You know clients Google when it comes to their pet. In fact, Google recently released the 10 most-searched questions pet owners asked about their dogs and cats last year. Instead of leaving the answers—and health of your patients—to a Google algorithm, address the queries your clients are just dying to ask. Make sure they know that if they ever have a question regarding their pet, you as their veterinarian should be their first point of contact.
To help you in this effort, we’ve compiled expert answers from John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB, Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice), and Ernie Ward, DVM. You can read their answers to the top 10 Googled questions on the pages that follow—or download these handy client handouts—one for dogs and one for cats.
Whether they're serious or merely curious, clients ultimately want information that helps them understand and care for their pets better, so make sure they're just as comfortable coming to you as Dr. Google.
10 most-searched dog questions:
1. Why do dogs eat grass?
> The short answer is we don’t know. Most veterinarians agree that grass eating seems to be a way for dogs to relieve gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, parasites or possibly infections. Another theory is that dogs are craving micronutrients found in leafy plants. Finally, dogs may eat grass simply because they like it. If your dog is eating grass every day or large amounts, ask your veterinarian to check out your dog immediately. —Ernie Ward, DVM
2. Do dogs dream?
> Probably. Based on brain wave studies of sleeping dogs, we’ve discovered that dogs and humans share many similar characteristics when sleeping and possibly dreaming. For most dogs, dreaming should occur about 20 minutes after they begin to doze. You’ll notice shallow, irregular breathing followed by muscle twitching and eye movements behind closed eyelids. These eye movements are consistent with REM sleep, when humans dream. The real question is, what do dogs dream about? —Ernie Ward, DVM
3. Why do dogs howl?
> Dogs howl for many reasons. It is a nonspecific behavior, sort of like a baby's cry. A mother knows when a cry means hunger, discomfort or need for attention. Similarly in dogs, howling can occur when a dog is distressed (for example, when alone and having a problem with separation anxiety), feeling territorial, stressed in a situation that it cannot get out of (such as when a dog is fearful of guests in the home and the guests are not leaving), or responding to persistent noises such as the sound of a siren. Finally, I imagine it is a fun activity for some dogs—kind of like singing in the shower. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
> If your dog howls, you may at least partly blame an ancient ancestor, the wolf. Wolves howl primarily to alert an enemy pack they’re ready to rumble or guide a lost member home. Dogs howling and hooting when you leave may be an attempt to get you to return. Howling at other dogs may signal, “Get lost!” or “I’m over here!” —Ernie Ward, DVM
4. Why do dogs have whiskers?
> Whiskers function as sensory organs. Touch, air currents and vibrations can stimulate the whiskers. They also can function as a form of communication in that dogs that are emotionally aroused move their whiskers forward or backward to signal to another dog either fear or confidence during encounters. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
> Whiskers are known in the veterinary anatomy world as vibrissae. Most dogs have these long, stiff hairs projecting from their jaw, muzzle and above their eyes. Whiskers are highly sensitive and help inform the dog about surrounding objects, air movements and more. You can also tell a dog is nervous or scared if the whiskers are pointing forward at a potential threat. Whatever you do, don’t trim or pluck whiskers because they serve an important information source for dogs. —Ernie Ward, DVM
5. Why do dogs chase their tails?
> Other than for grooming reasons (injury to tail or anal area as well as managing external parasites), it is abnormal for dogs to consistently chase their tails. It can occur as an attention-getting activity or can escalate to a compulsive behavior, in that the dog engages in the behavior with reduced ability to discontinue to the point where it interferes with normal activities. Compulsive behaviors are similar to obsessive compulsive disorders (OCDs) in people; one theory is that it results in increased endorphins in the brain, thus acting to reinforce pleasure for the behavior. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
