May 3, 2016
It was a very odd week. Monday started out with an African Grey parrot that was rushed in because of odd seizures observed by the owner. Popeye made the trip in a cat carrier since he couldn’t perch, and when I opened the grated door I had to laugh : a sizeable grey parrot with a dark maroon tail was fluttering convulsively but at the same time reaching out greedily to gobble down some peanuts just out of reach. He had figured out how to roll just right with each shake of his wings and was inching ever closer. Popeye wasn’t at all perturbed by his mild convulsions but was very upset that the peanuts kept evading him. After a brief discussion where I learned that he was fed almost exclusively on sunflower seeds I drew some blood tests and treated him for a calcium deficiency. Seeds may be high in protein and fat but are notoriously deficient in calcium and trace minerals. No single food item will ever provide complete nutrition to any animal. Popeye’s recovery was dramatic.
On Tuesday an owner presented his middle-aged Dachshund “Dracula” for a second opinion. The little dog just seemed to have muscle twitches all the time. He’d had some blood tests run, but nothing conclusive had turned up and regular anti-seizure medication had been of no help. Dracula lived a quiet life, mostly indoors and had never had any other medical issues. He trotted around the exam room, with a fine tremor marring his step. He wasn’t shaking from anxiety, nor did he act oddly in any other way. Looking over the chart shared by my colleague I noted that his blood calcium test was quite low. Since any single test may occasionally be off due to lab error I recommended we repeat these tests as a starting place. Again, his calcium levels came back very low. Diagnosis : A disorder of his parathyroid gland, which regulates calcium in the body. Treatment with calcium and Vitamin D supplements provided immediate relief while his case was fully worked up.
When the Green Iguana showed up on Wednesday I had a sneaking suspicion that I was having a “run” on calcium related issues. The lizards’ lower jaw was puffed out, looking mismatched to her upper face. She had an odd crook in her front leg from a “folding fracture”, indicating soft bones. Once again I investigated her diet and light exposure – never outdoors in natural sunlight (no creature was bred to live totally indoors!) and fed iceberg lettuce, no dark leafy greens, no vitamin supplements. Diagnosis : Metabolic Bone Disease or “Iguana Rickets”. Real sunshine and an improved diet did wonders for her.
By Thursday the staff had started to joke about it. Our 10 o’clock appointment was a young man with a muscular Pit Bull puppy, only 12 weeks old. The puppy had broken both his front legs. As I observed the heavy bodied male, named “Oscar”, I noted that he was unusually cheerful as he ran around the room, clumsily trying to chew on my assistant’s pants leg. He looked bow legged in front and indeed, both of his wrists (carpi) bulged and kind of knuckled over. He was walking on these legs, which a dog with a fracture usually cannot do, as it’s too painful and the bone actually can’t support weight as it slides apart. Questioning brought out the history of a puppy fed an exclusive diet of steak and hamburger. Oscar’s owner was proud of his beautiful dog and wanted to provide only the best for him. He had spared no expense by feeding an all-meat diet. What I was looking at was a very old-fashioned case of rickets or osteomalacia (soft bones). Without a balanced diet – and without bones meat alone is deficient in calcium – Oscar’s rapidly growing bones had softened and he couldn’t support the weight of his own body. The bones had started to fold down. Caught early, a corrected diet of simple commercial puppy food could reverse the process and over time the bones will straighten, though not always 100%. Happily, within two weeks Oscar was moving more normally.
The body is a marvel. Calcium is rich in many foods: dairy products like cheese, yogurt and milk, dark leafy greens, fish canned with their bones, bone meal by-products. Calcium is added to all pet foods formulated commercially, just as it is added to products like orange juice for people. But eating calcium rich food is not enough. The body requires Vitamin D3 to absorb and use the calcium taken in. Dogs, cats, birds and reptiles can all make their own Vitamin D when exposed to natural sunlight, through a complex interaction with UV light on their skin. Vitamin D is found naturally in egg yolk, fish oils and fatty fish like salmon or tuna, and cheese. Many animals, especially birds and reptiles, don’t naturally eat these foods and if kept deprived of sunlight (indoors/caged) will develop rickets, broken bones, and even seizures or death because they cannot make the Vitamin D they need. Even if their diet includes a calcium supplement they will suffer. For this reason special UV lights are recommended for indoor pets and at least weekly outings into real sunshine. All diets should include both fresh foods and commercial foods fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium, from turtle pellets to bird feed and other pet foods. Leave the balancing up to the professionals!
Christine B. McFadden, DVM