Pet Care Through the Years 

Longtime East Bay vet Terri McGinnis reflects on shifting attitudes in the medical industry and among pet owners — and what still needs to change.

Taking a long view requires a firm base, a broad perspective, and the passage of time. Veterinarian Terri McGinnis has practiced at VCA Albany Animal Hospital (formerly called Albany Vet) since she graduated from veterinary school at UC Davis in 1971. She has traveled across the country on book tours for her two classics, The Well Dog Book and The Well Cat Book; hosted a radio show; written a monthly column on pet care; and appeared frequently on television and radio to talk about pets.

What's changed in pet care over four decades? In the medical arena, she said, there have been several major changes. One improvement has been safe flea control. In the Seventies and Eighties, many dogs had hair chewed off their rear ends or purple skin from treating flea-bite allergies with potassium permanganate. "Now flea control is much more universal, and people are shocked to find a parasite on their pets," she said.

But, she warned, that doesn't mean parasites aren't around. "A woman came in because she'd found a red insect on her Persian cat. I keyed it out and found it was a tropical rat mite. These mites can bite people and pets, and the rat population in the East Bay is increasing. It turned out her husband had a dermatological condition that had puzzled doctors for several years. After the couple cut back overhanging branches that allowed rats to come on their deck, the husband's skin condition cleared up. People forget about parasites because we don't have fleas on our pets, but mites and fleas are still around. Clients tell me they have rats in the basement, but they ignore them, because the rats just stay there. Well, they don't stay there — and neither do their mites."

Care of older animals has also improved. "Vets have become more aware of how to deal with geriatric animals," McGinnis said. "We've gotten better at extending life — and at educating people about the difference between extending life and extending death. We're trying to make a soft landing. In the old days, that wasn't recognized as much. Dogs and cats are good at covering up symptoms, and then they'd seem to crash. Now people are more willing to spend money on supportive treatment for older animals, so we find problems before they crash. Animals live longer, because they get better care as geriatrics."

But the major transformation is in how we view our pets. "It used to be, 'Let's get a dog for the kids,'" McGinnis said. "A lot of people didn't let animals in the house. Now most people sleep with their pets. They're truly members of the family." During Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleanians refused to go to shelters because pets were not allowed. "That's a situation where the views of government agencies lagged behind the change in society," she said. "Now people are allowed to evacuate with pets."

Other regulations now reflect societal attitudes. "Dogs weren't allowed in federal housing for seniors," McGinnis said. "Now they must be allowed. We have pets in nursing homes and hospitals. People have become more aware of the emotional and psychological benefits of animals. I think we're rediscovering the bond that we had in caves. That bond never went away; it survived hundreds of years of ignorance. Pets don't harbor disease. Some of those attitudes are leftover from medieval times, when people thought animals carried plague. Of course, killing all the cats just made the plague worse."

While McGinnis believes that people are generally more enlightened in understanding the bonds between animals and humans, she worries about some trends. "There is such a drive for early neutering," she said. "It can be detrimental to animals. In many states, all shelter animals must be neutered by four months. But in the vet literature, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. For instance, they've found a higher incidence of certain kinds of cancers in Rottweilers and Golden Retrievers with early neutering. There are myths that unneutered dogs will start fights or that neutered dogs will attack unneutered dogs. Some vets who have never seen adult unneutered dogs labor under the same mistaken ideas.

"I have a client who adopted a dog from a rescue organization. I suggested that she wait to neuter him so he can get all his muscle and maintain that muscle. The organization said they would take him away from her because she hadn't neutered him. I ended up doing a vasectomy. She could prove he couldn't reproduce, and a vasectomy is as simple as castration.

"We had to neuter a six-year-old Jack Russell about two months ago because he got a tumor in his testicle. After the drop in testosterone levels, the dog gained 10 percent of his body weight. It just seemed to happen overnight. Now she can no longer free-feed him."

McGinnis added that her concern about neutering male dogs does not apply to cats or to female dogs. Cats are induced ovulators, meaning that a female cat will ovulate after mating, making pregnancy a virtual certainty. Male cats roam, putting themselves in danger, and spray, putting your nose in jeopardy. "My preference is to wait until the males are at least six months of age," she said. "We were taught to never castrate a male cat until you can evert, or expose, the penis. If a cat is neutered before that, he is likely to have urinary blockages and infections. However, that dictum has gone by the wayside for social welfare issues. Just because you don't hear it anymore doesn't mean it isn't true."

McGinnis advises owners to alter female dogs before the first heat: "There is almost no incidence of breast cancer if you do it before the first heat. Also, that first heat can induce a uterine infection. Altering them doesn't harm them, as they get estrogen from their adrenal glands, and you're preventing the possibility of cancer.

"Again, it's good to wait until around six months," she continued. "It's interesting to me to watch that pendulum swing. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon for early neutering. Now people are thinking that maybe this isn't the best idea. In the Seventies, I was begging people to spay their female dogs. People didn't want to do it because they thought it was unnatural. Now people are looking at the health issues, and with dogs, it's always better to spay the females."

McGinnis worries that animals take the brunt of what is ultimately a people problem. "Neutering dogs has become like a religion, the only way to solve the pet overpopulation problem. But really, that problem has to do with people — it can only be solved when people become responsible."

Conversely, McGinnis believes that human population growth has implications for pets. "Everything's gotten tighter and stricter and more controlled," she said. "It used to be safe for dogs to go out on the street by themselves. I'd watch my pack of three take a stroll. They'd greet other dogs in the neighborhood. They didn't fight, and they didn't get into packs. But then it got too dangerous for them to be out alone. We've gotten so much more congested; the population in the Bay Area has tripled. It's kind of sad because we've lost that dog-to-dog interaction. Instead, the dogs are taken to parks, which can be hotbeds of disease and where the worst fights occur. Rather than dogs getting to know the dogs in their own neighborhoods, they meet strange dogs at a park, superintended by some who may not understand their dogs that well."

McGinnis said that if she could make one change, it would be that dogs would be allowed everywhere. "This is with the caveat that if they were misbehaving, the dog would have to leave. When dogs are civilized, they should be able to go into banks and stores. With more people considering their dogs family members, it would be nice if they were allowed pretty much everywhere."

At base, said McGinnis, we've improved our understanding of dog and cat behavior. Perhaps now we need to pay attention to understanding ourselves.

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