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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Memories

I've always loved Halloween.  Unfortunately today I had to work and since we close late (7pm), I ran late, and I live 30 minutes from work, by the time I got home pretty much all of the trick-or-treating was over.  Bummer.  But I still have plenty of great memories.

For anyone who has followed me on this blog it should be obvious that I like costumes and what is called "cosplay".  Going to Dragon*Con and ConNooga in costume is one of the highlights of my year.  Halloween is the one time of the year that adults can get away with dressing up in cool outfits...unless you're geeks like my family.  So my love of such costumes extends from my interest in Halloween.

Growing up we had great times at Halloween.  My parents encouraged me dressing up and my mom made some great outfits.  Back then going trick-or-treating was a big deal and the streets were filled with kids walking around begging for candy.  Nowadays the streets are bare and it's nothing like it was.  I find that rather sad, as it made for some wonderful memories.

We would always dress up the house and yard in a big way, making it spooky and cool.  My parents would dress in costume just to pass out candy.  I remember one year when my dad hurt his ankle and couldn't move around much.  He dressed in a full mask, gloves, and clothes, and sat in a chair like a scarecrow or straw-stuffed dummy.  As kids walked near the door he would remain perfectly still, even holding his breath. When they got close and started to look at him he would suddenly reach out for them and yell.  It scared the heck out of them!  They thought he was just a decoration and didn't expect him to move!  It worked so well that a few years after that when I was a teenager I did the same thing.  I would sit in a chair on the porch and remain still in my mask and outfit (complete with straw sticking out of my sleeves!).  The kids would stare at me, wondering if I was real and trying to figure out if I was breathing.  I would jump up a them when a group was gathered, causing much screaming and running.  It was great!

The biggest event came one year in the '80s when my father and a couple of our adjoining neighbors got the idea to make a full haunted woods.  Our connecting properties had some woods in the yards, and they planned to have a path through it with skits and scares along the way.  This was a big thing that they planned and built for months.  We had a full-sized stretching rack made out of industrial cable spools, designed to be turned and click with an actress (one of the wives) laying on it pretending to be tortured.  We had a chicken-wire and plaster Dracula in a coffin, above whom a rubber bat was flying up and down mounted to a motor.  At one place we had built a full Frankenstein lab with a full-sized monster (also chicken-wire) on a table.  One of the neighbors played the part of the doctor while I played Igor and we had a short but full skit that involved a second monster bursting into the crowd.  My treehouse was a control station that had ropes opening a grave, moving a rocking chair (like an invisible man was in it), and other things without people seeing.  The climax at the end had a witch on a broom attached to a wire that would come swooping down over the crowd.  A walkie-talkie was placed in her so someone could cackle and talk to people as she flew over their heads.  The candy at the end was in a tray floating in a large cast-iron cauldron (an antique from my grandparents' house) with dry ice causing the water to bubble and smoke.  And among all of that we had people in costumes that were doing their own thing to scare visitors.  By the time people got to the end they were so scared and freaked out that many left without getting candy!  It was all free, done just for the fun of it.  They continued to do variations of this for a few years, and it was a blast!

Now some may say, "Wait, you're a conservative Christian.  How can you support and celebrate Halloween?"  I've addressed that issue for the past two years on my other blog, The Christian Ninjate, so check here and here for my views on that topic.  But to summarize, Halloween is about protecting against evil, not worshiping it.  And in modern times it's not even about's about cool costumes and free candy!

Now that my kids are getting older they are wanting to do cool decorations at our house and make it spookier.  I hope I can give them great Halloween memories like my parents gave me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dr. Bern, Jr.?

My daughter is a chip off the ol' block in many ways.  She has my sarcastic sense of humor, likes the same foods that I do, and is into monsters and spooky stuff as much as I am.  But one of the biggest similarities is her interest in animals and veterinary medicine.

