Browsing tag: infection

Do you know when your pets are poorly?

It may seem like a silly question, of course you would know when your pets are sick wouldn’t you? They share your life, your home and you know them really well, just as you do other members of your family. However, what many people don’t realise is that our animals are extremely adept at masking signs of illness and often by the time we realise there is a problem, they have been struggling for a while.

This blog was inspired by a cat I saw last week. She was owned by some lovely clients; regulars with their other pets and they definitely have their best interests at heart. I didn’t blame them for not noticing sooner this one was poorly because a) felines are notoriously good at hiding illness and b), you know, I’m a vet, so really I should be quite good at spotting when animals are sick but I don’t expect others to be.

However, I think they may have realised they had left it a little long to bring her; several times during the consultation the husband mentioned that they had waited because she didn’t seem in ‘distress’ and here in lies the nub of the matter for this cat, and for many of the pets I see.

Animals are very, very good at hiding when they aren’t feeling well or are in pain. You could say they are made of much sterner stuff than us humans, and they probably are, but in the main this characteristic comes from millennia of evolution; in the wild sick creatures are soon picked off by predators. This means that even when they feel dreadful animals will do their level best to behave as normally as possible or they may simply go off and sit quietly in a corner or curl up and sleep much more than usual. What they won’t do it moan or groan (or winge and demand tea and sympathy!), the most we might get is a reduced appetite or a limp. This is especially true of problems like arthritis, cancer or kidney failure, all of which are common in older pets.

Sadly this little cat had the latter of these and I will tell you how this tale ends now; blood tests showed her renal function was so damaged the kindest thing was to put her to sleep. Many people would think it almost impossible to not notice a pet was so sick they were near death but this is not the first time I have dealt with a case like this and it won’t be the last.

Obviously you don’t want to be dashing down to the surgery every 5 minutes when a pet isn’t quite themselves but neither do you want to leave things too long. So what is best to do? My advice would be to always be aware of how your pets are and if they have seemed ‘off’ for more than a day, ring your practice for a chat. A good clinic should take the time to speak to you and help you decide whether there is really a problem or not or use the symptom checker on this website!

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at catthevet.com

Ask a vet online – Why is my staffy rubbing his bum on carpet after his glands were done? – Anal gland problems in dogs.

Question from Jo Padfield

Why is my staffy rubbing his bum on carpet after his glands were done. Pls

Answer from Shanika Winters (online vet)

Hi Jo and thank you for your question about your dog’s anal glands. I will explain a little about what anal glands are, where they are and why dogs have them followed by a discussion of what can go wrong with them and how these conditions are treated.

What are anal glands?

The anal sacs (commonly called the anal glands) are a pair of sacs found either side of the anus (bottom); they are around 1cm across and open via a duct (tube) in the anus. As with your dog the anal sacs often become blocked and or infected and this is called anal sacculitis. The substance inside the anal sacs is produced by glands that line the inside of the sacs, this smelly substance should be passed each time your dog does a poo, and leaves a scent marker to other dogs.

What goes wrong with the anal sacs?

Diseases of the anal sacs include anal sacculitis as mentioned and less often tumours. Other conditions around the bottom include anal adenoma (small non-cancerous lumps around the anus), anal furunculosis (cracked infected skin around the anus usually found in German Shepherd Dogs) and perianal hernia (where muscles weaken and separate either side of the anus allowing pelvic and abdominal contents to push through, seen in older uncastrated male dogs).
It is really important to have your dog thoroughly examined by your vet to make sure that the condition has been diagnosed correctly so that the correct treatment can be given.

How are blocked anal sacs treated?

We usually treat blocked anal sacs by manually emptying them out, this can be done by inserting a gloved finger into the anus and gently squeezing on the sac to empty the contents into a piece of tissue paper. The anal sacs can be emptied from the outside but this does not allow the anatomy of the sacs to be examined as thoroughly. Some owners feel confident that they can learn to empty their dog’s anal sacs, this is something to discuss with your vet who can show you how to do this.
If there is infection in the anal sacs then your vet might give your dog antibiotics, this can be given orally or put directly into the anal sacs after they have been flushed out. If the anal sacs are going to be flushed out, most dogs will need sedation or general anaesthesia to allow this to be performed, a small cannula (plastic tube) is passed into the anal sac via the opening of the duct on the anus and saline is then flushed in and the glands then emptied, the process is repeated until the glands appear clean. Antibiotic and anti-inflammatory preparations can then be put into the anal sac. Sometimes steroids may also be given to ease the irritation caused by anal sacculitis.

Anal sacs sometimes are not properly emptied if your dog has soft poo or diarrhoea; this usually improves once your dog’s poo is firm again and can be helped by a change in diet.

When is surgical removal of the anal sacs an option?

If there are severe repeated anal gland infections and the dog does not tolerate medical treatment and manual emptying of the anal sacs then surgical removal is considered. The procedure is performed under general anaesthesia and does carry a small risk of disturbance to the dog’s ability to control passing poo. In most cases the lack of control when pooing is temporary but due the closeness of the nerves controlling continence to the anal sacs themselves there is this risk of them being damaged. Remember that your vet will discuss the pros and cons of a procedure with you so that a joint and informed decision can be made by you with the help of your vet.

I hope that this answer has been helpful for you and that your dog starts to feel more comfortable soon.

Shanika Winter MRCVS (Online Vet)

If your dog has a problem with its anal glands please book an appointment to see your vet, or use our online symptom checker

Ask a vet online – ‘My dog keeps shaking his head and scratching his ears’

Question from Amanda Shaw

My dog keeps shaking his head and scratching his ears, they feel a little bit swollen but they are cleaned often so no mites he is lively and not off his food I’m at a loss.

Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, online vet

Hi Amanda and thank you for your question about your dog’s ears. It is great that you are cleaning your dog’s ears regularly. I will discuss a list of possible causes for your dog to be shaking his head, scratching his ears and for the swelling followed by some treatment options.

Why is my dog shaking his head and scratching at his ears?

The symptoms you have described could be due to a foreign body e.g. a grass seed down the ear canal, bacterial or yeast infection, skin allergy, parasites e.g. ear mites, polyps or an aural haematoma (blood blister) all of which can be painful.

Grass seeds are a common finding down the ear canal of dogs that go for walks in the countryside. The shape of a dog’s ear canal has an upright tube (vertical canal) and then a 90 degree bend and a sideways tube (horizontal canal) at the end of this is the ear drum (tympanic membrane), this lends itself to getting things lodged inside. A foreign body like a grass seed can usually be seen by your vet with the help of an otoscope (hand held torch with a magnifying lens and a funnel). Grass seeds can usually be removed using a special pair of long grabbing forceps; some dogs will however need sedation or a general anaesthetic to allow the removal and examination to be carried out safely. We often send dogs home with antibiotic and pain relief after foreign body removal to combat any infection and pain.

