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How to help stressed-out cats whose owners think they are “behaving badly”

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One of the challenges for veterinary surgeons working in the media is that is that they are often asked about one specific patient, with a particular problem. While it's helpful for the individual owner to discuss their own pet, it can be less enthralling for other readers.

Here are a couple of examples:
  • Ginger, a 5 year old neutered tom cat, had started urinating in his owner's bathtub, and occasionally in the sink downstairs. He had always been a "good" cat, going out through the cat flap to do his business. Why would he change like this?
  • Harry, a two year old neutered male tabby cat, had recently started to suffer from injuries caused by cat fights. His owner had seen a big tom cat stalking him in the garden, and the cat had even come into the kitchen on one occasion, stealing Harry's food. Why was this other cat doing this, and what could be done?
Ideally, both of these questions deserve to be analysed in their own right, and a full, detailed response given. Vets in the media often do this, publishing the dialogue and outcome. While this is useful, it isn't always the best way to give a detailed explanation about cat behaviour that will be useful for all readers. This is an area where Wikivet offers a different approach. There are two Wikivet sections that are particularly relevant to the cases under discussion. First, there is an entire section on feline territorial behaviour. This is an up-to-date scientific review of our current understanding of cat social life, and it's highly relevant to any incident involving cat-cat interactions. The Wikivet entry includes some useful facts:
  • In urban areas the density of cat populations may be high, exceeding 50 cats per square kilometre.
  • 81% of 734 UK cat owners whose cats were allowed outdoor access indicated that their neighbours also had at least one cat that was allowed outside
  • In houses with a standard cat flap, 24.8% reported that other cats came into their home to fight with their cats, and 39.4% reported that they came in to steal food.
  • Cats that had experienced injuries due to conflict with other cats showed 3.9 times the rate of indoor spray marking compared with cats that had not experienced injuries.
You can read the full Wikivet page for yourself to find out more helpful facts about cat social life. Second, another Wikivet page  focuses specifically on the issue of indoor marking, highlighting the fact that the two main scenarios leading to indoor marking are conflict with non-resident cats, and conflict with resident cats. The page suggests some answers that may help specific cases, including mentions of treatment approaches ( from an electronic coded cat flap so that outside cats cannot gain access to the home to the use of Feliway diffusers and spray, to mentions of some of the psychoactive  medication that may be prescribed by vets for super-stressed moggies. There are also links to detailed videos by behavioural specialists which go into more details on the subject. So if you have a cat who seems to be agitated by local rivals, or who has taken to indoor urinating, read these Wikivet pages. They may help you solve the problem, and if they don't, you'll be far better informed when you do take your "badly behaving" cat to your vet for the next stage of help.
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Growling terriers: a challenge for the vets who have to try to help them

