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Pet Talk With Dr. Marty Becker

America’s top veterinarian answers your questions about your furry and feathered pals

Transcript from live online chat with AARP pet expert Dr. Marty Becker.

AARP Host: Welcome to our first pet chat with Dr. Marty Becker.

Marty Becker: Hello, I'm looking forward to taking your questions. I live on a horse ranch in Northern Idaho. I don't just play a veterinarian on TV. I've been a practicing vet for over 30 years.

AARP Host: That's good enough for us! Why don't we get started?

Sandy: Is a dog's constant barking a behavior thing or is there something else wrong?

MB: Great question, Sandy. Well, dogs are a lot like people. Some like the sound of their own voice more than others. Let's take two dog breeds that start with the letter "B". Basenjis are almost mute and beagles are chatterboxes. But overall, within breeds excessive barking is usually about boredom. The one overall treatment for this boredom is exercise. Get a dog panting every day and the barking should subside.

Joy: I have lots of little grandkids. What breeds of dogs are good with small children?

MB: I am a grandparent myself and I've asked the same question, Joy. In general, when you are looking for a breed of dog, it is best to ask your vet for a recommendation. If you look at a book about dog breeds or online, it will give a description of what kind of job the dog was bred to do. I tend to avoid terrier breeds. We have a saying, "Terrier Tenacious." Also avoid herding breeds. The retriever breeds are a good overall pick. Small mixed breeds from a shelter are also a good choice. And I've asked veterinarian behaviorists over the years, "If you can pick one ideal dog, what would it be?" And they pick the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

Guest: Every once in a while my dog will eat grass — lots of it — does this mean she has a stomachache? Most days, she doesn't even eat a blade.

MB: It's normal for dogs to eat grass. They especially like tender grass that is moist, such as after being watered or rain. They like to nibble the tips. Dogs are what we call omnivores. They like to eat a mixture of plants and meat, unlike cats that require meat. The only time I worry is if they eat it extensively. That can be a sign of irritable bowel disease. One of the signs a dog has a digestive upset is if the stool is loose or has visible mucus in it. The first thing we reach for in this situation — if a dog otherwise seems healthy — is probiotics, which you can get from your vet.

Linda: I have 13 parrots who eat a variety of pellets, seed mix, birdy bread that I bake and healthy "people food" that I share with them — like fruits, veggies or anything "healthy" that I am eating. What is your idea of the best diet for our parrots?

MB: Linda, I have to imagine you wear earplugs in your house with 13 parrots! My good friend Jack Hanna would enjoy a visit to your house. Linda is a good reminder for those of us who have dogs and cats that people also have a strong bond to birds. I have a lot of friends who are avian vets and one key message is to make birds' diet 100 percent pellet food, because it is then nutritiously complete. It is also good to give a bird a variety. And most fruits and veggies are good for them and provide an enrichment activity. You just have to avoid avocados, as many varieties are toxic for birds.

Catherine: My cat is licking and biting itself until there's almost a bald spot on the fur. Is it something he's eating or what's the problem?

MB: Short of going to the hair club for cats, we've got to get to the bottom of this problem. If you live in area that has fleas, that is the No. 1 cause of skin problems in cats and dogs. So if they are scratching behind the rib cage and the middle of the back, then it is almost always a parasite problem. Get a spot flea-control product from your vet or online and apply the liquid between their shoulder blades for full body protection.

Debbie: Do you believe in training a dog with an e-collar?

MB: Debbie, I'm against any form of training that utilizes punishment as its primary mechanism. We've learned with our children and grandchildren that positive reinforcement is always best. It's better to catch them doing something right and reward them. Remember that pets speak a different language than humans, so don't expect your pet to understand what you are saying.

  • We have to show them what we want them to do.
  • Ask them to do it.
  • And then reward them for doing it.

Celeste: I have a cat that does not make any sounds, not even a purr. He can hear, as he comes when called. What could be the trouble?

MB: Celeste, first of all, people assume cats purr when they are happy. But I can tell you cats purr when they are in pain, and very often purr when they are near death. And it is an exactly 25 vibrations per second, which is proven to have health benefits to cat owners. I've seen cats before like yours: They open their mouth and go through the mechanics as if they are going to make a purring sound but nothing comes out. It's probably just a little defect with the larynx but nothing that will affect its health.

Kerry Anne: My puppy likes to nip and bite, or mouth. What is the best way to deter this?

MB: First, you have to understand puppies are just like human babies and have an oral fixation. And there is good chewing and bad chewing. Human skin, whether it is someone elderly with sensitive skin or a robust adult, should never be bitten by a pet — even if it is all in fun. Just this Thursday, I had a client who had this exact problem, and like many pets that bite too hard, they were weaned too young. Animals learn from their litter mates proper play behavior, but if they are deprived of that learning time they often have biting problems. If a pet bites human skin, you say, "ouch" really loud and walk away, immediately ending the playtime. If you catch them chewing on something that they should bite, such as chew toy,  you tell them "good chew" in a real sweet, syrupy voice.

