Browsing tag: behaviour

Caring for the older cat (part 1) – helping your feline friend through old age

Sammy is 12 years old.  That is a respectable age for a cat, so I was very happy to hear from his owner that he was still very well in himself and she had no concerns at all.  The purpose of my visit was a routine health check and vaccination and based on Sammy’s good report, I was expecting to issue him with a clean bill of health.  However as I began to collect a thorough history, it became apparent that things were not as simple as they had first appeared.  ‘Now that you mention it, Sammy HAS been drinking more than he used to, but I thought that was normal for older cats so I didn’t think twice.’  He had also had a great appetite lately, in fact he’d been eating an extra pouch a day, and he had been more talkative lately.  All things that his owner had associated with good health but could actually be signs of illness.  On physical exam it turned out he had lost some weight and muscle mass, and that he had a lump under his neck.  A blood test was recommended and the results confirmed hyperthyroidism.  He was started on medication and is now back to his normal self, his owner couldn’t believe the difference!  She was surprised how the changes had happened so gradually that she didn’t notice them, but was very happy to have her old cat back.  And Sammy certainly agreed.

The above scenario is not at all uncommon.  Cats are experts at hiding their illnesses, and sometimes they can become very poorly on the inside whilst appearing relatively normal on the outside.  And as in Sammy’s case, sometimes the changes that do happen occur so slowly that we just assume it’s a normal part of aging.

He’s turned into such a ‘grumpy old man’

One of the best examples of this is an older cat’s ‘grumpiness’.  It’s easy to assume that older cats have been through enough and now just want to be left alone, but could there be a cause for their change in attitude?  Perhaps they can’t see or hear as well as they used to and are more frightened by strange sights or sounds.  Maybe they have severe dental disease that causes them to hide away or change their eating patterns.  Is arthritis the reason behind their dislike of the brush or even your previously adored petting strokes?  These conditions frequently go unnoticed except for a change in behaviour, yet if diagnosed, there are many things we can do to make them more comfortable.

She just can’t seem to ‘hold it’ anymore

Another common but decidedly abnormal symptom is a change in urination or defecation patterns.  ‘She just can’t seem to make it to the litter tray anymore, bless her’ is a common complaint, yet one that doesn’t always get brought to the vet’s attention.  Cats are clean, proud creatures and don’t generally wet or soil the house without good reason.  Perhaps she has kidney disease and is having to cope with large volumes of dilute urine.  Could arthritis again be the cause behind her new dislike of the litter tray?  Small, covered or high-sided litter trays can be a nightmare for cats that find it painful to position themselves to defecate.  Maybe she has diabetes and the sugar in her urine has brought on a bladder infection.  Changes in urination or defecation should always be brought to your vet’s attention as there is usually an underlying cause.

All he ever does is sleep these days

Now I am the first to admit that I do not have as much energy as my 3 year old.  And my grandmother frequently complains that she’s not able to get out and about as much as she used to.  The difference between my son and I is mainly the 30 year age gap.  But my grandmother’s reasons may have more to do with her failing eyesight and worsening arthritis.  It’s certainly true that kittens are more active than their more mature housemates, and that some slowing can be expected with age.  But when your previously active older cat starts to sleep 23 hours a day instead of her usual 20, what might seem like a small change to you could indicate a big problem.  High blood pressure can cause depression and lethargy and can also result in blindness, making affected cats less likely to venture from their bed.  A cat who used to love going outdoors may find the cat flap too painful now that arthritis has set in.  Anaemia (not enough red blood cells carrying oxygen around the body) and its associated decrease in energy levels is another symptom that frequently goes unnoticed.

Some alarming statistics

In a recent study of older cats brought to the vet for routine vaccination, one third of those described as ‘completely healthy’ by their owners were found to be suffering from significant diseases such as kidney disease, high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism.  Two thirds had abnormally dilute urine, an early warning sign for kidney disease.