[caption id="attachment_4439" align="aligncenter" width="538"]growling terrier Jacko does not enjoy visits to the vet[/caption] When I first met Jacko, he growled at me. I had gone out to the waiting room to see who was next. Mr Malone, Jacko’s owner, smiled and said ‘Hello.’ I bent down to greet the little terrier dog, and that is when the growl started. It was a deep, throaty growl, and as I looked into his eyes, I could see no sign of friendliness. I realised at once that this was not a frightened growl. It was an angry, belligerent, trouble-seeking growl. His dilated pupils and flattened ears told me that he wanted to attack. He was keen to have a fight with me. I took two steps back, but the growl did not stop. Instead it grew louder. On that occasion, Jacko was simply having his annual health check and vaccination. I had the advantage of being in control. and he did not know what to expect. He was walked swiftly into the consulting room and the door was shut behind him. A rapidly applied muzzle took him by surprise, and before he realised that he had been hoodwinked, he had been checked all over, injected and released. As his owner led him out of the consulting room, Jacko kept glancing back at me, as if he was imprinting my image in his memory for future reference. One month later, Mr Malone was on the phone, in a panic. He had been out for a walk with Jacko, and two big collie dogs had approached them. The dogs had been friendly enough, but Jacko, with his usual impetuosity, had flung himself at the dogs, snarling and growling. The dogs reacted with defensive aggression, and one of them had picked Jacko up by the back of his neck and shaken him. The dog fight had lasted no more than half a minute, and there were no other injuries, but Jacko was now looking very sorry for himself. When he arrived at the clinic shortly later, Jacko was dripping blood from injuries around his shoulders, and he was breathing very rapidly. It looked as if he might have serious injuries to his chest, with the risk of his lungs been punctured. Yet he still managed to growl as soon as he saw me. He needed urgent medical treatment, and a full examination was essential. so a swift injection of sedative was the first stage. Jacko was soon deeply asleep. His breathing was comfortable, but he was not moving otherwise. Working quickly, a nurse helped me to clip away the fur from his injuries. There were several deep puncture wounds on both sides of his chest, and there was a large firm swelling beneath one wound. We took some X-rays of his chest, expecting broken ribs and possibly damaged internal organs. Surprisingly, the X-rays showed that Jacko had escaped serious injury. He was simply very badly bruised, with torn skin and lacerated muscles. Treatment was simple. We flushed the bite wounds to minimise any infection, and he was given a course of antibiotics and strong painkillers. He was then placed back into the kennel for recovery. We did not need to look at him to monitor his breathing for long, because as soon as the growl started again, we could hear from a distance that he was alive and ready for action. Jacko has been healthy since that incident. He still comes back once a year for his annual health check. He is the same as ever, although the dog fight episode did change him in one way. Instead of just growling, Jacko has started to howl as soon as he enters our waiting room.
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Training dogs: can old dogs learn tricks? And what about residential “boot camps” for dogs?

[caption id="attachment_4418" align="aligncenter" width="442"] Does your dog 'sit and stay'?[/caption]

The early autumn is a bit like a mini-New Year. The summer has ended, schools have gone back, and the term-time routines start again. It can be a great time to start new projects, and for many dog owners, that can include tackling the complicated issue of training their pet. Many dog owners have pets with bad habits that they want to change.

Dogs behave in response to the way that their owners treat them. A dog will only beg from the table at mealtime if her owner has taught her to do this by feeding titbits in the past. A dog will only jump up onto the settee if she has been allowed to do this by her owner. It then follows that it is possible to re-train dogs by changing the way we behave towards them. A dog can be re-trained at any age, by using modern dog training methods.

Anybody can set themselves up to be a dog trainer, and so there’s a wide variety of styles and standards in the dog training world. Some have had formal instruction in dog training. Some have even passed exams. Others are self-taught. It’s best to choose trainers who have been taught the latest techniques, and who continue to make an effort to keep themselves up to date.

As in other areas of life, dog training is an evolving science. Techniques used thirty years ago would now be thought to be completely inappropriate by the experts. The modern belief is that dogs should be trained by reward rather than by punishment. Choke chains should never be used. Dogs should never be hit or hurt during training.

It is very important to choose the right dog trainer, and owners should spend some time doing research rather than just choosing the first name they find in the phone book. It could be useful to go along to a training class as an observer. Do you like the style of the trainer? Talk to a few of the dog owners at the class. Have they found the classes useful and effective?

Once you have chosen a dog trainer, make sure that you attend classes regularly, and make sure that everyone in the household knows the rules. Dogs need consistent, continual monitoring. If one person in the house persists in feeding the dog from the table, she will never learn to stop begging.

It's one thing to train a puppy or a young dog, but what about retraining an adult dog? How do you break old habits? This is much more challenging, but it’s still possible.

One controversial answer can sometimes be to send your pet off to a ‘training camp’. Dogs stay at the training centre for a two or three week period. They are taken out of their own environment, and they are taught a new routine. When you collect your dog, you are first shown a twenty-minute video of your dog behaving in a calm, obedient way. You are then given a two-hour lesson in the techniques that you need to use to ensure that your dog continues to behave calmly and obediently. Finally, the training centre remains in contact with you, so that you can telephone them if you have problems, or even book your dog in for another training session if needed.

This type of "boot camp" is controversial, with many trainers believing that it is a short cut that should not be taken, and that an owner needs to be involved from the start, all the way through the process. My own view is that, like many aspects of pet care, it is impossible to make a "one size fits all" pronouncement. Residential training works well for some dogs, but not all.

Regardless of what sort of dog training you choose, the formal instruction is only the first stage. The second stage is up to you. You need to spend fifteen minutes a day working with your pet. For long-term success, you need to stick to a simple but challenging statement – ‘I promise to continue to give my dog regular daily training sessions’!

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An introduction to Wikivet – a new and exciting veterinary educational resource

In the spirit of spreading helpful, good quality veterinary knowledge, VetHelpDirect will be working with Wikivet to bring you specially selected gems of educational material from the Wikivet website. The plan is to publish a regular Wikivet-sponsored blog, with information and links to the subject under discussion.

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What is Wikivet? Wikivet is an international collaborative effort between vet schools around the world, with the long term aim of placing the entire veterinary curriculum in an online database. The principle is similar to Wikipedia, but the theme is purely veterinary knowledge. The goal of the project is to enable students around the world to have ongoing, free access an up-to-date encyclopedia of all veterinary knowledge. You can read more about Wikivet on Wikipedia  or you can visit the site yourself. WikiVet was established in 2007 by a consortium of three UK veterinary schools (The Royal Veterinary College in London, , the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh and the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University ). It has grown to include over ten additional associated academic institutions, as well as forming a close association with parts of the commercial veterinary sector. The WikiVet project is now part of the WikiVet Educational Foundation, a registered charity which was established in February 2015. A commercial trading company is also being established to provide an opportunity for the charity to trade, in order to support its core educational activities. WikiVet now has a registered user base of over 44,000 members (a growth of over 1,000/month) of whom about 60% are veterinary students from over 90 countries around the world. The site recorded over 2 million individual visits in the academic year 2014-15 (a 100% increase on the previous year). The organisation has an active student ambassador scheme in over 50 veterinary schools around the world. These ambassadors have a key role in promoting educational resources and initiatives to colleagues. The charity works closely with the International Veterinary Students Association to identify suitable representatives in each vet school. Wikivet provides an extensive knowledge base of online resources which has been developed based on feedback from veterinary educators and focus groups of learners. The site now has over 5,000 pages of detailed content making it the largest online veterinary educational resource. A recently signed agreement with Vetstream provides preferential access to students accessing Vetstream content through the WikiVet site. This development significantly enhances the content on offer to students. WikiVet is now collaborating closely with a number of commercial partners to develop new content sections of the site. This includes Mars Petcare who have sponsored the development of extensive sections on small animal density and nutrition and Ceva Animal Health who have supported sections on Feline Behaviour. Who is Wikivet's target  audience? Wikivet has four key target groups: 1) Vet and vet nurse students - this is the primary group, with most visitors to the site from students 2) Vets who want to keep up to date with new knowledge. Vets are generally good at keeping up to date with new developments via journals and conferences, but in the future, it will be useful for vets to cast a glance at what vet students are currently being taught 3) Vet nurses who are looking for extra ways of learning: although Wikivet has the entire veterinary curriculum as its core, there are many aspects of veterinary nursing that are included. 4) Informed members of the public are also welcome to browse Wikivet. Only veterinary professionals are allowed to become registered users, but much of the content is open to all. Registered users can access specialised learning tools, and other teaching-based content, but the public will find that there is a great deal of helpful information to help them understand issues and illnesses with their own pets. The dream is that Wikivet will become the standard go-to online resource for veterinary education in the future. Watch this space, and enjoy the Wikivet blogs.
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