Monday, 31 January 2011

Where does your pet sleep?

If you look in a pet shop, either on the high street, or online, you'll see a wide variety of types of beds of every style and size, for dogs.
So how come I can't get one that my dogs will sleep on?
We have a couple of mattress style beds for them that take up floor space and the kids use as crash mats for their gymnastics practice. I once found our son asleep on the downstairs one but the lurcher prefers the sofa and the collie cross, the floor.

The cats now sleep in the utility room, as they rarely come in the house when the lurcher is home. They also have radiator beds hanging off a beam in the sun room which they love when the weather is warmer. We bought them some cute little cat tents, but they seem to prefer the dirty washing pile.
And even our rats are contrary when it comes to their beds. We have a rat hammock to hang in their cage but they like a selection of small, empty cardboard boxes on the ground to choose from. Their current favourite is an Innocent kids smoothie box as it comes ready made with a rat-sized hole.

Where do your pets sleep?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

When The Rainbow Bridge Beckons ( Part 2:Euthanasia)

Most pets don't have a life expectancy that even approaches that of the average human, so most pet owners will share their lives with a number of special animals.
I couldn't find any statistics about how common euthanasia is, so I created a little survey of my own and sent it out to friends and colleagues. The results suggested that almost 2/3rds of pet owners have had to have a pet put to sleep at some point. So while it's a familiar enough procedure, it's not one that is often discussed.
When I tell people I am a vet, someone almost always tells me that they wanted to be a vet too but they couldn't bear killing animals. Don't get me wrong, it's not my favourite part of the job, but there is a certain relief when a euthanasia goes smoothly and the patient is no longer suffering.
I think it's really important that clients know exactly what to expect when they present their pet for euthanasia, and have a chance to think about the various options beforehand. All vets do things slightly differently, so if you have any specific concerns, you should contact your own vet and discuss them before you make the final appointment.

At Home or Away?
I am a mobile vet so I do all euthanasias in the client's house.
I feel that home euthanasia's are less stressful for both the pet and the client, especially if the patient doesn't like traveling or the vet clinic. Very ill animals can be difficult to transport and if you have decided you will bury your pet in your garden, this is a sensible option.
Even if your vet is surgery based, they should be able to come out to you on request. Some may refuse, but unless you live in the back of beyond , you should be able to get someone else to visit by phoning around. Be prepared to be flexible with your times as they will have to fit you in around their clinic times. There will also be an added 'visit fee' on top of the cost of euthanasia as it takes a vet, and probably a nurse, away from the surgery for an extended period of time.
If your pet is already hospitalised and very ill, then it's almost always best not to move them. 
Sometimes vets discover something nasty during surgery and ring clients with the option of putting the animal to sleep without waking them up from the anaesthetic. If they are sick and you already suspected that this was a possibility, then this the humane option. Owners in this situation sometimes ask for their pet to be allowed to wake up again, so they have a chance to say goodbye. Your vet will be able to help you make the decision that's right for you and your pet.

People are sometimes surprised that their vet would be insensitive enough to ask for payment at the time of euthanasia. Many years ago it was the done thing to send out a bill after a suitable amount of time had passed, but these days people move around more and many vets would be left unpaid with no way of tracing the client. If you are an established client your vet might well agree to send you out a bill but if you are a new client you will have to pay up front. No one enjoys asking for payment for this part of the job and things can get very awkward if you are trying to pay  afterwards, so you might like to consider paying beforehand. This will mean you, or the vet, can just leave when it's all over without having to talk about money.

Making the appointment.
You will need to tell the receptionist why you want an appointment, as euthanasias can take up more time than a standard appointment, and the vet will want to see you at a quiet time of day. You may get emotional on the phone but don't worry if you cry, the receptionist will have heard it all before. If you think you'll be too upset, get someone to make the phone call for you. Unless the clinic knows your pet well, they will probably ask about its size, and if you know what you'd like to do with the body.
The receptionist should be able to go through the options with you, but the main choice, as with people, is between burial, or cremation. Most burials involve private gardens but pet cemeteries are available in some areas. If you choose cremation, your pet will be sent away to a commercial pet crematorium and you can ask to have your pet's ashes returned, or not. The return of ashes will cost extra, depending on what sort of container you want them returned in.These costs vary between areas so make sure you know exactly what you are getting, and the costs involved.

