Browsing tag: Vaccination

Caring for your new rabbit – essentials for proper bunny welfare

Did the Easter bunny come this year?  Not the imaginary kind that drops off chocolate, the real kind that lives for 10 years or more and deserves to have a better life than being trapped in a hutch at the bottom of the garden.  If they did, or you are thinking of getting one, here’s my guide on how to care for them.

Diet

The majority of problems that vets see in rabbits are related to an inadequate diet.  So, if you get their food right, you will give your pet the best chance of a healthy life!

The mainstay of a rabbit’s diet should be hay and every day they should eat a pile as big as they are. Rabbits have teeth that are constantly growing and chewing on hay keeps them in good shape.  One of the most common issues for rabbits is sharp, overgrown teeth that can be so painful they stop eating altogether. Hay is also vital for healthy digestion, particularly important in rabbits for whom diarrhoea can be fatal.

Rabbits should also have a handful of fresh food everyday and a small amount (a tablespoon at most) of hard, pelleted food.  Avoid the museli mixes as these allow your pet to pick out their favourites and become short on vital vitamins.  For the majority of their day, your rabbits bowl should be empty (just like a dog or cat!), so they only have their hay to nibble on.

Vaccinations

All rabbits should be vaccinated annually against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD).  These are both fatal and vaccination is the only protection.  The injections can be given from 8 weeks of age.  This visit to the surgery is also an opportunity for your vet to ensure your new pet is healthy and for you to ask any questions.

Neutering

Having your rabbit neutered is very important.  Females should be spayed when they are around 6 months and males can be castrated from 4 months.  Entire rabbits can be grumpy, prone to biting and often urine spray, so not great pets!  Also, 80% of entire female rabbits will develop uterine cancer in later life.

Training and handling

Rabbits are prey animals, so they are naturally nervous.  This can mean they can be flighty and startle easily.   As soon as you get your new rabbit, work with them to gain their confidence.  Sit on the floor with them, offer treats, encouragement and try to get them to come to you.  Don’t pick them up until they are used to you and always handle them calmly but firmly.

Also, rabbits should never be kept alone.  For a social animal, solitary confinement is akin to torture.  Neutered pairs of the opposite sex work best and they can be bonded in later life, if they have previously lived alone.

Parasites

The most common parasite in rabbits is a fur mite. It causes flaky, itchy skin and is easily treated with veterinary ´spot-on´ drops. They can also get fleas, just like dogs and cats, and again these are easily treated with veterinary products.  They can also suffer from internal parasites (worms) but they are not common.

Fly Strike

Fly strike is a horrific, and often deadly, problem.  It develops when flies lay their eggs on the dirty fur around a rabbit’s backend.  These develop into maggots which burrow into the rabbit’s flesh, causing huge pain and damage, often within just a few hours.  This is why all rabbits should be handled and checked at least twice daily and there are preventative treatments available from your vets.

Pet Insurance

There are now several companies which provide insurance policies for rabbits and it is something all rabbit owners should consider.

Rabbit are entertaining, inquisitive and rewarding but they do need the similar levels of care and attention as other pets.  They are not the low maintenance, children’s pet  many people think they are.  Hopefully this article has helped you if you do have a bun and if it has inspired you to own one, get in touch your local rescue, they always have rabbits needing loving homes!

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

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

Ask a vet online – ‘How imperative is having the annual booster jabs for cat flu/ Felv/ Fiv/ Leukemia?’

Question from Jakkii Mickle:

Feline question again- how imperative is having the annual booster jabs for cat flu/ Felv/ Fiv/ Leukemia ? If they have had these injections from kitten age- would they have built up a natural immunity ? One of my cats reacts very badly to these injections, so as a result, I decided not to have them immunised – also my mums dog developed canine leukemia as a result of the injection programme ( confirmed by vets )– so what is best- assume they have their own immunity , or risk them catching these horrible ailments ? Or make them ill by injecting them….???

Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, Online Vet

Hi Jakkii and thank you for your interesting question about cat vaccinations. In order to answer your question I will discuss what is in the feline vaccines, what immunity is and how vaccines work.

What diseases are covered in my cat’s vaccine?

Commonly found in the vaccine your vet will offer your cat is protection against feline influenza (cat flu), feline infectious enteritis (viruses affecting the gut) and feline leukaemia (FeLV).  Other feline vaccines available but less commonly given include rabies, Bordatella bronchiseptica (airway disease) and Chlamydia.  There is currently no vaccine against feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

What is immunity?

The immune system is the way in which the body detects, reacts and fights off anything it encounters. The immune system is made up of white blood cells (and the substances they produce such as antibodies) and the lymph system (nodules of various size from tonsils through to parts of the spleen).  When the body meets an antigen (something like a virus of bacteria) for the first time certain white blood cells notice the antigen and set off a reaction in the immune system which leads to the development of immunity. Certain white blood cells produce antibodies that recognise and attach to the antigen, other white blood cells come along and help destroy the recognised antigen and some white blood cells keep a memory of the antigen so next time it is met it can be fought off quickly. Once immunity has developed to an antigen the body should be able to fight it off before it can cause illness. Immunity does tend to slowly decrease over time, the longer it has been since an antigen was last met the slower the body is to react to it. This is why booster vaccines are given each year to keep the level of immunity topped up.

Vaccines and naturally being exposed to an antigen stimulate the immune system in the same way to help develop immunity, but vaccines contain antigen that has been treated so as to minimise the chance of developing the actual disease in the process.  The time intervals designed for each vaccine regime are based on research as to how long the immunity levels remain in the average cat.

Generally the antigens in cat vaccines are either a small part of the antigen, an artificially produced version (that is less able to cause disease) or a killed version of the antigen.  This is all done so as to provide immunity with the least risk of your cat actually getting ill.

Why does my cat react badly to the vaccine?

