Browsing tag: dog

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 – My dog has black dandruff!

Sheila Elcott asked:

I have an 11 year old red fox lab boy who keeps getting a build up of black coloured dandruff type patches under his chin & his manly areas. Up to date with spot on. Is it his age & lack of my grooming care? After bathing & removing said patches the skin clears. He has hip & elbow dysplacia to boot. Tnx


Hi Sheila, thanks for your question. Skin problems in dogs can be really frustrating to deal with, so I’ll go through some of the possibilities, then talk about how they can be investigated and managed.

So, what can cause patches of black dandruff material to appear?

There are a number of possibilities that spring immediately to mind:

  • Flea dirt. Flea droppings are black flecks, sometimes comma-shaped.
    • I know you’re up to date with spot-on, but there are a wide range of different products out there, some of which are more effective and longer-lasting than others. In addition, most spot-ons are water soluble, so regular bathing or swimming will reduce their effectiveness.
    • You’ll very rarely see a live flea unless there’s a really severe infestation. To check it out, try the wet paper test:
      • Scrape some of the black material onto a sheet of wet white paper.
      • If it goes red, it is probably a flea dropping – they’re basically just dried digested blood.
  • Scabs. As blood dries, it turns black and crumbly. It can be caused by:
    • Lice. Heavy louse infestation can cause scabbing where the parasites suck.
    • Skin infections. In these areas, this would typically be a skin fold infection, where saliva or moisture is trapped against the skin, damaging it and allowing infection to become established.
    • Allergic reactions (e.g. contact dermatitis). Reactions to products such as surface cleaners, pesticides, some plants, etc etc; typically affect the high-contact surfaces – chin, elbows, hocks and belly.
  • Sebaceous matter. Sometimes, excessive secretion of sebum may give the symptoms you’re discuss. This may be due to sebaceous adenitis (an inflammatory disorder), or simply from aging changes.

Unfortunately, without seeing the dog, it’s difficult to know which of these is the most likely for your boy!

So where do we go from here?

Ideally, you want to rule out parasites – do a wet paper test; and ask your vet to do skin scrapes and tape strips to examine the black material and the skin underneath it. Also, try and see if there’s anything that seems to trigger an episode – for example, if it always flares up after using a particular floor cleaner, I’d be really suspicious it was an allergic reaction.

So what can be done?

If a specific cause can be identified, obviously it should be treated (for example, a louse infestation should be treated; and you should avoid using any products that your dog is allergic to).

Even if not, there are certain techniques that may be useful in controlling the symptoms. As the problem resolves with cleaning, I’m quite suspicious that it might be a skin-fold infection – these are often more common in older dogs. In general, these can be controlled with grooming, good hygiene, and the use of medicated antiseptic wipes (e.g. CLX wipes) to control the growth of bacteria in the area. Sometimes, bathing with an antiseptic shampoo can help as well – you should talk to your vet about the options.

I hope that helps and you can get him sorted out!

David Harris BVSc MRCVS

Ask a vet online – My pets breath is bad, but teeth are fine – help!

Question from Sarah Knight:

My Scottie has horrendous breath, teeth are fine, have changed her diet, she also has charcoal on her meals, any other ideas truly welcomed!

Answer: Bad Breath

Hi Sarah, thanks for your question about your dog’s bad breath. To answer it, I’m going to run through the possible causes of halitosis, along with any other symptoms they might show. I’ll then talk about the most likely reasons, and where to go next with diagnosis and treatment options.

Causes of Halitosis

Halitosis, or “bad breath”, is defined as an “offensive odour emanating from the oral cavity”. There are a number of possible causes, some of which are more common than others.

1) Diet

You say you’ve modified her diet, but a lot of dogs (especially terriers!) eat unpleasant things given half a chance – particularly faeces (those of other dogs, horses, livestock etc), or dead and rotting things (often mice or birds found lying in the undergrowth when out on walks). Inevitably, eating anything like this will lead to bad breath.