Bacterial and yeast infections of the ear are conditions that affect the skin that lines the inside of the ear canals. The shape of the ear canal along with the ear flap (pinna) tends to funnel in moisture and trap germs. Dogs with a large floppy pinna such as Spaniels have the added feature of a closed lid over the ear canal all leading to a great environment for germs to breed. Infection may be present on other parts of the body and the whole animal may need treatment not just the ears. If the condition is only affecting the ears then ear cleaning solution and antibiotic drops can be a very effective treatment. If you are new to applying ear cleaner and ear drops then ask your vet or veterinary nurse to show you the best way to use them. If the condition is affecting other areas of skin then injectable or tablet medications may be given so that the drugs can travel in the blood stream to reach more areas of the body. When infections are not clearing up your vet might suggest taking swabs from the area. The swabs are sent to the laboratory for bacteriology and sensitivity. This tells us which bacteria and yeasts are present, and which drugs should be effective against them.

Skin allergy can affect the ears as the ear canals are lined by skin, diagnosis and treatment of skin allergy can involve swabs, biopsy samples and skin scrapes analysed at your vets or sent to a laboratory. Treatment of skin allergy can involve use of low allergy diets, shampoos, desensitisation vaccines, antibiotics, antihistamines and various immunosuppressant drugs.

Parasites including ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) and ticks (Ixodes varieties) can lead to irritation and then bacterial infection of the ears. Ticks are usually visible to the naked eye but ear mites are more easily seen under a microscope. Use of an appropriate antiparasitic treatment and removal of the parasites are the best method of treatment.

Aural haematoma, this is a blood blister usually found on the outer skin of the ear pinna, seen as a swollen area which often causes the ear to droop. The swelling is soft and fluid filled, it is often the result of a trauma such as a dog fight or vigorous ear shaking. The haematoma develops as small blood vessels in the ear burst and the blood leaks under the skin, this separates into a pink tinged fluid and a thicker dark red clot. Some dogs are prone to recurrence of aural haematomas and repeat treatments may be needed. There are two main methods of treatment, draining via a needle or surgical drainage under a general anaesthetic. Antibiotics, steroids or anti-inflammatory drugs may also be given in the form of tablets, injections or directly into the ear.

Ear polyps are growths of different size that occur inside the ear canal, they are usually diagnosed on examination using an otoscope. Polyps are usually not cancerous but if there is any doubt then the polyp can be sent to a laboratory for analysis after removal. Small sized and numbers of polyps may not cause a problem to your dog but if there is irritation they can be removed surgically, in more serious cases removal of part or all of the ear canal may be an option.

In conclusion it is really important to have your dog’s ears examined by your vet so that a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment can be started. I hope that my answer has been helpful and that your dog has much more comfortable ears as soon as possible.

Shanika Winters VetMB MRCVS (online vet)

If your dog has a problem with its ears please book an appointment to see your vet, or use our online symptom checker

Ask a Vet Online – ‘My yorkie has problems with her front dew claws they split so she is constantly licking her paw’

Question from Sharon Barrett

I have a yorkie she has problems with her front dew claws they seem to split so she is constantly licking her paw is there anything I van do to ease her discomfort please? Thank you, her brother also has the same problem they will be 5yrs in April… Thank you.x

Answer from Shanika Online Vet

Hi Sharon, thank you for your question about your dog’s dew claws. In order to ease your dog’s discomfort caused by the splitting dew claws it is important to understand what dew claws are and why they are splitting.

What is a dew claw?

The dew claws are small toes in the position in which we have our thumbs, they are considered to be a ‘vestigial digit’ in the dog. Vestigial refers to the fact that dew claws are usually much smaller than the other toes and now serve very little function, some people do however see their pets using their dew claws to help grip objects. Dew claws can be found on both front and back legs but are more common on the front legs. Not all dogs have dew claws and some may have had them removed when very young.

Why is the dew claw splitting?

A claw or nail is formed by the tissue in the nail bed, any damage or disease of the nail bed itself can lead to a weak claw which is prone to splitting. Diseases that can affect the nail bed include bacterial or fungal infections and traumatic damage.

Overgrown claws and or weak claws are much more prone to catching on things, cracking and splitting. The nail bed is a very sensitive structure with a good blood supply, so damaged claws can cause a great deal of discomfort to your pet and may bleed.

How can I ease my dog’s discomfort?

Firstly by ensuring the dew claws are kept correctly trimmed, there will be less chance of the claw catching on things when the dog walks or plays and therefore less chance of splitting.  As with the rest of a dogs nails the dew claw has a small blood vessel running through it from the nail bed, this is often referred to as the ‘quick’, care must be taken to trim the nail using a pet nail trimmer and leaving a few millimetres of nail after the blood vessel. If the blood vessel is accidentally cut into then firm pressure should be applied plus or minus a cauterising agent (this is a substance that helps to stop the bleeding). If in any doubt then ask your vet or veterinary nurse to trim your dog’s claws for you.

Can my dog’s diet affect its nails?

A good balanced complete dog food should contain all the essential nutrients your dog need to maintain a healthy body, however it is though that the B vitamin Biotin may help hair and nail growth. B vitamins are water soluble and supplementation under the direction of your vet is worth considering.

Should I consider dew claw removal?

Any surgical procedure should only be undertaken after careful consideration and discussion with your vet. Once a dog is adult then the dew claws have a very good nerve and blood supply and therefore removal is a very similar process to amputating any other toe. Toe amputation requires general anaesthesia, post -operative wound care (dressings) and pain relief.

We usually advise dew claw removal if there are repeated incidents of dew claw damage and or infections that are causing pain and suffering to your pet.

In conclusion the best long term solution for your dogs might be to have their dew claws removed but this decision should be made between you and your vet taking into consideration your pets circumstances. I hope that this answer has been helpful to you.

Shanika Winters MRCVS

The Kinder Cut – Castration of horses

This is the time of year when people start to look at their cute little foals, and suddenly realise they’re starting to grow up fast… As a result, it’s also when we start to get phone calls from people to talk about gelding them.

If you are considering getting a colt gelded (“cut”), my advice would be to contact your vet, who will be able to advise you on the best approach in your particlar circumstances. However, I’m going to try and go through some of the commoner questions below, so you’ve got some basic information on the decisions to be made, the procedure, and what you’ll need to consider.

The first question, of course, is whether or not to get him cut. It’s an important decision, so these are my thoughts…
The majority of male horses are castrated, and for very good reason – very few people have the facilities, the time, or the inclination to manage an entire stallion. The old adage had it absolutely right – “You can tell a gelding, you can ask a mare, but you discuss the matter with a stallion”. Although there are some superbly well mannered stallions out there, it takes years of expert training – and in my experience they’re almost always more “bolshie” than a gelding, and much less forgiving of any mistakes. They are also much more easily distracted (e.g. by a passing mare), and prone to fighting.
Does this mean you can’t train them well and keep them happily and healthily? No, of course not – but it’s a lot harder. The majority of stallions can’t be kept in groups because of the husbandry regimes on most yards, so have to live on their own. That’s not good for their mental health, or their owners and riders! If someone has the knowledge and facilities to bring up a stallion, I don’t have a problem with that, and I wish them luck, but I’ve seen too many bored, frustrated and borderline dangerous stallions who haven’t been brought up correctly, and remain a liability.
Geldings, however, can be kept in groups, can mix with other horses, and are less likely to lose the plot or throw a temper tantrum. They also don’t present you with unexpected foals in your competing mares…
If you decide not to have him done, you need to be sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. The majority of horses are not necessarily good breeding material – you need to take an objective look at him and decide if breeding from him is actually going to benefit the breed. If you’re avoiding doing it just because you don’t like the thought of the procedure, you’ll need to think long and hard about whether thats in his best interest – or yours.

