Disaster Preparedness for your Pet

By Wanda Vollmer - Founder, Peace of Mind Preparedness


When it comes to natural disasters, we are vulnerable here in California. Earthquakes, wildfires and flooding are all possible here on the Central Coast. Many families take steps to prepare themselves for a disaster and it's equally important to include your pets in your emergency planning.

Here are a few steps to get you started:

  1. Make sure your pet has identification whether it is a microchip or a collar with ID tag.

  2. Pack a disaster kit that includes, food, water, bowls, first aid kit, crate/pet carrier, extra leash/collar, vet records and a current photo of you and your pet. A familiar toy is nice to add as a comfort item.

  3. Choose a trusted, designated caregiver for your pet. Make sure they have a set of keys to your home in the event you are not home during a disaster.

  4. Identify shelters and pet friendly hotels ahead of time should you need to evacuate.

  5. Depending on the pet you have, make proper accommodations based on their needs. For example, if you have horses, get them familiar with loading them in trailers.

Start planning for your pets today! Pets aren't just "like" family, they are family. Remember to never leave your pets behind. They will thank you for it!

Temperature Safety

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Temperature fluctuations can be deadly for your pet. Be sure you are aware of the temperature if you are keeping your pet in the car or outside for any length of time. It is not safe to leave your pet in the car for any length of time in hot weather. Temperature in cars can quickly exceed 100 F and can be fatal for pets, particularly certain breeds such as bulldogs, French bulldogs, Boston terriers and pugs. They can quickly become overheated and if not cooled can suffer brain damage, seizures and death. Dogs cannot sweat to cool themselves, panting is their mechanism for diffusing excess heat. Outdoors, you can help your pet stay cool with a fan, ice in the water or cooling them with a pool or hose if that does not create anxiety. Please be sure to protect your pets from overheating.

Household Risks

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Ingestion of concerning substances is an emergency in many cases. If your pet has just ingested a substance of concern, check with your veterinarian, emergency clinic or poison control before encouraging your pet to vomit. Some substances are caustic and can damage the esophagus if pets vomit them. Once the substance is determined, inducing vomiting and administering an adsorbing agent may often be very helpful. Substances like antifreeze, rat poison, snail bait, marijuana, chocolate and prescription drugs should be removed from the stomach by your veterinarian and an agent like charcoal given to help decrease absorption of the active ingredient and the severity of damage.

When in doubt call your veterinarian or ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at Phone Number: (888) 426-4435 or https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control.

Foods to Avoid

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Many of our routine foods are dangerous for our pets. Most significant is the substance xylitol that is a low calorie sweetener. This additive causes a significant release of insulin in pets and can cause a life threatening low blood sugar and liver failure. Xylitol is in many products including candy, gum, baked goods, toothpaste and mouthwash. If your pet has ingested xylitol be sure to contact your veterinarian or an emergency clinic particularly if your pet is lethargic or vomiting. Other foods to avoid for your pet include chocolate, caffeine, avocado, raisins and grapes, macadamia nuts, onion, garlic and chives. Signs vary based on how much your pet ingests. The ASPCA web site is a great resource of the clinical signs you might see with these foods if ingested.

Prescription Medications (a common risk)


Household risks exist for every pet and it’s important to know what common household products can be dangerous for your pet. ASPCA reports one of the most common “poisonings” at homes are pets getting hold of owner’s prescription medications. Be sure you keep your medications safe from your pets. If your pet is exposed to prescription medications you can go to the ASPCA animal poison control center at or call your local emergency clinic.




Bones can be a concern because of bacteria that might be harmful to pets, but primarily the size of bone offered to pets can be concerning. Some dogs will try to swallow a bone too big to fit through their esophagus (the tube from the mouth to the stomach) and if a bone lodges in that area it can cause damage and potentially a stricture that can cause permanent damage and could be life threatening. Signs that your pet might have damage to the esophagus include regurgitation (vomiting without retching or without a significant abdominal component or contraction) or difficulty swallowing or excessive drooling.

Speaking for Spot



Learn how to become a savvy medical advocate for your dog. With a sense of humor and explanations that are easy to understand, Dr. Nancy Kay provides a wealth of dog health care tips and teaches you how to navigate the expensive, complex, and often overwhelming world of veterinary medicine. Visits to your vet will never be the same!

Order Dr. Kay’s book here, or listen to a NPR interview with Dr. Kay here.

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: http://www.birchbarkfoundation.org/blog/2017/4/26/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: https://www.outfoxfordogs.com/

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 http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/pets/hot_car_flyer.pdf. Remember pets don’t sweat so their ability to relieve body heat can be limited. http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/pets_safe_heat_wave.html

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 http://socalrattlesnakeavoidancetraining.com/ or a vaccine if your pet is high risk https://www.embracepetinsurance.com/waterbowl/article/rattlesnake-vaccine.

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

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