

SFSBlog_tetanusOdds are really good that none of the dogs you’ll ever know will develop tetanus. So, why have I chosen to write about this disease? Blame it on Facebook (FB). For those of you who use FB, when I describe the vegetative trance one can enter while scrolling through a FB news feed, you know exactly what I’m talking about. This is the state I was in when I happened to scroll past a photo of a Labrador’ish-looking dog whose facial expression appeared pretty much just like the dog pictured here. This very classic photo pulled me right out of my FB trance.

The text accompanying the photo was a plea for help in the way of “Can anyone tell me what is wrong with my dog?” The FB poster indicated that her vet had already examined her dog a few times, but there was still no diagnosis. Even with baytril (an antibiotic) and pain medication on board, her dog was steadily getting worse. Her dog was still able to walk, but appeared very stiff.

I don’t usually get involved in requests for a “photo diagnosis.” A single photo can usually translate into a dozen or more diagnoses. However, this particular photo was classic- a textbook case of tetanus. And, I knew that, without appropriate treatment administered just as soon as possible, this dog would be doomed. I felt a moral obligation to respond.

I posted a comment letting the FB poster know that her dog likely had tetanus and was in need of intensive therapy. I encouraged her to seek help ASAP, ideally by way of an emergency hospital, or veterinary specialist such as an internist or criticalist. I asked if the dog had a recent wound that would have allowed the tetanus organism to gain entry.

The response arrived within seconds. Sure enough, a week or so ago the dog had been limping due to a cut on his toe. She thanked me profusely and let me know that she would get help for her dog right away. I wished her the best of luck and our FB conversation ended.

The cause of tetanus

Tetanus is caused by Clostridium tetani, a soil bacterium that can enter the bloodstream via a wound, most commonly on the foot or in the mouth. Puppies can develop tetanus because they chew on sticks and other soil-contaminated goodies, and they have open wounds in their gums created by the loss of baby teeth.

The clostridial organism produces a toxin called tetanospasmin that binds to nerve cells and interferes with the function of a particular neurotransmitter (a chemical released from a nerve cell that transmits an impulse) responsible for inhibiting muscle contractions. Disabling this inhibitory neurotransmitter results in relentless muscle spasms.

Symptoms

Tetanus symptoms usually begin around the face and eyes. Dogs lose their ability to blink accompanied by changes in facial features. This classic facial appearance (the one that prompted me to respond to the FB post) is referred to as risus sardonicus.

With time, symptoms become more generalized throughout the body ultimately resulting in a spastic paralysis- the dog is unable to move at all because of muscle rigidity. Without appropriate treatment, death occurs due to paralysis of the muscles responsible for breathing.

To see a dog with tetanic symptoms, have a look at this video. Not to worry, this video has a happy ending.

Diagnosis

There is no simple test for diagnosing tetanus. Rather, the diagnosis is made based on symptoms and the history of a wound that allowed the clostridial organism to gain entry into the bloodstream.

Treatment and prognosis

Clostridium tetani is an anaerobic bacterial organism, meaning that it thrives in environments devoid of oxygen. A wound festering beneath the skin surface is an ideal incubator. For this reason, it is important to treat the wound (if one is found) where the bacteria gained entry. This involves debridement- opening the wound and removing as much infected tissue as possible.

Appropriate antibiotic therapy is imperative. Penicillin-related drugs work well against the clostridial organism and, at least initially, they are typically administered intravenously. With improvement, oral antibiotics are appropriate. (Baytril, the antibiotic the FB dog was being treated with, is ineffective against Clostridium tetani.)

Additional treatment is dictated by the severity of symptoms. Muscle relaxants are commonly administered along with medication to reduce anxiety. If the dog is unable to eat because of “lock jaw”, nutrition is provided by way of a feeding tube. And if the dog is unable to move, intensive nursing care is required.

Dogs with tetanus are usually super-sensitive to stimuli, and sights and sounds can intensify muscle contractions. For this reason, these dogs are often sedated and kept in a dark quiet room during the recovery period. Long-term treatment- up to a month or more- is often required.

The prognosis for tetanus is good, assuming the dog receives early intervention and aggressive treatment. As with most diseases, the earlier the diagnosis is made and treatment started, the better the prognosis.

Prevention

Dogs are not routinely vaccinated against tetanus because they are so much less susceptible to this disease than are other species such as horses, livestock and people. This being said, it does make sense to thoroughly clean even minor wounds, particularly those on the feet.

