Get The Most From Vet Visits: What Questions To Ask And How

Ever get home from a vet visit and realize you aren’t really sure when to start that medication or what exactly the next step is for your pet’s treatment? Happens all the time. Here’s how to get the information you need.

When I worked as a veterinary technician many years ago, pet parents asked questions all the time, but rarely to the veterinarian. Folks often acted embarrassed, or waited to telephone from home hours or days after the appointment. Perhaps they felt intimidated by the doctor or feared their questions were dumb. Maybe the busy schedule of the clinic offered little opportunity to ask.

Whatever the reason might be, remember that there are no stupid questions when it comes to your beloved cat and dog. As your pet’s top advocate, it’s up to you to arm yourself with expert advice and information to provide the best care possible. Here are some tips to be fear free when asking your vet questions.

Why You Should Ask Your Vet

My career as a veterinary technician began long before “Dr. Google” or “Alexa” answers. Today, some pet parents rely too much on the Internet to answer questions or only seek the opinions of friends. Even though I am not a vet, I often am asked pet health or care questions. Here’s what I say when ask about pet health or care concerns.

While some online resources like vet schools are terrific, they can offer only very general information and nothing specific about your pets. Your veterinarian has personally examined your dog and cat, possibly run additional tests, knows what treatments have already been tried, and has the most specific and detailed information available.

When To Ask Your Vet

The veterinarian may have a busy schedule, so plan ahead for your questions. The best time to ask questions is at the beginning of the exam. Ask follow-up questions at the end of the visit before the doctor leaves the room.

If you’ve researched from the Internet or friends, you may think you know what’s needed, but ask anyway. Your pet is unique and could have very different needs than Aunt Freda’s dog’s. Once the doctor has examined your pet and explained any treatment, be sure to ask for any necessary clarification before you leave the clinic.

How To Ask Your Vet

Very often it’s not what you ask, but how you ask that gets the most out of your veterinary visit. The staff may become frustrated by pet parents who base questions solely on “Dr. Google” research that may not be applicable or that could be dangerously wrong.

That said, veterinarians want pet parents to be invested in caring for their cats and dogs. Recognize that the doctor and many of the staff studied for many years to attain the expertise to offer medical advice and care. You know when something’s “off” about your pet—but the vet has the tools and ability to figure out the cause and what to do about it.

By all means, explain to the doctor your concerns, and what research you may have done. Here’s how to ask:

“I found out (XYZ) from (what source). Could that have any bearing on what’s happening with my pet?”

What To Ask Your Vet

Specific questions vary depending on why your pet needs veterinary care. Whether the exam is routine or you have a health concern or emergency, consider asking some or all of the following questions, depending on the situation:

Is my pet a healthy weight?

Should I change my pet’s food? How and why?

What can I do to help him/her maintain dental health?

Which preventive flea/tick products do you recommend, and why?

How often should he/she receive vaccinations or titers for which diseases?

Why does my pet (fill in the behavior), and is that normal? What can I do about it?

Can you recommend a trainer/behaviorist/groomer/boarding facility?

When should I be concerned about (behavior, activity, appearance/demeanor) change?

What are the testing or treatment options? Will they cure, manage, or delay the problem?

How much will the test/treatment cost? Can you please explain the bill to me?

If this was your pet, what would you do?

When a pet suffers an emergency or a serious diagnosis, even when you ask questions and receive answers, it can be hard to remember everything. Many doctors provide written reports but they may be written in technical language harder to understand. Most folks these days have the ability to record conversations. So before your veterinarian starts explaining, ask:

May I record our conversation to refer to later? When would it be convenient for me to call back with any questions?

Your veterinarian will appreciate your concern for your pet and your zeal to understand more about his health or condition. And your pet will be the winner because you will be better able to make good decisions about care.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Is Natural Better? What To Know About Nutraceuticals And Supplements


Everyone hopes to find a “natural” way to manage a pet’s fear, anxiety, or stress, but there’s more to consider than you might think. Here are the pros and cons of nutraceuticals and supplements.