2) Metabolic disease

We’re particularly talking about diabetes or kidney failure here – both of which can lead to halitosis. In diabetes, the body produces ketones as a fuel supply for the brain, which have a strong smell (with overtones of pear drops – however, not all humans have the gene required to be able to detect this); in kidney disease, the build up of nitrogen waste products in the blood may result in oral lesions and/or smelly breath. In both cases, you’d expect to see increased thirst and possibly weight loss, but the signs can be pretty subtle in the early stages.

3) Respiratory disease

Infections of the nose and sinuses often lead to foul smelling breath, as can tumours of the nasal cavity. Sometimes, in fact, there are no other symptoms, although I’d usually expect some nasal discharge (a single snotty nostril that doesn’t clear up is the classic sign). Have you noticed any wheezing or sneezing? These can be signs that there’s something amiss as well. Sometimes dogs can get foreign bodies such as grass blades stuck up their noses – these result in inflammation and infection, and the tell-tale smell.

4) Oesophageal disease

Some conditions of the oesophagus (the gullet or “food pipe”) can result in halitosis – particularly some tumours or a condition called megaoesophagus, where the gullet is stretched and doesn’t function properly. However, these are usually associated with regurgitation of food or difficulty swallowing.

5) Skin disease

Although I wouldn’t say it was especially common in scotties, infections of skin around the lips (lip fold pyoderma)  can occur in any breed, and can smell quite unpleasant – if the skin around her mouth looks sore or is painful, this is a distinct possibility that will need intervention. Pyoderma like this can also be a result of an allergic condition.

6) Dental disease

This is by far the most common cause of halitosis! Most dogs develop some tartar and plaque as they get older; in some its much worse than others. You say her teeth appear fine, and I’m sure they do, at least at the front; however, plaque is much more common towards the back of the mouth where it’s much harder to see. In addition, dogs can get what’s called a biofilm, where the teeth are covered in a thin membrane of bacteria, but may look normal. In addition, tooth disease doesn’t have to be above the gums – a healthy-looking tooth may have severe gingevitis (gum infection), or periodonitis (infection and inflammation of the roots) which is a common cause of bad breath.

I have to say that, without seeing her, I think some degree of dental disease is the most likely explanation.

Where do we go from here?

Firstly, it’s always worth checking to see if she is picking up faeces from something, and if so, preventing her from having free range in that area. If she’s eating her own, there are products available (e.g. Copro-Nil) that make a dog’s own faeces much less appetising.

Assuming that isn’t the (nice, simple!) cause, check to see if she is showing any other symptoms – snotty nose, sneezing, regurgitating, drinking more, losing weight etc. Measuring water intake over a 24 hour period is really useful; as a rough rule of thumb, more than 90ml per kg per day is an abnormally high amount. If she is showing any of these signs, or you are at all concerned, you should see your vet for further investigation. Blood and urine tests can be used to diagnose kidney disease and diabetes, and X-rays are commonly used for nasal and oesophageal disorders.

The next step is to check for dental problems. It is virtually impossible to do a full dental examination on a conscious patient, but your vet will probably have several tricks up their sleeve that let them get a good look around to pick up the obvious. For a full dental examination, however, an anaesthetic is needed (and I have to say, it’s pretty rare not to find any issues at all in an adult dog). A “dental” (so-called) is a very routine procedure, and would be my favoured way forward, unless you and your vet can be pretty confident that there aren’t any underlying dental issues.

What happens in a “Dental”?

Essentially, the dog is anaesthetised, then their mouth and teeth can be carefully examined (without risk to fingers). Any loose or diseased teeth are removed, and the remainder are scaled and polished to remove any plaque or tartar (just like a visit to the hygienist for us). Normally, the dog will go home the same day.

Is there anything else I can try first?

Yes – if there aren’t any other symptoms, and you can’t see any signs of gum disease or plaque, you can (and really should!) start brushing her teeth. In fact, even if your dog has just had a dental, if at all possible start to brush afterwards – bacteria attach to the freshly cleaned tooth within 6-8 hours, and mineralise (forming dental calculus or “plaque”) within days.

Get a soft tooth-brush suitable for her size (a children’s brush, or a specialist dog one), and some dog tooth-paste (DON’T use human paste – the mint flavour is really nasty for most dogs). Just as you would brush your teeth, gently brush hers, a little at a time until she gets used to it. I would strongly advise every dog owner to brush their pet’s teeth – it would avoid a lot of problems later on.