How the story ends

So, how did things turn out for the dog I “met” on FB? I sure wish I knew. Silly me, I failed to note the woman’s name and, because we are not FB “friends”, I am at a loss as to how to find her again. I suspect things turned out well, and I’m glad my FB conversation prompted me to teach you about tetanus!

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at http://www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

 

 

A Primer on Leptospirosis

July 24, 2011

Of all the vaccination questions I receive, the most common one is from folks questioning whether or not to vaccinate their dogs for Leptospirosis.  And I am so pleased they are asking- I love when people recognize that simply handing their dog over for “the works” in response to a vaccination reminder card (or these days, perhaps an email reminder) simply doesn’t make sense.

Unlike canine distemper and parvovirus- infectious bad guys that are ubiquitous in the environment and against which all dogs should receive vaccine protection- not all dogs come into contact with Leptospirosis.  Exposure is truly dependent on where you and your dog live and his or her extracurricular activities- in medical jargon this is referred to as “biolifestyle”.  Leptospirosis organisms are bacteria that thrive in warmer, wetter climates.  Wild animals (particularly deer and rodents) and some domesticated animals (cows, sheep, pigs) can be Leptospirosis carriers. Although infected, they manage to maintain good health while shedding Leptospirosis organisms in their urine.  Dogs can develop the disease by coming into contact with the infected urine or urine contaminated soil, water, food, or bedding.  So, if your dog’s biolifestyle includes roaming on rural property or drinking from creeks, streams, lakes, or rivers the potential for exposure to Leptospirosis is far greater than if your pup is a couch potato and your yard is devoid of trespassing wildlife.

Not all dogs become sick when exposed to Leptospirosis, but for those that do, the results can be devastating.  Symptoms associated with kidney failure (lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite) are most common.  The liver and lungs are also targets for this disease.  Your veterinarian will suspect Leptospirosis based on the history your provide, abnormal kidney and/or liver enzymes on blood testing, and specific blood and/or urine testing for Leptospirosis.

Successful treatment ideally consists of aggressive round the clock intravenous fluids and antibiotics. If the kidneys become so inflamed that urine production diminishes, temporary dialysis may be recommended.  Infected dogs should be housed in an isolation ward to protect other hospitalized patients and personnel are advised to wear protective garb (gloves, gown, goggles) as Leptospirosis is considered a zoonotic disease (humans can become infected via contact with infected urine). Yes, such therapy is expensive- far more costly than the price of a vaccination- and in spite of everyone’s best efforts, some dogs do succumb to Leptospirosis.

The Leptospirosis vaccine provides adequate protection for one year and, in theory, the risk of adverse reactions is no different than reported with other vaccinations.  However, some vets feel strongly that the Lepto vaccine is more likely to produce transient “post-vaccine blues” than are other vaccinations.

Is the Leptospirosis vaccination appropriate for your dog?  Talk to your vet to find out whether or not the disease has been reported in your neck of the woods.  Next consider your doggie’s biolifestyle.  Does your pup live in a pristinely kept environment or does he go camping and hiking with you? If your pup lives in an environment with no standing water or exposure to wildlife, the risks of vaccinating clearly outweigh the benefits.  If you and your best buddy love to hike and camp together, vaccinating may be a no-brainer.  As I routinely advise whenever discussing vaccines: Administration of vaccinations is no different than any other medical procedure- they should not be administered without individualized discussion and consideration of the potential risks and benefits.

Have you considered vaccinating your dog for Leptospirosis?  If so, whereabouts do you live and how did you (will you) decide whether to say “yea or nay” to the vaccine?

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Urinary Accidents

July 3, 2011

When your wonderful dog, who has always done his or her “business” outside, begins leaving puddles in the house, please do not default to the notion that this is a behavioral issue.  It is highly unlikely your dog is mad at you for sleeping in on Sunday mornings or jealous because you showed some affection to your neighbor’s dog.  Chances are, the inappropriate urination is a result of an underlying medical issue.

Well house-trained dogs would rather urinate anywhere other than inside their own home.  Several types of medical issues are capable of disrupting normal house-training.  Bladder infections, stones, and tumors create an urgency to urinate even when the bladder contains only a small amount of urine.  Prostate gland disease (more common in boys who have not been neutered) can disrupt normal urinary habits.  Increased water intake may overwhelm a dog’s normal eight to ten-hour bladder capacity.  Common causes of increased thirst include a variety of hormonal imbalances, kidney failure, and liver disease.  Commonly prescribed medications such as prednisone (a form of cortisone) and furosemide (a diuretic or “water pill”) typically cause increased thirst.

