We don't know for sure if pets 'grieve' the way we do

Q: We lost our Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier, and it's still very difficult to talk about and deal with the loss. Poor Gracie, our other dog, has also had a tough time, and it's been heartbreaking. I think Gracie is still waiting for McGee to come home. There's no way to tell her that's not going to happen. How can we help Gracie through this difficult period? -- S.O., Chicago, IL.

A: I'm very sorry for your loss. I -- and many other readers -- have felt a similar hole in our hearts.

We don't really know what surviving pets are thinking when it appears for all the world as if they're grieving. They may be, or they may be merely picking up on our sorrow. It could be they're only responding to a sudden change in the household - or the changes may be a combination of all those things. Personally, I'm convinced that pets (who we know, for a fact, feel emotion) can grieve. But why do some pets appear absolutely unaffected by the loss of a best pal? No one knows.

"On average, people actually take about two years to grieve the loss of a loved one," says Sue Yellen, Glenview, IL-based clinical psychologist and chicagonow.com blogger. "I suspect many pets do grieve, though we don't understand that grieving period."

She adds, "It's a difficult balance, you want to give attention to people who are grieving, and I believe the same is true for grieving pets. However, you also don't want to reward sad behavior too much."

Try to keep a regular schedule for Gracie's activities, so there's a consistent structure to her life. Feed her and take her for walks at about the same time you always have. Playing with a dog's favorite toy is probably the best antidote (for dogs who enjoy play), and the exercise is a great outlet for both you and your pet.

Q: Our Australian-shepherd mix doesn't have fleas, but he scratches constantly and has developed many sores on his body. The vet gives him cortisone shots and then sends us on our way. The cortisone only lasts for a short time and I worry about the long-term effects of these shots. We've tried Benadryl and Chlorotrimeton, which do nothing, and we tried to change the dog's diet. The veterinarian has no further advice. Do you have any ideas? -- K.C., Las Vegas, NV

A: Dr. Cecilia Friberg, a Chicago-based veterinary dermatologist, is concerned about those sores, which may be bacterial or yeast infections triggered by allergies. In any case, they should be treated. Obviously, you need to treat infections, but additionally they can be very itchy. Until you deal with these sores and relieve the itching, there's no way to know if the Benadryl or Chlorotrimeton might actually help the allergies.

Friberg adds, "Steroids are a great choice to treat allergies for short-term relief, as you've learned. Steroids also can diminish the immune system, which may more easily allow for infections to occur. The use of steroids should be carefully controlled."

Apparently, you've ruled out flea allergies. Still, a pet doesn't need to be infested with these pests to develop a severe reaction.

The most likely possibilities for your dog's problem are food allergies or environmental allergies. You mention that you tried to change the dog's diet, but it's necessary to transition to a specific single-protein prescription diet or homemade diet (one specifically recommended by your veterinarian). Those are the only choices for a reliable food trial, and your dog must remain on the new diet for several months, without a scrap of table food or unapproved dog treat. Your veterinarian should oversee the food trial.

If you did go through a proper food trial, then environmental allergy seems the most likely culprit. Since your veterinarian is unsure about the next steps, it might be best to request a referral to a veterinary dermatologist.

Q: A year ago, my 7-year-old cat was diagnosed with kidney failure. Now, my 3-year-old Maine Coon has been diagnosed with the same problem. My veterinarian said his blood count is low and he's been receiving a steroid pill for that. I'm 66 and have had cats my entire life. Is kidney disease in cats something new? What might cause kidney failure in such a young cat? -- S.P., Umatilla, FL

A: Kidney disease is an exceedingly common problem among older cats. There's much in your question which is confusing, as feline veterinarian Dr. Susan Little, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada notes. "Kidney failure is end-stage disease, kidney insufficiency or kidney disease is perhaps more likely your cats' problem, at least your older cat," she says.

As for the younger cat, Little says, "While we do see kidney disease in cats as young as 6 or 7 years, it's very unusual to see kidney insufficiency in a cat who's only 3 years old. As for steroids, cats can withstand their long-term use, but only with careful monitoring. Even in cats, steroids are not without possible side effects. Of course, cats should only be given steroids when warranted, and while it may be appropriate for this cat, the (reader's) question doesn't offer (a full explanation of what's going on).

Little, editor of the textbook "The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management" (Elsevier, St. Louis, MO, 2012; $151), adds, "There needs to be clarification and also an explanation about what's going on with your younger cat. In this instance, I'd suggest an exam by a feline veterinarian." Your veterinarian can offer a referral or you can check the American Association of Feline Practitioners: http://www.catvets.com.

Q: Our cat, June, sits at the window and meows at birds. Why does she do this? -- S.C., Macon, GA

A: When you see something exciting going on outside your window, you might say 'Hey, look at that!' That's exactly what your cat is telling you. Certainly, watching butterflies, birds and moths fly by is exciting entertainment if you happen to be a cat.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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Sun archive: Dream Home

Dream Home takes readers into the houses of Baltimore area residents who have found their ideal home

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