On The Day.
Your pet can eat and drink normally before their appointment, there is no need to fast. Some people like to gather their favourite toys and blankets or beds to be buried or cremated with them. If you are having a home visit, then decide where you want your pet to be during the procedure, and if necessary put some old towels down, as animals often empty their bladder and bowels when they die.
 If you are going into the clinic by car, it's a good idea to have someone to drive you home afterwards. When you arrive send someone in ahead to make sure the clinic is not running late. If there is a delay, you should be able to go into an empty consultation room and not have to wait in a crowded waiting room.
concious family pet alone with strangers for the last minutes of it's life is probably something you'll regret afterwards.
Whether you stay or go, you will be asked to sign a consent form. This will contain a basic description of your pet, along with your details and a statement saying you give your permission for the euthanasia.
Some vets routinely sedate; I do, as I work alone, but it's more common not to in the UK. Usually sedation is only used if your pet is very nervous, aggressive or in a lot of pain. The sedation is given into the leg muscles or skin at the back of the neck by injection, and usually produces a calmer animal within minutes. I like my sedated patients to be as deep as possible before I give them their final injection, so will often wait 20 mins. A clinic based vet will have a nurse on hand to help position your pet correctly, so they won't have to wait as long.
The final injection is usually given into a vein on the front leg . This vein needs to be raised and there may be a nurse present to do this. Otherwise, the vet may use a tourniquet to raise the vein; this wraps tight around your pet's leg but does not cause them any pain. You should be able to stroke your pet while the injection is being given, and will probably see or feel their bodies relax. Death comes quickly when the injection is given into the vein and once the vet has finished injecting your pet's heart will have stopped.
With some animals it can be difficult or distressing for the animal for a vet to try and find a vein. These pets are often sedated, and the euthanasia solution is given into another organ or even into the abdominal cavity. This will not hurt your pet but it can take longer for the solution to work. The advantage to this method is that you can often cuddle them or have them on your lap as they slip away.

What Happens Afterwards?
Most of the time euthanasias are very peaceful, and it looks just like your pet is falling asleep, apart from their eyes remaining open. Sometimes there is twitching or vocalisation and larger dogs may have chest movements for a minute or two, although they are no longer breathing. These movements are due to electrical activity in muscles being released, they do not mean your pet is waking up or in pain.
Your vet will use a stethoscope to check that their heart has stopped and will remove any needles or syringes that were taped into place.
This is a good time to remove their collar, or ask to clip off a bit of fur if you'd like to keep these to remember your pet by.
If your pet needs to be moved to their final resting place, they should be placed in or on a plastic bag in case of body fluid leakage. If you are going to bury them in the garden, make sure you dig a deep enough hole and put a rock or paving stone on top so that nothing can dig them up again.If you are going to leave your pet with the vet for cremation, then you be able to have some final moments with them before you have to say goodbye. And if their ashes are being returned, your vet should be able to tell you how long it will take before they call you to pick them up.

The grief you feel after losing a pet is often no less intense than if you lost a human being that was part of your life. It can sometimes be worse, as not everyone will be understanding and you may feel you can't talk about your feelings in case other people consider them silly. It's completely normal to feel bereaved when a pet dies, they have been part of your life and shouldn't be considered 'only an animal'.
People often think they see or hear their deceased pet around their house or garden afterwards, and this, along with the completely normal feelings of loss and sadness can bring back memories of other times they may have lost someone special to them.
It's important to find someone understanding to talk to; a friend or family member who has gone through pet loss is generally a good bet but if there is no one, or you'd rather remain anonymous then there are some good  internet sites that can help you.
The Blue Cross also run a Pet Bereavement Support Service staffed by understanding trained volunteers who will talk to you on the phone or reply to your email about how you are feeling.

To get another, or not?
It's very common for newly bereaved pet owners to swear they will never have another, usually out of loyalty to their previous animal. But it's a hard pledge to keep. More than 3/4's of people who lose a pet go on to replace them, as once you are used to a little furry body around the house it's hard to live without it.
'Replace' is not really the right word, as the next pet is never exactly the same and a new one won't fill the hole the other one left behind, but they can take your mind off the absence for a bit while the old wound heals.
There is no ideal time scale. Some people like to have a period of mourning before taking on another pet, others get another almost immediately afterwards. There is no right or wrong; you must do what feels right for you and your family.

