It’s Time to Talk About Boutique, Exotic and Grain-Free Diets in the News

Boutique, exotic, and grain-free diets as they relate to heart disease; a hot button topic with equal amounts of frustration on all sides. Pet parents who are just trying to do what is best for their pet turn to bloggers, pet food companies, friends, and veterinarians for advice and unfortunately are left with more questions than answers as they often receive conflicting advice. The primary reason for this is that nutrition is very complex and the science behind the recently reported rise in heart disease in dogs is far from settled. In this blog I hope to clear up some of the confusion surrounding this topic.

What is dilated cardiomyopathy?

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a condition affecting the heart function and is most commonly seen in large breed dogs. In DCM, the heart muscle becomes progressively weaker and loses the ability to pump efficiently causing the heart chambers to dilate. Strictly speaking, DCM is a disease of the heart muscle itself and there is a known genetic predisposition for the condition in Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds and others. Now we are seeing DCM in breeds with no reported genetic predisposition. They have as a common factor been fed one of these alternative diets per the FDA.  

What is taurine?

Taurine is an amino acid and a required building block of protein. In most dogs, taurine is not considered essential as typically they can synthesize it on their own.

How does my pet’s food relate to heart disease?

Unfortunately, the answer is we still don’t know. The data reported by the FDA suggests that 90% of reported DCM cases were fed a grain-free diet. Additionally, small batch boutique diets and exotic diets were over-represented. However, when analyzed by the FDA, all implicated diets had adequate levels of taurine and other amino acids. Because of this, the working theory is that the high amounts of lentils, peas, and potatoes/sweet potatoes is somehow binding taurine which subsequently results in DCM. Further, a recent study suggested that dogs with a diagnosis of DCM are more severely affected when fed a grain-free diet than those who were fed a more traditional diet, even when DCM was not primarily caused by low taurine levels.

My pet’s allergies are much better on grain-free foods what should I do?

In 97% of food allergy cases in dogs and cats, the allergy is related to the protein source found in their food. Of that 97% the top three allergens are chicken, dairy products, and beef. It is possible that your pet is allergic to the grains found in his or her food. However, it is more likely that the protein source was changed when switching to the current grain-free food, resulting in improvement in signs of allergies. Further consultation with your veterinarian would be recommended prior to continuing on a grain-free diet. If it is determined that the food allergy is grain related, blood taurine measurement and supplementation will likely need to be started.

Only a small number of pets have been affected compared to how many eat these foods. Why should I be concerned?

As of the most recent FDA publication, 515 cases had been reported to the FDA. It is true that this number is small compared to the number of dogs fed grain-free, boutique, and exotic diets. Oftentimes in pets, symptomatic treatment is pursued instead of a full cardiac workup which further compounds reporting efforts. Only dogs with a definitive diagnosis of DCM are mentioned in this report so it would not include any patient where a full cardiac workup was not performed. Further, it is important to note the trend in number of reports: 3 cases reported in 2017, 320 in 2018, and 197 in the first 4 months of 2019. The number of cases reported will continue to rise as pet parents become more aware of this condition and more routine screening is instituted.

What about cats?

While dogs have made up the majority of the reports to the FDA, 14 cats have developed heart disease which may be linked to their food as well. Unfortunately, cats as a whole tend to hide when sick until it could be too late. Because of this, it is believed their numbers have been underreported as well.

Where do we go from here?

After review and discussion of the available literature, we have contracted with an outside laboratory to offer a blood test that can screen for heart disease. We feel strongly that it is in the best interest of all pets who have been receiving a grain-free, exotic, or boutique diet to have this testing performed. If you have concerns or feel this may affect your pet, please contact us at 256-882-0950 to schedule a consultation or blood draw.

We at Whitesburg Animal Hospital are always available to have an open discussion about your pet’s nutrition. We appreciate your trust and look forward to working with you to help ensure your pet has a long and happy life.

Your partners in all things pet related,

John Mark Russell, DVM

C. Mark Russell, DVM

Staci Armstrong, DVM

Ashley Pott, DVM

Kelly Hall, DVM

Protect Your Pet Against Canine Influenza


The doctors of Whitesburg Animal Hospital, PC are committed to alerting you to any changes in disease patterns in our community.  While there have been no recently reported cases of canine influenza in our immediate area; several cases have been confirmed across the United States.

What is Canine Influenza?

Canine influenza is a highly contagious respiratory infection in dogs.  It is easily spread via aerosolized respiratory secretions (coughing, barking and sneezing), contaminated objects (surfaces, food and water bowls, collars and leashes) and people moving between infected and uninfected dogs. The virus can remain viable (alive and ready to infect) on surfaces for up to 48 hours, on clothing for 24 hours and on hands for 12 hours.

