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Assistance Dogs: Special Role Of Vets

The effects of assistance dogs in the veterinary field in immeasurable and invaluable.

Photo Courtesy of NEADS

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With the number of assistance dogs growing exponentially throughout the U.S., veterinarians can expect to see more assistance dogs in their practices.

While dogs for the visually impaired predominate, dogs can learn to serve an ever-broadening list of disabilities, from hearing impairment to autism and post-traumatic stress disorder for combat veterans and other trauma victims. 

Service dogs are also trained to work with people who use wheelchairs, need seizure alert or response, need alerts to other medical issues such as low blood sugar, or have psychiatric disabilities. These amazing dogs can retrieve objects out of reach, pull wheelchairs, open and close doors, turn light switches off and on, bark to indicate that help is needed, find and lead another person to the handler, provide balance and counterbalance for those who need help walking and many other tasks.

In short, these animals can enable people to live fuller, more independent lives. And the high personal and economic value placed on these dogs calls for extra attention to their health and well-being.

For 25 years I have been on the board of directors of the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS.org), the oldest hearing-ear dog program in the United States. NEADS has trained more than 1,400 dogs for the deaf and disabled and founded Canines for Combat Veterans. NEADS dogs are also placed with teachers, clergy and hospitals and help with such challenges as autism.

This article, an outgrowth of the educational efforts of the “Intervet/Schering-Plough Meets NEADS” partnership, is intended to teach veterinarians how the care of service dogs differs from routine pet care. 

Organizations that train assistance dogs invest significant time and resources to ensure these dogs possess optimal structural health (genetic clearances for eyes, hips, elbows, shoulders and cardiac), metabolic health (thyroid, renal, hepatic) and mental soundness (overall temperament, sound sensitivity, work ethic). Despite an investment that may total as much as $20,000 in selection and training, we all know that perfect health is a temporary condition.

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Because canine health is critical to their “job” performance and value, I recommend that they visit their veterinarians every two months if possible. Veterinarians should pay special attention to the checkpoints that follow.

Spaying and Neutering

NEADS and other organizations that adhere to the standards of Assistance Dog International (ADI) partner only dogs that have been spayed or neutered. Veterinarians should be alert for infantile or inverted external female genitalia secondary to early neutering. 

Owners of such dogs should know the signs of urinary tract infections, incontinence and associated hygiene issues and be reassured that remedies are available if needed. Since neutered animals have an increased incidence of obesity, regular weigh-ins and a discussion of diets, training rewards and a plan for regular exercise should be part of a visit to the veterinarian.

Preventive Medicine

Vaccination: Be sure the dog’s vaccinations are up to date. This includes non-core vaccines to help protect these valuable service dogs from such potentially serious illness as the new canine influenza H3N8 virus and Lyme disease (in areas where ticks are endemic). 

Diagnostics: Blood testing for heartworm and tick-borne diseases as well as fecal analysis for potential zoonotic diseases such as giardia should be performed annually.   

Body System Exam

Mouth: Occlusion problems can interfere with grasping of objects (broken teeth, worn teeth from rock chewers, gum disease or growths).

Eyes: Aging changes or acute disease may interfere with the ability to focus on objects that the dog may need to retrieve.

Ears: Inflammatory or infectious conditions involving the external ear are among the most common problems of all dogs, including assistance dogs. Provide owners whose assistance dogs have a history of otitis externa the appropriate medication, including those preparations with steroids that can be used in case of acute inflammation and discomfort. This provides temporary relief until an office visit can be arranged.

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Feet: These paws will walk miles in all public venues, so hair around the foot pads must be trimmed for traction and nails should be very short (not touching the ground) and finished with a grinder. The dog can’t jump up to deliver items to people with fragile skin if nails are splintered and sharp. Nails should be ground every three to four weeks. Ice melt and dirt from the streets should be washed off in a paw plunger or similar apparatus.

Skin: You can’t think about doing your job if you itch, and neither can a working dog. Year-round flea-and-tick control is a must. Evaluate the skin for rubbing and pressure sores from harnesses, a particular hazard for balance dogs, or backpacks. Routinely assess body condition for the ability to carry the weight of backpacks and supplies.

Evaluate the condition of the dog’s coat, particularly since hygiene maintenance may be difficult for people with disabilities. Trim petticoats on sporting dogs so they are clean around the rectal area, clip out mats that may accumulate in the groin or behind the ears and check for other problems.

Aging dogs: Be alert to signs of aging in service dogs age 9 and older. In addition to paws, pads, skin and coat, check vision and hearing, teeth and gums, gait and balance, weight changes, heart and lungs, urinary and bowel habits, exercise tolerance and behavioral changes.

Diet and exercise: Veterinarians need to be sensitive when addressing issues of excessive body weight. Involve client participation by discussing low-calorie alternatives for diet and treats. Emphasize the importance of a balanced diet, educating owners on avoiding fad diets and table food. No raw diets are acceptable due to salmonella shedding common with these diets.

Work on a canine exercise program that respects the owner’s disability. Relate, don’t berate.    

Money can be a major issue for people with disabilities, particularly if their dog requires surgery or other medical interventions. Some avenues for help:

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Financial Resources

Veterinary Care Partnership Program of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP.org): An emergency fund to provide financial aid to U.S. IAADP partner members whose assistance dogs require high-cost veterinary intervention beyond their ability to pay. Only veterinarians can initiate the request. (The human partner must be a member. Cost is $30 annually.)

United Animal Nations Lifeline Grants (UAN.org): Provides money to good Samaritans, animal rescuers and pet owners to help them care for animals in life-threatening situations.

AAHA Helping Pets Fund: For those who need to access quality veterinary care for sick or injured pets.

In New England, where I live and practice, we have a network of veterinary hospitals that donate or discount services.

I have found it very rewarding to work with NEADS, a group passionately dedicated to its mission. As someone who loves, treats and lives with dogs, my greatest reward is to see the incredible bond between a person and service dog working together. 

Dr. Migday, owner and director of Slade Veterinary Hospital Inc. in Framingham, Mass., recently served as president of NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. She and her husband, Ira Kaplan, DVM, raise, train and exhibit Bullmastiff dogs in conformation, obedience, rally and tracking events and share a home with seven of them. For more information on service dogs, go to NEADS.org or DogInfluenza.com.

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