Nothing grosses her out.  When I was teaching Anatomy & Physiology she would come with me while I set up the labs and would be excited to put on gloves and touch sheep brains and eyes.  She sees the pictures of surgeries I put on this blog and says "cool!" while my son and wife are gagging and quickly looking away.  She loves animals and gets upset when people don't treat them right.  And she is convinced that one day she is going to be the next Dr. Bern.

In one way I love this idea.  I enjoy sharing medicine and animals with her and look forward to the day that I can let her spend a day at work with me, watching surgeries and seeing what a vet really does.  One of my vet school classmates was the daughter of a vet and planned on taking over her father's practice one day.  I've heard many stories of families who have several veterinarians in their lineage and it's something to be proud of.  There's also something that tugs at the heart about having someone follow in your footsteps.

On the other hand I see great struggles in the future of veterinary medicine.  As I've discussed a few times in the last several months, the financial prospect for new vets is increasingly difficult.  It's getting more difficult to find well-paying jobs to even survive the crushing debt load.  I know how hard it is make it into and through vet school, with much blood sweat and tears.  I don't want her to put all of that time and effort into it and then not be able to support herself.

But I shouldn't worry too much yet.  She turns 10 next month, so I have over a decade before this is a realistic option.  A lot can change in that time, from the state of the profession to her own interest.  In the meantime I'm going to enjoy having a child with whom I can share my job and interests.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Through-The-Fence Play

Julie asks this question...

My question for you is about dog behavior, not health. If you can help me out, I'd appreciate it because I have fallen a bit in love with the neighbor-dog in question here.
Most homes in my neighborhood have low chain or iron fences around their front yards, so on walks my dog inevitably ends up nose to nose with fenced-in dogs. (She is completely nonreactive to them.) One particular neighbor has a pup who stays outside 24/7. For the longest time I assumed he wasn't well looked after because he was an outside dog, but in fact he appears to be a healthy, well-adjusted pet. He is calm and inquisitive, and has never jumped, growled or barked. Recently he and my on-leash dog have started play bowing and fence-racing. I feel bad for the sweet guy, so lately I've been letting my dog stay and play a couple minutes before dragging her off to finish our walk.
My question is, is there any reason why this through-the-fence-play might be a bad idea? Though friendly, the other dog seems to get little attention or stimulation and so I feel like I'm doing him some good. Am I?For the record, my dog has never exhibited any aggression or frustration playing on-leash.

Behavior can be tricky to assess sometimes, and that is even more true when reading a description like this.  However, it sounds like this is a good situation.  The play bow never happens outside of play behavior, and is a very good sign of a willingness to be nice. 

There are some potential concerns with playing through a fence.  First, if the other dog is not properly vaccinated there could be some risk of spreading infection to your own dog, especially bordetella ("kennel cough").  If any signs of aggression do happen, even suddenly, you can get bites through a fence if body parts are close enough.  There is also the potential that either dog could potentially break a toenail, get a toe or foot caught, or snag a tooth, resulting in some minor trauma.

My recommendation would be to politely ring the doorbell and ask the owner if they are fine with this.  The dog may be outside because someone has allergies, they don't believe in inside dogs, or the dog just prefers to be outside.  A dog can still be very well cared for while living outside, as long as food, water, and shelter are provided, so I wouldn't assume that the dog is mistreated.  By asking the dog's owners you are letting them know of the situation so they don't become a bit freaked out if they see a random person playing with their dog through the fence.  They could also inform you of any health problems that would make it a problem or concern for your own dog.

A related but side note....

