Dogs and Cats: The Reference Guide


From nutrition to emergency care,
here are the basics for your beloved pets
By Konnie LeMay

Ever wish you had your pet’s health information at your fingertips? With this story, I hope to bring you tidy bits of important information to ponder and preserve for quick reference. To gather up the facts, I gleaned information and research from a number of websites mentioned within, but also from chatting with Dr. Kristi Flynn, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul, and Penny Poole, a certified veterinary technician and practice manager at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Rochester, Minnesota, an emergency vet clinic. BluePearl operates in 21 states.

In terms of overall well being for our dogs and cats, Dr. Flynn warns that, as it is for people, obesity may be the greatest health challenge for U.S. pets. A 2017 study showed that 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs are obese.

We want to indulge those adoring eyes, of course, but Flynn says, “Don’t succumb!” Practice portion control and count the treats – especially people food.

When in doubt about an after-hours emergency or pet health concerns, Poole advises pet owners never to hesitate to call to the emergency vet service, which operates 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. and round-the-clock on weekends. “That’s what we’re here for, to give reassurance rather than have you go on the Internet and get bad information.”

Both Flynn and Poole recommend a tool to help a vet when something does go awry with our pets – keep a diary of your pets’ usual habits for eating, sleeping, playtime and such. Then it’s easier to track if your dog or cat has stopped or slowed eating, drinking, pooping or has become unusually lethargic.

Most of all, Flynn encourages, remember to schedule time for your dogs and your cats. “Remember to play,” she says.

For Dogs

Life Span
Extremely large dogs (French Mastiffs, Great Danes, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Irish Wolfhounds) live only 5 to 8 years on average while most other dogs average 12 to 16 years.


Lots of dog food advertising seems geared to scaring you (Blue got sick because of bad food), guilting you (read those questionable ingredients aloud until your pet leaves you in disgust) or embarrassing you (those bacon-lookalike treats have no bacon. Who knew?) But Dr. Kristi Flynn, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College Veterinary Medicine, says dogs do not live on meat alone, so a balanced diet is really what a responsible owner should crave. According to Consumer Reports, dogs need 40 different nutrients in varying proportions. Look for dog foods with the words “feeding trial tested to be complete and balanced” on the bag, Flynn advises. That indicates the food, given as directed, offers all required nutrients (complete) in the right ratios (balanced). No more than 5% of your dog’s daily diet should be treats, she adds.

My vet told me a regular dog biscuit is the equivalent of a candy bar. “How many candy bars a day would you give a child?” she asked, implying a limit for our furry child. Save treat calories for small bits during training, and use a few healthy food snacks to put the wiggle into your pup’s wag. Pumpkin and carrots add fiber, apples are a good alternative and those antioxidant-rich blueberries are healthy for dogs, too (blueberries are fun frozen, as are strawberries and raspberries). “I prefer canned dog food in Kong toys,” Flynn said, “and using their kibble as training rewards.”

No-No Foods:
Chocolate (especially dark chocolate) can cause diarrhea, vomiting or even seizures, irregular heart function or death.

Grapes (or raisins) can cause rapid kidney failure in a dog at amounts as low as 1 or 2 grapes for a 10 to 20 pound pooch; other symptoms range from bad breath and lack of appetite to oral ulcers, vomiting, diarrhea and even a coma.

Garlic (and related onions, leeks and chives) can create anemia with side effects such as pale gums, elevated heart rate, weakness and collapse. Symptoms may take time to show after ingestion.

Also dog toxic: avocado, xylitol (artificial sweetener), caffeine (coffee beans, etc.), macadamia and many other nuts, salt – in short, avoid people foods.

Canine’s Canines
That yellow built-up tartar caused by bacteria can damage the gums, bone and teeth. Current wisdom says brush dog teeth daily, though few of us do. Do chose foods and treats intended to fight that build up, and budget for regular (even annual) teeth cleaning..

