Browsing tag: cat

Communicating with pets: body language versus speaking English

One of the biggest challenges for vets is our lack of ability to have conversations with our patients. This isn’t always a huge problem: for example, if a dog has a broken leg, or a cat has an abscess, the problem is very easy to identify just by examining the patient. But we could still learn useful information from a verbal discussion. I would like to ask “How painful is it?”, or “Which cat attacked you?”. Treatment would also be easier to give if we could give our patients verbal instructions, such as “You must not chew this plaster cast off” or “You must let your owner bathe the sore area twice daily”.

Pain is a specific area where communication would be particularly useful. An animal in pain does not usually yelp or miaow. This only happens if the sore area is touched. More frequently, pain just causes an animal to become dull and quiet. If you could ask them, they would certainly tell you about the pain, but in the absence of language, you need to learn to interpret the more subtle signs of pain. Dilated pupils, an increased heart rate and rapid shallow breathing are all indications that an animal may be in pain. A better understanding of the non-vocal signs of pain in pets has led to much wider use of pain relief for animals, especially after surgery.

Over the years, vets have learned to understand the body language of their patients. If a dog holds his head to one side, he may have a sore ear. If a cat spends more time hovering near her water bowl, she is probably thirsty and may be suffering from kidney disease. A dog who stops wanting to go up steps will often be suffering from back pain. Close observation of animal body language can give plenty of information.

Owners also become very tuned in to their own pets’ attempts at communication. I have often been told that an animal ‘would almost talk to you’. Dogs in particular learn that if they behave in a certain way, they will get what they want, and they can be very persistent.

I know a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Chloe who always sleeps in the kitchen. Mrs O’Reilly, her owner, had recently started to put a big floor cushion on the tiled surface, to give Chloe a softer bed. After a few weeks, Chloe had learned the routine, and towards the end of the evening, Chloe recognised the signs that bedtime was approaching. The television was turned off, the doors were locked, keys were hung on the hook and finally Chloe’s cushion was put on the kitchen floor. Last week Mrs Reilly was away and her husband was doing the evening routine alone. He forgot about Chloe’s cushion! Chloe did her best to tell him that she wanted her cushion. Firstly, she followed him around, deliberately getting in his way so that he would surely know that she wanted something. When he did not understand, she went over to the cupboard where the cushion was kept, and she pawed at the door. He still did not get the message, and so finally she barked repeatedly at the cupboard door. Only then did the poor man understand what his dog wanted. As soon as he had placed her cushion in its usual place, Chloe contentedly lay down on it, and slept.

Pets cannot speak but they are much better than humans at using body language. If my dog could talk to me, the first thing he might say would be: “Why can’t you humans understand the most basic body language?”

Do vets charge too much for bitch spays?

As part of my work as a “media vet”, I’m a strong advocate for spaying and neutering pets as the best way to control the problem of pet overpopulation. Accidental pregnancies still account for a high number of unwanted puppies and kittens, and routine spaying/neutering of young adult pets is the best way to prevent these. This doesn’t meant that every pet needs to be spayed/neutered when young (there are some good reasons to delay or even not to do the operation for some individual animals), but it does mean that every pet owner should at least discuss the options with their vet around the time of puberty.

Why do people refuse to have their pets spayed?

People have a variety of reasons for not having the operations done on their pets, and the cost is a major factor. In a recent social media discussion, the following comment came in.

“Vets should reduce their fee to £120 for a female dog. A lot of people genuinely just can’t afford it.”

Why don’t vets reduce their fees?

This is a good point. Why don’t vets reduce the price of spaying? Let’s look at how this could be done: what makes up the cost of an operation, and how can those items be reduced?

To put this in perspective, what are the typical fees for spaying? The recent SPVS survey found that the median fee nationwide for an adult bitch spay was £204. There is significant regional variation on this, but the figure acts as a reasonable starting point for discussion. How could it be reduced to £120?

If you look at the pie chart at the foot of this page, you can see that over half of the costs of vets’ fees are made up of overheads that are difficult to reduce: rent, heat, light, phone, drugs, surgical supplies, cleaning, nurses’ wages and administration costs. Vets already do as much as they can to keep these costs down: it’s in their own interests to do so. So let’s leave these alone for the sake of this discussion.