If you are getting your colt cut, the next decision is when to do it. There are two major concerns – the time of year, and the maturity of the colt. In terms of time of year, it’s best to do it when the weather is cold enough to prevent flies from infecting surgical wounds. Ideally, then, this would be in late autumn or early spring, but gelding him in winter is perfectly acceptable if the facilities are suitable. Regarding the colt’s maturity, there is an upper and a lower limit.
The lower limit is the most rigid – except in an emergency (e.g. a strangulating hernia), I would never geld a colt until both testes had descended into the scrotum – because it’s really important to make sure you’ve got both! This usually happens between 6 and 12 months old, but it is a bit variable. In addition, the colt has to be strong and mature enough to survive the surgery, although with modern anaesthetics this isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be. The upper limit is much more flexible. Stallions into their twenties are castrated fairly commonly, but once they’ve passed through puberty, a lot of the stallionish behaviour is learnt, and won’t be reversed by castration, including some forms of aggression, and mounting behaviour. Sometimes, people like to wait until a colt is 3 or 4 years old before gelding, but I think that often even that is too late – although it does allow the colt to develop more muscle, he’ll also be developing stallion traits. In addition, the younger the colt, the smaller the testicles, and the smaller the testicles, the lower the risk of bleeding during the op. During puberty, the testicles increase dramatically in size, and as a result, their blood supply increases accordingly; the bigger spermatic artery in a post-pubescent colt is much harder to control bleeding from.
As a general rule (and it’s a VERY rough rule of thumb!) I’d normally look to geld between a year and eighteen months old. That said, there are a lot of exceptions – I once had to sort out the castration of a four month old colt because he’d started mounting his mother… There are also a number of opinions about weaning – before, after or at the same time? In this case, I think it depends entirely on the colt in question, and it’s an area (one of many) where I’ll usually defer to the owner’s judgement.

Before you go any further, its a good idea to get the colt thoroughly checked out – both testicles need to be present and easily palpable; if one is “shy” and difficult to find, I usually recommend checking again in a month or so. If it’s still inaccessible, the colt may be a cryptorchid (i.e. a rig, with one undescended testis). These colts should ALWAYS be castrated, and have to be done under general anaesthetic, if possible in a clinic. This is because the retained testicle, being kept at an abnormally high temperature inside the body, is more likely to become cancerous. Also, the defect may be genetic – and if so, he’ll risk passing it on to his offspring.

Once you’ve decided when, there’s another important decision you and your vet will have to make, and that’s the details of the procedure. Basically, there are two factors to decide – firstly, do you want him done “at home or away”? Secondly (a related point), do you do him under standing sedation or down under a general anaesthetic?
Regarding the location, it depends on your practice’s policy and facilities. Many practices now offer castration at the clinic, but the majority of people still choose to have the op done at home. The advantage of having it done at a clinic is that the procedure can be cleaner, and all the equipment and apparatus is there; in addition, many practices charge a callout fee for coming to the yard. However, that’s offset by the fact that you’ll have to transport the colt to the clinic; in addition, I think it’s usually less stressful for the procedure to be done at home, assuming the appropriate facilities are available. Exactly what facilities you need depend on the technique that’s going to be used.

There’s a lot of debate as to this decision, and some frankly ridiculous comments from some badly-informed people out there. I’m going to talk through the options and the pros and cons.
The two main options that you’ll need to think about for the procedure itself are whether to have the op done under standing sedation or general anaesthetic. In some cases, the decision is easy – miniature horses and small shetlands should almost never be done standing, because they’re too small for the surgeon to get good access and control the site, for example. Draft breeds are at a higher risk of eventration (see below, when abdominal contents escape through the castration wound), and so need a different surgical technique, which may be easier under a general; and fully adult stallions bleed more so may need better surgical access – again, a general anaesthetic makes this easier. However, most colts can be done either way, so you and the vet need to decide which you prefer.

Under standing sedation, the colt is given intravenous sedatives (see my blog on sedatives) so he becomes very dopey. He will continue standing up, but his head will drop, and he is likely to adopt a wide-based stance (which makes surgical access easier!). However, its important to remember that he is still to some extent aware of what’s going on, so local anaesthetic is injected into the testicles (perhaps 20ml into each one, plus some under the skin of the scrotum) or into the spermatic cord (although I find that that’s easier said than done, with most colts pulling the testicles up tight to the body wall so the cord is difficult to access from outside) to numb the area. The castration is then performed with the vet working from standing beside the horse. This approach avoids the risk of a general anaesthetic, and means the horse will recover from the sedative faster. However, the degree of sedation achieved is variable, and some colts appear to be more aware of the procedure than one would like, no matter how much sedative you pour into them. There’s also a MUCH higher risk of the vet or their assistants being injured – unsurprisingly, some colts object violently if they realise what you’re doing…
In addition, the surgical access is poorer (the vet is having to work upside down, and largely by feel) so if there is a complication, it is harder to control it.

Under a general anaesthetic approach, the colt is sedated and then given an injection of a general anaesthetic. He’ll become very sleepy, and then lie down. Once he’s out, an assistant lifts up the top leg, giving the surgeon access. The disadvantage is that most vets will only do a GA on a horse if there’s another vet along to monitor the anaesthetic, which may affect the cost. In addition, a GA is a risk in its own right – one study suggested that the average mortality rate from GA in a horse is 1% (although this includes colics and emergency operations – the risk for a young, healthy colt is much lower). On the other hand, the risk of injury to the vet or assistants is much lower, and the risk of surgical complications is also much reduced, as the surgeon can see exactly what they’re doing.

Is either one definitively better than the other? No. However, it is a decision to take WITH your vet, as they may have a preference that will affect their efficiency. For what its worth, I’ve done geldings both ways, and personally I prefer to do them under general, because its safer for me and everyone else around – and if there was to be a complication, I’ve got a better chance of finding and fixing it at the time.

The procedure itself is pretty much the same whichever way up the horse is. Along with sedation, I give an injection of an anti-inflammatory and painkiller, and antibiotic cover (no procedure done on a yard or in a field can ever be truly sterile, so I’d prefer to make sure there are antibiotics on board when we start). In the past, vets didn’t routinely give painkillers as well as the sedation (which contains a painkilling component), but personally I don’t think its fair not to.