Dr. Flynn biggest pet peeve in this age of pervasive social media posting is photos of timid dogs forced to interact with children or people. “One of my soap boxes is you see these dogs – whale-eyed or licking their lips – and the people grab their camera instead of taking the child off the dog. … Recognize your pet’s signs of anxiety or stress or fear,” she encourages. “You think it’s cute; they don’t think it’s fun.”


Core vaccinations and medications for most Midwest dogs

For puppies: For parvovirus, distemper and infectious canine hepatitis, vaccinations should start at 6 to 8 weeks old, done every three to four weeks with the last shot after 16 weeks of age.

Parvovirus (a highly contagious, potentially fatal viral illness; puppies are especially vulnerable) – Do not let puppies socialize with unknown dogs until at least 2 weeks after the third vaccination, but Dr. Flynn points out that early socialization is critical, too. “Early well-supervised socialization is key. Puppies have a socialization window that closes around 16 weeks of age. Prior to that they are open to new and novel things. … So taking them to well-supervised, modern, humane, science-based training classes starting at 8 weeks is highly recommended! Go visit friends with vaccinated adult dogs who are good with puppies, go to well-supervised puppy play groups, get out there in the world. Just don’t go to a dog park where who knows what could happen.”

Distemper (contagious viral illness, a relative of human measles) – After puppy series of shots, one-year booster and 3-year boosters may be recommended.

Infectious canine hepatitis (very contagious, mostly affects puppies under 1 year and unvaccinated adults) – the infection may be mild to severe, which can damage a dog’s liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs and eyes or even cause death. Not as common in the U.S. as in other countries, but consult with your vet.

Rabies – Given at 12 weeks or older and then annual or 3-year vaccinations available. (Travel note: If you are taking a dog between the U.S. and Canada, it must have had its current rabies shots.)


Heartworm (a blood-borne parasite) – Test dogs first; if no heartworms are found, preventative treatment can begin, usually as an oral monthly medication. Some versions combat internal and external parasite (like fleas and ticks). OH NO! Missed the monthly heartworm dose? This happens frequently. A week or so is likely no problem; start again immediately and continue from that date. Two weeks or more and you should consult your vet because the time of year, plus the local risk for heartworm, comes into play.


Bordetella – (most common cause of “kennel cough”) a must for any dog interacting with other dogs and with proof of vaccination required for dog parks, doggie day camps and boarding kennels.

Lyme Disease – initial vaccination followed by a booster in two to four weeks and then annual vaccinations as long as exposure exists (which means any where with ticks).

Leptospirosis – in our region, Dr. Flynn also recommends an annual vaccination  against this “nasty disease spread in wildlife urine that causes kidney and liver failure.”

On the Wild Side

Ticks & Fleas – Prevent with internal meds or topicals, such as monthly liquid applications or special collars changed six months to annually. Check your dog for ticks after outings, especially early spring and late fall. Favorite tick hideouts: under the collar, tail, front legs or elbows, between toes, inside the groin region or eyelids and ears. If you find a tick, remove with a fine-nosed tweezers or a special tick-plucking tool. Don’t squeeze with fingers; it could release more infectious stuff. Grab at the “head” (technically the mouth) and pull gently, slowly, steadily upward. Afterward disinfect the spot on the dog, wash your hands and disinfect the tweezers.

Blue-green algae – Not all algae in water (pond scum) is toxic, but you can’t be sure by looking. Slurping up the wrong algae is almost always fatal to dogs, stopping their liver functions, in some cases just 15 minutes to 1 hour later.


Vomiting and diarrhea: These are the two most common reasons dog owners call BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Rochester, Minnesota, said Penny Poole, a certified veterinary technician and practice manager at the emergency vet clinic. Her advice: If your dog has vomited more than three or four times in 24 hours, call your vet or local emergency service immediately. Dehydration can occur quickly and have devastating consequences like kidney failure.

Pest Poisons: Never use rodent poisons for household pest control because dogs will find it. “Even when you think they’re not, they’re getting into it,” Poole said. Rodent poisons kill by inhibiting blood clotting, causing internal bleeding; by increasing the calcium in an animal causing kidney failure (most dangerous to dogs and cats); by inducing brain swelling; or by causing toxic gas in the stomach. Remember, what the poison does to pests, it may do to pets.