The word “nutraceutical” was coined as a combination of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical” quite recently–in 1989–and arguments about its precise definition have been going on ever since. Informally, nutraceuticals are products derived from food, but essentially used to treat or affect health. For practical purposes this category also encompasses what are usually called supplements, such as those derived from herbs. They are all products that aren’t quite drugs but are used for similar purposes, and some are claimed to be useful for treating fear, anxiety, and stress in pets.

How do supplements and nutraceuticals work? There’s no simple answer to that, any more than there’s a simple answer to “how do drugs work”–it differs case by case. But in general they often work similarly to medications prescribed for the same condition. For example, some studies have shown that alpha-casozepine, derived from milk protein, can help to reduce anxiety. Alpha-casozepine works by affecting neurotransmitters in a similar way to benzodiazepines, the class of drugs including Valium and Xanax, so it’s no surprise it has a similar effect.

Natural: Looking Beneath The Surface

The appeal of supplements and nutraceuticals for most people is the idea that they’re more natural than drugs. The word “natural” gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling, but lots of things that are natural are dangerous to ingest: some of the plants in your yard and many natural foods such as raisins could make your pets very ill. “Natural” also doesn’t guarantee “no side effects”: logically, anything active enough in the body to have an effect that you want is also active enough to have some effect you don’t want.

It’s also important to remember that since these products are not drugs, they’re essentially unregulated. If you follow the news, you know that some supplement products for humans have been found to be tainted. There’s also no guarantee that they contain what they say or do what they claim, so investigation is crucial.

Due Diligence

Only a limited number of drugs have been approved to treat fear, anxiety, and stress in pets, and a considerable body of research shows that some of these supplements can help. So they’re worth considering, but you need to do your research and involve your veterinarian in the decision.

“Don’t just grab the thing on the shelf that looks like it would work,” says board-certified veterinary behaviorist Jill Orlando, DVM. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t effective and is just going to waste your money and prolong the animal’s enduring fear, anxiety, and stress.”

While these products don’t require a prescription, they require just as much caution and consideration to use. They can have side effects and drug interactions, and you can’t just believe what the seller tells you about their effectiveness.

Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says, “If you want to go natural, accept number one: that safe options are limited; number two, that you must go to your veterinarian; and number three, your vet may not know anything, and that’s okay.” Vets aren’t taught this research in school, so your vet may need time to do some reading about what substances and products are suitable. But you need to involve your vet to make sure you have a correct diagnosis of your pet’s problem. Dr. Radosta says, “If your vet doesn’t know what to do, she can call a veterinary behaviorist who does know what to do.”

If you find a product you want to try, have appropriate expectations about efficacy. “In my experience, you will get about half of the positive effect from a supplement as you will get from an appropriately chosen medication,” Dr. Radosta says. Typically, she counts it as a success to see a 25 percent change in behavior, compared to a drug, where she’d expect a 50 percent change to consider it effective.

Effectiveness Quotient

Because nutraceuticals and supplements are less effective, Dr. Radosta says that if you want to achieve the same results with a supplement as with a medication, your pet will probably need to be on more than one supplement. This may not seem like a big deal, but it may be more complicated than you think. Dr. Radosta has one patient, a Belgian Malinois with a serious storm phobia, who was having side effects from medications, so they decided to go natural: “She gets 11 capsules a day, because I had to combine four supplements to get the same positive effect.”

And if you think your dog will be okay with getting 11 pills a day, there’s also cost to consider: these products tend to be more expensive than the equivalent drugs.

Dr. Radosta isn’t against using these kinds of products for pets–she uses them herself–but she advises clients to have realistic expectations. “I take valerian root at night to help me sleep,” she says. “Probably if I took Ambien it would be more reliable, but I don’t want to, so I accept the limitations: valerian tastes like dirt, the pills are gigantic, and it doesn’t keep me asleep all night.”

