Pet Care Goes High Tech

Want a dog that lives to hunt? How about one that runs like the wind? Maybe one that doesn’t shed? Prospective pet owners are often willing to shell out hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for a purebred pup, hoping the little dog will have the perfect mix of good looks and instinctive talents.

The downside can be that these selectively bred dogs also carry a higher risk than their mutt counterparts of developing a genetic disorder.

Paw Print Genetics, a new start-up in Spokane, offers clinical genetic diagnostics of dogs. “We’re hoping breeders use our services before breeding to avoid passing along a disorder to the puppies,” says the company’s CEO and founder Lisa Shaffer. “For pet owners, you want to know what you’re getting into because, with some of these diseases, the dog can die young or it could cost thousands of dollars in vet bills to stabilize the pet.”

Veterinarians can also request tests if they think a dog’s symptoms could be due to an inherited trait. And the company recently began offering tests to curious owners on its website. Shaffer notes Paw Print does not test which breeds a mixed-breed dog may have in its lineage. 

Herders At Risk

Herding dogs are family favorites because of their lively temperaments and because they love to run. But some of these dogs carry an ominous genetic mutation called MDR1. Katrina Mealey, a pharmacologist and internal medicine specialist at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published her discovery of the MDR1 mutation back in 2001. Affected dogs can include Australian shepherds, border collies, collies, German shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs and English shepherds, Mealey says. 

The gene isn’t a problem until the dog is prescribed certain medications used as pre-anesthetics and to treat heart problems or pain. Dogs carrying the mutation aren’t able to excrete the drugs, which can build up to life-threatening toxicity, even when given at what’s considered a safe, normal dosage. Some dogs die, while others may require long and costly stays in an ICU. 

Now that the genetic anomaly is known, veterinarians across the U.S. can order preventive testing by sending DNA samples to WSU for testing to determine if a dog is an MDR1 carrier. The test is $70, and Mealey says the veterinary teaching school’s lab on the Pullman campus runs up to 200 tests a week. She and a team of colleagues are continuing to research other potential genetic mutations that can cause drug susceptibility in other breeds and animals.

Speed Saves Lives

Over the past decade, most veterinary clinics — including small, locally owned practices — have acquired specialized equipment to run biochemical analyses of an animal’s blood, which can help to diagnose disease or illness. 

Dr. Mark Schrag, with Spokane’s Hunter Veterinary Clinic, says that in the past, vet clinics without such equipment would have to send patients’ blood samples to a larger lab facility, meaning the results — and thus a diagnosis — wouldn’t be available for several days. 

“You’d wait much longer and wouldn’t know what to do,” Schrag says of the older process. “Now, if you bring us a sick pet, we can get an answer relatively quickly.” He adds that most blood tests can be run in 15 to 20 minutes, while the client is there.

Citing an example of a cat on the brink of kidney failure, Schrag says getting the animal’s blood work results right away could mean the difference between a successful intervention and the cat dying before the results were returned from an offsite lab. 

Doggie Deductibles

Just like medical insurance plans protect us from the high costs that can result from an unexpected illness or injury, specialized insurance plans for a four-legged companion can also serve as a safety net for those “what if” accidents or illnesses a pet may experience. 

With so many pet insurance plans out there, deciding what level of coverage is best for your pet can seem a bit overwhelming. Unlike human medical insurance, pet insurance plans don’t cover routine preventive care, like vaccines, spay or neuter surgeries and general wellness care, says Jill Shovelier, a licensed veterinary technician at the Indian Trail Animal Hospital in north Spokane. 

“Each plan is a little different in terms of what they do or don’t cover, but most of our clients we’ve seen with [pet insurance] have coverage for unexpected, catastrophic illnesses or things they’re not prepared for that would cost several thousands of dollars,” Shovelier says. 

She estimates about a third of her clinic’s clients have some type of pet insurance, adding that she’s noticed an increase over the past several years in the number of people who’ve enrolled in a pet plan.

Considering your pet’s age, current health and your lifestyle are just a few things to keep in mind when shopping for pet insurance. Shovelier suggests researching whether a plan has any coverage exclusions for specific breeds that are more prone to develop certain diseases, if it covers pre-existing health conditions (the majority of plans don’t) and what kinds of waiting periods there may be before you’re able to submit a claim. 

Not sold on the idea of pet insurance? There are other measures pet parents can take to save money and keep a beloved dog or cat healthy without pet insurance. Don’t skip preventive care, and don’t ignore minor health issues that could turn into serious problems for your pet down the road. 

Going Alternative

If medication and traditional treatment just doesn’t seem to be working for an ailing animal, some pet owners turn to alternative approaches. Dr. Meagan Bright, who practices at Legacy Animal Medical Center in Liberty Lake, says she offers animal acupuncture and herbal treatments, mostly for pets suffering from chronic conditions that haven’t responded to other treatments.

The premise behind pet acupuncture is the same as with humans; addressing imbalances in the body that could be allowing it to harbor disease or pain, Bright explains. Obviously it’s a little more difficult to get a dog or a cat to lie still while tiny needles are being poked into its skin, but she adds that many patients she’s worked with have experienced successful results after acupuncture treatments. Dachshunds are a breed she commonly treats using acupuncture, as they are more prone than most breeds to suffer from disc disease, which causes chronic pain and, in some cases, paralysis.

Pets Need Blood, Too

“I always tell people to imagine themselves moving to a town that has no blood bank available, and then something happens to them. What do you do?” asks Dr. Jane Wardrop, a professor at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the college’s transfusion services director.

Animal blood donors are just as crucial to veterinary medicine as human donors are to blood banks and hospitals. Yet the continuous need in veterinary medicine for eligible blood donors isn’t something that may frequently come to mind for many pet owners.

Some of the most common reasons an animal may require a life-saving blood transfusion include a severe loss of blood due to an accident, a disease attacking its blood cells or blood loss during a surgical procedure, Wardrop explains.

WSU’s transfusion program continually recruits eligible volunteer donors, Waldrop says. The program generally recruits pet owners who live in the Greater Palouse region, mostly because owners can be asked to bring their pet in every few months to donate, or could be on-call to donate during an emergency situation. 

Pet owners outside of the Pullman area who’re interested in finding out if their dog or cat is an eligible donor should contact their veterinarian, Waldrop says. In a heavily populated metro area like Spokane, the need for a regularly stocked pet blood bank is often great, she adds.

Both cats and dogs have different blood types and can’t accept blood from a different species or a non-compatible blood type. 

Don’t Forget to Brush

It’s been ingrained into just about all of us since we were children to brush our teeth at least twice a day. But not as many people may know they should also try to brush their dog’s or cat’s teeth at least three times a week. It’s easier said than done, but this little act can improve your pet’s health — and save on future vet bills.

Dr. Sara Shaw at Lincoln Heights Veterinary Clinic says a decaying or abscessed tooth can release bacteria that travel through the bloodstream, ultimately affecting the heart or kidneys.

“With advances in dental X-rays we can learn more about the state of the tooth,” Shaw says. “We’ve really started to learn more about the importance of [animal dental health]. I get reports from people saying, ‘After my dog’s teeth were cleaned, it was happier and brighter.’”

Not all animals need a professional dental cleaning from a veterinarian every year, Shaw says, but keeping teeth healthy with regular brushing and the occasional exam may mean a pet gets more timely care for any problem teeth.