  • Chronic kidney disease is estimated to affect about 30% of cats over the age of 15
  • 10% of cats over the age of 9 are thought to suffer from hyperthyroidism
  • Cognitive dysfunction (a deterioration in brain function giving cats Alzheimer’s-like changes in behaviour) is estimated to affect over 50% of cats over the age of 15

And perhaps most alarmingly, a staggering 90% of cats over the age of 12 (which is not that old really) are thought to suffer from arthritis.  Only a tiny fraction of these cats are ever brought into the vet because they appear painful, and only a small percentage of those receive regular treatment for their pain.

‘Common’ does not mean ‘normal’

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that although some things like drinking a bit more or losing a bit of weight may be COMMON in older cats, they are not NORMAL and may in fact indicate discomfort or illness.  If diagnosed (particularly if caught early), most of the above conditions can be treated successful and for those that can’t be cured, we can at least provide care that can dramatically increase the quality of their lives.  I’ll talk about some of the things we can do to help our aging feline friends next time but in the meantime, take a good long look at your older cat and think about some of the changes that might be taking place inside that they may not be telling you about.  If you discover anything that causes concern, bring it to the attention of your vet.  Sure, your grumpy old man may not enjoy being dragged out of his bed and into the vet (don’t be afraid to ask your vet if they would be willing to make a home visit), but the possibility of a more comfortable life far outweighs the temporary inconvenience.  Your cat has nothing to lose and everything to gain!

If you are worried about any aspect of your cats health, please book an appointment with your vet or use our symptom guide.

Fireworks in the equine world! – How to keep your horse safe this Bonfire Night

This year, 5th November is on a Tuesday – and that means we’re not expecting a Fireworks Night so much as a Fireworks Week!

As prey animals, horses are by their very nature predisposed to panic at loud noises, especially in the dark. Bright flashes of light don’t help either! And panicked horses are rather inclined to run into things and hurt themselves (I’ve spent many hours stitching up horses who have lost arguments with fences, hedges, gates and stable walls).

There are three important elements to keeping horses safe when there are fireworks in the air:

1) Help them to avoid injury

2) Distract them

3) Keep them calm

To avoid injury, I generally recommend that horses be stabled when fireworks are expected. That probably means dusk to dawn for the next fortnight or so, but if possible, find out when displays are expected in your area. You can then focus on those dates and times (but don’t forget that many people will set off a few rockets for themselves and their families). Inside their stables, horses can still become frightened, but they’re not surrounded by the scary noises, and they can’t bolt and get up so much speed, so they’re less likely to cause themselves serious injuries. It can also be helpful to leave the stable light on overnight – more light inside the stable means flashes outside are less visible, but make sure your horse copes OK with the lights on overnight first!

If you don’t have stables, first of all, see if you can borrow one for a few nights, especially if you have a really spooky or nervous horse. If not, the next best thing is to “accident-proof” the field you’re planning to turn them out in as far as possible – make sure the fencing is safe, remove any wire, fill in potholes, etc. Also, consider tying white or pale feed sacks to fencing, to make it more visible in poor light – tie them tightly, though, so they don’t flap and cause a stampede themselves.

Distraction just means keep them busy so they’re less interested in what’s going on outside. This generally means a well filled hay rack, and any toys your horse likes. Turnips on a rope are good, and horse balls filled with food or treats are a favourite with my two, who’ll spend hours chasing the balls round the stable for a mouthful of pasture nuts!

Finally, calming. For a herd animal like a horse, the most reassuring thing is having stable mates within sight/sound/smell – this is vital, and if they can touch noses or groom each other, its even better. However, it may not be enough on its own, especially for very nervous individuals. If your horse is particularly panicky, you should contact your vet (as soon as possible now), as they may need prescription medicines to help them cope. If possible, its best to avoid sedation, as it may lead to the horse becoming more nervous next year (as with dogs and cats), but unfortunately, horses are so big and powerful it may be necessary for their safety and yours. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best strategy for your horses.

There is increasingly, however, a middle road, as there are a wide variety of calmers on the market. Most are based on magnesium or amino acid combinations; these can be good to take the edge off, but usually need long term use. Others (e.g. Calmex powder) are designed to work immediately, although there is often little scientific proof of their effectiveness. Another fairly new product on the market is Zylkene Equine. This is based on the milk protein casein, which studies suggest is broken down in the body into a benzodiazepine-like molecule. This has a similar effect to Valium to reduce anxiety and stress.

As usual, I’d advise you to discuss with your vet the exact product you’re thinking of using, as they’ll be able to give you impartial advice as to how effective a product is likely to be. This is especially important if your horse is on any other medication: just because a product is natural or herbal doesn’t mean it won’t interact or interfere with another medicine.

That said, not every horse needs anything extra – I’ll never forget going to one yard on bonfire night evening and seeing a row of horses lined up at the fence watching the fireworks display two fields off with every sign of enjoyment…

The bottom line is that you need to find out what works best for your horse: every horse is an individual, and they need to be managed as such. We may enjoy the fireworks – but not all of our horses do!

Lost in translation – do you know what your cat is really trying to tell you?

‘Miaow!’  One simple word, so many possible meanings.  Is she happy?  Is she hungry?  Is she scared?  It’s all in the tone in which it’s delivered.  And that’s just the miaow – researchers have documented 19 different vocal patterns in domestic cats ranging from purrs to chirps to growls, along with countless body language cues.  Do you really know how to interpret them?  Test your feline language skills below…

A deep, rhythmic purr

We’ll start with an easy one – a purr means she’s happy, right?  Possibly, but that may not always be the case.  In fact, cats purr for many reasons.  Young kittens and mother cats purr during nursing, possibly as a way of maintaining contact and communicating contentment.  Adult cats purr when they’re in the company of other cats or humans that they are friendly with, especially during grooming or petting or resting together.  And as most cat owners probably already know, they also purr when they want something.  This ‘solicitation’ purr contains some of the high frequency peaks also found in a human baby’s cry, and it is commonly thought that cats use this to their advantage when asking for food at 5am.  But what many people don’t know is that cats will sometimes also purr when they are nervous or even painful.  We don’t know exactly why they do it, but the important thing to remember is that purring doesn’t necessarily mean that a cat is happy, you need to look at the rest of their body language for clues.  Think of it like a human smile – we do it when we’re happy, but also when we want something or when we’re nervous.

Blinking, half-closed eyes

If you said this is a sign of contentment, you would be absolutely right.  A cat who stares without blinking is alert and confrontational, while a cat with half closed eyes is relaxed and feels safe in their environment.  Interestingly, this is one of the few ways that we can truly speak their language.  I use it all the time whilst consulting – before starting my exam, I catch their eye briefly and then blink slowly as if to say ‘It’s ok, you’re safe here’.  They almost always respond by blinking back, and are then much more likely to relax while I do what I need to do.  But even this isn’t always the case, as a cat in pain can also have squinty eyes, but the rest of their body language will be very different.

The tail flick

This is a really useful one to know as it can save you a scratch or two!  If you are petting your cat and notice that they start to flick their tail quickly from side to side, I’d suggest you take a break because it probably either means that they’re getting fed up with what you’re doing or they’re getting playful and are ready to pounce!  Often accompanied with a widening of the eyes which may help you recognise their increasing level of alertness.

Wee on the carpet

This may not seem like a method of communication, or at least you probably won’t be thinking rationally enough to see it as such at the time, but cats frequently use urine and even faeces as a way of getting their point across.  One of the first words that comes to mind when you discover such an incident is probably ‘spite’, but try not to take it personally and instead try to figure out why it may have occurred.  It may be that they are painful and need to see the vet, or that they are unhappy with your neighbour’s cat who keeps peering in on them from the window.  If the culprit is an intact male cat, talk to your vet about castration because there is a good chance that the underlying reason is territorial.

Grooming

Although this is usually associated with relaxed, friendly cats or members of the same family, grooming may serve another purpose.  Like the nervous purr, cats sometimes groom each other’s heads and necks when they’re feeling intimidated or antagonistic, possibly as an attempt to avoid overt aggression.  Chances are they’re feeling pretty comfortable when they start grooming you, although I have on occasion had a ‘nervous licker’ during an exam and even known a few cats to lick forcefully before they bite.

Chirping

It’s a funny sound, almost like a very excited miaow but broken and muted at times.  Often associated with a tail twitch and very wide eyes, it is a sign of extreme interest.  My cat regularly ‘chirps’ when looking out the window at the birds on the feeder.  An amusing, hopeful sound indeed!

Scratching on your new leather sofa

Again, try not to push human emotions onto your cat and assume that they’re doing it to get back at you for going out to dinner instead of spending time with them the night before.  In actual fact, cats have scent glands on the bottoms of their feet and between their toes so scratching (including the visual signs that are left behind) is another method of letting other cats know that this is their territory.  Make an effort to find out the underlying cause, or at least be sure to provide them plenty of other more suitable places to ‘sharpen their claws’.

Hissssssssss!

No surprises here, if you hear this sound, back off.  Cats are instinctively tuned into this sound and are therefore easily frightened by any noise that resembles a hiss such as aerosol spray cans or our own frantic ‘psssssssst!’ when we catch them up on the kitchen counter.  If their hiss escalates to a spit, don’t just back off, turn and walk away.  Quickly.

If you were surprised by some of the answers above, spend some time observing your cat over the next few weeks.  You’ll be amazed by what you find when you know what to look for!  Even those fluent in ‘felinese’ can learn something new from their cats every day.  The more you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, the better your relationship will be so it’s definitely worth the effort.

Ask a Vet Online – ‘I have got 2 staffies 1 is afraid to go out at night even on a lead. How can I help him?’

Question from Anji Bradley

I have got 2 staffies 1 is afraid to go out at night even on a lead. How can I help him.He stopped going out after he heard a car back-fire and he thought it was a firework.

Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, Online Vet

Hi Anji, thank you for your question about your dog’s fear of going out at night. What you are describing would fit with being a noise phobia.

What is a noise phobia?

Noise phobia is a fear response which is triggered when a particular sound is heard, in this case banging sounds similar to those produced by fireworks.  Dogs are intelligent animals and soon make associations to a stimulus, in this case the stimulus is a sound and the response associated with it is a reluctance to go out for walks in the night for fear of hearing the scary sound.

From what you have described I have assumed that your dog already was fearful of fireworks prior to hearing the car back-fire.  If this is the case then hopefully the following will be useful information.

How can I help my dog with his noise phobia?

In order to deal with a noise phobia you will need the help of your vet or someone trained in dog behaviour and plenty of patience.

Having personal experience of a noise phobic dog (my old border collie Jack who was frightened of fireworks and thunder storms) and having used a desensitisation program I can definitely recommend giving it a go.

So what is a desensitisation program?

The aim is to get your pet to stop showing a fear response to the stimulus in question using a controlled program of exposure to the scary stimulus plus or minus the use of behaviour modifying medications.

The desensitisation part is reducing the dog’s reaction, the controlled exposure to the sound is by use of recordings e.g. CD or MP3 and behaviour modifying medications include drugs similar to Valium (Diazepam) and antidepressants.

The recording of the scary sound is played at a time when an actual scary sound is unlikely to be heard, starting with very short exposure and at a very low volume. Gradually the length of exposure, frequency and volume are all increased, provided at the previous session the dog did not show a fear response. The aim is that eventually the dog can hear the scary sound without showing a fear response.

What are signs of fear and or distress in the dog?

Dogs all express fear in different ways but the following list includes many of the common signs; cowering, panting, excessive salivation, vocalising, hiding, jumping up and trying to run away.

What are the chances of success with a desensitisation program?

It is difficult to predict how well a dog will respond to noise phobia treatment, but unless the noise itself can be totally avoided then it is worth trying the treatment.  It is worth keeping in mind that the desensitisation program may need to be repeated to ensure that the fear response is kept under control. In the case of fire work phobia it is best to start the program at least 6 months away from peak firework season to allow plenty of time for it to take effect before the dog is exposed to the scary sound. This is because unexpected scary sounds exposure outside of the controls of the program can set your dog back to square one, so good timing can help ensure you and your dog’s best chance of successful treatment.

In conclusion phobias are a difficult thing to treat, but with patience and help, most animals will see a great improvement to their quality of life. I hope that you have found this answer helpful and good luck with treating your dog’s phobia.

Getting a good nights sleep – Helping your new puppy to settle in

Cat is the vet for petstreet.co.uk an on-line social networking site for pet lovers.

Bichon FriseThis afternoon I had a consult with a women who had recently bought a Bichon Frise puppy and was at her wits end.  The pup was refusing to settle at night and she hadn’t slept properly for several days.  But, she wailed, as soon as she cracked and took the pup upstairs to bed with her, she settled down quickly and slept though the night with no problems. And there in lay the problem.

Leaving the litter and their mother is a very stressful time for a new puppy; not only have they been taken on by a completely new set of people and moved into a new home, it is also likely to be the first time they have ever been left on their own.  So, it is very common for them to not settle well for the first few nights.  However, there are several things you can do to help them; the most important of which is to NOT give in!  It may seem unkind, leaving the pup to cry but trust me, if you go to them just once, the whole process will be much harder and you may end up with a dog who never sleeps alone.  It might be cute to have a small puppy sharing your bed but just think what it will be like when they are fully grown and have been out in a muddy garden all day!

One of the most successful methods for getting pups to settle is to use a puppy crate.  These can be easily purchase from pet stores and come in various sizes.  They should be big enough for a bed, a water bowl, and a clear area for them to toilet if they need to.  Position the crate in a downstairs room, the kitchen is usually best, and leave the door open during the day.  The crate should be the pup’s own space, somewhere where they will go when they want to rest and somewhere where they feel safe and secure.  Encourage them to use it from day one by showing them the bed and giving treats and praise when they use it.  It is very important you never send a pup to the crate as a punishment, it must always be a positive space for them.  Crates help the pup to learn independence as they are on their own when they are in there and they can also be very helpful for toilet training as dogs will naturally try to not toilet where they sleep.  They are are very useful for you as an owner as you know when the pup is shut in the crate, they are safe when you leave them.

Another product which can be used very successfully to help puppies to sleep at night, or to settle whenever they are left are DAP diffusers.  DAP stands for Dog Appeasing Pheromone, it is a synthetic pheromone identical to the once which a nursing bitch releases from her mammary glands.  For a dog of any age, but particularly a pup, it is an extremely comforting and reassuring scent which makes them feel relaxed and secure.  DAP comes as either a plug-in diffuser (just like the ones containing household scents) or an impregnated collar.  The plug-ins should be positioned somewhere close to where the pup rests and last for about 6 weeks.  Humans cannot detect the smell so don’t worry!  The collars are also very effective for pups and research has shown that they can help them be more confident and out-going in all areas of their life, which can really aid their development into happy and well balanced adults.  Both the plug-ins and collars are available from your vet or larger pet stores.

All pups will give you some sleepless nights at the beginning, they are only babies after all and it is all part of the experience of being a new dog owner.  It is very important at these early stages to start as you mean to go on and this means, unfortunately, leaving them to cry if you want them to sleep alone.  Giving in, even once, will make things much harder as then the pup will know there are other options and, as dogs don’t have much concept of the passage of time, they will be able to keep crying for a very long while if they know that eventually you will come for them!  Also, learning to be independent and to cope on their own is an extremely important skill for a young pup and the dogs that never master this are often the ones which suffer from over-attachment and separation anxiety.  So, stay strong, right from the beginning, make sure everyone in the family knows the rules and it won’t be long before you are back to a full nights sleep.  However, it might be worth investing in some ear plugs, just for the start!

For more advice on how to look after your dog, please visit our Pet Care Advice pages. If you are worried about any aspect of your dog’s health, use our interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help decide what to do next.

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