Demodex in puppies (demodectic mange)

There’s a lot of crazy information about puppy demodex floating around, and so I thought it might be a good idea to address it since Kate’s puppies are all hitting the age where it’s normal to find one or two tiny spots.

I’m going to start with a couple of little illustrations that have nothing to do with puppies or mange:

A very long time ago (as in decades) my sister’s dog, a young black Lab bitch, got hit by a car and broke her hip, and then ran into the woods or under the garage or somewhere we never really did figure out (my parents figured she was dead) and hid there. She came back out after more than a week of not eating. She was taken to Angell in Boston and had surgery to pin the hip. After the plate was taken out, the hair over the surgery site and where the pain patches had been grew back completely white. Over the months that followed, black hair gradually replaced the white and she ended up looking normal. I remember her skin looking absolutely horrible during her recovery and she may actually have had some mange there too, but I was a lot younger and stupider at that point and my parents paid $10 for a 40-lb bag of kibble, so take that for what it’s worth.

Not so very long ago, Clue also got hit by a car and also was gone for more than a week. After she came back, she shed for six solid months. It honestly looked like she was a chemo patient; if you pinched her hair anywhere on her entire body, you could pull out the entire tuft with no effort. Her hair was never more than an inch long and most of it was substantially shorter than that. She also grew no undercoat. It’s only in the last few weeks that she is beginning to look like a normal Cardigan again, with some length of coat.

Bronte’s major Lyme infection, combined with the physical demands of nursing and probably also the stress of the house fire, literally turned her hair (the topcoat) white. She had lost her undercoat weeks ago and what was left was the straight, hard black hairs of her topcoat. But those were not black anymore. If you parted her coat over her back or sides, the inner two-thirds was dead white. She had multiple small white spots where the bleaching had reached the tips of the hairs. After three weeks on doxycycline, her body is completely cycling the coat – I strip out piles and piles of hair every day, all of it bleached. She has zero ruff or tail left, but what’s growing in is soft, glossy black straight to the skin.

Besides the obvious lesson that wow do I need a vacation from traumatic things happening to my dogs, what does this have to do with mites? The answer is that when the body is stressed, when the immune system is focused elsewhere, when the dog is in recovery from a disease, when there’s been nutritional demands beyond what the dog could handle, the dog’s body is very wise. It abandons non-essential systems (skin and coat) to focus on maintaining heart, digestion, brain, etc. The skin and coat are pretty much the first to go, and body doesn’t throw resources back into the skin and coat until the other stuff has recovered.

That’s exactly what happens when a puppy gets mange.

Here’s what’s going on:

1) Every dog has demodex mites. They are a completely normal part of what lives in and on the dog. The mites live in the hair follicles and eat all the delicious things that are on dog skin – skin flakes, fungi, sugars, etc.

2) Most of the time the dog’s immune system keeps the mites under control. However, sometimes the dog’s immune system is directed elsewhere – when the dog is dealing with a vaccination, a bacterial infection, etc., OR the dog is stressed by a poor diet or vitamin deficiency – and it battens down the hatches and the skin isn’t supported. When that happens, an overpopulation of the mite can occur and a puppy will get a small hairless spot, usually on the head or paw, where there’s a mite overgrowth.

(The puppy can also get other skin stuff, by the way – when I was raising Dane puppies they all got “puppy pimples” at this age, which is a staph infection for the exact same reason – staph is common on skin, and it takes over during the times when the puppy is growing fast and dealing with vaccines. Never seen a Cardi with puppy pimples, but Cardis get demodex pretty frequently.)

3) If the puppy’s immune system is CRITICALLY poor, for example if he or she has Addisons or Cushings, or if the nutritional lack or environmental stress has been extreme, the mite can take over the whole body. The dog’s skin becomes naked, red, swollen, and cracked (some of this is the mites and a whole bunch of it is the bacteria that colonize the small wounds in the skin) and the dog is absolutely miserable. Generalized mange in shelter populations where overcrowding and poor food are the norm is extremely common.

4) One or two puppy demodex spots are COMPLETELY NORMAL. They seem to occur at four or five months, right around the time of the puppy shots, which is also when the puppy is growing the fastest, and they are a good hint that you have to support the puppy nutritionally but they are absolutely nothing I’d ever worry about.

5) Do not treat isolated demodex with dips, salves, or ivermectin. Not only is there no need, you can actually make the problem worse. If you hit the puppy with a whole bunch of ivermectin you’re opening him or her up to genuine problems (autoimmune is the biggie here –  adding ivermectin to a taxed immune system is a bad thing) and there’s absolutely no reason to kill mites that are supposed to be there in the first place.

6) Only treat a dog with generalized mange if they are not recovering on their own with increased support and nutrition. At LEAST give them a few weeks before you dump them in an amitraz bath. It’s much, much better if the dog can recover on its own.

7) I would say that every dog with mange should be on a raw diet. Of course, I think that EVERY dog should be on a raw diet, but it helps control mange because it lowers the level of sugar and yeast in the skin AND because it encourages a good strong immune system.

8 ) If you would like to treat the spots at all, the only thing you have to worry about is a secondary bacterial infection getting started because the skin is a little bit cracked. So you can wipe it with a little tea tree oil or a skin-safe grapeseed oil or something. No need to do anything else unless the area under the spot becomes red, swollen, or infected. In that case he or she may need some keflex or similar antibiotic, but antibiotics have nothing to do with mange. They only keep the skin under the mites from becoming infected.

9) It’s a great idea to support every puppy around the time of growth and vaccination. Berte’s Immune Blend is a very widely used product that gets a lot of great reviews, but it’s certainly not the only good one. You definitely want a B-complex in there and some vitamin C.

10) If you or your vet feel strongly that the localized version MUST be treated, or if you know that the puppy isn’t going to be able to mount an immune response quickly (for example, if you’re dealing with another illness at the same time), use Revolution (selamectin) rather than injectable ivermectin or amitraz (Mitaban). Revolution is a lower dose of an ivermectin type medication and it does seem to be effective.

11) You MUST BE PATIENT. It can take months for the localized patches to completely disappear. Just keep up diet and supplements and keep an eye on it. There’s no need to restrict the puppy’s activity or avoid contact with other dogs; localized demodex is not contagious (because the other dogs already have mites, almost certainly).