Marsha: I just adopted a springer spaniel with allergies. Tomorrow, I have to give her the allergy shot and I am scared to death. I'm afraid I am going to hurt her

MB: This is allergy season, not just for people but for pets. People sneeze, sniffle and get red eyes and a runny nose. But pets lick, chew, face rub and scratch when they have allergies. There are three kinds of allergies: One is related to parasites, such as fleas. Another is food allergies. And the most common is environmental allergies. A dog is basically like a four-legged dust mop and they attract pollen, spores, dust, dust mites and dander. There is a new recommendation from veterinary dermatologists to bathe pets once a week. I know this is counter to what you've been doing in the past — and maybe even against what your vet recommends — but bathing will dramatically decrease allergies and also will dramatically reduce human allergies to pets. Giving your pet a bath once a week has been shown to reduce vet bills by up to half. The allergy shots are one possible treatment and there's also a new drug (an oral cyclosporine) available from your vet that has proven to provide relief for pets who have suffered for years.

Ann: I have three dogs, three cats, three birds. My brother calls me an animal hoarder. How do you know when you have reached your limit?

MB: Ann, you're talking to someone who has four dogs, four cats ... so I'm with you. The good news is that there are studies that show that pets in multiple pet households are sick less often and when they go to the hospital, they get out more quickly and they live longer. And basically that's because of the socialization they enjoy with their own species. So unless you are breaking your budget and spending more than you can afford, or you're exceeding a legal issue that your landlord or covenants won't allow it, I'm fine with multiple pet households. The average size house, which is about 1,600 square feet, is ideal for 1-1/2 cats. When you have too many cats and too many dogs, it ends up causing chronic stress for cats.

What veterinarian behaviorists recommend for multiple cat households is to expand the living space, and we're not talking about knocking down walls; we're talking about expanding the vertical living space. Multiple level carpeted cat trees are good and I recommend putting up multiple small bookshelves that are just big enough for one cat.

Ira: Dr. Becker, I have a mixed-breed dog named Bandit. He is mainly a lab but has some retriever in him. Bandit is 6 years old. I feed him kibble, keeping his bowl full daily. The only treats I give him is Science Diet biscuits. Is this a good brand to go with? Bandit sheds a lot and tends to rummage thru garbage. Anything I can do to mitigate it?

MB: I recommend asking your vet what brand of food he feeds his own pet. My dad told me years ago that you should ask housepainters what kind of paint they use, and ask car mechanics what kind of motor oil they use. So this holds true for vets, too: what kind of food they use, shampoo they use, parasite control products they use.

Let's face it, dogs aren't known for their dietary discretion. The diaper pail, the cat litter box, the garbage can are all a veritable buffet for a dog with a sensitive nose. So the key is to deny access to things you don't want your dog to eat. We see so many pets who get into things like mouse bait, so make sure you put them in places where your pet cannot possibly get at it. You also should make sure to keep your pet away from human prescriptions. That's the No. 1 reason people have to call animal poison control. Also, make sure you keep your medicines in a draw and not on the counter. And don't have any gum that has Xylitol in it — an artificial sweetener that is toxic to dogs.

Kerry Anne: Is it really OK to allow your puppy to sleep with you?

MB: First, I woke up this morning with two dogs staring me in the eyeballs — so that's my short answer. There was recent media hysteria about the health dangers of sleeping with your pet, and some of the television shows I'm on were interested in doing a segment on it. But we couldn't find a single person who got anything worse from a pet than ringworm. The fact is, there are health risks and there are people who get sick from sleeping with a pet. But the health benefits far outweigh the risks. The exceptions to that: If your immune system is compromised. If you've got a chronic illness or if you're on a medication that weakens your immune system, you have to be more careful. If you keep up your pet's vaccinations and parasite control, and you bathe them frequently, the risk is negligible.

Question from Adrienne: Hi, Dr. Becker! I have a cat who sprays. I've had him since he was rescued at 4 weeks. He was neutered at 6 months of age. I've tried everything, including a stint of him on Prozac, which worked for a while but then he sprayed again so now he's off. Recently, I brought some stuff down from the attic that has never been around any cats, including my own, and he sprayed the pile of stuff while I was sleeping. Any insight? PS: my vet has checked him thoroughly several times and she is completely baffled.

MB: Inappropriate elimination is the No. 1 reason cats are relinquished to the shelter. Unfortunately for us, the whole world is a cat's urinal in the wild. The first thing you need to do is rule out a medical problem. Most cat households don't have enough litter boxes. The rule of thumb is at least one per floor of a house and at least one more than the number of cats that you have. I was just at the global pet expo and one of the new products was a video camera that a dog or cat wears around his collar, and this was like undercover video because you get to see what happens when you're either not home or not looking. Something that was commonly seen was that when a cat went to use the litter box there was a bully cat ready to pounce on him. Imagine you were going to get beat up every time you went to use the bathroom. You'd find someplace else to go. That's why you need more litter boxes. Also talk to your vet about pheromones

Barb: How do you feel about yearly vaccinations for dogs?

MB: We used to give every dog or cat the same thing every year, but now we do a personalized health approach that looks at the breed, the age, the lifestyle and any emerging risks. That's how we determine what, if any, vaccinations are needed. Most core vaccines are given every three years now. But there are exceptions, such as kennel cough, Lyme disease or dental vaccines. Are you surprised to hear there is a vaccine to treat dental disease? Ask your vet about it. Most people don't know it exists, and it can save a lot of money.

AARP Host: Thank you, Marty! I know we couldn't get to all of your questions today. You can ask Marty your question in our AARP Pet Pals group . And be sure to read Marty's columns on