There are so many animals out there looking for good homes, that if you have a good home with space for a pet, it would be a real shame to leave that space empty.

Monday, 24 January 2011

When The Rainbow Bridge Beckons ( Part 1: The Decision)

For those of you who don't know, The Rainbow Bridge is a piece of writing about a mythological place to which a pet goes upon its death, before eventually being reunited with its owner.

The death of a pet is always difficult to come to terms with, no matter what the circumstances, but when an owner has to take part in making the decision to cause that death, it can cause intense feelings of grief, fear and guilt. It will probably be one of the most difficult things you ever have to do. As a society, we are relatively sheltered from death and although we know it happens, we are not prepared for circumstances where we have to play a part in it. 

If you have a poorly pet that is not going to recover, is in constant uncontrollable pain or has very little quality of life ( we'll discuss this later) then you will probably be considering euthanasia for your friend. 

Some people choose to leave their pet to die without help, to avoid being involved in causing their death. I believe this to be wrong for a number of reasons. 

When you take on a pet, you also take on the responsibility of making sure it has its basic needs provided and is healthy. If your pet becomes unwell, it needs to be treated so it either recovers or can live comfortably. If it is in pain, or can no longer do the things it once enjoyed doing, then it's quality of life is no longer good. Just existing from day to day is no life for an animal. If there is no hope of recovery, then it's the owner's responsibility to make sure it has a 'good death'. The word 'euthanasia' means exactly this, and a smooth euthanasia should cause the animal no added distress.

If a pet is terminally ill and obviously declining in health, it causes a lot of unnecessary suffering if it's left to die 'naturally'. I'm often called out to put to sleep old cats, who are in the end stages of kidney failure and have been basically comatose for days. They might not be in uncontrollable pain but I don't think they were entirely comfortable before they lost consciousness. Some can be roused for short periods of time to be fed small quantities of food and water but this doesn't mean they are improving.

A third point is it's much nicer for you, the owner, and your family to have memories of their pet being relatively happy and well before they died. I've had many more people say they wished they had chosen euthanasia sooner, than I've had saying they'd done it 'too soon'. Letting your pet go with his dignity still intact seems to be an important factor in the amount of guilt owners suffer afterwards.

So how do you know 'when' to do it? No one can make that decision for you, but your vet should be able to guide you towards a time that's right for both you and your pet. Some people say that 'you'll know' but it isn't always that straighforward.

Owners often find it helpful to make a 'quality of life' chart. This can be done when a pet is quite young and can be invaluable if an healthy animal is sudden struck down by illness or an accident. Make a list of all the things that your pet likes to do -go for walks, eat, play with a toy, climb trees etc- and then decide how much of their quality of life these activities represent. 

Once your pet can no longer do the majority of things it used to enjoy, then it may be time to give your friend the greatest gift you can- a painless, 'good' death.

Next time, I will be talking about the act of euthanasia itself and explaining what to expect when your pet is put to sleep. I will also outline some of the options that might be available from your vet.

Friday, 21 January 2011

How much insurance do you *really* need?

In 2005, the FSA introduced new regulations which effectively limited what kind of insurance advice vets could give their clients. We can give you general information but most vets are not allowed to recommend ( or otherwise) specific companies.This is a real shame as there are definitely some companies out there who do everything they can do to avoid paying out a penny. A quick google should provide you with the name of the worse culprits, so if you are looking  at pet insurance then make sure you check

Even once you know who to avoid, then you should still ask many questions about any policies that you are considering. 

The most important is 'lifetime or annual'? Annual policies are cheaper, but if your pet is one of the 20% that develops a chronic condition, then you'll be left to foot what could be a very expensive bill yourself after the year has passed. If you can afford it, then go for a lifetime policy, especially for dogs. 
Another important question is 'How much insurance do you need?'. As a rule of thumb, a cat should be covered for at least £4K per condition, over its lifetime, and a dog for £6K. This should cover the cost of most diagnostic, surgical and medical procedures but if your pet has an especially rare, complicated or serious condition then costs may exceed this. Dogs are not just big cats, they are generally more expensive to treat as a species. But if you have a chihuahua things are going to be cheaper than if your pooch is a great dane, so you can probably take a gamble on less cover. If you are going  to take out a cheaper policy, then make sure you are able to top up any costs if your animal requires referral to a specialist centre.

