All the latest info on caring for your pet

Looking for something in particular? Check our categories!

Ask a vet online – My pets breath is bad, but teeth are fine – help!

Question from Sarah Knight:

My Scottie has horrendous breath, teeth are fine, have changed her diet, she also has charcoal on her meals, any other ideas truly welcomed!

Answer: Bad Breath

Hi Sarah, thanks for your question about your dog's bad breath. To answer it, I'm going to run through the possible causes of halitosis, along with any other symptoms they might show. I'll then talk about the most likely reasons, and where to go next with diagnosis and treatment options.

Causes of Halitosis

Halitosis, or "bad breath", is defined as an "offensive odour emanating from the oral cavity". There are a number of possible causes, some of which are more common than others.

1) Diet

You say you've modified her diet, but a lot of dogs (especially terriers!) eat unpleasant things given half a chance - particularly faeces (those of other dogs, horses, livestock etc), or dead and rotting things (often mice or birds found lying in the undergrowth when out on walks). Inevitably, eating anything like this will lead to bad breath.

2) Metabolic disease

We're particularly talking about diabetes or kidney failure here - both of which can lead to halitosis. In diabetes, the body produces ketones as a fuel supply for the brain, which have a strong smell (with overtones of pear drops - however, not all humans have the gene required to be able to detect this); in kidney disease, the build up of nitrogen waste products in the blood may result in oral lesions and/or smelly breath. In both cases, you'd expect to see increased thirst and possibly weight loss, but the signs can be pretty subtle in the early stages.

3) Respiratory disease

Infections of the nose and sinuses often lead to foul smelling breath, as can tumours of the nasal cavity. Sometimes, in fact, there are no other symptoms, although I'd usually expect some nasal discharge (a single snotty nostril that doesn't clear up is the classic sign). Have you noticed any wheezing or sneezing? These can be signs that there's something amiss as well. Sometimes dogs can get foreign bodies such as grass blades stuck up their noses - these result in inflammation and infection, and the tell-tale smell.

4) Oesophageal disease

Some conditions of the oesophagus (the gullet or "food pipe") can result in halitosis - particularly some tumours or a condition called megaoesophagus, where the gullet is stretched and doesn't function properly. However, these are usually associated with regurgitation of food or difficulty swallowing.

5) Skin disease

Although I wouldn't say it was especially common in scotties, infections of skin around the lips (lip fold pyoderma)  can occur in any breed, and can smell quite unpleasant - if the skin around her mouth looks sore or is painful, this is a distinct possibility that will need intervention. Pyoderma like this can also be a result of an allergic condition.

6) Dental disease

This is by far the most common cause of halitosis! Most dogs develop some tartar and plaque as they get older; in some its much worse than others. You say her teeth appear fine, and I'm sure they do, at least at the front; however, plaque is much more common towards the back of the mouth where it's much harder to see. In addition, dogs can get what's called a biofilm, where the teeth are covered in a thin membrane of bacteria, but may look normal. In addition, tooth disease doesn't have to be above the gums - a healthy-looking tooth may have severe gingevitis (gum infection), or periodonitis (infection and inflammation of the roots) which is a common cause of bad breath.

I have to say that, without seeing her, I think some degree of dental disease is the most likely explanation.

Where do we go from here?

Firstly, it's always worth checking to see if she is picking up faeces from something, and if so, preventing her from having free range in that area. If she's eating her own, there are products available (e.g. Copro-Nil) that make a dog's own faeces much less appetising.

Assuming that isn't the (nice, simple!) cause, check to see if she is showing any other symptoms - snotty nose, sneezing, regurgitating, drinking more, losing weight etc. Measuring water intake over a 24 hour period is really useful; as a rough rule of thumb, more than 90ml per kg per day is an abnormally high amount. If she is showing any of these signs, or you are at all concerned, you should see your vet for further investigation. Blood and urine tests can be used to diagnose kidney disease and diabetes, and X-rays are commonly used for nasal and oesophageal disorders.

The next step is to check for dental problems. It is virtually impossible to do a full dental examination on a conscious patient, but your vet will probably have several tricks up their sleeve that let them get a good look around to pick up the obvious. For a full dental examination, however, an anaesthetic is needed (and I have to say, it's pretty rare not to find any issues at all in an adult dog). A "dental" (so-called) is a very routine procedure, and would be my favoured way forward, unless you and your vet can be pretty confident that there aren't any underlying dental issues.