Back when I was in graduate school getting my Master's Degree in ethology (behavior) I spent the summer doing research on ermine at the Minnesota Zoo.  One of the animals they had on exhibit was a wolverine, and one day I was wandering the zoo just looking at some of the animals.  The wolverine's exhibit was a long plate glass window with a natural habitat inside.  He started running along the window and it looked like he was trying to play.  So I started jogging back and forth in front of the glass to see what he would do.  He followed me!  And then I saw him do a play bow, and open-mouth play-face, and other behaviors that were clearly play.  This wolverine was exhibiting play behavior and was actually having fun running back and forth with me, playing through the window!  It was a remarkable experience, and though I would never venture into an enclosure with an animal like that, it was neat to see that many different kinds of animals enjoy playing.  We should take more cues from nature!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

ANOTHER Vet School???? While Pet Numbers Decline

Back in March of this year I expressed concern about the fact that Arizona was planning on opening a new veterinary college despite evidence that we don't have a shortage of vets in this country and despite increasing problems with new graduates finding well-paying jobs.  Well, it looks like Arizona isn't the only one.

In the latest issue of DVM Newsmagazine there is an article (page 30) that talks about a new vet school being proposed in Buffalo, NY.  This one would be in addition to the one planned in Arizona.  A representative for the real estate development company behind the proposal is quoted as saying the following as a rationale for needing a new vet school.

"Over 50 percent of America's pets receive no regular veterinary care, so there continues to be a need for veterinarians.  As baby boomer veterinarians retire, this need will only grow."

Sadly, this statement shows that the people involved in planning the new school understand nothing about the realities of the veterinary profession in today's society and economy.  Yes, half (or more if you look just at cats) of American pets don't receive good, regular veterinary care.  However, that is absolutely not due to a shortage of opportunities or vets.  In fact, all recent data shows that we're quickly trending to a surplus of vets, causing a rise in veterinary unemployment and a relative decrease in average salaries (compared to inflation and debt load).  The reason that many pets don't see vets is because the owners have chosen not to take them in, probably in large part due to current national and world economies.

I find it ironic and very revealing that in the same issue a cover story has the bold headline "U.S. pet ownership on the decline".  According to data to be released this fall we can see the following troubling data:
     *  The percentage of pet-owning households in the US declined by 2.4% over the last five years.
     *  Dog owning households decreased by 1.9%
     *  Cat owning households decreased by 6.2%
     *  The number of pet dogs decreased by 3% from 2006 to 2011, going from 72.1 million to 69.9 million
     *  Cats decreased by 9.4%, from 81.7 million to 74.4 million

So let me do a quick analysis of the numbers we're looking at.  The overall numbers of pets in the US are declining.  Debt load to get a veterinary education is reaching a critical level where it may become nearly impossible to survive on current salaries due to crushing money burdens.  We are enrolling and graduating more vets per year than ever before as colleges increase class size to overcome budget cuts.  All data points towards us having a surplus of small animal vets with the problem likely worsening over time.  And with all of this information we are looking at adding two new veterinary schools, adding a couple hundred vets annually to a profession that is already struggling? 

Can someone please tell me the wisdom in these plans and why someone isn't being realistic about the future of the profession?

It makes me very glad that I graduated 15 years ago and have a good, steady job.  I don't want to be pessimistic, but I really feel sorry for people wanting to enter the field over the next decade and would not easily recommend doing so. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is Community College Bad?

Bendrick wrote with this question:

I have some questions for becoming a vet. I just graduated from High school and I am now attending a community college in northern California. I got into a four year college but then I don't see the point of paying so much more for the exact same thing. So I chose the 2 year community college transfer program to save myself some money. But here are questions, do vet schools look down upon people who transferred from a community college to a four year institution? I am planning to major in animal science/biology once I transfer but I've heard that it isn't necessary, is it true? Are there any requirements I must meet in order to 'shadow' a vet? Thanks for reading this email! 

I don't see any problems with starting at a community college.  In fact, I see more and more people doing it for the same reason you did...saving money.  In my experience veterinary schools only look at whether or not you have met your course requirements, not where you did it.  If it's an accredited school it should be no problem and starting at a community college shouldn't hurt you.

Your major is usually irrelevant.  Yes, biology and animal science degrees are most common, but just because of people's initial interest.  As long as you have the required courses you could be an English major, engineering student, teacher, and so on.  In fact, I've seen all of those degrees and more represented in veterinary classes.