Finally, accept that it’s rare to non-existent that a behavior problem is completely solved by a pill, whether that pill is drug, a supplement, or a nutraceutical. Ideally, these treatments are combined with appropriate behavioral modification. The job of the medication is to temper fear and anxiety to the point that animals are calm enough to learn.

Dr. Orlando says it’s similar to the case with humans; while medications are important for depression and anxiety, it’s more effective to combine them with therapy. The same is true for our pets.

“They have to learn coping skills,” she says. “That’s what behavioral modification does, teach them coping skills.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Socialization: When “Fine” Isn’t

Socialization can go wrong when people don’t recognize a puppy’s signs of fear. Here’s what to look for and how to avoid problems.

“We don’t understand where this aggression came from,” the woman said, tears in her eyes. “We took her everywhere as a puppy like you’re supposed to do. She went with us to stores, to our kids’ practices, to friends’ houses. She was fine! But now she growls at people and other dogs, even ones she’s met before.”

The Shepherd mix, Chloe, was now 1 year old, and barking at me from across the room. She would approach, then retreat, growl, and flinch every time I moved.

“Tell me about those early socialization visits,” I said.

“We started right when we got her at 9 weeks,” she replied. “She was fine! She was so quiet. Everyone would compliment her on being so well behaved.”

I asked, “When you introduced her to new people, did she run right up to them, all wiggly? Trying to kiss them? When she met other dogs, was she the same? All curvy and bouncy?”

“Oh no,” she said, “She was a quiet puppy. We would just put her in laps and she’d fall asleep half the time. She wasn’t interested in other dogs. They’d approach her, and she’d just look away like they weren’t even there. But she never growled at them until recently.”

Bingo. With further questions, I learned that Chloe rarely initiated contact with people or other dogs as a puppy. This puppy hadn’t been fine. She had been shutting down. She wasn’t well-behaved. She was too frightened to move. Now that Chloe was an adolescent, she was more willing to protect herself by barking and trying to scare away the people and dogs who frightened her.

Socialization Is More Than Exposure

My client was not a bad dog owner. She knew that socialization was important. She just didn’t realize that done improperly, socialization can backfire. Proper socialization is ensuring that a puppy has a variety of experiences, all wonderful ones. The puppy gets to decide if the experience is wonderful or not. In Chloe’s case, she wasn’t given the chance to go up to people of her own accord, at her own pace. She was placed in people’s laps – in essence, put in the laps of monsters. They were probably all very nice people, but Chloe didn’t think so. Her association with people became worse. When other dogs approached her, she signaled she didn’t want any interaction by turning away. Chloe’s mom didn’t understand that Chloe was uncomfortable, so she didn’t intervene. Now Chloe thought dogs were scary, too.

I’ve seen enough of these cases over the years that I’ve started to call them “Sleepy Puppy Syndrome.”

There are degrees of sociability in dogs, but a normal, healthy, confident puppy will want to explore. She’ll be curvy and wiggly. She may jump up to try and reach faces, trying to kiss chins. She’ll sniff and explore her surroundings.

Signs Of Fear And Stress

A puppy can whine, cower, and try to hide when she is afraid, but sometimes she will act sleepy.

Yawning is a sign of stress. Avoidance is, too. When a puppy is faced with something obvious, like another dog in her face or a looming stranger, and she starts sniffing the ground nearby, scratching behind an ear and ignoring the situation completely, this is a puppy practicing denial.

Understanding these signals can help prevent fear from blossoming into aggression as the puppy gets older. Always bring treats with you when you take your puppy anywhere. Pair each new experience with yummy cookies. If your puppy will not take the treats, it can also be a sign that she is too afraid.

