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The structure of the heart: everything you didn’t know you wanted to know from Wikivet

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The heart is probably the most central structure in the body. Arguably, the brain could be said to be "more important" (death is classified technically as absence of brain activity rather than a motionless heart), but for most of us, a beating heart is synonymous with the presence of life. We all have a heart - whether we are dogs, cats, humans, or indeed frogs - and one of the fascinating things about veterinary science is the fact that the fundamental structure of many organs - including the heart - is surprisingly similar. There must be something intriguing about the structure of the heart: the Wikivet page on this subject has been the most visited page of all over the past year. The main page is a simple description of the various structures - the position of the heart in the chest, the ventricles, the atria and the other connected tissues. If you can read technical language for just five minutes, you can be briefed with a simple but accurate review of the gross anatomy of the heart. The Wikivet heart page also has links to some interesting visual media. Some of these are not publicly accessible: perhaps it's only necessary for vet students to see what heart muscle looks like under the microscope. But other links include a colour coded video that clearly shows the different structures, and the most remarkable three-dimensional video that shows how the heart sits in the middle of the chest. If you have always wondered about what MRI's look like, you can watch a video that shows you MRI sections of the chest, and if you have witnessed the plastinated human exhibitions, you can view a plastinated dog heart. Heart disease is common in pets: if your dog or cat is ever affected, it will help if you can easily visualise what's going on inside a pet's chest. This Wikivet page is a great place to learn all about it.  
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Oils and fats in pets’ diets: everything you need to know (and more besides) from Wikivet

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There's one aspect of nutrition that many people – including vets – can find particularly daunting: fats and oils. There have been mixed messages over the years about good fats/ bad fats, essential oils/ unnecessary oils, long chain/short chain, saturated/unsaturated. This is one area where Wikivet can help – for veterinary professionals as well as members of the public. The Wikivet section about fatty acids provides a clear, comprehensive summary.

Technical stuff about fatty acids that vets need to know (optional for pet owners)

The most important facts are worth summarising in ten key points:

1) The terms “fats” and “oils” tend to be replaced by “fatty acids” by nutritionists, as it is the fatty acids in fats and oils that give them their most significant properties.

2) Fatty acids (FA) are carboxylic acids with long hydrocarbon chains, which can be saturated or unsaturated.

3) Saturated fatty acids have single bonds, and tend to have a high melting point making them more likely to be solid at room temperature (e.g. butter or fat on meat)

4) Unsaturated fatty acids have at least one double bond, and tend to have a low melting point so tend to be liquid at room temperature (e.g. olive oil)

5) Mammals are able to synthesize certain saturated fatty acids from other dietary components (such as glucose and proteins) so they do not need to have these in the diet.

6) Dogs and cats, like other mammals, have an essential dietary requirement for certain unsaturated fatty acids since they cannot be manufactured in their bodies: omega-3 and omega-6: these are known as "essential fatty acids".

7) (A technical point, but an important one for biochemistry nerds): Omega-3 FAs are a family of unsaturated fatty acids that have a double bond in the third carbon-carbon bond: the most important are Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

8) Omega-6 FAs are a family of unsaturated fatty acids that have a double bond in the sixth carbon-carbon bond: e.g. linoleic acid (LA) is an essential ingredient in animal diets. Others in the group include  Gamma linolenic acid (GLA), Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA) and Arachidonic acid (AA) (which is essential for cats, but not for dogs).

9) Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are in competition for the same metabolic enzymes in the body and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, as well as the total amount of each type, is important.

10) (The key take home point!) These essential unsaturated fatty acids are important for growth (including the development of the brain and eyes), for skin and coat function (including influencing allergic skin disease)

What does this all mean in practice for pet owners?

First, choose a good quality diet that is adequately supplemented with the right proportions of omega-3 and omega-6 unsaturated fatty acids.

The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is thought to be between 10:1 to 5:1. Most pet foods contain far more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids are sometimes added to commercial pet foods to lower the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

Second, if your pet suffers from skin disease, in particular, or poor skin/coat quality, talk to your vet about dietary supplements to enhance their omega-3 and omega-6 intake, aiming to get both the absolute quantity and the ratio correct.

Third, remember that it takes around six weeks for a dietary supplement of fatty acids to make a visible difference to the quality of a pet's coat.

Fourth and finally, if you have a good head for understanding chemistry and nutrition, go ahead and read the Wikivet article, and better again, look up the references at the end. This is pure nutritional science, as good as you can get, and it's what pet food companies use to formulate the products on the shop shelves. It may be hard to follow sometimes, but the best way to optimal nutrition is to fully understand the science behind what you feed your pet.