After vaccination some animals feel mildly unwell or can have a slightly raised body temperature, but this is not common. It is also possible for some cats to react badly to some vaccines and develop a full infection. The other thing that cats can react badly to is ingredients in the vaccine most commonly the adjuvant.  Animals that are unwell at the time of vaccination or have an underlying disease can also have bad reactions to vaccines.  This is a large part of why it is important for your pet to have a full health check prior to vaccination.  In the case of your mum’s dog developing leukaemia as a result of vaccinations this is very rare.

The adjuvant is a chemical added to the vaccine to help the cat’s body react more to killed and part antigen components as these would otherwise cause less stimulation of the immune system.  If as is the case with your cat there is a sever bad reaction to vaccination then this should be discussed with your vet, noted on your cats medical records and an attempt made to work out what it is that your cat is reacting to.

Should I still have my cat vaccinated if it reacts badly?

After careful consideration it might be that your cat could tolerate the vaccines if given separately or if a different form of antigen or adjuvant was in the vaccine used.  After many years of vaccination your cat will have developed a reasonable level of immunity but it is very hard to work out exactly how long this will last if annual vaccination is stopped.

In conclusion the decision as to whether or not to have your cat vaccinated every year should be made between you and your vet weighing up the chance of your cat being exposed to various diseases against the severity of its reaction.  I hope that this answer has helped you and your cat.

Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)

Dog Vaccinations: are they really necessary?

Tomorrow is World Veterinary Day (WVD), an annual event that highlights the role of veterinary profession around the world. This year’s theme is the importance of vaccination to animal health. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have created vaccines that have prevented – and, in some cases, eradicated – diseases in humans and animals.

Yet if you talk to pet owners online, the question of the need to vaccinate is one that keeps cropping up. People worry that vaccines may even be causing illnesses, and sadly, they sometimes feel that they cannot trust the advice from their vet, because the vet benefits financially from the sale of the vaccine.

There is a danger here that pet owners may stop vaccinating their pets, and if they do, it’s likely that they will get away with doing so for a number of years. Vaccines have caused serious illnesses to become rare, so that there may not be an immediate threat to most pets. The problem is that if people choose not to vaccinate, there will be a growing population of unprotected animals that are vulnerable to viral disease if an epidemic does occur.

It’s useful to compare the situation with measles in humans. Before the introduction of measles vaccination in the UK in 1968, about half a million people caught measles each year of whom about 100 died. The introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988 led to a dramatic reduction in measles, with only two human deaths from the disease in the past twenty years. False claims in the late 1990′s that MMR could cause autism led many parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Vaccine rates dropped and there are now up to two million young people who remain unvaccinated: they are at risk of the disease.

This is not just theoretical: an outbreak of measles is currently happening in Wales, with over eight hundred confirmed cases including over eighty patients being treated in hospital. The first death happened last week, when a twenty five year old man passed away. As one official said, “Measles is a serious, horrible disease. We need to get rid of it.” The sad truth is that we know how to get rid of it: vaccinations, which have been proven to be safe and effective. Public health officials are now running large scale measles vaccine clinics to protect people who missed out on childhood vaccination, but there are still worries that the proportion of unvaccinated people may be so high that the current measles outbreak will spread to elsewhere in the UK, with further deaths.

There have been similar false claims about dangers associated with vaccinations in the pet world, and as a result, there is a risk of the gradual development of a large unvaccinated population of pets. This would create the potential for an outbreak of one of the nasty viral diseases of pets in a similar way to the human measles situation.

It is true that there is a low incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines. Like humans who feel a little under the weather after some vaccines, pets can suffer mild signs of illness as their immune system reacts to the vaccine. This is part of the same immune reaction that causes the body to produce antibodies against the virus, so it’s nothing to worry about. More serious adverse reactions, such as allergic or autoimmune diseases, do happen, but they are exceptionally rare. Overall, the reported incidence of any type of problem is less than one in five thousand; the risk of a serious reaction is much lower than this.

The aspect of dog vaccines that seems to worry owners most is the traditional model of “once yearly boosters”. People don’t understand why this is necessary, when in humans, childhood vaccines often confer lifetime immunity. Why do pets need so many vaccines?

The answer to this is complicated: when vaccine regimes were first devised, back in the 1970′s,  there was a high mortality rate from diseases like Parvovirus and Distemper. Duration of immunity after vaccines had not been clearly established, and the safest option was the once yearly booster. In recent years, more studies have been done, with many vaccines now promising immunity for three to five years for some diseases after the annual booster at fifteen months of age.

In the face of this changing information about vaccines, the challenge for vets has been to recommend a reduced vaccine schedule while still ensuring that no vulnerable animals slip through the loop. Much as pet owners may appreciate the opportunity to go to the vet less often, if even one animal died of a preventable viral disease, vets would feel that they had failed.

The veterinary profession has tackled this on a global scale, by setting up expert groups, using independent scientists to assess the evidence and to provide guidelines for the vaccination of pets. A simple set of recommendations have now been issued to vets across the world by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, and these offer the safest approach to pet owners. You can read them for yourself online by clicking here.

Vaccines are now classified as “core” and “non-core”. Core vaccines include those which all animals need to receive, which means Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus for dogs. Non-core vaccines are those that are required by only those animals whose geographical location, local environment or lifestyle places them at risk. Examples include Leptospirosis, Kennel Cough and Rabies, although the prevalence of rats in many parts of the UK  is so high that many people would regard Leptospirosis as a core vaccine in this country.

The aim of the veterinary profession is to vaccinate every animal with core vaccines and to vaccinate at-risk individuals against non-core vaccines if they are seen to be at risk.

The WSAVA guidelines also address the recommended frequency of vaccination: for the main core vaccines, after puppy shots followed by a booster at fifteen months of age, it’s now regarded as safe to repeat the vaccine every three years. If dogs need to be protected against certain other illnesses- including Leptospirosis and Kennel Cough – immunological studies have demonstrated that once yearly vaccines are still needed.

This can all become over-complicated for the average pet owner, which is why it’s still recommended that the safest answer is a once yearly health check by your vet. The vet will review your pet’s health and lifestyle, and will then only give the vaccines which are judged to be necessary. In the United Kingdom, for most dogs, the recommendation is likely to be a once yearly vaccine against Leptospirosis, with a booster against Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus every three years. Other vaccines, such as Kennel Cough and Rabies, may also need to be given, depending on the dog’s activities.

