By: Dr. Chip Coombs, DVM
      Chief Veterinary Officer, Pets Plus Us, Oakville, ON, Canada

      July 1, 2018


One of the many advantages of living in Canada is that we have universal health care. It certainly isn’t a perfect system, but for the most part it removes the financial worry and stress, should we become ill. We walk into a doctor’s office or a hospital, receive acute care treatment and leave; no invoices, no remortgaging the house and essentially, for the most part, no financial worries. Because of this, we really have little idea how much medical care costs and we carry on our daily lives without a second thought – until we acquire a pet for the family.

For most families, a pet is not simply just a pet. They are true members of the family joined by a bond that is oft times stronger than the human-human bond. Although for our purposes here we are referring to dogs and cats, the human-animal bond can be just as strong to a horse, parrot or iguana. So, for our four-footed family members, most if not all of us want the very best health care, because they are so important to us. However, because we have little experience in the cost of health care, it can be quite surprising to visit a veterinarian with a pet who is unwell and find out what the costs are. Depending upon the situation, the costs can have a profound impact on what care, if any, a family can afford to offer their beloved pet. This is why it behooves all pet owners to at least consider the value that pet health insurance (PHI) can offer.

PHI is not a new idea, it has been around since the turn of the last century in Sweden and first came to Canada in the late 1980’s. There are five major providers of PHI in Canada and although there are significant differences between them, they all are designed to provide health care coverage for accidents or illnesses that were unforeseen or unexpected. This is private insurance, not universal health care, and will provide coverage in all situations that were not pre-existing. For example, if you had a cat who had diabetes and no other relevant medical history, a PHI policy would not provide coverage for the diabetes or directly related problems, but it would provide coverage for the umpteen other potential problems that could happen to any cat, especially if they go outdoors.

An obvious question to ask oneself is why would you want PHI? As each year passes, the sophistication of medical knowledge and surgical techniques continues to grow exponentially, both in human medicine and veterinary medicine. There is very little medical care that is offered to people that cannot also be offered to companion animals. The major difference is that the care provided to our pets is often provided much more quickly than to ourselves, yet the cost is out of pocket. Providing veterinary medical care involves a triangle between the pet, the owner and the veterinarian. What PHI offers is the potential for a win-win-win scenario for all.

For the Pet:

  • Whether it is a dog or cat, they receive the very best veterinary health care in a timely manner. This enhances the chances of a full recovery with enhanced quality of life going forward.
  • Because the attending veterinarian has few restrictions on performing appropriate diagnostic tests, there is less chance of a misdiagnosis, as some diseases will mimic one another.
  • A pet has a greater opportunity to live a longer, happier life due to timely delivery of appropriate medical care.

For the Owner:

  • PHI allows an owner to no longer rely on discretionary funds to pay for an unexpected illness or accident. Rather it can now be budgeted for with the financial exposure being limited to the coinsurance and deductible pre-chosen by the owner.
  • Allows an owner to make the best medical decisions that are in the best interests of their pet (and often their family).
  • Removes the heart wrenching decision of having to put a pet down simply because the appropriate care is unaffordable, so called “economic euthanasia”.
  • Provides very significant peace of mind, knowing that no matter what the circumstances, your pet will receive the care they need.

For the Veterinarian:

  • The advances in veterinary medicine have been very significant and will continue this trend. PHI allows veterinarians to practise the highest quality of veterinary medicine and to provide the very best medical care. However, these advances come with costs and there is nothing more disheartening to a veterinarian than knowing that they can help a pet, but face the harsh reality that a family can simply not afford the necessary care.

With this win-win-win situation, why is it that PHI is not more commonly utilized by pet owners?

  1. Surprisingly enough, many pet owners simply are unaware of its existence. However, that is now changing with veterinarians, breeders and shelters offering trial policies for every cat and dog they see.
  2. PHI has been in Canada for almost 30 years and the policies that are available today are very different than at the start. An owner may have been disappointed with a previous policy’s coverage and doesn’t appreciate that one can now purchase a policy that is fully transparent, so an owner knows exactly what is covered and what is not, allowing them to make an informed decision.
  3. As we have discussed before, pet owners, especially new pet owners, are completely in the dark about the high level of care available in veterinary medicine and the costs associated with this care.
  4. When a new puppy or kitten comes home for the first time, there is a tendency to associate their future health with a new TV set. In other words, this cute, cuddly critter is brand new, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with it and will have years of enjoyment before we have to start worrying about anything going wrong. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, whether the problem arises from an accident or an illness.

