The respiratory system of dogs and cats

Breathing is an essential function of life, but it is just one function of the respiratory system in our pets. The respiratory system brings air into your dog or cat’s body, humidifies that life-giving air, heats it up and filters it, and then uses the components of that air to energise cells and balance the body’s pH levels. It then removes the resultant waste products. All of this is done involuntarily – your pet doesn’t have to think about breathing; it just happens. 

In this article, we’ll explore the organs of the respiratory system, its specific functions, and how the respiratory system works. We’ll also look at what happens when parts of the respiratory system don’t work as they should – the signs and symptoms of respiratory disorder and diseases – and how the vet will diagnose and treat the most common respiratory disorders in pets. Lastly, what can you do to protect your pet’s respiratory system?

Organs of the respiratory system

The respiratory system comprises the upper and lower respiratory systems. 

The upper respiratory system includes the: 

  • nose
  • sinuses
  • pharynx (throat) 

The lower respiratory system includes the: 

  • larynx
  • trachea
  • bronchi
  • bronchioles
  • alveoli
  • lung tissue  

What are the functions of the respiratory system?

In order to play its part, every cell in the dog or cat’s body requires oxygen. When the oxygen is used up, the cells produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. The function of the respiratory system, then, is to bring oxygen into the body (inhalation) and to remove carbon dioxide from the body (exhalation). This gas exchange occurs in the alveoli – sac-like structures in the lungs. 

The respiratory system also has a number of secondary functions:

  • Producing sound – when air is pushed through the vocal cords, the result is sound, which the dog or cat uses to communicate.
  • Balancing the pH of the body – carbon dioxide binds to water and is circulated in the body as carbonic acid. The lungs help to expire (breathe out) enough CO2 to balance the body’s pH levels.
  • Thermoregulation – when dogs (and sometimes cats) overheat, they pant to cool down: exhaling warm air and inhaling cool air into the body to bring their body temperature down.
  • Sense of smell – chemicals in the air are inhaled, triggering the olfactory fibres lining the dog or cat’s nasal passages. The olfactory (smell) nerves are stimulated, sending sensory signals to the brain, which then interprets the source of the chemicals – i.e. it tells them whether they are sniffing roast chicken or picking up the scent of an intruder.

How does the respiratory system work?

There are three types of respiration that take place, as part of the function of the respiratory system: 

  • External respiration involves air (containing oxygen) being inhaled into the lungs, which then transport the oxygen into the bloodstream where it is circulated in the body.
  • Internal respiration occurs when the oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged on a molecular level – the oxygen going into and being used up by cells and body tissues, and carbon dioxide being produced and migrating back into the bloodstream to be exhaled by the lungs.
  • Cellular respiration is the process that happens when oxygen and glucose are converted into energy at the cellular level.

The automatic or involuntary behaviour of breathing occurs thanks to the autonomic nervous system, whose function helps to regulate all systems in the body. Every cell in the body needs oxygen. This need for oxygen triggers an inhalation, in which air is taken into the lungs via the nose. It travels down the trachea (windpipe), is split between left and right bronchi, pulled into the bronchioles, and eventually reaches the alveoli – sac-like structures within the lungs. It is in the alveoli where the oxygen in the inhaled air passes into the one-cell-thick epithelial membrane and is transported in the bloodstream to the rest of the body. At the same time, carbon dioxide from the bloodstream crosses the alveolar membranes into the lungs, to be exhaled into the outside air.

During the physical process of breathing, air particles, dust, pollen, chemicals and other matter gets trapped in the nasal passages. Tiny finger-like structures called cilia, with the help of mucous, move these particles down into the pharynx to either be sneezed out, coughed out or swallowed. Any microorganisms that make their way into the lungs are blitzed by the immune response, to ensure the most efficient process of gas exchange takes place. 

Common respiratory issues in pets

Dogs and cats can be particularly susceptible to upper and lower respiratory disorders, especially because they explore the world with their noses, sniffing and inhaling many things that are potentially harmful to them. Their respiratory system can be compromised by viruses, bacteria, fungi, trauma, overheating, tumours, inflammation, obstruction in the airways, and even secondary effects from other diseases in the body – such as pulmonary oedema or congestive heart failure.

Symptoms such as eye and nasal discharge, sneezing or congestion are typical of respiratory disorders in the upper airways, and are common in diseased cats, as well as in dogs in the early stages of distemper. Lower respiratory diseases are more common in sick dogs, although young and old dogs are particularly vulnerable to infection. Puppies are born with their respiratory system and immune systems only partially developed, making them susceptible to pathogens entering and compromising their lungs. Older dogs’ respiratory and immune systems are not as efficient as they were in filtering out harmful intruders and infection, also rendering them vulnerable to lung diseases.

Diseases and disorders of the respiratory system that pets present with in the veterinarian’s office can include:

  • Upper airway obstruction: If something gets stuck in your dog or cat’s nasal cavities, throat or trachea, it’s imperative to get it out as soon as possible, as this directly impacts the animal’s ability to breathe. Partial or complete obstruction both constitute a medical emergency and the vet must see to them as soon as possible.
  • Pneumonia: This disease occurs in dogs and cats infected by bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi, which cause inflammation in the lungs. They can also aspirate (inhale) vomit or food particles, which should not be introduced to the lungs. Fatigue, lack of appetite, dry or wet cough, fever and breathing distress may all present.
  • Allergic pneumonitis: This is like pneumonia, except it’s caused by the pet’s immune system overreacting to an allergen, which affects and can even injure the lungs. This immune reaction causes white blood cells build up in the highly sensitive airway ‘branches’ in the lungs – the bronchioles and alveoli – which interrupt their ability to function properly.
  • Pulmonary oedema: Excessive fluid in or around the lungs of dogs and cats can make it very difficult for them to breathe and poses the risk of respiratory failure – a medical emergency. Pulmonary oedema is usually a symptom of a chronic condition such as congestive heart failure, trauma, infection (such as in pneumonia) or cancer. Its symptoms will all involve signs of difficulty breathing (like wheezing, open-mouthed breathing, coughing, noisy breathing) as well as lethargy, increased heartrate and ultimately, collapse. Treatment will depend on the cause, but if it’s caused by a chronic condition, careful, long-term management with medication, diuretics and a low-salt diet will be necessary.
  • Brachycephalic airway syndrome: Short-snouted dogs are at risk of experiencing any number of upper airway problems related to their anatomical characteristics. Stenotic nares are narrowed nostrils that affect how much air is inhaled. An elongated soft palate can partially block the tracheal opening and cause breathing difficulty. Hypoplastic trachea refers to a narrower trachea than is normal, and everted laryngeal saccules refer to pouches of the larynx that can also block the airway. Laryngeal collapse and extended nasopharyngeal turbinates also affect airflow in and out of the lungs. When brachycephalic dogs present with more than one of these conditions, it can make breathing exceptionally laboured for them and they may need surgery to fix these anatomical abnormalities and help them to breathe better.
  • Tracheal collapse: A genetic condition most common in older small and toy breed dogs, collapsed trachea involves the cartilaginous rings of the trachea becoming weak, and flattening when air is pulled into the trachea on inhalation. The most prevalent symptom is the goose-honk sound when the dog coughs; and a lack of exercise tolerance due to an insufficient intake of oxygen. 
  • Bronchitis in dogs: Acute or chronic, bronchitis in dogs occurs when the trachea and bronchial airways become inflamed. In the long term, the inflammation can progress into the lungs and even cause pneumonia – the two diseases are often difficult to differentiate. The symptom most often seen in canine bronchitis is intense spasms of coughing. When bronchitis is caused by viruses or bacteria and is easily communicable in large populations of dogs in close confines, it is likely to be infectious tracheobronchitis – or kennel cough
  • Canine influenza: Despite its name, canine influenza can be found in dogs and cats. It’s caused by the H3N8 or H3N2 viruses, and presents as a persistent cough, high temperature (fever), eye and nasal discharge, lack of appetite, and fatigue. Cats will present with the additional symptoms of sneezing, lip smacking, and excessive salivation. Some pets will show no symptoms, some will show mild symptoms and some will go on to develop pneumonia. The vet will offer supportive treatment and pets will need to be isolated from other healthy pets for up to four weeks after recovery.
  • Laryngitis: Inflammation of the larynx (vocal cords) can be caused by infection in the upper airways, dust, foreign material, excessive barking, and even from the placement of a breathing tube during a surgical procedure. Other health issues like cancer, heart disease or hypothyroidism can also cause swelling in the larynx. The most obvious symptom is a hoarse voice; accompanied by other symptoms such as a persistent cough, halitosis, raspy breathing, fever, and loss of appetite. If laryngitis is mild, the pet can recover at home with rest and water. For more severe symptoms, the vet may treat the disease with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, cough suppressants and pain medication. Where swelling from the laryngitis poses a threat to the animal’s ability to breathe, the vet may need to place a tracheotomy tube through the neck to enable the animal to breathe while the laryngitis is being treated. 
  • Rhinitis and sinusitis: Inflammation of the mucous membranes (rhinitis) and nasal and sinus cavity membranes (sinusitis) in dogs and cats are most often caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infection. Sinusitis can also be caused by a dental abscess in the upper fourth premolar; while the inflammation in both conditions can also be caused by an allergic response. The symptoms include sneezing, eye and nasal discharge, reduced appetite, facial swelling, noisy breathing, halitosis, pain when moving their head, and lethargy. Treating sinusitis and rhinitis will involve finding and treating the underlying cause, and managing the symptoms. 

When should you see a vet about your pet’s respiratory system?

It is painful and uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening for pets to contend with diseases and disorders of the respiratory system, or obstruction in any of their respiratory organs. If you notice your dog or cat develops a discharge from their nose or eyes, a persistent cough, laboured breathing or a rapid heartrate, take them to the vet as soon as possible.

If your pet has recurring infections or something just doesn’t seem quite right with their breathing, sleeping, exercise ability or appetite – all of these symptoms warrant quick action to treat your pet’s respiratory trouble.

How do you take care of your pet’s respiratory system?

Pets can’t be taught to breathe more efficiently, not sniff the ground, or keep a distance from other animals in order to protect their respiratory system. However, there is a lot you can do to ensure your pets don’t contract respiratory diseases. 

Vaccinate your pets

Many bacterial and viral infections attack the respiratory system, are highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in dogs and cats. Vaccination  is the quickest, easiest and cheapest method that all pet owners can (and should) use to protect your pets from respiratory diseases. Make sure puppies and kittens get vaccinated at the correct intervals in their first two years, and top up their schedule with annual or triennial boosters.

Notice the symptoms

If your dog or cat gets sniffly or sneezy, or they develop a cough, don’t wait to see if it resolves itself. Take your pet to the vet as soon as possible to get an accurate diagnosis and timeous treatment for any respiratory illness.

Be cautious of large groups of dogs, or stray cats

Whether your dog attends doggy daycare, puppy school, or needs to be boarded from time to time, be aware that there may be an unvaccinated or infectious member/s of the furry friend group that could put the other dogs at risk. If yours is the pup with the sniffles, rather keep your dog isolated until the vet gives you the all-clear. Similarly, keep your cats safe from exposure to unvaccinated and sick stray cats. 

Know your pet’s health status

As mentioned above, it’s not just pets with respiratory diseases who need to be protected. If your dog or cat is brachycephalic (with a short snout), know the breed’s risks for health conditions and monitor them very closely; don’t exercise them in the heat of the day, and keep them away from any risks that could cause inflammation and swelling in organs of the respiratory system. Reduce their exposure to allergens, and train them not to chew on or swallow foreign objects. Always supervise their play sessions to prevent the possibility of swallowing something that could end up causing a tracheal or respiratory blockage.

Similarly, pets who are prone to heart disease, hypothyroidism, cancer, etc. can develop respiratory disorders as a symptom of their chronic disease. Keep an eye on their symptoms and notify the vet of any changes in their breathing.

If you have any questions or concerns about your pet’s respiratory health, don’t hesitate to contact the vet for clarity and help. 

Nervous system

As we explore the bodily systems of our furry and purry friends, there is one system without which all the others would not be able to function: the nervous system. The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord and all the nerves and connective tissue that runs between them and the rest of the body’s organs. Think of the nervous system not only as the electrical wiring that powers the house, but with its own power source and smart system – the brain – that maintains equilibrium in every room.

In this article, we explore the structure and function of the nervous system in our pets, as well as disorders of the nervous system and how they affect our pets’ lives.

The canine and feline nervous systems are relatively similar in structure, so we’ll be referring to both in general, unless otherwise specified.

The structure of the nervous system

The nervous system is made up of a few parts, which are connected by structure and distinguished by function. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. Connecting the central nervous system to the rest of the body is the peripheral nervous system, made up of sensory neurons and motor neurons.

Sensory neurons carry signals from the body’s sensory organs to the brain, while motor neurons carry response signals from the brain to the muscles (of limbs and organs) and to glands (like the adrenal glands). Motor neurons make up the somatic nervous system, which is responsible for voluntary movement (chewing and running), and the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary movement (heartbeat and digestive motility).

The autonomic nervous system further splits into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which control the involuntary responses to stress and calm, respectively. The whole nervous system is made up of neurons or nerve cells, which connect limbs and muscles, organs, tissues and skin to the nervous system and allow the various body parts to communicate with the brain (in a nutshell).

Let’s take a high-level look at each part of the nervous system and its function:

Central nervous system

The central nervous system is the control centre of the dog or cat’s body. It consists of the brain, which not only controls voluntary and involuntary movements, but also receives and interprets sensory input, produces thoughts, stores memories and initiates responses to stimuli.

The central nervous system is also home to the spinal cord, which is the information signal superhighway from the brain to the rest of the body… and back again.

Peripheral nervous system

The peripheral nervous system comprises an intricate network of sensory neurons and motor neurons.

  • Sensory neurons are specially designed to transfer sensory information (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) to the brain, allowing the animal to sense and interpret their external environment. What do they see? What do they smell? – Is breakfast ready? – What do they taste? Are they warm or cold?
  • Motor neurons transfer response signals from the brain to the limbs and organs, creating a voluntary or involuntary reaction to the sensory information.

Example: Your dog is sleeping. He hears the sound of the front door opening and closing (sensory input), and opens his eyes (motor reaction). He sees you walking into the house (sensory input) and wags his tail, puts his ears back and gets up to greet you by licking your hand (motor reaction).

Motor neurons: Somatic & autonomic nervous systems

Movement in the body is not only voluntary (controlled by the somatic nervous system); there are thousands of involuntary movements happening in the body every day. Your pet doesn’t have to think about their heart beating or their food moving through their digestive system. They don’t have to think about relaxing and contracting their muscles when breathing, voluntarily adjusting their blood pressure, or moving waste through their elimination system. These involuntary movements are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and they happen in order to keep the body and its systems in equilibrium.

Example: Your cat walks over to her food bowl and starts eating. Taking the food into her mouth, chewing and swallowing are voluntary movements (somatic nervous system). The swallowed food is automatically moved along the digestive tract by peristalsis – the involuntary contraction of muscles that create a wave-like motion from the oesophagus to rectum (autonomic nervous system). A few hours later, she will go and scratch in the litterbox (somatic nervous system) because she has the urge to poop (autonomic nervous system).

Autonomic nervous system: Sympathetic & parasympathetic nervous systems

The involuntary movements in a pet’s body are controlled by two different systems, depending on what the external sensory input is telling the animal.

  • The sympathetic nervous system controls the involuntary movements involved with the animal’s survival response. In a ‘fight, flight, freeze or fret’ situation, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones further trigger body systems that prepare the animal for physical activity (fighting, running away, or pacing): an increase in blood sugar, heartrate, lung capacity and muscle tension. There is also a decrease in digestion (the energy is diverted to the muscles) and elimination.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in when the threat is over. It triggers the release of acetylcholine, which counteracts the effects of the cortisol and adrenaline and stimulates the ‘rest and digest’ process. This slows down the heartrate, reduces blood pressure, relaxes muscles, and stimulates digestion again.

Example: Your dog hears an intruder in the house and goes to investigate. His muscles tense (his pose is stiff and upright, with hackles raised), he has a sudden rush of energy, his heartrate increases and his lung capacity expands, as more oxygen will need to be sent around the body faster. The blood vessels in his digestive system constrict and the vessels in his muscles dilate – removing blood from the digestive function and sending it to the motor function. Adrenaline is pumping around his body, readying him for a fight for survival.

When your dog sees that the intruder is, in fact, you, his parasympathetic system counteracts the survival response and his body relaxes. His pupils dilate, his muscles relax, his ears lie flat and his tail wags. It takes him a little longer to calm down than it did for him to go into survival mode, so when you put your hand on his chest, you can still feel his heart racing.

The function of the nervous system

From the structural description, the function of the nervous system can be summarised as follows. The nervous system:

  • receives sensory stimuli internally and externally (sensory neurons)
  • interprets the sensory stimuli (brain)
  • initiates a response to the sensory stimuli (motor neurons, hormones)

Essentially, the function of your pet’s nervous system is to control his body – each and every gland, organ, muscle and system sends and receives signals using the nervous system.

Disorders of the canine or feline nervous system

Given that dogs and cats are biological organisms that are subject to disorder and disruption in their physical biology, pets can experience disorders of the nervous system. These disorders can be caused by:

  • genetic or congenital defects (they are born with neurological problems)
  • traumatic injury
  • infections
  • nutritional problems or deficiency
  • degenerative issues (progressive deterioration over time)
  • inflammation
  • cancer
  • metabolic problems
  • blood supply issues that affect neural tissue

Since neurological disorders can have so many different causes, and can originate in different parts of the nervous system, we’ll cover a few common examples, but this list is by no means exhaustive.

Idiopathic epilepsy

‘Idiopathic’ refers to there not being a known cause for the pet’s seizures. Dogs are more likely to have genetically inherited epilepsy than cats. However, cats can have seizures for a variety of other reasons, such as brain injury, poisoning or disease. Seizures occur when there is abnormal brain activity, especially during a heightened or changing state (such as when the pet is excited, eating or about to fall asleep).

Hydrocephalus

Hydro (water) -cephalus (head) describes the condition in which cerebrospinal fluid does not adequately drain from the brain, giving puppies and kittens an abnormal dome-shaped head with an open fontanelle (soft spot on the head). When the skull bones eventually harden, this can cause pressure on the brain that leads to other issues such as blindness, weakness, abnormally ‘quiet’ or simple behaviour or inability to house train. In puppies, hydrocephalus is mostly due to congenital defect (which often goes hand-in-hand with other problems with their anatomy), while in kittens, it’s caused by in utero exposure to ringworm medication or to the virus that causes feline distemper. Animals with mild hydrocephalus can lead relatively normal lives with treatment. Severe hydrocephalus can lead to death of brain tissue and the resulting complications. Each case will be individually assessed and treatment determined by the vet.

Meningitis and encephalitis

Meningitis (inflammation of the membranes of the brain and spinal cord) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) can develop as a result of infection by bacteria, virus, fungus or parasites. They can also be caused by a compromised immune system, chemical toxicity or trauma, as well as septicaemia.

Signs of meningitis and encephalitis include fever, muscle spasms, partial lameness, circling behaviour, loss of balance, loss of consciousness or difficulty performing everyday functions. The vet will test for meningitis and encephalitis by analysing cerebrospinal fluid from a lumbar puncture procedure.

Vestibular disease

Vestibular disease occurs when there is a sudden-onset disturbance of a pet’s ability to maintain balance. The vestibular system consists of an area in the lower brain, called the medulla, and the inner ear. Nerves in the fluid-filled canals of this system constantly send feedback to the brain that corresponds with the animal’s head position and the effects of gravity. When disease, infection, head trauma, tumours or toxicity affect this carefully co-ordinated system, the dog or cat can show signs of imbalance, head tilt, disorientation, jerky eye movements and vomiting.

The vet will perform a range of tests from blood and urine, to X-ray, blood pressure measurement and even MRI and CT scans. Treatment will depend on the cause of the disease.

Intervertebral disc disease

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a degenerative condition that affects the spine as pets age (it is more commonly seen in dogs, but also affects some cats). It’s characterised by vertebral discs that rupture, slip or herniate. The condition can gradually deteriorate without major symptoms until the pet makes a bold movement (such as jumping to catch a ball or climbing on/off of furniture) that damages the affected vertebral discs and causes acute pain.

The vertebral discs are supposed to cushion the bones of the spine, but IVDD causes them to harden and subsequently pinch or compress the spine. IVDD can also damage spinal nerves, leading to poor bladder and bowel control or even paralysis – depending on where in their spinal column the discs are damaged.

IVDD in the neck causes pets to hold their necks low, arch their backs, and even whimper. They are unable to walk properly or at all. IVDD in the mid-back area can cause pets to hold their bellies tensely; they also show walking difficulties and tend to cross their back feet when walking. IVDD in the lower back can lead to hind leg paralysis, incontinence, and an inability or difficulty with jumping. In order to diagnose IVDD, the vet will need to take some X-rays or even an MRI to see if there are any vertebral discs bulging and where they are located.

Dementia (cognitive dysfunction)

Just like humans, dogs and cats are susceptible to cognitive decline, which is the result of plaque deposits on the brain which has an impact on their brain’s ability to perceive, remember, recognise and learn. The symptoms are similar too:

  • spatial disorientation
  • changes in appetite
  • confusion around basic activities (such as cats forgetting where the litterbox is, or dogs forgetting they just ate and wanting more food)
  • changes in behaviour – either becoming less or more affectionate towards their owners, or less tolerable of once familiar pet friends
  • changes in their circadian rhythm (sleep and wakefulness)
  • mood changes
  • disinterest in once exciting activities

Dementia is not curable or reversible, but diet, activity and some medications can slow its progression. It’s also important that pet owners keep things familiar, not scold or punish pets for soiling the house, and keep up with enrichment activities, which naturally stimulate the brain. Food puzzles are a great activity for ageing dogs and cats who may have experienced changes in appetite, mood and sleep/wake cycles.

Hypothyroid neuropathy

Metabolic disorders like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can put pets at risk of developing neurological complications. Hypothyroidism is seen more often in dogs than in cats, and it is associated with the development of neurological symptoms like head tilt, vestibular disease, strabismus (cross-eyed), dry eye (where facial nerves are affected), and reduced muscle tone because of neurological weakness in the limbs.

Cancers in the nervous system

Tumours in the nervous system – such as nerve sheath tumours – can easily affect the front legs and be mistaken for pain from injury or overuse. These types of tumours can arise in the peripheral nervous system, but also in the cranial nerves, which affect the jaw. If the tumour grows too large before being surgically removed, it can be fatal.

How to protect your pet’s nervous system

Pets are susceptible to a very wide variety of diseases and disorders of the nervous system – some of which are genetic and unavoidable. However, for overall nervous system wellness, exercise is the number one recommendation to keep the nervous system healthy. It’s not just about healthy muscle tone and good cardiovascular health, but exercise also reduces stress. Chronic stress can weaken a pet’s neurological health, and it’s also bad for their immune system.

A healthy diet can also help to properly feed and support a healthy nervous system to ensure it functions optimally. Good gut health is directly linked to brain health, so make sure your pet’s gastrointestinal health is in tip top shape.

Also ensure your pet is receiving a healthy dose of B vitamins, which are neurotrophic in nature – supporting the healthy functioning of the nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities that also help to support brain and nerve functioning.

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The canine skin and coat

Your dog’s skin and coat make up a multi-functional super system. They are a barrier of protection, a convenient thermostat and water meter, as much as they are a barometer of your dog’s internal health. Your dog’s skin and coat also function as his largest sensory organ, as well as a very important communication tool.

In this article, we’ll explore the structure and function of the canine skin and coat. We’ll suggest ways to keep your dog’s skin and coat healthy, discuss the symptoms of an unhealthy skin and coat, issues that may arise and when to see the veterinarian as a result.

The structure of the skin and coat

When we refer to your dog’s skin, we’re talking about the entire organ that covers his body, making up around 12% of his body weight. Most areas of a dog’s skin are covered in fur, which can be thicker and longer in some areas (like the scruff of the neck, the ridge of his back and at the feathering at the backs of the legs) and shorter and thinner in others (like on the belly). Understanding the structure of the skin and coat will help owners to understand their function and make better decisions about skin and coat care, and grooming. 

Structure of your dog’s skin

Your dog’s skin is made up of the epidermis (outer layer), dermis (middle layer), and hypodermis (inner layer) or subcutaneous layer.

  • The epidermis helps to protect the sensitive dermis, and to stop the skin from drying out or your dog losing water via his skin. It produces keratin (from keratinocyte cells) and includes nails and fur.
  • The dermis comprises your dog’s collagen layer and contains the hair follicles, skin oil (sebum), and sweat glands.
  • The hypodermis or subcutis (literally ‘under skin’) or subcutaneous layer consists of blood vessels, nerves, and a layer of fat. The blood vessels feed the skin with nutrients and oxygen, while the layer of fat has an insulating effect. The hypodermis connects the skin to your dog’s muscles. 

Structure of your dog’s coat

Your dog’s skin houses his fur coat, which is made up of tens of thousands of central and secondary hairs. Most dogs have a double coat, which consists of a fine, soft, downy, insulating undercoat and a topcoat of longer guard hairs that are thicker and coarser than the undercoat. This undercoat is a feature of working breeds like collies and shepherds, Rottweilers and retrievers, who needed a layer of insulation from the weather as well as a protective layer to guard them from injury. When your dog sheds, it’s this undercoat that is ejected once or twice a year when he doesn’t need as much protection from the cold.

Some dogs have a single coat that grows continuously and needs frequent trimming. These include dogs like the Yorkie, shih tzu, short-coated Chihuahua, poodle, short-coated dachshund or the saluki (among others).

Then there are the cold-warriors that have a triple coat, which consists of two identifiable insulating undercoats as well as a topcoat of thick guard hairs. These dogs are often genetically closer to landrace dogs that evolved to withstand extreme near-polar weather, and include breeds like the Alaskan Malamute, Siberian husky, chow-chow, Samoyed and Pomeranian (all spitz-type dogs).

Then there are those genetically mutated dogs with no coat at all – like the Mexican hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintli), American hairless terrier and Peruvian hairless dog (Peruvian Inca Orchid) – or just little tufts of fur, like the Chinese crested. Hairless breeds also have their special place in the dog world, but extra care needs to be taken to feed, clean and protect their skin.

What is the purpose of a dog’s skin?

A dog’s skin has a range of functions:

  • Protective barrier: Protection from the elements as well as from external injury.
  • Immunity: Related to protection, the skin is the first barrier to infection and is part of the immune system that detects invasive bacteria, fungi and viruses.
  • Water retention: Dogs need to maintain their hydration levels. Aside from their drinking enough fresh water, the skin helps them to not suffer from water loss. Dry, flaky, unhealthy skin is prone to water loss, which can result in a range of other health problems.
  • Internal communication: Nerves in the skin tell your dog whether he’s hot, cold, in contact with an object or experiencing pain.
  • Source of nutrients: A dog’s skin serves as the temporary storage site of certain proteins, vitamins and minerals. When – for example – vitamin D precursors in the skin are exposed to sunlight, they convert to usable vitamin D in the body. Antioxidants like vitamins A and E are stored in the skin and used to maintain cells and protect the skin itself. Omegas-3 and 6 are also stored in the skin and work as anti-inflammatories when necessary for a dog’s wellbeing.

What is the purpose of a dog’s coat?

  • Protection: Whether wire-coated dogs being protected from thorns in the underbrush, to thick-coated dogs being protected from predator bites, a dog’s coat offers protection from injury, UV rays, foul weather, and harmful substances.
  • Thermoregulation: A dog’s coat has the special quality of helping to balance a dog’s body temperature. Whether insulation from the cold or protection against heat, thermoregulation is one very good reason to never shave a double- or triple-coated dog. They manage their body temperature in the summer and release body heat by panting and finding a cool, shady spot in which to lie down.
  • External communication: Your dog’s coat can tell other animals to come closer or back off. His raised hackles (called piloerection) are very good way to communicate emotional arousal (not necessarily aggression). This sympathetic nervous response is caused when the hair follicles contract and the hair stands on end.
  • Aesthetic distinction: In the world of dog showing, dogs’ coats are one of the standards upon which conformation is judged. While there is no biological reason for this purpose for a dog’s coat, it is one of the motivations for breeding dogs and a determining factor in selective breeding development.

How to keep a dog’s skin and coat healthy

Now that we’ve covered the form and function of the canine skin and coat, it’s important to note that there are many things dog owners can do to keep our dogs’ skin and fur healthy.

Keep your dog’s skin and coat healthy with good nutrition

What food is good for dogs’ skin and coat? Since dogs’ skin structure is mostly made up of proteins (collagen and keratin) and fatty acids, it’s crucial to feed your dog with a scientifically formulated dog food that contains high-quality proteins and the right balance of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. A blend of high-quality ingredients – including carbohydrates and fibre – should help to keep your dog’s skin nourished, supple and able to function properly. Your dog’s nutrition should also contain the optimal blend of vitamins and minerals, which support skin and coat health as well as the health of all his other bodily systems. If his entire body is optimally fed, his skin and coat will be healthy too.

Support your dog’s skin and coat health with supplements

Some dogs need additional skin-nourishing supplements, which contain a concentrated formula of EPA and DHA (omega-3s), zinc, linoleic acid (omega-6) and B vitamins. These all help to keep the skin moisturised and the coat looking shiny and healthy.

Groom your dog’s coat and moisturise his skin

Grooming is an essential part of good dog ownership. Even if your dog is not a dumpster diver, doesn’t roll in objectionable substances, and keeps far away from mud, it’s important to regularly brush his coat and keep and eye on his skin. How often should you wash your dog? Well, that depends on the dog. Some dogs have short coats and pretty oily skin and need regular baths; while other dogs have easy-care coats that could do well with a weekly brush and a bath about three times a year. Most dogs need a bath every one or two months, but check this with the vet. If you bath your dog too often, it could dry out their skin, which could become itchy, flaky and susceptible to infection.

Keep your dog’s parasite control regimen up to date

Whether you give your dog an internal tick and flea medication (such as chews or tablets) or whether you apply a spot-on treatment for ticks and fleas, make sure you apply the medication at the recommended intervals. External parasites can trigger pain and itching, which can set off a chain of scratching and infection. A healthy skin and coat are no place for pests!

If you’re concerned about your dog’s coat and skin, speak to the vet about a good skin and coat care regimen. If his skin is very oily or very dry, the treatment will vary, so only the veterinarian can advise you correctly on the ideal healthy skin solution for your dog.

Symptoms of illness in your dog’s skin and coat

Since your dog’s skin and coat are so closely connected to other organs and systems in the body, this is one of the first places where symptoms of imbalance will show up. Some of the skin and coat symptoms you might observe with an unhealthy dog include:

  • dandruff, flaky skin (associated with hormone imbalance or digestive upset)
  • extremely dry skin (associated with kidney disease)
  • itchiness and inflammation (associated with ticks and fleas, or food allergies)
  • hotspots (associated with anxiety or pain-relief behaviour)
  • excessive shedding (associated with high stress or allergies)
  • patchy fur (associated with mange, fungal infection, inflammation and chronic scratching)
  • formation of hard, dry calluses – hyperkeratosis (associated with chronic liver disease, or ageing)

Sometimes dogs simply have a genetic predisposition to dry, itchy skin and/or allergic reaction to food or environmental allergens. It’s important for your dog’s wellbeing that these symptoms be managed with diet, medicated shampoo, and/or removing him from allergy-triggering environments; even if it’s for the rest of his life.

When should you see a vet about your dog’s skin and coat?

Any skin and coat symptoms that appear on your dog should immediately be checked out by the veterinarian. Because the skin and coat are affected by so many of your dog’s organs and body systems, it can be difficult and time-consuming to diagnose the underlying cause of the symptoms.

Keep a record of when the symptoms started. Do they flare up during a particular season? (Could be due to environmental allergies.) Do they flare up after your dog eats? (Could be due to food allergies.) Have the symptoms been getting progressively worse? (Could be due to a chronic illness.) Maybe there’s a genetic component to a worsening skin condition. The vet can perform blood tests, intradermal testing or a skin-scrape to find the culprit in your dog’s skin and coat symptoms.

It's impossible for the vet to try to determine the cause of poor skin and coat condition without performing a physical examination and receiving information about his diet, lifestyle and behaviour, so make an appointment if you have any concerns about your dog’s health.

How can I improve my dog’s coat and skin? Once you’ve received a diagnosis and/or a recommendation, follow the vet’s advice to the letter. At-home compliance with veterinary advice is critical in ensuring your dog’s condition improves and his wellbeing is restored.

Conclusion

One of the first indicators of a healthy dog can be found in his smooth, hydrated skin and shiny coat. He just looks full of vitality and health. Keep him well-fed and regularly groomed, and if you notice any symptoms of dry, flaky, itchy skin, take your dog to the vet for a check-up, advice and treatment, where necessary.

The feline skin and coat

Your cat’s skin and coat make up a multi-functional super system. They are a barrier of protection, a convenient thermostat and water meter, as much as they are a barometer of your cat’s internal health. Your cat’s skin and coat also function as her largest sensory organ, as well as a very important communication tool.

In this article, we’ll explore the structure and function of the feline skin and coat. We’ll suggest ways to keep your cat’s skin and coat healthy, discuss the symptoms of an unhealthy skin and coat, issues that may arise and when to see the veterinarian as a result.

The structure of the skin and coat

When we refer to your cat’s skin, we’re talking about the entire organ that covers her body, making up around 20% (even up to 25%) of her body weight. Most areas of a cat’s skin are covered in fur, which can be thicker and longer in some areas and shorter and thinner in others – depending on the type of cat. Understanding the structure of the skin and coat will help owners to understand their function and make better decisions about their cats’ food, and skin and coat care. 

Structure of your cat’s skin

Your cat’s skin is made up of the epidermis (outer layer), dermis (middle layer), and subcutaneous layer or hypodermis.

  • The epidermis helps to protect the sensitive dermis, and to stop the skin from drying out or your cat losing water via her skin. It produces keratin (from keratinocyte cells) and includes nails and fur.
  • The dermis comprises your cat’s collagen layer and contains the hair follicles, skin oil (sebum), and sweat glands.
  • The hypodermis or subcutis (literally ‘under skin’) or subcutaneous layer consists of blood vessels, nerves, and a layer of fat. The blood vessels feed the skin with nutrients and oxygen, while the layer of fat has an insulating effect. The hypodermis connects the skin to your cat’s muscles. 

Structure of your cat’s coat

Your cat’s skin houses her fur coat, which is made up of tens of thousands of central and secondary hairs. Each compound follicle contains a central hair with a number of smaller, finer hairs growing from the same follicle. During shedding season, it’s usually the secondary hairs that are shed. As with dogs, the length and thickness of cat coats are determined by their DNA, and depend on their origins and breed.

Some cats have shorter, less dense coats – like the British shorthair cat, American and European shorthairs, the gorgeous Oriental shorthair and the velvety Burmese – while others have long, very thick coats; the Norwegian forest cat, Maine Coon and the Siberian cat all originated in icy cold environments, which account for their vast, protective coats. Some cats even have curly coats (Selkirk Rex, Cornish Rex, Devon Rex and LaPerm), while others have very little fur or no fur at all (think Sphynx cat, Donskoy, Peterbald or Elf cat). These hairless breeds are the result of a natural gene mutation, which was then isolated and selectively bred to produce this particular characteristic.

Cats have three types of fur that make up their coats:

  • guard hair – this is the outermost coat that defines the cat’s colour, while also protecting her from moisture and injury
  • awn hair – this is the ‘middle coat’ whose primary role is to insulate the cat from cold, heat and water, but it also lends some colour and texture to the cat’s outer coat
  • down hair – also known as ‘vellus’, the down undercoat is super soft and is the cat’s ‘thermal underwear’ that offers temperature control in both cold and hot climates.

Bald and curly-coated cats’ characteristic coats are usually only made up of undercoat. Some hairless cats are born with a downy coat that becomes patchy or completely falls out at maturity. These cats need very careful and meticulous grooming to protect their skin and keep them healthy.

What is the purpose of a cat’s skin?

A cat’s skin has a range of functions:

  • Protective barrier: Protection from the elements as well as from external injury.
  • Immunity: Related to protection, the skin is the first barrier to infection and is part of the immune system that detects invasive pathogens.
  • Water retention: Cats need to maintain their hydration levels. Aside from their drinking enough fresh water, the skin helps them to not suffer from water loss. Dry, flaky, unhealthy skin is prone to water loss, which can result in a range of other health problems.
  • Excretion and marking: Cats excrete skin oils (sebum), sweat, as well as hormones. These excreted substances are then rubbed onto physical objects – trees, furniture, corners, and cat owners – as a way for cats to mark their territory.
  • Internal communication: Highly sensitive nerves in the skin tell your cat whether she’s hot, cold, in contact with an object or experiencing pain. Her whiskers and certain hairs on her body are extra sensitive and send specialised sensory information to her brain.
  • Source of nutrients: A cat’s skin serves as the temporary storage site of certain proteins, vitamins and minerals. When – for example – vitamin D precursors in the skin are exposed to sunlight, they convert to usable vitamin D in the body. Antioxidants like vitamins A and E are stored in the skin and used to maintain cells and protect the skin itself. Omegas-3 and 6 are also stored in the skin and work as anti-inflammatories when necessary for a cat’s wellbeing. When the cat secretes sebum from its oil glands, it helps to lubricate, feed and protect her coat.

What is the purpose of a cat’s coat?

  • Protection: Whether long-haired with very thick guard and awn hairs, or curly-coated with only downy vellus, all cat fur offers some kind of protection from the external world. Hairless cats need a synthetic coat or ‘jumper’, especially in winter, and must be protected from exposure to UV rays to prevent sunburn and skin cancer.
  • Thermoregulation: A cat’s coat has the special quality of helping to balance her body temperature. Whether insulation from the cold or protection against heat, thermoregulation is one very good reason to never shave a cat. If your long-haired cat has trouble keeping up with her self-grooming (especially in winter), you need to brush her daily to get rid of excess fur. Cats manage their body temperature in the summer and release body heat by grooming, licking their paws (through which they sweat), panting and resting in the shade or indoors during the heat of the day.
  • External communication: Your cat’s coat can tell other animals to come closer or back off. When a cat is emotionally aroused (usually out of fear), she can raise her hackles (called piloerection) or stand her whole coat on end to make herself appear larger to scare off intruders. This sympathetic nervous response is caused when the hair follicles contract and the hair stands straight up.
  • Aesthetic distinction: In the world of cat showing, cats’ coats are one of the standards upon which conformation is judged. While there is no biological reason for this purpose for a cat’s coat, it is one of the motivations for breeding cats and a determining factor in selective breeding development.

How to keep a cat’s skin and coat healthy

Now that we’ve covered the form and function of the feline skin and coat, it’s important to note that there are many things cat owners can do to keep our cats’ skin and fur healthy.

Keep your cat’s skin and coat healthy with good nutrition

What food is good for cats’ skin and coat? Since cats’ skin structure is mostly made up of proteins (collagen and keratin) and fatty acids, it’s crucial to feed your cat with a scientifically formulated cat food that contains high-quality proteins and the right balance of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. A blend of high-quality ingredients – including a small amount carbohydrates and enough fibre – should help to keep your cat’s skin nourished, supple and able to function properly. Your cat’s nutrition should also contain the optimal blend of vitamins and minerals, which support skin and coat health as well as the health of all her other bodily systems. If her entire body is optimally fed, her skin and coat will be healthy too.

Support your cat’s skin and coat health with supplements

Some cats need additional skin-nourishing supplements, which contain a concentrated formula of EPA and DHA (omega-3s), zinc, linoleic acid (omega-6) and B vitamins. These all help to keep the skin moisturised and the coat looking shiny and healthy.

Support your cat’s grooming routine

Even though cats keep themselves meticulously clean (for the most part), it’s still important to keep an eye on your cat’s fur and do your part in grooming her to keep her skin and coat healthy. Her skin and coat will reveal a lot about her internal health: a dry, flaky, red skin and dull coat could be an indication that she’s not getting enough (high-quality) nutrients, has a digestive tract problem, or her kidneys and/or liver are having a hard time processing and eliminating nutritional waste products. Hormone issues like hypothyroidism, or stress, chronic illnesses like cancer, and internal and external parasites can disrupt your cat’s whole-body health, which then shows up as dry skin and dull fur.

Grooming herself is a physical task that requires flexibility and energy, so if your cat is overweight or has arthritis, she may not be as efficient with her grooming as she would like to be, and may end up with mats and tangles in her fur. Regular brushing and the occasional bath will help to keep your overweight or arthritic cat looking and feeling her best.

Also, during shedding season, especially long-haired cats may find it difficult to keep up with their grooming needs, and excessive grooming can lead to hairballs. Considering all of the above, it’s a good idea to groom your cat once or twice a week by brushing or combing her and getting rid of excess fur. Not only will this also help your cat to distribute skin oils through her fur, but a little bit of bonding goes a long way!

Keep your cat’s parasite control regimen up to date

Whether you give your cat a tablet for internal parasite control or whether you apply a spot-on treatment for ticks and fleas, make sure you apply the medication at the recommended intervals. External parasites can trigger allergies (like flea allergy dermatitis), pain and itching, which can set off a chain of scratching and infection. A healthy skin and coat are no place for pests!

If you’re concerned about your cat’s coat and skin, speak to the vet about a good skin and coat care regimen. If her skin is very oily or very dry, the treatment will vary, so only the veterinarian can advise you correctly on the ideal healthy skin solution for your cat.

Symptoms of illness in your cat’s skin and coat

Since your cat’s skin and coat are so closely connected to other organs and systems in the body, this is one of the first places where symptoms of imbalance will show up. Some of the skin and coat symptoms you might observe with an unhealthy cat include:

  • dandruff, flaky skin (associated with hormone imbalance or digestive upset)
  • extremely dry skin (associated with kidney disease)
  • itchiness and inflammation (associated with ticks and fleas, or food allergies)
  • hotspots (associated with anxiety or pain-relief behaviour)
  • excessive shedding (associated with high stress or allergies)
  • patchy fur (associated with mange, fungal infection, inflammation and chronic scratching)
  • formation of hard, dry calluses – hyperkeratosis (associated with chronic liver disease, or ageing)

Sometimes cats simply have a genetic predisposition to dry, itchy skin and/or allergic reaction to food or environmental allergens. It’s important for your cat’s wellbeing that these symptoms be managed with diet, medicated shampoo, and/or removing her from allergy-triggering environments; even if it’s for the rest of her life.

When should you see a vet about your cat’s skin and coat?

Any skin and coat symptoms that appear on your cat should immediately be checked out by the veterinarian. Because the skin and coat are affected by so many of your cat’s organs and body systems, it can be difficult and time-consuming to diagnose the underlying cause of the symptoms.

Keep a record of when the symptoms started. Do they flare up during a particular season? (Could be due to environmental allergies.) Do they flare up after your cat eats? (Could be due to food allergies.) Have the symptoms been getting progressively worse? (Could be due to a chronic illness.) Maybe there’s a genetic component to a worsening skin condition. The vet can perform blood tests, intradermal testing or a skin-scrape to find the culprit in your cat’s skin and coat symptoms.

It's impossible for the vet to try to determine the cause of poor skin and coat condition without performing a physical examination and receiving information about her diet, lifestyle and behaviour, so make an appointment if you have any concerns about your cat’s health.

How can I improve my cat’s coat and skin? Once you’ve received a diagnosis and/or a recommendation, follow the vet’s advice to the letter. At-home compliance with veterinary advice is critical in ensuring your cat’s condition improves and her wellbeing is restored.

Conclusion

One of the first indicators of a healthy cat can be found in her smooth, hydrated skin and shiny coat. She just looks full of vitality and health. Keep her well-fed and regularly groomed, and if you notice any symptoms of dry, flaky, itchy skin, take your cat to the vet for a check-up, advice and treatment, where necessary.

The feline digestive system

The feline digestive system is similar in form and function to the canine digestive system. However, there are some differences in their diet that account for variances in how they absorb and use energy, and how long their digestive process takes.

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that in order to survive, they need a diet that is primarily made up of meat. They can eat carbs and fats, but their health will deteriorate if they don’t get enough animal proteins to maintain their energy, lean muscle, tendons and ligaments, fur, skin, nails, hormonal balance and many other body organs and systems. Despite around 10,000 years of domestication, there is little that has changed in their protein-dominant diet. Therefore, their digestive system is primed to ingest, digest, absorb and eliminate based on a meat-based diet.

Cats’ stomach pH is highly acidic – almost twice as acidic as humans’ stomachs – to help break down proteins faster and neutralise bacteria in the meat they consume. Dogs’ stomachs are slightly less acidic due to their omnivorous diet, but still more acidic than humans’.  

Let’s take a quick look at your cat’s digestive system: the organs it’s made up of, how it works, how you can help your cat’s digestive system to remain healthy, the issues that could arise, and when to see the vet about any cat digestive ailments.

Organs of the feline digestive system

Your cat’s digestive system starts at her mouth and ends under her tail. The components and organs of the feline digestive system include:

  • mouth
  • oesophagus
  • stomach
  • liver (and gall bladder)
  • pancreas
  • small intestine
  • large intestine (colon)
  • rectum
  • anus

There are many complex organs involved in what we presume to be the simple process of eating and eliminating.

How does a cat’s digestive system work?

The aroma or anticipation of eating triggers the production of saliva in the cat’s mouth, which helps to moisturise her oral membranes and to lubricate the passage of food through the oesophagus and into the stomach.

When a cat has chewed up a mouthful of food, the contents she swallows are called a bolus. The bolus travels along the oesophagus and into the cat’s stomach. The muscles of the oesophagus contract involuntarily in a one-directional wave – a process called peristalsis – that carries the bolus through the digestive system.

When the bolus reaches the stomach, the digestive process begins, thanks to the presence of highly acidic gastric juices and digestive enzymes. The bolus is partially processed by the highly acidic gastric juices of the stomach as well as secreted digestive enzymes – this process can take a few hours – and the resulting chyme is gradually released into the small intestine. Chyme is more liquid than the bolus, and facilitates the further breaking down of nutrients, preparing them for absorption in the intestines. 

In order to help the process of fat absorption, the liver and gall bladder secrete bile into the first part of the small intestine (called the duodenum), which reduces the acidity of the chyme and aids the absorption of fat. The pancreas produces insulin to stabilise blood sugar and support the metabolism. It also secretes bicarbonate to alkalinise the digestible substances, and digestive enzymes to aid digestion.

In the next segment of the small intestine (the jejunum) the lining of this organ is covered in villi and microvilli – tiny ‘fingers’ that secrete digestive enzymes, absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, and prevent the absorption of waste materials. This is where amino acids (proteins) are absorbed into the bloodstream so they can be processed in the liver and used for physical energy and tissue and muscle maintenance in the cat’s body.

Peristalsis continues to push unabsorbed material through the last part of the small intestine – the ileum – that connects to the large intestine (colon). It is here that the last bit of moisture is extracted from the undigested material, which now accumulates and firms up as faecal matter. The colon moves this faecal matter into the rectum, out of the anus and in your cat’s litterbox. 

How long does it take for food to pass through a cat?

From top to tail, ingestion, digestion and elimination in a cat can take from 10 to 24 hours. Various factors will affect this timeline, such as the age of the cat, as well as its size, activity levels and overall health. The quality of the food is also important.

How do you take care of your cat’s digestive system?

Feed your cat high-quality, protein-rich food

As long as your cat is eating high-quality cat food that is rich in protein and moisture, she should be relatively healthy. Is kibble or wet food better for cats? It’s not a question of either/or, but rather the correct ratios of both. While kibble provides nutrient-dense feed and wet food provides additional beneficial moisture, it’s a combination of both wet and dry food together that will meet your cat’s need for a healthy diet. The important part is to ensure your cat is getting a balanced diet and that her caloric intake is meeting her nutritional needs. All cats need the highest quality food you can afford, to meet their energy needs and to support a healthy digestive system.

Make sure your cat is hydrated

Wet food is more easily digestible, especially since cats get more hydration from wet food, and it makes it easier for them to use the litterbox more regularly. That being said, dry kibble is also good for your cat – just make sure she drinks enough water, and always ensure she has access to fresh, clean water. Some cats may seem like they don’t want to drink water or are not thirsty, but what they really mean is they don’t like stagnant water. In these instances, you may find your cat enjoys drinking from a running tap, a bespoke kitty drinking fountain, or even your indoor fish pond. Cats that don’t drink enough water are at risk of urolithiasis – or bladder stones.

Feed your cat a prebiotic

Prebiotics and fibre) are a good supplement to add to your cat’s food. It boosts the growth of good bacteria in the gut, which helps to balance the digestive processes. If your cat suffers from hairballs and other digestive upset, a prebiotic supplement can support better motility in the digestive tract to help move those problems along. 

Exercise your cat daily

As with humans, an integral part of good digestion in cats is physical activity. This stimulates the digestive system to improve its motility (moving food along the small and large intestines) and to actively extract nutrients from food in order to use the caloric energy. A sluggish, sedentary lifestyle is not good for cats’ digestive health at all – so whip out a wand toy, bouncy balls or even a laser light to get your cat moving! Make sure you encourage your cat to play a few times a day and have fresh water available to keep her hydrated.

Do cats have digestive problems?

Your cat’s digestive process is the foundation of her health and wellbeing, but it’s also the system most susceptible to problems. Whether it’s a genetic issue, something caused by stress, indiscriminate eating (especially when hunting outdoors), allergies, poisons or food sensitivity (among other causes), many digestive problems have similar symptoms.

How do you know if your cat has a digestive problem?

There will always be some obvious signs and symptoms when your cat’s digestive system is under attack – the two most obvious being vomiting and diarrhoea. A distended belly and/or constipation, fever, reduced appetite, abdominal pain and/or a change in behaviour can also indicate digestive distress.

Common digestive issues in cats

The many various organs in the feline digestive system present many different areas in the body where issues can arise. Here, we focus on the more common digestive issues that cats may experience:

  • Hairballs – Since cats spend a large portion of their day grooming, it’s safe to assume they are going to swallow some of their groomed fur. Usually this fur can pass safely through their digestive system, but sometimes too much fur collects in the stomach and is vomited up. For cats that regularly experience hairballs, there is prescription cat food for hairballs that helps them to ingest and safely pass their excess fur. Regularly grooming your cat can also help the excess fur to not collect in your cat’s digestive tract.
  • Indiscriminate eating – Some cats will eat dodgy food from the garbage, a dead bird or rodent in the garden, or consume table scraps. These items may cause your cat to have an upset stomach – from mild to severe – so keep an eye on what your cat is consuming. Also make sure your cat has regular meal times so she doesn’t need to scavenge.
  • Stress – Most cats may seem indifferent to the life stressors around them, but when cats do suffer from stress, it can affect their appetite as well as their digestion. Stressors may include changes in the household, a new pet, your sudden absence, or loud experiences like thunder and fireworks. To help your cat with preventable stress, consider using a pheromone product a few weeks before a stressful event (such as moving house or adopting a new pet). Speak to the veterinarian if you suspect your cat may be suffering from stress, as she may be at risk of more serious conditions such as dehydration and weight loss.
  • Inflammation in the digestive tract – From gastritis (stomach) to enteritis (intestines) and pancreatitis (pancreas), cats may experience infection and inflammation anywhere in their digestive tract. Veterinarians don’t always know what causes this inflammation, but often food allergies and sensitivities are to blame. Medication, long-term dietary changes and supplements can help to restore balance and prevent future flare-ups.
  • Internal parasites – Grooming, exploring (and subsequent contact with faeces), hunting – these are all cat activities that can introduce parasites, viruses and bacteria to a cat’s digestive system. Internal parasites like roundworm, tapeworms, hookworm and whipworm can all be prevented by regularly deworming your cat and limiting her roaming. An overgrowth of intestinal parasites can have a negative effect on your cat’s digestive health, so it’s important to keep an eye on your cat’s whereabouts and ensuring she has regular vet check-ups.

There are many different causes of digestive upset in cats. If you are concerned about your cat’s vomiting, diarrhoea, lack of appetite, lethargy or any uncharacteristic behaviour, rather make an appointment with the vet to get her checked out.

When should you see a vet about a cat’s digestive system?

A single bout of vomiting or diarrhoea is relatively normal in most cats, and is a normal physical reaction to a toxin or substance your cat is sensitive to. But if your cat continues to vomit and show signs of digestive distress, treat it as a veterinary emergency. Cats can quickly become dehydrated from continuous episodes of watery diarrhoea, and if you see any blood in their stool, this could be a sign of a much more serious condition.

Similarly, chronic constipation can also have a number of simple or serious causes (such as inactivity in obese cats, or dehydration from kidney disease). If you notice that your cat is struggling to pass stool, rather take her to the vet before it becomes a medical emergency.

If your cat simply appears to not be acting like her usual self and her eating and elimination seem to be affected, make an appointment with the vet… just in case.

Conclusion

This brief overview of the feline digestive system, its form and functioning, shows just how important it is to look after your cat’s eating and elimination habits. As part of a carefully calibrated collection of systems that make up Your Cat, the digestive system has a direct influence on the optimal functioning of those other systems too. We will cover those in future articles, so check back regularly to learn more about your cat’s body and how it works.

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The canine digestive system

Dogs require not only high-quality food, but – equally importantly – healthy digestion in order to absorb the maximum amount of goodness from their nutrition. Let’s take a closer look at your dog’s digestive system: the organs it’s made up of, how it works, how you can help your dog’s digestive system to remain healthy, the issues that could arise, and when to see the vet about your dog’s digestive system.

Organs of the canine digestive system

Your dog’s digestive system starts at his mouth and ends… under his tail. The components of a dog’s digestive system include:

  • mouth
  • oesophagus
  • stomach
  • liver (and gall bladder)
  • pancreas
  • small intestine
  • large intestine (colon)
  • rectum
  • anus

This shows just how many organs are involved in what we assume to be the simple process of eating and eliminating.

How does a dog’s digestive system work?

The aroma or anticipation of eating triggers the production of saliva in the dog’s mouth. Human saliva contains an enzyme (amylase) that starts the digestions process of starches, but dog saliva’s only function in the digestive process is to keep the mouth membranes moist and to lubricate the passage of food through the oesophagus and into the stomach.

When a dog has chewed up a mouthful of food, the contents he swallows are called a bolus. The bolus travels to the dog’s stomach along the oesophagus. The muscles of the oesophagus contract involuntarily in a one-directional wave – a process called peristalsis – that carries the bolus through the digestive system.

When the bolus reaches the stomach, the digestive process begins, thanks to the presence of highly acidic gastric juices and digestive enzymes. The stomach can hold a large amount of food, which is the evolutionary result of dogs not feeding regularly and the stomach being used to store food until they need to use the energy. Interestingly, swallowed food stays in the human stomach for far less time than in a dog’s stomach, but overall, our digestive process takes longer. Food passes through the human stomach in about 30 minutes; while it takes about six hours in a dog’s stomach (or less or more, depending on their size and digestive health). 

After the bolus has been subjected to processing in the stomach, it’s turned into a mushy substance called chyme, which enters the small intestine. Chyme is more liquid in consistency than the bolus, making it easier to break down and digest in the intestines.  

The small intestine is responsible for further breaking down and digesting food, but it’s also where nutrient absorption takes place. In order to help the process of fat absorption, the liver and gall bladder secrete bile into the first part of the small intestine (called the duodenum), which reduces the acidity of the chyme and aids the absorption of fat. What helps a dog digest food? The pancreas produces insulin to stabilise blood sugar and support the metabolism. It also secretes bicarbonate to alkalinise the digestible substances, and digestive enzymes to aid digestion.

In the next segment of the small intestine (the jejunum) the lining of this organ is covered in villi and microvilli – tiny ‘fingers’ that secrete digestive enzymes, absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, and prevent the absorption of waste materials. This is where amino acids (proteins) are absorbed into the bloodstream so they can be processed in the liver and used to support physical activity and maintain lean muscle in the dog’s body.

Peristalsis continues to push unabsorbed material through the last part of the small intestine – the ileum – that connects to the large intestine (colon). It is here that the last bit of moisture is extracted from the undigested material, which now accumulates and firms up as faecal matter. The colon moves this faecal matter into the rectum, out of the anus and onto your lawn. 

How long does it take for food to go through a dog's digestive tract?

Depending on the size and age of the dog, your dog’s food journey from mouth to rectum can take from eight hours (for small dogs) to 12 hours (for large dogs). This time directly correlates with the length of your dog’s digestive tract as well as their energy needs.

Puppies grow extremely fast, which requires a lot of energy. This fast absorption of nutrients means they need regular feeding to keep up with the energy demands of their rapid growth. Older dogs have a slower metabolism than younger dogs, which means their digestive process takes longer, especially since they don’t have as much of an energy need as younger or more active dogs.

How do you take care of your dog’s digestive system?

Feed your dog good food

All dogs’ digestive needs will be different, but the one rule of thumb for every dog is that they need high-quality food. In the early days of dog domestication, commercial dog foods didn’t exist, which meant that dogs were fed table scraps, waste foods, and sometimes – if they were lucky – the same foods that humans ate. Their digestive systems have adapted to ingest and digest whatever is available, but that doesn’t mean they automatically thrived from it. All dogs need the highest quality food you can afford, to meet their energy needs and to support a healthy digestive system.

Provide a probiotic

Many dogs also suffer from digestive upset and sensitive tummies, so their diets have to be adapted to ensure maximum nutrient absorption in spite of the problems. These dogs can benefit from a probiotic to help stabilise their gut bacteria. Similarly, some dogs will need digestive enzymes added to their food to help in the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, but these should not be over-used. Always confirm with the vet whether digestive enzymes could help or hurt your dog’s digestion. If necessary, the vet will recommend a prescription diet to help your dog with digestive issues.

Get daily exercise

As with humans, an integral part of good digestion is physical activity. This stimulates the digestive system to improve its motility (moving food along the small and large intestines) and to actively extract nutrients from food in order to use the caloric energy. A sluggish, sedentary lifestyle is not good for dogs’ digestive health at all – both humans and our canine friends can benefit from vigorous daily exercise and/or long walks!

What issues can arise with a dog’s digestive system?

Since digestion is such an integral part of a dog’s wellbeing, there are quite a number of problems that can occur in the digestive system, which are caused by genetics, allergies, poisons, stress, or simply bad food. Many of the symptoms of digestive upset are similar, since the body uses these processes to get rid of the toxin or allergen and to regain equilibrium, so it’s important to be aware of your dog’s habits, behaviours and what’s going on in their environment.

How do you know if your dog has a digestive problem?

There will always be some obvious telltale signs when your dog’s digestive system is being challenged – the two most obvious being vomiting and diarrhoea. A distended belly and/or abnormal noises in the gut (called borborygmi) can also indicate digestive distress. The less obvious signs include pain and inflammation, which may cause a lack of appetite or disinterest in food.

Common digestive issues in dogs

Since there are so many organs involved in a dog’s digestive system, there are many sites in the body in which issues can arise. Here, we look at a few of the more common digestive issues in dogs:

  • Obstruction – Dogs swallowing bones, a piece of food that is too large, or an inedible object can result in obstruction in the throat or oesophagus. They may retch or vomit to dislodge the obstruction. This is their body’s way of restoring equilibrium. Where an obstruction becomes stuck or embedded in the oesophagus or gut, surgery may be necessary for successful removal.
  • Mega-oesophagus – This is one of a number of structural issues that can occur with a dog’s oesophagus, making it difficult to eat and/or keep food down long enough for it to pass through the stomach.
  • Gastritis – Irritation or inflammation of the stomach can be caused by any number of things, but it disrupts the stomach’s ability to function normally. From bacteria and fungi, to toxins, viruses and even trauma, stomach inflammation can cause pain, vomiting, and changes in appetite.
  • Pancreatitis – While the underlying cause of pancreatitis can be many different things, an acute bout of it can be triggered by fatty food or some medications. Vomiting and diarrhoea are common symptoms of pancreatitis.  
  • Enteritis – Irritation or inflammation of the intestines caused by trauma, parasites, toxins or poor diet can cause vomiting and/or diarrhoea or other stool changes.
  • Constipation – Poor diet, not enough fibre, not enough water, or a problem with your dog’s motility could cause him to strain (painfully) and not produce any stool.
  • Diarrhoea – There are many, many causes of diarrhoea in dogs. See below about when to see the vet about your dog’s diarrhoea.

When should you see a vet about a dog’s digestive system?

A single bout of vomiting is relatively normal in most dogs, and is the primary way for a dog to get rid of a recently-ingested toxin. But if your dog vomits more than three times in a 24-hour period, or produces a yellow-greenish vomitus (which indicates the presence of bile), then it’s time to hurry to the vet, as this could be the symptom of a more serious problem.

Your dog may experience gastroenteritis at some point in their life, but gastro in puppies can quickly become dangerous to life-threatening. It’s best to treat digestive upset in puppies as a very good reason to visit the veterinarian.

Similarly, a bout or two of diarrhoea are nothing to worry about, but continuous episodes of watery stool can result in too much excreted water and the onset of dehydration, which is dangerous. If it doesn’t clear up after a day or two, take your dog to the vet. If you see blood in your dog’s stool, this indicates a more serious problem such as an ulcer, colitis, haemorrhagic gastroenteritis, pancreatitis or other intestinal damage or disorder. Never ignore excreted blood. Take your dog to the vet immediately!

Gastric dilatation-volvulus, bloat or torsion in dogs is a life-threatening medical emergency. It’s caused when the stomach (containing air) twists and blood supply to the surrounding organs is cut off. The dog can quickly go into shock and the condition may be fatal.

Chronic constipation can also have a number of simple or serious causes. If you see your dog struggling to pass his stool, it warrants a visit to the veterinarian to get him checked out.

Conclusion

This brief overview of the canine digestive system, its form and functioning, shows just how important it is to look after your dog’s eating and elimination habits. As part of a carefully calibrated collection of systems that make up Your Dog, the digestive system has a direct influence on the optimal functioning of those other systems too. We will cover those in future articles, so check back regularly to learn more about your dog’s body and how it works.

© 2024 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty) Ltd

 

Your pets and the holidays

Silly season has arrived, which means the end of the year is in sight. Some of you will be going away on holiday, some will have friends and family over to visit, while others may take time off work, stay in and get some much-needed ‘me-time’. Whatever your plans are for the holidays, they spell a change for your pet/s.