There is plenty more to discuss on this subject, including widely-disseminated but unproven claims that over-vaccination is the cause of a wide spectrum of illnesses in the dog world. Perhaps that’s a subject for another blog.

Horses and money – is it really either/or?

With the new financial year, and the recent bad weather, everyone involved in and working with horses is trying to make money go a bit further. Among other issues, the cost of medicines is rising every month (many drugs have seen their manufacturers put the price up 10 or 15% in the last few months), and feed bills are rising due to poor cereal harvests.

As a result, I’ve put together a list of “top tips” for saving money in the coming year.

Firstly, 5 things to do…

1) Make sure you worm smart - which doesn’t necessarily mean often! Many owners still worm religiously every 6-8 weeks; however, recent studies have shown about that 80% of the worms are in 20% of the horses. If your horse doesn’t have a high worm burden, it may be a waste of money pouring expensive wormers down him every other month. In addition, the more wormers we use, the higher the risk of worm resistance – there has been recognised round- or redworm resistance to every active ingredient available in the UK, so the less we use them, the longer they’ll be effective.

The way I like to recommend people go forward is to use Worm Egg Counts – your vet will be able to do these, or will have a lab they send them away to. The test simply takes a faeces sample and counts the worm eggs in it, giving you a good estimate of the number of worms in the horse. Remember, this test can only be done in the warmer months (the worms don’t lay eggs in the winter!), and it only tests for nematodes (round and redworms). To test for tapeworms, your vet will need to take a blood sample, but this usually only needs doing once or at most twice a year.

Depending on the test results, your vet will be able to advise you on the best worming strategy, and if you’ve got a low burden, it may not be necessary to worm at all, as long as your pasture management (poo-picking etc) is decent. I’ve seen horses wormed every month come back with such low counts that we stopped worming completely and, because they weren’t mixing with lots of other horses, they were still worm free a year later. That said, I’ve also seen horses that really do need that regular dose, so it does depend on the yard, the herd and the individual horse.

2) Consider warming up with unaffiliated competitions – and beware direct debits! Skip past this one if you’re not competing – but if you are, it may be possible to affiliate part way through the season, saving money by starting with cheaper unaffiliated events. How much you save depends on your sport, and your area (down here in Devon and Cornwall, unaffiliated events are are usually perhaps half to three quarters as much as an affiliated event), but at the very least you save the up-front cost of affiliation and membership.
That said, you can’t decide to cancel your affiliation if you’ve got a Direct Debit set up to automatcally renew it (as my brother found out this year, when he accidentally rejoined BE…!)

3) Buy medicines online. This is a fairly new area, and can be controversial. However, without any doubt you can save money on prescription drugs if you buy them from a reputable online pharmacy or dispensary. If your horse needs a prescription medicine, your vet is legally obliged to give you a written prescription if you ask for it (although they will normally charge an administration fee). In general, you can get the same medicines online for about half to two thirds the price.

However, its important to make sure you deal with a reputable company: as a rule of thumb, if they don’t ask for a prescription, or they’re not based in the UK, don’t touch them. In addition, you should check to see who is in charge of dispensing the medicines at that company – if they’re legit, they’ll be able to tell you the name and registration number of the pharmacist or vet who is responsible. Having worked in this sector, there are four companies I’ve dealt with who I would consider safe and reliable to buy from (AniMed Direct, MedicAnimal, MyVetMeds and VioVet), but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other good ones out there. Bear in mind as well that a few companies change their prices through the day, and also make sure that the price includes VAT – if in doubt, phone them up and ask!

Although it seems like a hassle, for long-term medication (like bute or Prascend) or really expensive drugs (like Gastrogard), you can make a massive saving buying online.

4) Shop around for insurance… It may be you can get a better deal from a different company! However, before you change, make sure that your level of cover won’t be affected, and remember that you are legally obliged to disclose any relevant medical history. There are a couple of very bad insurers out there, and some fantastic ones, so do your research before changing – a company with a really cheap premium but who won’t pay out when needed are a false economy.

The other option is to cancel your insurance, and then set aside some money each month in a separate acount to cover vets bills. Do your sums first, but if you’ve got several horses it can save money to do it this way, and there’s no worry about exclusions or wondering if they’re going to pay out.

5) Does your horse NEED all those vaccines? Tetanus is a genuine life-saver. However, not every horse needs every other vaccine. If they’re not competing, not mixing with other horses much and aren’t on a big yard, its worth talking to your vet about flu vaccine, and if they’re not breeding stock either, herpes vaccine probably isn’t worth it.

6) If you have any health concerns about your horse – phone your vet! Most practice do not charge for a phonecall, and your vet will be able to advise you as to whether you need a visit, and if there’s any treatment or first aid you can give. Beware of consulting “Dr Google” – its an easy way to scare yourself, because for some reason, Google always lists the most serious and rare diseases first. If you do want to check out your horse’s symptoms online before calling your vet, I’d advise you to use the VetHelpDirect Symptom Checker – but talking to your vet is likely to be even more reliable!

I once had a client call to arrange a visit for us to “sew up her mare after foaling”. We thought that she meant the mare had torn a bit, but it turned out that she thought the foal was going to come bursting out of the mare’s side like a alien parasite, and she was delighted when we were able to tell her that she didn’t need to spend the £50 for an evening visit as long as the foaling went well…

So, thats your things to do, now five things to watch out for:

1) DON’T skimp on Preventative Health. Tetanus vaccination is a genuine life-saver, and regular, routine dental care will save money in the long run. I once had to spend five hours basically repairing an 11 year old stallion’s mouth because he’d never had any teeth rasped and the hooks had overgrown so much that one day he couldn’t open his mouth enough to chew. For the previous six months the owners had been pouring expensive concentrates into this pony to try and get the weight back on, but it was due to his inability to chew properly. If they’d kept up to date with routine dental care, it would have saved them a lot of money, effort and time!

