Pet Safety in Cars


SCREECH!!!  went the tires as a small white dog was hit by a car on 41st avenue just outside the hospital.  A vet saw it through the window and a few staff members sprinted out to help stop traffic and bring the dog back into the ICU. We started cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and called the number on the dog’s name tag.  Eventually we were able to reach the owners.  The dog had been left in a parked car with an open window across the street while the owners got a yogurt.  He had been left in the car many times before and never jumped out- but this time for some reason he decided to jump- his adventure cost him his life.  Working in 24-hour emergency hospitals exposes one to so many regretful events where education of owners could prevent tragedy.  Restraint of pet’s in a parked or moving vehicle are some of those events.

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Pet parents often work from a position of “knowing” their pet’s patterns and assuming their behavior predictable.  When a dog is in a truck bed unrestrained or traveling in a car with an open window any environmental trigger can result in a jump: SQUIRREL!  I watched a dog jump out of the open back window of a SUV in front of me when a squirrel ran across the road- luckily the car was at a STOP sign.  At BirchBark we don’t want to have to help pets who were injured while traveling unrestrained in automobiles- our mission- in addition to saving lives is educating pet owners and preventing the need for our services as much as possible.

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As I read about Zendrive, Lyft and Uber donating $50,000 to #FundMyStreets to help reduce the distracted driving that contributes to up to 25% of car fatalities in the US, I hope to reach out to every pet owner and let them know that having their pet’s safely restrained and the automatic windows on lock so an eager non restrained pet does not have opportunity to get out of the car.  Pets in your lap are distracted driving- so for the sake of everyone on the road keep them safe while you drive.  Please also consider pointing out the risk to others when you see pet’s at risk for leaving a car- parked or otherwise. The decision to keep them safe could safe their lives as well as your own. 

See our other blog for more car safety tips:



Executive Director Scott Delucchi on the SPCA for Monterey County

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When I joined the SPCA for Monterey County as executive director in July of 2016, having spent the previous 17 years with the Peninsula Humane Society on the San Francisco Peninsula, I was met with support and curiosity, and was surrounded by talented co-workers in a wonderful facility. That was the good news.  

The Soberanes Fire broke out 10 days after I started, it lasted months and was quickly followed by some of the worst flooding this area had seen in years.  I was beginning to feel I brought everything but locusts!

In all seriousness, I knew exactly where to focus my time from day one, which is all any new executive director could want. We needed to make more treatable shelter animals better, do more to prevent unwanted litters, and build bridges with like-minded groups.

On the first item, we walked away from an outreach program involving at risk youth and paired the staff who had been facilitating that program with shelter animals requiring significant one-on-one work to increase their adoption potential. As a result of this change and others, we significantly changed our life saving record in just one year. Other catalysts included the addition of an on-site kitten nursery, a reinvigorated foster program and a special program matching unsocial or feral (and previously unadoptable cats) with adopters looking for barn cats.

BirchBark Founder & President Dr. Merrianne Burtch with SPCA for Monterey County Executive Director Scott Delucchi at the Pawlitzer Prize Awards

BirchBark Founder & President Dr. Merrianne Burtch with SPCA for Monterey County Executive Director Scott Delucchi at the Pawlitzer Prize Awards

To prevent unwanted litters, we targeted Salinas with laser focus and a deal few could turn down: weekend appointments and a $25 flat rate which included the spay or neuter surgery, a microchip and vaccinations. In 18 months, we’ve fixed nearly 900 animals belonging to Salinas residents. During this time frame, the total intake from Salinas has dropped 30%.  Beyond our wildest dreams was an understatement.

For the third goal, I met key leaders from other animal welfare groups and organizations (including the BirchBark Foundation) during my first few weeks on the job.  During this listening tour, I learned how we could be a better partner and help rebuild bridges. I can best judge progress here by what others tell me and I’m told changes are palpable.

Naturally, these two years haven’t been a cake walk. This past summer, the American Society for the Prevention of Animals (ASPCA), a group based out of New York, began soliciting for donations in our area by sending representatives to local shopping centers. We received first-hand accounts of the reps misleading people, saying “The local SPCA is under us” and by not explaining that donations to this East Coast-based group have no direct impact on local animals. No doubt, this group siphoned funds away from the SPCA and other local groups that depend entirely on support from local residents to help local animals.

There have also been wonderful surprises, like one we experienced two weeks ago. The SNIP Bus, a non-profit, announced it would target underserved areas of Monterey County with mobile spay/neuter clinics, after having spent the previous two years doing the same -- and fixing more than 6,000 animals -- in the Coachella Valley. The SPCA enthusiastically hopped on that bus. While we have been offering low and no cost spay/neuter services for decades, there is still a massive pet overpopulation in southern Monterey County. We donated wire crates needed for animals to recover post-surgery, and provided a full sponsorship of the first mobile clinic in Soledad. I can envision a longer, more involved relationship.

As they say, it takes a village. Central Coast College students help our staff most weekdays while gaining valuable experience in our setting. Level 4 inmates at Salinas Valley State Prison train SPCA dogs under our guidance. Through a partnership with Meals on Wheels, we ensure homebound people have food for their pets. In a few months, we’ll be among many groups offering free services during the Stand Down event for veterans. Everyday, we count on people to be the voice for animals and report cruelty so our Humane Investigators can follow-up.

Our county has compassionate leaders, fantastic nonprofits and many animal lovers and supporters, including those who have time, heart and/or ability to support multiple groups.

Thank you!

Scott Delucchi

CEO/Executive Director

SPCA for Monterey County

Help, My Dog Is a Barkaholic!


My dog Shadow is a barkaholic. If there were a 12-step program for such a condition, she would surely be a good candidate to attend. She likes to bark when she is happy and excited, when she is concerned, when she would like something from us, when something surprises her, when other dogs bark, and mostly, when squirrels run through the trees in our backyard. The squirrel bark is the worst—sharp and shrill and so loud that it makes your ears hurt.

The trouble with having a dog that barks a lot, is that there isn’t one easy answer for getting them to stop. People often see barking as a single problem; just last week I was asked by several students in my class, “How do I stop my dog from barking?” I couldn’t give a simple answer to this seemingly straightforward question. The solution to barking problems depends on understanding several factors:

  • When and where is it happening?
  • Why is it happening? What is that specific trigger?
  • What is the dog getting out of barking? What is the dog’s reward?

And if your dog, like mine, barks in several different situations, has multiple triggers, and the reward varies, you may need more than one solution help dogs learn to live a quieter life. But once you can identify the when, where, why, and what, we can come up with a training plan to solve the problem. Here are a couple of quick examples of things we are doing to help Shadow with her barking.