I hope that helps and that you can get her smelly breath under control!

David Harris BVSc MRCVS

Ask a vet online – is there a test for Leptospirosis?

Berry Wilkinson asked:

I was wondering if you can titre test for leptospirosis? Or is it only useful when you are testing sick dogs? Thanks.


Hi Berry, thanks for your question about testing for Leptospirosis. To answer it, I’ll briefly discuss Leptospirosis as a disease, then talk about the different diagnostic techniques available. Finally, I’ll discuss vaccination and the implications for diagnosis.

What is Leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis (“Lepto”) is a disease caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira. There are more than 300 strains (technically called serovars) of the bacteria. In the UK, Leptospira icterohaemorrhagiae and L. canicola used to be the most common, but since widespread vaccination against these has started, it is now thought that L. interrogans and L. kirschneri may be more important.

The disease is transmitted by body fluids of infected animals, including rats. The symptoms of Leptospirosis in dogs include:

  • Fever and sore muscles.
  • Loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration.
  • It may cause kidney or liver failure
  • Sometimes the only symptom is sudden death.
  • Infected dogs may shed the bacteria in their urine for months or years without showing any clinical signs.
  • Leptospirosis is highly zoonotic – i.e. it is a high risk pathogen for infecting humans.

How is Leptospirosis diagnosed?

There are four methods to test for Leptospira in clinical samples, of which two are clinically useful. They are:

  • Darkfield microscopy – looking for the bacteria themselves. This is very siple, but is notoriously unreliable, unfortunately!
  • Bacterial culture – attempting to grow the bacteria; however, in many cases the bacteria are very hard to culture, so even in confirmed infections, this test may come back negative.
  • Serology – looking for antibodies produced by the immune system in response to the presence of the bacteria. However, vaccination will often lead to a positive response, and low-positive titres (levels of antibody) may persist for a prolonged period. In addition, the levels of antibodies often won’t be significant in the first week of infection.
  • PCR – testing blood (early infection) or urine (later stages of infection or carrier status) for genetic material from the Leptospira bacteria; this is a very sensitive and specific test. However, a negative PCR result doesn’t rule out carrier status because the bacteria are only shed intermittently in the urine, and will not be present in the bloodstream; and it can also appear negative in some milder infections.

So how is serology interpreted?

  • The normal screening test for Lepto is an antibody test (“ELISA testing“) that gives a simple positive or negative result.
    • If this is negative, then in general either:
      • The dog doesn’t have Lepto, or
      • The dog has only been infected in the last week or so.
    • If the result is positive, then:
      • The dog has Lepto, or
      • The dog has had Lepto in the past, or
      • The dog has been vaccinated and still has high levels of circulating antibody.
  • If the ELISA-test is positive; or if the symptoms are suspicious but PCR (genetic) testing is negative, the next phase is to use a different type of antibody testing (“MAT serology“) to determine the level of antibodies in the blood (the titre).
    • On a single test:
      • Low titres are most likely to represent vaccination or past infection.
      • Moderate titres may indicate vaccination or infection.
      • High titres usually represent acute infection.
    • However, it is far more useful to carry out paired serology – 2 tests 7-10 days apart:
      • In a genuine infection, the titre would normally be expected to rise by at least four-fold.
      • In chronic infection, or asymptomatic shedding, diagnosis can be really difficult, but a persistent moderate titre that doesn’t decay over time is highly suggestive of chronic infection; however, demonstration of the organism’s genetic material by PCR in repeated urine samples is often more practical.

What about vaccination?              

There are a number of different Leptospirosis vaccines available; most of them cover 2 strains (“bivalent vaccines”), although some now cover 4 (“quadrivalent vaccines”). They are aimed at covering the most common types that cause disease, and there is relatively little cross-protection between strains (so immunity to one strain or serovar won’t usually protect against another).

The vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent infection, but it should reduce the risk of infection, and it does reduce the severity of clinical disease and shedding (for whichever strains or serovars are covered by that vaccine).