It took three lessons before Chloe would let me pet her. I waited patiently for Chloe to approach at her own pace, rewarding each brave step with a liver treat. With a behavior modification plan and a dedicated pet parent who now understood how to work with Chloe’s fear, Chloe gradually learned the world was not full of monsters. In time, she learned to be truly fine after all.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Bathroom Basics: Roll Out These Safety Tips For Cats

Can your kitten or cat get into trouble in the bathroom? You bet! From unrolling the toilet paper (fun!) to licking surfaces that may have been cleaned with harmful substances (not so great), bathrooms can be hazardous areas for felines. To lessen the risks, consider making some changes for your cat’s safety and your peace of mind.

Check Counters

What could be out on a bathroom counter that could cause serious problems for your cat? Dental floss, for one. A cat could easily swallow a small or large length of floss, leading to potentially dangerous internal issues. Keep unused floss where your cat can’t get to it. Dispose of used floss right away, in a trash can your cat cannot open. We have a small uncovered trash can in the bathroom, but I put used floss in the covered kitchen trash can that has a locking lid.

What else is on the counter that might be a danger to a curious cat? If your cat loves to put things in her mouth, anything is suspect. If someone in your household uses medicated skin powder, and it drifts onto the floor or the counter, your cat can step on this and ingest it when she licks her fur. Look at your bathroom as if you are seeing it for the first time. What could potentially harm your cat? Prescription medications and over-the-counter pain relievers can cause illness or death if cats swallow them.

Choose Cleaning Products Carefully

Speaking of counters, or any surfaces in the bathroom (floors, tub, toilet), there’s a lot of powerful stuff marketed for the cleaning of bathrooms – some of it not so great for your kitty. Our cats are very small compared to the size of a human, and products that may be harmful for us can really overpower your cat’s respiratory system. Your cat could ingest cleaning products that leave a residue on surfaces. Research safer ways to clean the bathroom with products that are less harmful to your cat. Your veterinarian may have information regarding safe, or less hazardous, products for bathroom cleaning.

Close Toilet Lids

I don’t want my cat drinking out of the toilet, especially if toxic cleaning products were ever used in the toilet bowl. Additionally, a very small cat, or a kitten, could potentially drown in a toilet. To eliminate this danger, get in the habit of closing the toilet lid all the time. For these same reasons (the risk of accident or drowning), keep tubs and sinks empty, and do not leave a cat unsupervised in a bathroom with a full tub or sink for any period of time.

Shut The Door

There are a lot of hazards for kitties in the bathroom. A simple solution is to completely deny your cat access to the bathroom. If you live in a cold climate, make sure that keeping the door closed won’t make the bathroom too cold and possibly lead to frozen pipes.

Making the bathroom a safer place for your cat is an enlightening and eye-opening experience. And who knows – it may change the way you clean and store things throughout your entire living space.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Having a dog can help your heart — literally

Dog lovers know how much warmth and comfort their canine companions add to their lives. But they might not know that a growing body of evidence suggests that having a dog may help improve heart health.

Pet ownership, especially having a dog, is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. This does not mean that there is a clear cause and effect relationship between the two. But it does mean that pet ownership can be a reasonable part of an overall strategy to lower the risk of heart disease.

Several studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners — probably because their pets have a calming effect on them and because dog owners tend to get more exercise. The power of touch also appears to be an important part of this “pet effect.” Several studies show that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog.

There is some evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A large study focusing on this question found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren’t explainable by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI). However, the reason for these differences is still not clear.

Dogs’ calming effect on humans also appears to help people handle stress. For example, some research suggests that people with dogs experience less cardiovascular reactivity during times of stress. That means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, dampening the effects of stress on the body.

If you own a dog or are thinking about it, the potential benefits for your heart health are a nice plus. However, pets should not be adopted for the primary purpose of reducing heart disease risk. And definitely don’t add a dog to your life if you’re not ready or able to take care of one, including making sure it gets enough exercise.

