Health watch - answers to questions about pet care

Health watch - answers to questions about pet careA bat got into my house and may have bitten my dog. He has had his rabies shot. Is he safe from rabies, or should he get another shot?

Rabies is a fatal virus that attacks the nervous system and is spread through the saliva of mammals, explains Maureen Carroll, D.V.M., an internist at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, a division of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is usually transmitted through bite wounds. At this time it can only be confirmed by examining the suspect animal's brain.

Bats are known to be carriers of the virus in New England. Rabies affects the central nervous system of animals and causes behavioral changes. Since bats are predominantly nocturnal, be especially wary if you see one during the day, in a place where they are not usually seen (such as in your home or on your lawn), or if it is unable to fly. It's never a good idea to handle wildlife, and this is certainly true in the case of bats.

If your pet is current on his rabies vaccination, he is most likely safe. While the number of reported cases of rabies has been on the rise along the entire East Coast in the last decade, vaccinated animals are well protected. The legal requirements regarding postexposure to rabies vary by state (call your veterinarian for more information). Depending on where you live, "up-to-date" on vaccinations means that the pet has been inoculated within one or three years of exposure. Your dog and any pet that may have been exposed to rabies should get a booster vaccine as soon as possible. There is no need for a quarantine or observation period.

If a pet is not current on its rabies vaccine and was most likely bitten by a suspicious animal, a six-month quarantine is required, and an animal-control officer must be notified of the possible exposure. In some cases the pet may be allowed to be quarantined at home; in others, an approved boarding facility may be required, which can be expensive for the owner and difficult for the pet. If an exposed pet remains symptom-free in quarantine, a booster must be given at five months. The animal is considered protected at six months.

Can dogs be trained to use litter boxes like cats? I recently adopted a very young, small dog. I think it might be easy to train him. Is this possible?

Dana Willeke, a veterinary technician at Angell Memorial, advises that it is often possible to train a small dog to use a litter box. While it's usually easier to teach a puppy this behavior, some older pets with medical conditions that require them to urinate more frequently or that make walking outside more difficult may also benefit from litter box training. Typically, females that squat for all eliminations are easier to train than males, which have a tendency to raise a hind leg during urination. While this male behavior may require a more creative litter box (some companies have actually responded with litter boxes complete with fake hydrants and high-walled sides), it does not preclude litter box training entirely.

Like most pet training, the key to success is consistency, timing, and praise. Training your dog to use a litter box is similar to paper-training. In fact, many owners paper-train their pet first, then move the paper into the box and transition to an appropriate litter.

Remember, your little dog still needs the stimulation, socialization, and exercise gained from trips outside, so even if he adapts wonderfully to the litter box, don't abandon those walks altogether!

My two kittens have eye infections. Is it OK to give them sulfacetamide eye drops for humans?

Dan Biros, D.V.M., an ophthalmologist at Angell Memorial, explains that sulfacetamide fights many types of bacterial pathogens found on the surface of the eye but is used more commonly in humans than in veterinary patients. Some kitten eye infections can be of bacterial origin, but in many cases they have a viral component, against which sulfacetamide drops will not be effective. To add an anti-inflammatory effect, this drug may also be prepared in combination with steroids, which may harm your kitten's eyes. This is because steroids can suppress the local ocular immunity needed to fight many infections, including those of viral origin. Have your kittens evaluated by a veterinarian, who can choose the best drug with the least potential for harm.

I plan to adopt a gerbil and want to be sure I provide a comfortable environment for it. What kind of cages should gerbils be kept in, and what kind of bedding do they prefer? Also, what toys do they like?

Gerbils are active burrowers and like to explore, explains Connie Orcutt, D.V.M., an avian and exotics specialist at Angell Memorial. They also like to chew, so they must be housed in escape-proof cages. Wood is not recommended as a caging material because gerbils can gnaw through it. A plastic cage or a wire cage with a plastic bottom works well. Be sure, however, the wires are spaced closely enough so that your gerbil will not squeeze between them. Adequate ventilation is important because gerbils eliminate a large amount of ammonia in their urine, which can cause respiratory problems. Your gerbil's cage should be cleaned at least twice a week.

Without adequate environmental stimulation, gerbils may dig frantically at the corners of their cages. Your gerbil's cage should be large enough to accommodate an exercise wheel, at least one hide box, and a tunnel (for example, the cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels). A cage with tunnels connecting various sections is ideal. Exercise wheels should have solid surfaces because injuries can occur if a gerbil's tail or delicate legs get caught in wire wheels.

Cage bedding can be shredded paper (avoid the type of shiny, coated paper often used for advertising inserts because it may contain toxic substances), hardwood shavings, or recycled newspaper pellets. Cedar and pine shavings should be avoided because they contain resins that can irritate your gerbil's skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Hay, tissue paper, paper towels, facial tissue, and old socks make excellent nesting materials. Avoid artificial-fiber bedding that can wrap around your gerbil's legs or cause problems if eaten.


Dr. Theran, MSPCA vice president, health and hospitals, welcomes your questions on animal health.