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A Christmas story from a vet on call & a reminder that if you do have a pet crisis over the holiday, a vet is always there to help

It was Christmas morning. The phone rang at 6.30am. It was the Barrs of Lauder Hill. ' Sorry about this, but we've a heifer stuck calving'. I was in my car within 10 minutes, and carrying out the Caesarian operation to remove the calf within half an hour. The Barrs welcomed me into their farmhouse afterwards for a Christmas breakfast. The calf had been a strong, healthy bull calf, and the farmers were delighted with their Christmas present. We were settling down to enjoy the full glory of a Scottish farmhouse breakfast when my bleeper sounded. It was only 8.30 a.m. and already another emergency had to be dealt with - a calf with bloat 15 miles away, at the Buchanans in Melrose. By lunchtime I had seen a horse with colic, six calves with acute pneumonia, a dairy cow with severe mastitis and a dog with a sudden onset choking cough. The afternoon was just as busy, and I was finally able to sit down with the family at seven in the evening. Two hours later there was another call to another difficult calving. Veterinary surgeons have an obligation to provide a full time emergency service for animals in need of their care, all year round, 24 hours a day. If an animal is in distress, then help is needed - illnesses and accidents do not know that it is Christmas Day. The mixed veterinary practice where I worked in the Scottish Borders was busy - there were six vets. We worked an 'on-duty' roster, with duties shared equally between all of the vets, so at least a hectic Christmas day was only experienced once in six years. And the Christmas Day service was certainly not taken for granted by anybody - everybody who telephoned spent as long apologising for disturbing the vet as they did explaining the problem with their animal. Small animal veterinary practice is less frantic out-of-hours compared to large animal. People tend to stay at home on Christmas Day, so pets are generally safely indoors, curled up by the fireside. There are still unpredictable emergencies - from bitches whelping to dogs having epileptic fits to cats collapsing from kidney failure. In the past decade, many small animal vets have referred their emergency work to dedicated Emergency Clinics, where vets and nurses are employed specially to work all the time during after-hours periods: their “working day” means night time and bank holidays. If you phone your local vet, you will be given clear advice on the arrangements for emergency service. Most vet clinics are closed for routine service on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. This year, the fact that Boxing Day is a Saturday means that the bank holiday is taking place on Monday 28th December, so many vets do not start back with routine clinics until Tuesday 29th December. If you aren't sure whether or not your vet is open, visit their website or Facebook page, or phone the normal clinic number. If you are not transferred directly to the vet on call, there will be an answer machine message giving you details of opening hours. The first day back after Christmas tends to be a busy time, with a build up of cases that have accumulated over the holiday break. There are some typical seasonal cases that we expect to see at this time of year. First, there is the 'turkey tummy syndrome'. People do not like to feel that they are leaving their pets out of the Christmas celebrations. Dogs and cats enjoy eating turkey, and many people make up a Christmas Dinner for their pets, using leftovers from the family celebration. Animals' stomachs are not well adapted to dealing with a sudden flood of an entirely new foodstuff, and the consequences are often a severe tummy upset soon after Christmas. Second, there is the 'Walking It Off' syndrome. Many people feel an urge to expend some energy after Christmas Day - so what better way to do this than taking the dog for a walk. The result is that hundreds of dogs congregate in popular dog walking areas. Inevitably there are the usual incidents, such as dog fights, dogs lacerated by sharp objects in rivers and animals involved in road accidents. Public holidays can be busy times for vets. The important message to remember is that if you do have an animal in real distress, your vet is never closed. And if the vet has to do a house call on Christmas or Boxing Day morning, a Christmas breakfast will always be appreciated! For peace of mind over the holiday period, if you are not sure whether your pet needs a visit to a vet, the Symptom Checker can also help!
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Is that “veterinary nurse” really a veterinary nurse?

