Q: I want to brighten my home with some new houseplants, but they need to be safe for my cats, who explore everything. Are philodendron and spider plants harmless if cats eat them? If not, can you suggest some cat-safe houseplants?
A: Philodendrons contain calcium oxalate crystals that burn a cat's mouth and throat, cause drooling and swallowing difficulties, and can lead to stomach upset and diarrhea. So, don't add them to your indoor garden.
Spider plants, on the other hand, are safe and even fun for cats, who love to bat at the babies that dangle from the mother plant. Other common houseplants that are safe around cats are the African violet, bamboo palm, Boston fern and Christmas cactus.
For an extensive list of pet-safe indoor and outdoor plants — including photos — visit the website of the Animal Poison Control Center of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Q: My veterinarian rated my dog Bacardi as 5 out of 9, and I'm irritated. Because of the pandemic, I wasn't permitted to be with Bacardi during his exam. The vet called me afterward and said Bacardi looked healthy, but the written summary rated him only as a middle-of-the-pack 5. Should I ask the vet to change his records or find another vet?
A: Neither. The pandemic makes communication difficult, but that will change when we veterinarians can safely meet with our clients face-to-face.
Until then, let me translate the 5/9 rating. Veterinarians assess a pet's body weight using what's called the body condition score, or BCS. Two scoring systems are in common use, one based on 9 points and the other on 5.
On the 9-point scale, the ideal weight is 4 or 5. So Bacardi's BCS of 5/9 means that his weight is ideal. A 3/5 on the 5-point scale represents an ideal weight.
Numbers below the ideal indicate the pet is underweight, while values above the ideal represent excess weight. So, on the 9-point scale, a 6 or 7 means the pet is overweight, while an 8 or 9 indicates obesity. On the 5-point scale, a 4 represents an overweight pet and a 5 an obese animal.
Both systems are equally useful because most veterinarians add a half-point as necessary to the score on the 5-point system. Thus, a very overweight but not quite obese dog might be assessed a 4.5/5.
A pet that is more than 10% above the ideal weight is considered overweight, while one that is 20% or more above ideal is classified as obese. Overweight and obese dogs are at increased risk of many orthopedic disorders, cancers and other diseases, and their life spans are, on average, two years shorter than those of dogs with ideal weights.
To assess BCS, evaluate these three characteristics:
◼️ Look at your dog from above. He should have an hourglass figure: wide at the chest, narrow at the waist and wide at the hips.
◼️ When you look at him from the side, his abdomen should tuck up at his waist. If his underside is a horizontal line, there's too much fat in his abdomen.
◼️ While petting him gently, feel for his ribs and the bumps of his spine. If you have to press your fingers in to feel these bones, your dog has too much fat between them and his skin.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, the majority of U.S. pets are overweight or obese. Congratulations on doing better than most pet people by maintaining Bacardi's weight at a healthy level.
Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at