For the excitement barking, we are working with her to settle easier and respond more calmly in a variety of situations. Some of the exercises we are using to do this include impulse control games, settle exercises such as mat work and relaxation protocol, and counter conditioning to reduce excitement.

When other dogs bark, I am working to teach Shadow an alternative response—something she can do instead of barking. Because this primarily occurs out in the world, we are working on her redirecting to us (using that auto-check-in that anyone who has taken my classes knows so well!).

With startle barking, we are using straightforward classical conditioning; things that surprise her make treats rain from the sky.

When Shadow barks at us for treats or attention or a ball toss (what I call bossy barking), we are simply removing the opportunity for reward. This has been the easiest barking problem to solve simply because we can control the reinforcement.

For barking at the squirrels, I am working with all of the techniques described above (because none alone was doing the trick). First, we are employing some management by limiting her access to the squirrels and by keeping her on a long-line when squirrels are in the yard so that I can easily stop her if she does bark. We are training her to be calmer around the squirrels with a combination of operant and classical conditioning. We are teaching her to call off of the squirrels rather than to fixate on them. Soon, I hope to add in a “leave it” type behavior to help her understand that the squirrels are really not her business.

With the techniques above, Shadow has gone from being a dog that barked in most situations to a dog that only very selectively barks and who is learning to bark less and less every day. I consider the excitement barking and the bossy barking have improved to the point that they are no longer a problem. The startle barking and barking when other dogs bark has dramatically improved, but is still something we need to stay on top of in our daily life. The squirrel barking is about 70 percent better, a huge improvement, but is definitely a work in progress. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

If you have a dog that barks, start by considering the when, where, why, and what. You may be able to come up with a solution once you understand the triggers and reinforcements involved. But if you need help troubleshooting barking problems, please don’t hesitate to contact me for help.

Blog Post Author: 

Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT-KA, CC

Good Dog Santa Cruz


Please be aware of these concerns during the summer. 


FOXTAILS! Can get in ears, eyes, lungs and noses – keep your pet out of fields of the weed or consider protection such as the outfox for dogs:

HEAT! DO NOT RISK leaving your pet in a car on a hot day. Too many pets have died when owners felt they would only be gone for a “minute”.  Here is a downloadable/printable hot car flyer you can use to help educate others Remember pets don’t sweat so their ability to relieve body heat can be limited.

SNAKES! If you live in the hot dry areas of the Santa Cruz or Santa Lucia mountains or visit dry places like Garland Park then consider rattlesnakes as a risk during the hot part of the day.  Dogs investigate with their noses (and get bit there) and cats with their paws.  You can consider snake aversion training or a vaccine if your pet is high risk

You can find more information through your regular veterinarian or in these BirchBark blogs:

Foxtails - Plants of Concern

Summer Time Blues

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM



I received a welcomed call from my older son while sitting in the BirchBark booth at the Human Race this year.  Knowing the next day was Mother’s Day I suspected an early well wishing… instead it was concern about his dog.   His 1.5 year old Daschund cross had been up and coughing since 5 AM and was bringing up clear foam.  After a visit to the emergency room in San Francisco and multiple phone calls later, we were able to determine Andy had kennel cough- but a case severe enough to affect the health of his esophagus (tube from the mouth to the stomach) and raise concerns about chronic disease that might take a life time of additional medical care. Luckily, his infectious disease had just irritated his esophagus and he has made a full recovery.

Nausea is an interesting part of disease in cats and dogs and can manifest for many reasons, ranging from motion sickness to severe disease in the intestines.  In Andy’s case his throat and esophagus were irritated enough to cause him to bring up not just his food, but his spit- particularly since his cough would trigger nausea that brought up both food and phelgm.  The mechanism of nausea remains somewhat of a mystery- but multiple parts of the brain linked to the intestines, balance center and emotional centers influence nausea.  

Any damage to the intestines- virus, chemotherapy or inflammation affect nausea. Motion sickness like the effects of a roller coaster alter the balance center and create nausea.  The scene in the movie “Stand By Me” where a taunted child seeks revenge by inducing mass vomiting is an example of emotional or sympathetic nausea.


Documenting nausea in veterinary medicine is a little more challenging since our patients don’t cross their arms across their belly and moan.  We look for drool, hard swallowing, lack of appetite and the obvious one: vomiting.  Seeking out grass and eating it is often considered a sign of nausea and an attempt to purge some discomfort from the belly. 

Reasons for nausea in pets include:

  1. Irritation to the throat (like Andy with his kennel cough)
  2. Malfunction of the esophagus which should propel food into the stomach automatically. If it is irritated, has muscle abnormalities or is blocked by foreign material or stricture- then pets may “regurgitate” which is different from vomiting in that it involves bringing up food or saliva without contraction of the abdomen.
  3. Stomach or intestinal disease such as viral infections, bacterial infections, inflammation or chemotherapy.  This is by far the most common category for nausea in pets.
  4. Obstruction of the intestines or outflow of the stomach which can be from a foreign body, twisting or telescoping of the intestines or stomach (bloat) and in rare cases parasites.
  5. Motion sickness or vestibular (balance) disease which creates a sensation of the world spinning.

Most important If your pet is unable to keep water down then a visit to the emergency is indicated so the possible causes can be explored and medication can be administered to relieve nausea.


When your pet has signs of nausea, consider the recent history- in Andy’s case we knew he had recently moved to a new part of the city and visited new dog parks with new canine friends. We also knew the stress of moving may have contributed to his getting kennel cough.  If your pet has recently consumed a large bone or tends to destroy toys- cats that play with string or chew rubber bands- those can all be a source of obstruction in the esophagus or farther down the intestines.  If your pet has not been vaccinated then infectious disease goes high on the list. 

We all want to be the best advocates we can for our pets- so when in doubt seek out advice or make a call to your local emergency clinic to help get guidance for your situation.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Dog Parks: The Good, The Bad, and How to Make It Better!

By Mardi Richmond, CPDT-KA, Good Dog Santa Cruz

Dog parks, in theory, are a great idea. Dogs need to run free, stretch their legs, and play with other dogs! I have to admit that one of the biggest joys in my life these days is when my dog Shadow is racing around with one of her pals. In our central coast community with limited off leash access for dogs, dog parks seem like the answer; but in truth, dog parks can be a mixed bag.