So what about the obvious “top item” on the cost list for most people: the money that goes to the vet. Surely vets can manage with less? For every £10 you give the vet, typically only £2 to £2.50 goes to the vet. If a vet gives you a 20 to 25% discount, they are working for nothing. Vets are well enough paid, but their salaries are lower than most people expect. A typical new graduate vet earns around £30000, and a vet qualified for 20 years might earn £50000. Should vets work for less than that, with five years of tough training and high costs in getting through college?

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say yes, and agree that vets will operate for free on bitch spays: take 25% off £204, and you’re left with £153. What next?

What about VAT? The government charges 20% on all vet fees, making up £34 of the £204. If this was not charged, £153 minus £34 = £119. Bingo: it’s less than £120.

So if vets work for nothing, and the government agrees to stop charging VAT, the cost of a bitch spay would reach the desired target. Is this going to happen? Of course not.

In the real world, how can pet owners pay as little as possible for bitch spays?

So what can impoverished pet owners do? Here are three tips.

First, plan in advance. You should budget for the spay/neuter surgery when you get a pet, just as you should think about how much it will cost you to feed your new animal. If you genuinely can’t afford it, perhaps you should not get a pet. For the financially disadvantaged, there are some subsidised schemes to help, but charity resources are limited, and most of the working population will not qualify for these.

Second, shop around, but don’t do this on price alone. You should physically visit at least three vets, eyeballing the premises (are they clean?), talking to staff (do they seem to care?) and asking some specific questions:

• Do they have qualified veterinary nurses?

• Do they use up-to-date anaesthetic, pain relief and monitoring equipment?

• Does they monitor all pets after anaesthesia until they are awake?

You may not be fully aware of the “right answers” to these questions, but even just by asking the questions and judging the tone of the response, you will learn a lot about the practice.

Third, ask for a discount. Some vets may just say “no” ( this is understandable – it directly eats into the 20 – 25% that they are paid), but as in any other consumer transaction, there is no harm in asking the question.

If you think a bitch spay is expensive at £200, remember that it would cost around £5000 to have a similar operation carried out on a human. And if you want to help with the pet overpopulation problem, as well as benefitting your own pet’s health, it’s a price that’s well worth paying.

Elizabethan Collars – a necessary evil?

 

Elizabethan collars are named after clothing worn in the time of Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabethan collars are named after clothing worn in the time of Queen Elizabeth I

One of my clients was talking about his recently neutered bitch today. “She needs one of those Victorian Buckets” he said. I knew what he was talking about, but his terminology was not quite correct. The problem was that his bitch had been licking her operation wound, and he wanted to stop her. The item he was describing is an important tool to assist the healing of animals’ wounds. It is more correctly called an ‘Elizabethan Collar’, because it resembles the white starched lace collars that Queen Elizabeth I and her subjects used to wear. Most people have seen animals wearing these large, lampshade-shaped cones, fastened around their necks and extending up around their heads.

Animals have a strong instinct to lick their wounds. In moderation, such licking can be cleansing and beneficial. The problem is that animals do not know when to stop. Excessive licking causes redness, soreness and itchiness, and this makes an animal want to lick a wound more and more. It is a vicious circle – the more licking , the more sore a wound becomes, and the more the animal wants to lick it. In the worst cases, a wound can be completely prevented from healing. Animals have even been known to cause themselves serious open wounds by biting and chewing itchy areas.

Drugs can be used to ease the itchiness, but they are seldom adequate alone. The only sure answer is the Elizabethan collar. These were originally home-made by vets, using pieces of cardboard, or by cutting the bottoms out of buckets. However, it was not always easy to create a finished product which was effective.

Modern pet Elizabethan collars are custom-made from shiny lightweight plastic. They are manufactured in different sizes, to suit anything from a kitten to a Great Dane. They have become more sophisticated as time has passed, and there is now a range of different products available. The traditional collars are made from white plastic, but these restrict an animal’s vision, causing animals to crash blindly around the house, bumping into people and furniture. Some modern collars are semi-transparent, to allow animals to see where they are going. We often advise people to line the outer edge of the collar with elastoplast, to blunten the sharp plastic edge which can otherwise cause painful scratches on an owner’s legs as an excited animal barges past.

Attaching the collar to the animal can be a fiddle – buckles and slots are fitted into place and the whole construction is strung onto the animals normal leather collar.

Owners sometimes feel that it is unfair to inflict these collars on their animals, but you only need to see one example of the serious damage which self mutilation can cause to realise how important it is to stop some animals from reaching their wounds.