The incubation period is usually two to four days from exposure to onset of clinical signs.  The highest amounts of viral shedding occur during this time; therefore, dogs are most contagious during this two to four-day incubation period when they are not exhibiting signs of illness.  While virus shedding decreases during the first four days; intermittent shedding can occur for up to 26 days.

Canine Influenza Strains

What are the Clinical Signs?

Clinical signs of influenza range from general respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, eye discharge) to lethargy, reduced appetite and a fever.  More severe cases may develop a thick nasal discharge.  If your pet experiences any of these symptoms, please seek medical attention immediately.

The good news is that most will recover, but it takes 3-4 weeks!  The greatest risk is for the unhealthy, very young, very old and those with weakened immune systems.  The greatest complication is pneumonia.  To reduce the spread of the virus, infected dogs should be isolated for at least 21 days.

How Can I Protect My Dog?

To best protect our community, Whitesburg Animal Hospital will require the Canine Influenza H3N8+H3N2 combination vaccine for all boarding and day-boarding canines, participants in our Enrichment program as well as guests visiting our private Dog Park.  We also recommend this combination vaccine for any dog that travels or participates in social activities.  Proper immunization requires two vaccinations given at a three-week interval then an annual booster.  Since the vaccination will not require a full physical examination, your pet’s appointment can be scheduled with a veterinary technician.  Please feel free to contact our office at 256-882-0950 if you have any questions or concerns.

The Myths and Facts of Heartworm Disease in Cats

Heartworm Disease in Cats

Heartworm Disease in CatsYou probably already know how important heartworm prevention is for your dog. But did you know that your cat is also susceptible to heartworm infection? Here we will discuss common myths and misconceptions about how heartworm disease affects cats.

MYTH: Cats are not the ideal host for heartworms, so it is not necessary to put my cat on a heartworm prevention.

FACT: While it is true that cats are resistant hosts, it is still possible for cats to become infected. Although some cats are able to mount an immune response strong enough to clear a heartworm infection, the immune response itself can cause many of the same signs associated with heartworm disease. And even if infection resolves, it can still leave your cat with respiratory damage.

MYTH: If my cat tests positive for heartworms, it is easy to treat.

FACT: While heartworm disease is treatable in dogs, the medication is not safe for cats. Currently, there is no recognized drug therapy for the treatment of heartworm in cats. Prevention remains the best option – ask us about starting your cat on a monthly prevention today!

MYTH: There is a reliable and accurate test available for feline heartworms

FACT:  Heartworm disease is difficult to detect in cats because they are less likely to have adult heartworms. As you already know, the test in dogs is only able to detect the adult female heartworm. The best method for detecting heartworms in cats consists of both antigen and antibody testing. The antibody tests detects exposure to heartworm larvae.

MYTH: The symptoms of heartworm disease in cats is the same as in dogs

FACT: Signs of heartworm disease in cats are are vague and often go misdiagnosed. Symptoms include coughing, periodic vomiting, weight loss, and inappetence. Loss commonly seizures, fainting, and fluid accumulation in the abdomen will occur. Unfortunately, some of those with heartworm disease will have no signs at all before experiencing sudden collapse or death.

MYTH: My indoor cat does not need to be on heartworm prevention.

FACT: Although exposure to the mosquitoes that carry heartworm is lessened if your cat never goes outside, the risk still remains. Just because your cat is strictly indoors doesn’t mean that mosquitoes can’t come inside too.


FAQ About Heartworms

How Are Heartworms Transmitted?

Heartworm DiseaseHeartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. The adult female heartworm lives in the infected host and produces baby heartworms called microfilariae which circulate in the bloodstream. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, it picks up the microfilariae which develop into larvae within 10 to 14 days.  Then, when the infected mosquito bites a dog or another susceptible animal, these mature larvae enter the new host through the bite wound. In six months they will mature into the adult heartworm and the whole process starts again. The adult heartworm will live five to seven years in dogs and two to three years in cats.

Why Should I Give Heartworm Prevention Year Round?

Mosquitoes become active when temperatures go above 50 degrees. In Alabama, it is not consistently cold enough to guarantee that mosquitoes won’t be active in the winter. Even in colder northern states, year round heartworm prevention is recommended. Mosquitoes are constantly adapting to colder temperatures, and different species are active at different times of the year.

What If I Miss A Dose?

If you miss giving one or more doses of heartworm prevention it is recommended to give the next dose as soon as you remember, and to continue giving every 30 days. Because it takes six months for the larvae to mature into adults, and a heartworm test can only detect the adult female, you will need to check a heartworm test six months from the missed dose.

If you are constantly forgetting to give monthly heartworm prevention, one option to consider is the remind me program through our online store. You can sign up to have a single dose automatically shipped to you at  the same time every month, and never forget your pet’s heartworm prevention again!