The Good

Dog parks are an attempt to address that need for leash-free recreation and exercise. Many are fully fenced, so they provide a safer area for younger dogs (the ones’ who need the exercise and social engagement the most), and those who may still be in training and not yet ready for full-fledged off-leash access. For people who live in condos or other homes with limited yard space, dog parks may be their dog’s only opportunity to run free. And, when dogs are a good match in size, age, and play style, dog parks can be pretty awesome—what a great way to get out all that energy!

The Bad

Unfortunately, dog interactions at dog parks are not always positive experiences. Dog parks can be over crowded, not allowing enough space for dogs to engage and disengage without conflict. Sometimes the dogs brought into dog parks are less than well trained. Sometimes, they are simply not good candidates for a dog park. Dogs of varying sizes, ages, and temperaments are all tossed in together. People are often busy socializing with each other rather than supervising their dogs’ behavior. Group dog play is also fraught with problems. Too often during group dog interactions, one dog is targeted and bullied by others

So How Can Dog Parks Be Better?

Dog parks can be better when people follow some very basic dog park precautions. Here are ten things you can do to make the experience better.

1.     Know and respect who your dog is before you bring them to a dog park. Does your dog enjoy interacting with all sorts of other dogs? Is he or she even-tempered when excited? Is she respectful of other dogs—will she back off if the other dog disengages? Is your dog over six months (please don’t take younger pups to dog parks!) and trained well enough that he or she will come to you when called? If yes, your dog may be a good dog park candidate. As someone who has been observing dogs and dog play for the last 20 years, I’d guestimate that only about 50 percent of adolescent dogs are good dog park candidates, and probably only about 20 percent of adult dogs will truly enjoy the dog park experience. There is nothing wrong with a dog that isn’t right for the dog park. Dog parks are a little like going to a heavy metal concert—some of us love it and others would rather stay home and read a good book. (And it doesn’t mean that your dog can’t still enjoy other dogs—see number 10 below for more ideas about alternative dog-to-dog experiences).

2.     Check out who is in the park before you go in. Are the dogs in the park a good match for your dog? Are they age and size appropriate?* Do they look like they are relaxed and enjoying themselves? If you notice any tension or if the energy is too high, you might want to skip the park and take a walk instead. (*Please note: Most behavior experts agree that dogs who run, race, and wrestle together should be of a similar size. If the dogs have more than a 50 percent size difference, playing together may not be safe. If you have a small dog, be especially cautious and only take them to the small dog sections of dog parks.)

3.     Once you decide to go into the park, stay committed to your dog. Move around the park with your dog—don’t sit or stand in one place. This will help your dog learn to move in and out of the interactions with other dogs. Watch the play and engage with your dog frequently. Call him to you often so that you stay connected.

4.     Don’t hang out near the entrance, and help your dog to not crowd others as they come into the park. The entrances of dog parks are where many problems happen. Dogs should be discouraged from crowding new dogs coming into the park. When you see a new dog coming in, call your dog to you, and move them away from the entrance.

5.     Interrupt excited dog play frequently. If the dogs aren’t taking frequent breaks in play, help them out by calling them to you and interacting with them for a few minutes before having them go back out to play again. These frequent breaks will help prevent fights that arise from overexcitement.

6.     If your dog is behaving inappropriately—being too rough or disrespectful or even bullying another dog—stop the play immediately. Call your dog to you. Sometimes a short break will be enough to calm things down, but often it is better to move along.

7.     If your dog is uncomfortable, protect him! Leave if you need to. Don’t expect your dog to simply “work it out” if another dog is doing something that is making your dog uncomfortable. Even if the other dog is just playing. Your dog needs to trust that you will take care of him.

8.     If your dog gets into a conflict (it happens sometimes, even with dogs that are good candidates for the dog park), leave for the day. Conflicts or fights cause stress hormones to surge in the dog’s body, and once those hormones are pumping, the chance of a second or worse conflict is much higher. Better safe than sorry.

9.     Do not take toys or food into the dog park that your dog may want to guard from other dogs. Guarding behavior is not fun, but it is normal dog behavior. It can also be avoided in most situations. Leave the new highly coveted toys and super high value treats at home.

10.  Back to number one—respect who your dog is! Every dog is different and has different social needs and not every dog needs or wants to be in a dog park. If you have a dog that isn’t a dog park candidate, don’t despair. He or she may still have good dog friends. Leash walks with pals can be great for some dogs. Play dates in a back yard can be a blast for puppies and younger dogs! Off leash beach walks and hikes through the woods may be a better match for many of our dogs.

If you do choose to take your dog to a fenced dog park, keep in mind the precautions above—take good care of your dog so you can both enjoy the experience.

Mardi Richmond runs Good Dog Santa Cruz and is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Counselor. She has been a student of dog behavior and training for almost 30 years, and has been helping others to train their dogs for about 16 years.

Medical Update - Life Threatening Substances

BirchBark Foundation medical update is intended to have vital information for pet families with the goal of keeping their pets happy, healthy and thriving.  I try to have guest bloggers offer up guidance that I cannot provide, like behavior guidance or orthopedic recommendations. 

Last week as I listened to a client tell me the story of her friend who lost her dog after he ate baked muffins with xylitol (low calorie sugar) from the counter, I thought it is time to write a reminder of life threatening substances.  PLEASE share these warnings with your pet owning friends as it could be the difference between life and death.


1.  Xylitol is a sugar alcohol used to sweeten foods with less calories for diabetics and weight loss. In dogs it causes a massive release of insulin and life threatening low blood sugar.  Signs can occur within 30 minutes and include weakness, seizures and vomiting. Dogs that survive the initial low blood sugar episode may develop liver failure.  PLEASE know that many gums, toothpastes, sugar free foods and even some peanut butter contain xylitol.  READ LABELS AND SPREAD THE WORD

2.  Metaldehyde (snail bait) is often used by gardeners particularly in decorative gardens. Pet families should be aware that dogs will eat it and it causes life threatening tremors and seizures.  In the past we have seen dogs who ingest the bait from someone else’s garden or pet families do not realize their gardener has used such a substance.  Spring time is a common time for exposure which will result in head then whole-body tremors often progressing to seizures that can bring the body temperature above 108 degrees and threaten the brain. Some snail baits (sluggo) contain a different ingredient:  iron phosphate which is not toxic to dogs.

3.  Ethylene Glycol (antifreeze) is toxic to dogs and cats who will lap it up because of the sweet taste.  We see more toxicity of this in areas where freezing temperatures cause people to use it in their car engines in the winter.  Ethylene glycol (EG) is metabolized to toxic substances that damage the kidneys and cause acute kidney failure.  After initial exposure the pet may look drunk - thirsty, stumbling and nausea as the substance functions like alcohol.  One to 3 days later the kidneys will shut down causing irreversible damage which may require dialysis if pets are going to survive.  If you have ANY suspicion of exposure to EG in your pet an emergency room visit is warranted.

