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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?”
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What makes dogs lame, and how can they be helped?

Why is a lame dog lame? The obvious, but incorrect, answer to the question is 'because it has a sore leg'. The correct answer is more complicated, but also quite obvious when you think about it. Firstly, what is a lameness? Everybody knows what a lame animal looks like - they 'walk wrongly'. But what is happening to make them walk wrongly? There are three main reasons why lameness may occur. Pain is the most common and most important cause of lameness. If an animal damages a limb, any further pressure causes more pain, and so the instinctive response is to rest the limb, by carrying it, or at least by not putting full weight on it. The type of damage can vary widely from a bruise to a laceration. The damage can be anywhere in the limb, from the toe to the shoulder or hip, and the result is the same - a lame animal. Long term diseases such as arthritis can also involve considerable pain. The second cause of lameness is instability. It is common for dogs to rupture the ligaments of the knee, and when this happens, the knee becomes unstable. If the dog tried to put weight on the leg, the knee would collapse. So the dog refuses to put weight on the leg. Any other joint can be affected in the same way by damage to the supporting ligaments. The third cause of lameness is stiffness. When a dog develops arthritis, the affected joint becomes swollen and gnarled - like many older people's arthritic finger joints. The swelling of the joint is due partly to new bone which grows around the arthritic joint as part of the disease process. This new bone acts like rust seizing up a metal hinge - it stops full normal movement of the joint. An elbow joint may only be able to move through half of its normal range of movement. The result of this new bone is that the joint is stiffer and less mobile than it should be - and this means that the animal is unable to use the limb in the normal way. Hips, shoulders and knees are also commonly affected in this way. So lameness can be caused by pain, instability and stiffness. What can be done to help lame animals? Weight control, controlled exercise and physical therapy are all important aspects: this always has to be individualised, and the best answer is to ask your vet what your pet needs in these areas. The new generation of painkillers provide excellent relief from pain. Immediately after an injury, dogs can be given drugs which prevent short term suffering until the injury is treated. In addition, if a disease involves long term pain (such as arthritis), this can be dealt with very effectively by continual daily medication, as advised by a vet. Instability of joints can often be well treated using new surgical techniques which may involve inserting artificial ligaments, using metal implants or by other methods. The stiffness of arthritis can be helped by using regular anti-inflammatory medication, similar to that used for arthritis in humans. There is also an animal-only anti-arthritic drug, given by injection, which can help considerably in some cases. Other therapies including hydrotherapy and acupuncture can also play a role, as can daily food supplements such as glucosamine chondroitin sulphate, and even special high fish-oil diets designed for pets with joint disease. Owners should be warned that it can be very dangerous to give human drugs to their pets, unless their vet has given them permission to do so. Toxic reactions are common, especially when some of the more modern human painkillers and anti-arthritic drugs are given to dogs. If you have a lame dog, you should ask your vet for advice on the best way to relieve the problem.
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Ireland is living in the past: it’s about to become legal for members of public to dock puppies’ tails.

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Tail docking is a illogical, nonsensical form of puppy torture, and it looks set to become legal in Ireland.  The procedure is brutal: a pair of scissors, a sharp knife or a tight ring are used to chop off a young puppy's tail. There is no anaesthetic, and it clearly hurts a lot (they squeal loudly), but the pups are too small and helpless to do anything about it. The pup above was brought to me for treatment after the amateur tail docking job had resulted in a chronic non-healing wound. Tail docking has been banned in the UK since 2007: it's completely illegal in Scotland, and in England and Wales, it's only allowed for a small number of working dogs or when the procedure is needed for medical purposes under theAnimal Welfare Act 2006 or the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. It's also illegal to show dogs that had their tails docked after 2007.  The subject has been debated in detail elsewhere, but the evidence is clear: tail docking causes pain to puppies, and it does not reduce the incidence of tail injuries in adult dogs, even in working animals. Tail docking is also illegal in most European countries: the fact that it has not yet been banned in Ireland is the only reason why Ireland is unable to become the 23rd European state to ratify the Council of Europe’s European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. (In fact, the UK is also unable to ratify this convention because of the illogical "working dog" exemption on tail docking in England and Wales). Until last week, it seemed that tail docking was about to be phased out in Ireland. Suddenly, this has changed. A new Animal Health and Welfare Act is due to be brought in by the Irish Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney in the next few weeks. The new law has been carefully drafted in conjunction with veterinary bodies and animal welfare groups, all of whom are strongly anti-docking. The Act specifically prohibits "surgical procedures for cosmetic reasons" and it also bans  "mutilated" dogs from being exhibited in the show ring. These clauses were introduced to stop old-fashioned and unnecessary procedures such as tail docking. So far so good. So it was a bombshell when it was made known last week that the Minister intends to allow tail docking by members of the public, by listing it in a Regulation under procedures that may be performed without the use of anaesthetics or pain relief. The other activities under this section are mostly agricultural tasks, such as ear tagging cattle, castrating sheep and removing piglets tails: these have been allowed to permit such traditional aspects of agriculture to continue (even though it can be argued that, logically, they too should be restricted). The official bodies representing animal welfare in Ireland are incensed at this news: it's worth reading the open letter that has been written to the Minister by Veterinary Ireland, the ISPCA and Dogs Trust. An online petition has been launched to gather public support against the new Regulation: you can sign it here. The petition was started on 10th November, and already has over 5000 signatures. It isn't too late to change the future for Irish puppies: the government must surely be listening to common sense and the voice of the people.
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Lost in translation – do you know what your cat is really trying to tell you?