Animals cope with the imposition of an Elizabethan collar in different ways. Most accept their fate sadly but in a quietly resigned fashion. Some Labrador-types seem to enjoy their new ‘hats’, and they dash around the room enthusiastically causing chaos as they bounce off walls, people and objects. Some cats do what I call an ‘Elizabethan Dance’, when they twist, leap and pirouette in an effort to escape the collar. After an initial uneasy settling in period, most pets do not mind this odd looking, but very effective structure.

There are, of course, a number of modern alternatives, from inflatable life-ring type products to neck braces to soft floppy collars. Some of them are definitely worth trying, but as is often the case in life, I suspect that the reason there are so many alternatives is that nobody has yet found the perfect way of preventing pets from interfering with their own wounds.

Antifreeze, the killer chemical of pets – don’t let yours be a victim.

Antifreeze, which often contains ethylene glycol, is very good at doing what it says on the bottle.  If you have ice on your windscreen or want to keep various pipes and water features from freezing up, then adding antifreeze will do the job.  What the bottle DOESN’T always say, however, is that antifreeze is so toxic to cats, dogs and other small mammals and that it takes only about a teaspoon in a cat or a tablespoon in a dog of the substance to bring about a rapid and unpleasant death.  In fact, a recent news article has highlighted the fact that around 50 cats a month in the UK are killed by antifreeze poisoning.

Why is it such a big problem?

Antifreeze is a commonly used chemical, especially in the winter months, but many people are unaware of the danger it poses to animals.  Even small children are at risk, because ethylene glycol has a sweet taste that most mammals wouldn’t think twice about consuming.  It can leak out of damaged car pipes and onto the drive where cats then lick it up, or perhaps a small amount of the substance was left in the bottle and left open after use.  Ethylene glycol can be found in radiator coolant, windscreen de-icing agents, motor oils, hydraulic brake fluid, paints, photographic chemicals and various solvents.  A worrying new trend is for people to use it in their garden water features to keep them from freezing – an extremely dangerous action as many cats and also wildlife use these features to drink from.  Unfortunately, some heartless people also use the substance to intentionally poison cats that get into their garden, and there are several cases of this under investigation at the moment.

How does it affect cats?

Initial signs include behavioural changes, such as looking groggy or ‘drunk’, which makes sense because the chemical binds to the same receptors as alcohol in the body.  These initial signs may only last for 1-6 hours, then they seem to recover but although they may appear to temporarily feel better, the real damage has already begun.  Ethylene glycol causes crystals of calcium oxalate to form within the kidneys and because these crystals cannot be dissolved once formed, the damage is irreversible and rapid kidney failure results.  Within hours to days the cat may start urinating more, then not at all as the kidneys shut down.  This results in a build-up of toxins within the blood causing severe lethargy and lack of appetite, panting, vomiting, oral or gastric ulceration and sometimes coma or seizures.  Death almost always occurs within a few days.

Is there any treatment?

If you are lucky enough to see your cat or dog ingest antifreeze and can get them to the vet within about 3 hours before the product has a chance to be metabolised, then treatment is possible though the recommended treatment is very expensive and most vets aren’t able to stock it.  Interestingly, one of the treatments for antifreeze toxicity is ethanol (aka the ‘vodka drip’ you may have heard about), as the alcohol prevents the ethylene glycol from binding to receptors in the body.  This treatment is dangerous in itself however, so the prognosis for recovery is still guarded.  If treatment is successful, affected animals will likely have to stay in hospital for several days on a drip to flush out any remaining toxins from the body and some degree of permanent kidney damage is likely.

What can we do to cut down on antifreeze poisonings?

The best thing you can do at home is to not use antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol.  Many newer products now contain propylene glycol, which isn’t nearly as toxic.  Have your car serviced regularly to ensure there are no leaks onto the drive, and if you do spot a leak, clean it up immediately and dispose of all waste or empty containers properly.  Many suppliers put bright fluorescent green dye into their products so it’s easy to spot in a puddle on the drive.  Most vets stock a UV or black light which makes this dye glow brightly and finding the dye on the cat’s paws or muzzle can be a good way to confirm exposure.  If your neighbour has a water feature in their garden, it might be wise to confirm that they are not using antifreeze and to inform them of the dangers if they are not already aware.  Another recommendation that has been suggested is to put a bitter-tasting substance (Bitrex) in the antifreeze so that any sensible animal or child would spit it out as soon as they tasted it, but not all companies regularly do this.  This would also cut down on intentional poisonings.  At the very least, all products containing ethylene glycol should be clearly labelled as being fatal to animals.