Shadowing or working for a vet has no standard.  Vet schools are certainly going to look at your veterinary experience, so this is a "must".  But you'll have to check with individual vets to see what they may require.  You should also check with your vet school of choice (most likely Western University or UC Davis if you're in California) to see if they require a certain number of hours with a vet before being accepted.

In fact, your best bet is to check with the admissions office of the vet school and ask them the same questions.  They will be much better positioned to help you than I am, as I've never been on a university admissions board.

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Inspiration And Shelter Euthanization

Wow, I'm slipping!  For whatever reason I've been very lazy with the blog this month, posting less than I have in a very long time.  Let's make up for that!

Wonder about the today's blog title?  It's based on a couple of questions from a reader (that I'm really late getting to!):

We really enjoyed reading your blog. We are aspiring veterinarians and would like to ask what inspired you to become a veterinarian. Also we were wondering what your stand on euthanization of animals in animal shelters is. One day we would like to open our own animal shelter and we were wondering if you could give us some tips on what we will need to be prepared for. Again we love your blog and thank you for everything.

What inspired me?  I've always loved animals and science.  When I was young I would take volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia with me to the pool to read just for fun.  I always loved nature shows like Wild Kingdom and those on PBS and couldn't get enough of watching them.  So when I started thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up veterinary medicine was just a natural fit.  When I was 14 I started working for a local vet and saw a different side of things behind the scenes, which just reinforced my interest.  Honestly, from the time I was nine I couldn't imagine doing anything else, and worked towards that goal until I achieved it.  I can't say that there was one moment that really focused me on being a vet.

Euthanizing animals in shelters....that's a sad subject, and one of the reasons why I could never be a vet under those conditions.  I have a lot of respect for those who chose shelter medicine as it's a very tough and emotionally charged job.  I hate the idea that homeless pets have to be put to sleep.  It breaks my heart to know that those animals are unwanted, sick, or have otherwise not been given a place with a human family.  I wish none of them ever had to be euthanized and that all could find permanent homes.

But I know this isn't realistic.  Some animals are too sick to be adopted or have serious behavioral problems.  And truthfully there just isn't enough time, space, and money to house all of the indefinitely.  It's a harsh reality of life that some animals will need to be euthanized to prevent them from suffering or simply to make room for more of them.  I certainly understand why it needs to be done and can't fault anyone for doing it.  I admire no-kill shelters, but the resources simply aren't there to allow this to happen everywhere.

What can someone expect being in shelter medicine?  Honestly I only have a peripheral knowledge and hopefully someone who has worked in that situation can chime in.  I do know that there is little money and the cases are very hard with a higher percentage of animals put to sleep than you'll find in general practice.  You also do more crisis management than preventative care.  You don't get to follow pets from youth to adulthood.  Normally you get paid less than in private practice, something that really needs to be evaluated considering current debt loads.

Tomorrow, more questions from readers!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The End Of Civility?

It's political season here in the US and our presidential election is only weeks away.  That means the mud is slinging on both sides of the political aisle.  I'm always open for a good debate on politics, religion, or just about anything else, and so have gotten into a few discussions on Facebook.  Sometimes I get good, reasoned intellectual stimulation.  But more often I see "u suk!" kinds of comments.

It's not been limited to political discussions.  In the four years I've been blogging I will from time to time get hateful comments on posts.  Few of them have been bad enough for me to delete, but some are particularly judgmental without knowing anything about me.  As I stated, I enjoy debate and am willing to go point-to-point on most issues.  But the hateful insulting statements simply are uncalled for.

Where is civility in today's society?  Why do discussions have to quickly devolve into insults and name-calling?  Heck, I've seen many of them start that way!  I honestly don't understand it.  I can disagree with someone's views and beliefs and not hate them.  I have strongly different political views than my father and we often debate the subject, but despite those differences I really love him (hi, Dad!).  While I am very politically conservative I have friends who are quite liberal.  Though I disagree with them I can also see past those issues to appreciate who they are otherwise.