One of the biggest questions about mange concerns whether or not a dog or a puppy who has ever had mange should be bred. I’ve heard some truly WILD statements about this.

Here’s the deal: USE COMMON SENSE. The immune system is not like a pretzel, either whole or broken. It’s a living thing and there are times when it is in great shape and times when it’s not, and those have nothing to do with whether the dog is genetically normal and fit.

You want to remove animals from the gene pool if they have a genetic immune problem, not if the animal was just sick with something else, got a spot of mange because it was sick, and went on to completely recover. The RECOVERY is what is critically important.

If the animal, properly supported with diet and supplements and (if necessary) antibiotics to knock down the secondary skin infection, takes back its own skin and makes a complete recovery, that’s an immune system WIN. That dog’s immune system is functioning well.

If the dog could not recover, even when optimally supported, or if a well-maintained dog has mange as an adult, then you start to look at systemic immune problems. But don’t forget to see the forest for the trees – the mites are a SYMPTOM, not a disease. Don’t treat the mites; find the cause of the blow to the immune system and solve THAT. If the cause of the immune problem turns out to be Cushings, Addisons, or another autoimmune disease, then (obviously) the dog is not a candidate for breeding. If it turns out to be Lyme, a bacterial infection, or something treatable, solve it and the dog should get rid of the mange on its own.

Some articles for you to read: (ignore the brand name recommendations) (skip down below the thyroid stuff to vaccines and nutrition)

Postpartum weight

I don’t claim to be anything close to an expert on breeding. WOW, trust me, no.

But I did do one thing pretty well, I think, purely because nobody told me what was “supposed” to happen. So this isn’t really a brag; it’s more of a “what can happen when nobody told you it was impossible” story. I will be happy to tell you all the “Joanna makes colossal mistakes” stories later ;).

When I had my first Dane litter, I didn’t know or remember that bitches were supposed to look bad during or after nursing. So I just fed pounds and pounds and pounds of raw food, four or five times a day, and I kept on feeding. Every time the mom dog walked by me, I handed her food. I put a can of evaporated milk in every bowl of water. I poured heavy cream over her food. I made her hamburgers and crockpot stew and canned food and anything else I could put into her mouth.

And it worked. It really worked. She was weighed when the puppies were eight weeks old, when I took the litter in for vet checks, and she was two pounds over her pre-pregnancy weight (she was 142) . She shed like crazy but her muscle tone was fabulous.

When the puppies were eleven weeks old, she looked like this:

luwinwhtfeather-3I had my two keeper puppies at that show (Fitchburg, I think?); they were actually nursing before she went in for Winners.

Her next litter was extremely hard on her; there were four dead puppies in the uterus and it set up a huge infection. She had an emergency c-section to get out the last few puppies and, as the vet said, several pounds of decomposing tissue. The picture I have of one of the puppies (she carried 11; six survived) when they were eight weeks old is actually the last one I have of her; she died four weeks later when we had her spayed.


Despite how sick she was and her c-section, she was never below her normal body weight and she was always muscled out the wazoo. I remember vividly how she looked in the yard, eating half a deer (yes, half a deer – that was when we lived in WV and we could get tons and tons of game and meat, so they ate deer and giant parts of cow), with her nursing belly swaying from side to side, pausing to turn and casually growl at one of the other adult dogs so they would not even THINK about taking some from her. She also got entire cow stomachs and would eat, gosh, ten pounds of tripe in a day.

Two years later her daughter, Ruby, came to me to have a litter for her (wonderful) owner. I got her a week before her due date and she stayed until they were seven weeks old.


This is Ruby between two and three weeks after whelping seventeen puppies (12 survived – that’s a story for another post). I chose this one because on the counter behind her you can see the tools of the trade – the weight chart for the puppies, a bottle for supplementing (which I had to do VERY little), a pint of heavy cream that had just been poured over Ruby’s food, and my coffee mug that was never empty. What you see there, with Ruby looking muscular and sleek (she’s sitting weird and was always a little narrow in front, so ignore the chest), is how she looked through the whole lactation.

I used to make Ruby huge pots of cereal and meat – I’d cook oatmeal in whole milk and mix in pulped vegetables, raw ground beef and evaporated milk. She’d eat a quart at a time, twice a day, and five or six chicken backs for the third meal. I am exhausted just thinking about it!

But, you know, that insanity worked. She went back to her owner when the puppies were 7 weeks old and she looked GREAT. Shiny, tons of muscle, and close to 140 lb.

I went looking for my other litter pics but it seems that they’ve been lost – I’m actually surprised I found these, since we lost most of the computers and of course all the data CDs in the fire. But it was a routine I followed for all my mom dogs and it really did work.

It’s not going to do long-term damage to your nursing bitch to get skinny. The overwhelming majority do end up looking very, very thin and they recover beautifully. Nursing moms are built to put everything into their milk and then recover that weight and muscle once the puppies are weaned. The way I did it is hardly the only right way to have a nursing mom. But if you want to minimize the weight loss, if you want her to go back to the ring quickly (not really possible for the coated breeds because they lose all the hair, but very possible for the short-haired breeds), it IS doable. It’s a crazy huge effort, but if you push the calories in every mouthful it can be done.

Mini comment roundup, featuring Leptospirosis vaccination, Orijen, splenectomies in dogs, and a really crazy dog-washing box

OK, I totally know how much I have sucked lately at answering comments. I am REALLY SORRY. I have no excuse; I get behind and overwhelmed with them and then I hide in a corner under a box with my fingers in my ears and pretend they don’t exist. 

But these two can’t go unanswered:

1) can you please give me ammo on why not to use lepto (here in NH)? And any of the other needless vaccines that vets promote? A friend just lost her adored 8yrRidgeback (benign spleen removal, died 24 hrs after. clinic error possibly part of it) and will get a puppy someday and I want to expose her to the latest in vaccine protocol options). She feeds raw.
Also – why did you choose Orijen? I like it, still feed raw, but keep grain-free kibbles on hand for treats and bribes and I- forgot- to- thaw lapses. There are quite a few grain-free now which is great, if the great american public would only pay attention, but it’s hard to figure the best. I heard that Wellness (Core) got sold so am suspicious. I always apprieciate your knowledge & candor.
Have you had any spleen experience? My Tuza (RR) lost hers last year, is fine, after some on-going slightly mysterious off & on symptoms. And the sire of the dog that died lost his last year and is fine. Sre splenectomies epidemic??? I’m sending out heads ups to other related puppy buyers.
When is your ETA for new house? You must be so excited at the thought!!!!
All the best -Sandra

On this very special episode of Blossom, Joanna gets to answer questions from Sandra, who is one of my fave dog people of all time and who knows more about dogs than most DOGS do. So this is quite a moment ;).