Some dogs develop urinary incontinence (involuntary urine leakage).  This is more common in females and is usually a result of relaxation of the muscular sphincter that normally prevents urine from flowing down the urethra- the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside world.  The urine leakage may be constant, but more commonly it occurs as the bladder distends during the night while the dog is soundly sleeping. In most cases, urinary incontinence can be successfully managed by correcting the underlying cause and/or treating with medications that “tighten up” the urethral sphincter.

If your dog has a break in house-training, please don’t respond with a reprimand.  Far better to schedule a consultation with your veterinarian.

Has your well house-trained dog ever urinated in the house?  Were you and your vet able to determine the cause?

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Trends in Veterinary Medicine

June 26, 2011

Just as human docs are seeing more patients with diabetes, so too are veterinarians.  A first-of-its-kind study conducted by Banfield Pet Hospital (a corporation with more than 770 veterinary hospitals) documents rises in the incidence of diabetes, dental disease, flea infestations, ear infections, and intestinal parasites.  Banfield collected their data from a whopping 2.1 million dogs and 450,000 cats seen during 2010, and then released it as a document called “State of Pet Health 2011 Report.” The entirety of this report is available via the Banfield website.

 

Here are some highlights from this study:

-Dental disease was the most common medical condition reported. In fact, 78 percent of dogs and 68 percent of cats over three years of age had some form of dental disease.  The top five dog breeds most likely to develop periodontal disease included the Toy Poodle, Yorkshire Terrier, Maltese, Pomeranian, and Shetland Sheepdog (it’s a given that small breed dogs have a higher incidence of dental disease than medium and large breed dogs).

-Otitis externa (infection or inflammation of the external ear canal) was the second most common disease, found in 15.8 percent of dogs and 7.4 percent of cats.

-There has been a 32 percent increase in canine diabetes and a 16 percent increase in feline diabetes compared to data collected in 2006.

-Obesity ranked in the top five diagnoses for dogs and in the top three diagnoses for cats.  This may, in part, explain why the prevalence of diabetes is increasing.

-The incidence of flea infestation has increased 16 percent in dogs and 12 percent in cats; rather surprising given the fact that flea control products have been steadily evolving.

-One of the top three diseases found in dogs examined in Banfield hospitals located within the Southern United States was heartworm disease (detected in 6.7 percent of dogs examined).

-Cats in 2010 more frequently test positive for roundworms, hookworms and whipworms (all intestinal parasites) compared to cats evaluated in 2006. Canine hookworms and whipworms have also increased during this same time period.

-Small breed dogs are gaining in popularity.  Chihuahuas represented a whopping 8 percent of Banfield’s patient population.  This represents a 116 percent increase when comparing data between 2000 and 2010.  Labrador Retrievers remained the most common dog breed among Banfield patients, but their numbers decreased by 20 percent between 2000 and 2010.

-The number of feline vet clinic visits is declining.  In 2006 Banfield veterinarians examined 5.3 dogs for every feline visit.  The current ratio is 6.6 dogs for every one kitty.

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner is the chief medical officer for Banfield.  He expresses concern about the rise in some of the preventable diseases mentioned above and he states, “I just can’t help but wonder if there is a correlation between the increase and prevalence of these diseases and the decreasing visits to veterinarians.”

The stated purpose of the Banfield study is to help the veterinary profession gain a better understanding of the state of pet health in the United States, especially in light of many recent reports indicating a decline in veterinary visits.  Dr. Klausner hopes that the Banfield analysis will help veterinarians develop strategies to improve patient care.  The decline in vet clinic visits may correlate with the relatively newer knowledge that core vaccinations (rabies, distemper, parvovirus) need not be given annually.  It appears that some folks view vaccines to be the primary reason for vet clinic visits and ignore the importance of an annual physical examination. Several studies are currently underway to try to understand why feline veterinary clinic visits have declined so dramatically.

Kudos to Banfield Pet Hospital for orchestrating this monumental study.  What a great way to give back to the profession.  The Banfield data underscores the importance of annual visits to the vet (whether or not vaccinations are due) and discussion of preventive health care.  When did you and your pet last visit your vet for an annual physical examination?  Did you discuss dental disease, flea control, or weight management for your pet?