Spread the word – antifreeze kills!

Amy Bergs DVM MRCVS  - Visit The Cat Doctor website by clicking HERE

Ask a vet online-‘treatment for feline herpes virus’

Question from Carmen James:

Best treatment for feline herpes virus flare ups?

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Hi Carmen and thank you for your question regarding feline herpes virus, I will discuss what the virus is, the disease process and possible treatment options.

So what is feline herpes virus?

Herpes is a virus that we are familiar with in people as it is associated with cold sores, herpes viruses are specific to a species that means human herpes viruses only affect people and feline herpes virus only affects cats.

Feline Herpes Virus (FHV) can affect any cat, it is spread in discharges from eyes, nose and mouth. FHV is usually associated with cold like symptoms which include runny eyes, sneezing, coughing, corneal ulcers (ulcers on the surface of the eye) and general signs of illness such as increased temperature, weakness and appetite loss.

How do I know if my cat has FHV?

If your cat seems unwell and is showing any of the signs listed above then it is important to take him to your vet for a full examination. A combination of the signs listed and blood tests or PCR test (tests done on discharge samples from your cat at a laboratory) can confirm that your cat is likely to be suffering from FHV.

Herpes viruses can remain in your cat even when they seem well and this means that your cat could spread the disease (your vet may refer to the virus as being latent). At times of stress the virus can be shed by your cat and this may also mean signs of illness appear. The severity of the signs of illness will depend on your cats level of stress and how strong its immune system is (that is its body’s natural defence against diseases)

Can my cat be vaccinated against FHV?

Routine cat vaccines offer protection against cat flu and FHV is one of the components of the cat flu part of the vaccine. Vaccinations give your pet protection against disease but this cannot account for factors such as your cat already being exposed to the virus before vaccinations.

Why do cat with FHV get flare ups?

The reason for flare ups in cases of FHV is due to the nature of herpes viruses, they remain in the cats body and when your pet is well the virus is ‘latent’. At times of stress however the virus is shed(released again) and this can lead to signs of disease again or a ‘flare up’.

How can the flare ups be treated?

Firstly it is really important to try and avoid flare ups of FHV by ensuring your cat is well, calm and up to date with his or her vaccines. However even with the best possible cat care flare ups will still occur.

There is no licenced antiviral treatment available for cats with FHV, there are a few human antiviral medicines in the form of tablets, creams and ointments which have been tried on cats with some success. Most commonly it is antibiotics which are used to treat FHV signs, this is because when your cat has a viral infection they are more prone to bacterial infections on top of the viral infection. Antibiotics are effective against the bacterial part of the infection, and once this is cleared your cat will hopefully feel better, have less discharge from its eyes /nose and feel like eating and drinking.

If it is only the eyes that are affected then treatment can be focused on the eyes alone, this avoids giving medications that may have side effects on the whole of your cat.

How to minimise flare ups?

Prevention of flare ups can be helped by keeping your pets environment calm, having a regular daily routine, strict hygiene when it comes to food dishes/water dishes and the litter tray. Isolate cats showing signs from other cats. Keeping your cat’s the eyes and nose clean and clear of discharges. The correct use of antiviral and or antibiotic drugs can also help keep flare ups to a minimum and shorten the lent hog episodes.

I hope that my answer has helped you to understand how FHV works and that in order to keep flare up under control there are things you can do at home as well as with the help of your vet.

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 –‘after the vet said she had gone she gave out a cry and her body jolted’

Question from Diane Stirk:

I had to have my little blind girl put to sleep Friday, she was 13 and had all symptoms off dementia, but after the vet said she had gone she gave out a cry and her body jolted, y did she do this does it mean she wasn’t gone, I’m heatbrocken over this,

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Hi Diane firstly I am very sorry that you recently lost your pet, having a much loved pet put to sleep is always a very difficult decision.  I will try and explain what happens when a pet is put to sleep and to explain what can happen afterwards.  I hope that this can help to ease your upset over what happened with your pet.

The reason we call euthanasia of a pet putting them to sleep is because your pet is actually given a very high dose of anaesthetic (drugs which are normally used to bring us to sleep for an operation).  The dose of anaesthetic given will cause your pet’s heart to stop beating; they will also stop breathing which results in them passing away.