Do I Need To Give Heartworm Prevention If My Pet Doesn’t Go Outside?

All pets should be on heartworm prevention, whether they go outside or are strictly indoors. Mosquitoes can hitch a ride into your home on your clothes or through an open door or window. Rather than take the risk and hope your pet is never exposed, the best option is heartworm prevention. 

Heartworm Prevalence Map

What Are The Signs Of Heartworm Disease?

Signs of heartworm disease include chronic cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after activity, decreased appetite and and weight loss. Heart failure and cardiovascular collapse can occur as the disease progresses.

My Dog Is On Heartworm Prevention Year Round, Why Do I Need To Test?

No product is 100% effective, and yearly testing ensures that if there was a failure in the medication the your dog will be treated. Continuing to give the heartworm prevention will kill any larvae, but has no effect on adult heartworms.

What If My Pet Contracts Heartworms Even After Being On A Preventative?

No product is 100% effective. However, most heartworm prevention comes with a manufacturer’s guarantee, and they will reimburse you for some or all of the cost of treatment as long as there is proof that you have purchased it from a licensed veterinarian.

Are There Options Other Than Monthly Heartworm Prevention?

Yes! Whitesburg Animal Hospital carries an injectable form of heartworm prevention called Proheart 6, which protects against heartworms for 6 months. As with any heartworm prevention, a negative heartworm test is required before it can be administered.

The Fear Free Veterinary Experience

Fear Free Taking the Pet Out of PetrifiedAt Whitesburg Animal Hospital, providing the highest standard of care is our number one priority. We constantly strive to better serve you and your pet, which is why a majority of our staff is now Fear Free certified. Fear Free is a multi-modal approach to veterinary care that encompasses your pet’s emotional and physical well being.

We have made many changes around the hospital, but there are things you can do as well to help us make your pet’s next veterinary visit an enjoyable experience. Here just a few things you can do for your next visit:

Acclimate Your Cat to the Carrier

If you keep your cat carrier in the garage or attic and only take it out once or twice a year when your cat needs to go to the vet, you will most likely start the visit off with a lot of stress and anxiety. A better approach is to leave the carrier out year round – make this a safe spot for your kitty! Placing some food or treats in or near the carrier will help your cat associate it with good things, making it that much easier (and less stressful) when it comes time for a vet visit.

Skip a Meal

If medically appropriate, try not to feed your pet before the exam. One of the main ways that we reduce anxiety and stress during the exam is through the liberal use of food treats. In this way, your pet is focused on the positive experience of eating something yummy, not on the uncomfortable sensations that can sometimes accompany a trip to the vet. Please be aware that we do use peanut butter as a treat quite frequently at our hospital. Notify us immediately if you or your pet have a food allergy so that we can accommodate your needs.

Bring Favorite Treats or Toys From Home

Consider bringing your pet’s favorite treats or toys along for the visit. In an unfamiliar place, items from home will bring your pet a sense of security and comfort. In addition, they can also serve as a distraction from unpleasant sensations and a reward for good behavior, all of which will help reduce stress and anxiety.

Give Pheromones a Try

We have seen great success with the synthetic pheromones Feliway (for cats) and Adaptil (for dogs). These products mimic the natural pheromones produced by your pet to create a sense of security. It may be helpful to use these products before the vet visit to reduce anxiety and stress in your pet.

Call From the Parking Lot

We know that the reception area can be a very stressful place for both you and your pet. If your pet experiences a lot of anxiety from being in the waiting room, don’t be afraid to give us a call when you arrive. We will arrange to bring you straight to the exam room from your vehicle.

Stay tuned as we share more about what it means to be Fear Free and what we are doing to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in the veterinary hospital.

Pet Poison Awareness

 Common Toxins Found in the Yard and GarageToxins

Knowing the potential toxins commonly found around your home and being able to identify signs and symptoms of pet poisoning can save your pet’s life!

Poisonous Plants

Spring is here; so you and your pet are sure to be spending more time outside. The daffodils and lilies have started blooming, signalling the end of winter, but did you know that these plants are toxic to your pet if ingested? While some plants may cause only minor discomfort, others have the potential to cause severe illness or death. The table below will help you identify a few of the most common toxic plants and the severity of the problems they may cause.  