4.  Prescription medications are the number 1 cause of calls the ASPCA poison control line.  BirchBark Foundation has assisted in the care of 2 patients this year who accessed medications causing medical emergencies.  Play it safe and keep all medications - human or veterinary away from your pets.

5.  Plants of concern this time of year:

a)  Lilies which are toxic to cats causing kidney failure.

b)  Grass blades which can become lodged in the throat and nose.

c)  Foxtails which can migrate through foot wounds, the nose, lungs, ears and eyes.

d)  Mushrooms should always be on the list- though more of a risk in the fall the death cap mushroom can be ingested and cause acute liver failure any time of year.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Heart Disease: Information for the Pet Advocate

Both cats and dogs have the same heart structure. Heart disease occurs when the heart is unable to effectively pump blood into the lungs to allow oxygenation or out to the body to deliver oxygen and remove the waste products.

Heart disease can be caused by valve leakage, muscle weakness, rhythm abnormality, or a congenital abnormality.


Three main types of heart disease

VALVULAR DISEASE - The heart has 4 valves: the mitral valve between the left atrium and left ventricle, the tricuspid valve between the right atrium and right ventricle, the pulmonic valve between the right ventricle and lungs and the aortic valve between the left ventricle and the aorta.

When a heart valve leaks, it changes the direction of blood flow which can develop into congestive heart failure.   The term congestive heart failure means the blood is not being pumped appropriately to where it needs to go.  Like traffic congestion the blood stagnates somewhere when it should be moving forward.

Acquired mitral valve disease is the most common heart disease. With this disease, the valve between the left chambers of the heart thickens causing some leakage of blood back into the previous chamber when the heart pumps. This is also the most common reason for a heart murmur in a dog. This syndrome is seen more often in small breed dogs. A physical exam shows a left sided murmur at the apex of the heart. These can be benign with no clinical signs for the life of the dog.  However, any dog with a murmur who develops a cough, exercise intolerance, increased respiratory rate or effort should be checked. Chest films, echocardiogram, blood pressure and blood tests should all be used to monitor the condition.

Tricuspid valve disease is less often a problem though some dogs with chronic airway disease can have changes in this valve from higher pressure in their lungs (pulmonary hypertension).

Aortic valve disease is rare and is more often a congenital problem or an infection that can affect the valve if bacteria is circulating in the blood stream.

Pulmonic valve disease or narrowing is most often a congenital issue in breeds like Bulldogs and Mastiffs.

MYOCARDIAL DISEASE/ARRHYTHMIA - Diseases affecting the heart muscle itself or the electrical conduction through the heart which impacts the ability of the heart to pump.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is when the heart is not able to adequately contract and as a result the chambers enlarge, and the heart pump essentially cannot move blood forward.  Larger breeds are more likely to get this disease.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle thickens and the chamber that holds blood becomes too small - like the walls of a room closing in.  As a result, the heart cannot pump as much blood - causing the body to feel deprived of blood and oxygen.  This type of myocardial disease is most common in cats with some breed predilection: Maine Coons, Ragdolls and a few others.

Arrhythmias occur when the electrical impulse that runs through the heart is abnormal causing the contraction of the heart to be altered and inefficient.  Too rapid of a heart rate can cause inefficient pumping leading to collapse. In these dogs poor blood flow results as the heart acts like a spasming bowl of jelly rather  than an efficient pump. Boxers and Doberman Pinschers are prone to this type of heart disease. Too slow of a heart rate can also cause the pump to fail and dogs with this disease may require a pacemaker to prevent fainting episodes. 

CONGENITAL DISEASE AND BREED PREDILECTIONS - Congenital disease occurs when the development of the heart is altered in utero.  Septal wall defects allow communication between chambers of the heart.  Many of the congenital diseases we see are similar to those in humans. Listed below are breeds that might more commonly show these congenital findings:

Patent ductus arteriosis: Poodles, Chihuahuas, Maltese, Shetland Sheepdogs, Pomeranians, Bichon Frise, CKCS, German Shepherds, Newfoundlands and Labrador Retrievers.  Females are more likely than males.

Pulmonic stenosis: Beagles, Samoyeds, Chihuahuas, English and French Bulldogs, Cocker Spaniels, Mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Labradors and other terriers and spaniels.

Aortic or subaortic stenosis: Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Boxers and German Shepherds.

Atrial septal defects (ASD): Standard Poodles, Boxers and Samoyeds.

Ventricle septal defects (VSD): English Springer Spaniels, English Bulldogs, and Westies.

puppy heart.png

If your pet is diagnosed with a heart murmur ask your veterinarian about your options, including the most thorough step which is seeing a veterinary cardiologist. She or he may recommend an echocardiogram to help guide therapy and determine prognosis as well as recommendations for medications and follow up. 

If you don’t have the resources to pursue this degree of diagnostics, ask your veterinarian what signs to look for that would indicate progression of heart disease and/or concern for the development of congestive heart failure.

Usually my basic recommendations are to monitor resting respiratory rate, coughing, exercise tolerance and comfort when sleeping at night.  Any fainting should be investigated.  Any of those signs are an indication that your pet might be developing heart failure and a visit to the veterinarian blood is indicated.

Keeping pets lean and getting regular exercise with a balanced diet are the best ways to prevent heart disease in your pet.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Fleas and Ticks

One of the joys of living in California is our wonderful weather allowing us to be outside most of the year. As our pets join us in those outdoor activities they are prone to exposure to ticks and fleas. In the past decade products to control fleas and ticks have evolved as resistance develops in some insects. It would be impossible to cover the gamut of products out there - though the veterinary information network has an updated list of products with details of their action which can help people decide on specific products.

Most of us count on our veterinarian to guide us based on our pets’ habits, environment and sensitivity to fleas. Dogs and cats with flea allergies need to have vigilant control so they are not miserably itching themselves all day. As Lyme disease becomes more prevalent in California and we learn more about tick borne diseases, stopping the spread of such diseases with tick control is important. Pet owners also have concerns about the chemicals needed to control these insects and how their pets might react to medications. Animals with seizure disorders should not get certain types of flea control and some owners prefer a topical versus oral medication.


Because of the spread of vector borne diseases like Lyme, Ehrlichia and Bartonella as well as some of the feline infectious anemia (mycoplasma) diseases that cats can get from fleas some type of control is needed for most pets. In addition to topical or oral preventatives pet owners should regularly wash bedding in very hot water and vacuum the house to help removal of flea eggs and larvae that accumulate in those areas. A daily examination of your pet to find any ticks that might have crawled on board during the day is also recommended.