You can find a good checklist of other questions to consider here . And even though your vet isn't allowed to recommend a specific company, if you question the staff about the policies you are contemplating, you are likely to get an idea of whether they have a reputation of being a good payer or not.

Photo by Flickr user Turtlemom4bacon

Wednesday, 19 January 2011 his Terrible Jaws.

Yes, the slightly strange title is a reference to one of my kids' favourite books, The Gruffalo.
The previous blog entry was specifically about teeth and how to care for them but this one is going to be about their 'jaws' in general. Please note you can only examine a dog or cat's mouth by this method. Rabbits and small furries have a much narrower opening at the front of their lips, and while they may tolerate their front teeth being examined, you will not be able to get them to 'open wide' as you may be able to with a dog or cat.

Have look at the outside of your pets lips and face before you go to open their mouth; look for sores, redness or swelling. Have a sniff of their breath. It's normal for it to smell like the food they eat, but it shouldn't smell like something crawled in and died there. Next, pull their lips back and look at their teeth and gums. Gums should be pink if your pet have a light coloured face, and black or brown if it is dark. If they have markings that extend onto their lips, then their gums will have corresponding patches of pigmentation.

If the gums are red, swollen or bleeding then they may need antibiotics. Check the outside of the teeth for tartar or cracks and if your pet lets you open their mouth right up, then have a quick look at the inside of the teeth, top of the tongue and roof of the mouth. Chances are you'll only get a glimpse of each area, so you may have to do this several times over the course of a day or two to be certain of what each area looks like.

Only look at your pet's mouth if they are calm and relaxed. If it becomes a struggle or your pet shows signs of fear or aggression then stop immediately and let them calm down. There will be some dogs and cats that will not tolerate their mouth being looked at while conscious, there is often a good reason for this such as pain.

I advise all of my clients to make a habit of looking at their pet's mouth at least weekly. If you know what 'normal' looks like, then you'll be more likely to recognise when something is wrong. If you get your pet used to having their mouth opened when they are young, then it's a lot easier to do when they are full grown and have a stick or bone stuck in their mouth. And your vet will certainly appreciate that the patient is co operative for this part of a general examination.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Terrible teeth...

If you've got children under 10, the chances are you'll have a good idea of the topic for Wednesday's blog ( those of you with no idea, check out the children's book 'The Gruffalo' if you can't wait). But for today we are going to talk about dog and cat teeth, and why you should brush them...

Dogs and cats are born without teeth in their gums but these erupt in the first couple of weeks of life. Like humans, they have baby teeth, which they shed between 3-6 months and adult teeth take their place. Baby teeth are extraordinarily sharp and can be compared to little needles. They often come out during an energetic game or when the puppy is chewing something, some are swallowed and the owner is often unaware but occasionally they are spat out on the floor, prompting a panicked call to the local vet.

Vets commonly see mouths in absolutely horrific states and the owners involved often have no idea how bad their pet's teeth were. Most owners rarely look in their pets mouths, and the teeth that are worst affected in dogs and cats are hidden behind their lips. Just as with human teeth, plaque is left behind on teeth after eating. If this is not removed then it mixes with saliva and becomes tartar. Tartar is brown and rock-hard and gets between the teeth and gums causing inflammation known as gum disease. It can only be removed by scraping, something that very few pets will tolerate while concious as these gums are so sore, which is why an anaesthetic is necessary when your pet's mouth gets to this stage.

Most dog and cat owners have a vague idea that they * should* be brushing their pet's teeth. But less than 10% do regularly. There is a myth out there that animal teeth are 'self cleaning' but this is not the case. Regular brushing is the best way to make sure your pet's teeth stay healthy.
This video by Norman Johnstone of DentalVets explains how to brush your dog's teeth- the procedure is similar for cats.