To learn more about the health benefits of owning a dog, buy Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

New Tricks That Make Life Better For Old Dogs

Old dogs are the best dogs. They know the rules, they’re not full of crazy energy, and they love nothing better than a good nap. The downside, though, is that all that makes it easy to slip into the habit of not spending as much time with them. Your dog may no longer need long runs or exhausting games of fetch, but he still needs mental and physical stimulation and fun time with you.

Positive reinforcement training is a great way to fulfill all those needs. Old dogs can learn new tricks and behaviors, and while for your dog it will seem like a great game that earns him tasty treats, it can also help make dealing with the inevitable problems of aging less stressful for both of you.

Learning new things is obviously exercise for the mind, but tricks can also be good physical exercise for a dog who can’t do those long runs anymore, observes Fear Free certified trainer Laura Monaco Torelli. “I like to work with the dog’s core,” she says. “I like to teach dogs to spin right and left.” Doing the spin in both directions works muscles on both sides equally.

Some tricks are more than just fun and exercise, though – they can help with an aging dog’s daily activities. Training a small dog to get up on a stepstool is not just cute, it can also be useful: when jumping on and off the couch gets to be too hard on her old bones, that stepstool can help. And once your dog knows that getting up on something earns a reward, she’ll be easier to persuade to use any new ramps or stairs she may need in the future.

Torelli says many aspects of care can be made part of your training games. It’s never too late to teach your dog to enjoy being handled–and that’s all the more important as he ages. “As our dogs get older, just like with people, things just get more sore more quickly,” says Torelli. Exams may be more uncomfortable, but learning that a touch on the ear or hips is followed by a tasty treat will turn it into a positive experience. “Working on these behaviors before they show signs of discomfort can be part of a fun training activity,” she says.

Senses such as sight and hearing can worsen with age, so be prepared. If your dog already knows verbal cues for tricks or behaviors such as “sit,” teach a hand signal too, so you’ll still have a way to communicate if he goes deaf. Likewise, if you’re already using hand signals, teach verbal cues.

It’s important, of course, to be aware of your dog’s physical limitations. If your dog is eager to play, the signs may be subtle. Reluctance and hesitation may be an indication of discomfort, so don’t push too hard. Older dogs are prone to obesity, so think about using parts of the dog’s regular meals for training.

While it’s never too late to train, it’s also never too early. “Proactive training should be on a dog owner’s radar,” says Torelli. Not only is it easier to teach some of these practical behaviors before they’re needed, research has shown that a history of positive reinforcement training during their lives seems to protect dogs against cognitive decline.

But whether useful behaviors or just cute tricks, training is fun for your dog and a bonding experience for both of you, and there’s no age limit on that. “It helps extend the joy of our relationships with our dogs,” says Torelli. “It can make us feel sad to see that they’re not as young and bouncy as they used to be.” But get in the habit of training and you’ll be rewarded too. “We get the reinforcement of seeing our dogs get more active — and maybe walking over to us with that look that says, ‘Hey, you want to train now?’”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Do Cats Love Us? Science Says Yes!

It’s long been a kind of running joke in the popular media that cats don’t much care about their humans, and that as long as we feed them, they’re just fine. A spate of studies that came out a few years ago, most of which were not well designed and were even less well understood in the press, seem to confirm that.

“Science Confirms It: Cats Don’t Love Us” said one headline, describing a 2013 study that measured cats’ reactions to recordings of their owners saying their name. The cats simply looked for the source of the sound, and the researchers concluded that they just didn’t care that the sound was made by their owners. A 2015 study (the Washington Post headline was “Your cat might not really care about you, study suggests”) put cats alone in a room with a stranger or with their owner, and, because the cats did not respond the same way dogs and human babies did in the same experiment, concluded that the cats were not attached to their owners.

Testing cats’ attachment to humans by checking their response to recorded sounds (which they may not perceive the same way we do) or comparing them to other species has more flaws than I can enumerate in this short article. But those two studies got a lot of media attention, because they confirm a popular social stereotype.