There has historically been quite a mystique about the procedure itself – probably because people are a bit shy to discuss it. As a result, there is sometimes serious confusion – remember, gelding is NOT the same as a vasectomy, and it can’t be reversed… Not even (as apparently happened to a colleague of mine) if the client stops you as you’re about to drive off and, holding up a neatly severed pair of testicles, asks the vet to reattach them because she’s changed her mind…

So, here’s a quick run through the procedure:
The area of the groin is scrubbed with a skin disinfectant, and a final check is made that both testes are accessible. Whichever one is held closer to the body is the one I’ll start with, just in case it is retracted later. I’ll then scrub up so my hands are sterile. Some vets wear gloves, others don’t – I don’t think it really matters as long as they’ve scrubbed thoroughly. Gloves add an additional sterile barrier; but on the other hand they can reduce your feel and grip, so it depends on what the vet is happiest with.
Once the scrotal area is scrubbed, the vet will use a scalpel blade to cut through the skin of the scrotum. There are a couple of different options from here on, but the principle is the same; to cut down through the tissue to the vaginal tunic (the membranes that surround the testis itself) and then gently pull the testicle down and out. In an “open” castration, the tunic will be opened, in a “closed” technique, it gets left intact and the testicle pulled down still inside. Once there’s enough slack in the spermatic cord (containing the blood vessels, nerves etc that supply the testicle), the emasculators are applied across the cord, with or without the tunic, depending on the technique. These are a clever bit of kit that crush the cord, preventing it from bleeding, while at the same time cutting off the testicle itself.
(Quick aside here – I was doing a gelding once and, as is customary, I showed the removed testicle to the owner to show it had been done; he was a teenage lad and he fainted dead away. Interesting ethical problem there – do I try and help the unconscious boy, or do I just keep working on the anaesthatised horse who’ll soon wake up? Fortunately, he recovered on his own before I had to scrub out, but he was pretty green around the gills for the rest of the morning…)
In an older stallion, most vets will put a suture through the cord to ligate the artery, but this increases the risk of infection, so we don’t always put one in if doing an Open procedure. After removing the emasculators, the vet will check closely for bleeding from the stump. If there isn’t any, they’ll repeat the procedure on the other side. If the surgery is taking place in the field, the vet will usually leave the incision open for drainage; closing it seriously increases the risk of post op swelling and infection.

As a note, there is always a bit of bleeding after the operation. The rule of thumb is, if you can count the drops, its fine! There’s also invariably some swelling of the sheath, but again, it isn’t usually anything to worry about. If in any doubt though, you should contact your vet. Your vet will give you instructions for post op care, but the most important thing is to keep the new gelding moving, to reduce the swelling and encourage drainage.

The complications to be aware of are bleeding, eventration, and infection.
bleeding is pretty obvious – some oozing from around the incision is normal, but there shouldn’t be any significant haemorrhage from the stump of the spermatic cord. If there is, or if there’s a lot of blood – call your vet! Uncontrolled bleeding is an emergency that may require a repeat surgery to control it.
eventration, is when abdominal contents prolapse through the inguinal canal, and it’s more common in draft breeds. This is the main reason we’d do a Closed castration, as it ties off the tunic; but it does increase the risk of infection. Eventration usually involves some fatty tissue (the omentum) and although it needs urgent surgical repair, it isn’t usually life threatening. Very occasionally, however, it progresses to evisceration, where loops of intestine come through. This is very serious, but (touch wood) it’s also very rare.
infection is uncommon, and usually responds to antibiotics. In a few unlucky cases, though, a schirrous cord forms, where abscesses form in the canal. These take months of management, and in the end, treatment is usually surgical removal of the infected tissue.

These complications are very rare, and even if they occur, they’re usually fixable, so don’t get scared of the possibility! I only mention them so you’ve got an idea of what to look out for.

The last thing to bear in mind is that the gelding may still show sexual interest for some weeks after castration (at least, if he was before), and may even be fertile for a time: although he can’t make more sperm without testicular tissue, there will still be some “in storage” in the spermatic ducts. I always advise that a newly gelded colt or stallion should be isolated from mares for at least 6 weeks, after which any remaining sperm will have died or been flushed out, and his testosterone levels will have declined to the point where he won’t have any hormonal urges.

The bottom line is this: although it doesn’t seem a nice thing to do, for most colts in most situations, gelding leaves them happier and more content than they would otherwise be as entire stallions.

Rain Scald, Mud Fever and Greasy Heels – Wet Weather Care for Horses

I heard on the news recently that last year was one of the wettest on record. I don’t know if it’s true – but it certainly feels about right! The big danger to our horses from this, of course, is Rain Scald and Mud Fever.

Most people have probably come across Rain Scald on occasions – the scabs hidden away in the coat feel like mud, until you pull them up and see the characteristic “paint brush” appearance as the hair stays stuck in the scab. Rain Scald is caused by a bacterium called Dermatophilus congolensis. This usually lives (fairly) harmlessly on the skin, but if the skin gets and stays wet, the bacteria can invade and set up an infection.

Most cases are mild, with just a few scabs here and there, but (especially in older horses and those with Cushing’s disease) it can be more general and leave large raw patches. Even a mild case can put a horse “off games” if the scabs or raw patches are under the saddle.

Most cases resolve on their own with simple care – gently brush out the scabs, and most importantly keep the area dry to allow it to heal. That said, older horses and those with other diseases may need a helping hand, in which case a short course of antibiotics from your vet will usually clear it up. HOWEVER… Unless the underlying problem is sorted, it will rapidly return! Prevention is far more important, and that means keeping the skin as dry as possible. Remember, if your horse gets wet, that’s fine as long as he can then dry out thoroughly. It’s if the skin stays constantly wet that problems ensue – and watch out for rugs, especially in early autumn! When it’s wet, but not that cold, horses can easily sweat up under their rugs, and sweat seems to be even worse than rain for causing Rain Scald.

The other thing to watch out for, of course, is Mud Fever. This is an infection of the skin behind the heels (its sometimes called Greasy Heels), and is most common in horses with long feathers. It’s a far more complicated disease than rain scald, and has a large number of contributary causes. The most important is wet weather, of course – as the skin gets wet, bacteria can invade, as in rain scald – long feathers keep the water trapped in the area, slowing down the drying, so cobs and heavy horses are more prone. However, mites are also a known cause (the first signs are usually stamping of the hind legs), and its not just bacteria, because some cases include yeasts and other fungi as well. Sometimes, really aggressive bacteria like Pseudomonas can establish themselves, and they can be really difficult to manage.

The symptoms vary, but generally it first presents as scabs in the angle of the heels behind the pastern. If untreated, or as the infection gets worse, cracks in the skin can open up and start oozing fluid and pus, and the legs thicken. Eventually, lymphangitis can occur and ultimately, the skin can slough or even become gangrenous.

Initial treatment is very simple: wash the affected area with a skin disinfectant (like Hibiscrub or similar), and once the scabs are softened, gently wash them off. This may take several days of work! If the infection progresses, or doesn’t improve, you will need veterinary attention.

Most cases respond well to a course of first-line antibiotics (e.g. Penicillin/Streptomycin or Timethoprim Sulpha); however, if it doesn’t respond in a week or so, I would always take a swab for bacterial culture and sensitivity testing. This give you a much better idea what bacteria you’re dealing with, and how best to kill them – I had a case once which turned out to be a multi-resistant Pseudomonas infection, that needed some really powerful off-license antibiotics to resolve it. Sometimes you can use topical antibiotics (creams, ointments etc), and in severe cases, I have occasionally used a “bespoke” ointment that I made up from several different antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory. If there are mites involved, most vets will use an injectable anti-mite drug; however, this isn’t licensed for use in horses so has to be put up by your vet.

