All posts by Dr. Marty Becker

Woman hands with mobile cell phone to take a photo of labrador dog lying on the sand.

Pet lovers: What’s on your phone’s screensaver?

For the past eight years, I’ve had the same phone screensaver. It’s a photo of my granddaughter, Reagan, when she was just one day old, holding my right index finger with her tiny little hand. I’ve promised her I will never take it off until she asks me to (maybe to be replaced with her wedding photo or a great grandchild?).

But if my informal survey of the last couple of years holds true across the entire population, the screen saver of most mobile phones is not grandchildren or any other human beings. By a huge margin, the number one thing I see on people’s phones are images of family pets.

People are proud to share screensavers of their pets when I’m just a friendly seatmate on an airplane or when we cross paths at various events and locations ranging from sporting events (I’ve had neighbors in seats at the Super Bowl, Indy 500, and Kentucky Derby share pet photos) to the grocery store. But when they find out I’m a veterinarian (and a famous one at that), then they are about as excited as their own pets when the treat drawer opens up.

Not only do their energy levels go up to the three Red Bull-level, they next get into their pet album folder and show me dozens of images ranging from home and vacation to action shots, and what one called “urban shots,” as in, their dog on the street in town.

There’s one guaranteed reaction when this exchange happens. We both smile and become closer than we would have if we hadn’t shared this affection-connection as portrayed in phone photos.

So tell me: What’s on your phone’s screensaver?

Pomeranian wrapped in a towel

Alopecia X in dogs: Can it be treated?

There’s a puzzling condition that makes dogs’ hair fall out and not regrow. It goes by many different names, and it can be very difficult (but defnitely not impossible!) to treat. Here’s what I told a reader whose Pomeranion was affected by “alopecia X.”


Q: We have a 7-year-old blue merle Pomeranian whose fur started falling out when he was 2 or 3 years old. Now his torso, neck and tail are bald except for a few tufts of woolly fur. He’s been tested for many conditions, including hypothyroidism, and I think he has something called alopecia X. Is there anything we can try to regrow his fur?

A: Pomeranians, along with other Nordic breeds and toy and miniature poodles, can develop a coat condition called alopecia X. It’s also known as black-skin disease, adult-onset growth hormone deficiency, and castration-responsive alopecia. Linda A. Frank, DVM, professor of dermatology at University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, calls it hair cycle arrest.

Dogs with this condition lose hair over most of the body, typically leaving only the head and feet with fur. The skin may thicken and turn dark. Alopecia X can occur before the dog is a year old, or much later in life. It appears to be more common in males than females. And while little is known about the disease, your dog’s blue merle coloring may also be a factor.

Sometimes the coat comes back on its own, but the fur is thin and soft. In some cases, the condition responds to treatment, although there isn’t a “one size fits all” fix. As you may have guessed from the term “castration-responsive alopecia,” the hair may regrow several months after the dog is spayed or neutered.

According to the University of Tennessee’s web page on hair loss, supplementation with oral melatonin has benefits in 30 to 40 percent of dogs with the disease. Check with your veterinarian first, especially if your dog has diabetes or has not been definitely diagnosed with alopecia X, and make sure the melatonin pills do not contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs.

Read more, including tips on adopting from a rescue group, in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.

Dog looking at camera standing by green bowl

Myths and truths about ‘fillers’ in pet food

Does your pet’s food have “fillers” in it? And can you tell from the ingredient list?

My clients and the pet owners who write me have a lot of questions about the ingredients contained in their pet’s food. I love this, as it shows they want the best for their pets, and are looking for answers. (Although I often say my clients and readers are the best pet owners in the world, so this may not be the norm!)

Pets, like people and other animals, don’t have a requirement for particular ingredients. What they – and we – need are nutrients. Ingredients are just the vehicle for the nutrients, and also contribute to the food’s taste and form.