What happens in a "Dental"?

Essentially, the dog is anaesthetised, then their mouth and teeth can be carefully examined (without risk to fingers). Any loose or diseased teeth are removed, and the remainder are scaled and polished to remove any plaque or tartar (just like a visit to the hygienist for us). Normally, the dog will go home the same day.

Is there anything else I can try first?

Yes - if there aren't any other symptoms, and you can't see any signs of gum disease or plaque, you can (and really should!) start brushing her teeth. In fact, even if your dog has just had a dental, if at all possible start to brush afterwards - bacteria attach to the freshly cleaned tooth within 6-8 hours, and mineralise (forming dental calculus or "plaque") within days.

Get a soft tooth-brush suitable for her size (a children's brush, or a specialist dog one), and some dog tooth-paste (DON'T use human paste - the mint flavour is really nasty for most dogs). Just as you would brush your teeth, gently brush hers, a little at a time until she gets used to it. I would strongly advise every dog owner to brush their pet's teeth - it would avoid a lot of problems later on.

I hope that helps and that you can get her smelly breath under control!

David Harris BVSc MRCVS
13 Comments

Could your cat have high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is a common problem for humans but did you know that cats can get it too? High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is actually quite common in older cats, especially those with other diseases such as kidney disease or hyperthyroidism. The symptoms can be quite subtle or mimic those of other diseases so many cases remain undetected for quite some time. If left untreated, however, hypertension can lead to significant secondary health problems, so it’s definitely worth testing for. [caption id="attachment_4332" align="alignleft" width="288"]Bob having his blood pressure checked. Bob having his blood pressure checked.[/caption] What exactly is high blood pressure? High blood pressure occurs when the pressure within the blood vessels exceeds a certain threshold. Think of the hosepipe used to water your garden. If you turn the tap on too strongly, the water shoots out of the nozzle uncontrollably, damaging your flowers. The same is true for the body – organs like the brain and kidneys need blood to survive but if the blood pressure gets too high, it can start to damage the very organs it is trying to keep alive. To further complicate things, blood vessels have a tendency to leak under pressure and this extra fluid can cause further problems. How do cats develop high blood pressure? Many things can cause hypertension in cats from certain medications to neurological disease, but the two most common causes are kidney failure and hyperthyroidism. Both of these illnesses cause alterations in the very precise mechanisms that monitor and control blood pressure. It doesn’t always correlate with the severity of the disease (i.e., severe hypertension can be seen with only mild kidney disease) and in the case of hyperthyroidism, we sometimes see hypertension develop only after the thyroid problem has been treated. What are the symptoms of hypertension? The clinical signs associated with high blood pressure depend on which organs are most badly affected. One of the most common signs is acute blindness because the high pressure within the vessels of the eye causes the retina to detach from the nerves that tell the brain what the eye is seeing. So you may notice the cat bumping into things (although it’s amazing how many owners aren’t aware of their cat’s blindness because cats are so good at using their other senses to compensate), staying closer to home or having very dilated pupils or ‘wide eyes’. Another organ that is commonly affected is the brain so you might see serious signs such as circling and seizures or perhaps much more subtle behavioural changes such as crying out at night or being less sociable when people are around (how else would you tell if your cat had a headache?). You may see bleeding in unexpected places like nosebleeds or blood in the urine. It can also speed up the progression of kidney failure. The list goes on so any unexplained physical or behavioural change warrants a blood pressure check, especially in older cats. How is high blood pressure diagnosed? The only way to tell if a cat has high blood pressure is to measure it. The process is much the same as it is in humans – a cuff is inflated around the arm or leg (or possibly the tail) which controls blood flow to the limb. A special device (sometimes a handheld Doppler unit or sometimes an automatic sensor) then measures the blood pressure. It doesn’t hurt and isn’t usually a stressful process that is good because if the cat is stressed the reading can be artificially elevated. Sometimes the cat objects to the cuff being tightened so it can help to practice a few times before taking the reading. Some cats just plain hate going to the vet or any kind of restraint whatsoever so it isn’t always possible to get a reading, although many clinics have special protocols in place to help the cat stay as calm as possible before attempting to take a blood pressure. If all else fails in the clinic, a reading might be possible at home where they are more comfortable. Is there any treatment? Absolutely. There are several medications that can treat high blood pressure but the one that most vets use these days is called amlodipine. A very tiny dose goes a long way, and it’s important that once you start the medication, you give it regularly to avoid dangerous spikes in blood pressure. Once a cat starts the medication (usually a tiny tablet that most cats seem to tolerate relatively well) it’s important to follow up with regular blood pressure checks to ensure that they are on the correct dose. I’ve seen many cats respond very well indeed to treatment and many owners report that their cat seems years younger once their blood pressure is under control, even if they hadn’t noticed any symptoms in the first place. It is yet another example of how well cats can hide their illnesses and how important it is for owners and vets to work together to detect health problems while there is still time to treat them effectively. If you think your cat is showing signs of high blood pressure or if you have an older cat with unexplained physical or behavioural changes, please speak with your vet about having their blood pressure checked. You may never know unless you make an effort to look for it. Amy Bergs DVM MRCVS  - Visit The Cat Doctor website by clicking HERE
No Comments

Killing badgers: a necessary evil or the unwarranted destruction of a scapegoat?

Badgers are at the centre of one of the biggest rural controversies of our time. On the one hand, many farmers  see them as disease-carrying pests that need to be controlled in the same way as urban dwellers control rats, with poison, traps or guns. On the other hand, animal lovers see them as benign, harmless characters, going about their own business, and certainly not "guilty" enough to deserve death. How can there be such a huge gulf between these opposing views? Is there a central "truth" that we can all agree about?

It is true that badgers can spread TB to cattle

There are some definitive facts. Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) is a complex disease which needs to be controlled to maintain the UK's international animal health reputation. Control measures include improved on-farm hygiene, accurate identification of cattle, records of animal movement, regular testing of cattle by vets, and unfortunately for badgers, strict control of wildlife that can carry TB. You see, there is no doubt that badgers can carry TB. If they become infected, they excrete the TB organism in their urine and faeces. When infected badgers wander around farmland, they can contaminate feeding troughs and pasture, passing on the infection to cattle. But that is where the certainty stops. Just because badgers can carry TB does not mean that they necessarily are a highly significant reason for the perseverance of the disease in cattle in some parts of the UK. At a recent NFU conference on Bovine TB, a DEFRA scientist said that "possibly only 6 per cent of infection can be traced back to badgers", yet when challenged by farmers, he acknowledged that there were "very high levels of uncertainty over the extent to which badgers are involved in the disease cycle". Then later in the conference, he acknowledged that "it could be higher than this", but in any case "it is probably less than 50 per cent.” The fact that a senior scientist is unable to be definitive is an indication of the complexity of the situation.

Farmers prefer to control badgers than to take even more farm-based measures against TB

Farmers, as a group, are keen to blame badgers: they are a useful scapegoat, and focussing on eradicating badgers from problem areas is more acceptable than tolerating the extra costs and inconvenience of higher levels of cattle testing, culling and movement restrictions. In fairness, farmers are already subject to very strict cattle-based controls, with 30,000 cattle being ‘culled’ in England annually to control TB in cattle herds, and 10-15% of herds in England suffering from strict movement restrictions every year. Farmers do not have a choice about these issues, and so it is understandable that they get upset when people campaign to allow badgers to be left out of the equation completely. Even if it's accepted that badgers need to be controlled, there are conflicting views about the best way to stop them from spreading TB. The ultimate aim, that everyone agrees on, is to prevent badgers from carrying the disease using an oral vaccine which can be given to them in baits.Trials of this type of vaccine are under way but in the mean time, there is a strong opinion that the most effective way to stop badgers from spreading the disease is to cull them. But even the evidence for this is complicated.

Badger culling may not work, it's difficult to carry out humanely and it damages the natural ecosystem

Mass culls don't work: badgers from surrounding areas tend to move into areas where badgers have been eradicated, and other badgers run away from areas where culling is taking place. This increase in badger movements (known as perturbation) has been shown to spread TB rather than helping to solve the issue. So the new government alternative is focussed culls, tightly restricted to specific narrow areas where TB is a problem. But this is controversial too: the evidence for its efficacy is not 100%, and importantly, it is not at all easy to kill badgers humanely. That said, in this two-host epidemic, no single measure can be 100% effective, and the Republic of Ireland approach to the disease (which includes culling badgers as well as other measures) has led to a decline in cattle TB levels that has not been seen anywhere else in the British Isles. There are three problems that people have with culling badgers, each of them valid in their own way. First, some people believe that badgers have rights, just like humans. So deciding to kill them, even for a good reason, impinges on their rights. Even if it's done humanely, it just should not be done. Second, others believe that while there is an argument that badgers should be controlled (just like excessive numbers of rats, deer or other pests), it should only be done if they can be killed humanely, which is a challenge in itself. This is the view of the British Veterinary Association . Third, others believe that even if badgers can be killed humanely, it should not be done in a way that affects the ecology of the rural landscape in a permanent way. In Ireland, badger culling has been the national policy for many years, with over 70,000 badgers being trapped and killed between 1995 and 2010. The total national population of badgers has been estimated at 70,000, suggesting that almost half of the national badger population has been eradicated. At the same time, Ireland has significantly improved TB control in its national cattle herd, justifying the badger slaughter to those who support it. But even if the badger slaughter has helped the TB issue, it has been at a serious cost to Irelands natural heritage. Local badger populations have been decimated,with ancient badger setts permanently depopulated. In one area, there were over ten active setts in the 1980's: now there's just one. Is it ever right to permanently alter the natural environment in this way? On the other hand, recently published data from England shows that badger sett numbers have increased by 100% in the past 20 years,  and badgers are causing serious damage to roads, railways, foundations of houses etc,  leading to an increasing number of licensed moves of badger setts from one location to another. So the badger population in England could certainly not be said to be under threat in any way. There is no perfect answer to the TB and badger situation. The issue is - and will continue to be - a challenging and divisive problem.  
4 Comments

Grazia: fashion news, beauty tips and terrible advice about breeding pets

Grazia is an Italian women's magazine, first printed in 1938 when it was modelled on the USA magazine, Harper's Bazaar. At the time, it was said to focus on traditional family values, such as cooking and child rearing. In recent years, the magazine has expanded its frontiers, now having over twenty international editions, including a British edition which started in 2005, and had a circulation of over 160000 by 2013. So why is a vet writing a blog about a women's magazine? Well, in the latest UK edition, Grazia has taken an ill-judged foray into the world of pet breeding. The magazine includes a feature on easy ways to earn extra income, with someone called “Ella”, said to be an estate agent, enthusing about the ease with which she makes extra cash by breeding her Ragdoll cat and Shih Tzu dogs. “Ella” seemed to give lip service to the idea of responsible breeding, saying “You want healthy animals or you get a bad rep. If you think Netmums is bad, you haven't seen how bitchy pet forums are!”. “Ella”, as well as the Grazia editorial team, clearly had no idea about the depth of feeling about irresponsible breeding. There has been a social media storm since the magazine was published, with Facebook, Twitter and numerous internet forums boiling with fury about the article. The RSPCA and the Kennel Club  issuing statements. The RSPCA pointed out that one in three puppy buyers no longer have their animal three years after purchase, while the Kennel Club urged all potential breeders to seek professional advice before considering starting to breed animals. The Grazia article is certain to have caused damage. Impressionable and naive readers will be reconsidering having their pets neutered and spayed, mistakenly believing the spiel about how easy it will be to earn cash from their pets. The article made no mention of the need to breed responsibly, with careful selection of breeding partners, pre-breeding health checks, and post-breeding successful rearing of healthy and well-socialised puppies and kittens. The article will have undone years of careful public relations by responsible groups who stress the need to control puppy and kitten breeding. The magazine has now apologised for any harm caused, but as the coming weeks pass, thousands of readers, at home and in waiting rooms across the UK, will be reading about “Ella” and her scheme for making easy money. The damage to cultural attitudes around pet breeding has been done and will continue to be done. Grazia need to do more than just saying sorry. Perhaps a friend of “Ella” could write an article about the importance of responsible breeding in a future edition?
10 Comments

Ask a vet online – is there a test for Leptospirosis?

