STEVE DALE: Experts answer readers' questions

These reader questions were answered by veterinary specialists attending the 25th Forum of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, June 6-9 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, Seattle. More than 3,700 veterinary professionals from 30 countries attended the conference, where specialists in internal medicine, oncology, neurology and cardiology reviewed the latest cutting-edge research. Learn more about veterinary specialty medicine and the conference at


Q: My 13-year-old cat has a gross hairball problem. The vet thinks the problem may be an ulcer. I would take her for tests to find out more, but we've been down this road many times before on other issues, and the results are always inconclusive, with more testing required. Any thoughts? - K.H., Dunedin, Fla.

A: "Your veterinarian can suggest a hairball medication and a hairball diet and see if that works," suggests internal medicine specialist Dr. Stephanie Lipton, of Austin, Texas. "Of course, brush your cat more often, as well."

If that doesn't help, you may need to pursue the next step. Presumably, your vet wasn't just guessing when he said the problem might be an ulcer and had a reason for his suggestion. I'm not sure what previous problems your cat was tested for, for which the results proved inconclusive, or whether those issues could be related to what's going on now. Lipton says, depending on what those other issues were, perhaps a visit to an internal medicine specialist to figure it all out wouldn't be a bad idea.

Q: Stimpy, my 13-year-old cat, has problems with his bowels. The vet gave him an enema and instructions for us to give Stimpy a teaspoon of lactulose daily. This helped some. Stimpy was still not 100 percent, however, so I took him to another vet, who took him off the lactulose. He seems to be forcing things when he tries to move his bowels, and it seems to be making him sick. What can you suggest? - D.N., Rawdon, Quebec, Canada

A: "Lactulose, a stool softener, actually makes sense based on your description, which sounds like constipation is at least a part of the problem," says Dr. Saundra Willis, an internal medicine specialist in Seattle.

Willis cautions that there may be any number of explanations for Stimpy's bowel problems, but one possibility is called megacolon (a condition of extreme dilation and poor motility of the colon). No matter what's going on, a firm diagnosis seems essential to resolve the problem. You might want to ask your vet for a referral to an internal medicine specialist.

Q: My Australian cattle dog will be 17 in July. I've been told that these dogs usually don't live this long. Lately, I've observed my dog walking one-sided, kind of like a bear. Is this due to old age? Could it be she had a stroke? At what point do you think I should consider putting her down? - T.W., Tacoma, Wash.

A: Once it was thought that dogs rarely had strokes, but veterinary neurologist Dr. Michael Harrington, of Tacoma, says it turns out they suffer strokes more often than previously thought. Still, strokes are seen far less common in dogs than in people.

If your dog woke up one morning walking "one-sided," a stroke would be a serious possibility. But since her strange gait seems to have developed gradually over time, Harrington suggests it may be caused by a specific spinal cord or nerve problem, perhaps osteoarthritis, or indicates a general weakness not uncommon in elderly dogs. If the dog did experience a stroke-like event or has a spinal cord problem, seeing a veterinary neurologist might be helpful. If arthritis is playing a role, a pain reliever could be prescribed.

If the problem stems from general weakness due to age, I wish I could suggest a manufacturer of walkers for dogs. So far, however, none exist. Consider asking your vet about physical therapy or an underwater treadmill to build your dog's strength. Sadly, the reality is that 17 is, indeed, quite old for a cattle dog.

As for when to put your pet down, the answer is, your dog will tell you. Some clues may be that your dog is beginning to have more bad days than good. Another indicator: You're no longer able to relieve any chronic pain she may have, or she simply doesn't seem to enjoy life anymore. Watch carefully.