Poisons in General: The Pet Poison Hotline lists the 10 most common toxin calls for dogs – some will surprise you: 1) Chocolate; 2) mouse and rat poisons; 3) anti-inflammatory medications; 4) xylitol (sugar-free gum and other food items); 5) grapes & raisins; 6) antidepressant medications; 7) acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol); 8) Vitamin D overdose; 9) stimulant medications (e.g. for ADD/ADHD; 10) fertilizers.

Pet Poison Hotline in Bloomington (24/7): (855) 764-7661


Life Span
Indoor cats can live 13 to 17 years on average. Outdoor cats, meanwhile, may usually span 3 to 10 years, but only average slightly less than 6 years.


Canned or dry or semi-moist – there is a wide range of options for cat food and long debates on the best brands. Your cat may have its own preference. Cats, according to the Cornell University Feline Health Center, “are obligate carnivores, which means that they rely on nutrients found only in animal products.” Cats, often susceptible to urinary problems, must have good water intake. Dry foods often are 6% to 10% water, semi-moist about 35% and canned food at least 75%, notes Cornell. Always keep fresh water available, regardless the food type. Look for food labeled with an Association of American Feed Control Officials or AAFCO-approved notation that indicates diets trial tested to be complete and balanced. Dr. Flynn points out that obese cats risk related health issues such as diabetes and arthritis.

Occasional treats are fine and, in toys, might be stimulating. Dr. Flynn advises, as with dogs, only 5% of your cat’s caloric intact should be from treats.

No-No Foods:
Milk sure, cats might enjoy a bowl, but many are lactose-intolerant and can develop digestive problems from any dairy products (even cheese).

Canned fish meant for human consumption has led some cats to develop potentially serious neurological disorders, according to Cornell University.

Fat and raw meats, fish or eggs can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as risking parasites and diseases or salmonella or e. coli. Excess fat intake can cause pancreatitis.

Other cat toxic people food: Much is similar to dogs – chocolate, grapes, garlic and onions and xylitol (sugar-free sweetener) are on the list.


Core vaccinations and medications for most Midwest cats

For kittens:
Similar to puppies, vaccinations should start at age 6 to 8 weeks with boosters every three to four weeks until 16 weeks of age.

Panleukopenia (or feline distemper) – a highly contagious, potentially fatal viral disease puts kittens especially at risk. Vaccinate for indoor and outdoor cats because the virus is everywhere in the environment.

Feline calicivirus – This respiratory disease in the nasal passages and lungs can affect all cats, but especially young kittens. Kittens get a series of boosters starting at about 6 weeks, then boosters every one to three years for adults.

Feline herpesvirus type I (rhinotracheitis) – One of the most common upper respiratory infections for cats that causes watery eyes and nose, sneezing, fever, loss of appetite, pink eye, drooling and other cold-like symptoms. The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends three-year vaccinations for adults, Flynn notes.

Feline leukemia virus – This is the leading cause of virus-associated deaths in cats and second only to trauma as a leading cause of death overall. All kittens should be vaccinated; adult cats may need regular vaccinations, especially if they interact with outdoor cats. About 85% of cats infected die within three years, according to WebMD.

Rabies – Vaccinate kittens older than 12 weeks, followed by a 1-year booster and then 3-year boosters for the life of the cat. Even with a vaccination, if you have reason to believe your cat has come into contact or had a fight with a rabid animal, take it immediately to the vet for additional preventative care. Proof of rabies vaccination is required in almost all states.


Bordetella (kennel cough) – Cats, like dogs, get this, and can even get it from dogs (or vice-versa). Annual vaccinations recommended for cats interacting with other cats, such as multiple-cat homes.

Feline herpesvirus type I (rhinotracheitis) – see under kittens.

Chlamydophila felis – This bacterium can cause pink eye and upper respiratory infections. Homes with multiple cats or outdoor cats are most at risk. Vaccinate annually.

Feline immunodeficiency virus – Outdoor cats are most at risk for this virus that can weaken the immune system to infectious diseases. Vaccination available, but may depend on risk; ask your vet.