Two more recent (and better designed) studies got a lot less media attention and found that cats care more about humans than they do about food, and really miss us when we’re gone.

What The Science Shows

One, by researchers at Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction, looked at both shelter cats and owned cats. The cats got no food or attention for two and a half hours, and then were offered various stimuli, one at a time. In one session, a person (not the cat’s owner) spoke to the cats, and offered petting and a chance to play. In another, the cats could choose among food, a toy mouse with a shaker inside, or cloths scented with scents of catnip, another cat, or a gerbil. Then the cats were presented with all these things at once and got to pick what they wanted to interact with.

Less than half the cats chose the food, while exactly half chose the interaction with people. That was true for both the shelter cats and the owned cats. “Although it is often thought [that] cats prefer solitude to social interaction, the data of this study indicate otherwise,” the study authors wrote.

In the other study, done in Sweden, owned cats were left home alone for two periods—30 minutes and four hours. Owners were asked to behave as usual leaving and returning home. When their owners returned after four hours, all the cats purred more, stretched more, and interacted with their owners more than they had after 30 minutes. Most of the cats were free-fed, so anticipation of a meal was not a factor. “The increased level of social contact initiated by the cats after a longer duration of separation indicates a rebound of contact-seeking behavior, implying that the owner is an important part of the cat’s social environment,” the researchers wrote.

What does this mean for cat lovers? First of all, when your smug friends suggest your cat doesn’t care about you, you can tell them that science has proven that’s not true. But it also means you can’t leave your cat home alone for the weekend with a pile of cat food and an extra litter box. She will miss you—a lot.

Think about it: When you go away, your cat has no idea if you are ever coming home again. That’s especially true if you typically leave the house at 8 in the morning and come home at 6 in the evening. A few hours later, you could be gone for good. So in addition to concerns you might have about her physical health and wellbeing (if anything goes wrong, you wouldn’t be there to help), the possibility that she might snarf up all her food in a few hours and go hungry for the rest of the weekend, and the fact that her litter box is filling up with stuff that needs to be scooped, your cat is also stressing out because you’re not there.

Does this mean you can never go away? Of course not! While there’s no substitute for your presence, the first study showed that interactions with strangers also matter to cats. That means a cat sitter, a neighbor, a friend. Someone should look in on her at least twice a day, give her fresh food and water, scoop the box, and play with or pet or just sit down and talk to her—whatever level of interaction she craves. She’ll still miss you, but at least you’ll know she’s safe, and interaction with any human is better than nothing at all.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Holiday Toy Stories: Let Your Dog Know Toys Won’t Hurt Him

Balloons. Life-size talking robots. Remote-controlled drones and cars. When new toys join the household during the holidays and see action months later, they’re all fun and games for adults and children. For dogs, it’s another story. Here’s how to help them stay calm amid the buzzing sounds and flashing lights.

Action Figure Fright

While some dogs take the clatter of a skateboard careening down the sidewalk, the crash of a hydraulic mini-truck falling to the floor, or the skitter of an electronic pet dancing across the room all in stride, others may not feel as relaxed.

Fast-moving toys and robotics for children, as well as for some adults, won’t go away any time soon. Schools teach STEM activities (science, technology, engineering, and math skills), and kids want to engage with them at home.

For dogs who lack exposure to objects that light up, screech odd sounds, or make sudden movements, encountering such toys can be a nerve-racking and scary experience. It’s possible, though, to defuse your dog’s toy terror and keeping her from diving under a table, shaking with fear, barking uncontrollably, or aggressively grabbing at toys.

The following tips will ease the tension and help your dog feel safe when electronic, pop-up, and other toys come out for playtime.

From Fear To Relief

Depending on the level of your dog’s fear of noisy, moving toys, getting her to realize they won’t hurt her can take some time and patience. As much as you would like your dog to stop growling or shaking and to feel okay with the ruckus, you can’t rush her feelings. You may need to repeat the ways you calm your dog several times before her reaction changes.