There are some commercial tests that claim to determine whether a dog requires vaccination against Leptospira by testing circulating antibodies. This may work in some cases, but it is very limited. There are a number of problems with this approach:

  • The serological titre (level of antibodies in the blood) can only tell you how much antibody there is in the bloodstream at the specific time the test is done – it cannot tell you whether the levels will remain high for the following 12 months.
  • The link between antibody levels and protection isn’t consistent – some dogs appear to utilise other parts of the immune system (cell mediated immunity) and are protected against Lepto even in the absence of significant circulating antibody titres.
  • After vaccination, titres normally drop off over 4-5 months, but protection lasts for 12 months.

As a result, it is wisest to maintain annual vaccination against Leptospirosis, to reduce the risk of infection to your dog and to you.

I hope that helps!

David Harris BVSc MRCVS

Ask a vet online – my dog has skin allergies, how do I help?

Question from Leona Poppleton:

my dog has skin allergies and so gets very dry skin and sometimes scabs that look quite painful is there anything that I can get or do to help this?

Answer: Scabby Skin

Hi Leona, thanks for your question about your dog’s skin. Allergies with skin symptoms are pretty common in dogs, so I’ll briefly discuss allergic disease, then go on to some of the many different treatment options.

What are skin allergies?

The phrase “skin allergies” refers to the itching, scratching and sore skin that allergic dogs get. However, it doesn’t have to be caused by something on the skin – e.g. food allergies (although quite rare in dogs) can lead to skin symptoms – so “allergic skin disease” is a better term.

Essentially what is happening is that the dog’s immune system misidentifies a harmless substance as a dangerous threat, and tries to attack it, causing soreness and itching. Allergic reactions may be triggered by a wide range of substances such as pollen, certain foods, fleas, mites, plants or even some washing powders. In a large number of cases, there’s no specific “allergy” involved, but the dog has a disease called Atopy (or Atopic Dermatitis), where the immune system reacts abnormally to a wide range of different stimuli. Atopy is partially genetic, and is more common in some breeds (e.g. West Highland White Terriers).

How is it diagnosed?

It is important to get allergic skin disease properly diagnosed by your vet because there are many contributing factors and different underlying problems. As a result, diagnosis can be long and exasperating! In addition, diagnosing Atopy requires ruling out all other possible causes.

1) Initially, its vital to make sure that there aren’t any parasites (especially fleas!) on the dog – this is a LOT harder than most people think, and usually requires treatment of the affected dog, all other pets in the house, and the house itself. (A side note here – there are a lot of over-the-counter products available for treating fleas: some work, some don’t work, and some are very dangerous if not used correctly. I would strongly advise talking to your vet for advice, particularly as the most effective treatments are prescription-only medicines, some of which will also act over time to treat the environment as well as killing adult fleas).

2) The next step is to make sure there aren’t any skin infections that could be contributing to the symptoms, or mites burrowing into the skin. This may require skin scrapes to remove a layer of skin (it really doesn’t hurt!) and tape-strip tests to check for yeasts or bacteria.

3) There are a number of allergy tests available – these mostly use blood samples; intradermal tests (injection of test substances into the skin) may be more reliable, but they are expensive and difficult to perform.

4) To rule in or out food allergies, a controlled food trial is essential. This can be done with truly novel food sources, but in general it is more effective and practical to use a hypoallergenic diet from your vet. These diets are formulated so that the proteins are broken down so small that the immune system can’t recognise it. In a food trial, the dog is fed ONLY the controlled diet (no treats or snacks!) for a number of weeks. If the symptoms resolve, you reintroduce the original diet one item at a time, to determine what’s causing the allergy.

But why does it make my dog itch so much?

Itching is what’s called a “summative, threshold” experience. This means that there is a threshold level, below which itching won’t be felt. Anything that stimulates an itch (“pruritic”) response such as a flea bite, an allergy, or a skin infection, raises the level of “itch” until it breaks this threshold and the dog feels itchy. In most allergic dogs, several different factors combine to make the itching overpowering. Unfortunately, actually scratching makes things worse – this is called the “itch/scratch cycle”.

What are the scabs I can sometimes see?