Listed below are links to the current products available and their activities.  Scroll through to learn a little more about them, however a frank discussion with your veterinarian or their office staff regarding the particular needs of your pet in it’s environment is suggested.

Current products available and their activities:

Flea/Tick Chart for Dogs

Flea/Tick Chart for Cats

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

When do I REALLY need to go to the emergency with my pet?


Many of us pet owners (and parents alike) experience angst when our loved ones are ill.  A common consideration is whether to rush in to the emergency or not.  People who want to be thoroughly safe are going to choose an early decision to go.  This is never wrong because some illnesses are hidden well by pets – the risk is mostly to your finances if you don’t have the resources available. 
Here are some pretty clear guidelines for when you should take your pet to emergency

  1. Fever:  Dog and cats have a normal body temperature ranging from 99 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you pet is feeling poorly and has a fever over 103 then a visit to the vet or emergency is indicated. Pets with a temperature of 106 or greater will start to suffer brain damage and need to be cooled with fluids or other therapy
  2. Vomiting repeatedly and unable to hold down water is another time when you should take action. An animal with severe gastroenteritis or an obstruction in the intestines will become dehydrated and start to have organ dysfunction within about 12 hours of not being able to hydrate.  Weakness and a fast heart rate further indicate a visit to emergency is needed.
  3. Seizures particularly when a series or cluster of seizures occurs, unless your pet is a known epileptic and you have been guided otherwise.  A seizure can be the result of a single event from changes in the brain chemistry, the first sign of a seizure disorder or an indication of metabolic abnormalities such as low blood sugar, low blood calcium or other electrolyte disorders.  It can also be from ingestion of certain toxins. Because the brain can suffer permanent damage from repeated seizures making sure an underlying cause is not present is essential and checking for a treatable cause can save a life.
  4. Toxin exposure.  If your pet has consumed prescription medication then the best start is poison control.  You can call yourself and talk to someone at the ASPCA poison control (888) 426-4435 . There is a charge in the $60 range and they can help you decide whether to go the emergency or monitor at home. They can also tell you what to look for.  Some of the other toxins of concern include chocolate which you can check to see whether your dog got a toxic amount here. Other toxins that might demand a visit are xylitol (causes severe low sugar and is life threatening), poisonous mushrooms (some emergency rooms can help you determine if your pet consumed a poison mushroom especially if you bring it with you or have a picture to identify it), and antifreeze which may cause your pet to seem drunk and causes   life threatening kidney failure.  Snail bait in the Spring is a common toxin that causes tremors and seizures and requires a visit to the veterinarian.
  5. Collapse and inability to move can be from heart disease, orthopedic disease or neurologic damage to the brain or spinal cord.  Ideally your pet should be seen if this occurs because correction of neurologic disease is time sensitive and can make the difference between saving their ability to walk or not. Heart rhythm abnormalities can be life threatening if not addressed.
  6. Trauma to the body (hit by car), dog fights with resulting puncture wounds to the chest or abdomen and trauma to the eye can have underlying hidden damage that might be life compromising or vision compromising so the safest option is to have your pet evaluated if they experience such trauma.

At BirchBark Foundation we want all pets to stay happy and healthy in their loving homes and hope this gives you some guidelines for keeping it that way in your home.

Happy Holidays

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Holiday Pet Health Alerts

As the holidays approach we all take the time to reflect on the year, celebrate friends (two and four legged), loved ones and life. At this busy time when the traffic in the home is increased and schedules change… it is important to remember how our patterns and environment can affect our pets. Here are some concerns to keep in mind about your cat or dog during the holidays



1. Tinsel, ornaments and ribbon are so attractive to cats and kittens with the curly cue pattern and springing sparkling visual. Removal of ornaments, tinsel and ribbon from the intestinal tract of cats and kittens is a common emergency procedure using either the digital endoscope or surgery depending on where in the intestines the ribbon is found. Be sure to watch you cats for increased interest in these shiny holiday decorations

2. Indoor cats getting out is a concern during the holidays as doors are more often ajar to share holiday cheer. If you know guests are arriving try to close your indoor cat into a back room until all increased traffic has settled

3. Fear of strangers and change in life habits. Some cats are very sensitive about their environments and company. When great changes like house guests or loud parties happen in their home environment- they can act out with behavioral changes that create problems. Most common is inappropriate urination to mark some place or thing as their own. In extremely anxious cats, urinary blockage, a hunger strike resulting in liver disease or destruction of furniture or household items can also occur. Tune into your cat at least once daily during the holidays to help them keep a physical as well as a mental sanctuary



1. CHOCOLATE and candy are the BIGGEST and most concerning risks for dogs during the holiday season. I can recall a family of four dogs who found their way into the pantry and consumed close to 2# of dark chocolate. This amount creates great risk for the heart and blood pressure as well as intestinal tract in dogs, so we induced vomiting to prevent such toxicity.

Your response to the smell of chocolate changes when that is how you were last exposed to it. Chocolate in high doses can be fatal causing arrhythmias and significant vomiting and diarrhea. If your dog has consumed chocolate you can figure out if a toxic dose was ingested at either of these sites. •

Call your veterinarian or emergency clinic if you are not sure. 

2. HIGH FAT foods causing pancreatitis is the other holiday illness that we see. Dogs cannot handle high fat foods without consequence and if they get their own Thanksgiving plate with everything including the CoolWhip… then there may be consequences. The pancreas is the organ that makes digestive enzymes and usually squirts them into the small intestines as needed to help digest food. After a high fat meal, the hormones affecting the intestines change and can cause inflammation and inappropriate excretion of digestive enzymes causing inflammation around the pancreas. As a result, dogs will become nauseous, vomit and often refuse to eat with painful abdomen because of the inflammation. Supportive care in the hospital and resting the intestines are part of how dogs heal from this disease. 

3. Anxiety around change in patterns and the home environment also apply to dogs. If you have a very shy dog who can be overstimulated easily putting them in a back room as guests arrive and depart will help them cope with the abrupt change and decrease the chance of injury, escape or excess anxiety and behavioral changes that often go with such events. Once again give the gift of time and gratitude to your dog: walking them before large gatherings so they can release energy and taking the time to hug them at the end of the evening when guests have retired or departed.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

More on Leptospirosis

We Californians who have the drought fresh in our recent memory hope for another rainy winter. Not too much at once, but enough to keep the reservoirs full and to decrease panic associated with an inadequate water supply. For our dogs a wet winter means a little more vigilance to watch for an infectious spirochete that can cause serious health issues. Cat owners have little to worry about with this disease.