Resist the urge to panic yourself, as this only intensifies your dog’s sense of worry. Dogs pick up cues from their owners about scary situations.

Instead, try to respond the way you normally interact with her. Comfort her and let her know she’s not in danger. If you normally use petting or massage to calm your dog and it works, try repeating these activities–but with caution. If the only time you tell your dog, “It’s okay,” and try to soothe her nerves is when in her mind it is not okay, your change in behavior might intensify her fear.

Avoid shoving toys at your dog or letting the kids prank her with toys popping up in front of her. These attempts will only frighten her more.

Low And Slow

Try asking children to keep their play action on the quieter side. While no one expects kids to interact with their toys without making any noise at all, it’s reasonable to request they don’t scream or yell at the same time, as these sounds rev up a dog’s sense of fear.

“When your dog reacts negatively to toys, avoid yelling, scolding, or punishing,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Beaver recommends using reward-based training and desensitization.

“Keep your reaction neutral and when no one is playing with the toys let your dog slowly explore them,” says Dr. Beaver. “Let her sniff, walk around them, and discover on her own what they’re all about.”

Teach your dog how to remain calm on cue. Use a calm tone and ask her to sit. This helps her to focus on you, rather than on the toys that trigger her fear reaction. Use this cue before the kids bring the toys out to play with them.

Once she sits, tell her a word or a short phrase such as “settle” or “okay,” and give her a small food treat. This gives her a way to relax when she hears this word or phrase and helps her associate receiving a positive response with the word or short phrase.

Remember to be consistent about using the same word or phrase and giving the reward. You’re giving her a treat for focusing on you rather than on the toys. Repeat this training often. The more practice sessions you put in, the better your dog’s chances of developing her own coping mechanism when she feels uneasy.

Buckle Up Pup: Trip Tips On Driving With Dogs

It’s the holiday season, and if your dog is lucky, he’s going to be doing some traveling with you. But before you load him into the car and head off down the road, it’s important to consider both safety and the law when it comes to driving with dogs.

At least seven states have laws on the books that require people to take certain precautions when driving with a dog. In Connecticut, drivers can be ticketed under a distracted-driving law if they operate a vehicle with a dog in their lap. In Rhode Island, dogs must either be belted in with a harness or secured in a crate while the car is in motion.

California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Hampshire all have laws requiring that dogs riding in the back of a pickup truck be secured so they can’t jump or fall out of the truck bed. A handful of other states have distracted-driving laws that can potentially make drivers liable for an unrestrained dog in their vehicle. To find out about laws in your state, see Orvis’ “Dogs and Distracted Driving” page.

Safe Rides

Whatever the laws in your state regarding dogs in the car, the safest approach is to restrain your dog when he’s riding in your vehicle. One way to do this is with a harness that attaches to a seat belt. According to the Center for Pet Safety, you have a choice between two types of harnesses: restraints that will contain your dog and keep him from distracting you while you’re driving, and harnesses that will protect your dog should you get into an accident. Harnesses that will keep your dog safe in an accident have been crash tested and should state so on packaging or in the product description.

Having your dog ride in a crate while you are driving is another way to prevent distracted driving, while also helping to keep your dog safe in the event of an accident.  The Center for Pet Safety recommends placing small carriers on the floor behind a front seat and securing larger carriers with tiedowns so they stay put during a crash.

Ready, Set, Go

Whether you are using a harness or a crate to restrain your dog, take time to acclimate him to this type of restraint before taking him on a long car ride. Have your dog wear his harness around the house for a few days first. Once you buckle him in, take him on a few short rides around the neighborhood. Use treats and plenty of praise to let him know being buckled in is a good thing.

If you plan to use a crate for travel, make sure your dog is crate-trained before you ask him to spend time inside it in the car. Crate training involves gradually getting your dog used to spending time inside the crate and helping him see the crate as his safe place.