Scabs generally mean one of three things:

1) Flea bites

2) Skin infection

3) MOST COMMONLY – self-inflicted skin damage caused by scratching. The skin is sore because it’s been scratched, and it’s been scratched because its sore etc etc… Scratching also damages the skin and allows infection to become established, which makes the itching worse.

What can I do about it?

The bad news is that most allergies cannot be cured, only managed. However, with good management, most cases of allergic skin disease can be fully controlled the vast majority of the time. There are a number of classes of treatment, which I’ll deal with in turn; however, many cases will require multiple overlapping treatments, so it is essential that you work with your vet to put together a management programme.

1) Disease modifying treatments

These attempt to reduce the underlying allergic response. The most effective are licensed immune-modifying drugs such as ciclosporin*, which when used long term reduces the allergic response. There is great hope for immunotherapy, where the immune system is gradually taught to tolerate certain allergic substances; this must be made up by a lab specifically for your dog’s allergies. Sometimes an allergy can be “cured” by this route, but it is more usually used to reduce the dog’s sensitivity.

2) Relieving symptoms

These act specifically to reduce the sensation of “itch”. There are three main drugs used for this. Firstly, antihistamines; these are not licensed for use in dogs and may have noticeable side effects, but a vet can legally prescribe them under the cascade if necessary. My experience is that they aren’t very reliable in dogs, but may be useful in some cases. There is also a new drug called oclacitinib which works purely to suppress a dog’s itch sensation. Finally, there are steroids. These reduce inflammation, mildly suppress the immune system and are very, very effective at reducing itching. They’re also inexpensive; however, if used long term, they have a wide range of side effects. They’re often best used as a “rescue” treatment, although steroid creams and sprays that can be applied directly to the sore spots on the skin have fewer side effects.

3) Reducing other sources of itching

This category would include products such as antibiotics for skin infections and antifungals for yeast infections (many of which are available as medicated shampoos), and parasite treatments for fleas and mites.

4) Reinforcing the skin barrier

This is a relatively new area, but seems to be a really useful in some cases or in addition to other treatments. There are soothing and hydrating shampoos which work to remove allergic substances from the coat and soothe the skin; as well as oatmeal shampoos which seem to have an anti-itching effect. Finally, there are the ω-3 fatty acids which appear to help many itchy patients; they may be in the diet (particularly in “skin” or “dermatology” diets), added to food as a supplement, or used as a topical spray or spot-on.

Overall, you and your vet need to find the combination of treatments that suit your dog. Managing the allergic pet is a big task, but I hope this has helped, and that you can keep your dog comfortable!

David Harris BVSc MRCVS

* PS – you may notice I’m using generic drug names not brand names in this article. This is because, for legal reasons, I’m not permitted to name specific brands in a blog like this. If you want to know more, check out the government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate website.

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.

Ask a vet online- ‘My dog has dandruff . Could it be his diet ?’

Question from Andi Jane William:

My dog has dandruff . Could it be his diet . What is best to feed him . He is a 7 year old border collie

Answer by Shanika Winters:

Hi, thanks for your question regarding your border collie and his dandruff.  I will answer your question by discussing what dandruff is, possible causes and then possible treatment options.

What is dandruff?

Most people think of flaky white bits of dry skin usually found on the head and shoulders of a person when they hear the word dandruff.  Dandruff is a word used to describe flaky bits of skin, they can be dry or oily, different sizes and come from any area of skin on the body.

Mostly we are talking about dry white coloured flakes when we use the word dandruff to describe the appearance of a skin condition.  The flakes can however be yellow in colour if oily or even red/brown if they also have some scabs/dried blood in them.

Why does my dog have dandruff?

There are various reasons why your dog may be showing the symptom of dandruff including:

  • Diet
  • Excessive shampooing- dries out the skin
  • Parasites-mites such as cheyletiella or after effect of scratching due to e.g. fleas.
  • Skin conditions- such as underactive thyroid and seborrhoea

How do we work out why my dog has dandruff?

The best way to get to the root of the problem if your dog has dandruff is to take him to your vet, where he can have a thorough examination, detailed history of how long the condition has been going on for including how it has changed and have appropriate test carried out.

Your vet will ask general questions about your dog’s health, diet, grooming regime and parasite control.  This will be followed by a physical examination, concentrating on the area of affected skin.  Depending on their finding your vet might then suggest some tests be carried out e.g.