Language and terminology is important. Our society recognises this fact, and in some walks of life, you cannot call yourself by certain terms unless you are appropriately qualified. The medical field is the area where so-called “protected titles” are most prevalent: there's a long list from “music therapist” to “dietician” to “clinical scientist” to “physiotherapist” and “paramedic”. If you read the list, you'll be surprised, and I suspect that you'll be reassured too: it's good to know that when you go to see a “hearing aid dispenser”, under law they must be properly trained and qualified. There are serious penalties for people who try to set themselves up as one of these practitioners when they are not entitled to do so: anyone using one of these titles must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, or they may be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000. Interestingly, not all professional titles are protected. The words “doctor” and “nurse” have been in general use for hundreds of years to describe a variety of people, and so they are not specifically protected. The title “doctor” is used far more broadly than just for medical doctors, with a number of professions (including dentists and now vets) using it as a courtesy title, as well as people who hold academic doctorates, such as PhDs. Similarly, the title “nurse” is not protected: as well as medical nurses, it's used by nursery nurses in nursery schools, and sometimes by veterinary nurses. The fact that the terms “doctor” and “nurse” are not protected can lead to issues where the public can be mislead by individuals who use the terms to their advantage (such as a person who is an academic doctor trying to pass themselves off as a medical doctor). For this reason, the terms “doctor of medicine” and “registered nurse” are protected titles, but for the public, arguably this is not sufficient to avoid confusion. There are some professions that would like to have protected titles, but for various reasons, this is not possible. Anybody can call themselves an “engineer”, a “scientist” or a “surveyor” because these terms are said to be in such widespread use. These professions have had to add prefixes to their titles to try to minimise confusion, such as “incorporated engineers”, “biomedical scientists” or “chartered surveyors”. Only properly qualified and registered vets are allowed to call themselves “veterinary surgeons”, but there is a major anomaly in the veterinary world: anybody, even without training or qualification, is allowed to call themselves “veterinary nurse”. The veterinary nursing profession has so far had to use the protected title “registered veterinary nurse” to be used exclusively by properly trained and qualified nurses, but there's a strong argument that this is not enough. Most readers, I'm sure, would agree that if they were dealing with someone calling themselves a “veterinary nurse”, they would assume that the person was qualified. Unless something changes, it's very likely that unscrupulous individuals will use this confusion to their advantage, misleading people into believing that they are qualified. What has to change? Clearly, the term “veterinary nurse” needs to be made a protected title. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Nursing Association all believe that this is necessary. They are asking Parliament to change the law to protect the title “veterinary nurse”, and they need as much help as possible to achieve this. Please sign the official petition to register your support. The aim is to get 100,000 signatories which will trigger the issue will be considered for a formal parliamentary debate. The petition is currently at 20,594 signatures and the petition closes on 14th February 2016 so time is running out. The engineering profession tried a similar tactic to protect the word “engineer” last year, but the attempt failed after their petition only reached 6176 signatures. It makes clear sense that the term “veterinary nurse” should be trusted as the recognised name for a skilled, trained and qualified profession. If you agree, please sign this petition now, and ask as many as possible of your friends and contacts to do the same. Please follow this link to the petition. The RCVS has also produced a short animation stating the reasons behind the petition:  watch this by clicking here. Animals are the ones who will benefit from "veterinary nurse" being protected: so if you care, take action now.
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Grapes and raisins can kill dogs. Read this to find out how to keep your pet safe this Christmas.

Does your dog enjoy mince pies and Christmas cake? Beware: you could accidentally poison them.

For many people, it seems unbelievable that grapes and raisins can poison dogs. They're harmless to humans. We've all seen dogs occasionally eating foods containing raisins with no apparent ill effects. How can they suddenly be poisonous?