The anaesthetic drug is usually given by an injection directly into your pet’s blood stream.  With cat and dogs the injection is usually given into a vein on one of the front legs.  A small area of fur is first clipped away, the skin is then cleaned, and your pet’s leg will be supported by an assistant to enable your vet to put the injection into your pet’s vein.   You are still able to hold or hug your pet while the injection is being given if you want to.  In the case of rabbits the injection is often given into a vein on the ear, some smaller pets are given anaesthetic gas first followed by an injection.

In some cases if the blood stream cannot be accessed, as your pet may have a collapsed circulation then the injection may be given into the kidney or liver.  The anaesthetic will then be absorbed into the blood stream a little slower than when injected directly into a vein.

If your pet is distressed or generally frightened at the vets then they can be given a sedative before the anaesthetic injection.  The sedative is to calm your pet and reduce anxiety, which should hopefully make the process of losing your pet less stressful for both pet and owner.  Use of a sedative does however mean that the process will take a bit longer as the sedative will take time to work.  The sedative can be given as a tablet or injection into the skin or muscle.

Once the anaesthetic reaches the correct concentration in your pet’s blood stream, this will cause your pets heart to stop beating and them to stop breathing.  Your pet will no longer react to sounds or touch; your vet will listen to your pet’s heart, feel for its pulse and may check its reflex by gently touching the eye.  This is all to confirm that your pet has passed away.

After a pet has passed away as the muscles relax the bladder and bowels may empty, some pets also give a gasp as the air leaves the lungs.  In some animals there are jerky movements after death, called agonal movements.  These movements do not mean that your pet is alive or suffering.  The agonal movements happen as chemicals leak out of the body cells and allow muscle to contract.  Normally when alive these chemicals are kept in place until the body needs to use its muscles.

Understandably it can be very distressing for a pet owner to see or hear sounds coming from their pet after he/she has been put to sleep.  If you have any concerns either before or after losing a pet then make sure you contact your vet or veterinary nurse.  We will make time to discuss things with you and do our best to help put you at ease with this very difficult situation.

I hope that this answer has helped a little to explain what happened after you lost your pet and that your worries have been eased.

Shanika Winters MRCVS (Online vet)

Ask a vet online – ‘my dog has been weeing blood could it be infection or something more’

Question from Sharon Harris:

My dog aged 10 has on a couple of times been weeing blood he does one long one which is ok then just walks round weeing bits but that’s when the blood starts he is wanting to go out more often than he usually does ,drinking more still eating and his usual self but have noticed a lump that is inside lower stomach but has lumps all over his body but many wiems have these lumps could it be infection or something more

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Hi Sharon, thank you for your question regarding your 10 year old dog who is passing blood in his urine (wee) this symptom is called Haematuria. It sounds like your dog is still bright and happy in himself, it is possible that his haematuria is due to an infection but can also be related to bladder disease, kidney disease or prostate disease.  It is really important to get your dog examined by your vet as soon as possible.

What will happen when I take my dog to the vet?

Your vet will ask a lot of questions to form a history of what is going on with your dog, including drinking and urinating habits which you have already listed in your question.  It is very helpful to bring in a urine sample in a clean container when the condition relates to the urine.  It can be tricky to catch a urine sample from your dog, especially if they prefer to wee when off the lead but a clean bowl and some perseverance should eventually mean you can get a sample.  Your vet can collect a sample by passing a urinary catheter (long thin soft plastic tube placed into the bladder) but this can be uncomfortable and may require sedation/hospitalisation for your dog.

Your vet will also take into consideration whether or not your pet has been neutered(castrated) as in older male dogs the influence of sex hormones(produced by the testicles) can affect the prostate gland which can lead to haematuria.  The prostate gland is found in male dogs around the neck of the bladder and it produces various secretions which go into semen (the liquid sperm is in).  The prostate gland is usually small and inactive in neutered male dogs, but in entire male dogs the prostate can become enlarged, infected and or cancerous.  Many of the diseases of the prostate gland can lead to haematuria.  Your vet can often feel the shape and size of your dog’s prostate gland by examining your dog internally and externally.

The kidneys are the organ which actually produces urine, your dog has two and they filter his blood to remove toxins and waste products which are then lost in the urine.  So haematuria could be blood coming from the kidneys either due to infection, kidney stones or cancerous changes in the kidneys or the tubing from the kidneys to the bladder (the ureters).