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Advocacy Aids

May 16, 2011
 

Photo © Susannah Kay

I use the term Advocacy Aids to describe a set of health forms I’ve created to help you excel as your pet’s medical advocate. Where can you find them?  It’s easy.  Simply go to www.speakingforspot.com and look for “Resources” in the red horizontal main menu.  The first item in the Resources pull down menu is Advocacy Aids.  I invite you to download, print, copy, and use them to your heart’s content.  Feel free to share with others as well.  By the way, while you’re there  please check out my new website! 

The Advocacy Aids include: 

Health History Form:  This form provides an easy way to keep track of your pet’s vaccinations, test results, prior medical issues, surgical procedures, and adverse reactions to medications or vaccinations. 

Current Medications:  List all of your pet’s current medications (including supplements, flea and tick control products, and heartworm preventive).  Be sure to bring along a copy to every hospital visit. Your vet will be profoundly grateful and this paperwork will help you both catch any prescription errors. 

Current Health Issues:  This form helps keep track of all of your pet’s current medical issues.  It’s helpful to maintain a written list so none of the issues will be overlooked or forgotten. 

Medication and Treatment Schedule:  This template is wonderfully helpful if your pet requires medications/treatments multiple times daily and/or at different times of day.  I’ve provided you with the same template we use when treating animals in my hospital.  On my website you will find a sample template form that I’ve filled out (so you can see how it works) as well as a blank template for your use. 

Emergency Contact Information:  You will want to have ready access to this completed form in order to avoid spending time tracking down necessary information while in the midst of an emergency. Be sure to provide a copy to the person caring for your pets when you are away. 

Contingency Plan: Use this form when you are going out of town and may not be one hundred percent reachable.  The form lets your veterinarian know which trusted person you’ve designated to make medical decisions about your pet should you not be reachable.  Distribute a signed copy to your pet-sitter/boarding facility and your veterinarian. 

Veterinary Office Visit:  This form will help you keep track of the purpose of your visit as well as important questions to ask your veterinarian. 

For those of you with pets other than dogs, please forgive me as many of the forms contain the word, “dog”.  Feel free to cross this word out and substitute in any species you like!  After you’ve had a look at the Advocacy Aids, please let me know which ones you like and think you will use.  If you can think of other Advocacy Aids, please don’t be shy.  I would love to hear your ideas. 

Best wishes for good health, 

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Stem cells: A beneficial therapy or a waste of money?

May 8, 2011

 

Stem cell therapy (aka regenerative medicine) is becoming all the rage in veterinary medicine.  Initially used only to treat damaged horse parts (tendons, ligaments, and joints) the repertoire of stem cells has expanded to treating dogs, primarily for management of arthritis symptoms.  Even a few kitties are getting in on the act as regenerative medicine is investigated as a means of restoring health to their aged kidneys.

Here’s a rundown on the logistics of stem cell therapy. The process begins with the veterinarian harvesting fat or bone marrow samples from the affected individual.  These samples are then sent off to a specialized “stem cell company” for processing. Recently, one company, MediVet America, has provided the option for vets to propagate stem cells within their own hospital setting. Once harvested the stem cells are injected into the patient’s affected body part(s) and/or are administered intravenously.  Extra cells can also be “banked” for future use. And all of this for a price of $2,000 to $3,000, on average.

In theory, these stem cells have the potential to differentiate into bone, cartilage, and many soft tissue types.  Why do I emphasize, “in theory”? To date, there is no proof that the stem cells, once injected into the body, do actually become the cells we are hoping for.  Perhaps any observed benefit is a result of biochemical alterations of the cells already present rather than regeneration of new and improved cells. 

Not only is there a paucity of information about what actually happens to the cells after they are injected, there is a surprising lack of evidence-based data that supports any benefit of stem cell therapy.  In this regard, it appears that the stem cell therapy cart has pulled way ahead of the horse- unusual in the world of “western medicine” where veterinarians are typically reluctant to embrace a particular therapy without it having survived the scrutiny of evidence-based medicine.  Yet many western trained practitioners readily offer forth stem cell therapy to their clients based on anecdotal information (individual client impressions, vignettes told by other veterinarians, marketing materials from stem cell laboratories). 