I see so little of these better attitudes nowadays.  People seem unable to disagree without hating.  And they seem even more unable to express their opposition without insults.  I was in a discussion with someone of liberal leanings on Facebook and he kept making quite rude and hate-filled comments.  I challenged him to make one salient point without an insult. He responded by insulting me and other conservatives.  He was literally unable to do so.

When did this happen?  I shouldn't be surprised, though.  It's part of human nature and people are often of very strong opinions which they defend with passion.  I've heard a dramatization of campaign advertisements from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and they are even more directly insulting than anything you'd see in modern politics.

Even so, I'd love to see a return to civility.  Disagree without insult.  And when you're talking to a stranger online, be very careful about the assumptions you make.  It's impossible to really know someone just by reading their words on a computer screen (even when they write over 800 blog entries like me).  

Sometimes old adages are indeed best.  "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Dachshund Week: Pre-Purchase Exams

Honestly, this question isn't specific to dachshunds, but the person asked about it in relation to them so I'm including it in this themed week.  The answer can apply to anyone considering a new dog.

We are thinking adopting a Dachsund here where we live in Mexico. Its parents are both very healthy looking and i guess tweenie-sized. One is dark brown, one is tan. Should we have a vet evaluate the pup before we adopt if the family that owns it lets us? 

There are many things that can be wrong with a new puppy.  Some abnormalities are very obvious, but others aren't easily detected.  Most people don't look closely at the mouth and teeth to see if there is an over- or underbite that could cause problems later.  If you don't have a stethoscope and don't know what to listen for you might miss a heart murmur.  Last week I saw a dog whose left ear canal never fully developed. Some health concerns are more serious than others, but all should be discussed.  

That's why I recommend having a vet examine your pet prior to purchasing/adopting it, or shortly afterwards.  Many breeders and shelters have policies that allow you to take the pet to a vet within a short period of time (2-3 days) and return it if there are any serious problems.   Pets get into your heart quickly so it may not be easy to give that dog back if a problem is noted, but it helps to at least know what you might be getting into.  There's nothing specific to dachshunds that would make it more important to have them looked at as puppies compared to other breeds.  But it's always a good idea.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dachshund Week: Back Problems, Part 2

Here's a little more discussion on intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dachshunds.

I have just read your blog article on IVDD in dachshunds and was hoping you could tell me approximately what percentage of dachshunds that are diagnosed with the disease undergo surgery?

Would it also be possible to get the costs of this treatment per dog please.

There is no reporting system for this disease, so we really don't know exactly how many dachshunds succumb to disc herniations and how many of those go to surgery.  Even though this breed is highly prone to spinal injuries, most of them won't have it happen.  Of those who do, the majority never end up in surgery because most clients can't afford it.  In my own experience I'd say that less than 10% of my clients have their dogs go to surgery after a slipped disc.  Most of them try medical therapy and if that doesn't work will likely have them euthanized.

Costs will vary between locations and between countries (since I have an international readership), but you can expect anywhere from around $2000-$4000 for a surgery.  Expensive?  Certainly.  But only a fraction of what the same surgery would be on a human.  One of the difficult realities of the surgery is that we can't promise a positive outcome afterwards.  You could spend that much money and have little to no improvement.  However, the odds are absolutely better with surgery than without, especially if it is done within a day or so of the injury.

We've talked about the consequences of IVDD and how serious this can be.  What can be done to prevent it?  After all, isn't prevention better?

The number one thing I can recommend is to keep your dachshund at a normal weight.  Excessive weight puts extra stress on the back and increases the risk of a disc slipping out of place.  I see a lot of overweight or obese dachshunds and it always worries me.