The bladder is a stretchy bag made of muscle and lined with a delicate membrane (layer) which stores the urine produced by the kidneys and empties out through a tube called the urethra.  Haematuria could be blood from the bladder or urethra due to infection, stones, polyps, trauma (accidents) or cancerous changes.

Your vet will thoroughly examine your dog paying extra attention to the back end of the abdomen, will also check your dog’s penis and likely examine your dog internally (via his bottom).  This helps to give information about the kidneys, bladder and prostate gland.

What will happen to the urine sample?

The first thing your vet will do is look at the colour of the urine sample, this may or may not show visible blood, sometime only tiny traces of blood are present in the urine sample and can be picked up on a dip stick. A urine dip stick is a card strip that has lots of little coloured patches on it; they each detect different chemicals and substances in the urine and give a quick result.  Most veterinary practices can also examine urine samples under the microscope to look for unusual cells and or crystals. If the result and rest of your dog’s examination suggests infection then your vet may suggest trying a course of antibiotics.  If however your vet thinks there may be more going on a carefully collected urine sample may be sent for laboratory analysis which involves culture and sensitivity, this looks at what bacteria are present and which antibiotics are likely to work on them.

What further test might my dog need?

Your vet may suggest blood tests to check that your pet has not lost too much blood, how its general health is and how well its body organs are functioning.  Blood tests do not always show up a lot of changes but this still gives us information as to how your dog is.

X-rays may be taken conscious or under sedation or general anaesthesia, this gives a picture of what is happening inside of your dog, in the case of the bladder and prostate gland we sometimes add a contrast (chemical or air) to help show up details of the tubing and bladder lining.

Ultra sound scans are another way of looking more closely at what is happening inside your dog, in order for these to be performed an area of fur will be clipped away, the skin cleaned and then a gel placed onto it to help p the ultrasound probe to make good contact and pick up details.  Ultrasound scans can be particularly useful for looking at the kidneys and bladder.

What possible treatments might my dog need?

The exact treatment your dog has will depend on what disease process is found in in what part of your dog it is.

Urine tract infection:
This is usually treated with a course of antibiotics and repeat urine samples tested to see when the infection has cleared.

Bladder stones/urine crystals:
This can be treated using special diets to reduce stone/crystal formation, surgery to remove stones, medications to help dissolve stones/crystals along with antibiotics and pain relief as required.

Bladder growths/polyps:
These can be surgically removed and analysed to give an idea of they are likely to return or cause further problems.

Kidney infection: 
This is usually treated by intensive antibiotics along with intra venous fluid therapy (drip line into your dog) to help keep the kidneys flushed through and functioning.

Kidney growth/abnormalities:
If the growth is cancerous and might spread then the kidney might be surgically removed. If the kidney is diseased e.g. polycystic then it will be left in place and your dog given medications and diets to help preserve what is left of its kidney function.

Prostate enlargement/growths:
If your dog is entire then surgical or chemical castration might be advised along with surgery to de bulk the growth if appropriate.

I hope that my answer has helped you to understand how complex something as simple as blood in the urine can be.  Hopefully with your vets help, your dog will be on his road to recovery soon.

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- ‘my cat is now 18 yrs old, bit loathe to help him on his way’

Question from Susan Banfield:

My cat is 18 yrs old, has lost most of his front teeth, bad breath, dribbles all the time, extremely skinny and has trouble keeping himself clean.  Bit loathe to help him on his way over the bridge as his coat still shines, bright eyes, eats well and still goes outside to toilet and explore.  Am I being fair?

Thank you

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Hi Susan and thank you for asking one of the most delicate questions that a pet owner and vet will face ‘when is the right time to have my pet put to sleep?’

As our pets ages we are very aware that we do not want them to go on for too long and that our vet can put our pet to sleep so as to prevent unnecessary suffering.  This is however never a simple or easy decision to make and is very much specific to each individual pet, its condition and its owner.  I will go through the way in which we try to help an owner work out if that time has arrived.  Please remember that as your veterinary team we are here to help and support you any your pet through all situations even after you lose a pet we are here to talk to.

From what you are describing it sounds like your cat has done very well to get to 18 years of age and still be going out, toileting correctly and eating.  Loss of teeth is to be expected as pets get older, often as vets we may have extracted teeth due to infection or damage.  You mentioned that your cat was struggling to keep clean, by this I assume that we are talking about grooming of his coat.  Cats and dogs use their front teeth to almost comb through and nibble at their coats, as you mentioned most of these are missing then it would necessary to groom your cat using a comb, brush or mitt.  If an elderly cat is skinny yet eating well this tends to make us wander if the cat may have an overactive thyroid gland, which can be diagnosed by blood test and then  can be treated using tablets or by surgery/radioactive iodine.