Dr. Burtch's son Cassidy helps to clean an elephant at the facility

Dr. Burtch's son Cassidy helps to clean an elephant at the facility

Although it has been documented, it is very rare for cats to contract it thanks to their hypervigilant immune system. 

Leptospirosis has a variety of strains and the L in the DHLPPa combination vaccine is intended to prevent infection.  DHLPPa is the abbreviation for distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza and parvovirus.  It is the most common part of the vaccine to cause a negative side-effect reaction and when first developed it only prevented infection caused by two of the most common strains or serovars.  Now the updated vaccine has up to 4 serovars included, yet even that does not cover all of those that may cause disease.  Pets who love water play and who spend time in standing water or in rivers and who have significant contact with horses, rats or pigs have a higher likelihood of being exposed. 

Staff members and Dr. Burtch draw the blood from the back of the elephant’s ear.

Staff members and Dr. Burtch draw the blood from the back of the elephant’s ear.

If your dog loves to wade through water or you take him to the barn or you have rats in your backyard, be aware that as the rains come these bacteria are transmitted via the urine of an infected animal and may be transmitted through the skin or in oral cavities. 

You can read more about the disease and its clinical signs here.

Years ago, Dr. Ann Gratzek, a veterinary ophthalmology specialist, consulted with me on a case at the Vision Quest ranch park. She found uveitis (inflammation in the eye) in an elephant and needed to determine the cause of the disease and recommend treatment.  I went to the facility to help obtain a sterile blood sample from the elephant to culture the blood for bacteria.  While there the trainer shared that this particular elephant had become very close friends with a zebra who had recently arrived at the facility. Based on suspicion of possible transmission of leptospirosis via the nuzzling trunk of the elephant eating hay and other foods from the floor of a paddock shared with the zebra, we also ran a leptospirosis test on the blood from this elephant.  It was positive and we found the source of the eye inflammation and were able to treat and cure the infection. 

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Vaccines: the good, the bad, and the ugly


In the press, lately is the debate over vaccinating our pets. The incidence of documented rabies cases in wildlife close to populated areas brings concerns. As certain pet-owning populations strive to minimize vaccines, we need to review the value and risk of vaccines. A similar movement occurred years ago with children when vaccines were thought to play a role in the development of autism.

The GOOD is vaccines prevent highly infectious diseases from spreading among the unvaccinated population. Distemper — a potentially fatal respiratory and intestinal virus, feline leukemia virus causing immune system malfunction, and rabies are great examples of diseases that are much less prevalent because of good vaccine protocols and practice in our pets.

Other diseases for which we vaccinate cause morbidity (illness) but not necessarily mortality (death). Such diseases include leptospirosis, feline herpes, calici and rhino tracheitis viruses, and bordetella (kennel cough). In high-density pet areas such as kennels and daycare, these vaccines reduce risk of disease more likely to occur because of the population density we create. 
The BAD is that any vaccine is a stimulation of the immune system — good in that we want the memory cells of the immune system to immediately recognize the protein of a virus or bacteria so that when the “real thing” comes along it is contained and destroyed.   
Sometimes the immune system over reacts to the stimulus of a vaccines and the pendulum swings too far — the immune system is triggered to create antibodies against part of the “self.”  Examples include auto immune disorders such as immune mediated polyarthritis and immune mediated hemolytic anemia where the joints and red cells respectively become the target of an over reactive immune system.
These diseases can also be life threatening particularly if destruction of the red cells is greater than production and life-threatening anemia occurs.  Treatment for these diseases involved strong suppression of the immune system to stop the abnormal antibody formation.
Many years ago, cats were developing a cancer called fibrosarcoma which developed at the site of vaccine administration. The theory is the local stimulus of the vaccine adjuvant created over reactive fibrocytes (connective tissue cells) which mutated to an aggressive cancer that sends tendrils into the body resulting in life threatening illness. 
The UGLY is that there is no clear answer of what the best will be for each pet.  The AVMA has guidelines for vaccine use that are even controversial in our own profession.

Where vaccines are given has also been standardized with feline Leukemia in the left rear leg, rabies in the right rear leg and other specific recommendation so any localized reaction can be determined and monitoring in a vaccine site.
Some choose to vaccinate through the puppy series then follow the guidelines to age 5 or so. After that the use of titers to determine if an animal has adequate immunity to a disease can be measured, rather than introducing a protein to stimulate the immune system when it is not needed.  Some will vaccinate to the age of 10 years. If an animal has cancer or a misfire of the immune system like auto immune disease, then vaccines are often not recommended for those pets.  
Advocacy for our pets is one of the many responsibilities we embrace when they join our family.  Understanding where the health risks and benefits are for our particular pets is part of being a good advocate.  If in doubt discuss this with your veterinarian for your particular pet at their age and with respect to their health status.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM


Canine Influenza – Are my dogs at risk?

Canine influenza or the “dog flu” is an Influenza A virus that affects dogs and causes respiratory signs such as coughing and discharge.  Canine influenza was first identified in Florida amongst racing greyhounds in 2004 the H3N8 strain which is thought to have spread from horses to dogs. This virus spread to other parts of the country after the many canine victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2006 were shipped around the country for rescue. A vaccine for this virus was developed in 2009.  The virus is highly contagious but like any strain of influenza the right circumstance of density, shared germs and stress determine whether an animal contracts the disease.  Dogs in boarding facilities and kennels are therefore more susceptible to contracting the flu.

In 2015 a new strain of Canine influenza H3N2 emerged in Chicago affecting dog daycare facilities and requiring some to temporarily close.  It is thought to be mutated from an avian influenza virus reported in the Asia in 2006.  It has since been identified in many parts of the country.  Clinical signs include coughing, congestion, eye and nose discharge and in some cases a fever.


Currently there is a low risk of canine influenza in California and the central coast- however the constant movement of people and their pets within the country makes it a possibility at any time.  The virus is spread through airborne viral particles during coughing and barking.  Clinical signs can range from very mild to more serious including the need for hospitalization.  Vaccination is recommended for pets who frequent daycare, grooming or boarding in areas where the virus has been identified. 

Here are further links to learn about the Canine influenza virus including a map of confirmed cases of the H3N2 strain from Cornell university:

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Cancer Sucks!


We all have someone, human or otherwise, in our lives who has been touched by cancer.  Rogue cells that disregard the rules of living in our body and operate with a purpose of their own.  Cancer is the most common reason for death in dogs over 10 years of age.  Over the past five years, many advances have been made in the treatment of cancer and progress in this field is moving forward at an incredible rate.  Fortunately, veterinary medicine has fewer regulatory restrictions for medication use when treating cancer- allowing us more opportunities for clinical trials and novel approaches to therapy than human medicine.