According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), Dr. Robert Harman, CEO of Vet-Stem Inc reports that his company has processed stem cells from fat samples for approximately 8,000 patients.  Approximately half the patients are horses, the other half comprised of dogs and a few cats.  In the same article, Dr. Sean Owens, director of the Regenerative medicine Laboratory at the University of California- Davis School of Veterinary Medicine states, “We’ve moved forward so quickly that what we need to do now is put the science underneath.”

Dr. Brennan A. McKenzie is the president-elect of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association. As stated in the same JAVMA article, “Dr. McKenzie thinks the use of stem cells is a promising avenue for therapy but that the evidence of efficacy and safety is inadequate to justify the expensive treatment in most cases.  He would prefer for clinics to offer stem cells as a truly experimental treatment in formal clinical trials.”

The North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association has recently been organized with hopes of acting as a clearinghouse of information on the use of stem cells in veterinary medicine.  Their first official meeting will be in June with the intention of forming standing committees to address things such as clinical trials and regulatory affairs.

Given the paucity of research supporting stem cell therapy, is there any downside to opting for this form of therapy for your dog or horse?  While there is always risk associated with general anesthesia (usually required for harvesting fat or bone marrow samples as well as injecting the stem cells into the exactly appropriate spot), thusfar, there have been no reports of adverse effects caused by the stem cells themselves. If my own doggie had significant arthritis pain and nothing else in my medical arsenal (supplements, acupuncture, underwater treadmill therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications) made a difference, might I try stem cell therapy?  You betcha. Is there risk of expenditure of two to three grand without a return on investment?  You betcha.

Has one of your four-legged family members received stem cell therapy?  If so, I welcome your feedback.

Best wishes for good health,             

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Reasonable Expectations VIII: Written Cost Estimates

January 8, 2011

This is the eighth part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through seven can be found at www.speakingforspot.com/blog.

You’ve just taken your best buddy to see your veterinarian because he’s been vomiting for three days and is now beginning to refuse his food. Your vet performs a thorough physical examination with all normal findings, so she recommends blood tests along with X-rays of your dog’s belly.  If these tests don’t provide a diagnosis, she tells you that the next recommended step would be abdominal ultrasound.  Of course you want to proceed with this testing because your dog is a beloved family member and you want him to get better, but do you know how much the recommended diagnostics will cost?  Will you be charged $300, $800,  $1,300? Unless your dog is a “repeat offender” how in the world could you possibly know? Three hundred dollars might be completely within your budget; whereas $1,300 might mean coming up short on your mortgage payment.

Whether you are independently wealthy, barely making ends meet, or somewhere in between, know that it is perfectly reasonable to request a written cost estimate from your veterinarian before services are provided.  Why must you be responsible for asking- shouldn’t your vet automatically offer forth a written cost estimate?  Much to my chagrin, I must tell you that only the minority of vets voluntarily provide written estimates. This was documented by veterinarian/researcher, Dr. Jason Coe and his colleagues. Their research appeared in 2009 within the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.  The article titled, “Prevalence and Nature of Cost Discussions During Clinical Appointments in Companion Animal Practice” documented the following:

• Actual cost is addressed in only 29% of veterinary appointments.
• When cost is discussed, 33% of the time it is the client and not the veterinarian who initiates the discussion.
• Talk related to cost information constitutes a mere 4.3% of the total dialogue time.
• Written cost estimates are discussed during 14% of appointments.
• Written cost estimates are actually prepared and delivered to the client in only 8% of appointments.

Dr. Coe’s research certainly supports the notion that veterinarians are squeamish when it comes to discussing fees for their service.  I must admit it is certainly one of the least favorite parts of my job.  Nonetheless, I consistently provide written cost estimates, particularly if I’ve recommended something other than a single treatment or test, in order to avoid communication snafus and clients who are disgruntled when it comes time to pay their bill. 

Why is a written estimate preferable to a verbal estimate? Written estimates require time and focus. Guaranteed such estimates are far more likely to be accurate than those prepared by the vet using mental math while “on the fly”.  Additionally written estimates avoid uncomfortable conversations such as, “You told me it would be $100, not $300……..” and, “But you never told me you were going to do that……”.   So, please don’t encourage your vet to simply give you a “ballpark estimate” or an estimate “off the top of his or her head.”   I avoid providing such guesstimates at all costs (no pun intended).  Try as I might, I invariably lowball such estimates because of my innate desire to make the cost for my client as reasonable as possible.  And when this happens I end up cutting corners (not a good thing for the patient) and/or having to make uncomfortable phone calls advising clients of added expenses (and I definitely get called into the principal’s office).