‘Miaow!’  One simple word, so many possible meanings.  Is she happy?  Is she hungry?  Is she scared?  It’s all in the tone in which it’s delivered.  And that’s just the miaow – researchers have documented 19 different vocal patterns in domestic cats ranging from purrs to chirps to growls, along with countless body language cues.  Do you really know how to interpret them?  Test your feline language skills below… A deep, rhythmic purr We'll start with an easy one – a purr means she’s happy, right?  Possibly, but that may not always be the case.  In fact, cats purr for many reasons.  Young kittens and mother cats purr during nursing, possibly as a way of maintaining contact and communicating contentment.  Adult cats purr when they're in the company of other cats or humans that they are friendly with, especially during grooming or petting or resting together.  And as most cat owners probably already know, they also purr when they want something.  This ‘solicitation’ purr contains some of the high frequency peaks also found in a human baby’s cry, and it is commonly thought that cats use this to their advantage when asking for food at 5am.  But what many people don't know is that cats will sometimes also purr when they are nervous or even painful.  We don't know exactly why they do it, but the important thing to remember is that purring doesn't necessarily mean that a cat is happy, you need to look at the rest of their body language for clues.  Think of it like a human smile – we do it when we're happy, but also when we want something or when we're nervous. Blinking, half-closed eyes If you said this is a sign of contentment, you would be absolutely right.  A cat who stares without blinking is alert and confrontational, while a cat with half closed eyes is relaxed and feels safe in their environment.  Interestingly, this is one of the few ways that we can truly speak their language.  I use it all the time whilst consulting – before starting my exam, I catch their eye briefly and then blink slowly as if to say ‘It’s ok, you're safe here’.  They almost always respond by blinking back, and are then much more likely to relax while I do what I need to do.  But even this isn't always the case, as a cat in pain can also have squinty eyes, but the rest of their body language will be very different. The tail flick This is a really useful one to know as it can save you a scratch or two!  If you are petting your cat and notice that they start to flick their tail quickly from side to side, I'd suggest you take a break because it probably either means that they're getting fed up with what you're doing or they're getting playful and are ready to pounce!  Often accompanied with a widening of the eyes which may help you recognise their increasing level of alertness. Wee on the carpet This may not seem like a method of communication, or at least you probably won't be thinking rationally enough to see it as such at the time, but cats frequently use urine and even faeces as a way of getting their point across.  One of the first words that comes to mind when you discover such an incident is probably ‘spite’, but try not to take it personally and instead try to figure out why it may have occurred.  It may be that they are painful and need to see the vet, or that they are unhappy with your neighbour’s cat who keeps peering in on them from the window.  If the culprit is an intact male cat, talk to your vet about castration because there is a good chance that the underlying reason is territorial. Grooming Although this is usually associated with relaxed, friendly cats or members of the same family, grooming may serve another purpose.  Like the nervous purr, cats sometimes groom each other’s heads and necks when they're feeling intimidated or antagonistic, possibly as an attempt to avoid overt aggression.  Chances are they're feeling pretty comfortable when they start grooming you, although I have on occasion had a ‘nervous licker’ during an exam and even known a few cats to lick forcefully before they bite. Chirping It’s a funny sound, almost like a very excited miaow but broken and muted at times.  Often associated with a tail twitch and very wide eyes, it is a sign of extreme interest.  My cat regularly ‘chirps’ when looking out the window at the birds on the feeder.  An amusing, hopeful sound indeed! Scratching on your new leather sofa Again, try not to push human emotions onto your cat and assume that they're doing it to get back at you for going out to dinner instead of spending time with them the night before.  In actual fact, cats have scent glands on the bottoms of their feet and between their toes so scratching (including the visual signs that are left behind) is another method of letting other cats know that this is their territory.  Make an effort to find out the underlying cause, or at least be sure to provide them plenty of other more suitable places to ‘sharpen their claws’. Hissssssssss! No surprises here, if you hear this sound, back off.  Cats are instinctively tuned into this sound and are therefore easily frightened by any noise that resembles a hiss such as aerosol spray cans or our own frantic ‘psssssssst!’ when we catch them up on the kitchen counter.  If their hiss escalates to a spit, don’t just back off, turn and walk away.  Quickly. If you were surprised by some of the answers above, spend some time observing your cat over the next few weeks.  You’ll be amazed by what you find when you know what to look for!  Even those fluent in ‘felinese’ can learn something new from their cats every day.  The more you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, the better your relationship will be so it’s definitely worth the effort.
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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
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