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Just stiff, or sore?

One of the most common conditions encountered in practice is arthritis, otherwise known as osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD). It may be underdiagnosed because many owners may see their older dogs ‘slowing down’ or ‘becoming stiff’ and consider it part of getting old. It’s often only picked up at routine examinations, such as during vaccinations. While common (thought to affect 20% of adult dogs) it is not normal and can significantly impair our ageing pets’ quality of life.
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My dog is panting excessively – what could be wrong?

For dogs, panting can be a natural reaction to exertion, heat, excitement, and fear. If the panting is excessive it may be a sign or symptom that something is wrong.
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My pet needs to see a vet… but is it an emergency?

Obviously, if you have any doubts - give your vet a ring! There’ll always be someone on duty who will be able to give advice over the phone, even if it isn’t an emergency that needs seeing right now. However, there are only thirteen or fourteen conditions that are genuinely life-or-death emergencies, and these need seeing RIGHT NOW. If your pet is suffering from one of the following conditions, they need seeing - as soon as possible. So, don’t delay - call your vet and then get in the car and drive!
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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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