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Fear of fireworks can affect cats as well as dogs: how do we know, and what can we do to help them?

fireworks-80210_1920 In the veterinary blogging world, there are key seasonal topics that come up every year: hazards around the home at Christmas, chocolate poisoning at Easter, heat stroke in summer and, of course, the fear of fireworks at Halloween/ Guy Fawkes Day. It can be a challenge to come up with a new angle every year: it could be tempting to find an old article, re-jig it and re-phrase it, and the job is done. After all if you plagiarise yourself, is there anything wrong with that? A better answer, however, is to seek out a completely new angle. So with the help of the Wikivet archives, instead of writing a repeat blog of what to do with dogs that are terrified of fireworks, here's an alternative: how to help cats cope with fear of fireworks. In general, fireworks phobia is not nearly as big an issue for cat owners as for dog owners. But it's very likely that it may be just as big an issue for the animals themselves. Cats, being independent creatures, are far more likely to run away in terror and hide, leaving their owners entirely unaware of their distress. Cats don't pace around, whining and barking. If they are terrified, they're far less likely than dogs to bother their owners in any way. So at this time of year, it makes sense for cat owners to be proactive about this subject: take a careful look at your cats, and make sure that they are definitely not distressed by the sounds of bangers and other fireworks outside. The signs of distress can be subtle enough: they may indulge in intensive bouts of over-grooming (which can be likened to an anxious human chewing their nails). Or they may dart around the house, rushing upstairs and hiding under beds. Perhaps the best way of assessing this is to ask yourself if your cat is behaving in a normal relaxed manner. If not, then they may be suffering from fear of fireworks noises, and you may be able to make them feel more comfortable with some simple steps. So what can you do? As with dogs, prevention is the best answer. Ideally, avoid taking kittens that come from aggressive or fearful parents, or that have been reared in an isolated, unsocial environment. Make sure that kittens have proper habituation to a wide range of events and stimuli during the sensitive period before 7 weeks of age. Deliberate exposure to sound stimuli using recordings is helpful, but kittens should not be habituated to traffic sounds: cats need to be frightened of oncoming cars. After kittens have grown older, new noises should be introduced gradually and slowly, again using recordings, so that they are less likely to terrify the cat. Pheromone diffusers may help to enable adult cats to adjust to episodes of loud noise, such as parties or firework displays. And it helps to have a “cat friendly home”, with snug beds hidden in low-down places, and high-up perching posts for cats to survey the world below them. For cats with an established severe fear reaction, consulting with a feline behavioural expert can be helpful: a simple phone consultation may be enough to allow you to cover some specific aspects of your own cat's behaviour. A general process of “desensitisation and counter-conditioning” is the general aim: this means exposing the cat to a low level of the noise which causes a bad reaction, while rewarding the cat for staying calm and playful. As long as the cat remains contented, the noise can gradually be increased in volume: hopefully the cat will become “desensitised” to it. Feline pheromones help this process, and in some cases, your vet or behavioural expert may suggest psychoactive medication. If your cat has a fear of fireworks, don't let them suffer in silence. Observe them carefully, and with some simple, thoughtful steps, you should be able to help them enjoy this time of year. By the way, keep all cats inside during the hours of darkness around Guy Fawkes night: it isn't a safe time for cats to be out on their own.
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Wikivet blog: oral hygiene – the key to a healthy mouth in pets

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It's well known that regular home care of pets' teeth is the only way to ensure optimal dental health, but it's also well known that most owners find this challenging. Dental experts have identified that there are two methods of home care, depending on an owner's ability to get involved: active and passive.

Brushing your pet's teeth a) Active home care is “hands-on” where the pet owner is physically involved with removing plaque and maintaining oral hygiene. Tooth brushing and applying anti-plaque agents directly into the mouth fit into this category. Active home care is the ideal answer, but it isn't always easy. It's known as the "gold standard" of preventive dental care. Clara, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is a ten year old dog who is an ambassador for active home dental care. Her owner started to brush Clara's teeth when she was a pup, and has built tooth-brushing into her daily routine. Clara knows that before she can tuck into her dinner, she has to sit still for a 30 seconds while her owner whizzes around her mouth with a toothbrush and some chicken-flavoured toothpaste. The results of this daily routine are astonishing. Most ten year old dogs have advanced dental disease, with gingivitis, accumulations of tartar and missing teeth. Clara, in contrast, has teeth that are as healthy as a two year old's. Clara provides a good example of the power of active owner dental care. "Letting your pet clean their own teeth" b) Passive homecare refers to aspects of an oral hygiene program that help to reduce plaque in the mouth, but do not require the owner to get involved with the hands-on tooth-brushing or mouth-handling. Examples of passive home care include giving a special type of diet that helps to keep the teeth clean, or offering a dental chew to help reduce plaque accumulation. Jake is a ten year old terrier who has been given a daily dental chew for the past five years. His owner originally tried to brush his teeth, but he wouldn't let her. Many owners have this experience, and this has created a niche in the market that has been occupied by a wide range of commercial products. Jake's owner discovered that he loved the taste and texture of a dental chew, designed to be given once daily. Jake gets this every evening, as a treat before bed. His owner has reduced his daily food ration to take account of the calories in the dental chew, and he's stayed at his ideal weight. Jake did originally need a dental clean up and polish, to remove the build up of tartar that had occurred before he started his dental chews. But the daily chew regime has worked wonders for his back teeth (the molars), and they're as clean as Clara's. The front teeth (canines) have accumulated some tartar (Jake doesn't use these when chewing), but the problem is a minor one that doesn't need any intervention at this stage. Home dental care is an important part of a pet's daily routine, whether you choose an active or passive approach. To find out more, read the Wikivet section on dental hygiene, by clicking here.
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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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