Even sugar, which is an ingredient I don’t want to see in a pet’s food, isn’t really a “filler” – it’s there to make the food taste better to the pet. It has a purpose, albeit one that’s not good for the pet.

In the same regard, ingredients that are currently getting a bad rap, like corn, are not “filler,” either. Corn is a source of an essential fatty acid (“essential” means the body can’t make it; the nutrient must be supplied in the diet).

Other ingredients, such as fish meal, serve multiple purposes. It’s a source of protein, and also of Omega-3 fatty acids, so important for skin, joint, and even brain health. Or consider wheat gluten – a source of protein, as well as an ingredient that gives pet food some of its “mouth appeal” for our pets (just as it does for us).

So, if at least some of the things often condemned as “fillers” are actually useful or even necessary for our pets, how can we judge what should be in their diets? And what can the pet food label tell us?

Starting with the most obvious, our pets need protein. They also require a certain number of calories (although I’d argue most pets get too many of those!), along with fats, vitamins, and minerals. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires cat foods to include 25 essential vitamins and minerals, and dog foods to include 23. Those are some of the chemistry class-sounding ingredients on the pet food label.

However, as I’ve explained before, it’s not really possible to fully evaluate a pet food simply by looking at the label. It’s a good place to start, but you need to follow up by researching the manufacturer, looking at:

  • Their reputation in the industry
  • How they’ve handled past pet food recalls or other challenges
  • Their response to you if you contact them with questions
  • Where the food is made
  • What safety and quality assurance protocols and testing are in place

Finally, I’ll make my usual plea to keep a line of communication open with your veterinarian about your pet’s nutritional needs, weight, and your pet food questions. Together, you are the experts on your pet – and you’re much better off playing as a team!

Brown Tabby Maine Coon cat in between 2 layers of duvet on the bed.

How to keep your cat from feeling abandoned while you’re away

Will your cat be lonely while your family is on vacation? That’s what a reader wanted to know, so I turned to my daughter, Fear Free Certified trainer Mikkel Becker, for an answer. Here’s what she had to say.

Q: Since my husband retired, our 12-year-old Maine coon has become super attached to him! She is in his lap every chance she gets, and if we go out in the evening, she is always waiting for us in the window. We are going away on vacation soon. We have a person coming in daily to take care of the litter box, food and water, but I am worried about how our cat will handle being without my husband. How can we make it easier for her?

A: It’s great that your cat has developed such a strong bond with your husband, but I can see why you might be worried about going on vacation. Here are some tips to help her feel more comfortable and less lonely.

Make sure she meets the pet sitter at least a couple of times before you leave. Cats like to take their time when getting to know strangers.

Unless your cat approaches the sitter on her own, the sitter should face away from her but toss treats in her direction. If your cat has a favorite toy, the sitter could also offer to play with it, again while not looking directly at the cat. Have the sitter prepare and set down the cat’s food while you’re there, too. Your cat will see that the sitter has nice “cat manners” and will associate him or her with good things — treats, toys and dinner.

Have your husband leave a T-shirt that he’s worn for your cat to snuggle with. Access to his odor will help her feel comfortable during his absence. A diffuser that releases a feline pheromone, such as Feliway, can also help to create a calm atmosphere for your cat while you’re gone.

Read more, including everything you need to know about walking your dog, in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.

Teresa and Reagan

Happy birthday to my beloved wife, Teresa – every animal’s best friend (and mine, too!)

God was having one of his very best days when my beloved spouse of 40 years, Teresa, was born. My heart beats faster when she walks into a room and my heart slows down when I’m off the hamster wheel of travel, and home by her side on the couch holding hands, sipping tea, and rubbing the fur of our dogs and cat.

A lifetime pet lover, she has always opened her heart and home to every animal in need, is a devoted and empathetic horsewoman, may possibly love the dogs more than she loves me, and is now an integral part of Fear Free as a certified animal massage therapist.

Happy Birthday, Teresa! I still can’t believe you picked me, but I’m sure glad you did!