Does my cat still have a good quality of life?

There is not a simple answer as to whether a pet still has a good quality of life, we need to discuss how your pet was at its prime and take into consideration that even though it may not be able to do all those things now he can still be leading a happy, pain free life.

The most basic functions are eating, drinking and being able to go to the toilet.  As cats age we may need to offer them softer foods/smaller meals more often in order for them to get enough food.  Some cats need encouragement to drink, making sure we refresh the water in their bowls regularly, have the bowl near where they rest and some cats prefer running water so a water fountain may help.  Toilet function for a cat involves getting into the correct posture which is not always easy if there is any arthritis/pain in the legs/spine and also accessing the litter box( use of lower sided litter boxes can make it easier to get in/out of them).  Minimising pain can be achieved by treating any underlying arthritis and or use of joint supplements.

So even if your pet needs a few small changes to be able to perform its basic functions then it can still be having a good quality of life just with a little bit of extra help.

As owners we ask ourselves whether our pets are still happy.  How happy and responsive your cat is also needs to be considered relative to how it was when younger taking into account normal changes expected with age.  Not all animals are very responsive so cannot all be measured on the same scale, also there are natural changes at different life stages e.g. juvenile cats are very playful and this will reduce as they become adult cats.  Also obesity can affect how interactive a cat is, so helping your cat to reach its optimum weight will reduce risk of diseases such as arthritis and diabetes as well as help him to be more interactive with you.

Grooming is an activity which cats spend a lot of time doing, as they become older and potentially less flexible then this becomes harder for them, but as owners we can help.  If we did not brush our hair for days on end think how uncomfortable, itchy and sore we would feel. So this is a really simple area in which we can help our older cats to feel happier and more comfortable. But they may not appreciate that we are trying to help them at first so little, often and gently is the way forward.

I hope that my answer has helped you to work out how you can help your cat and that the final decision is always yours as the pet owner but that your veterinary team are here to help you make such a hard decision.  We are more than happy to give you the time you need to discuss matters with us to make sure we all do the right thing for your much loved pet.

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.

Hack, hack, hack – Hairballs! – Invaluable advice for cat owners

There’s nothing quite like being woken up at 2am to the oh-so-unpleasant sound of your cat producing a large hairball at the foot of your bed.  Or perhaps quite so unsettling as stepping in it the following morning.  Hairballs, also known by the fancy and somewhat horrifying name of ‘trichobezoar’, are something that most cat owners will have to deal with at some point.  But how do they form and how can we help prevent them?

What is a hairball anyway?

A hairball is pretty much what it says on the tin – a ball of hair.  Except it isn’t often in the shape of a ball, more cigar-shaped due to its passage through the oesophagus on the way out.  They’re usually quite small, a few cm in length, but can be quite impressive at times.  Cats have tiny barbs on their tongue that are perfect for picking up dead hairs in the coat.  When the cat grooms itself, it swallows a significant amount of hair which usually passes without issue in the stools but sometimes accumulates in the stomach instead.  Hairballs are, as one might expect, more common in long-haired cats and older, more experienced groomers who have more time to spend cleaning themselves each day.  They also tend to occur seasonally, at times of increased shedding.  Sounds like a pretty normal process, and in fact, it’s not uncommon for most cats to have a hairball once or twice a year (a spring clear-out of the stomach if you will…).  But are they really ‘normal’?

Are hairballs a cause for concern?

If they happen infrequently and the cat seems to pass them without issue, then there isn’t much to worry about.  However, there are some medical conditions which can cause more frequent furball production:

  • Pain or stress can cause cats to overgroom, leading to increased hair ingestion
  • Flea infestation can lead to increased grooming as the cat tries to get rid of the little critters and the itch they leave behind
  • Allergic skin disease also causes itchy skin that cats are more likely to lick excessively
  • Gastrointestinal disease can alter the speed at which material moves through the intestinal tract, resulting in less hair making it out in the stool and more getting trapped in the stomach.

But even with the above conditions, the increased hairball production can usually be managed and treated accordingly.  Of much greater concern are the hairballs that DON’T get coughed up and instead stay in the stomach, getting larger and larger until they’re too large to come back out.  In this case, it will either stay in the stomach until it is so big that it causes significant other symptoms, or try to pass into the intestines and cause a life-threatening obstruction.  The only treatment is surgery to remove the blockage, and reports of hairballs the size of a grapefruit are not unheard of!