2) Be cautious with cheap paraprofessionals. There are a lot of horse dentists, chiropracters, massagers, physios and assorted back people out there. Many of them are very good, some aren’t, and a few are downright dangerous. However, it isn’t immediately obvious which is which… There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you’re calling someone out.

Firstly, it is a criminal offence for anyone who isn’t a vet to diagnose a medical problem in a horse (with limited exceptions in the case of farriers dealing with a hoof problem, and BAEDT qualified dentists dealing with dental overgrowths). This means that your insurance policy will be invalidated if they make a diagnosis and act on it; it also means that in law you have no comeback if something goes wrong. In addition, if you allow anyone except a vet to prescribe or dispense a prescription only medicine to your horse (e.g. a dentist giving sedatives), you’re both breaking the law. Remember too, even qualified physios technically need a referral from your vet before they’re permitted to work on your horse.

Secondly, it isn’t necessarily a money saving technique to call in a paraprofessional. I remember seeing one client who had spent nearly a thousand pounds on physios, back people, chiropracters and alternative therapists, all of whom had given her a different diagnosis of her poorly performing pony. When my colleague was called out, she realised immediately that the horse was lame, and dug out an abscess from her nearside hind hoof. The horse was right as rain two days later – all for the princely sum of £48 plus a packet of animalintex.

Thats not to say there isn’t a place for paraprofessionals – BAEDT dentists, farriers, qualified physios and some other practtioners can be great to work with and bring a horse right again, but it needs to be a team exercise, as we all bring our different skills and expertise to the case.

3) DON’T buy ultra-cheap feed and fodder. Cheap, poor quality hay and haylage are never a good place to save money – if you’re lucky, you’re horse will need to eat more to maintain condition, and if you’re unlucky, they’ll suffer lung and sinus problems from spores, and possibly even listeria infection from bad haylage.

4) Be cautious about chopping and changing vets - many people use one vet for vaccines and another for out-of-hours and emergencies, or stud work. Sometimes this can save you money, but it can also lead to problems – a client of mine (who also used two other local vets) nearly lost one of her broodmares to a bad reaction to penicillin. It turned out that one of the vets had noted that the horse had reacted once before, but because they didn’t know she was using the other practices, they didn’t know to tell us. Fortunately in this case the mare survived, but it just goes to highlight the necessity for good communication. If you are going to use more than one practice, make sure that everyone knows who’s involved and who’s doing what, so that we can share notes if needed. Better still, make up your mind who you want to treat your horses, so they can provide continuity of care.

Keeping horses is, by its very nature, expensive. However, with care and forethought, you can make the money stretch a bit further, even as the prices are going up.

Looking after the Older Horse

When I was training as a vet, a 20 year old horse was considered really quite old. Now, however, I regularly find myself working with healthy horses in their late twenties and thirties – even a few that go on into their forties!

That said, horses don’t age uniformly – one may be sprightly and fit at 30, while her paddock mate is really feeling his age at 20, so there’s a lot of variation. The challenge is maintaining them at the best quality of life for as long as possible.

To do so, we need to consider three things:

• Work and exercise
• Preventative health (worming, dental care etc)
• Disease management and medication

I’ll deal with these in sequence, although really they are of course all interconnected.

Work and Exercise

PerryI’d like to introduce Perry, a horse I’ve known for many, many years. Born in 1986, by 2002 Perry was a successful Eventer, competing on the Affiliated circuit, and usually well up in the places. However, by then he was starting to slow up a bit, and his then-owner decided it was time to reduce his workload. He was struggling in particular with the dressage and show jumping, so they sold him on to a friend of mine as a Pony Club horse for Tetrathlon. All he had to do was carry his (fairly novice) rider round a cross country course – the phase he enjoyed the most anyway. Relieved of the need to work in an outline, or in collection, he flourished at Tetrathlon, going on to compete at the National Championships.
Of course, in time, his low-grade arthritis (which I’ll talk about more later) meant that he was struggling with the cross country requirements, and he moved into a semi-retirement as a hack. He’d seen it all, done it all, and was as close to 100% in traffic, tractors and low flying aircraft as any horse could be.
For most horses, as long as they can work, they want to – generally (and there are always exceptions!), it isn’t in a horse’s best interests to take him out of work one day and retire him to a field. A gradual wind-down over several years is kinder, and helps to keep him interested and alert.
So, by changing career, Perry had an extra five years of competition, and then many more years of useful work – simply because his various owners were wise enough not to over face him, but to play to his strengths.

Preventative Health

I’ve talked before about the importance of regular dental work – in the older horse, it is doubly important. As the horse ages, his teeth undergo a number of changes. Although it appears that teeth grow constantly, that is in fact an illusion – the adult teeth are pretty much a fixed length, but most of the tooth is hidden away within the gums (the reserve crown). As the tooth is worn down by chewing, more of this reserve is extruded (which is, by the way, the basis of ageing horses by dentition). However, sooner or later, this reserve is expended, and the teeth “cup out”, becoming small, loosely held, concave structures, of limited use for chewing. Good, regular dental care can help delay the onset, and can help the horse to manage as the teeth cup out. Remember, as long as there are a few pairs of teeth in occlusion (i.e. Facing each other), the horse can still chew, he’ll just be very slow about it! In my experience, teeth generally start to cup out about 30-35 years of age, but it depends on their dental history – more use and wear and tear means the teeth are ground down faster.
Worming is also inceasingly important in the older horse, simply because although they may have higher immunity to worms (this is still debated, but does seem likely), they also have less reserves to cope if they have a heavy infestation. The spring is a particularly risky time, as sometimes large numbers of small redworms can emerge all at once, causing massive gut wall damage. It is important to make sure that at some point over the winter, you use a wormer that is active against hibernating (hypobiotic) worm larvae – currently, the only wormers on the market that have this activity are a full 5 day course of Panacur, and (reportedly) Equest.

Foot care is always important, as older horses can suffer some terrible hoof capsule problems if left untreated.