OK, first, Lepto. Lepto is honestly one of the ways I choose my vets: If a vet gets red in the face and starts talking about the fact that every dog needs lepto vaccines and how it’s our duty to protect our dogs against this terrible disease and how a puppy they saw six months ago died of Lepto, the chances I will re-book an appointment are about zero. Lepto is a disease we have PLENTY of information about, and vets have no excuse for not knowing their stuff.

Leptospirosis itself is a very icky disease. There is no question about that. I am not someone who thinks that dogs should just be allowed to get sick and get over it because that’ll help their immune systems or something; if one of my dogs was diagnosed with advanced Lepto I would go into an incredible freak-out panic and she’d be at Tufts in ICU before you could spit. Lepto tends to attack the liver and kidneys and if it is not caught in time it can be deadly. Fortunately, it is treatable with antibiotics, but the disease is rare enough that even very good vets can miss it and it can get very advanced before it’s treated. 

The nastiness of Lepto is what makes vets insist on vaccinating for it. They’ll tell you that you need to do this for the sake of the dog, just like we do shots for distemper or parvovirus. But Lepto is NOT a virus, and that’s why the vaccination picture is so unclear. It’s a bacteria. It’s actually a spirochete, which is a long skinny bacteria shaped like a twirly candy cane. Unfortunately, it’s not very sweet in what it does. 

Vaccinations against viruses are something doctors and scientists have figured out how to do REALLY well. As long as the virus is relatively stable, they can knock out a very effective, often life-long, vaccine in a few months or even weeks. Even for viruses that change frequently, like flu, they can do a surprisingly decent job of creating a rotating vaccine series. 

Viruses for bacteria are MUCH, MUCH harder to create. Bacteria are easy to kill, hard to vaccinate against. This has to do with factors that would require me to go back into my notes from Cell Biology and Immunology, and those notes THANKFULLY burned up (one of the few things I’m glad are gone, so they don’t stare at me from the shelf and mutely accuse me of things relating to the fact that my degree is currently being used to wipe dogs’ feet at the door), so I am going to condense it into “It’s really tricky and prone to failure whenever you try to vaccinate for a bacteria.”

And, frustratingly, even when you do come up with a decent bacterial vaccine, it only works for a few months. In the case of Leptospirosis, the vaccine definitely lasts under 12 months, possibly under six.

So that’s the first problem: The vaccine only works for a few months.

Second, and this is one of the other problems with bacteria, there are lots of strains of Lepto, and the current vaccines lag behind what’s actually causing outbreaks.

Outbreaks of disease tend to play leapfrog with vaccinations. What often happens is that there will be a Big Bad Situation, and into that outbreak will come our heroes, immunologists with red spandex suits and “I” on their chests. They’ll test a bunch of dogs, find that strains A and B of the Big Bad disease are causing it, and spend years developing a good vaccine against A and B. They fly back in, vaccinate a ton of dogs, and A and B will largely disappear from the population.


But… with the absence of A and B, strains C and D have lots of room to stretch their legs and have a dance party. And before you know it there’s another outbreak, this time of C and D.

Back fly our heroes, test the dogs, develop a vaccine, and everybody gets vaccinated for C and D.

Which… you guessed it… leaves room for A and B to come roaring back.

This tends to happen over a timeframe of several decades. And eventually somebody creates a vaccine with A, B, C, AND D in it, which will be hailed as a breakthrough and given to everybody, and all will be well, until a few resistant A bacteria mutate into E and F.

Where we are at with Lepto right now, as I understand what I am reading, is the recurrence of A and B, which had not been seen for years. All vaccines except some of the Fort Dodge lepto vaxes are currently only for C and D. Fort Dodge has ABCD, so that’s the only one anyone can currently recommend, except for…

The third major problem with Lepto vaccines, which are that they are associated with a TON of side effects.

Lepto vaccines have killed thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of puppies across the country. Severe reactions are seen most often in the toy breeds but nobody’s safe. The vaccine is strongly associated with anaphylaxis (a severe and fatal allergic reaction) and you can lose whole litters to it. It’s not great for adults either but they seem to be able to tolerate it at least marginally better.

The fourth problem with Lepto vaccine is not actually a problem; it’s a good thing. And that is that Leptospirosis is a rare disease and the majority of the country has zero cases per year.

The upshot of the whole thing is this:

If you are in a state that has a current Lepto problem, and your dogs are likely to be exposed  (Lepto is spread in rat urine, and some dogs are just simply never going to encounter that), the only “right” way to vaccinate is AFTER 12 weeks at an absolute minimum, using a vaccine with ALL FOUR STRAINS, and repeating EVERY SIX MONTHS. 

Has any vet ever told you that you should use a different brand? Anbody ever told you that you’d have to come back in six months for a Lepto booster? Nobody’s ever told me that. They just push the super-combo vaccine, without telling me that the Lepto they’d be giving would be largely ineffective right off the bat and would be totally ineffective in a few months. 

Bottom line: Vaccine protection against Lepto is an illusion AND it’s dangerous for your dog. If you are genuinely concerned about it and are willing to risk the vaccine, you will need to be your dog’s own best advocate and insist on frequent re-vaccination and on brand selection for all four strains.

Personally, even though there IS Lepto in Massachusetts, I won’t vaccinate for it. I keep the disease in the back of my mind and I know the symptoms (vomiting, fever, jaundice, kidney function decline). In the same way that because I live here I am very, very quick to suspect tick-borne disease, I would also be quick to ask for a Lepto test if I had a hot and vomiting dog. 

Moving on to Orijen: I have a better selection of foods around here than most, but there are still some I can’t get. I have relatively easy access to Nature’s Variety Instinct, Orijen, Taste of the Wild, Wellness CORE, By Nature canned, Solid Gold Barking at the Moon, and B.G. (Before Grain). I can’t get EVO, the new Canidae grain-free, Artemis, Acana, and some of the others. 