Is there anything we can do to prevent them?

Cats will always swallow their own fur, but there are some things you can do to minimise the impact:

  • Groom your cat regularly.  By brushing them you remove a lot of the dead hair that they would otherwise be ingesting.
  • Long-haired cats with significant hairball problems can have their coat clipped a few times a year to minimise the fur load.
  • Feed small meals frequently, instead of one or two large meals a day, to help move things through the intestines more quickly
  • You could consider changing the diet, as any diet change can affect gastrointestinal function.  There are special hairball diets out there but in most cases there is little scientific evidence to say that they work.  Speak with your vet before changing your cat’s diet.
  • Your vet may prescribe various medications, which can include oils such as liquid paraffin or other hairball remedies which can help lubricate the hairballs, enabling them to pass through the intestines more easily.

One final word of caution – sometimes people mistake a coughing cat for one that is trying to bring up a hairball as the noise is very similar.  If your cat ‘hacks’ like it’s about to produce a hairball but nothing ever appears, speak with your vet as coughing in a cat can actually be a sign of a serious illness such as asthma or occasionally heart disease.  And like any other medical problem, if your cat does get frequent hairballs, don’t wait for it to get worse, ask your vet for advice and get it sorted before it becomes an even bigger problem.

Amy Bergs DVM MRCVS  - Visit The Cat Doctor website by clicking HERE

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

Ask a vet online-‘How often should an 8 week old kitten be using the litter tray’

Question from Janine Anne-Ruby Law:

How often should an 8 week old kitten be using the litter tray, I got my kitten on Saturday afternoon and she has only pooped twice is this normal? She seems to have settled in really well but I am a bit concerned about this help please?

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Hi Janine and thank you for your question regarding your kitten and toilet training.  From what you are describing about how well your kitten is settling in to her new home and the fact that she is using her litter tray you probably have very little to worry about.

Cats and kittens will pass faeces (poo) when they receive a signal from their bowel (large intestines) that faeces are present and ready to be passed. The exact frequency with which faeces are passed will depend on each individual, their diet, and if they are stressed or have any underlying problems such as bacterial, viral or parasitic infection.

It is normal for kittens to pass faeces as often as they are fed a meal, so at eight weeks old your kitten is probably being fed 3-4 times a day and could therefore be expected to pass faeces up to four time a day, however as your kittens digestive system becomes more efficient and dealing with food and waste products this may well decrease down to once or twice a day.  An adult cat would usually pass faeces once or twice a day.

More important than how many times a day your kitten is passing faeces is whether the faeces looks normal, are passed easily and without any pain or distress.

What might cause my kitten problem passing faeces?

If your pet has a change of diet her digestive system might take some time to adjust to this change, the result may be an increase or decrease in the amount of times they pass faeces and changes to the consistency( harder or softer).

If your kitten is not drinking enough water or getting enough moisture from its diet then the faeces may become dry and more difficult to pass, leading to less frequent passing of faeces, straining and discomfort passing faeces and possibly the passing of some blood with the faeces.

Infection of bacterial and viral causes can lead to soft faeces with or without blood/mucous being passed more often than normal.

Parasites such as round worms are a common finding in the digestive tract of kittens; this can cause constipation, diarrhoea with or without vomiting.  Most kittens are wormed( treated for worms) before you collect them and further worm treatment will be advised by your vet either in the form of paste, liquid, granules, tablets or spot on treatments.

Lack of an opening at the anus, is a very rare condition which can prevent a kitten form being able to pass faeces or a lack of the development of part of the intestine which means the faeces cannot get to the anus.  This is usually detected in very young kittens prior to weaning and can sometimes be treated surgically by your vet.

Blockages of the digestive system such as a foreign body, hair balls and even tubes of gut stuck into it (intussusception) can all lead to abnormalities in faeces production.

In conclusion it sounds as though you have a healthy kitten that is using her litter tray well and regularly, so long as this continues then you should not need to worry.  I hope that what I have discussed in my answer gives you an idea of how many different factors can affect how often your kitten will pass faeces.  The most important thing is to look at how your kitten is in themselves, if they appear bright, are eating, drinking, and toileting normally then do not worry. If there are any changes which worry you, then ask your vet for advice.

Shanika Winters MRCVS Online vet

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