I always recommend that people keep up vaccinating their horses, even if they’re not competing or going out. Equine influenza probably isn’t essential in a stay-at-home horse or pony (although they can still contract it if they’re in contact with a younger friend who does go out and do), but Tetanus vaccination is essential. Just because a horse is old doesn’t mean you can stop vaccinating, because tetanus kills horses of any age just as easily. It’s also a really useful opportunity to have a general “MOT” and get your vet to check the horse over thoroughly, to detect and problems before they become too serious.

Disease Management

Although many horses lead a long and healthy life, the probability is that as they enter old age, they will suffer from one or more “chronic diseases”. These are generally low-level conditions, and in the older horse are usually manageable rather than curable. Probably the most common are arthritis and Cushing’s disease, but malabsorbtion diseases and some tumours aren’t that uncommon either.

The key factor is managing the disease in such a way that the horse doesn’t suffer from the symptoms, and is able to keep up as much work as possible, for as long as possible.

Arthritis is perhaps the commonest condition of older horses, and those that aren’t so old. In most cases, it is due to simple wear and tear on the joint surfaces. The harder a horse has worked, the more rapid the onset of arthritic changes. It’s often the case that, initially, a horse will have trouble working in an outline, and perhaps with show jumps, but hacking and cross country, with it’s more open jumping style, is less of a problem. This of course was exactly the case with Perry. Managing arthritis is a lot more than just monitoring exercise, however – nowadays, we no longer need to just accept “a bit of stiffness” in the older horse. It’s often best to use several different strategies. I generally recommend a combination of joint supplementation (feed supplements such as Cosequin and Newmarket Joint Supplement are the most popular, while injectables like Adequan are more expensive but possibly more effective) with analgesics (bute and/or Danilon, usually) as required. Although painkillers like bute don’t address the underlying disease, they reduce the inflammation and associated pain. Although there can be side effects, it really isn’t fair to put a horse through the pain and discomfort of arthritis without some pain relief; if side effects are a particular concern, Danilon has a much lower risk, although it seems to be a little less effective. Its usually best to start out using bute only as required, and then build up the dose as necessary. Perry, for example, started using bute about 10 years ago, but just a sachet or so immediately after a competition. As he’s got older, he uses more, and at the moment he’s on an average of 4-5 sachets a week – enough to keep him comfortable (and galloping round his paddock like a yearling!).

Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is most common in older horses, and is caused by a micro-tumour in the pituitary gland. This results in an excess of circulating cortisol (a stress hormone), that causes the characteristic symptoms of abnormal fat pads (typically over the eyes and as saddle-packs), excessive drinking and urination, and increasing susceptibility to minor infections and laminitis. Ironically, the “classic” shaggy coat of the Cushingoid horse isn’t entirely due to cortisol – the presence of a tumour in the pituitary causes a malfunction in the part of the brain that controls body temperature, causing retention of a winter coat for longer. Cushing’s isn’t curable in horses, but symptoms can be partially controlled by management (regular clipping, diet and exercise control and remedial shoeing), or largely eliminated with some medications – Cyproheptadine (Periactin) may be of some use; however, Pergolide (Prascend) is highly effective, and is licensed for the treatment of Cushing’s.

Gut problems of one sort or another are also more common in older horses – these may be malabsorbtion issues, caused by thickening of the gut wall, or an increased susceptibility to colic. This may be due to a diffuse Lymphoma (a cancer of the white blood cells) which is the commonest tumour of older horses. In these cases, the key is to feed a highly digestible, high feed value ration, possibly with a probiotic to enhance digestion.

Tooth loss is also a problem in the older horse – as I discussed earlier, eventually the teeth “cup out”, at which point there’s little more that can be done, dentally. The next phase is that the tooth falls out, leaving naked gums. I remember once doing a regular tooth rasping on a 38 year old mare – I put a hand in to have a feel around, and four teeth fell out in my palm… (she actually did better once the teeth were out than she had in months!). An edentulous (toothless) horse needs a soft, ultra-high fibre diet; typically a mash made from fibre pellets or pencils. Horses can live healthily for quite some time on such a diet – however, once your horse has reached this stage, it is probably time to consider how long you can fairly keep him going.

If you can stay on top of all these points, you have every chance of keeping your older horse going for a long, healthy life – as Perry has had, and indeed continues to have.

If you are worried about any symptoms your horse or pony is showing, please talk to your vet or check how urgent the problem may be by using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide written by expert equine vets.

Thinking of getting a puppy?

Bichon Frise puppyThis week I have seen two different families who each bought a puppy with very little thought or planning and then ran into problems that caused the animals to be rehomed (with one narrowly avoiding being euthanised), as neither could cope with or afford the issues they faced. What is particularly sad is that with a little forethought and planning, all of this could have been avoided.

Before you decide to buy a dog (and tell the kids!) you must make sure you can afford them. As well as the day-to-day costs of feeding, you also have to consider vaccines, worming and flea treatment, neutering and training classes, not to mention vets fees if things go wrong. Owning a dog can cost many thousands of pounds over their lifetime, even if they don’t have any particular health problems. Pet insurance is vital but it won’t cover routine medications or surgeries. A lack of funds was what caused the problems for both the families I saw recently.

milly puppySecondly, do your research into your chosen breed and make absolutely sure they are going to be suitable for you and your lifestyle. All dogs need a reasonable amount of exercise, aim for at least an hour a day, but some require much more than others. For example, Border Collies and Springer Spaniels are popular breeds but are not always suited to family life because they need large amounts of stimulation, both physically and mentally, and can become easily bored, and potentially aggressive, without enough. Dogs which make great family pets include Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and, contrary to popular opinion, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, as they tend to be very good with people, tolerant of small children and don’t require the high levels of exercise and interaction that some breeds do.