As usual, prevention is much better (and cheaper!) than treatment, though, so keeping the heels dry is vital. Sometimes using an aqueous cream like zinc and castor oil, or Vaseline, can be useful in encouraging the water to run off – but if you do use them, make sure you wash it off and dry it thoroughly once or twice a week before reapplying, so it doesn’t get too thick.

Of course, in an ideal world, keep the horses out of muddy fields and trackways… But given the recent weather, I fear we’re all going to have to be a lot more careful to keep our horses and ponies warm and dry this autumn.

If you are worried about any symptoms your Horse or pony may be displaying please talk to your vet or try our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide to help decide what to do next.

Toxoplasmosis gondii, Pregnancy and Cats – Fact vs. Fiction

Well over halfway through my second pregnancy, I am currently inundated with comments from clients, mostly positive, and it has added a bit of humour and lively conversation to my otherwise increasingly tiring days. ‘Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?’ ‘How do you think your toddler is going to react to the new baby?’ ‘Are you going to come back to work after two children?’ But one question I wasn’t expecting came from a woman with a lovely ginger tom – ‘Are you sure you’re OK to examine my cat if you’re pregnant?’ I laughed and assured her that despite my expanding waistline I could still reach the table and her cat would be fine. But after a slightly confused and very embarrassed smile, she explained that she had recently been told by a friend that she would have to give up her beloved cat once she became pregnant because it wasn’t safe for pregnant women to be around cats. It had been a while since I had heard that myth and was saddened to hear it again, but I wasn’t terribly surprised. We spent most of the rest of the consultation discussing the real facts about toxoplasmosis, the disease in question, and she left very much relieved that her feline friend was not going to have to be evicted should she ever decide to have a baby, and determined to speak to her GP if she had any further concerns.

What causes toxoplasmosis?

Amber-on-grassToxoplasma gondii, the protozoal parasite responsible for causing the disease known as toxoplasmosis, is a tiny single-celled organism that can infect many different species from mice to sheep to humans. Cats, however, are the only hosts in which the parasite can reproduce, so in addition to being infected themselves, they can also release oocysts (which are essentially the eggs from which new organisms are created) in their faeces. These eggs are very resistant and can survive in some environments for months, allowing other animals to ingest them with their food. When other animals such as mice become infected with the parasite, it develops to form tiny cysts in their muscles and waits there until the animal is eaten by another cat so it can begin the cycle all over again. Most animals, therefore, are capable of spreading the infection through the consumption of their flesh, but only cats are able to spread it via their faeces.

What happens to cats that are infected with toxoplasmosis?

The short answer to this question is, well, usually not much. In fact, unless the cat is otherwise ill or immunocompromised (young kittens, or those with FIV or FeLV), most owners don’t even notice if their cat becomes infected. If cats do show symptoms, these usually include fever, decreased appetite and lethargy. Rarely, more serious cases may develop pneumonia, blindness or inflammation of the eyes, or more commonly, neurological symptoms such as personality changes, loss of balance, walking in circles, difficulty swallowing, or seizures.

How are people infected and why is it so dangerous?

People can become infected by handling the faeces of infected cats (but only during the few weeks after they become infected for the first time, after that they stop shedding the eggs), gardening in soil that has been defecated in by recently infected cats, or more commonly, eating undercooked meat of any kind as animals such as lambs and pigs can also be infected (the cooking process kills the organism). But as you’ll see below, all of these things are easily prevented with simple and common sense measures. There are three main health concerns when it comes to humans. The first and most well-known risk group is pregnant women. Expectant mothers that pick up the disease for the first time during pregnancy (ie, NOT those that have already been exposed to it earlier in life) do not usually show symptoms themselves but are capable of passing the infection on to their unborn child. In these cases, vision and hearing loss, mental disabilities and occasionally even death of the child are possible. So there is certainly cause for concern. The second group of people that are particularly at risk are those that already have immune systems that are deficient, such as those with HIV or AIDS or who are on chemotherapy. Finally, although the vast majority of people who become infected with the toxoplasma organism (and that includes a staggering one third to one half of the world’s human population!) show only mild flu-like symptoms if any at all, it has recently been linked to some pretty serious conditions such as brain tumours, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and possibly even an increase in suicide risk. But because most people don’t know they have it, it isn’t something that is routinely screened for so a lot more studies need to be done before we know the true effects of the illness in all species, not just humans.

If toxoplasmosis can do all that, why would anybody own a cat??

Domino-sleepingBecause even though cats spread the disease, we are very unlikely to catch it directly from them. Cats are only capable of spreading the disease for the first 2-3 weeks after they are first infected. After that, they are immune to new infections and although they may later show symptoms, they are not later contagious. And then even if your cat was shedding eggs, there has to be direct ingestion of the contaminated faecal material by humans. Not many of us (perhaps toddlers aside…) will intentionally consume cat faeces, but we will sometimes come inside after gardening and grab a quick sandwich without remembering to wash our hands. This is not a problem with the cat itself, rather our own personal hygiene. It is extremely unlikely that you would pick up toxoplasmosis by petting your cat or being scratched or bitten by your cat, because the organism is not spread by the fur or saliva. You CAN, however, pick up toxoplasmosis by eating undercooked infected meat, particularly lamb and pork. Again, this is not your cat’s fault, rather our own lack of taste or culinary skills, and is by far the most common way of picking up the disease in developed countries.

What’s the best way to avoid becoming infected?

Use common sense, and if you are pregnant, take a few extra precautions and chances are you’ll be just fine. Unless you already have it, which is probably more likely than you care to acknowledge, but chances are you’ll never know it so you might as well do these things anyway!

• Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or drink unpasteurised milk. And once you’re finished preparing raw meat, wash your hands and all surfaces that it may have touched.

• Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, even if they came from your own organic garden.

• Wash your hands well after gardening and before eating, especially for children, goodness knows where those hands have been…

• Pregnant women, and people with suppressed immune systems, should not clean the litter tray (I don’t know many pregnant women who wouldn’t jump at the chance to make their partner clean the litter tray). Or if you must clean the litter tray yourself, wear gloves, wash your hands well and try to remove the stools daily as faeces that have been sitting around for a few days are more infectious.

Toxoplasmosis is a serious illness and can cause serious harm to both cats and humans. But contrary to what many people believe, living with a cat only slightly increases your chance of catching the disease and with the help of simple common sense measures like those mentioned above, this risk can be minimised. So yes, I’m perfectly happy to keep working and living with cats, and hopefully you will be too. But if you do have any questions regarding either your own health or that of your family, make an appointment to speak with your GP and make sure everybody is aware of the facts rather than the myths about toxoplasmosis.

If you are worried about your cat talk to your vet or use our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they may be showing and see how soon you should visit your vet.