6. How do you clean dogs' ears?
> Cleaning ears regularly can help minimize infection since dry, clean ears are less likely to become infected. Place a small amount of a quality cleaning agent in the ear (enough to where you can hear a slight "squishing" sound) and massage the ear canal by rubbing at the base of the ear. Allow your pet to shake its head, then wipe out the discharge from the ear canal using cotton or tissue on your finger. Do not place anything into the ear unless directed by your veterinarian. I recommend cleaning a normal ear (not complicated by allergies or resistant infections) about one to two times per week or after baths, where water may have gotten introduced. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
> Cleaning a dog’s ears is an important part of routine grooming. A dog’s ear canal is shaped like an “L,” making thorough cleaning and drying a challenge. If you have any reservations about cleaning your dog’s ears, ask your veterinarian to teach you how to do it safely and effectively. Start by gently cleaning the outer ear with a clean cotton ball and veterinary-approved ear cleaning solution. Be sure to remove any debris and dead skin from crevices and folds. Using a clean cotton ball, push as far into the ear canal as you can comfortably reach with your small finger. Be sure not to stuff the cotton ball so deep you can’t retrieve it. Remove the cotton ball and repeat until there is no more dirt or debris observed. —Ernie Ward, DVM
7. Why are dogs' noses wet?
> Dogs' noses act as sweat glands and can become wet as a means of discharging heat (air movement across a wet surface results in greater heat loss). In addition, discharges from the nasal cavity will accumulate on the nose. Clear discharge can occur with temperature changes (cool weather) and also with some allergies. Discolored discharges usually indicate some pathological process in the nasal cavity (infection, neoplasia, foreign body, bleeding disorder) and should be evaluated as soon as possible. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
> Wet noses increase a dog’s ability to smell. Scientists believe the thin layer of mucous on a “wet nose” helps trap scent chemicals that are then licked off and processed by a dog’s special olfactory (smelling) glands located in the roof of its mouth. Wet noses are also the result of specialized sweat glands. Dogs can only perspire from the pads of their feet and noses, further contributing to a “wet nose.” —Ernie Ward, DVM
8. How do you stop dogs from digging?
> Dogs dig because it's fun (dirt plays back) or for exploration reasons. This is a normal behavior and if dogs are allowed to engage in the behavior unsupervised, it will persist and escalate because the behavior is reinforced (remember ... it is fun). Management includes not allowing dogs in areas unsupervised where they have dug before, block off problem areas to prevent access, always be in the yard with your dog to prevent digging and engage your dog with other activities (play, training). Also, you can create an acceptable digging area by providing a digging box or area with sand or dirt that your dog and easily dig in. You can encourage its use by burying favorite toys (first shallow then more deeply) in the box. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
9. How do you introduce dogs to … (babies, cats, etc.)?
>Gradually and carefully are key concepts to introducing dogs to babies or new pets. The first rule of introduction is supervision. Any time two new pets meet or a new child enters the home, close control of the interaction is required. Next, take it slow. Keep the parties separated and allow them to see, hear and smell the visitor. Back off at any sign of anxiety, fear or threats. If a new baby is at the hospital, try bringing home a blanket with the newborn’s smell for your pet. Make sure to keep food and prized possessions away during introduction. Once everyone is acclimated to each other, carefully allow direct contact. After a short period, take a break and start over in five to 15 minutes.
Regardless of how long you’ve had your pet or how nice it is, never allow unsupervised interaction between an animal and baby. Injuries can occur in a flash and leave a lifetime of physical and emotional damage. If you’re thinking of bringing a new pet into your home or expecting a baby, talk to your veterinarian about strategies and tactics to ease the introduction. —Ernie Ward, DVM
10. Why do dogs bury bones?
>Animals frequently create food caches (hiding spots for valuables that the animal can later access when they are safe or when normal food supplies are no longer available). Even though you may supply all the food your dog may want, it is difficult to break a natural, instinctual behavior. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
>When dogs bury bones, they’re making an instinctual deposit to protect a future meal or prized possession. Thousands of years ago, scavenging dogs weren’t certain where or when their next meal would be. If they scored a big find, they’d hide leftovers for leaner times. Burying food kept it dark and cool, an early version of refrigeration. —Ernie Ward, DVM
10 most-searched cat questions:
1. Why do cats purr?
>Purring occurs as a result of vibration of vocal cords due to neurological stimulation from brain activity. The purpose of purring is uncertain but it does seem to be associated with pleasurable activity. However, cats are also known to purr when ill or injured, which lead some to believe that the frequency of the vibration of the vocal cords can be associated with greater healing. Purring also is reinforcing for people when they are petting cats and therefore can act to increase the amount of petting. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
>Cats generally purr when in contact with someone; a favored owner stroking, nursing a kitten, or greeting a familiar partner-cat. Positive experiences also elicit purring, rolling or rubbing, being in a warm familiar environment or about to fall peacefully asleep. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
2. How long do cats live?
>Average life span in cats is around 15 years of age. However, this can vary widely depending on the health of the cat, nutrition and preventative care. We have had cats in our practice live to 22 years. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
>Like so any things in life, it depends. Lifestyle: Outdoor cats often live shorter lives than indoor. Being overweight or obese shortens life by 1 to 2.5 years on average. Regular health care, physical examinations, parasite prevention and vaccinations provide protection against threats to life and health. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
>Today’s house cats can expect to live 15 to 20 years, with some reaching 22 to 25. Advances in preventing kitten-hood diseases such as distemper and Feline leukemia, parasites, heartworms, and better diets are key in extending longevity. In addition, indoor cats living today face fewer threats from predators and trauma. Sadly, indoor cats also are facing an obesity epidemic leading to skyrocketing rates of diabetes. —Ernie Ward, DVM
3. Why do cats knead?
>Kneading behavior in cats is a reflection of instinctual behavior from the time of kittenhood. Kittens knead the mammary glands of the queen as a means of stimulating milk production (milk "let down") through the release of oxytocin. I see this in older kittens and cats when they are content and are attempting to solicit attention. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
>Cats knead for two reasons. While settling down to rest, some cats will knead soft places as if to prepare it to lie comfortably. This may be from a time when vegetation would be knocked down to make a safe sleeping place. Kittens knead the queen to help with milk release when they are nursing. Kneading always seems to happen when the cat is comfortable. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
> While we don’t fully understand why cats knead, veterinarians have a few theories. One theory is kneading cats are marking territory with special scent glands located in the paws. Another is that kneading is a lingering behavior from suckling. Finally kneading may be a form of stretching or it just plain feels good. —Ernie Ward, DVM
4. Why do cats sleep so much?
>Often they appear to be asleep but are instantly awakened, this type of sleep varies with another deeper one. They tend to sleep in short increments of 10 to 30 minutes, so they are probably not sleeping as much as we think. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
>Cats sleep an average 16 to 18 hours a day. They require all this rest for a couple of reasons; energy conservation is one. Cats use a special form of sugar to fuel their short bursts of activity. It takes awhile to restore this energy so cats are careful when and why they rush into action. Cats love low light. Cats are crepuscular, a term that means most active at dawn and dusk. Indoor cats also want to be social. To balance their instinct and our human schedules, they end up taking lots of “cat naps.” In general, indoor cats sleep more than outdoor cats. —Ernie Ward, DVM
5. Why do cats have whiskers?
>They are very sensitive sense organs and tell a cat a lot about his position in space and what is going on around him. They appear to be particularly useful in low light and darkness, times when other organs cannot collect as much information. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
>Whiskers are known in the veterinary anatomy world as vibrissae. Most cats have these long, stiff hairs projecting from their jaw, muzzle and above their eyes. Whiskers are highly sensitive and help inform the cat about surrounding objects, air movements and more. Whiskers may also be used to gauge whether a cat can slip into a tight space. You can also tell if a cat is nervous or scared if the whiskers are pointing forward at a potential threat. Whatever you do, don’t trim or pluck whiskers because they serve an important information source for cats. —Ernie Ward, DVM