I rejected Taste of the Wild and By Nature simply because I don’t like their parent companies – Taste of the Wild is made by Diamond and By Nature is made by Blue Seal.

I tried Solid Gold Barking at the Moon and Clue seemed to react badly to it; my best guess is that she can’t tolerate the high proportion of potato. So that knocked off Solid Gold, B.G. (which has both white and sweet potato very high in the ingredients list), and Nature’s Variety Instinct (which doesn’t have potato but uses TONS of tapioca which is also a root starch).

That left me with Wellness CORE and Orijen. I just happened to grab the Orijen first and I’ve been very pleased with it and so I haven’t even tried the CORE yet. I think CORE is a good food and I really like the fact that they don’t want you to feed it to growing puppies. Most of the other brands are like “Sure! Feed it to anyone!” and it’s VERY hard to feed a growing puppy correctly if you’re going grain-free. The foods are so nutrient-dense that they can very easily cause growth that is too fast; in order to keep a puppy appropriately ribby and slow-growing you have to feed such tiny amounts that the puppy is going to feel starving all the time. I’d only feed a puppy a true raw diet, not a gain-free kibble.

I will say that I think the feeding recommendations on Orijen are insane. I’m feeding literally a FOURTH of what is recommended for adult dogs my dogs’ sizes, and Clue is already getting too fat. Ginny is a picky enough eater that she’s not fat, but she’s definitely more padded than she’s EVER been. I have had Bronte up at the recommended amount and she’s putting on 1-2 lb per week. Which for a dog who should be 35-ish pounds is a LOT. She still needs a couple of pounds but I can already see that I’ll have to cut her way back within a few weeks. 

Spleens: Sterling and I actually talked about this a few years ago and yes, I do think you are on to something. I’ve heard of far too many dogs with splenic torsions and blood disorders that end up getting splenectomies. The Dane I bred and sold whose owners lost him to immune-mediated hemolytic anemia should have had his spleen removed but he died; the vet dropped the ball on that one in a pretty major way and the owners were already thousands deep thanks to improper diagnoses and I didn’t want to push any harder than I already was for them to get ultrasounds and go in for surgery. But I still think he maybe could have made it if they had checked and probably removed the spleen. 

I am not sure if we’re seeing MORE spleen things or if it’s that animal medicine and owner expectations are catching up with human medicine and expectations. Used to be that a dog would just look poorly for a few days and then die; dogs died all the time so nobody thought too much of it. Now we are very unprepared to accept that and we push very hard for diagnostics, and we are supported in that by animal ultrasound centers and referral surgeons and so on. There’s no question that I’m hearing a lot more about immune-mediated and autoimmune EVERYTHING lately (Addisons, Cushings, IMHA, thyroiditis, etc.), but I honestly can’t say if that’s a sign that the diseases are increasing or that our awareness of them is increasing. 

But yes, I would definitely say that I’m uncomfortable with the fact that it seems like so many dogs are losing body parts on a routine basis. 

HOUSE: The downstairs is gutted and the electric is done. Most of the plumbing is done. Insulation was supposedly done yesterday and drywall will go in over the next week. We’ve encountered the usual difficulties with subcontractors (why are they so crazy? Is it like a requirement of being a subcontractor that you FORGET THAT YOU HAD TO PULL A PERMIT or that you SIT IN YOUR VAN ALL DAY SMOKING and then bill us for it?) but our general contractor is a great guy with an extremely high level of moral indignation – he figures that if he’s working like a dog there’s no way he’s going to tolerate anyone else slacking off – so the bad ones have been tattled on and replaced and I think we’re honestly doing very well. 

Once the major stuff is done, the work will slow down dramatically as the detail work (mud and tape, sanding, painting, an enormous amount of powerwashing, floors and doors and windows and so on) is done and the fixtures go in. We also have the major hurdle of money; when the job is 50% done we have to have a bank inspector come out and verify that it’s been completed and then release the next half of the building money. Our experience thus far has been that the gap between approval and actually getting the check is between three and four weeks. Our contractor can go into the hole to a certain extent if he knows he’ll eventually get paid, but if it goes over about ten or fifteen thousand (and we’re already at about three or four grand) he’s going to stop working. So we’re still thinking September 1 as a best-case scenario and September 15 or October 1 as worst-case. 

The VERY good news is that there’s been minimal disaster-findage. We really didn’t know what was going to be behind the walls, above the ceilings, etc. A true nightmare, for example, would have been termite or ant damage, because we’d HAVE to fix it and the insurance company wouldn’t have done anything for us. Ditto for existing rot or foundation damage. So the fact that none of those things has been discovered has been really a great blessing. We’re beginning to have at least a little bit of hope that we’ll come in relatively close to budget, which leaves nothing in our pockets but at least we’re not having to go around and beg for more money.

The dogs should be in there long before the humans are – as soon as the kennel room is up and functional (in another couple of weeks, we hope) they’ll be over there most days so they can get some exercise and sunlight and schmooze the carpenters. I’ll be over there too, acting as the painting subcontractor once the mudding and taping is all done. It won’t save us any money, because we’ll be paying me (and losing my freelancing income) but I like painting and I’ll be out of my mind with happiness to get out of this tiny shoebox charming apartment.


Erin wrote:

I totally thought of you when I saw this. I love perusing Time’s photos sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration. I wish I could find the story behind it because it looks, um… iffy as it is.

which is this photo:


And yes, I DO know what’s going on in the pic. Come ON. I KNOW EVERYTHING.

Is a video of the strange box with the sudsy dog, and it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.

I guess if you want to spend $20 to have your dog sprayed with a soapy hose and then rinsed for thirty seconds (!) more power to you, but (as should now be obvious) I don’t think it’s a great grooming job. You can do a lot better by yourself and I think a normal bath-and-blow-out by a groomer, which will be twice as much but will be sure to actually rinse the dog and includes skin-out brushing, is a much better value. 

But in terms of hilarious videos… seeing the dog wash guy naked in the machine was worth a lot.

Joint supplement update (Ramard Total Joint Care for dogs)

Yes, I put a brand name in the subject line, but that’s honestly just to a google search will pick it up. I’d do the same thing if I was seeing negative results or none at all.