Colic: Part 1: Diagnosis and Workup

Horse colic examination and anatomy
When talking about colic, it’s important to have some idea of what the various parts of the equine gut are… So, here we go:
Stomach – quite small, and hidden away deep up in the ribcage.
Small intestine - this is very long, but quite narrow (perhaps 1 or 2 inches across). It is all coiled up throughout the abdomen.
Large intestine – this is divided into three parts:
The Caecum is a large sac perhaps four or five feet long, pointing forward, and can be heard on the right flank. Generally, it makes a loud gurgling noise every 20 to 30 seconds in a normal, healthy horse.
The Large Colon makes up a double U shape, lying on the bottom of the abdomen. It can be up to a foot across, but at each end is a sharp 180-degree bend; the bend near the pelvis (the pelvic flexure) is especially narrow.
The Small Colon runs from the large colon down to the rectum, along the top of the abdominal space.

It’s something all horse owners dread – colic. However, colic is a symptom, not a disease in its own right, and has a wide range of different causes. This is the first in a three-part series where I’ll be looking at colic in horses – its diagnosis and treatment, and what happens if your horse has to be referred for surgery.

Put simply, all colic is, is abdominal pain. However, before you’re tempted to dismiss it as a stomach ache, it’s worth remembering that the horse’s intestines are as complicated as a major chemical factory! Anything that causes disruption to their function is potentially life-threatening.

Occasionally, colic pain comes from a non-intestinal source, e.g. Liver disease (think ragwort poisoning, or liver fluke), or a kidney issue. In mares, it can also be caused by certain disorders of the reproductive tract. However, the vast majority are due to disease, damage or malfunction of the intestines.

If you call your vet and tell them that your horse has colic, they’ll treat it as an emergency, because it can be. They’ll generally take a bit of history from you, a quick description of what the horse is doing at the moment, and then they’ll head out to examine the horse. Most vets will also give instructions for what to do while you’re waiting; it’s important to do what they say, not what someone else on the yard suggests. This is because they may have an idea what sort of colic your horse has, and will try to tailor their instructions to the specific case. For example, some forms of colic respond well to being trotted around on the lunge; however, that can worsen other types.

When they arrive, the vet will want to establish three things:
Firstly, does the horse actually have colic? I’ve been called out to “colic” cases that proved to be laminitis; to a mare foaling down; once even to a tired (but perfectly healthy) horse sleeping in his stable!
Secondly, assuming it is a colic, is it a Medical or a Surgical Colic? (I’ll talk more about this distinction in a minute).
Third and finally, can they make a specific diagnosis of what kind of colic it is?

Every vet will have their own routine, but my workup goes something like this:

What’s the horse’s behaviour like? Is he alert, or dull and unresponsive? Is he thrashing about, or just looking at his flanks occasionally? Generally, a quieter horse is likely to have a milder colic, unless he or she is so toxic that they are depressed or spaced out. One exception is that some spasmodic colics are incredibly painful – however, the pain usually comes in waves.

Are there any droppings in the stable? Hard, dry lumps of faeces is suggestive of an impaction, or blockage; while very runny faeces or diarrhoea may suggest colic secondary to an infection, e.g. Salmonella.

Then I’ll start my examination:

Mucous membranes (gums are usually most accessible and reliable) – what colour are they, what is the refill time, are they tacky?
The normal colour is described as being “salmon pink”, and if you press with a finger for a moment, the colour should fade to white, then return within 2 seconds. They should also be nice and moist to the touch. If they are red, or purple, or the colour doesn’t fade, it is highly suggestive of toxic shock (like septicaemia). This is a marker of a really, really severe injury to the gut wall, that’s allowing bacterial toxins to enter the circulation. If the refill time is greater than 2 seconds, or the membranes are tacky or dry, it suggests dehydration and/or shock.

Heart rate - how fast, is the rhythm good? As a (very rough and ready!) general rule, a heart rate under 60 beats per minute implies a Medical colic, while over 80 suggests a Surgical case. If there’s an abnormality in the rhythm, it can mean heart disease as well, or severe toxic shock.

Gut sounds - what do the guts sound like in all 4 quadrants?
This is where you’ll see your vet putting a stethoscope to the horse’s flanks, listening to the guts. The normal, healthy gut makes a wide range of bubbling, gurgling noises (the sort that anywhere else you would associate with really cheap plumbing!). The bottom left is the left Large Colon, bottom right is the right Large Colon and perhaps some Caecum, the top right is the base of the Caecum, and the top left is mainly small intestine. This is one of the most useful tests we can do – reduced sounds mean the guts are “slowing down” – this can mean an impaction or blockage, but it can also mean a serious disease e.g. a twisted gut. Increased sounds is generally a good sign, as it usually means a Spasmodic colic.

Finally, I’d want to take the temperature (a horse with a fever is likely to have another disease, e.g. Salmonella, that is the underlying cause of the colic), and then, if at all possible, do a rectal exam. People get very excited about this, and it’s one of the standard jokes about vets, but I’d like to go on record and say that I doubt anyone actually enjoys rectalling a horse! Apart from anything else, it’s dangerous to the vet, and uncomfortable to the horse… However, it can provide more information than almost any other test. What we’re feeling for is anything unusual: is the large colon a normal size and texture? How about the Caecum? Can you feel the small intestine? Usually, the small intestine is almost impossible to feel – it just slithers out of the way. If, however, you can feel thick, swollen loops of intestines (they feel a bit like black pudding, or really thick, soft sausages, if you’re interested!), it is an indication of a complete blockage in the small intestine, which needs emergency colic surgery. On the other hand, if you feel a doughy, squishy mass in the colon, that means the horse has an impaction.

Sometimes, if there is doubt about whether food is passing from the stomach or not, the vet will pass a stomach tube and see how full the stomach is. This looks really easy in theory – you pass a tube up the horse’s nose, he swallows it, and then you syphon out the stomach. If you get lots, it’s too full, if not, it’s fine. However, not all horses are quite so easy! Some horses are really difficult to get to swallow the tube, and it can take several attempts to make sure it’s not in the windpipe (which would be a disaster). Also, the equine stomach is, as one equine surgeon I know once put it, “a fantastic organ – it can be completely dilated (full), and you’ll get nothing out of it until you move the tube half an inch, then it all comes spurting out”. However, if there’s any doubt, it can be a great tool to ensure that there isn’t a rapidly life- threatening blockage; it can also be emergency first aid to prevent the horse’s stomach rupturing in a severe surgical colic.

The vet will also sometimes take blood samples – we tend to hold onto these in case they’re needed, but the main things we’re looking for are:
1) Evidence of dehydration – the blood tests will allow us to quantify the degree of dehydration, making it easier to plan a course of treatment.
2) Evidence of infection – if the white cell count is significantly abnormal, it suggests there may be something else causing the colic that we might need to look into.
3) Liver and kidney function – sometimes liver or kidney disease can present as colic
4) MOST IMPORTANTLY – Fibrinogen levels. Fibrinogen is a substance that can be used to assess inflammation and tissue damage – a high Fib level in a colic case is very suggestive that the gut integrity is damaged, and that surgical intervention may be needed.