Species Affected Part of Plant Degree of Severity

Signs & Symptoms

Azalea Dogs, Cats All parts Mild – severe; depending on amount ingested Vomiting, diarrhea, transient blindness, seizures, coma
Daffodil Dogs, Cats All parts; especially the ingestion of bulb may causes severe tissue irritation and drooling. Mild – moderate Vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias
Oleander Dogs, Cats, Horses, Cows, Birds All parts Moderate – severe Vomiting, abnormal heart rate, arrhythmias, seizures, death
Sago Palm Dogs, Cats All parts; the seeds (nuts) in particular are most toxic. Severe Vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, jaundice, black-tarry stool
Foxglove Dogs, Cats All parts; even the water in the vase can cause toxicosis. Moderate – severe Vomiting, abnormal heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, dilated pupils, seizures, death
Lily of the Valley Dogs, Cats All parts Moderate – severe Vomiting, diarrhea, slowed heart rate, severe cardiac arrhythmias, seizures, death

(Tiger, Day, Easter)

Cats All parts; including pollen and water from the vase. Moderate to severe Vomiting, diarrhea, inappetance, seizures, death


The ethylene glycol found in most antifreeze is extremely dangerous to dogs and cats. Other common toxins include windshield de-icing agents and hydraulic brake fluid. Be sure to keep them stored safely out of reach of your pet. Ingesting as little as a tablespoon can cause severe kidney failure in dogs. A teaspoon can be fatal in cats.

The Three Stages of Ethylene Glycol Poisoning:

  • Within 30 minutes of ingestion, early symptoms similar to alcohol poisoning. Walking “drunk”, drooling, vomiting, excessive thirst and urination, and seizures begin.
  • Stage two occurs 12 to 24 hours after ingestion. At this point clinical signs may appear to improve. However, severe damage continues  within the body.
  • Approximately 36 to 72 hours after ingestion, severe, acute kidney failure, vomiting, seizures, and coma are likely outcomes.

Ethylene glycol poisoning requires immediate treatment. Ideally the antidote should be given within 3 hours of ingestion in cats and within 8 to 12 hours in dogs.  As clinical signs develop, the prognosis is very poor.  As a result, aggressive treatment is necessary for survival.


Mouse and rat poisons, for example, are very dangerous.  Therefore, it is important to keep these toxins safely out of reach of your pet. The four most common types of rodenticides are addressed below. 


Toxin Name Mechanism of Action Signs & Symptoms

Special Precautions

Long-acting Anticoagulants Brodifacoum, Bromadiolone, Diphenadione, Chlorophacinone & Difethialone   Prevents blood from clotting and causes internal bleeding Lethargy, pale gums, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, nosebleeds, bruising, bloody urine, swollen joints Very young or very old animals,  and those with underlying liver and/or gastro-intestinal disease are at higher risk.
Bromethalin Fastrac & Terminantor Causes swelling of the brain Lethargy, walking drunk, abnormal pupil size, tremors, seizures, and in some cases, even death. Unfortunately, there is no antidote for this toxin and there is a low margin of safety. Cats in particular, seem to be more sensitive to this toxin than dogs.
Cholecalciferol Vitamin D3, Calcitriol & Calcipotriene Causes high calcium and phosphorus levels which can be life threatening. Lethargy, inappetence, weakness, increased thirst and urination, organ failure There is no antidote for this toxin and there is a low margin of safety. It is likely that signs may not appear for 1-2 days after ingestion.
Phosphides Rodenticide AG, Gopha-Rid, ZP & Sweeney’s Poisoned Peanuts As poison mixes with stomach acid, a deadly phosphine gas is released. Drooling, nausea, vomiting, abdominal bloat, diarrhea, shock, seizures, liver damage, difficulty breathing, even death. Gas can be dangerous to humans, hence, vomiting should not be induced!

If You Know or Suspect That Your Pet Has Ingested Something a Potential Toxin:

Call Whitesburg Animal Hospital  immediately at (256) 882-0950.

For After Hours Emergencies:

Call the 24/7 Pet Poison Control Center  at (885) 764-7661 or the Animal Emergency Clinic at (256) 533-7600.

Pet Dental Health

Did you know that periodontal disease is the most common condition in adult pets? Studies show that poor dental health can negatively affect the heart, kidneys, lungs, and liver, with the potential to shorten the lifespan of your pet.

Signs of DBrushing Teeth for Good Dental Healthental Disease

  • bad breath
  • pawing at face
  • salivating
  • red, swollen gums
  • facial swelling
  • broken or loose teeth
  • trouble chewing / decreased appetite


A Healthy Weight Loss Diet Can Add Years To Your Pet’s Life

Jake before dietWe know that starting a weight loss diet for your pet can be overwhelming.  Here, we share a client’s amazing weight loss success with her own pet. We hope that seeing the difference she made in Jake’s quality of life will inspire you to continue your own journey in creating a healthy and happy lifestyle for your pet. Continue…

Make Weight Loss Your Pet’s Resolution For The New Year!

Weight Loss - Dog on ScaleDid you know that over 50% of dogs and cats in the US are overweight or obese? Obesity puts your pet at an increased risk for arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart and respiratory disease. You can decrease the risk by promoting a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Make creating a healthy lifestyle through weight loss your pet’s new year’s resolution.