Thankfully, what I am seeing is VERY positive. I am seeing some real resolution to the subtle signs of stiffness and end-of-day aches and pains that were bothering Clue from that pretzeled pelvis of hers.

She is now jumping up on the bed multiple times a day, often just for the heck of it.

She’s climbing higher on the furniture, often choosing to go up on the cushions or even hang herself over the arms instead of curling up on the seat.

Her topline is much, much better than it has been for weeks; she is no longer popping up her loin to keep the hips from moving around.

And her movement is smoother, longer, silkier. She’s always been a natural trotter (one of the things I love about her structure) and now she’s settling in and really extending again. I took her for a long walk yesterday and I could actually HEAR the difference; instead of pad-pad-pad-pad it’s pad-tiny pause-pad-tiny pause-pad-tiny pause as she suspends mid-stride. 

These are SUBTLE – they’re things I saw (and now am seeing leave again) because I am so used to not just looking at her but assessing her daily. It’s not like she went from a sad sick dog to a marathon runner. But they are very definite changes and I am thrilled by them.

Three days after starting joint supplements

And Clue ran into our room and jumped on our bed (about 30″). Which she has not done in months. It’s one of those things that you don’t even notice – dog stops doing a bad thing is not so much a red flag, you know? I am not claiming some kind of miracle yet, but my mouth was hanging open as she laughed at me from the comforter. We’ll see if her naughty streak continues.

Supplement success! (gratuitous title so it will come up in a google search: Ramard Total Joint Care for dogs)



Since we saw that Clue’s pelvis is always going to be hinky, and in an effort to address the spinal issues that are part and parcel of owning a dwarfed breed, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about bone and joint supplements. 

A lot of it is like witch-doctorage; in order to differentiate themselves from the others, each company puts in some kind of special “secret ingredient” that they claim makes it better than anyone else’s. It gets really frustrating, because you can’t compare products easily. And is creatinine more imprtant than manganese? Or should I go with the one with the most MSM? It’s super annoying. 

I decided that I wanted to make sure I was getting an excellent foundation of the basics: Glucosamine, Chondroitin, MSM. I wanted Perna Mussel because I’ve heard such good buzz about it in dogs. And based on a very interesting little study that I don’t think anyone ever went anywhere with (i.e., it was never studied further), I wanted hyaluronic acid. 

My front-runners were Glyco-Flex II (I knew I’d have to add the HA) and Synovi G3 (ditto). Each was going to cost me about $20/mo, plus whatever I was going to pay for the HA.

But then I was surfing around the Dover Saddlery site and a little lightbulb went off. Horse supplements are exactly the same as dog supplements, in almost all cases; the only difference is that the horse supplements are actually substantially cheaper because you’re not paying for the liver-based filler that makes a dog capsule yummy to the dog. And Dover (the retail store) is only a mile from my house. 

So I spent a while comparing ingredients and doing lots of division problems and stopped there today and came back with Total Joint Care. It’s a very high quality supplement, lots of trainers swear by it, and while it’s hideously expensive for horses it’s fabulously cheap for dogs. 

I started today, giving Clue 1/10 of the daily horse dose. It will provide

600 mg Glucosamine

300 mg Chondroitin

300 mg MSM

100 mg vitamin C

5 mg zinc

20 mg hyaluronic acid

The only thing it doesn’t have is the perna mussel, but I can get very good human perna mussel for a low price. She already gets, and will continue to get, salmon oil every day as an Omega 3 supplement.

My cost per month will go down to $5.50 for the Total Joint Care and about another buck for the perna. We’ll keep giving her connective tissue treats (trachea and lung) and hopefully this will be a regimen we can keep up for her and for any other Cardi that comes into the house to keep joints as healthy as possible. Yay!

Choosing and using a grain-free kibble

Because of living in the Tiny Apartment of Happiness (we love it, but 1000 sq ft with six people and two dogs is tight), for the first time in ten years we’re not feeding a raw diet to our dogs. I tried, because I believe in it so much, but the kitchen is very small (the floor space is maybe 6×4) and every other square inch of the place (aside from the bathrooms) is carpeted. Neither dog particularly likes Bravo, because they like the experience of chewing bone. They were dragging the Bravo around or trying to bury it in the carpet, giving me heart attacks and making me spend hours scrubbing up after them.

So for the months we’re here, we’ll be using a grain-free kibble. As a result, I’ve spent more hours than I’d care to count researching ingredients and the different brands that are available in our area. The choice I made may not be the choice you’ll make, but since there are so many misconceptions about grain-free kibbles I thought it would be worthwhile to look at them in depth.

Misconceptions about grain-free foods:

1) They are made of meat. Sorry; no. As far as I am aware, any conventionally made kibble that goes through a normal extrusion/cooking process has to be bound together as a dough.

Conventional kibble uses a mixture of different grain flours, meeting a nutritional profile as cheaply as they possibly can. They usually rely on either inexpensive feed grains (ground corn–which, by the way, includes the dried cob; it’s not just the corn kernels) or the bits and portions left after another industry uses the whole grain. That’s where brewer’s rice, feeding oatmeal, and anything called “fines” or “gluten” or “meal” come from.

Grain-free kibbles need to make a dough too, so instead of using grains they’ll use vegetable matter that when ground is like flour, and can hold things together the way flour does.

The most common thing used is potato. When potato is dried and powdered, you can mix it with other stuff and cook it and the result will make a decent kibble. Other companies use pea flour (dried field peas–the kind that you make split pea soup with, not sweet peas–makes a flour when ground). A few use tapioca, which is powdered manioc root.

Whatever they use, the result is a kibble that is NOT all meat. You’re still feeding kibble; it’s not the same thing as a raw diet. It’s not even a substitute for a raw diet–I would say that in many cases it’s the best kind of kibble you can feed, but it’s still a kibble.

2) They’re all basically the same.

WOW is this not true. They vary wildly in terms of ingredients, protein, fat, vegetable sources, etc. It’s a brand-new industry and there’s virtually no standardization yet. You need to read and compare ingredients carefully, and stay on top of new introductions. One good place to begin is at the Dog Food Project, but even as good as they are they don’t have an encyclopedic list. So expect to do quite a bit of research and be very cautious about reading ingredients and analysis data.