There’s one other sample that can be very useful, especially as a “rule out” test if the clinical findings are contradictory or unclear. This is a peritoneal tap. This test carries some risk, but sometimes it’s the best way to find out what’s going on inside the abdomen. The belly of the horse is clipped, and prepared so make it as sterile as possible – we don’t want to risk introducing infection. The area is numbed with local anaesthetic, and then either a small incision is made with a scalpel and a blunt cannula inserted or (more usually) a small sterile needle is VERY CAREFULY inserted through the abdominal wall. The fluid that comes out is collected in a sterile sample pot for examination. The risk, of course, is that damage is done to the intestines; however, we’re very careful to avoid them as far as possible, and instead to collect the fluid that surrounds the intestines, the peritoneal fluid. In the lab, the numbers of cells can be counted to assess if there’s infection in the belly (peritonitis); however, in the field we can tell three things:
1) The tap fluid is clear (you can read text through it) yellowish – this suggests that the abdomen is basically OK, and means that in the absence of any other findings, the case can be managed medically.
2) The tap is cloudy, reddish or umber in colour - this means severe damage to the gut walls and/or peritonitis (infection in the abdominal cavity). This horse needs urgent referral for investigation at a hospital.
3) The tap contains gut contents (green or brown, lumpy) – sadly, this means that the intestines have ruptured; the horse is highly unlikely to survive. Alternatively, this may mean that the needle has gone into a part of the intestines, so if I get this, I’ll usually repeat the tap a few inches away, to make sure. If the needle has damaged the intestine, it’s not a disaster, but it is something to be avoided if possible.

So, using all the information from our history and workup, the vet has to decide if the colic is Medical or Surgical.

The terms are more or less self-explanatory: a medical colic can be managed with drugs, while a surgical colic needs emergency surgery.

As a rule of thumb, 9/10 colics are medical, and can almost always be managed on the yard. In my next blog, I’ll be looking at these Medical colics, their causes and treatment.

If you are worried your horse or pony may be suffering from colic, talk to your vet, or check the symptoms using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent the problem may be.

Baldness in Dogs (Alopecia)

Bald SetterI’ve been seeing a number of bald dogs in the consulting room recently, and it made me wonder how common a problem it is – and how many conditions there are that can lead to a dog losing his hair!

Baldness (or alopecia, to give it its technical name) isn’t generally a disease in its own right – it is almost invariably a symptom of an underlying disease condition. So, when I’m faced with a poor, balding dog in the consult room, my first task is to try and define what the underlying cause is. With a symptom with so many possible causes, what we do to narrow down the possibilities is to work out a differential list – a list of all the possible conditions that can cause baldness – and then eliminate them until we come to the actual cause in this specific case.

So, in no particular order, here are the more common causes of hair loss in dogs, along with their other major signs or symptoms:

Firstly, those disorders that give a symmetrical pattern of hair loss (i.e. the same pattern of hair loss on both sides of the body):

Hypothyroidism

Hair loss is symmetrical along the trunk and may also involve the tail, armpits and the belly. The skin isn’t inflammed or itchy, but there may be a darkening of colour and dandruff or greasy skin. Caused by production of too little thyroid hormone, other common symptoms include lethargy, weight gain, and sometimes muscular weakness. To diagnose hypothyroidism, your vet will take a blood sample; treatment is simple, with daily tablets containing replacement thyroid hormone.

Cushing’s Disease

Once again, hair loss is symmetrical, and there may be hard lumps in or under the skin (calcinosis cutis). Cushing’s is caused by too much cortisol (an important natural steroid hormone) being produced by the body. Other symptoms include increased hunger, thirst and urination, development of a pot-belly, muscle weakness, skin thinning and “spots” or “blackheads” developing. To diagnose it, your vet may have to do a series of blood tests to see how your dog’s body responds to injections of steroids or other hormones. Tablets to treat Cushing’s usually act to reduce production of steroids, although some destroy the adrenal glands that make the excess hormones.

Iatrogenic Cushing’s Disease

This is a form of Cushing’s disease caused by long term use of steroid medications (e.g. Prednisolone for severe allergies). The only treatment is to VERY GRADUALLY reduce the steroid dose – but this needs to be done carefully, following advice from your vet, because if you reduce it too far, too fast, it can result in severe withdrawal effects, or even death, due to a lack of cortisol in the body.

Sex hormone disorders

Excess production of sex hormones (e.g. due to a testicular tumour) or insufficient sex hormones (usually after neutering) can, in rare cases, cause symmetrical hair loss.

And now, those diseases where there are patches of hair loss in various sites across the body:

Flea Allergic Dermatitis

This is probably the commonest cause of all! Dogs with a flea allergy scratch and scratch, and wear the hair away. FAD is usually straightforward to diagnose (very itchy dog plus fleas is something of a giveaway), although in extreme cases, a single flea bite can set it off, which is harder to detect. Prevention is simple – avoid and kill fleas – although it can be hard in severe cases to keep the flea population low enough, and anti- allergy medication may be required.

Sarcoptic Mange

Mange mites burrow into the skin, creating a very itchy patch covered in little bumps. The dog scratches away at it, wearing the hair away, creatng a bald patch. The most common site is on the ear; fortunately, there are some spot-on treatments available from your vet that will kill the mites and stop the itching.

Demodectic Mange

This is a different variety of mite, and unlike the sarcoptic mite, it doesn’t itch at all. Most dogs have a few, and they don’t cause any problems, living harmlessly deep inside the hair follicles. However, sometimes they can start to multiply, and the sheer numbers start to result in hair loss. Typically, it is a patchy disease, with hair loss in distinct regions that get bigger over time. Sometimes there is a bit of scale forming, but the mites themselves do not cause itching, although secondary bacterial infection may occur, which can. To diagnose Demodex mites, your vet will have to take a deep skin scrape, usually with a scalpel blade, and then look at it under the microscope. If Demodex mites are found, treatment may involve spot-ons like Promeris Duo, or bathing with Aludex for several months – sadly, it can take a lot of work to get it under control.

Primary Pyoderma

Bacterial skin infections are common in dogs, and can result in hair loss. The skin is usually reddened and inflamed, and there may be pussy “spots”. Often the area is itchy and sore, but occasionally there are cases where the skin looks almost normal, but hairless. The vet can diagnose it by taking scrapes and smears from the skin, then looking at them under the microscope. Treatment nay involve antibiotic creams, washes, and sometimes tablets to kill the bacteria.
Sometimes a yeast infection can cause the same symptoms; treatment then is usually with anti-fungal washes.

Ringworm

(Or dermatophytosis) is often diagnosed in practice, generally by using a Woods Lamp, which makes the fungus glow. Its appearance can vary widely, but most looking involves patches of hair loss, sometimes with scales, sometimes itchy (but not always). It’s particularly a problem in dogs that are ill with something else, and have reduced immunity. To get a definite diagnosis, hair plucks have to be sent to a lab and cultures, but that can take weeks so vets will often start treatment while waiting for confirmation to come back. Treatment usually involves washes, shampoos and occasionally tablets to kill the fungus, but it can take a long time to completely clear a bad infection.

Allergic Reactions

(e.g. to a spot-on medicine, or a new floor cleaner, sometimes even to food!). Usually, there is reddening and inflammation of the skin, and itching, before the hair comes out, but occasionally hair loss is noticed first.

There are other causes (e.g. genetic disorders, immune diseases like pemphigus) but they are generally far less common. It’s important to remember the old adage that “common things are common” before jumping to cocclusions.

