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Why do dogs wag their tails?

There are few things more cheering than the sight of a wagging tail but what is your dog actually trying to tell you?  Certainly, it can indicate happiness but also a lot of other things as well!

  • A tail held high and vigorously wagged from side to side indicates its owner is happy and ready to play.
  • A tail held level with the body and wagged more slowly shows that the dog is in a situation where they are not quite sure what is going on but are interested and paying attention.
  • A tail held low and wagging only a little or twitching, is often showing that the dog is feeling threatened and you should approach and handle them with caution.
  • A tail tucked up and under the body means that the dog is frightened and showing submission.  With reassurance they may start to feel more confident but again, you should take care with them to ensure they don’t progress to growling, or even biting, to make the perceived threat retreat.
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Rabbits are not like small dogs or long-eared cats. And it’s not just that they eat grass.

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When something goes wrong with an animal's nervous system, it's very upsetting, and it's easy to panic. People often make generalisations, and leap to the wrong conclusion. He's falling over! He's had a stroke! He's dragging his back legs! To help animals, it's important for vets to be as objective as possible, making a careful note of precisely which part of the nervous system has gone wrong. Vets do this using a specific examination procedure, known as the “neurological examination”. There are tick sheets available to make it easier for vets: various aspects of the nervous system are examined individually, and at the end, it's then easier to be specific about the precise diagnosis. Only then can the correct treatment and prognosis be given. At last week's London Vet Show, there was a fascinating lecture, sponsored by Supreme Pet Foods, which dealt with the subject of neurological examinations in rabbits. As many rabbit owners will know, diseases of the nervous system are common. However rabbits are very different creatures to dogs and cats: they are prey animals rather than predators, and as a consequence, their nervous system doesn't always behave in the same way. Rabbits are especially sensitive to stress, and they tend to mask their fear by staying still. Anyone who has examined rabbits will know this: they tend to stay very passive until the fear is too much, and then they panic explosively, trying to jump out of your arms. This type of temperament means that rabbits react differently when their nervous system is examined. The lecturer carried out a field study, during which she made a careful comparison of a standard neurological examination in rabbits compared to other pets, and she came up with some useful tips. First, she listed the four main types of disease of the nervous system seen in rabbits: head tilt, weakness or paralysis of the back legs (or all four legs), seizures (fitting) and “miscellaneous” (muscle weakness, strange gaits, blindness and other oddities). There's a long list of possible causes of these problems, from brain diseases (including a common fungal parasite called Encephalitozoon cuniculi), to viral and bacterial infections, to spinal problems (including broken backs and slipped discs), to heat stroke, metabolic disorders and many others. In all cases, whatever the cause, the neurological examination is a key to whittling down the list of possibilities. So how are rabbits different to dogs and cats? First and most importantly, rabbits don't show a pain response in the same way. With dogs and cats, it's easy to tell if they can feel their toes by squeezing them: if sensation is normal, they pull their foot away from you. Rabbits often don't do this: they stay utterly still, however hard you squeeze their toes. It doesn't mean they aren't feeling it: they just don't react because in the wild, it makes more sense to “play dead” in the hope that the creature that's hurting you will just go away. Secondly, some of their reflexes are exaggerated. If you tap a dog's knee with a rubber hammer, there's a similar type of small “kick” reflex to a human. In rabbits, the same test elicits a sharp, exaggerated kick, perhaps reflecting the wound up stressed nervous system of the rabbit. If a dog had a reflex kick like this, you'd think there was something strange wrong with them: it's normal in a rabbit. Third, some of their reflexes are diminished or absent: for example, rabbits don't have a “menace” reflex (if you wave your hand towards a dog's eye as if you are about to hit them, they blink automatically, like humans: this is the menace reflex. Rabbits don't do this). Other reflexes in rabbits' eyes are also different: their pupils don't always narrow and widen in the same way as other creatures.  There are two sets of take home messages here. First, if you're a vet, remember to expect different results from other pets when you're assessing rabbits with neurological problems. And second, if you're a rabbit owner, remember to take your pet to a vet with an interest in rabbits: all vets are trained in the essentials of rabbit medicine, but when it comes to complex disease, the more rabbits that a vet sees, the better they will be at rabbit-specific subtleties like neurological examinations.    
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How to help stressed-out cats whose owners think they are “behaving badly”

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One of the challenges for veterinary surgeons working in the media is that is that they are often asked about one specific patient, with a particular problem. While it's helpful for the individual owner to discuss their own pet, it can be less enthralling for other readers.

Here are a couple of examples:
  • Ginger, a 5 year old neutered tom cat, had started urinating in his owner's bathtub, and occasionally in the sink downstairs. He had always been a "good" cat, going out through the cat flap to do his business. Why would he change like this?
  • Harry, a two year old neutered male tabby cat, had recently started to suffer from injuries caused by cat fights. His owner had seen a big tom cat stalking him in the garden, and the cat had even come into the kitchen on one occasion, stealing Harry's food. Why was this other cat doing this, and what could be done?
Ideally, both of these questions deserve to be analysed in their own right, and a full, detailed response given. Vets in the media often do this, publishing the dialogue and outcome. While this is useful, it isn't always the best way to give a detailed explanation about cat behaviour that will be useful for all readers. This is an area where Wikivet offers a different approach. There are two Wikivet sections that are particularly relevant to the cases under discussion. First, there is an entire section on feline territorial behaviour. This is an up-to-date scientific review of our current understanding of cat social life, and it's highly relevant to any incident involving cat-cat interactions. The Wikivet entry includes some useful facts:
  • In urban areas the density of cat populations may be high, exceeding 50 cats per square kilometre.
  • 81% of 734 UK cat owners whose cats were allowed outdoor access indicated that their neighbours also had at least one cat that was allowed outside
  • In houses with a standard cat flap, 24.8% reported that other cats came into their home to fight with their cats, and 39.4% reported that they came in to steal food.
  • Cats that had experienced injuries due to conflict with other cats showed 3.9 times the rate of indoor spray marking compared with cats that had not experienced injuries.
You can read the full Wikivet page for yourself to find out more helpful facts about cat social life. Second, another Wikivet page  focuses specifically on the issue of indoor marking, highlighting the fact that the two main scenarios leading to indoor marking are conflict with non-resident cats, and conflict with resident cats. The page suggests some answers that may help specific cases, including mentions of treatment approaches ( from an electronic coded cat flap so that outside cats cannot gain access to the home to the use of Feliway diffusers and spray, to mentions of some of the psychoactive  medication that may be prescribed by vets for super-stressed moggies. There are also links to detailed videos by behavioural specialists which go into more details on the subject. So if you have a cat who seems to be agitated by local rivals, or who has taken to indoor urinating, read these Wikivet pages. They may help you solve the problem, and if they don't, you'll be far better informed when you do take your "badly behaving" cat to your vet for the next stage of help.
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Training dogs: can old dogs learn tricks? And what about residential “boot camps” for dogs?

[caption id="attachment_4418" align="aligncenter" width="442"] Does your dog 'sit and stay'?[/caption]

The early autumn is a bit like a mini-New Year. The summer has ended, schools have gone back, and the term-time routines start again. It can be a great time to start new projects, and for many dog owners, that can include tackling the complicated issue of training their pet. Many dog owners have pets with bad habits that they want to change.

Dogs behave in response to the way that their owners treat them. A dog will only beg from the table at mealtime if her owner has taught her to do this by feeding titbits in the past. A dog will only jump up onto the settee if she has been allowed to do this by her owner. It then follows that it is possible to re-train dogs by changing the way we behave towards them. A dog can be re-trained at any age, by using modern dog training methods.

Anybody can set themselves up to be a dog trainer, and so there’s a wide variety of styles and standards in the dog training world. Some have had formal instruction in dog training. Some have even passed exams. Others are self-taught. It’s best to choose trainers who have been taught the latest techniques, and who continue to make an effort to keep themselves up to date.

As in other areas of life, dog training is an evolving science. Techniques used thirty years ago would now be thought to be completely inappropriate by the experts. The modern belief is that dogs should be trained by reward rather than by punishment. Choke chains should never be used. Dogs should never be hit or hurt during training.

It is very important to choose the right dog trainer, and owners should spend some time doing research rather than just choosing the first name they find in the phone book. It could be useful to go along to a training class as an observer. Do you like the style of the trainer? Talk to a few of the dog owners at the class. Have they found the classes useful and effective?

Once you have chosen a dog trainer, make sure that you attend classes regularly, and make sure that everyone in the household knows the rules. Dogs need consistent, continual monitoring. If one person in the house persists in feeding the dog from the table, she will never learn to stop begging.

It's one thing to train a puppy or a young dog, but what about retraining an adult dog? How do you break old habits? This is much more challenging, but it’s still possible.

One controversial answer can sometimes be to send your pet off to a ‘training camp’. Dogs stay at the training centre for a two or three week period. They are taken out of their own environment, and they are taught a new routine. When you collect your dog, you are first shown a twenty-minute video of your dog behaving in a calm, obedient way. You are then given a two-hour lesson in the techniques that you need to use to ensure that your dog continues to behave calmly and obediently. Finally, the training centre remains in contact with you, so that you can telephone them if you have problems, or even book your dog in for another training session if needed.

This type of "boot camp" is controversial, with many trainers believing that it is a short cut that should not be taken, and that an owner needs to be involved from the start, all the way through the process. My own view is that, like many aspects of pet care, it is impossible to make a "one size fits all" pronouncement. Residential training works well for some dogs, but not all.

Regardless of what sort of dog training you choose, the formal instruction is only the first stage. The second stage is up to you. You need to spend fifteen minutes a day working with your pet. For long-term success, you need to stick to a simple but challenging statement – ‘I promise to continue to give my dog regular daily training sessions’!

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Ask a vet online-‘Why do dogs find cat poop so alluring ?’

Question from Jayne Whybrow: Why do dogs find cat poop so alluring ? How can I stop my pup sticking his head in the cat litter? Answer from Shanika Winters: Thank you Jayne for your question regarding your puppy and his interest in the cat litter tray.  I will answer your question by discussing why your dog is interested in the cat litter tray and possible methods to stop this unwanted behaviour. Why does my dog find another animal’s poo so interesting? Animals in general leave a scent marker where they pass faeces (poo) and this helps to mark out their territory.  Therefore faeces are naturally interesting whether it is of your own species or another.  The scents could indicate a possible mate, a possible threat to your territory and even predators/prey. Even our domesticated pet animals have not lost these instinctive behaviours.  Unfortunately as humans/pet owners we find our dogs interest in the faeces of other animals very off putting especially when they may lick or eat it.  Not only do we worry about them passing germs onto us humans but also we are concerned about them getting ill from infections or even parasites. So what we are dealing with when a dog is interested in e.g. cat poo is a bad habit/unwanted behaviour. How can I stop my dog from investigating the cat litter tray? In order to try and change a behaviour we have to firstly understand why it happens and then try and redirect the behaviour in a direction we are happy to encourage.  The first section of my answer goes into why the behaviour happens and now we can address possible solutions. Types of litter tray: Simple open litter tray-this is just a shallow plastic tray with sides but no cover Covered litter tray-this is a shallow plastic tray at the base but then has a cove over the top, with an opening at one end to allow your cat in and out. Covered litter tray with a door-this is as above but the opening has a door on it, this can help reduce the amount of litter that gets flicked out of the tray as well as helping to contain odours. The more difficult it is for your dog to access the cat litter tray, the more masked/hidden the scent of the cat faeces are then the less likely he is to show interest in the tray and its contents.  Therefore if you place the cat litter tray in a place that is easy for your cat to reach but not your dog, use litter that helps to mask the smell of the faeces/urine and ideally use a covered litter tray with a door then this will all help to discourage your dog from being interested in it. It is also advisable to clean out the litter tray as often as you can, at the very least once daily but if possible after each time the tray has been used.  This will reduce the smells present which will mean that the litter tray will be far less interesting to your dog. How to discourage your dog from his interest in the cat litter tray: Distraction and deterrents are the next area I will discuss! Generally when it comes to trying to modify an animal’s behaviour we try and focus on positive reinforcement, this is where you praise and reward a behaviour which you want you’re pet to show rather than punishing them for unwanted behaviours. It would be great if you can provide your dog with as much distraction as possible to help lessen his interest n the cat litter tray and its contents.  Methods of distraction can include play, toys and training.  Playing with your dog whether it be throwing a ball or rolling around and tickling his tummy will give your dog mental stimulation as well as strengthen the pet owner bond.  Toys such as squeaky balls treat stuffed puzzles and chews are also good to give your dog something more attractive and interesting than the cat litter tray to investigate.  When choosing toys, make sure that they are safe, regularly inspect them for damage and replace before they become dangerous e.g. possible risk of them being eaten and getting stuck.  As regards food stuffed toys keep in mind your dog's overall energy requirements and how you may need to reduce how much food you give him if he is getting extra calories from his treat stuffed toy. Training either in the form of organised classes or quality dog and owner time can really help to give extra mental stimulation to your dog, build up the dog owner bond as well as distracting your dog form unwanted behaviours.  It is really important to remember that the more we put into our pets the more we will get back from them in terms of good behaviours and owner enjoyment. Deterrents are verging on negative reinforcement to try and avoid/stop an unwanted behaviour.  If the deterrent is used carefully and we try and follow up other good behaviours with positive reinforcement then there is a place for this.  Most owners will have already told their dog off/shouted at him for unwanted behaviours.  The problem with this is that the negative focus then is directed at the owner.  If possible it would be better to remove yourself one step from the deterrent; one possibility is the use of a high pitch sounds device or a spray.  Ideally these negative reinforcement behaviours should be used as a last resort and under the close direction of either your vet or a trained animal behaviour specialist. It is really important to remember to positively reward/praise your dog for all the times he does not show interest in the cat litter tray. The reward can be in the form of kind words, a pat/cuddle and at times treats. I hope that my answer helps you to understand your dog's behaviour and that you can make a start on discouraging his unwanted behaviour. Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet) If you have any worries about your pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.
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