  • Skin scrapes
  • Hair plucks
  • Sticky tape strips
  • Blood tests
  • See response to parasite treatment
  • Skin biopsies
  • Diet trials

Skin scrapes are when a sterile scalpel blade is used to scrape your dog’s skin usually until the point of light bleeding; this sample is then examined under a microscope to look for parasites and signs of infection.

Hair plucks are when a clump of hair is pulled out and then examined under the microscope or cultured to see if any bacteria/fungi are grown.

Sticky tape strips are literally when a strong clear sticky tape is applied to your dog’s skin and it then removed taking with it surface loose hairs and skin which can then be examined under a microscope.

Blood tests are performed on a sample of blood taken from either a vein on your dog’s front leg (cephalic vein) or the large vein on your dog’s neck (jugular vein).  The blood is analysed at your vet practice or may be sent to a laboratory.  Your vet will be looking for conditions that can affect the skin hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and Cushing’s disease (over production of steroids).

If parasites are suspected as the cause of the dandruff, even if they cannot be seen then a response to a course of antiparasitic treatment can be used to make a diagnosis.

Skin biopsies are when a sample of full thickness of your dog’s skin is cut out and sent to a laboratory for analysis.  Often several sites may be biopsied and sent off.  Skin biopsies will usually be performed with your pet under some form of anaesthesia to provide pain relief and to keep your pet still.

A diet trial is when your dog is fed a specific diet and water to drink but nothing else for a period of time, which could be 8-12 weeks.  This is to ensure that other food substances are out of your dog’s system.  Some animals will show a dramatic improvement in their skin condition as a result of a specific diet; this could be one which has avoided a substance your dog is allergic to or perhaps one with added ingredients to support a healthy skin and coat such as omega oils.

How can we treat my dog’s dandruff?

This will depend on the cause of the dandruff.  A good starting point is to ensure good parasite control for your pet, in contact pets and the home environment followed by a good quality diet which is appropriate to your dog’s age, activity level and general body condition.  We will also sometimes recommend dietary supplements to increase the good oils in your dog’s diet as these can help the skin to stay healthy and move away from the itchy pathways. Certain fish oils and evening primrose oil contain a good balance of oils, please do not use products you get from health food shops or which are designed for people unless this is under the direction of your vet.

Some dogs specifically benefit from a low allergy diet, this is one where an unusual protein and carbohydrate source are used or where the molecules of protein are broken down to a point beyond which they can trigger off allergic reactions.  Low allergy diets need to be stuck to strictly and given for a long period, 8-12 weeks minimum in order to see if there is any improvement before we can say they are not working.  Low allergy diets can be bought or home cooked.

If a an infection is found then the correct antibiotic or antifungal medication will be prescribed, this may be in oral form such as tablets or capsules or could be as a shampoo.  Whatever form the treatment is in, it is very important to follow instructions closely to provide the best chances of successfully treating the condition.

In cases of seborrhoea your pet will have a sensitive easily irritated skin that can have dry or oily flakes.  This can be underlying due to a dietary issue which will need addressing but it can also be massively improved by use of an appropriate shampoo.  It is important that you use the shampoo as directed, allowing adequate contact time with your dog’s skin for the active ingredients to do their job. The shampoo will usually need to be used more frequently at the start of the treatment and this will reduce to less often as the condition starts responding and is being more controlled.

Where hormonal imbalances have been detected via blood tests then appropriate medication will be given, in cases of Hypothyroidism supplements of thyroid hormone are given, the levels of which will be monitored in your pet’s blood.  Other conditions such as Cushing’s disease require treatment to stop the overproduction of steroids in the body, these too need carefully monitoring.

I hope that my answer has helped you to understand how complex dandruff can be to get to the bottom. With the help of your vet then we hope that your dog’s coat soon returns to its former glory and that he is much more comfortable.

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.

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.

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

Question from Jayne Whybrow:

Why do dogs find cat poop so alluring ? How can I stop my pup sticking his head in the cat litter?