It's not that hard and pets do get used to it very quickly if their teeth are in good condition.
It's best to use products made specifically for animals- Long, thin tooth brushes at the correct angle, or a finger brush and meat flavoured toothpaste will make the job a lot easier for both of you. Don't use human toothpaste as it will give pets a sore stomach-it's too foamy for them.

Tooth brushing is undoubtedly 'best practice' when it comes to dog and cat dental care, but it's commonly accepted that many owners won't or can't perform this task on a regular basis. And sometimes it's the humans who are keen, but their pets that aren't co-operative. But if you suspect your pet already has gum disease, then that will need to be treated by your vet before you try brushing, otherwise they will associate the brush with pain.

There are a few other things you can try to help keep your pet's teeth clean. Feeding a good quality food that inhibits tartar formation or converting to the RAW diet, using dental chews or an abrasive food like Hills t/d diet, applying oral gels, rinsing with mouth washes or sprinkling Plaque Off on their food won't clear plaque as effectively as a tooth brush, but they are better than nothing.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Another breastfeeding debate.

Those of you who who have children and frequent certain parenting forums will probably be aware of a recurring debate that usually ends in someone's tears: The great Breastfeeding debate. ( It needs a capital letter, believe me!)
But a couple of examples of a different angle to this debate have come to my attention over the last month. Both feature a human breastfeeding a dog, so if you feel very strongly that this is completely abhorrent rather than just a little weird, don't bother clicking on the links. I'll blog about something less controversial next time, I promise!

The first is a charity calender that features a lingerie clad model appearing to breastfeed a rather sleepy looking puppy. You can't see any astonishing anatomical landmarks that don't feature commonly in the weekend papers, but I do admit to finding this image a little disturbing.

The second is an article from a publication that I wasn't aware existed until it the link started popping up all over my Facebook news feed. It is probably the kind of story that you shouldn't really be surprised to find in a this kind of magazine but there are been a collective intake of virtual breath among my friends. I do agree it seems 'wrong' but I wasn't sure why I was having the kind of reaction I did, so have spent some time trying to work it out.

I have decided that I don't think it's necessarily Wrong but it's really not right either.

My main objection is that is perpetuates the idea of treating dogs as babies. Any Dog Rescue or dog behaviorist will happily tell you what a bad idea this is. The message given out to people should be that dogs are dogs, and need to be treated as such. Not because you have to show them who is the 'Alpha dog' or any of rubbishy dominance theories that are floating around, but simply because they do best when they are treated like dogs. Dogs that are treated like babies; carried about, dressed up, fed inappropriate food and not socialised or trained properly often become aggressive and unpleasant to have around as they have none of the boundaries that help produce a secure and happy pet dog.
It is just not necessary for a woman to breastfeed her dog. Of course if the dog was starving, then there may be no option but it seems an odd sort of relationship to choose to have with your pet dog, especially once the child the milk was intended for has stopped nursing.
I'm also not sure about the hygiene issues of feeding a baby and a pet, let alone how the dog in the second story will react when she has to share her food source again...
Lastly there is the question of the damage a dog's teeth could do to a breast, if things went wrong. I suppose it would make for a good story for the staff at A & E!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Thoughts of summer ( holidays)?

It's grey and damp in London atm and everywhere I look there is mud. I find myself scanning the weather forecasts looking for the next cold spell ( middle of next week apparently, if anyone is interested) but I'm what I'm really thinking about is summer, and where we are going on holiday.
A lot of people take their pets, especially dogs, on holiday with them but not us. We have 4 children and don't feel able to cope with the added stress that a couple of canines would involve. Besides, there would be no room for luggage in the car!
But even if you are not taking your pets away with you, please don't forget them in your holiday preparations. As soon as you have your dates booked, ring the kennels, cattery, pet or home sitter or check with the neighbour/friend who usually feeds them. Check their vaccinations are up to date and start tweaking their flea/worming schedule so they won't be due for a treatment while you are away. If your pet is microchipped, make sure the address the company has is up to date and if your pet isn't chipped, consider having it done. If you have no idea who your pet's chip is registered with, talk to your vet, they will be able to scan your pet and tell you which company you should be registered with.
If your pet is travelling with you, you need to check their vaccinations and passport ( if required) are all up to date. And having the correct address recorded against their microchip is obviously vitally important when they are away from home. Also do some research and write down the details of the closest vet to where you will be staying, just in case.
Sorting these details out now, and making a record of what you've organised will save you from panicking about pet-care closer to holiday time. You'll be able to spend your time stressing about packing and your passports instead!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Brisbane floods.

Like most people, I've been aware of the terrible flooding in Brisbane, Australia due to the constant media coverage, but it's only been the last couple of days I've bothered to watch some of the footage.
My SIL lives and works in Brisbane so when my MIL expressed her concern about her daughter's safety, I started to email a few friends in that part of the world. I wanted to check on my friends and see if we could find out just how bad the floods were in my SIL's neighbourhood.
It turns out my SIL lives in an apartment quite a distance from any rivers, so her home should be okay. She works in town though and her office is flooded and has been evacuated.
It seems the main problem is panic buying in the supermarkets and shops. Staples, such as bottled water and baked beans, are pretty much sold out and no one knows quite when or how more food will be delivered.
Anyhow, the videos show cars and boats being swept away in the strong, muddy currents but along with that there are videos of animals swimming aimlessly around. Horses and cows are shown but thousands of domestic pets, along with wildlife have been caught up in this disaster.
Many evacuees have had to leave their beloved pets behind to fend for themselves. Imagine how heartbreaking that must be?
It has reminded me that although it's unlikely to have a flooding -related disaster where we live, the unexpected does happen and it's wise to do what we can to plan for it. Even just making sure you have an extra few days of pet food available at all times and always knowing where your cat carriers and dog leads are, could make a real difference in an emergency, even if it's just on a small scale.
In the meantime, I'll join in with the collective breath holding as everyone waits for the rain to stop and the water level to drop in a city 10,000 miles away.

Monday, 10 January 2011

What's in your pet's food?

We all know how important it is for people to eat healthily and a lot of pet owners take this into consideration when feeding their pets. Of course, there are many people who feed the cheapest food they can find but when it comes to cheap pet food, you get what you pay for. However, there are also some 'premium' brand pet foods which are not as healthy as you'd imagine for the price you pay!
It can be hard to know what is healthy with regards to a cat's or dog's diet though. TV adverts try to sell us one brand, family and colleagues 'in the know' often have strong opinions and your vet may recommend something completely different.
It's worth while spending a bit of time learning how to decode petfood labels and using your new-found knowledge to see what your precious dog or cat is being fed.
And if you generally feed dried food to your pet, then have a look and see if that food is listed here .
You may get a nasty surprise as to the contents- I know I did the first time I checked.

Friday, 7 January 2011


Lately I've been trying to decide whether I hate mud or ice more. Ice is really hard to fall on and probably breaks more hips than mud, but jeez, mud is so .... muddy!
After a good dump of snow on the 18th of December, the resulting slush seemed to hang around for ages. We didn't have a white Christmas here but there was enough white stuff on the ground for the kids to go sledging on Boxing day. Shorty after that, the temp rose above freezing and it melted, leaving behind thick, sticky, brown mud.
The dogs love it but my car and carpet are suffering hugely.
I bought a paw plunger at the last conference I went to but tbh we haven't really got on with it. The dogs don't like the feeling of it and are reluctant to put their feet in it which leads to a struggle. So I tend to just keep a (filthy) towel in the car- when it starts making more of a mess than it removes, I replace it.
My other weapon against mud is a properly fitting dog coat. By properly fitting, I mean it needs to go down over the dogs bottom and fit over his sides. For the lurcher, the coat offers warmth as she's a naturally skinny dog, but our old boy loves to roll in anything muddy or smelly and it is 100x easier to wash the coat than the entire dog. Especially since he has trouble getting in the bath since his stroke last year, and he's really a bit heavy for me to lift- if he needs washing, then I have to take him into the garden and hose the poor old boy down. It's rather cold for both of us.
I have to say this is the time of the year that I least like having a dog, and tend to be rather unadventurous in my walking habits.
I stick to parks with proper paths and try to stay off the grass but of course, as far as the dogs are concerned, all the good smells are in the fields and hedges, so the car ride home is always a muddy one.