It is completely reasonable to receive a written cost estimate before services are provided, but keep in mind, you may need to be the one who initiates this process!  With written estimates everybody wins- communication is so much clearer and there are no surprises when it comes time to collect fees.  Additionally, a written cost estimate provides an itemization for you of everything that is planned for your pooch. Have you received estimates from your veterinarian?  If so have they been delivered verbally or in writing?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Reasonable Expectations VII: Discussion and Open-Mindedness About Your Dog’s Vaccinations

December 27, 2010

This is the seventh part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through six can be found at www.speakingforspot.com/blog

As invaluable as vaccinations are for protecting canine health, determining which vaccines are appropriate and how frequently they should be administered are no longer simple decisions. Gone are the days of behaving like  “Stepford wives” simply because you’ve received a vaccine reminder postcard or email. Vaccinations are no different than any other medical procedure.  They should not be administered without individualized discussion with your veterinarian and consideration of the potential risks and benefits. Please know that having such a discussion with your veterinarian is a perfectly reasonable expectation, and your input is an invaluable part of the vaccine decision-making process.

Consider the following:

• There are currently more than a dozen canine vaccinations to choose from! Back in the days when I was just a pup there were only five, and decision-making regarding vaccine selection for an individual dog was far less complicated.
• Over the past decade we’ve learned that, for some vaccines, the duration of protection is far longer than previously recognized.  In the past we vaccinated against distemper, parvovirus, and rabies annually.  We now know that these vaccinations, when given to adult dogs, provide protection for a minimum of three years and, in some cases protection is life-long.
• The duration and degree of immune protection triggered by a vaccine is variable, not only based on vaccine manufacturer, but from dog to dog as well.
• Other than for rabies (state mandated), vaccination protocols are anything but standardized. There are no set rules veterinarians must follow when determining which vaccines to give and how often they are administered. Unfortunately, some vets continue to vaccinate for distemper and parvovirus annually even though we know that these adult vaccines provide protection for a minimum of three years.  Some vets give multiple inoculations at once, others administer just one at a time.
• Increasingly clear-cut documentation shows that vaccines have the potential to cause many side effects.  While vaccine reactions/complications are still considered to be infrequent, they can be life threatening.

What you can do:

As your dog’s savvy medical advocate, what can you do to be sure that he or she is neither under or overvaccinated? Here are some guidelines for making wise vaccine choices for your best buddy:

1.  Educate yourself about available canine vaccinations and the diseases they are capable of preventing (in some cases treating the disease, should it arise, might be preferable to the risks and expense associated with vaccination). Learn about duration of vaccine protection and potential side effects.  Read the chapter called “The Vaccination Conundrum” in Speaking for Spot. It provides detailed discussion about all aspects of canine vaccinations including the diseases they prevent, adverse vaccination reactions, and the topic of vaccine serology (blood testing that helps determine if your dog is truly in need of vaccine booster). The American Animal Hospital Association’s “Canine Vaccine Guidelines” is also an excellent source of information (http://secure.aahanet.org/eweb/dynamicpage.aspx?site=resources&webcode=CanineVaccineGuidelines).
2.  Talk with your veterinarian to figure out which diseases your dog has potential exposure to.  A miniature poodle who rarely leaves his Manhattan penthouse likely has no exposure to Lyme disease (spread by ticks); however a Lab that goes camping and duck hunting may have significant exposure.
3.  Alert your veterinarian to any symptoms or medical issues your dog is experiencing.  It is almost always best to avoid vaccinating a sick dog — better to let his immune system concentrate on getting rid of a current illness rather than creating a vaccine “distraction.” If your dog has a history of autoimmune (immune-mediated) disease, it may be advisable to alter his vaccine protocol or even forego ongoing vaccinations — be sure to discuss this with your vet.
4.  Let your vet know if your dog has had vaccine side effects in the past. If the reaction was quite serious, she may recommend that you forego future vaccinations, necessitating an official letter to your local government agency excusing your pup from rabies• related requirements.
5.  Talk to your veterinarian about vaccine serology.  This involves testing a blood sample from your dog to determine if adequate vaccine protection still exists (remember, vaccine protection for the core diseases lasts a minimum of three years).  While such testing isn’t perfect, in general if the blood test indicates active and adequate protection, there is currently no need for a vaccine booster. Serology may make more sense than simply vaccinating at set intervals.
6.  Talk to your veterinarian about the potential side effects of proposed vaccinations, what you should be watching for, and whether or not there are any restrictions for your dog in the days immediately following vaccination.