Baldness and hair loss in dogs can be a marker for a serious underlying condition – it’s almost never due to simple old age! – but most of these conditions are either curable, or at least manageable.

And the dogs I saw this week? Well, one was a nice simple skin infection (although it didn’t look like it to begin with, the tests were clear and she responded really well to antibiotics). The other one had been on steroids for several years, and the effect over that time had given him Iatrogenic Cushing’s. His owners are working to reduce the dose (very, very gradually, as his body has become dependant on the tablets now), and to keep him warm, they’ve bought him a coat to wear when he goes out in the cold for a walk!

If you are worried about bald patches on your dog, talk to your vet or check any other symptoms using our interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help decide how urgent the problem may be.

It may be getting cold outside, but it’s always flea season at home…

Daisy in her bedI see it almost every day, and constantly warn my clients about it, yet somehow even I wasn’t expecting it – yes, last week my very own cat came home with fleas. ‘How could this happen to me?’ I said, ‘I’m the vet!’ Well, the answer is very simple. I, like many of us, forgot to apply my cat’s flea preventative for the past few months. The weather was getting colder and she wasn’t going out as much, and with everything else going on the monthly treatment just slipped my mind. It sure was a wakeup call, however, to find the
tell-tale rusty brown dirt on my cat’s favourite bed.

And let’s face it, fleas are downright creepy. They eat blood and leave their faeces all over your pet, not to mention the fact that they can live in your carpets and even jump up and bite you. But at the same time, they’re pretty amazing little creatures, and successful ones at that.

Did you know…

… there are more than 2000 species of fleas around the world? 63 of these are found in the UK, and 10 of these can be found in our own homes. The most common species seen however, is called Ctenocephalides felis, which although it is commonly called the cat flea can also be found on dogs.

… fleas are responsible for spreading the Bubonic Plague in people, and myxomatosis in rabbits?

… fleas can jump up to 150 times their own length, and consume 15 times their own body weight in blood daily?

… a female flea can lay about 50 eggs a day, and once these new fleas mature, they can each bite up to 400 times a day. Add all that up and you’ve got one miserable cat.

How do I know if my cat has fleas?

IndieThis sounds like a simple question but it can be a lot harder than you think to diagnose fleas in cats. Sure, sometimes you can see them scurrying around your cat’s fur but it isn’t always that easy. In fact, I have seen four patients with significant flea infestations in just the past week, and none of their owners were aware of the problem. Animals with fleas don’t always itch, and there are lots of other reasons why cats can be itchy. Also, cats can sometimes eat any fleas that they come across whilst grooming themselves, so you don’t always see them. The most reliable way to tell if your cat has fleas is to comb your cat well with a very fine-toothed comb (they make flea combs just for that purpose) over a piece of white paper or onto some cotton wool. This will result in the flea ‘dirt’ (which is actually their faeces) falling onto the white surface where you can see it. Then cover the specks with a bit of water and rub gently – if the dirt turns reddish-brown, it is flea dirt. If your cat has a lot of fleas, you may be able to see the dirt in their bedding or other favourite areas without even needing a comb.

Of course, if you have any doubts, your vet would be happy to examine your cat for fleas and advise you as to the best course of action.

Why is it important to prevent and treat fleas?

• Adult fleas feed on blood, which in young kittens can result in weakness, anaemia, and even death.

• Some animals are very allergic to flea bites, which makes them more likely to develop a bad skin infection as a result. Even one bite can set off a reaction, so you may not ever see the offending flea itself. So if your cat has an itchy skin infection but you can’t find any fleas, it’s probably worth treating them for fleas anyway.

• Fleas carry tapeworms, which are spread to the cat when they eat the fleas during grooming. Therefore, if your cat has fleas, they should also be treated for tapeworms.

• If all of that wasn’t bad enough, they can bite you too. Cat fleas won’t live on a human, but they won’t be able to resist a free meal…

How do you treat a cat with fleas?

Before going into battle against your cat’s fleas, it’s a good idea to understand a bit about their life cycle so you can plan the best attack. Adult fleas mostly live on the cat, but they can live up to two years and survive in the environment for up to six months. Once they find a host, they start eating and laying eggs. Both the eggs and the flea faeces fall off the animal, where the larvae hatch and feed on the flea dirt. The satisfied larvae then dig deep into carpeting or furniture, trying to escape the light and making themselves incredibly hard to kill. They then develop into pupae and build themselves a cocoon. The flea develops to adulthood inside the cocoon then waits until just the right moment to burst out and jump onto your unsuspecting cat by detecting changes in pressure, heat, noise or vibrations. The whole process takes about 15 days from egg to adulthood, but they can lie waiting in their cocoons for up to 2 years so modern conveniences like central heating can cause a resurgence in flea populations that you thought you had under control. As you can see, treating fleas doesn’t just involve putting a flea preventative on your pet (although that’s a very good place to start), you must treat the environment as well.

1. Ask your vet which flea medication is best for your pet and use this as directed. This will be either a long-acting insecticide to kill adult fleas or an insect development inhibitor to prevent eggs from maturing into adult fleas, or possibly both. These can come in the form of a spot-on liquid, spray, tablet, or injection. Collars and powders are not recommended for use in cats now that more effective and safer treatments are available. Flea treatments from the pet shop or internet may be just fine, but they also may not work as well and if used incorrectly, could seriously harm your cat. Be particularly careful never to give a flea product intended for dogs to your cat! If in doubt, ask your vet.

best friends
2. Treat ALL animals in the house, provided there is a licensed flea treatment for that particular species. If you treat just one pet and not the others, the fleas will just go live on them instead.

3. Wash everything that you can. This particularly includes their bedding (and your bedding, if they have access to that too, eek!).

4. Hoover everything else. Frequently. This includes carpets, floorboards, skirting boards, sofas or other soft furnishings and any other little nooks and crannies where the young fleas may hide.

5. Once you’ve done your best to mechanically remove as many fleas as possible from the house, and if you still have a problem, go after the remaining residents chemically. There are several products on the market that can be used to safely treat fleas in your house, ask your vet for their recommendation.

6. Finally, be prepared to repeat these treatments if necessary, as flea eggs can hatch in waves that will need to be treated at different times. Be patient, be thorough, and be sure to follow all instructions carefully.

As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If even the thought of fleas makes you shiver or perhaps you don’t fancy the extra housework mentioned above, I’d suggest you take steps to prevent your cat from getting fleas in the first place. Use flea preventatives on a regular basis as directed by your vet, which often means once a month. Don’t be tempted to stop the preventative in the winter months, which may be OK in colder climates but doesn’t apply to most of the UK, especially thanks to central heating. Remembering to apply the preventatives regularly can be difficult, so many come with stickers that you can put on your calendars, don’t be ashamed to use them! And remember, even vets’ cats are at risk – fleas can strike any pet, at any time. Be ready!

If you are concerned that your cat is itching or has fleas, check their symptoms using our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to find out if you need to see your vet.

More Useful Information

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Arming you with the same simple techniques for stress free pill giving.

Worming & Flea Treatment

Information and advice in treating your pet for worms and fleas.