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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.
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Allergic Skin Disease in Dogs

Probably the second most common skin condition I see in dogs (after flea-related problems) is allergic skin disease or atopy. Dogs can develop an allergic reaction to any number of things in the environment, or, less commonly, to their food. Common indoor allergens include house dust mites, detergents and carpet cleaning products. Common outdoor allergens include grasses and pollens. Food allergens include beef, pork, dairy products and wheat. And of course fleas themselves can cause allergic skin disease in some unlucky dogs. atopic paw An allergic reaction is caused when the immune system makes antibodies to common substances instead of to those which are “foreign” to it. The antibodies cause mast cells in the skin to release chemicals like histamine, which cause irritation and inflammation. The most common age for dogs to show the first signs of allergic skin disease is when they are young, usually 1-3 years old. Some breeds are more commonly affected than others, and the tendency seems to run in families. For this reason, and because it can be a very distressing condition, it is not advisable to breed from affected dogs. The signs of allergic skin disease can occur all over the dog, but usually are most obvious on the feet, the ears and the tummy. The affected areas will be red and itchy, and usually this leads to the dog licking or chewing at the area which does further damage. Areas which are licked a lot will become reddish-brown in colour due to staining by saliva. After a long time the skin will become thickened and more pigmented, so may be black in colour especially on the tummy. Surface infection will often be present and have to be treated first before the cause can be found. Diagnosing the problem is by a mixture of examination and tests. A full examination of the dog will be needed to see if the skin disease is part of a bigger problem, e.g. thyroid disease. Blood tests may be needed to rule out such problems. Then the skin will be examined in more detail. The appearance of the skin gives clues but is not usually enough on its own to find out the cause. In any itchy skin condition it is important to rule out fleas, mites and lice, by taking a skin scraping and a hair sample. This can also be used to look for fungal spores. Once infection has been treated and parasites have been ruled out or treated, allergic skin disease may be a chief suspect. Finding out what causes an allergy is not very easy. There may well be more than one trigger, and allergy may develop to a substance which the animal has been exposed to before without any problems. If food is suspected, a special diet based on very few food sources may be recommended, but any improvement may take some weeks to show so it is important not to give up too quickly and not to feed any additional tit-bits. If a skin condition is very seasonal, always flaring up in the summer months, it makes it more likely that the cause might be grasses or pollens. Finding out what substances cause an allergy can be done with skin tests or blood tests. Skin tests involve the injection of minute amounts of suspected allergens under the skin and is usually done under sedation. Blood test have to be sent to a laboratory specialising in these types of tests. All the most common causes of allergies can be checked to see if an individual reacts to them. This is most useful if the allergen is something which can be avoided or removed from the dog’s environment. If avoidance is not possible, or if many allergens are involved, then treatment will be needed for the whole of the dog’s life. Antihistamines can help to reduce the distressing itch. Food supplements containing essential fatty acids can also be useful. Medicated shampoos also improve general skin health. Some cases may need to be treated with steroids, which help control the inflammation and itch but do not tackle the cause. The disadvantage is the risk of serious side effects, so they must be used appropriately. Steroids can be very useful and very necessary in some cases but are not ideal for all or for long term use. Another frequently used drug is cyclosporine which is an immunomodulator. It is unlikely to cause serious side effects and can give good long term control. Some dogs suffer from diarrhoea and vomiting at first but this often stops as treatment continues. Desensitisation is a technique where a unique vaccine is created for an individual dog according to the allergens which were identified by blood testing. This vaccine is then injected monthly, starting with very small doses and building up to a regular monthly dose. This can also be very successful for some dogs but may take months to take effect. Allergic skin disease is a very unpleasant condition, causing painful and distressing itchiness and often needing lifelong treatment. Diagnosis and treatment are not easy and will take time, which can be frustrating for both dog and owner. The best treatment will vary from one dog to another, so a lot of patience may be needed.

Choosing the Best Vet Practice for your Pet

Just what do you look for when you are choosing a vet practice for your pet?  For some people it is an easy decision as there is only one local vet practice in easy travelling distance, for others it can be a bewildering  choice. A good feeling about a vet practice counts for a lot but there are differences between clinics, understanding what these are can help you to make an informed decision.  The choice will not be black and white, local vet practices will be strong and weak in different areas, it is finding the vet practice that is right for you and right for your pet that matters. Word of mouth recommendation is a good place to start, pet owners in real life or on social networks are usually delighted to help. There is  a fairly comprehensive list of vet practices on the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons website, you can also look at the usual local directories and, of course there is the Vet Help Direct Vet Practice Directory. We are biased, obviously, but believe our directory is extra useful as we provide information, images and, in some cases, video of the vet clinics. You can also try googling the name of the vet practice as most have websites. Next you need to go and visit, don't be embarrassed to explain you are choosing  a vet practice, the staff should be happy to arrange a convenient time for you to look around. Its vitally important that you and your pet feel comfortable at your vets so make sure the staff seem friendly and approachable. Ask about the staff, do they have any special interests? Have they attended any courses recently? Are there any vets or nurses with extra qualifications? There are no right or wrong answers but it can help you to get a general feel for the vet practice. If you are the owner of an exotic animal you should check that there is a vet at the practice with experience of treating your species. Good facilities are certainly not the be all or end all of  a vet practice but they should have the basics and it should, of course all be clean and in good working order. If I was choosing a vet practice for my dog I would want one with an opreating theatre, x-ray, ultrasound, anaesthetic and dental machines, a microscope and in house bloods (or a same day arrangement with a local laboratory), separate kenneling for dogs and cats and an isolation area. Beyond that extra facilities are nice but they can always refer you somewhere else in the unlikely event that more complex treatments are required. The set up of the clinic is also important, are all the facilities there or do you have to travel further away if treatments are necessary? All veterinary surgeons are legally obliged to provide 24 hour cover for emergencies but it is worth asking how this is provided, is it the vets from the surgery or is the out of hours cover provided by a different practice? Whilst it may seem inconvenient to go further afield in the middle of the night don't forget there will be benefits in seeing vets and nurses that have not been working the day before, they will also be on site all night providing round the clock care for your pet. To save you having to look into the facilities and staff in too much detail the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons run a practice standards scheme . Inspectors regularly check they meet the standards for their level to give you peace of mind using the practice. If a practice is certified under the RCVS practice standards scheme you can feel confident using them, but a word of caution, some practices opt out so if they are not registered it doesn't mean that they have not passed, they may have chosen not to take part. Prices do vary from practice to practice, staff should be able to refer you to a list of the prices of the top selling products and provide you with the prices of consultations and vaccinations. Appointment times might also be important to you if you work long hours , many vet clinics now offer late night surgeries at least once a week. Once you have made your decision it is a good idea to register in advance to speed up care if your pet becomes ill. There should be no problem at all changing vets although its important to let both practices know what is happening so that notes can be transferred. Its perfectly acceptable and often sensible to change vets but its not usually a good idea to keep swapping around; its less stressful for the pet if they get to know the vet and premises and you can expect a better standard of care as the vet will get to know you and your pet personally.