Berry Wilkinson asked: I was wondering if you can titre test for leptospirosis? Or is it only useful when you are testing sick dogs? Thanks. Answer: Hi Berry, thanks for your question about testing for Leptospirosis. To answer it, I'll briefly discuss Leptospirosis as a disease, then talk about the different diagnostic techniques available. Finally, I'll discuss vaccination and the implications for diagnosis. What is Leptospirosis? Leptospirosis ("Lepto") is a disease caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira. There are more than 300 strains (technically called serovars) of the bacteria. In the UK, Leptospira icterohaemorrhagiae and L. canicola used to be the most common, but since widespread vaccination against these has started, it is now thought that L. interrogans and L. kirschneri may be more important. The disease is transmitted by body fluids of infected animals, including rats. The symptoms of Leptospirosis in dogs include:
  • Fever and sore muscles.
  • Loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration.
  • It may cause kidney or liver failure
  • Sometimes the only symptom is sudden death.
  • Infected dogs may shed the bacteria in their urine for months or years without showing any clinical signs.
  • Leptospirosis is highly zoonotic - i.e. it is a high risk pathogen for infecting humans.
How is Leptospirosis diagnosed? There are four methods to test for Leptospira in clinical samples, of which two are clinically useful. They are:
  • Darkfield microscopy - looking for the bacteria themselves. This is very siple, but is notoriously unreliable, unfortunately!
  • Bacterial culture - attempting to grow the bacteria; however, in many cases the bacteria are very hard to culture, so even in confirmed infections, this test may come back negative.
  • Serology - looking for antibodies produced by the immune system in response to the presence of the bacteria. However, vaccination will often lead to a positive response, and low-positive titres (levels of antibody) may persist for a prolonged period. In addition, the levels of antibodies often won't be significant in the first week of infection.
  • PCR - testing blood (early infection) or urine (later stages of infection or carrier status) for genetic material from the Leptospira bacteria; this is a very sensitive and specific test. However, a negative PCR result doesn't rule out carrier status because the bacteria are only shed intermittently in the urine, and will not be present in the bloodstream; and it can also appear negative in some milder infections.
So how is serology interpreted?
  • The normal screening test for Lepto is an antibody test ("ELISA testing") that gives a simple positive or negative result.
    • If this is negative, then in general either:
      • The dog doesn't have Lepto, or
      • The dog has only been infected in the last week or so.
    • If the result is positive, then:
      • The dog has Lepto, or
      • The dog has had Lepto in the past, or
      • The dog has been vaccinated and still has high levels of circulating antibody.
  • If the ELISA-test is positive; or if the symptoms are suspicious but PCR (genetic) testing is negative, the next phase is to use a different type of antibody testing ("MAT serology") to determine the level of antibodies in the blood (the titre).
    • On a single test:
      • Low titres are most likely to represent vaccination or past infection.
      • Moderate titres may indicate vaccination or infection.
      • High titres usually represent acute infection.
    • However, it is far more useful to carry out paired serology - 2 tests 7-10 days apart:
      • In a genuine infection, the titre would normally be expected to rise by at least four-fold.
      • In chronic infection, or asymptomatic shedding, diagnosis can be really difficult, but a persistent moderate titre that doesn't decay over time is highly suggestive of chronic infection; however, demonstration of the organism's genetic material by PCR in repeated urine samples is often more practical.
What about vaccination?               There are a number of different Leptospirosis vaccines available; most of them cover 2 strains ("bivalent vaccines"), although some now cover 4 ("quadrivalent vaccines"). They are aimed at covering the most common types that cause disease, and there is relatively little cross-protection between strains (so immunity to one strain or serovar won't usually protect against another). The vaccine doesn't necessarily prevent infection, but it should reduce the risk of infection, and it does reduce the severity of clinical disease and shedding (for whichever strains or serovars are covered by that vaccine). There are some commercial tests that claim to determine whether a dog requires vaccination against Leptospira by testing circulating antibodies. This may work in some cases, but it is very limited. There are a number of problems with this approach:
  • The serological titre (level of antibodies in the blood) can only tell you how much antibody there is in the bloodstream at the specific time the test is done - it cannot tell you whether the levels will remain high for the following 12 months.
  • The link between antibody levels and protection isn't consistent - some dogs appear to utilise other parts of the immune system (cell mediated immunity) and are protected against Lepto even in the absence of significant circulating antibody titres.
  • After vaccination, titres normally drop off over 4-5 months, but protection lasts for 12 months.
As a result, it is wisest to maintain annual vaccination against Leptospirosis, to reduce the risk of infection to your dog and to you. I hope that helps! David Harris BVSc MRCVS
No Comments