Why are grapes and raisins not always poisonous to dogs, and never poisonous to humans? First, like all poisons, the poisonous effect depends on the dose taken per kilogram of animal body weight. Large dogs can safely eat some raisins without problems. Secondly, the toxic ingredient in raisins seems only to be present intermittently, so a dog may eat raisins without problems on several occasions, then fall seriously ill the next time. What is the toxic ingredient in grapes and raisins? The actual toxic ingredient is still a mystery. The fact that grapes and raisins can be poisonous has only been deduced by circumstantial evidence, with many dogs developing acute renal failure for no obvious reason, with the only common factor being the previous ingestion of grapes or raisins. Samples of the fruit in such cases has been analysed, but a toxic agent has not yet been isolated. The best guess so far is that it is a water-soluble substance, and that it's in the flesh of the grape/raisin, but not the seed. One theory is that it is a mycotoxin (i.e. a poison produced by moulds or fungi on the grapes). The problem in dogs was first highlighted after a year with high levels of rainfall. This had led to damp grapes which were more likely to develop fungal growth. But why should humans be safe from this toxin? It's well known that cultured dog kidney cells in the laboratory are exquisitely sensitive to other types of mycotoxins. It makes logical sense that dog kidneys might also be more sensitive to damage by another mycotoxin, even its identity has yet to be established. So how much do owners need to worry about grape/raisin toxicity? If a terrier steals a mince pie, is a visit to the vet needed? If a Labrador has a slice of Christmas cake, do they need to be taken to the emergency vet? This is always a judgment that is not black and white. It seems sensible to look at the lowest recorded doses of grapes or raisins linked to acute renal failure in previous cases of poisoned dogs. This allows an estimate of the probable toxic dose depending on the animal's body weight. Grapes The lowest toxic dose is around 20g grapes per one kilogram of body weight. A typical grape weighs 2 – 5g, making a toxic dose is around 4 grapes per kg. So if a 5kg terrier eats 20 grapes, or a 30kg Labrador eats 120 grapes, there's a high chance of a serious problem, and veterinary intervention is definitely indicated. Raisins The lowest poisonous dose in confirmed cases has been around 3g/kg. An average raisin weighs around 0.5g, making a toxic dose approximately 6 raisins per kg. So if a 5kg terrier eats 30 raisins, or a 30kg Labrador eats 120 raisinsthey need to see the vet. Some studies have suggested that the toxic agent is neutralised by cooking, so cooked raisins (e.g. in pies and cakes) may not present such a high risk.

Important note

Please remember that the above doses mention quantities that have definitely caused serious kidney failure in the past. The decision on whether or not to take a pet to the vet is a personal decision, taken after balancing the possible risks. Many people prefer to take a conservative approach, to be as safe as possible. For example, if a dog has eaten even half of the above quantities, it may be safer to take them to the vet for “just in case” treatment.

What do vets do for dog that have eaten grapes/ raisins? 1) If ingestion has happened in the previous hour. This is the ideal situation: the vet can give an injection to cause the pet to vomit, emptying the stomach and removing the grapes/raisins before any toxic ingredients have had a chance to be absorbed into the bloodstream. 2) If ingestion has happened in the previous two days but the pet is still well Depending on the situation, vomiting may still be induced, activated charcoal may be given to limit absorption of the toxin, and intravenous fluids may be given to flush fluids through the kidneys in an attempt to minimise any damage. Blood and urine tests may be recommended to monitor kidney function. If the dog is well after three days, then the high risk period is over. 3) If ingestion has happened and the dog is unwell (e.g. vomiting, dull, inappetant) In such cases, the kidneys may have already been damaged by the toxin. Urine and blood tests will be carried out to assess the severity of the damage to the kidneys, and intensive care will be needed to save the pet's life, including high levels of intravenous fluids. The prognosis is guarded: unfortunately, some affected dogs die, despite the vet's best efforts.  Conclusion.
  • Keep grapes and raisins away from dogs.
  • If any dog eats them accidentally, phone your local vet (even if it's after-hours)
  • Tell your vet how many grapes/raisins were eaten along with the body weight of your pet.
  • Your vet will then advise you on the safest course of action.
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Ask A Vet Online – Help! The fleas are revolting…