Targeted therapy and use of monoclonal antibodies are some of the newer approaches, which are replacing traditional chemotherapy in many cases.  Veterinary oncologists often have a different approach to treating cancer in companion pet patients than doctors treating their human counterparts. Veterinary oncologists set a goal of improving the quality of life rather than compromising quality for the sake of more quantity of life.  


Unlike human medicine where a protocol for treatment is determined by the American Medical Association based on the type of cancer diagnosed, veterinary cancer specialists often modify treatment protocols based on a pet’s response to therapy and side effects to the medications.  Taking the lifespan of our pets and their inability to describe the side effects of cancer therapy, we can choose a treatment plan with minimal consequences and change our course of action if side effects become evident.  

Some of the most challenging and aggressive cancers to treat in veterinary medicine are mast cell tumors, malignant melanoma, and osteosarcoma. These now have newer therapeutic options, which have been developed in the past few years such as Palladia- targeted therapy, melanoma vaccine -using the immune system to attack cancer and soon to be available armed antibodies for osteosarcoma (bone cancer).  


We are fortunate to have many local resources and veterinary oncologists to provide guidance to the general practice veterinarians with diagnosis and therapeutic options for pets diagnosed with cancer. Locally, we have Dr. Theresa Arteaga at Animal Cancer Center in Monterey and Dr. Jay Stone at Santa Cruz Veterinary Hospital. There is also SAGE Centers for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Centers, which is currently installing stereotactic radiation therapy. This is a state of the art use of radiation that allows fewer treatments and more focal use of radiation. 

Not too far away, is our own University of California – Davis where a world-renowned veterinary teaching hospital is conducting amazing clinical trials. Here is a link to the current 22 trials they are conduction on cancer patients alone:

Other resources for pets and their people can be found at these websites and

If you have a pet diagnosed with cancer, researching options and finding a veterinary oncologist may help you broaden the available choices for therapy for your pet.

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Foxtails - Plants of Concern

Record-setting amounts of winter rain were so welcome for California this year.  We have green hills and full reservoirs after years of drought.  We also have a thick carpet of plants, which become a concern when pets get into some that cause problems.


Foxtails are the most notorious of these. They have arrow-shaped plant seed appearing with fox tail- fluffs of one directional barbs, which allow them to move only in a forward direction.  These plant awns move into the nose, ear, eye, interdigital areas of feet and other sites of direct skin contact and sometimes even the lungs of dogs and cats, who travel through high grass and fields.  Dogs who chase balls and Frisbees at a high speed can suck these plant awns into their lungs and cause an abrupt cough.  In each of these locations, the plant awns can cause serious damage. In some cases, they migrate through the body and resulting in the loss of an eye, a lung lobe with a severe chest infection or the creation of abscesses in body cavities.  Rare but documented is the migration of the foxtail from the nose or eye to the brain, or from the lungs to the spinal cord. 


If you have these plants on your property, do your best to cut them down when green before drying out can create firmer more dangerous seeds. If your pet has sudden shaking of the head (ear); paroxysmal sneezing sometimes with blood (nose); closing of an eye and discharge from that eye; or a sudden onset cough after running hard through a field- then a foreign body such as a foxtail is a strong possibility and warrants a trip to the veterinarian.  

Grasses and sticks in fields are also a concern.  In the course of my career using bronchoscopy- which is a digital video scope used to examine the deep nasal passages, trachea and the airways of the lungs- I have removed sticks, grass, pine branches and rocks from the respiratory tracts of both cats and dogs.  A very important part of differentiating a foreign body as the source of coughing or sneezing is the history of recent activities for that pet, the environment in which it lives and the acuteness of the signs.  Usually, the presence of a foreign body means acute onset – essentially zero to 60 in a cough or sneeze. 

Dogs like to eat grass and both they and cats may have the rough surface of grass catch on the soft tissue of the mouth and soft palate.  Cats allowed outside who appear to be swallowing hard or who don’t want to eat might have grass caught in the back of their throat- particularly if a foul smell develops in their mouths. These grasses need to be pulled out under anesthesia because the small barbs on the grass grab the tissues of the throat requiring traction to dislodge them.   

I have removed sticks from the trachea and throat of dogs (and 1 cat). Often these are exuberant dogs that have run hard and inadvertently impaled themselves or aspirated plant material.  Again a sudden onset of cough and mouth pain are indicative of foreign material being lodged. Some dogs who like to chew sticks may break off a small piece in the back of their mouths creating a nidus for infection that will show up as facial swelling or pain on chewing sometimes associated with a foul smell in the mouth.

In this celebratory Spring where the green and sunshine brings smiles to our faces, keep your pets safe by removing high grasses and foxtails on your property and watching for signs of a foxtails or grasses affecting your pet. 

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM

Safety tips for driving with your dog

It might look fun but this is a terrible idea!

It might look fun but this is a terrible idea!

We all love to take our pups on car rides with us, and most of them really enjoy the ride!  While this can be good entertainment and a source of bonding, there are some inherent associated risks. All too often in veterinary medicine we see pets that were simply running an errand with their owner, when an accident happens and the pet is now in the emergency room with multiple severe injuries.  

Often these accidents occur when pets are not restrained in the car, or the window is down. One wrong turn and this can lead to severe damage, including fractures, ruptured urinary bladders, internal bleeding, and trauma to the chest causing a pneumothorax. These can be life-threatening injuries, which require extensive care and surgery to resolve.  

These injuries are often preventable with a few simple steps and planning ahead.

  • Pets should always be restrained while riding in the car.  There are many pet seat belts/harnesses available that click right into your current seat belt.  If this is not an option, a section of the car can be sectioned off to prevent jumping and/or falling.
  • While dogs love to stick their heads out the window, it is not necessary to have the window all the way down for them to enjoy the fresh air.  Keeping the window slightly cracked to allow fresh air, but not open enough for the dog to jump out the window is acceptable, and safe.
  • Believe it or not, dogs have been known to step on the window controls and lower the windows themselves.  Keeping the child lock on the windows prevents dogs from performing this action, and keeps them safe.
  • Never allow dogs to ride in the bed of a truck to be unrestrained.  Dog's can safely travel in the bed of the truck IF kept in a crate that is tied down.