What happens if your veterinarian declines vaccine discussion and simply wants to vaccinate based on what he or she thinks is appropriate?  Time to find yourself a new veterinarian who is progressive enough to have a working relationship with people who choose to be a stellar medical advocates for their dogs!  Is your vet willing to have open-minded discussion with you about your dog’s vaccinations?

Best wishes for a happy new year.   

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

Price Shopping: To Be Avoided at All Costs

December 13, 2010

I recently exchanged emails with a woman who was feeling frustrated while searching for a new veterinarian.  Her search included some “fee shopping” and she was disgruntled to find that some vets had the nerve to mark up lab fees more than others.  She wrote to me to find out how she might gain access to the fees charged by commercial veterinary laboratories so she could figure out how much mark up each veterinarian applied. She mentioned that she’d found one vet she really liked, but she was “out of the running” because her office charged double the lab fees (exact same test) as two others she’d investigated.

Here’s how I responded.  I encouraged my email buddy to consider reasons why fees are not uniform from hospital to hospital. In some cases, laboratory testing is run “in house” requiring on site technician time and costs involved in maintaining equipment.  Certainly charges to the client for this should be higher. The expertise a veterinary specialist brings to interpreting laboratory test results may be greater than that of a general practitioner.  Shouldn’t a client pay more for this? Additionally, every clinic must pay its overhead to continue to provide good service, and the more “bells and whistles” the hospital has, the higher that overhead will be.  For example, if the hospital employs sophisticated equipment to monitor anesthesia, that’s a really good thing, right?  Chances are, the fees for surgery there will be higher in order to cover the costs of this advanced level of care.

I went on to explain that I truly discourage people from price shopping when it comes to veterinary care unless it is an absolutely necessity.  A sweet six-month-old Labrador is currently being treated at my hospital because she sustained a horrific thermal burn all along her back from a faulty heating pad used during her surgery at a low cost spay/neuter clinic. This has necessitated major reconstructive surgery over her back- a tremendous price to pay both in terms of money and what this poor dog is going through. By the end of our email thread my correspondent seemed convinced- she told me that she’d decided to use the vet she really liked in spite of more expensive lab tests. Hurray!

Now, I’m not completely naïve when it comes to how our current economy is influencing delivery of veterinary health care.  I realize that for many folks, price shopping has become a financial necessity.  When this is the case, I encourage the following:

-Do your best to avoid sacrificing quality of medical care.  The old cliché, “You get what you pay for,” is often true.  Be thorough in your investigation: don’t make up your mind based on brief over-the-telephone price quotes.  Visit the clinic, tour the facility, and meet the staff to feel confident this is a place you and your pet will feel comfortable.

-Watch for “hidden” fees.  Some clinics may offer an extremely reasonable quote for a surgical procedure, but then charge additional fees for the initial office visit or for post-surgical necessities like removing stitches.

-Keep in mind the potential for complications.  If a significant complication occurs due to substandard care (such as occurred with the Labrador mentioned above) you will end up spending a great deal more money treating it, not to mention associated emotional energy, than you would have spent at the better more expensive clinic to begin with.

When you chose your veterinarian, how did fees enter into your decision-making?  If so, how did things turn out? I’d love to hear about your experience.

Now here’s wishing you and your loved ones (including those who are furry or feathered) for a peaceful and healthy holiday season.   

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller. 

Free holiday gift wrap with books purchased between now and December 25th (www.speakingforspot.com/purchase.html).

What is a Veterinary Specialist?