You must also ensure that your new pet comes from a reputable breeder who has mated their dogs responsibly, ensured all the pre-breeding testing has been done, has brought their puppies up properly and are registered with the Kennel Club. The KC has come in for a lot of criticism recently but breeders who are registered with them are far more likely to be responsible that someone who has just bred their dogs for fun or, more likely, for the money. You must visit the pup at the breeders home, see where it has been living (which should be in the house and not in a shed outside), see it with the litter and the bitch (this is absolutely vital, if the breeder cannot or will not show you them altogether, it is likely they are hiding something) and good breeders will always be contactable after you have bought your dog to help with any questions or concerns you may have. If you have any worries about the breeder or feel in any way you are ‘rescuing’ a pup from them, you must walk away and, if you are really concerned, contact the RSPCA.

Charlie puppyFinally, why not consider a rescue dog? Many rescue centres have pups that need homes and will have wormed, flea’d and vaccinated them, as well as being able to give you support for neutering costs if you need it. However, although puppies are adorable, they are a lot of work and they will also have lots of adult dogs desperate for their forever home!

Deciding to buy a new pup is an exciting time but I have seen too many people rush into it, make the wrong decision and suffer heartbreaking (and expensive) consequences. By making the effort to buy as healthy (both mentally and physically) and well bred a puppy as possible, although you cannot guarantee you won’t have problems, you are giving yourself the best chance of gaining a family member who will be with you, in good health, for years to come!

Please discuss any concerns about the health of your dog or puppy with your vet, they will be happy to help. You could also check on any specific problems with our Interactice Dog Symptom Guide to see how urgent they may be.

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Vaccination in Cats – Why Should We Bother?

As the current economic situation continues to squeeze the family finances, I have noticed an increase in clients who would prefer not to vaccinate their cat. There are probably many more who are simply not showing up for their yearly exam so we don’t even have a chance to discuss the issue with them. Now, there are certainly times when I would accept that a cat should not be vaccinated, and in fact I often have to convince my clients NOT to vaccinate their pet if they are ill in any way. Vaccines are part of a preventative medicine protocol, and should in most cases only be given to healthy pets when the benefit of having the vaccine on board outweighs the risk of giving it. In most cases, however, the benefit far outweighs the risk, and therefore responsible vaccination is highly recommended. I’ll discuss what ‘responsible’ vaccination means in greater detail in my next blog, but first I thought I might explain a bit more about why vaccination is so important.

What diseases are cats routinely vaccinated against?

Feline vaccinations are generally separated into ‘core’ (those that every cat should have) and ‘non-core’ (those that only high-risk cats should receive). The four core vaccines that should be given to every cat are parvovirus, herpesvirus, calicivirus, and rabies. The rabies vaccine, however, should only be given in areas where rabies is a concern (for example, in the United States). The UK is currently rabies-free, therefore British cats are not routinely given the rabies vaccine unless they will be travelling to other countries. If you would like more information about the rabies vaccine, please speak with your vet. There may very well come a day when we are also required to vaccinate for rabies in the UK, but for now I’ll concentrate on the first three diseases.

Parvovirus

• The feline parvovirus is the name of the virus that causes feline panleukopenia. This is such a widespread disease that it has many other names, including feline infectious enteritis, feline distemper, and cat plague. Symptoms include severe vomiting and sometimes bloody diarrhoea, ataxia (loss of balance or stumbling), and death with a mortality rate of more than 50% in kittens under 1 year of age and 10% in cats older than 1 year. It can also cause abortion or defects of unborn kittens if the mother cat is infected during pregnancy (pregnant cats should also not receive certain types of the vaccine for the same reason). The feline parvovirus should not be confused with the canine parvovirus. Some strains of canine parvovirus could potentially affect cats, but those that have received the feline parvovirus vaccine should be covered. Likewise, the feline version has not been shown to infect dogs.

Herpesvirus

• The feline herpesvirus is what causes feline viral rhinotracheitis, otherwise known as feline influenza (cat flu) and feline coryza. It is responsible for about half of the respiratory disease seen in cats and along with calicivirus and a few other nasty bugs and environmental factors, leads to the disease called ‘feline respiratory disease complex’. In most cases, herpesvirus infection results in mild symptoms that go away on their own (like sneezing or mild nasal discharge) however it can cause severe rhinitis (inflammation in the nose and sinuses), conjunctivitis (eye infection), fever, depression, and loss of appetite as well, with kittens less than 6 months old showing the most severe symptoms. It can be particularly bad in multi-cat households, catteries and shelters, with a mortality rate of up to 20-30%. Like parvovirus, it can cause abortion in newly-infected mother cats. Unlike parvovirus however this vaccination does not prevent cats from getting this disease, but it does lessen the severity of symptoms making it less likely to be fatal or develop into pneumonia. The virus can live in the body for long periods of time and become reactivated during times of stress (such as boarding at the cattery, moving house, new pets in the house or pregnancy) or underlying medical conditions (treatment with steroids or concurrent FeLV or FIV infection), which is why even vaccinated cats will sometimes ‘catch a cold’ when they are stressed.

Calicivirus

• Like herpesvirus, feline calicivirus also leads to the condition called feline respiratory disease complex and is responsible for most of the other 50% of cases. The symptoms of calicivirus are similar to those of herpesvirus, with sneezing, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, fever and loss of appetite however severe infections result in significant eye disease (sometimes so swollen that the eye cannot be opened) and ulceration of the mouth and tongue. It is fatal in up to 20-30% of cases, particularly young kittens. Like herpesvirus, vaccination does not prevent infection but will make the disease easier to bear and less likely to cause long-term or fatal complications.

A note about Feline Leukaemia (FeLV) and other available vaccinations

• There is one other vaccine that is recommended for most cats in the UK but is less widely used in the US, and that is FeLV or feline leukaemia virus. The reason for this is that most American cats are kept inside for their whole lives while British cats are allowed outdoors where they are more likely to contact other cats. FeLV is a retrovirus that is spread by the saliva of infected cats in close contact or from mother to kitten. The prevalence of this disease is currently thought to be about 1% in healthy UK cats (nearly 20% in sick cats), but in reality could be either higher or lower. The virus itself causes a cancer of the blood cells called leukaemia and this is usually fatal. The chance of picking up FeLV is much greater in kittens than it is in cats over 1 year old, although older cats can certainly become infected. As this is considered a non-core vaccine, its use is slightly less straightforward than the previous three vaccines, but most UK vets do currently recommend it.

• Other vaccines available for cats include chlamydophila and bordetella (recommended for use in specific situations), and FIV and FIP (which although they do exist, are not recommended for any cat). Unless you are a breeder or shelter manager, you will probably never be offered one of these vaccines. If you are, make sure you understand why the vaccine is being recommended and feel free to discuss your concerns with your vet.

Feline parvovirus, herpesvirus, calicivirus, rabies and leukaemia virus are all serious illnesses that can be severely debilitating if not fatal to your cat. Vaccination, although not a complete guarantee against infection, is highly effective in preventing and limiting these diseases. I’ll discuss other aspects of vaccine administration in my next article, but clearly the concept of vaccination is a sound one and we should be making the most of this invaluable tool in preventative medicine. Not having your pet vaccinated is like placing a bet on their health. Would you being willing to bet your pet’s life on the spin of a roulette wheel? Not having them vaccinated (although admittedly the odds are much lower) is no different. And of course, for those sceptical souls with a more financial outlook on the whole subject, I’d like to point out that the cost of the vaccine is significantly lower than the cost of treating any of these diseases!

Puppy Farms Must Face Tighter Controls

These puppies are healthy and well socialised, but not all puppies bred in the UK are as fortunate.

These puppies are healthy and well socialised, but not all puppies bred in the UK are as fortunate.

When we buy a new puppy, we would like to think that it has had a good start in life and will be healthy and well socialised. Unfortunately for many puppies bought in this country, whether purebred or crossbred, the reality is much less pleasant.

At present a licence is required to run a dog breeding establishment (with 5 or more breeding bitches) in England, Scotland or Wales. Licensed premises are inspected by the local authority to ensure they meet certain minimum standards, but it is thought that there are many illegal unlicensed premises, the so-called “puppy farms”.

It has been widely reported in the media recently that the Welsh Assembly is considering steps to close down or regulate Welsh puppy farms which churn out high numbers of puppies for profit, with little regard to their health or welfare. The proposals being considered include compulsory microchipping of puppies, to allow traceability, an improvement in the ratio of staff to dogs and more regard to conditions including behaviour and socialisation. Stricter licensing laws could be in place by 2011.

Many organisations have campaigned against the existence of puppy farms, including the Kennel Club, the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust.

Puppy farms keep breeding bitches under intensive conditions. Bitches are bred from too frequently, too young and regardless of suitability. Often there is a lack of cleanliness, bedding and health care, so sickly puppies result. Puppies leave their mothers when they are still too young and unvaccinated. The conditions which a puppy experiences in the first six weeks of life are absolutely crucial to the dog’s development and behaviour in later life, so a puppy which has little human contact is very likely to have problems. Record keeping can be inadequate, so although pups may have pedigree papers, they may be meaningless.

Some puppy farms go to great lengths to make themselves appear to be reputable breeders, and the buyers of the pups will never see the actual conditions in which the pups have been reared. If pups are sold over the phone or on the internet and then transported to another location to be handed over, the new owner may not even be aware that their puppy was bred under these conditions.

Visit the breeder to see the litter and check the housing conditions.

Visit the breeder to see the litter and check the housing conditions.

The ideal way to avoid this is to find a breeder by personal recommendation or by using the Kennel Club list of accredited breeders. Visit the litter while it is still with the mother (or both parents if possible). Insist on seeing the pup in the conditions in which it is housed so that you can judge for yourself whether the conditions are clean and appropriate. The offer to deliver a puppy to your home or to a halfway service station may sound convenient, but should be resisted. What has the breeder got to hide? Beware of sellers who advertise several or many different breeds. Expect a breeder to ask questions about the sort of home you would be providing for their puppy.

The most difficult thing of all is not to buy a puppy because you feel sorry for it. If a buyer accidentally finds themselves viewing a puppy which is unwell, or in poor condition, the big temptation is to buy it to remove it from that situation. In the short term, that will help the individual puppy, but more money going to the puppy farm will just perpetuate the trade. Bad conditions should be reported to the local authority or to an appropriate charity or organisation with the powers to investigate. That way more puppies will be helped in the future by closing down or cleaning up unscrupulous puppy farms.

Why does it matter if my pet is thirsty?

Most pet owners will have been asked by their vet, probably more than once, whether there has been any change in the amount their dog or cat is drinking. It is an important question because the answer can give us valuable information. Of course thirst increases naturally in hot weather, after exercise and when being fed a dry diet, but it can be much more significant than that. The dog or cat will probably spend more time at the drinking bowl, or the owner will notice that they have to refill it more often than expected. The amount of urine passed will increase as well, and this may be the first sign noticed by the owner.

An increase in thirst can be a side effect of certain drugs, but can also be caused by a number of quite serious problems. It is always important to mention it to your vet. Some of the most common causes of increased thirst (polydipsia) are:

1. Fever, which can have many causes including infections or bite wounds

2. Kidney disease, where the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste products from the blood and control its salt content

3. Liver disease, which can take a number of different forms when the various functions of the liver are not being carried out as efficiently as normal

4. Diabetes mellitus, when there is a lack of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas which controls blood sugar levels

5. Diabetes insipidus, when the animal lacks anti-diuretic hormones so is unable to concentrate the urine

6. Cushing’s disease, when an excess of natural steroid hormones is produced by the adrenal gland

7. Pyometra (in unspayed females) is an infection of the womb (uterus) which can be sudden or gradual in onset

8. Urinary infection or bladder stones

9. Hyperthyroidism, more common in older cats, where increased thirst is only one of many symptoms caused by an excess of thyroid hormone.

Other causes also occur, and sometimes there is more than one cause present at a time.

To find out the reason for an increase in thirst, your dog or cat will need to have a full clinical examination. Small clues can be gathered from examination of every part of the body. For example, the colour of the “whites of the eyes” may change in liver disease. Weight loss or gain could be important. Feeling the abdomen may reveal enlargement of individual organs such as liver or kidneys. A discharge from the vagina could indicate a womb infection (pyometra) in an unspayed female. A heart murmur is often present in hyperthyroidism, and changes in skin and body shape occur in Cushing’s disease.

These clues mean more when considered with the full history of the animal. The age, gender, whether neutered, breed, type of diet, previous illnesses and vaccination status are all relevant. Then the vet will need to ask about the increase in thirst. How long ago did it start? Was it sudden or gradual? Have any changes been noticed in the appetite? You may be asked to measure your dog or cat’s water intake over 24hrs to check whether it is abnormally high or not.

Usually some lab tests will need to be carried out to diagnose the problem. A urine sample is useful to look for signs of infection, crystals or substances which should normally be removed by the kidneys, and to measure the kidney’s ability to concentrate the urine.

A blood test is nearly always needed to distinguish between the various possible causes. The first test is usually a general screening test to narrow it down, followed by more specific tests to reach a diagnosis. To get to the correct diagnosis can take time.

X-rays or ultrasound imaging can be used to visualise the internal organs and might be advised if the results of blood tests suggest they would be useful.

Many of the causes of increased thirst are very serious if left untreated, but many are also very treatable. They require very different treatments, so it is well worth diagnosing the problem so that the right treatment can be given.

If you are worried that your cat or dog may be drinking more, or about any other problems, talk to your vet or try using our Interactive Symptom Guide to help decide what to do next.

Choosing a first family pet.


Most children love animals, and there are many benefits from owning one. Apart from the fun and companionship, caring for an animal can help give children a sense of responsibility.

On the other hand, children can become bored with things quickly when the novelty wears off, so adults always need to be prepared to take overall responsibility for a pet. Choosing the right pet for your family’s lifestyle can make it more likely that the children will stay involved and that their relationship with their pet will be a fulfilling one.

The basic welfare needs of all pets are that they should be provided with a suitable environment and diet, the right health care as needed, be kept with others or apart from others (depending on species), and be allowed to exhibit normal behaviour patterns. These basic rights are a legal requirement under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Different animals have very different needs however, so it is worth doing some research before deciding which pet would best suit your family.

Dogs

The most popular pet in Britain for many years (although now being caught up by cats), dogs are also amongst the most time consuming and expensive to keep. It is not fair to leave a dog alone at home for long periods, so this would make it unsuitable if everyone is out at work all day, unless a reliable dog walker was used. As well as needing company and exercise, dogs need time spent on training, and grooming if long-haired. Having a garden and somewhere close by for exercise would be ideal. Expenses would include food, vaccinations, neutering and other vets bills, grooming or clipping and boarding kennels or dog-sitters. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes so the traits of different breeds should also be considered. If a dog is your choice of pet, you can expect years of fun and loyalty.

Cats

The independent nature of cats means that they are not quite as reliant on humans as dogs. With a cat flap or a cat litter tray and food available, they can be left for a number of hours, but most cats still enjoy human company. Not all cats like to be lap cats though, so their enjoyment of your company may be on their own terms! This very independence of character is part of the appeal to a cat lover. They also exercise themselves, but long-haired cats need daily grooming. Expenses to consider would be vaccinations, neutering and other veterinary bills, cattery fees.

Rabbits

The number of pet rabbits in the UK goes up all the time, and many now live more like cats and dogs than in the traditional hutch. Rabbits can be litter-trained like cats and can make very good house pets. They are not always ideally suited for children though, as they may resent being picked up and scratch or kick. To keep them in good health they should have the correct diet, vaccinations and in some cases, neutering. They need daily attention to ensure they do not suffer from problems like fly strike or overgrown teeth.

Caged animals

In general, these animals take more time to look after than you might think. Cleaning out cages can be quite time-consuming and can reduce the amount of time spent handling and interacting with the pet. The smallest furry animals can be very quick and a bit nippy, making them less suitable for young children. My own personal favourites in this group would be guinea pigs and rats, but we are probably all influenced by which pets we grew up with ourselves.

Guinea Pigs

These make very good pets and are easy to handle and sociable. They need the right diet (especially a source of vitamin C) and as with all caged animals they need their home to be regularly cleaned. They like to have a companion of the same gender.

Hamsters

The biggest drawback with hamsters is that they tend to be nocturnal, so they may be asleep when you want to play with them and active during the night. They need to be handled very carefully and very frequently to keep them used to handling. If they get ignored for a while they become reluctant to co-operate and will bite. Cages need regular cleaning. A hamster’s lifespan is only about 2 years.

Ferrets

These are interesting and entertaining animals, which have a longer lifespan than many other small furries. They can have a strong smell, especially the males. Females need to be spayed to prevent health problems. Ferrets can be prone to disease of the adrenal glands requiring hormonal treatment.

Rats

Another animal which I think makes a great pet if well kept and well handled. They are intelligent and like to play and interact with humans. They do like to live with a companion rat of the same gender.

Fish

These can be enchanting and relaxing to watch but there isn’t any opportunity for handling as with other pets. The initial expense of setting up a tank is quite high. They can be ideal pets for a family with little space and no garden.

Birds

Many different species are kept as pets, either caged or in an aviary. Caged birds can be tamed and handled and allowed out of the cage to interact with the family, while birds kept in an aviary can enjoy having room to fly. Specialist knowledge is needed to offer the best conditions as different species of birds have very different requirements.

Exotic Pets

Snakes, reptiles and others require very special environments which are secure and have controllable temperature, light and humidity. They also require very special diets to keep healthy and should not be considered good first time pets. Some grow to a very large size which would make them impractical for many people to look after.

If you want to know more about the care needed by a particular type of pet, most veterinary surgeries will be happy to advise. It is also worth remembering that some of the worries about expense can be eased by taking out pet insurance. This is not just for dogs and cats but is also available for rabbits, birds and exotics.

Note from editor: The PDSA have a fun interactive ‘Pet Finder’ tool that is very helpful.

More Useful Information

Examining your pet

Simple ways to check the health of your pet. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examiniation.

Medicating your pet

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.