Even as a veterinarian, I have all our family critters covered by PHI and as most of the crises happen when I am away and at night, we have been very happy that we had them covered. A recent example occurred a short while ago when one of our dogs slipped after an ice storm while walking. The consequence was a torn ligament in her knee with a corrective surgical procedure which usually has a fee of $3500-$5500 attached to it; the fee varying with where one lives in the Canada. In a future article, we will discuss some of the myths attached to PHI as well as key questions to ask of your PHI provider before you purchase a policy.

By: Dr. Katie Clow DVM, PhD
      Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Pathobiology
      Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

      May 31, 2018


With the warmer weather finally upon us, not only do we feel the need to be more active outside, but unfortunately so do the bugs! And included with those creepy crawly creatures are ticks.

There’s been a lot of talk about ticks over the last few years in many places of Canada. A big portion of this talk revolves around Lyme disease, which is a tick-borne disease that can affect people as well as our canine and equine companions.

 Let’s take a look at the top 5 things you should know about Lyme disease in dogs.


1. Dogs can only get Lyme disease from the bite of an infected blacklegged tick.

In northeastern North America, the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) is the tick species that can transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Blacklegged ticks can acquire the bacteria when they feed on white-footed mice or other small mammals harbouring B. burgdorferi. At their next blood meal, they can then transmit the bacteria to another ‘host’ (which could be a human, dog or horse). It takes about 24 hours for the bacteria to migrate out of the gut of the tick and then into the host, so quick removal of a tick can decrease the risk of transmission.

2. The risk of encountering a blacklegged tick varies by geographic area.

The blacklegged tick population has been expanding northward over the last few decades. In Ontario, the areas of highest risk are along the north shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and most of eastern Ontario. This distribution continues to change, and Public Health Ontario routinely publishes a risk map to show you the areas where blacklegged ticks have been found (see: In general, this tick species prefers woodland habitat, so the likelihood of encountering this tick is much greater in forests and the surrounding brushy area.

3.  Most dogs that are exposed to the bacteria do not get sick.

Fortunately, exposure to the bacteria via the bite of an infected tick does not necessarily mean that your dog will get sick. It’s estimated that 95% of dogs that are exposed will not develop clinical signs. If a dog does get sick, the most common symptoms of Lyme disease are low energy, fever, lack of appetite and a ‘shifting lameness’ – which means a dog is limping on one leg one day, and then a different leg the next day. In very rare cases, Lyme disease can lead to a type of kidney failure.

4. Annual testing for Lyme disease is good practice.

Testing your dog is recommended on an annual basis. A simple in-clinic blood test can tell you if your dog has been exposed to B. burgdorferi but cannot tell you if your dog will get sick. There are several reasons this test is recommended, even if your dog is not showing any signs of disease. The most important reason is that it allows your veterinarian to conduct follow-up testing to ensure your dog stays healthy. For example, if your dog is positive, your veterinarian may request a urine sample to make sure there is no evidence of kidney disease. Additionally, testing allows your veterinarian to assess if your tick prevention strategies are working and if the risk of exposure within the area is changing.

5. Tick prevention is the best choice to keep your dog healthy.

Using a product that either repels ticks or kills ticks quickly once they bite is a great way to prevent the transmission of B. burgdorferi, and many other pathogens that can be transmitted to our canine companions by numerous species of ticks. Your veterinarian can help you find the best product that provides good protection against the ticks to which your dog may be exposed.

Conducting a thorough tick check on your dog (and yourself!) after a nice hike is still recommended, even if you use a tick preventative.

Vaccines also exist for Lyme disease. Although research is still needed in this area to fully understand the efficacy of these vaccines, in some scenarios they may be a useful addition to your dog’s preventative health care program (but not a replacement for tick prevention). Your veterinarian can help you decide if vaccination for Lyme disease is a good choice for your dog or not. 

If you’re looking for more information on ticks in Canada and the risks they may pose to your pet, a new website has just been launched:! This website is also home to the Pet Tick Tracker – here you can submit any tick you find on your pet and contribute to a growing database of pet tick surveillance.  

Bonus: Even though ticks pose a risk to our beloved companions, it is still important to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors with them. You just need to be aware of the risks and take the necessary precautions. For information on how to protect yourself, please visit the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website: or your local health unit.



By: Dr. Janet Cutler, PhD, CPDT-KA
      Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
      Landmark Behaviour Inc

      December 15, 2017



When you get a young puppy, it is very important to make sure that they are properly socialized, or have positive experiences with many people, dogs, other animals, as well as different environments and noises.

New research at the University of Guelph has shown that people that have gone to puppy classes with their puppies see many benefits. At four months of age, puppies that had gone to puppy classes were more socialized, showed less fear to noises such as thunder and vacuums, and were less fearful of crate training. Owners that had attended classes with their puppies also reported to use methods of training considered to be more positive, such as redirecting their dog or only rewarding correct behaviour, as opposed to yelling or holding their puppies down on their backs for punishment.

Puppy classes not only help you teach your puppy some basic manners, but also give you an opportunity to socialize your puppy. Since this is such an important period of time for your puppy, you want to make sure that the puppy class you are taking your puppy to is helping to set you up for success.

To help you find the right class for your puppy, you should talk to the school or the instructor about the following things.

What to look for in a puppy class:

1.     Is there supervised puppy play time?
It is sometimes hard to find time for your puppy to play with others their age.  Puppy classes typically offer this opportunity and allow your puppy to learn how to play with other dogs in a safe manner.  However, you do not want class puppy play time to be unsupervised where they are allowed to run around out of control.  Play time should be in short, structured periods throughout the class.

2.    Is there plenty of handling and interactions with other people?
Getting your puppy used to being handled by other people is very helpful.  They learn to be calm when being handled, get used to unfamiliar people, and it can even help with vet visits since they will be more comfortable with handling by strangers.

3.    What kind of training is included in classes?

A majority of puppy classes have a training component, including working on sit, down, stay, loose leash walking, recalls (coming when called) and others.  Even if you are comfortable teaching your puppy these things, working on them in a new environment will just help to strengthen them.

Just as important as the behaviour taught is the method used to train. You want to find classes that use positive reinforcement, or giving treats, praise, play, or another reward for the behaviour you want.  This helps to build a strong bond between you and your dog, and lets them know when they have done the right thing.

4.    Will they offer help with any problems you are having?

If you are having any problems at home with your puppy, your instructor should be able to offer suggestions to help you work through them, ensure that they do not become more serious, and be able to refer you to someone that can help if they arenot able to.

5.    Do the instructors have certifications and/or education in behaviour?

Making sure that your trainer is up-to-date on the best methods for training and continues to learn about dog behaviour is important. Researching certifications in the dog training field allow you to be informed about the knowledge and experience of your trainer.  Some certification bodies require certain amounts of experience, continuing education, and compliance with a standard of ethics.

6.    Do they require proof of vaccination?
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recommends that puppies have at least one set of vaccinations 7 days prior to a puppy’s first class as well as deworming.  Your puppy class facility should require proof of vaccine to ensure safety of all the puppies in the class.

7.    Do they allow your whole family to attend?
Some facilities will allow children and others involved with your puppy to attend classes.  If you are hoping to bring your children, make sure you check first to see if the facility is set up to have children come in and participate safely.

Finding a good puppy class that allows you and your puppy to learn together while allowing you to socialize your puppy will set you up for success.

The road before we get Harley!

  By: Jason Coe, DVM, PhD
Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

       January 25, 2018


Ten years ago, my wife Genny and I began looking into getting a dog.  The timing seemed to be right as we were a double income couple with no kids.  We had also just moved from a small apartment in Ottawa to our own house in Guelph. The reason we were looking for a dog was, quite simply, because Genny is allergic to cats! The timing and situation seemed perfect, yet shortly after starting our search for a dog we learned that our double income no kid life style was about to change: we were expecting our first child.  We had a serious discussion about whether it was still the right time to bring a dog into our household. A baby was on the way, both of us were in the early stages of building our careers and we really did not know what lay ahead.  At the time, we made a conscious decision that it would probably be wise to make one major change/ addition to our family at a time. 

Now looking back, we are very happy with the choice we made because two years after Carter was born, our daughter Mackenzie arrived … two years later our second daughter Georgia arrived.  We were suddenly a family of five including a four-year old, a two-year old and a newborn.  It did not take Genny and me a lot of discussion or persuasion to decide that it was not the right time to bring a dog into our home. Let’s be honest, we still had two children in diapers at that point and we were not looking to do any more potty training than we already had ahead of us!  We also felt it would be unfair to bring a dog into a family that was already stretched to meet its current demands.

As our kids started to grow and mature, Genny and I regularly revisited whether the time was right to bring a four-legged addition into our home.  However, both of our careers continued to get busier, including me travelling away from home once or twice a month.  This often left Genny on her own with three young kids; she was very happy it was not three kids and a dog. This does not mean we did not have constant pressure on us to get a dog.   As our kids grew older the pressure from them grew with arguments like “Grandma and Grandpa have a dog”, “Nana has a dog”, “our cousins have a dog”, “EVERYONE else at school has a pet!”, “Why don’t we have a pet?”, “You’re a veterinarian; how can you not have a pet?”.  Specifically, our son’s intense and consistent pressure did not change our family circumstances for getting a dog. 

Carter's contract he made - "Do you agree that I can have a puppy if I take all responsibility over the puppy except the money parts" 

In response to our son’s insistent requests, last Christmas Santa brought him a robotic cat and this past Christmas he got a gold fish.  The reality was our family was not yet ready.   

More recently Genny and I started having discussions that were not quickly dismissed by one or both of us about getting a dog for our family.  We agreed that we have reached a point as a family where with proper planning and education we feel comfortable and excited to bring a dog into our home.  As a result, we have been encouraging our kids that if we are to get a dog we need to be prepared and educate ourselves.  Each of them, in one capacity or another, has started accessing the B4 U GET A PET website. 

The girls researching before we get a pet

My son has been using it to prepare himself for over a year and has gotten to a point where he can now answer every question correctly on the Test your pet knowledge on the dog page. 

Three days before Christmas Genny and I made our first trip to a breeder of our choosing in order to ask all of the questions from the Questions to ask page specific to breeders.  Everything checked out to our satisfaction and we made plans to move forward in bringing one of the seven cute puppies we saw on that day home in a few weeks.   During our second visit to the breeder we selected our puppy from the three boys, specifically looking for a puppy that was a bit laid back and that did not fight or fuss when cuddled (yes, we have travelled to the breeders twice already and not even brought a puppy home!). While I drove on our second trip, Genny signed him up for puppy socialization  classes that will start immediately after he arrives.  We also started researching veterinary clinics in our area knowing this will be another big decision soon after bringing our dog home as he will need 12-week and 16-week checkups and vaccines. 

One question I have received is why a puppy?  Genny and I have discussed this question and with young children we want to be involved in our dog’s important socialization period.  The B4 U GET A PET research team has just published work highlighting the importance of socializing puppies.  I found we also had many of the same questions other potential pet owners have before getting a pet, such as wanting to know about past history, past behaviour, etc.  For these reasons, and given our young family, we have chosen to get a puppy, which we have named Harley (The reason behind this name I will save for another blog!).

Although our kids are not aware (though we have ensured they have been doing lots of prep work!), we are extremely excited to have Harley join our family next week! Therefore, in keeping with our preparation, tonight’s task is to start researching pet insurance! 


 Harley at 4 weeks of age!


  By: Hannah Flint, BSc, MSc, PhD (Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare) 

        Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON


August 2, 2017

Dealing with a fearful dog can be an incredibly stressful experience. Living with my fearful and anxious dog Ripley for the past four years, I understand the challenges involved. Even after completing my PhD looking at fear and aggression in dogs, I still sometimes feel overwhelmed. Below are some tips for how to first recognize if your dog is fearful, and then some basic tips on how to overcome it.

Dogs have many ways of showing that they are fearful or stressed. Here a few of the more common and easily recognized signs

  • Posture: fearful dogs will often try to make themselves appear smaller. Dogs experiencing extreme fear bend their legs into a crouched or cowering posture, while dogs experiencing milder levels of fear may appear standing upright with only an arch to their back as seen in the picture below.

  • Ear position: dogs that experience fear or stress will often pull their ears back against their head.
  • Tail position: a fearful dog will have the tail lowered to hang straight down between the back legs, or if experiencing more extreme fear the tail may be tucked up towards the dog's belly. A wagging tail should not be used to judge a dog’s mood! Fearful dogs will often wag their tail even when it is tucked.
  • Trembling: while not always visible, you may feel a dog that is experiencing fear tremble when you touch them.
  • Panting: a dog that is panting when not over-heated or exercised is likely stressed.
  • Lip licking: dogs may lick their lips when afraid, especially when intimidated by a strange person or dog.
  • Avoidance: any attempts to hide, escape or avoid a situation should be taken as a sign of fear. Many dogs who appear to be stubborn by refusing to walk are actually afraid. Pay attention to your surroundings and try to look for patterns for when this is happening to see if you can identify what your dog is afraid of.
  • Food refusal: if your dog suddenly stops accepting treats (or any other rewarding activity such as petting or play) this is a common sign that your dog is overwhelmed by fear, or another emotion.
  • Displacement behaviours: these behaviours, such as sniffing, pacing and yawning, while normal in some contexts, can become abnormally frequent when your dog is afraid. If your dog suddenly starts obsessively sniffing the ground, or performing other abnormal behaviour, you should consider that there is something making your dog uncomfortable.
  • Vocalizing: whining is a sign of fear, and is the vocalization most commonly thought to relate to fear in dogs, but barking can also be an indicator of fear. Dogs, and most especially puppies, often bark at things that they are afraid of.

What to do:

One common myth is that you should not comfort a fearful dog, because you will reinforce their behaviour. This is not the case! Fear is an emotional response, and if addressed the behaviours associated with it will also disappear. Sometimes in situations where your dog is afraid and you cannot remove the thing that is causing their fear (e.g., during a thunderstorm) the best thing you can do is comfort your dog.

Below are five important steps for addressing fear in dogs:

1. Identify that your dog is fearful and what is causing the fear, pay attention to your dog’s behaviour and your surroundings! Keep track of when your dog acts afraid and what else is going on, and be specific. If your dog is afraid of other dogs is it just large dogs? Small dogs? Black dogs? A certain breed? The more information you know the better you will be able to anticipate your dog’s reaction.

2. Stay calm! While it is okay to comfort your dog, it should also be noted that fear can be contagious. Try not to get stressed out because your dog is upset. If you do, remember to take deep breathes, and speak in a slow calm voice so as not to feed into your dog’s fear.

3. Remove your dog from the situation, if possible, always prevent or minimize situations that cause your dog fear. Generally, repeated exposure to a situation does not teach your dog to be less afraid, but instead their reactions may get worse over time. If you can’t escape the situation, such as with dogs that are afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks, try to give them a safe space to escape to, or distract them with a fun game or food.

4. Desensitize and/or counter-condition. Desensitization refers to the process of gradually exposing your dog to a less intense version of the thing he fears, in such a way that his reaction is not triggered (e.g., playing the sound of fireworks quietly, then gradually increasing the volume over a series of days).

Counter-conditioning refers to the process of creating a positive reaction to something he once feared by associating the feared thing with something good (e.g., giving treats every time the dog sees a bicycle, so that eventually, instead of reacting, the dog gets excited to receive treats whenever he sees a bicycle).

With time and patience, the combination of these two methods can alleviate most fears.

5. Ask for help! If the above steps are not working, or your dog shows extreme levels of fear, contact a certified dog behavior professional (e.g., DACVB, CAAB, IAABC, CCBC). Professionals can provide an extra set of eyes in evaluating your dog’s behavior, come up with targeted training plans, and discuss the possibility of treating with medications

For more references on fear in dogs see the following links: