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Feeding your Pet

<<< Ask a Vet Index

Pet nutrition has come a long way since the days when the cat or dog would be thrown a bit of meat to chew on, along with the odd bone. If you think of wild carnivores - wolves, lions etc. you realise that its not just the muscle meat of their victims that they eat, but also bone, skin, stomach contents etc. Meat alone is not a balanced diet for a cat or dog, and imbalanced diets are directly and indirectly responsible for a number of disease conditions that are certainly avoidable with good nutrition.

So what makes a good diet? This changes depending on the age of the animal. For instance, a young animal needs just the right balance of nutrients, minerals and vitamins to ensure that its bones and joints develop properly, and this will not happen if it is fed an adult diet. Likewise an older animal has a lower metabolic rate and a lesser ability to cope with a high protein diet. Research by the more reputable pet food companies has resulted in the development of some excellent products that are appropriate to the various stages of your pet's life.

BUT, feeding guides on canned and dry food should be treated as guides only. Your vet will help you devise a growth rate chart for a young animal, or give you the ideal maintenance weight for an adult. A regular weight check will then tell you if you're over or under feeding. Keeping a weight chart will also reassure those people who have animals that constantly pester them for food. Provided the animal has been regularly wormed, this is often more a behavioural problem than anything else, and can be due to boredom. Avoid giving in to constant demands for food! This will only make it worse. Instead, provide more stimulation for your pet. Play with it, groom it, take it for a walk. Using food as a reward is another incentive for pets to constantly seek food. Once again, try and use non-food rewards - cuddles and games.

Remember that the health of your pet's teeth and gums depends to a large extent on what they eat. The importance of chewing cannot be over emphasised, and bones are particularly helpful in this regard. Raw chicken necks, oxtail and brisket all provide good chewing. A few dogs however will get constipated at the mere sniff of a bone, so keep a close watch if you are introducing bones for the first time.

The digestive systems of your kittens can be particularly delicate. The following pointers should help you avoid problems:

  • Kittens are very susceptible to sudden changes in diet so ensure that any changes are gradual.
  • Many kittens are allergic to lactose in milk, causing diarrhoea - once weaned, and fed a balanced diet, kittens should not need milk, though there is no harm in feeding it to those which can handle it.
  • Calcium deficiency can cause digestive upsets - this is usually only a problem in those animals being fed a diet with too much meat content.
  • A high degree of digestibility is important so that kittens can readily absorb the nutrients, so it's important that food is fresh and of good quality.
  • Regular worming starting from as early as a few weeks of age is essential for a healthy digestive system.
  • Attention to hygiene, eg frequent cleaning out of dirt trays, will prevent the spread of such diseases as coccidiosis, a major cause of diarrhoea in kittens.
  • Persistent digestive problems should be checked by your vet, because kittens can quickly become dehydrated if diarrhoea is allowed to continue. Your kitten may need medication and a special diet to help it recover. 

It is much more difficult to get the balance exactly right with home diets, but here are a couple of examples, more specifically for dogs:Home Growth Diet (for young animals)

  • Cooked Brown Rice 3/4 cup
  • Meat 2/3 cup
  • Liver 1.8 cup
  • Bonemeal 2 tsp
  • Corn Oil 2 tsp
  • Salt 1/2 tsp

Home Maintenance Diet

  • Cooked Brown Rice 1-1/2 cups
  • Meat 1/3 cup
  •  Liver 1.8 cup
  • Bonemeal 3 tsp
  • Corn Oil 2 tsp
  • Iodised Salt (optional) 1/2 tsp

The water content of this food is similar to canned food so amounts fed are comparable.

Epilepsy

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1. How do dogs get epilepsy? Is it hereditary?

Epilepsy, a condition in which animals suffer recurrent seizures (commonly known as fits) is usually classed as either "true" or "acquired". True epilepsy, which has no other identifiable cause, may be inherited. Although there appear to be different types and different degrees by which they are inheritable, the basic problem would appear to be a biochemical defect in the nervous tissue of the brain, allowing the uncontrolled electrical discharge from the brain cells that results in seizures.

Acquired epilepsy, on the other hand is the result of some outside influence affecting the brain, and resulting in residual damage to the brain cells. The initial effect, which may have been the result of toxicity or trauma for instance, may have been of a minor nature and not even noticed by the owner of the animal at the time, and it may not be until months or years later that the epilepsy develops.

Before a diagnosis of epilepsy is made, however, other possible causes of seizures need to be investigated - various toxicities such as lead poisoning will cause fits, as will such problems as meningoencephalitis, brain tumours and head injuries. Low blood sugar and various electrolyte imbalances may also result in seizures, and young animals carrying large numbers of intestinal worms may also be subject to fits.

2. Do cats have epilepsy?

Yes, cats may also be epileptic, although the problem is more common in the dog.

The inherited types are much better documented in various dog breeds, but acquired epilepsy occurs in both species.

3. Can epilepsy be controlled and is the treatment expensive?

In most cases, epilepsy can be controlled with medication. However, the decision to begin what will inevitably be a lifelong treatment depends on how badly the animal is affected. Seizures vary markedly in their severity and frequency, so that an animal suffering mild seizures less than once a month for instance would probably not be medicated.

Seeing their pet having convulsions can be very upsetting for pet owners. However it is usually worse for them than it is for the pets themselves. From human experience it seems there is no perception - or certainly no memory - of the actual process, and as long as the animal is in an environment where it can't hurt itself, the fit itself is unlikely to cause suffering or pain.

More frequent or severe seizures do warrant treatment, and this usually takes the form of daily medication, which is not enormously expensive. There are a number of different drugs available, and it may take some time to find the right drug, at the right dose, to suit the individual animal without such side effects as drowsiness. Regular blood tests are advised to make sure that the body is coping with the drugs.

In some cases, acupuncture treatments can be helpful in reducing the severity and frequency of fits, and in reducing the amount of medication an animal may need.

- Virginia Williams

Dogs on Heat

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First time dog owners may be unaware that, unlike male dogs, which can be sexually active all year round, females are only able to mate, and thus become pregnant, when they are "in season" or "on heat".

Bitches come on heat on average every six months, some starting as early as six or seven months of age. The heat lasts for three weeks, the first signs being the swelling of the vulval area often with some dripping of blood from the vagina. Although the bitch will generally only allow a male to mate her during the middle week of her heat, the scent of both her urine and her vaginal discharge will usually be attractive to dogs for the whole three week period, and the males will go to extraordinary lengths to get at her — she’ll be quite keen to get at them too!

So to avoid her becoming pregnant you’ll have to be extremely vigilant. Don’t let her outside unaccompanied, even if your garden is fenced — even if you know she can’t get out you can’t assume that a male dog can’t get in. It’s probably best to keep her away from the front of the house and don’t let her go in and out of the gates, leaving that enticing scent.

Exercise will necessarily be restricted — unless you have access to a remote area. You can’t assume that a late night or early morning walk will be safe — many dogs are not kept confined. And, your very obedient bitch will often become totally uncontrollable just at that crucial period in her cycle when she is ready to mate, so you can’t trust her either!

The best way to avoid your dog getting pregnant is to have her speyed. This can be done from six months of age. There is no conclusive evidence to support waiting until after the first heat, and there is certainly no need for a bitch to have a litter before speying.

If your bitch comes into season before you’ve had a chance to get her speyed don’t panic. Most vets prefer not to spey during a heat as there is an increased risk of haemorrhage. They prefer to wait until one week after the end of the heat when, even if she is in the early stages of pregnancy, it is safer and easier.

- Virginia Williams & Bert Westera

Diabetes

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Most people have heard of diabetes. It is, after all, a not uncommon medical condition amongst our human population. But many people are probably unaware that diabetes strikes our pets as well - there are any number of cats and dogs out there having daily injections of insulin so that they can continue to lead relatively normal lives.

So just what is diabetes? The most common form is diabetes mellitus, which is basically a failure in the production of insulin, a hormone that controls the way glucose is used in the body. Glucose, produced from the digestion of carbohydrates, is essential to every cell in the body. But without insulin, the cells can't extract the glucose - as well as some other nutrients essential to the proper functioning of the body - from the blood.

This means that the glucose levels in the blood rise dramatically - a condition known as hyperglycaemia. Some of this excess glucose spills over into the urine, drawing with it much more fluid than is normally the case. In fact, the first sign people often see with their affected pets is that they urinate more frequently, and, in an attempt to maintain their fluid levels, they also drink a lot more than usual.

They'll often become very hungry as well. Once again this is due to the failure of glucose to enter the cells, particularly those cells in the brain that control appetite.

Lack of insulin also contributes to the breakdown of fat and muscle within the body so that, although animals are often eating more than usual, they actually lose weight.

So there are four classic signs of diabetes - increased urination, increased thirst, increased appetite and a loss of weight, but it must be remembered that each of these symptoms may have other causes as well - diagnosis of diabetes depends not only on the symptoms, but also on laboratory tests on both blood and urine. A fifth sign which can occur as a result of the high blood glucose levels is the development of cataracts leading to blindness.

Animals can get diabetes at any age, although it is more common in those that are middle-aged and older, and much more common in pets that have, at least at some stage, been overweight. Dogs are more commonly affected than cats. Sometimes the disease seems to occur for no apparent reason, but it can also be a result of other disease processes. An example of this is pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, which is the body's source of insulin. If enough of the pancreas is damaged, the production of insulin falls below the necessary levels.

Some drugs, too, can contribute to diabetes, especially if used over long periods. Cortisone, a commonly used anti-inflammatory drug, is one, while the hormones in some contraceptive tablets are another.

The only practical way to treat diabetic animals is by injecting them with insulin once or twice a day. Great care is needed in the early stages because too much insulin will lead to hypoglycaemia, when the glucose levels fall too far, initially causing weakness, but ultimately, if untreated, resulting in convulsions and coma.

So initial treatments are often done in the veterinary clinic, until a dose rate is established, or at least until the high glucose levels have begun to fall. Owners are then taught to inject the insulin under the skin of their pets.

Diet is extremely important now. In order to establish and maintain the correct dose of insulin, owners need to ensure that their pets' calorie intake does not vary from day to day - no extra titbits unless they're extra every day! Prescription diets for diabetes are available - these contain the relatively high amounts of fibre important for affected animals.

As well as all this, owners must regularly check the glucose levels in their pets' urine - any changes necessitate a visit to the vet for further blood tests.

Some animals settle quickly into an insulin regime and only need occasional checks. With others, it is more difficult to establish an insulin dose, and this may sometimes be due to the animal's having other problems as well. However the treatment goes, it involves a lot of input from the owner. Daily injections, strict diets, checking the urine and regular veterinary checks are not for everyone, but for those who are happy to make that degree of commitment, the result - at best, the restoration to near normality of a beloved pet - can be very rewarding.

- Virginia Williams & Bert Westera

Cats, Cars and Wildlife

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by Dr Marjorie Orr

Keeping your cat contained on home ground...perhaps even in an aviary? This may seem bizarre, but for some cat owners it may be the only way to keep their pet safe from the hazards of the road, and for others it might be the only way to protect birds and native animals from their cat!

Most people know that responsible cat ownership involves basic provision for their cat’s needs and ensuring that it is neutered. Until recently, keeping the family cat at home has not usually been an issue to consider and traditionally most domestic cats have wandered freely. However, attitudes are changing. Increasingly owners are realising they have an obligation to their cat, and to the community in which they live, to keep their cat at home. This is sometimes the only way to ensure that the cat will not be hit by a vehicle, that it will not harass or be harassed by other animals and that it cannot catch other animals such as songbirds and native animals.

Build A Cattery

For many owners the only sure way to protect their cats from vehicles and from other animals and to protect wildlife from them is to keep their cats at home. This means keeping them in an enclosed area at all times. For much of the time, they could still enjoy the run of the house with the family, but at times when they cannot be kept safely inside because doors or windows are open, they can be kept in a custom-made cattery.

The concept of cat "aviaries" is not as silly as it might at first seem, and they are becoming more popular overseas. They must be built by a good handyman, because of course they must be sturdy and cat-proof! They should be designed much like a boarding cattery, and the cat must have a spacious airy run with interesting objects to play on and an enclosed warm sleeping area. If the cat has a dirt tray, regular good quality meals, free access to fresh drinking water, space to play and explore, and of course the good company of its owners each day, it should be content...and safe.

To some, the idea of confining their cat may seem cruel. Indeed there are cats which have enjoyed complete freedom for years, and they would find confinement in a run distressing. But if from kittenhood the cat is accustomed to being kept in a run, and if the run is roomy and well designed, the cat should accept it happily.

Some of us often witness the effects of road accidents and animal attacks on cats. For these cats and their owners, a cattery would have prevented a lot of distress. Another benefit of the cattery option is that vulnerable animals in the neighbourhood like native birds, reptiles and insects are safe from the marauding cat, and so too are songbirds, fledglings of all types...and other cats!

But for many people and for a whole raft of reasons, a cattery is not an option. If there is no way their cats can be kept permanently at home, there are a least ways of encouraging them to stay at home as much as possible.

Neutering Is Vital

Cats which have not been neutered are much more inclined to wander than neutered cats. Tom cats in particular travel for miles in search of queens in heat. Toms can also cause road accidents indirectly because their territorial and aggressive behaviour forces other cats to keep on the move. Their male hormones make it almost inevitable that they will be involved in fights with and attacks on other cats with painful consequences for them and their victim. Neutering the cat is a basic requirement of responsible cat ownership, not least because it makes life safer for them.

Keeping Cats in at Night.

Putting the cat out a night is a common practice, but one which is not usually justified. The risk of vehicles hitting cats is greater in the dark, when it’s harder for the cat to gauge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles and the headlights are dazzling. If a dirt tray is provided, the cat could be kept in. If they are insistent on going out, a cat flap will ensure they are not shut out.

A cat which is turned out a night may well have to go wandering to find a warm sheltered spot to rest, or to avoid the unwanted attention of tom cats. Wandering cats inevitably encounter traffic on the roads.

Avoiding the Rush Hour

If there are times of the day when the road is particularly busy, it can pay to feed the cat just beforehand and shut it in until the danger period is over. Most accidents happen during the "rush hour" particularly in dim light.

ID Collars

Cats that wander are more likely to be returned safely if they are wearing an ID collar. This should be light and comfortable, it should have a contact phone number written on it, and it must have an elastic insert so that if it becomes hooked up the cat can wriggle free without being strangled.

(Dr Marjorie Orr is an avid welfarist and we are lucky to have her as the Honorary Veterinary consultant to the National Council)