Dogs are wonderful companions, and it is fun for everyone for them to travel with the family. Being cautious and thinking ahead can prevent severe, life-threatening injuries. Harnesses, seat belts, and crates are readily available in local pet stores and online.  This relatively inexpensive purchase can save the life of your four-legged friend.

Blog Post Author:
Melissa Arbaugh, DVM, MS, DACVS
Pacific Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service



Our Pets and Toxins


The other day I covered an emergency shift at the hospital.  I noted that 2 of the dogs were there for toxicity ingestion.  One had enjoyed a box of chocolate truffles, which resulted in vomiting, increased heart rate and the need for intravenous (IV) fluid support.  The other had consumed an entire bottle of flavored chewable arthritis medicine intended for her canine sister.  The dose was more than 3x the toxic dose for her kidneys and required a few days in the hospital on IV fluids for her as well.  So, I thought it might be time to remind people that the common sense we use to decide our actions does not extend to our pets.

 Cats less often get in trouble with inappropriate ingestion. However, I have used my endoscopy equipment to pull from the feline stomach my share of holiday ornaments, hair ties and just last weekend an electrical cord.  Cats are more discerning for what they put into their mouths, however, very playful cats will end up accidentally swallowing thread, string or other linear objects particularly when they catch on the sandpaper tongue of cats. 


One of the first areas to examine is under the tongue of a cat that presents for vomiting- a string will catch under the tongue while the intestines are trying to move the string through the intestines.  We call this a linear foreign body. It will create an accordion effect on the intestines with a potential for the foreign material to saw through the intestines and warranting emergency surgery to remove it.  Cats will sometimes drink cleaning solution and irritate their mouth and esophagus, or eat poisonous flowers, which can irritate the throat. 


Important this time of year is knowing that ingestion of plants from the Lily family can cause acute kidney failure in cats- so do not let your cat chew on flowers you bring into the house.  Lastly anti-freeze, which results in ethylene glycol toxicity, is an important thing to avoid. Anti-freeze can leak from the radiator of cars and it is a sweet tasting solution. Ingestion of a very small amount can result in acute kidney failure and death.  Immediate medical care is needed to save the life of these pets as the substance is converted to a toxic form in the body over the first 12 to 24 hours after exposure.  Alternate sources of anti-freeze are available for pet owners. Knowing that your pet may have been exposed to this substance is crucial to preventing potentially terminal illness.

Dogs are a bit less discerning in what they are willing to put into their mouths, so may require a little more “house-proofing” to keep them safe.  The number one toxicity for dogs is human pharmaceuticals so be sure your blood pressure, anti-inflammatory, and other medications are kept out of reach.   Dogs can be crafty in their ability to get things off the counter including chocolate, raisins, and medication.

Our new concern in the industry is xylitol, the sugar-free option being used in gum, mints and peanut butter.  This sweetener causes a significant release of insulin from the pancreas and life-threatening low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Dogs have died from consuming a batch of cookies made with xylitol and cats can also be affected. 

Marijuana toxicity is another concern as the brownies or cookies taste as good to our pets as to us.  If you think your pet has been exposed to a toxic substance, then the ASPCA poison control website: is a great resource.  Calling your veterinarian or the closest 24-hour emergency hospital is very helpful. Try to have the information about the medication or substance consumed, how much was consumed, your dogs’ weight and how recently your pet has been exposed to it.  

The staff at most 24-hour hospitals can help you determine the degree of the emergency.  Sometimes the weight of the dog and the amount of ingested material is “safe”.  There is actually a published “chocolate wheel” that helps determine what is a safe amount for dogs- dependent on the weight of the dog, amount consumed and whether it is milk or dark chocolate -we can tell people whether a visit to the ER is needed.


If the exposure is recent, inducing vomiting to help remove the toxin from the body can be indicated, as long as the substance will not be caustic to the tissues in the mouth or throat. Remember to err on the side of safety in keeping potentially harmful substances from your dog.

Being an advocate for the health of your pet and taking part in preventative and proactive medical care is part of what we at BirchBark Foundation support, whether through education, community building or financial grants for those whose pets are experiencing catastrophic or life threatening situations.  We hope the information on this website helps each reader to be a better advocate for their pet and that the community of Santa Cruz and Monterey county continue to support the mission of BirchBark foundation.

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM



With all the amazing rain that California is finally getting, pet owners need to be aware of a bacterial infection seen more often during the rainy season. Leptospirosis is a spirochete bacteria which is transmitted through urine and contaminated water sources.  Multiple strains of the bacteria exist and vaccines are available for many of these strains. Dogs are susceptible to infection and the strain contracted determines the clinical signs that are seen.  Most often the kidneys and liver will be affected.  The organism causes inflammation in the small blood vessels (vasculitis) and affects different organs.


Dogs at risk include those who drink from outdoor native water sources -more often slow moving water, running on rural property accessible to wild or farm animals.  Some dogs can be exposed and not become clinically ill, though in other dogs the disease can be fatal, particularly if the kidneys are damaged by the disease enough to fail acutely. Signs of illness can be nonspecific: fever, lethargy, change in urination pattern, appetite loss and intestinal signs.  If the liver is affected, then jaundice- yellowing of skin and gums can occur.  Bleeding and breathing problems are also evident in some cases. 

Leptospirosis is diagnosed by a blood and urine test. Prior to any antibiotic administration, samples can be sent to the lab for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing to look for the genetic material of the organism.  Veterinarians can also run a titer to the organism to determine which strain might be affecting a patient.  Other tests are done on patients to determine which organ system might be involved and to what degree. These include blood tests, urinalysis and radiographs and in some cases ultrasound.  Treatment dependent on the severity of the case may include intravenous fluids to help flush the kidneys and/or liver, as well as antibiotics (doxycycline or ampicillin) to clear the organism from the blood, kidneys, and liver.  If the kidneys start to shut down and the amount of urine produced drops, more aggressive therapy, and in some cases hemodialysis, may be needed to save a pet.

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease meaning people can contract it and get fever like symptoms. If a dog is suspected of having this disease, avoid touching the urine, don’t let the dog urinate near water and use good hygiene practices.  People more often contract this disease from water rather than an infected pet. However if one becomes ill around the time the pet is diagnosed, the pet owner should check with their physician, particularly if they are immune compromised.

Prevention includes vaccines administered annually for at-risk dogs: those who swim in slow moving water, spend time around farm and wild animals and have high contact with rats or other outdoor dogs.

Birchbark was able to help save a patient with acute kidney failure from Leptospirosis in 2014: Kiki who lives with her developmentally disabled owner Howard. You can read about her at

You can learn more about this disease at these websites and discuss with your veterinarian whether your pet might be at risk for leptospirosis.

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM