‘Retractable Leashes Should be Outlawed;’ Various Cat Cardiomyopathies
Written by Steve Dale   

            Q: Bullet is our rescued border collie-mix. We’re training to walk him on our flex-type leash, but he’s always running ahead and wants to pull. Should we connect the retractable leash to a choke collar? S. H., Rochester, MN

             A: No! Please don’t do that to Bullet. It’s true, that used properly, a chain-link collar doesn’t literally choke the dog. However, for starters, not everyone uses the chain- link collar properly. Even used correctly, there are kinder and gentler ways to motivate a dog. Besides, when you yank back, it’s natural for a dog to pull forward.

            Instead, I recommend the Gentle Leader head halter, or any head halter brand. Not only is this option more humane, it’s also more effective. Slipped over your pup’s nose, some people mistake these devices for muzzles – which they are not. However,

they do effectively prevent dogs from lunging ahead in whatever direction they choose. Holding a retractable leash, you have little control if your dog doesn’t listen to voice commands. Halters operate like canine power steering, since you can easily point the nose in the direction you’re going. Whatever direction a dog’s nose is pointing, assuredly the body will follow.

            Most dog trainers suggest a standard 6-foot leash attached to a head halter, and absolutely not a retractable leash. In fact, Chicago dog trainer Jamie Damato says, “Retractable leashes should be outlawed.”

            Damato, who worked at a veterinary clinic for 15 years, said she’s personally seen dogs who have died or were seriously injured as a result of running ahead (as these leashes allow), and then the mechanism to stop the leash fails – while dog keeps going right into a street.  

            Also, the whole idea of a leash which allows dogs to run ahead in any direction is what Damato calls “incompatible” with effective training.

            Another problem is that sometimes a dog on a retractable leash is so far out ahead, about 15-feet or more, then the dog turns a corner and is out of sight of the handler holding the leash. What if your dog turns that corner and there’s an aggressive dog or a skunk out of view? There’s nothing that can be done until it’s too late.

            “The retractable leash can be very dangerous,” adds Damato. “I don’t think most people realize these leashes can actually cause serious injury to people or pets. When people come to class with these, we just point out the warning on the label, then clients typically throw them into the garbage.”

            One of the most popular retractable leash brands has this warning on their website: “To avoid the risk of eye or face injury and cuts, burns, and amputations to your body or the body of another person from the leash….read and follow these Warnings and Directions for Use before using.” Additional warnings on the site continue for about 50 lines.

            “I understand that people believe the retractable leashes offer dogs more freedom, but they’re just not worth the risk involved,” Damato adds.

            Q: Veterinarians and cat breeders talk about screening for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. What about restrictive or dilated cardiomyopathy? J. G. Peachtree City, GA

            A: Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (muscles of the left ventricle of the heart progressively become abnormally enlarged and thickened) is by far the most common heart disease in cats, Dr. Susan Little, a cat only veterinarian from Ottawa, Canada.

            Without getting too technical, dilated cardiomyopathy was somewhat common until it was discovered that cats require lots of an amino acid called taurine in their diet. “Now, I see maybe one cat (with dilated cardiomyopathy) every one or two years, so it does exists – even when cats receive plenty of taurine, but it’s quite rare,” Little says. “The same is true for restrictive cardiomyopathy (scarring of the heart muscles restricts normal pumping action).”

            Little says that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) can be genetic, and in some pedigreed cat breeds the disease is more prevalent. Certainly, consumers who purchase one of these breeds should inquire about family history. However, the disease is complex and breeders can’t possibly catch all HCM cats in time before breeding. For example, when my cat, Ricky, was diagnosed, I contacted the breeder. She turned out to be telling the truth when she said she was unaware of any family history. Ricky’s ‘dad’ was ultimately diagnosed with HCM, but not until more than a year after the disease was discovered in his son. 

            Today, breeders of Maine Coon and Ragdoll (two of several affected cat breeds) can determine if the mutation for HCM is likely present in individual cats with a simple cheek swab. The cheek swab genetic test was made possible by the Winn Feline Foundation’s Ricky Fund, which I began to further research following Ricky’s death. While some cats do live a normal life with HCM, that’s the exception – most cats diagnosed do die of this disease. While there is a genetic predisposition, HCM also occurs in any breed, as well as domestic shorthair (mixed breed) cats.

            “If you know there’s a family history of HCM, it might be a good idea to have an echocardiogram every couple of years,” says Little, who is the president of the Winn Feline Foundation. “If you have a breed where you know HCM occurs, well then, it’s reasonable to at least consider an echocardiogram – but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it. Otherwise, unless your veterinarian suspects heart disease of any kind, or there are symptoms of heart disease, there’s no reason to worry. If heart disease is present, the echocardiogram can determine the kind of heart disease a cat has.”

            Learn more about HCM and the Ricky Fund and heart disease in cats, www.winnfelinehealth.org.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services