Health Watch

Health Watch

Paul Gambardella

Our two-month-old Scottie suffers frequently from hiccups. As soon as she wakes up, she gets them. Could it have anything to do with what she’s eating? Is there a way to prevent them?

Hiccups in dogs, just as in people, are caused when a spasm of the muscular diaphragm creates a sudden inhalation followed by a closure of the glottis (a slender space separating the vocal cords). The triggering mechanism is poorly understood, and a number of events may be able to initiate the process. Diet is not known to be a cause, although there may be a connection for an individual pet. While hiccups can be a nuisance, they do not cause injury or disease and are self-limiting. In the next several months, your puppy will be growing and undergoing rapid physical changes that will, with luck, eliminate the hiccup problem very soon.

My former veterinarian told me my dog and cat should get a rabies vaccine every three years but need their other shots annually. Since we’ve moved, we have changed vets, and now I’m told my pets can wait three years between shots. Can you clarify what vaccines my pets should be getting and when?

When to give your pet a rabies vaccine is very straightforward, says Douglas Brum, D.V.M., a clinician at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, a division of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Rabies vaccines are given in accordance with state laws, and different states have different requirements. Many state laws currently require rabies vaccinations every three years after an initial booster the first year.

How often to give the other vaccinations is much less clear, and there are many differing opinions. A growing body of evidence, however, indicates that the “yearly” distemper combination vaccines may last longer than a year. Additionally, many vets take an animal’s exposure risk into account when making recommendations about vaccination frequency. There is no nationally accepted standard, but probably the best thing to do is to treat each animal as an individual and assess its potential risk factors for developing disease. You and your veterinarian should discuss the benefits and risks of vaccinating and not vaccinating your pet.

Whether your pet is vaccinated yearly or every three years, an annual physical examination is the most important part of your pet’s health care program.

My veterinarian recommended a heartworm preventative for my cat. Shouldn’t my cat be tested first? Is this medicine really necessary for her?

Current recommendations call for cats that are considered at risk for exposure to heartworm disease to be treated with preventative medication, advises Michael Bernstein, D.V.M., department head of internal medicine at Angell Memorial. This group primarily includes outdoor cats that live in endemic heartworm areas.

Although serum antibody tests for heartworms can be performed before starting preventative medication in cats, this is not done on a routine basis by all veterinarians. The test may indicate previous exposure but not necessarily the presence of active heartworm disease. In addition, preventative medication can be given even if a cat tests positive for circulating antibodies against heartworm. Dogs, on the other hand, must be tested before the administration of a heartworm preventative.

I have been hearing about a potentially fatal kidney disease in dogs, leptospirosis, becoming a problem in Connecticut and Long Island. What causes this disease, how is it treated, and is there a way to prevent my dog from getting it? Is my cat at risk? Are people at risk?

Leptospirosis is an infectious microorganism that is found worldwide, explains Maureen Carroll, D.V.M., an internist at Angell Memorial. The organism tends to live in slow-moving or stagnant water, and it appears that wild animals harbor and shed the organism through their urine. Transmission usually occurs through contact with these water sources (via mucous membranes found in the mouth or breaks in the skin), and once the organisms gain access to the victim, they are ultimately shed in the urine, which also becomes a source of infection to other dogs and people. A higher incidence of infection is observed after heavy rains or flooding, and more so in the spring and fall months. Cats appear to be less susceptible than dogs to infections, and the disease is rarely diagnosed as a clinical problem in this species.

Young dogs are most susceptible to infection. The symptoms include those of acute kidney and/or liver failure: lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, and increased thirst. Sometimes owners may notice jaundice in their dogs, which is consistent with liver involvement.

The diagnosis of leptospirosis is established with a blood test and, if necessary, a kidney biopsy. Although dogs can die from the peracute form of the disease, many dogs are successfully treated with intravenous fluids and antibiotics. These dogs either recover fully and regain normal renal function or are left with permanent kidney damage that can usually be managed medically at home.

Since leptospirosis is a highly infectious organism, it is important to prevent pet-to-people transmission when treating lepto patients. Recovered dogs excrete organisms in urine intermittently for weeks to months postinfection, and owners should be careful to wash hands after handling their dogs or wear gloves for better protection.

A vaccine against leptospirosis is available and is usually included in the yearly “distemper” vaccine for your dog. Although multiple strains of leptospirosis are covered in the vaccine, some strains are not, which leaves your dog susceptible. Dogs should ideally be kept clear of standing water and avoid contact with the habitats of wild animals.

Have there ever been studies proving that secondhand smoke harms pets? I’m trying to get my husband to quit, and if he won’t do it for himself or me, he may just do it for our dog.

According to Nancy Laste, D.V.M., a cardiologist at Angell Memorial, cigarette smoking has been shown to induce lung cancers in dogs in experimental conditions when these animals were exposed to firsthand smoke. Although these studies are artificial, in that a dog would never willingly inhale cigarette smoke, they do show that the response of the canine lung to tobacco smoke is similar to the response seen in the human lung. Although the correlation between secondhand smoke and canine lung cancers has not definitively been made, it stands to reason that the animals’ lungs would react to impurities in the air in much the same fashion as human lungs.

Certainly, veterinarians recognize that when dogs and cats with respiratory ailments are exposed to secondhand smoke, they are likely to experience a worsening of their clinical signs and increased distress. Clean air is essential for the health and happiness of all animals, not just the human animal. Maintaining an environment that is healthy for all should lessen the risk factors for the development of respiratory ailments, including the development of lung cancer, in all species. May you and your husband have luck quitting smoking; make use of the myriad of support networks available to aid you in the battle to quit.


Dr. Gambardella, chief of staff, Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, welcomes your questions on animal health.

Write: Health Watch, Animals, 350 South Huntington Ave. Boston, MA 02130. You may also e-mail us at healthwatch@ or fax us at (617) 522-4885.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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