One last note on riding in cars with dogs: You’ve no doubt seen plenty of cars whose drivers allow their dogs to hang their heads out the windows. While it may be tempting to let your dog stand on the seat with his face in the wind as you drive, this is a dangerous practice that can result in injury to your pet. Your dog can suffer eye damage from debris blowing in his face, and he can be seriously injured if you get into an accident. Even though dogs may enjoy riding with their ears blowing in the wind, as a pet parent, it’s your job to choose safety over fun. The good news is that your dog won’t pout—at least not for long.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Feline Physics: How The Righting Reflex Helps Cats Stick A Landing

Amazed by your cat’s acrobatic skills? Feline physics is the secret to dramatic leaps and landings.

Cats are equal parts mystery, myth, and masters of physics who have confounded scientists and owners for ages with seemingly impossible feats. A cat’s uncanny ability to land upright from a fall is a physics mystery that has perplexed researchers for centuries. This remarkable righting reflex is a natural gift custom-made for cats.

It’s So Easy, Kittens Do It

The innate righting reflex is an automatic response that corrects the body’s orientation when it isn’t in its normal, upright position, allowing cats to land on their feet when they fall or jump to the ground. Kittens begin to use the reflex at approximately 3 weeks of age and master it by the time they’re 7 weeks old.

The 30 exceptionally flexible vertebrae in the spine enable felines to stretch out, compress, arch the back, and rotate, bend, and twist the front half of the body independently from the back half. The small or sometimes nonexistent collarbone also contributes to back arching and helps the front legs absorb the shock of landing. These physical attributes get an assist from the vestibular apparatus, the fluid-filled cochlea in the inner ear, which provides a keen sense of balance. This apparatus is responsible for body orientation and equilibrium.

As a cat starts to fall and senses disorientation, the back bends, creating two separate axes of rotation. The head and front half of the body rotates first in one direction, and the front legs tuck in close to the face as the front part of the body twists toward the ground. Simultaneously, the back half separately rotates with the back legs outstretched, creating less rotation than the front half.

Then the switch-up occurs. With the front part of the body facing the ground, the front legs extend, reaching for the ground while the hind legs tuck in. The reverse actions slow rotation of the front half of the body and increases rotation of the back half. Just before landing the back legs reach out for the ground, which slows the rotation and allows the back part to catch up with the front half. The back arches to stabilize the body to prevent further rotation.


During the free fall, the cat’s body relaxes and spreads out, resembling a feline parachute. The tail doesn’t play a role in the actual righting reflex. The tail may aid stability on landing, but tailless cats breeze through the maneuver.

Stick The Landing

Cats need enough time and space to achieve this grace in motion. The righting reflex can take less than a second and a cat needs at least two and a half feet to stick the landing. That doesn’t mean every cat nails every landing every time. Cats do sustain injuries from falls; it happens so often the cluster of injuries has a name: “high-rise syndrome.” Researchers discovered that cats who fall from seven stories or higher more often land on their feet than from falls of shorter heights but experience more severe injuries. The most common injuries include chest trauma, broken bones, and facial and dental injuries. Cats can also die from high falls.

To help protect your cat from injuries, kitty-proof your home by securing unstable furniture such as book cases. Close open windows or cover them with sturdy screens; most screens are made to keep bugs out–not cats in. Add a screened enclosure to your balcony if your cat has access to it.

What perplexed researchers for so long about the righting reflex is that cats don’t push off from a surface but rather use torque from the body. It’s a physics conundrum that’s perfectly feline. While researchers continue seeking answers to feline mysteries, cats know Mother Nature designs elegant efficiency.

One last thing: As fascinating as it is to see cats perform this feat, please don’t intentionally drop your cat to see if he will land on his feet. There are plenty of videos, new and old, showing the righting reflex frame by frame on the Internet for your viewing entertainment.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.