Browsing tag: behaviour

How to help stressed-out cats whose owners think they are “behaving badly”


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.

Training dogs: can old dogs learn tricks? And what about residential “boot camps” for dogs?

Does your dog ‘sit and stay’?

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’!

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.

Ask a vet online-’How do you stop your dog jumping?’

Question from Jacky Brosnan:

How do you STOP your dog jumping up when anyone comes in or when we come back in

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Hi Jacky, thank you for your question about your dog’s jumping behaviour when anyone comes into your house.  To answer your question I will try and give you several strategies to put into place to try and improve your dog’s behaviour as regards the jumping up at people.

Why is my dog jumping up?

Most dogs that jump up at people are doing this as they are excited to have company but there can also be an element of dominance in jumping behaviour.  It is important to try and reward the good behaviour your dog does and try to play down or ignore the unwanted behaviours.  In order to help reduce an unwanted behaviour we need to look at the whole of your dogs day and what it involves.

A typical day for a dog

Most dogs will start their day with their owners waking up, letting them out to toilet and then giving them their breakfast.  This is usually followed by some form of exercise and then the owner leaving to go to work or on the school run.  At some point later in the day the owners will return and again let the dog out to toilet, which may also involve some exercise.  If your dog is fed twice daily then they will have another meal, followed by another toilet outing before everyone settles down to bed/sleep.

Some dogs are very happy with their own company or that of another animal or people.  However not all dogs get enough mental stimulation with a typical day as described above.  It can really help a dog’s behaviour to have more mental stimulation.

How do I provide my dog with mental stimulation?

Even if your dog is now an adult dog going over basic training such as sit, stay, down, recall and fetch can be a very effective way to stimulate them as well as strengthening the bond between dog and owner.  A simple ten to fifteen minutes a day of training behaviour can soon make a big difference to your dog’s behaviour.  For those owners who have the time then agility or flyball are other excellent ways to train your dog and stimulate them at the same time.

Toys and sounds can also help to stimulate a dog, sounds can be provided by having a radio on in the back ground when no one is at home with your dog.  Toys come in many varieties, hard chews through to soft squeaky ones.  If you are leaving your dog alone with toys make sure that they are safe and cannot pose a risk if swallowed or parts are eaten.

Rewarding good behaviour

When anyone enters the house it can be helpful to have some treats which are out of the dogs reach.  When you enter, ask your dog to sit, when he or she is sitting nicely then gently offer him a treat along with praise for his/her good behaviour.  If this is repeated each time someone comes into the house, hopefully your dog will soon learn that good behaviour leads to praise/rewards.  Eventually you will not need to use treats and the praise alone will be enough reward for your dog.  At times your dog may go backwards in his/her behaviour and use of treats may be necessary again.  If your dog is very excitable then it may be the case that as well as asking them to sit, someone will need to hold them gently in the sitting position to encourage them.

Try your best not to shout at your dog for his/her unwanted behaviours, it is best to try and ignore them, play them down or substitute them with a good behaviour. The problem otherwise can become a cycle of bad behaviour being reinforced through owner reactions even if the reactions are bad.  The dog will just see that he/she is getting a reaction from his/her owner.

I hope that my answer has given you a few ideas of how to try and discourage your dog from jumping up and that they are soon behaving in a much happier and better way.

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.

Is your doggy going doddery? – Cognitive Dysfunction in dogs

Cognitive Dysfunction, a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, is very common in older dogs.  50% over the age of 10 year will show some sort of symptoms and this only increases with age.  In the early stages these changes can be subtle and often the condition is only noticed when the pet’s behaviour becomes more severe.  However, recognising and treating the condition early is vital to have the best chance of halting or even reversing the changes in the brain.

The symptoms of cognitive dysfunction will vary between individuals but can include;

  • Confusion or vacancy – these are often the first signs to manifest but are also the most difficult to pick up on.  Affected dogs will have periods (which can initially last just a few seconds) of seeming confused or lost in familiar surroundings.  In the early stages a call or command can bring them out of it but later on it can be more challenging.
  • Pacing or circling – again this can begin as quite a subtle problem but gradually becomes more apparent.  Dogs will often move from room to room in the house, resisting all attempts to stop them or move in small circles.  They can appear quite distressed during the activity, panting and wide eyed, but they won’t stop.
  • Loss of toilet control – This is the change that is most obvious and most often prompts a visit to the vets.
  • Loss of sleep patterns – Whereas they previously slept without problems, affected dogs can be awake in the night and often will howl or bark as well.
  • Becoming withdrawn – Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction will gradually become distant from their family.  They may shy away from contact, deliberately choose to rest away from people or sleep more than normal.
  • Becoming anxious and clingy – Others will go the other way and become more dependent on their owners.  They can develop separation anxiety problems, which is distressing for both them and their owners.

Changes like these used to be just put down to ‘old age’ but now we realise they are a medical condition, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans.  The changes in the brain are similar between dogs and humans, which has lead to more effective treatments being developed.

There are no specific tests for Cognitive Dysfunction, so it has to be diagnosed on symptoms and the lack of other problems.  It is therefore important to rule out, or simultaneously treat, other issues common in older dogs such as arthritis and poor eyesight.

Treatment can be challenging and is aimed at improving the blood flow to the brain and so supporting and maintaining it’s function.  There are medications that achieve this but because of the nature of the problem, they have to be given for at least a month before it can be judged if they are helping or not.  However, in my experience improvements are usually seen well before then and they can be quite dramatic!

There are special diets available containing high levels of anti-oxidants and omega-3 oils, both of which have been shown to aid cognitive function in dogs.

Also helpful is simple environmental enrichment for your pet.  In practical terms this means you need to keep interacting with them, training them and regularly give them new and interesting toys to play with.  You can teach an old dog new tricks!

It is distressing to see a beloved pet’s personality changing and, sadly, given how common it is, many dog owners will have to deal with it.  However, being aware of the symptoms, spotting them early, starting the right medication and making some simple changes to your pet’s routine will make a huge difference.

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at

If you have any worries about your pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.

Ask a vet online-‘I have shih pooh bitch shes 16 months she always asks out for pee pee but on the other hand the pooh side shes not good’

Question from : Anne Docherty

‘I have shih pooh bitch shes 16 months she always asks out for pee pee but on the other hand the pooh side shes not good at all i do take her out a lot and she gets into trouble when dirting carpet i never hit her but when she does it she knows ots wrong’

Answer from: Shanika Winters

Thank you for your question regarding toilet training your 16 month old bitch.  Toilet training dogs can sometimes be a challenge, some dogs just get the idea and others take longer.  It is good that your dog is able to hold her urine (wee) and ask to go out for this but a shame that she is struggling with faeces (poos).  Most dogs will be toilet trained for both urine and faeces somewhere between 6 and 12 months of age but some are quicker and others slower.  It is really important to always be positive and reward good behaviour rather than punishing them for bad behaviour or mistakes.

What do we expect our dogs to do once toilet trained?

By the time an owner would consider their dog to be toilet trained we would expect them to not pass urine or faeces in the house, to ask to be let out to toilet when we are there and to hold their urine and faeces when we are not there.  When you list what we expect of our dogs then you can see that toilet training involves our pet learning a lot, and it is our responsibility to help them and give then the correct cues as to what we want form them.

How do we start the toilet training process?

In most cases the toilet training process has begun before we collect our pet from the breeder, in the case of puppies they may be trained to go on shavings, newspaper and then outside.  With older dogs toilet training will be affected by the type of accommodation the dog is used to, some are kept in kennels and will not toilet inside them or may have a designated area in which to toilet in their kennel.  So it is really important to ask where your dog is up to and what toilet training has been achieved upon collection.

We then need to carry on from this in our homes and gardens.  The most basic thing to remember is that when food and water go in to your pet then urine and faeces are likely to need to be passed.  So we should let our dogs out as soon as we can in the mornings, after a meal or drink and before they are going to be left in the day or night.  Try and encourage your dog to toilet in a specific area of your garden (corner away from play areas) or on your walk (ideally close to a dog poo bin) as this will make cleaning up much easier and helps build up a routine.

When asking your dog to go to the toilet use a command such as ‘go toilet’ or ‘be clean’, which ever command you use be consistent and make sure all members of your family/household use the same command and routine.  When your dog toilets in the correct place reward them, this can be with a small treat initially and positive words and eventually you should be able to just tell them in words that they have been good.

Initially you will have to let your dog out very frequently as they will not be great at holding onto their urine/faeces and also they are still learning.  It is also very important to remember that if your dog is suffering from a urine or gut infection this will affect their urgency to toilet.  Make sure that the area in which you expect your dog to toilet is kept clean and that your dog does not feel threatened there by other animals.

What cues do dogs and humans use in toilet training?

As the dog owner we can use words or signals to let our dog know we want them to go out and toilet.  Signals can include pointing to the door, getting hold of your dog’s lead if they toilet out on their walks, picking up the poo bags etc.  It is really important to give our dog clear simple cues then they have a much better chance of knowing what we expect of them.

Cues that our dog might give us indicating that they need to go out to the toilet can include vocalisation (barking or whining), scratching at the ground and pacing around near the door through which they go out to toilet.  We as owners need to observe our dog and learn their toilet cues.

How to reinforce the behaviour we want?

I am a strong believer in positive reinforcement that means we praise/ reward for positive behaviour and try not to make too much fuss over mistakes/bad behaviours.  I know that it gets very frustrating when lots of toilet training mistakes happen; cleaning up urine and faeces from carpets/floors/furniture is no fun at all.  But we need to remember that we choose to keep dogs as companion animals and are asking them to adapt to our home/lifestyle and even the best trained animal at times will have an accident.

So I would advise using treats, kind words and physical contact to praise your dog for good behaviour, try and make things easy for your dog by letting them out frequently and not leaving them alone for extended periods of time.. If however your dog is left for longer amounts of time it is worth seeing if a neighbour or pet sitter can let your dog out to toilet.

Try to avoid negative reinforcement, which involves shouting or hitting your dog when they have had a toilet training accident.  Unfortunately negative reinforcement can keep the unwanted behaviour from happening as you are still giving your dog attention for the mistake.  As humans we assume that dogs feel the same range of emotions that we do and ‘guilt’ for having done the wrong thing is one such emotion.  It is really important to remember that however ‘guilty’ your dog may look for having made a mistake they are not thought to express this emotion (and certainly not sometime after the incident occurred).

So in conclusion my advice would be that providing your dog is fit and well and not suffering from any infections or parasites that may be affecting her faeces that going back to basics as if she were a much younger puppy would be a good starting point to get her to pass faeces outside.  I hope that this answer will help you and your dog.

Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)

If you have any worries about your pet, please make an appointment to see your vet – or try our online Symptom Guide.

Ask a vet online-’ 9 month old labradoodle tends to bark a lot’ – what can I do?

Question from Sarah Brookes:

I have a 9 month old labradoodle. He tends to bark a lot attention barking I have ignored him but he still barks what else can u do. Also when we leave him he shakes and barks but settles eventually I have an DAP plugged in but seems to make no difference HELP

Answer by Shanika Winters:

Hi Sarah and thank you for your question regarding your dog’s behaviour when he is left.    What you are describing sounds like a combination of separation anxiety and attention seeking.  Separation anxiety is when animals feel worried when left alone and this can lead to destructive behaviour, toileting in the wrong place and also vocalisation such as the barking you described.  Attention seeking is when your pet behaves in a way that you cannot ignore often in similar ways to those already listed.

Why does my dog have separation anxiety/attention seeking behaviour?

It is really important that any medical conditions are first ruled out before starting to treat a behavioural condition.  Dogs can show changes to their behaviour when in pain (e.g. arthritis), suffering from epilepsy (having seizures) and when suffering from liver or kidney disease (due to build up of toxic chemicals in their blood).

A detailed history of what is going on with your pet, followed by a thorough clinical examination and diagnostic tests as required are the best way for you and your vet to rule out the presence of any underlying medical conditions.

In the process of taking the details of what is happening with your pet, your vet will get a picture of what is happening in your dog’s world, i.e. changes to the family, pets, daily routine and moving home to mention a few possible triggers of a behavioural change.  It is also important to note that some breeds of dog, especially working breeds (e.g. border collies, German shepherds and Labradors) need a lot more mental and physical stimulation than other breeds of dog.  It is important to take this into consideration when choosing a dog to try and match its characteristics to your family and lifestyle.

How will my dog’s behaviour be assessed?

Your vet may assess your dog’s behaviour themselves or may refer your dog to a behavioural specialist (someone specifically trained in animal behaviour).  As described above the first thing that they will need to ensure is that your pet is physically well, the second thing they will do it take a detailed history of how your pet behaves. The third part of the process is observation, your dog will be observed in the consultation room but this does not always give as much information as seeing how your dog behaves in the home environment and how he/she interacts with other members of the household both human and animal.  Such observation may be via video recordings which can then be watched and analysed.

How can I help my dog to feel less anxious?

In order to help your dog stop feeling the need to bark changes need to be made to help him/her feel more secure and less in need of getting attention through barking.  The use of chemicals can sometimes help when trying to change a dog’s behaviour.  You have mentioned that you tried DAP plug in, this is a pheromone dispenser that releases dog appeasing pheromone, this is thought to help dogs to feel calm.  Chemicals alone cannot always help to change an unwanted behaviour such as barking.  Ideally chemicals should be used in conjunction with a behavioural treatment plan.  Anther chemical that may be advised by your vet is an antidepressant.

When we leave our house we usually have a set routine of getting our bag, coat, shoes and key then leaving.  Also we think that saying good bye to our dog will let them know what is happening and make them feel better about us leaving.  What we are actually doing is setting off a chain of events which build up to trigger their anxious behaviour.  It can help to make a quiet exit and put the emphasis on your return home.

What is in the behavioural plan?

Regular exercise of an amount suitable for the breed and age of dog you have, a small elderly dog will still need to be taken out for exercise but this will be for much shorter length of time than a young adult working breed of dog.  It is important to give your pet regular exercise, if you are not able to do this yourself then remember there are dog walkers available in most areas.

Attention of a positive nature from members of the household is important to reassure your dog of his place in the pecking order.  It is easy to just get on with what needs to be done when you come home after a long day at work and forget that your dog is waiting to greet you and be reassured that you are happy with him/her.  If the majority of attention your pet receives is being told off for bad behaviour then this negative attention can further unwanted behaviours.

Provide adequate mental stimulation for your dog, this can be in the form of games such as fetch, training such as obedience, agility and fly ball.  It can be helpful to make up a timetable of activities to carry out with your dog, this can help to keep things interesting for both owner a dog.

Company whether in the form of another pet or human can help to relieve the anxiety felt by some dog’s but this is not always practical as many people work long hours and have many family commitments.  There are pet sitting services which can provide someone to visit your dog and break up the length of time that he/she spends alone.

Background noise such as a television or radio can make some dogs feel as though they are not alone.

I hope that I have managed to answer your question and that your dog starts to feel calmer when left alone.  Making behavioural changes involves both dog and owner and can be a slow process but it is worth the effort.

Shanika Winters MRCVS (Online vet)

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.


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.


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’.


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.

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