Fleas and Ticks – Topicals, dips, shampoos and collars are available. Consult with your vet and remember that cold weather doesn’t kill indoor fleas. (Note: Pyrethrin-based insecticides are toxic for cats.) As for ticks, there is no Lyme disease vaccination for cats, which seem less susceptible than dogs to this and other tick-borne illnesses, though too many ticks can cause anemia on outdoor cats. Groom and check your outdoor cat for ticks frequently, removing with a tweezers or tick-plucking device to avoid squeezing it with your fingers. Also never ever use a dog topical tick/flea medicine on a cat. Topics for dogs are place in areas of the body they cannot lick; cats lick everywhere. This is not an idle warning, just look at Top 10 cat poisonings on page 26.

Litter boxes
Pretty simple – scoop daily, wash with detergent weekly and have one box per cat plus one extra in a multiple-cat household. Place the boxes in different parts of the house, one on each level. If you don’t keep it clean, your feline friend will find a more suitable location – like a closet. The kind of litter is your choice, but Ohio State University’s indoor cat studies found most kitties prefer finer grades, such as the scoop-able litter. Flynn adds most cats prefer unscented litter and uncovered boxes. Of course, if you have a kitty-poo-loving dog, you might go with a covered box.

Outdoor vs. Indoor
I once adopted an undersized black stray cat that continued to be a voracious outdoor hunter, frequently leaving bird kidneys in the kitchen and stuffing a live snake into the bathroom. My vet told me from the get-go that an outdoor cat, especially near woods, would lead “a happy, but short life” because she would risk becoming prey herself, becoming a victim of roadways or becoming overcome by the variety of diseases or parasites she might pick up. Most vets urge indoor life for our cats, and because I love birds (and snakes), I agree. If you strongly believe your cat must live the born-wild life, consult your vet about extra precautions against pests and illnesses. If you opt for an indoor cat, Dr. Flynn encourages a program of cat enrichment. Teach them tricks – yes, it’s possible and, she says, “It works their minds.” Buy toys that hide treats or mimic your cat’s preferred prey; experiment with feathery toys (birds), furry toys (mice) or laser or bug-like toys. Flynn advises tapping Ohio State University’s “indoor cat initiative” ( for tips and noted, “Catios are a safe option to still offer your cats fresh air.”

Caring for the Choppers
Cats’ 30 teeth do need cleaning, though most of us don’t undertake regular brushing. Choose toys and treats that can aid dental health. If your cat has foul breath, that may be a sign cleaning is needed. Ask for an annual dental check and budget for annual cleanings.


Urinary obstructions: This is the most common reason cat owners call BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Rochester, Minnesota, saidxs Penny Poole, a certified veterinary tech and practice manager at the clinic. Male cats and indoor-only cats are especially prone to this. Symptoms include frequent trips to the litter box, vomiting, vocalizing and laying on its side and not moving much. This life-threatening condition should be address as soon as you note these symptoms. Call your vet or local emergency service immediately. Preventative measures include food with a high moisture content, constant fresh water (a kitty water fountain is nice) and, in some cases, a special diet.

Pest Poisons: Never use rodent poisons for household pests. Rodent poisons may kill by inhibiting blood clotting, causing internal bleeding; by increasing the calcium in an animal causing kidney failure (most dangerous to dogs and cats); by inducing brain swelling; or by causing toxic gas in the stomach. What the poison does to pest, it can do to pets.

Poisons in General: The Pet Poison Hotline lists the 10 most common toxin calls for cats: 1) Lilies (Lilium species); 2) topical flea/tick medication for dogs; 3) household cleaners; 4) antidepressant medications; 5) essential oils; 6) anti-inflammatory medications; 7) mouse and rat poisons; 8) stimulant medications (e.g., for ADD/ADHD); 9) onions and garlic; 10) Vitamin D overdoses.

Pet Poison Hotline in Bloomington (24/7): (855) 764-7661  

Konnie LeMay, freelance writer and dog mom in Duluth, Minn., often has more questions than answers in raising “Turbo” Rachel Beth.