Answer from Shanika Winters:

Thank you Jayne for your question regarding your puppy and his interest in the cat litter tray.  I will answer your question by discussing why your dog is interested in the cat litter tray and possible methods to stop this unwanted behaviour.

Why does my dog find another animal’s poo so interesting?

Animals in general leave a scent marker where they pass faeces (poo) and this helps to mark out their territory.  Therefore faeces are naturally interesting whether it is of your own species or another.  The scents could indicate a possible mate, a possible threat to your territory and even predators/prey.

Even our domesticated pet animals have not lost these instinctive behaviours.  Unfortunately as humans/pet owners we find our dogs interest in the faeces of other animals very off putting especially when they may lick or eat it.  Not only do we worry about them passing germs onto us humans but also we are concerned about them getting ill from infections or even parasites.

So what we are dealing with when a dog is interested in e.g. cat poo is a bad habit/unwanted behaviour.

How can I stop my dog from investigating the cat litter tray?

In order to try and change a behaviour we have to firstly understand why it happens and then try and redirect the behaviour in a direction we are happy to encourage.  The first section of my answer goes into why the behaviour happens and now we can address possible solutions.

Types of litter tray:

Simple open litter tray-this is just a shallow plastic tray with sides but no cover

Covered litter tray-this is a shallow plastic tray at the base but then has a cove over the top, with an opening at one end to allow your cat in and out.

Covered litter tray with a door-this is as above but the opening has a door on it, this can help reduce the amount of litter that gets flicked out of the tray as well as helping to contain odours.

The more difficult it is for your dog to access the cat litter tray, the more masked/hidden the scent of the cat faeces are then the less likely he is to show interest in the tray and its contents.  Therefore if you place the cat litter tray in a place that is easy for your cat to reach but not your dog, use litter that helps to mask the smell of the faeces/urine and ideally use a covered litter tray with a door then this will all help to discourage your dog from being interested in it.

It is also advisable to clean out the litter tray as often as you can, at the very least once daily but if possible after each time the tray has been used.  This will reduce the smells present which will mean that the litter tray will be far less interesting to your dog.

How to discourage your dog from his interest in the cat litter tray:

Distraction and deterrents are the next area I will discuss!

Generally when it comes to trying to modify an animal’s behaviour we try and focus on positive reinforcement, this is where you praise and reward a behaviour which you want you’re pet to show rather than punishing them for unwanted behaviours.

It would be great if you can provide your dog with as much distraction as possible to help lessen his interest n the cat litter tray and its contents.  Methods of distraction can include play, toys and training.  Playing with your dog whether it be throwing a ball or rolling around and tickling his tummy will give your dog mental stimulation as well as strengthen the pet owner bond.  Toys such as squeaky balls treat stuffed puzzles and chews are also good to give your dog something more attractive and interesting than the cat litter tray to investigate.  When choosing toys, make sure that they are safe, regularly inspect them for damage and replace before they become dangerous e.g. possible risk of them being eaten and getting stuck.  As regards food stuffed toys keep in mind your dog’s overall energy requirements and how you may need to reduce how much food you give him if he is getting extra calories from his treat stuffed toy.

Training either in the form of organised classes or quality dog and owner time can really help to give extra mental stimulation to your dog, build up the dog owner bond as well as distracting your dog form unwanted behaviours.  It is really important to remember that the more we put into our pets the more we will get back from them in terms of good behaviours and owner enjoyment.

Deterrents are verging on negative reinforcement to try and avoid/stop an unwanted behaviour.  If the deterrent is used carefully and we try and follow up other good behaviours with positive reinforcement then there is a place for this.  Most owners will have already told their dog off/shouted at him for unwanted behaviours.  The problem with this is that the negative focus then is directed at the owner.  If possible it would be better to remove yourself one step from the deterrent; one possibility is the use of a high pitch sounds device or a spray.  Ideally these negative reinforcement behaviours should be used as a last resort and under the close direction of either your vet or a trained animal behaviour specialist.

It is really important to remember to positively reward/praise your dog for all the times he does not show interest in the cat litter tray. The reward can be in the form of kind words, a pat/cuddle and at times treats.

I hope that my answer helps you to understand your dog’s behaviour and that you can make a start on discouraging his unwanted behaviour.

Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)

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

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