The second biggest thing is to not allow them to jump on and off furniture.  It's common to let dogs on the furniture, especially the couch and bed.  But jumping down can lead to a sudden impact and twist, putting pressure on the intervertebral discs.  With just the wrong impact the disc can pop.

Other than these two biggies, be careful with anything that could cause twisting or pressure on the back.  If you can lower the risks you can help avoid serious and costly problems.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dachshund Week: Back Problems, Part 1

For some reason I've had several questions related to dachshunds, especially comments on a post I made three years ago on back problems in this breed.  So I decided to jump in and answer all of them in the next couple of days, doing a sort of "Dachshund Week".  Here's the first one:  

Reading up on these Dachshund back issues recently as our 4.5 year old male - half mini, half regular size dachshund has a compressed/ruptured disc. He initially showed signs of problems while we (his owners) were on vacation. Pet sitters informed us they thought he'd hurt his right hip. Upon our return 1 day later, I gently tested his flexibility/pain threshold in his leg but nothing set off the pain. He would cry out in pain randomly but seemed fairly normal aside from mild lameness in his right leg. Two days after the onset of the symptoms we noticed his back-end was unstable/wobbly. We contacted our vet who moved schedules to get him in ASAP and did the X-ray. Since, he's been on steroids for three days and is showing improvements in controlling his legs but is still somewhat unstable. The meds are definitely helping his pain threshold but what I didn't realize is that the damage, once done, cannot likely be undone. A dachshund back surgery in Hawaii is $6K minimum (talked w/ multiple hospitals), which is more than we can spend on a military salary. We've contemplated flying him back to the states to get the surgery but is it even worth the risk if the damage is already done? He's under a strict crate regimen and gets out four times per day to go to the doggie bathroom. Nerve damage is an extremely slow recovery process but what remedies outside of surgery have proven most beneficial for people with this unfortunate problem? I worry we may be postponing a surgery that could prove helpful to try alternative solutions which could possibly create a worse situation in the long run. Will he always be in pain/limited without the surgery or is it possible for him to recover to a point that he's pain free again? What happens to the hard part of the ruptured disc when no surgery is done? Will it move back into place? Thanks for your thoughts!

Spinal and nerve damage is always hard to predict, so it's impossible to say whether or not a problem can be reversed.  The key is rapid treatment and possible surgery.  The longer you wait the more likely it is to be a permanent problem.  Unfortunately it's hard to say how much time "longer" is, though sooner is always better than later.  Surgery is most successful if performed within the first few hours to day or two at the latest. The goal of surgery is always to have the patient be free of pain (once the post-operative period is over) and ideally to get some degree of functional return.  But it's never predictable and you don't know how successful it will be until the patient heals.

In this case I don't think that flying him back would be worth it. You have the costs of flying and the potential for him being jostled around in the airplane.  Any money you might save on the surgery is probably going to be taken up by travel costs.

Other than surgery treatments are limited.  Obviously steroids (glucocorticoids) are a key in recovery, even though the research has shown that any benefit is minimal at best.  This is where clinicians differ from researchers, as all vets have seen cases recover on prednisone and rest.  I know a vet who does acupuncture (more Western-based than Eastern) and she says that in some cases this treatment can work.  However, you have to find a vet who is trained in this modality.  With any non-surgical treatment the patient can certainly eventually be pain-free and even completely recovery, though the odds are much lower than with surgery.

During surgery the slipped portion of the disc is completely removed, taking away pressure from the spinal cord.  Without surgery that hard central portion of the disc remains in the spine.  The initial inflammation may be reduced, which results in improvement of symptoms, but the disc is permanently damaged.  These cases may be a ticking time bomb, as that hard center can move back against the spine at any time, and it will be easier the second time since the wall of the disc has already ruptured.  In my cases that are successfully treated non-surgically, I always warn the client to be even more vigilant because it could happen again quicker and more severely.

In this case my recommendation would be to do a consultation with a qualified surgeon and have them evaluate the specifics of the case to determine whether or not surgery is even still an option at this point.