6. What does catnip do to cats?
>Catnip is an herb. Some say it is related to mint, oregano or basil. About half of cats are genetically likely to respond to the effect of the active oil in catnip, nepetalactone. It is not certain what part of the brain is stimulated by this ingredient but it is not harmful to the cat and can be used to help increase use of items like scratching posts or facial marking combs. Many treats have this to help stimulate play. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
>The aroma of catnip in cats is thought to be quite pleasurable. It has no other significance and seems to be a genetic accident. It is an autosomal dominant trait, so not all cats are sensitive. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
7. Why do cats hate water?
>Not all do. There are many types and breeds of cats that are comfortable around or in water. Many cats will fish for food. The Turkish Van and Maine Coon seem to like water—even being immersed in it. For those that don’t like it, it may be related to the way their fur is constructed. It isn’t made for drenching and can become quite heavy when it is. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
8. Why do cats eat grass?
>For cats that eat grass, it seems not to be associated with illness or dietary deficiency. One theory is that it is an evolutionary adaption to intestinal parasites and may serve as a purging mechanism. The taste of sweet moist grass may help to explain it as well as there are some observers who think it is more common with new spring grass. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
> The short answer is we don’t know. Most veterinarians agree grass eating seems to be a way for cat to relieve gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, parasites or possibly infections. Another theory is that cats are craving micronutrients found in leafy plants. Finally, cats may eat grass simply because they like it. It’s important to remember some cats suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may be misdiagnosed as “grass eaters” when the real problem lies within. If your cat is eating grass everyday or large amounts, ask your vet to check out your cat immediately. —Ernie Ward, DVM
9. Why do cats like boxes?
>Cats like to hide and yet be able to see what is going on around them. A box is a perfect place to do that. The opening gives them the view and the sides of the box can protect them from being seen by predators. Remember cats are today the same cats they were 10,000 years ago when they hunted and avoided predators to survive. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
10. What is a group of cats called?
>They are called a clowder or a glaring. —John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
>A group of cats is a clowder. A group of related kittens is a litter. A few litters are a kindle. —Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice)
>A group of cats is called a “clowder.” Clowder originates in Middle English from the term “clotter,” which meant, “to huddle together.” It also has roots in “clutter” which is what my clowder creates in my house.
Dr. John Ciribassi
Dr. Ciribassi founded the animal behavior specialty practice Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants with locations in Buffalo Grove, Bensenville and Chicago, Illinois. Ciribassi is a board certified veterinary behaviorist. Dr. Ciribassi and his wife, Elise, also a veterinarian, own and practice at Carol Stream Animal Hospital in Carol Stream, Illinois. He is a 1984 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and has served as president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association as well as president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB).
Dr. Elizabeth Colleran
A veterinarian at Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, California, Dr. Elizabeth Colleran is a 1990 graduate Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine; 1996 Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2011, she was the president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). She is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Specialty in Feline Practice. As the spokesperson for the AAFP initiative Cat Friendly Practice, she speaks at major conferences around the country.
Dr. Ernie Ward
A veterinarian, author, speaker and media personality, Dr. Ernie Ward has dedicated his life and career to promoting a healthier lifestyle for people and pets. Known as "America's Pet Advocate," Ward founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) in 2005 to help raise awareness about the dangers of excess weight in dogs and cats. Ward was an early advocate for promoting senior pet care guidelines, mandatory pre-surgical blood testing for dogs and cats, extended vaccination protocols and CO2 laser surgery. A 1992 graduate of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, Ward began his career with his clinic, Seaside Animal Care, in 1993. He lives with his wife and daughters in coastal North Carolina where he is also a certified personal trainer, USA Triathalon certified coach and multiple Ironman finisher.