March 21, 2010

I participate in a list serve for veterinarians who specialize in internal medicine. The list serve “topic de jour” concerns veterinarians who are general practitioners (also known as family veterinarians), yet bill themselves as “specialists” in specific venues such as surgery, dentistry, or cardiology.  The responses have been strongly disapproving, and here is the reason why:  The American Veterinary Medical Association dictates that the term “specialist” be reserved only for veterinarians who have completed all of the requirements to become a “diplomate” within a specialty organization. What must a veterinarian do to become an official specialist/diplomate? Trust me, it is a long and arduous process! After graduating from veterinary school, wannabee specialists must complete a minimum three-year internship and residency training program, author publications in peer reviewed journals, and pass some insanely rigorous examinations specific to the specialty they are pursuing.  (Note that the requirements differ for those who become specialists in complementary/alternative medicine fields of veterinary medicine such as homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and Chinese herbs.) If one is successful in completing this rigorous and extensive training they achieve “board certification” status and are deemed to be “specialists” or “diplomates” within their chosen specialty.  This is much like the process physicians go through to become specialists.

The world of veterinary specialists has grown by leaps and bounds.  Much like Starbucks®, if there’s not already a group of specialists in your community, there likely will be soon!  Veterinary specialists are found in university teaching hospitals and in some private practices.  They often “cohabitate,” sharing specialty staffing, equipment and laboratory services with specialists in different areas of expertise.  When this is the case, you, the lucky client, end up with access to multiple specialists under one roof.  Not only is this convenient, it also focuses a lot of brainpower and experience on your pet- group discussions about patients (medical rounds) typically occur daily in such specialty hospital settings.

When might you need the services of a veterinary specialist? Just as your family physician refers patients to specialists, your family veterinarian should be considering referral in the following three situations:

  1. A second opinion is desired by you or your veterinarian.  Yes, you definitely have the right to request a second opinion.  I know it can be tough telling your vet you would like a second opinion, but as your beloved pet’s medical advocate, you are obligated to do so just as soon a your “gut” starts suggesting that a second opinion makes sense. I encourage you to read the chapter called, “A Second Opinion is Always Okay” in Speaking for Spot- it will provide you with plenty of helpful coaching about how to tactfully broach the subject with your veterinarian! Hopefully your vet has established relationships with local specialists- the kind she would trust to take good care of her own dog should the need arise. Not all family veterinarians are keen on “letting go” of their patients, so self-referral might be your only way to seek out the help of a specialist.
  2. Help is needed to figure out what is wrong with your pet. Specialists have advanced diagnostic tools (ultrasound, endoscopy, CT imaging, MRI scans, etc.) and have developed the skills to use them. Additionally, because of their extensive experience with challenging cases, specialists often have the ability to hone in on a diagnosis in the most direct and expedient manner.
  3. Your vet doesn’t specialize in the disease your pet has or the therapy he needs.  Just as with our own health issues, treatment is ideally managed by someone who works with that particular disease issue day in, and day out, and regularly pursues continuing education pertaining to that disease.

How can you tell if a particular veterinarian is truly a specialist?  Simply examine the initials following his or her name. See the list of specialties and their corresponding initials below. For example, if you look at the initials following my signature (ACVIM), you can tell that I am a specialist in The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. To learn more about any of these areas of specialization, pay a visit to the websites.  Those listed below are within the United States, but you will find comparable organizations in many other countries or continents.

Have you ever taken your pet to a veterinary specialist?  Have you ever wanted to do so, but had trouble getting “buy in” from your family veterinarian?  If so, please share your experience.  I’d love to hear from you.

Diplomate, ACVIM Internal medicine (acvim.org)
Diplomate, ACVIM, Cardiology Cardiology (acvim.org)
Diplomate, ACVIM, Oncology Oncology (acvim.org)
Diplomate, ACVIM, Neurology Neurology (acvim.org)
Diplomate, ACVS Surgery  (acvs.org)
Diplomate, ACVD Dermatology (acvd.org)
Diplomate, ACVR Radiology (acvr.org)
Diplomate, ACVO Ophthalmology (acvo.org)
Diplomate, AVECC Emergency and critical care (acvecc.org)
Diplomate, ACVA Anesthesiology (acva.org)
Diplomate DACVB Behavior (dacvb.org)
Diplomate, ACVN Nutrition (acvn.org)
Diplomate, AVDC Dentistry (avdc.org)
Diplomate, ACT Theriogenology (theriogenology.org)
CVA Veterinary acupuncture (Ivas.org)
TCVM Chinese veterinary medicine (tcvm.com)
AVH Homeopathy (drpitcairn.com) or (theavh.org)
ACVA Chiropractic (animalchiropractic.org)
CCRP Canine rehabilitation (caninerehabinstitute.com)

Best wishes to you and your four-legged family members for abundant good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, ACVIM
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life

Website: http://www.speakingforspot.com
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.