3) The more meat is in the ingredients, the more is in the kibble.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking at ingredient lists before I came to this conclusion, and I’m still not a million percent sure, but I think that the old rule of “look at the first four ingredients” is wrong when it comes to grain-free kibbles.

The reason I think the ingredient list can be misleading is that in several of the kibbles it doesn’t at ALL match with what the protein percentage would be if the kibble really did have that much meat.

Dried cooked meat is between 60 and 80 percent protein. So any time you have a protein percentage below that, you know other things are in the mix. Bone is one of them, which is fine because we want some bone, but bone doesn’t change it all that much. What really brings the protein percentage down is vegetable matter.

Take Taste of the Wild High Prairie as an example. The entire ingredient list (removing the vitamins) is bison, venison, lamb meal, chicken meal, egg product, sweet potatoes, peas, potatoes, canola oil, roasted bison, roasted venison, natural flavor, tomato pomace, ocean fish meal.

The protein percentage of this kibble is 32%. That’s HALF what you’d expect if it was pure meat, and about as much as lots of puppy kibbles. One that has an identical protein percent is one of the Royal Canin puppy foods, the ingredients of which are chicken meal, brown rice, chicken fat, rice, corn gluten meal, dried beet pulp, chicken, natural chicken flavor, powdered cellulose, dried egg powder.

Look at these two–reading the ingredients, there’s no question which one you’d point to as having more meat. So why do the protein percentages not bear out a difference?

My guess – and I am not sure exactly how to confirm or deny this – is that potato is so light that you can have a huge amount of it and it still stays in a low position in the ingredient list (which is in the order of decreasing weight). The company also splits the potato ingredients by using sweet potatoes and “potatoes” (white potatoes). So between the sweet potatoes (very light) the pea (I would guess a dried pea flour) and the potato, there’s a lot of vegetable matter in this kibble. When you consider that the first meat ingredients are listed in their whole (uncooked, undried) forms, which means they were weighed before being cooked and dried, you can see how the meat ingredients got bumped to the top of the list and the vegetables to the end.

This kind of manipulation of ingredient lists is VERY VERY common, especially with foods that are marketed based on your perception of them being mostly meat, and that’s why you have to question whether the analysis of the food reflects the picture that is implied by the ingredient list.

Now look at the ingredient list of Orijen’s Adult grain-free food: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, russet potato, lake whitefish, chicken fat, sweet potato, whole eggs, turkey, salmon meal, salmon and anchovy oils, salmon.

At first glance, you would prefer the Taste of the Wild. It has “sexy” ingredients like venison and bison; it just seems more exclusive. And it has more meat ingredients before you get to the potato.

But the analysis of Orijen’s food tells a different story. It’s 42%, much higher than Taste of the Wild’s. And the company states that the kibble is 70% meat products.

To make a long story short, look closely at the analysis to tell you how much meat is actually in a grain-free kibble. Higher protein typically means more meat.

4) You should follow the AAFCO recommended ages and feeding amounts on the bag.

In my opinion, grain-free kibbles are much easier to wreck a dog with than conventional kibbles.

Conventional kibbles are crap, sure, but they will at least minimally nourish your dog and there’s a lot of fudge factor in how much or how little you can feed.

Grain-free kibbles, at least the good ones, are more like racing fuel. You have to very carefully control how much you feed, because they’re so high-calorie that dogs can get overweight VERY quickly. And in my opinion, even if the AAFCO says that the food is for all life stages, I would never feed a puppy a grain-free kibble.

When you feed a raw diet, you’re actually feeding only a small amount of food plus a ton of moisture. But because the portion size is big, the dog feels satisfied, tired, and full. That makes it a great diet to feed to puppies–they get relatively few calories for a big payoff of chewing and a full stomach.

Grain-free foods, on the other hand, have all that moisture taken away and are very nutritionally dense. You’ll feed a fraction of what you’re used to feeding in conventional kibble. That can be really tough for a dog to adjust to–they’re used to walking away from the food bowl feeling full. So many owners will feed too much, because the dog acts starving all the time. And a starving puppy is that much harder to resist.

An adult that eats too much will just get fat–which can be difficult to reverse but as long as you get on top of it quickly no long-term damage is done.

A puppy that gets too many calories doesn’t get fat–it grows too quickly. It will grow its bones faster than its muscles and tendons can match, and fast growth/heavy calorie load is STRONGLY associated with joint disorders later in life. Yes, this includes hip dysplasia–puppies kept lean and slow-growing become adults with an EIGHTY PERCENT reduction in hip dysplasia when compared to adults who were puppies that ate as much as they wanted.

I would also say that for the average adult dog, the recommended feeding amounts for the grain-free foods are too high. Right now we’re going through a bag of Solid Gold Barking at the Moon, which recommends 1.5 to 1.75 cups a day for a dog Clue’s size. She is actually getting HALF A CUP a day. The amount she gets looks comically small. But she maintains her weight on that amount; she’s even put on some bulk. We’re very close to being able to lift exercise restrictions for her, so at some point she’ll be able to run a couple miles a day and I’ll have to bump her food up a little, but there is no way she’s going to ever get 1.75 cups.

A friend of mine who was feeding her elderly GSD (intact dog) a grain-free kibble found that she had to feed no more than three-quarters of a cup a day. If she went up from there he gained too much weight.

So I would strongly advise, especially in a breed like the Cardigan where most of them have low metabolic needs and gain weight quickly, that you start off with a very small amount and only increase it if the dog starts getting too thin. And, I might add, get to know what normal weight is–way too many corgis of both types are fat, even though their owners or breeders think they’re normal because corgis tend to stay rather tubular. They go from a thin tube to a thick tube and owners think it’s OK because they don’t have a belly or a fat rear like a Lab gets. Not so.

So what did we end up using? I actually plan to rotate a couple of brands. Right now we’re about half-way through a bag of Solid Gold Barking at the Moon. It has a high protein percentage, indicating that it’s got a lot of meat, but at least some of its protein is coming from potato. I like Solid Gold as a brand because my Danes tended to do very well on it (when they went into homes that didn’t feed raw), and to be honest I had a choice between this and a brand I really didn’t like (you may guess from my picking on it above that it was Taste of the Wild, which is a Diamond food and I think is rather deceptive in its descriptions).

I didn’t realize that a 15-lb bag was going to last us eight weeks, even feeding it to two dogs. It may even go longer. If I had, I would have gotten a 4-lb bag instead!

I think it’s doing a decent job with the dogs–it’s not raw, and I immediately notice the difference in skin and coat and muscle, but they look better than conventional-kibble-fed dogs–but I’m not thrilled about one of the protein sources being potato.

So when we’re coming to the end of the bag (or, if I start to see something I don’t like in the dogs, even sooner) we’re probably going to switch to Orijen, since I found a source for it that is not terribly far away. Orijen is by far the most forthcoming about actual proportions and ingredients, which I find refreshing and want to support.

If we want to further switch, I’ve been wanting to try the fresh meat mixes, like Volhard’s NDF or Sojos grain-free. Those are an entirely different method, and I would like to have some personal experience with them so I know whether to recommend them to friends and puppy buyers.

Until then, you can listen closely and hear the rustle of big foil-plastic bags in my kitchen for the first time in a decade. I wince a little bit each time, but so far the dogs are OK and that’s all that matters.

Book mini-review: Dog Breeders Professional Secrets: Ethical Breeding Practices

This is a book currently being discussed on the DogRead discussion group (it’s a Yahoo Group). The author is Sylvia Smart and it’s published by DogWise.

I think that DogWise usually picks some good authors to publish, so I am not sure why they apparently tripped and fell into a puddle of stupid on this one. That probably gives away a lot of what I’m going to conclude, but for the sake of fairness I want to begin with the stuff in the book that is actually decent:

The Good: This book is there to fill a real void of education in the novice breeder world. There are very few ground-floor resources for people who would like to begin breeding dogs but haven’t the slightest idea where to begin. There are resources for showing dogs (Show Me! is a good one), on whelping specifically (Myra Harris, though I vehemently disagree with her on some stuff, is very good for this) and there are some very high-level resources for refining breeding programs (Battaglia’s book and Trotter’s book come to mind), but I can’t think of good nuts-and-bolts manuals for someone who literally doesn’t know that you have to feed puppies more than once a day.

This book falls into that gap–and maybe that’s why DogWise published it, that nobody’s ever done a better job. It’s very similar to the “How to Breed [Fill in the blank] the Modern Way” livestock books that used to be sold at the feed stores in town. Basic housing, care, veterinary resources, worming, feeding, a little on showing, etc.

The reason I give it credit for what may seem like a simple quality is that, all too often, we breeders forget that we spent a LONG time picking up some very elementary rules for care, and we forget that ignorance is not the same as willful disobedience. You know this is true–if someone approaches you about buying a show puppy, and they say something really dumb about care or feeding or health or their plans, do you spend three or four e-mails, or an hour on the phone, figuring out whether they’re just new to this or whether they really do have bad intentions? No, of course not. None of us do. We figure we’ve dodged a bullet on that one and we throw their application away. I know that’s what I do–I say a little thank-you prayer that I didn’t send a puppy to that person and I never think of them again.

The other reason a book like this (I would say not this book, but one like it) is needed is that good mentorship can be a hard thing to find. I know plenty of more experienced breeders than I am, but I count only a very few as true mentors. Others I respect but haven’t clicked with for one reason or another. Some others I recognize for what they’ve done that is good, but I’d not touch their advice with a ten-foot pole. If you’re brand new to the idea of breeding, you don’t know how to tell the difference between these groups and you don’t know if the advice you’re getting is good or crazy. And there’s very little out there by way of authority so you can check what this person is saying against what you know to be a “best practice.”

So I give kudos to an author who is ballsy enough to get out there and try to provide some kind of basic “how not to be a complete disaster at this” guide.

And that’s the other good thing about this book: If you follow the advice in it, you will not kill your dogs. You will not let them starve, freeze, die of parasitic infections, etc. You’ll keep them basically clean and dry and warm(ish) and at least somewhat exercised. You will be miles above the level of the careless or thoughtless breeder who does not know anything about the extra care that has to be devoted to breeding dogs and tiny puppies.

Smart also encourages some very good things: She wants you to do some showing, she wants you to do at least some health testing, she wants you to be a club member and give back to the sport. If you do everything this book tells you to do, you will be a mediocre but not disastrous breeder at the end of it.

One final point goes to Smart for saying that it’s a GOOD thing to breed. It’s a GOOD thing to want to be a breeder. There’s no reason to be afraid of intact dogs and there’s no reason they can’t be good pets and companions (oh, how terrible and pervasive this lie is). It’s a wonderful and VERY rewarding thing to be involved in.

The Bad: Expect to feel slimy when you’ve finished reading it. Because this really is about dog breeding as a BUSINESS. Profits are mentioned immediately and are hit at every opportunity thereafter. Every piece of advice is couched in terms of making a good bottom-line decision. For example, don’t choose a breed that has big litters, because you’ll spend so much time supplementing the litter that you’ll lose money on it. Choose a breed in the top 50, numbers-wise, because that is an expression of the demand for that breed. Try to choose a segment of production that meets the most profitable segment of demand–if you’re in a college town, choose a breed that the administration and professors will be willing to spend big bucks on. Go for the breeds owned by doctors and lawyers.

I can give about a hundred examples of this: Feed based on profit/loss. Show because champion-sired puppies are worth more; show only your best dog and the rest stay at home pumping out puppies. Keep water bowls thawed, because if the dog has to eat snow you’ll have to feed more to keep him in good weight (no, I’m not exaggerating–that’s as close to a direct quote as I can use). Every action that is typically defined as part of ethical breeding and is usually justified on the basis of being the right thing to do, for the well-being of the dog, or for the betterment of the breed, she defines as the best way to make money.

For a LONG time, I thought (hoped?) that what I was reading was a sort of sublimely ironic joke, trying to get people to do the right thing by appealing to their base instincts. Chris Walcowicz has something a little like this in one of her books, where she tells people that it’s fine to buy a puppy from a pet shop as long as you can verify that both parents have had appropriate health testing and good temperaments for the breed, and you can call and talk personally to the breeder–if you think about it for more than a second, you realize that there’s never been a pet store puppy on earth that actually satisfied those requirements.

I really wanted this to be similar, for there to be some point at which I’d see the “slow take” toward the audience and realize that Smart had just boxed the reader into a corner and in fact didn’t want you to only thaw the water to save money on food.

But, as far as I can tell, from the book and from Smart’s own comments on the DogRead list, she really is serious. In fact, she speaks of the breeder’s “responsibility” to turn a profit, and hits again and again the “fact” that the “vast majority” of good breeders make “very good livings” by breeding dogs.

And how, exactly, are you supposed to do this? Well, exactly the way you’d picture. You don’t show all your dogs, only the one that will finish fast and therefore bump up your puppy prices. It is strongly implied that you should produce to your market when it comes to show/pet types–for example, if you breed Chihuahuas you can have half your dogs be the big leggy dogs and half be show-type, and sell the first as pets only (which, yes, will make you quite a bit of money, since you have nothing invested in showing). You price your puppies to make sure you make money, and you produce enough puppies to get there. She recommends breeding all bitches back-to-back and then resting for a year, and provides the helpful calculation “so that means with five bitches you’ll have ten litters of puppies one year and five the next.”

(my note: There is NOTHING wrong with breeding a bitch back-to-back, or even back-to-back-to-back. That’s actually not my objection here. It’s that it is EXTREMELY difficult to do the incredibly careful stud dog selection, finding the very best dog for each bitch, that we’d consider a best practice, if you’re doing it seven to ten times a year, every year. In order to avoid thousands of dollars in stud fees and impossible travel requirements you’d have to have all the dogs in-house, which means you need to have at least as many stud dogs as you have bitches. You CAN do this and be a good breeder, but housing that many dogs would kill your profits because stud dogs don’t make money for you the way bitches do. To make a long story short: what she’s talking about are not bitches being bred to a bunch of outside dogs or even bitches being bred to your own five or ten stud dogs; this is a stable of bitches being bred again and again to a single champion or field-titled stud dog owned by you or by a friend. )

She neatly ties up this make-money message by saying that you need to keep the money-making secret or private, that every breeder denies making money if you ask them directly.

The REALLY Ugly: Remember how I said you wouldn’t kill your dogs by following this book? You’re not going to help them thrive either. A huge proportion of the book is out of date or does not reflect current recommendations, and a whole bunch is just flat-out wrong.

Some of my favorites:

*Breeders cannot and should not ever participate in rescue or fostering, because those dogs will bring in disease.

*Never feed a raw diet, because it’s risky and expensive and you won’t do it right anyway. Kibble is the only way to go.

*It is completely normal for bitches to eat several puppies; it’s how they survived before they were domesticated (when they do not leave the whelps for several days). You may need to muzzle her to prevent this, but it’s normal. (Joanna sez: it’s NOT normal, it’s NOT how wolves survive, and if your poor bitch is attempting it it’s an excellent sign that she’s critically low in calcium and heading toward eclampsia.)

*Don’t let buyers put one over on you–she tells a story of selling a puppy and having someone try to return it, but the puppy they tried to return was a “ringer” (another puppy, not the one she sold). Her “win” in this situation was that she showed them to be deceptive and she never heard from them again. No mention of the poor dog she sold, no hint of worry that she totally lost contact with him.

*In the chapter called “To Show or Not to Show” she advises you to enter the Am Bred class because that gets you a blue ribbon, then get your photo taken; that way puppy buyers will see your dogs as show dogs.

In addition, there’s a bunch of stuff in the reproductive/whelping advice that’s incorrect: the idea that small puppies are younger than big puppies because the breeder let the dogs breed for too many days (totally ridiculous), how to wean and feed baby puppies (she wants you to use Gerber baby cereal, which is nonsense for puppies), feeding growing puppies, etc. The horrible advice to euthanize puppies by putting them in the freezer is once more passed along to another generation of breeders–please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t do this. It’s a painful, slow death that is worse than almost any other way you can think of. If you think you’ll need to euthanize a puppy and you have absolutely no way to get a puppy to a 24-hour vet to do it (and no, “it’ll cost me too much money” is not a reason), ask your vet for some ether or find someone who knows how to quickly and painlessly kill an animal and put them “on call.” This is a horrible duty that none of us wish were necessary, but sometimes it is. (Personally, I would use an ER vet; I used to have access to ether and I know how to use it, but my old Bio prof who would have given it to me has now retired.)

What you should be asking right now is “So where’s the ‘ethical’ in all this?” The answers come in “ethical dilemmas” she sets up and asks you to answer. One is whether you’d feel comfortable breeding a bitch that is there to be bred to dog A to dog B, and passing the puppies off as the offspring of dog A. Another introduces two litters, one worth twice as much as the other. The cheap litter is 12 puppies, the expensive one four. Would you sell some of the cheap ones as the puppies of the expensive dam? Surgically altering and marking up dogs, showing ringers, and influencing judges are some others. In other words, the “ethics” she wants you to follow are somewhere in the realm of “are you an actual criminal?” They’re so far from being “dilemmas” that I truly worry about anyone who would find them difficult to answer.

In the end, reading this book made me very uncomfortable. The strong message is that all of us who breed dogs have “secrets,” and the biggest one is how much money we make. If a prospective puppy owner reads this, and then asks you if they can make money breeding dogs, they’ll think your incredulous laughter and quick denial is your way of hiding your “secret” from your possible competition. Another “secret” is that lovely one I mentioned above, getting a ribbon from Am Bred because the dog can’t win an Open class. Listing these frankly skeevy behaviors as “secrets” implies that the best way to be a successful breeder is to create a picture of yourself that is, honestly, deceptive.

According to Smart, you’re an ethical breeder if you don’t dye your dog in the ring and don’t falsely register litters–as long as you don’t do that, you can have ten bitches sitting in a kennel two hundred feet from your house and never let them feel carpet under their feet except when they’re whelping twice a year.

There’s an adversarial tone when it comes to puppy buyers, and a willingless to accept puppies going off into a place that may be much less than ideal. Where she’s not warning you that puppy buyers may try to rip you off, she’s giving you instructions on how to get the most money out of them, and how to write a contract that protects you from having to pay more than would be fair.

Do we need a book of best practices? Yes. I think we do. I think there’s a hole here that needs to be filled. But I would recommend strongly against filling it with this particular book.