flea-63043_1280 Anne Stafferton asked: This one is a bit boring really I've spent hundreds of pounds on flea stuff only for it not to work I breed cats so it's a nightmare I'm now combing them all every day to get fleas out any suggestions on what really really works Answer: Hi Anne, thanks for your question about fleas in cats. I know exactly what you mean – they can be a real nightmare to get under control! I’m going to answer your question by (briefly!) discussing the flea life-cycle and how it can be broken, and then talking about the specific treatments that are available. As a warning, on a blog like this I am legally obliged to use the generic names for all the drugs and medicines (otherwise I would get nasty letters from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the government department who regulate advertising of veterinary medicines). You can, however, look up any of the generic names for the active substances and “translate” them into brand names on the VMD’s Product Information Database. What are fleas? Fleas are a group of obligate ectoparasites – this means that they live on the outside of other animals, and cannot survive in any other way but by sucking the blood of their hosts. Once an adult flea lays her eggs, they fall onto the floor, the carpet, and into the cat’s bedding. Here they hatch into larvae, which live, hidden deep in the fabric, in the dust, and in cracks in floorboards etc. The larvae survive primarily by eating the faeces of adult fleas, which fall off the cat as the “black sand” we all know and hate! This material is semi-digested blood, and is very nutritious for the larvae. After their final moult, they turn into pupae (like the chrysalis of a butterfly but less pleasant) and there they stay, waiting for a chance to hatch. Pupae can remain dormant for months or years, and in this state they are more or less impervious to virtually any treatment we can use against them (although apparently repeated steam cleaning can kill them). When they detect air movement, heat, or increased carbon dioxide levels (all indicators that a cat, dog or human is close), they hatch and leap on board, to feed, breed and repeat the cycle. Traditionally, we think of fleas as being a spring and summer problem; however, with modern insulation and central heating, nowadays we see them all year round. The flea life cycle can only complete in a relatively warm environment, but we kindly provide them with a nice warm, comfy house to grow up in. So how do you break the cycle? There are a number of points at which the cycle is vulnerable – however, it’s important to remember that if the cats go outside (even briefly) they can pick up new fleas (deposited by other cats, dogs, foxes and even small mammals such as rodents). It only takes one amorous flea couple to reinfest a whole household… The adult fleas are actually pretty easy to kill – even old-fashioned drugs like fipronil will kill most of the adults present, and many of the newer medications are much more potent. The larvae need to cut their way out of their eggs (using a special “egg tooth” made of chitin); if their synthesis of chitin is impaired (e.g. by lufenuron) they cannot hatch. The larvae cannot develop into adults in the presence of juvenile hormone – if this is chemically supplied (as an Insect Growth Regulator, e.g. S-Methoprene), they cannot make the change into adults. The number of eggs, larvae and pupae in the house can also be reduced, by washing of fabrics (especially bedding) in hot (60C) soapy water. Although it won’t kill all of them, it will reduce the numbers and wash a lot away down the drain where they can’t hurt anyone! The pupae themselves are pretty much impervious to any treatment, but they can be “tricked” into coming out as adults, which are then much easier to kill. The common method is regular vacuuming – the air movement and heat trick the pupae into hatching; you won’t catch many in the cleaner, but once out, they are vulnerable to environmental insecticides. In fact, if you keep a “closed household”, with all the cats (and dogs if you have any) living indoors 24/7, it is theoretically possible to break the life cycle without treating the adults at all… but it will take a long time (the adults may live for 4-6 months) and you’re always at risk of a new introduction (in your clothes, for example). So how do I kill them? As you’ve found, there are a huge range of different flea control products on the market! Broadly speaking, these can be divided into 5 categories: Environmental insecticides: These are products used to spray the infested house, killing adults, sometimes eggs, and larvae. They will not kill pupae, but if applied rapidly after vacuuming, they can be very effective. Most products contain permethrin, which is toxic to cats – this means that you have to be careful using them, by treating rooms one at a time and shutting the cats out until they have ventilated. The cans will explain how long to leave it for on the label, or talk to your vet, before reintroducing the cats. On-cat environmental treatments: These are applied to, or administered to, the cat, to treat the environment, and rely on the fact that the larvae are eating the flea’s droppings. There are 3 particularly important ones:
  • Lufenuron – a chitin inhibitor, available as an oral liquid, a tablet, or an injection. Does not kill adults, but prevents larvae and pupae from hatching properly.
  • Pyriproxifen – an Insect Growth Regulator, available in some prescription-only fipronil products.
  • S-methoprene - another IGR, available in some prescription-only fipronil products.
  • Imidacloprid – an insecticide available as a spot-on that kills adults and larvae in the vicinity of the treated cat.
Over-the-counter adulticides (products that kill adult fleas only): These are of various effectiveness; most contain piperonyl butoxide or dimpylate (not very potent but pretty harmless) but there are still some on the market containing permethrin, which although effective is potentially lethal to cats. In general, if it is available over-the-counter without any regulation, it’s probably not that powerful. The most popular products in this group are the spot-ons containing fipronil, which is an older drug but still fairly effective. Some of these products are over the counter, and others are classified “NFA-VPS” (which means there are certain restrictions on their supply, but they still do not require a prescription) Contrary to popular opinion, there is no conclusive evidence that resistance of fleas to fipronil is widespread – however, fipronil containing products are water soluble (so may wash off if the cat gets wet) and are much less effective than the modern prescription-only products. The other commonly used active ingredient is imidacloprid, which is a different class of insecticide that is active against adult and against the larvae. Again, it doesn’t suit every cat but may be useful. There is also an interesting product available as a tablet containing nitenpyam, which is very effective at killing adults – but only lasts 24 hours after being given. It is best used to kill off the bulk of the adults when starting a flea control program. Prescription-only products: Fipronil-combos – spot-on products containing fipronil plus an Insect Growth Regulator, to treat the adults and the environment simultaneously. Last between 4 and 8 weeks, but the adulticide (killing of adults) effect tends to wear off after about 4-5 weeks. Flumethrin/Imidacloprid combo collar – this is a collar containing flumethrin (a form of permethrin that is safe for cats) and imidacloprid. It lasts about 6-8 months, and is very effective – if the cat will keep it on! Imidacloprid/Moxidectin combo – another spot-on, that treats a wide range of different parasites. Lasts about 4 weeks. Selamectin – a spot-on product, but one that is absorbed into the cats system so it cannot be washed off – very useful for outdoor cats! It also treats roundworms and both mange- and ear-mites, but does require the flea to bite before it works. Lasts about 4 weeks. Indoxacarb – Another spot-on, but one that is utterly inactive in the cat’s body, until it is “turned on” by a unique metabolic action inside the flea, and the larvae if repeated every 4 weeks. Spinosad – a tablet, given once a month, that is really effective against fleas, but does cause some cats to vomit; if given with food, however, it normally stays down - it does require the flea to bite, but kills very, very fast (in a few hours). Herbal and homeopathic remedies: Available, but no proven effectiveness. I have heard garlic recommended, but, sadly, in my experience it just doesn’t work and is potentially toxic to cats. There’s so much choice! What do I do? Bottom line – you’ll never control fleas if you only attack one stage of the life cycle. You need to kill the adults (and I’d recommend you talk to your vet about the more potent, modern, prescription products rather than rely on older and less powerful medications); however, you also need to decontaminate the environment, with regular vacuuming, insecticidal sprays, and good old fashioned washing and cleaning! If you’re still struggling to get on top of the situation, talk to your vet – not every product suits every cat, and it’s sometimes necessary to try several alternatives until you find the product, and the control methods, that suit your cats and their lifestyle. All the best – I hope you can rid your cats of their unwelcome visitors! David Harris BVSc MRCVS
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