In this article, we offer a friendly reminder to be mindful of how the holidays may affect your pet’s emotional and physical wellbeing, and what you can do about it.

When pet parents go on holiday

Thankfully, there’s more and more pet-friendly accommodation available in South Africa, which means that your furry family can accompany you on holiday. While many pets prefer the comfort of the home and routine they’re used to, going on holiday with you is by far the preferred option to being boarded at kennels.

If your pets can’t go with you, ask a reliable friend or family member to pet-sit for you in your own home. Another option is to ask the vet to refer a reliable pet-sitter in your area and interview them well in advance of your travel plans. Introduce the pet-sitter to your pets and allow them to spend time together in your presence so your pets feel (quite literally) at home with them.

Tips for travelling with pets

  • Get a car seat (for small dogs) or a car seat hammock (for larger dogs) to keep them comfortable and safe during the car ride. Pets should not have free access to the entire vehicle – this can be very distracting to the driver, which makes it dangerous on the road.
  • Never drive with a dog on your lap – for the safety of you, your dog, and other road users.
  • A cat should travel in a carrier or crate to help them feel safe. Make sure they are comfortable in the crate long before they need to travel in it for the first time.
  • Make frequent stops to give your pet/s a pee break and let them stretch their legs. Always put them on a leash before you exit the vehicle.
  • If they take the opportunity for a poop break, pick up and dispose of their waste responsibly.
  • Keep a water bowl and fresh water in your vehicle to keep pets hydrated.
  • Feed your pets a yummy treat a few times throughout the trip to positively reinforce their experience, especially if they are calm and well-behaved.
  • Make sure your pets are microchipped and wearing a collar with an ID tag clearly showing your contact details. Make it as easy as possible for your pets to find their way back to you should they go missing in an unfamiliar environment.

Tips for your pet’s routine at your holiday destination

  • Pet-friendly accommodation comes with conditions – for instance, that pets are calm and well-trained, and don’t cause any damage to property. Your pet must be under your control at all times, especially on someone else’s property.
  • Take your pet’s bedding, grooming tools, food and water bowls, and any other necessities with you. This will give your pet a feeling of familiarity in an unfamiliar environment.
  • Try to keep your pet’s routine as consistent as possible. Keep their feeding times, playtimes and nap times consistent – this reinforces your pets’ confidence and reduces any fear or anxiety. Even if his environment is unfamiliar, just knowing he will be fed, walked and played with consistently is enough to keep him calm.
  • Make sure you take enough pet food and treats along with you to last the whole holiday. If you run out of food while away from home, it might be difficult to find the same food brand and variety in an emergency.
  • Make a note of the nearest veterinarian at your holiday destination and save their contact details and emergency/after-hours phone number in your phone. Just in case.

When pet parents have friends and family over

Most pets prefer the comfort of their own home and thrive on the consistency of a daily routine. If you’re going to enjoy the holidays at home and host friends and family, keep the following in mind for your pets:

  • There will be more people around, which can either be very exciting or very scary for your pet – depending on how well-socialised they are or whether they prefer a quieter environment.
  • Advocate for your pets – if they become distressed with too many people around, remove them to a quiet space while the humans are socialising.
  • Visiting adults and children should respect your pet’s space and need for proper handling. Do not tolerate teasing or indiscriminate feeding of your pet/s.
  • Let your guests know that some foods are poisonous for dogs and cats, and that to ensure your pets are safe, they must not offer table scraps or any other treats to your pets (to avoid this, teach your pets to not beg for food at the dinner table). The only one who should feed your pet anything is you.
  • Fireworks are dangerous to pets and people. Do not allow your guests to light fireworks on your property. Not only could they be contravening municipal bylaws, but they could injure and traumatise your pets.
  • Under normal circumstances, household cleaners, medications, alcohol and other toxic substances should be kept away from your pets. When guests are staying temporarily in your house, it increases the risk of your pets getting hold of something they shouldn’t. Make sure your guests understand these risks and keep their belongings safely stored away.
  • Ask your guests to be mindful of small objects like Christmas tree decorations, children’s toys, deflated balloons and other objects that may be dangerous should pets swallow them. It’s also a good idea to train your pets to leave non-food objects alone and to not eat anything unless it’s in their food bowl.
  • If fireworks shows are unavoidable on New Year’s Eve, ask the vet about which calming medications are best suited to your pet’s needs. Calming sprays, gels and collars containing pheromones can be given in the week or two leading up to a stressful event, to help keep pets calm on the evening of the fireworks.
  • If your guests want to bring their own pets to your property, it’s crucial that both parties’ animals are suitably socialised. Trying to keep pets separated on the same property for the duration of your guests’ stay could be unpleasant and stressful.

Tips regarding ‘holiday food’

The festive season is about rest and relaxation, but mostly it’s about enjoying festive food. Many Christmas foods are highly toxic to our pets, so while it’s a treat to have these on our table, they must be kept far away from pets at this time of year:

  • chocolate
  • alcohol
  • raisins/sultanas
  • garlic/onion
  • citrus fruits
  • xylitol
  • bones
  • avocado
  • macadamia nuts

When pet parents stay in for the holidays

If you’re staying at home and getting some high-quality downtime at the end of this year, your pets may be overjoyed at this prospect. They may take full advantage of you spending more time at home and obviously you’ll enjoy all the benefits of being around them more during the holiday (lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels, slower heartrate and deeper breathing, muscle relaxation, etc. – all documented effects of petting your furry friend for just 10 minutes).

Having more time available for your pets means more playtime and opportunities for training; but their companionship in general offers huge benefits and can make your holiday at home absolutely worth it. Keep in mind, however, that any new routines that get established while you’re spending more time at home will need to be maintained in the new year. What happens to your pet’s wellbeing and expectations when you return to work? Most pets are highly adaptive, but they thrive on a consistent routine, so be mindful of any changes implemented during the holidays and how they may affect your pets in the long run.

Tips for keeping pets safe during fireworks

Many pets become extremely frightened and traumatised during fireworks displays and thunderstorms. Some pets will go to extremes to escape this experience – jumping through windows, escaping their yards, getting stuck in fences, running into traffic, etc. There are a number of ways to try to keep your pets calm during fireworks and thunderstorms:

  • ‘ThunderShirts’ or anti-anxiety wraps
  • calming pheromones (which need to be administered in the lead-up to an event to reduce anxiety)
  • prescription medications
  • desensitisation training
  • distracting your pet with music and/or playtime and treats before, during and after a stressful event

Each pet will respond differently to noise and lights stressors, and therefore will respond differently to the above calming methods. If you are concerned about your pet’s safety during fireworks displays and thunderstorms, speak to the vet about the most appropriate solution for your pet’s wellbeing.

© 2023 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty) Ltd

Managing your pets’ anxiety

The holiday season is fast approaching and while for many people that means spending more time at home with your furry friends, it also means that your and your pets’ routine is about to change. Perhaps extended family are coming to visit (or you and your pets are going away to visit them). If so, more people (potentially strangers) will be in your pets’ space; there will be more noise and longer days of visiting. Your pets are even sensitive enough to detect any changes in family dynamics – especially around holiday time!

All of this, as well as the danger of the loud noises and bright lights of fireworks and thunderstorms, mean that your pets may get anxious. Mild anxiety may be easily overcome with reassurance from you, but for many pets, anxiety can feel like the end of their world. Here’s what you can do when pets are suffering from anxiety.

What are the signs your pets are anxious?

Dogs are quick to explicitly show how they are feeling. If you have an anxious dog, you will immediately notice some or all of the signs:

  • panting
  • yawning
  • trembling
  • drooling
  • whale eyes with their ears pressed back
  • irritability
  • snappiness or even aggression
  • urination or defecation in the house
  • tucked tail

Different dogs will display different types of anxious behaviour. It’s important to notice whether your dog’s behaviour is out of the ordinary during an anxious episode. Is your normally indifferent dog now very needy and unable to leave you alone? Maybe they are hypervigilant and sensitive to even the smallest changes or movement in the room. You’ll notice when your pup is acting out of sorts.

Cats may show similar signs of anxiety and will display behaviours such as:

  • hiding
  • excessive grooming
  • vocalising (mewling or growling)
  • trembling
  • drooling
  • dilated pupils/hypervigilance
  • excessive licking of the nose
  • rapid breathing
  • pica (eating things that are not food)
  • diarrhoea/vomiting

What causes pets to become anxious?

When your pet has a consistent routine and a predictable environment, they are calm and confident because they know what to expect. When new variables are introduced to their comfortable routine, they may become anxious because suddenly they don’t know what to expect. Things feel unpredictable and scary, which can be perceived as physically threatening.

If your quiet home is filled with new people during holiday time, your cat may feel like she’s lost control of her environment, or your dog may feel unsure of how to behave, who needs protecting, and how to deal with new people. Pets may feel overwhelmed by new stimuli, especially if they are approached by pet-friendly strangers who want to pet and engage with them. Sometimes even the most socialised pets will become anxious by this.

Loud noises – whether from fireworks, Christmas crackers, or jovial socialising – can be very scary to your extra sound-sensitive pet. Pets can be photosensitive too, which, coupled with loud noises, can be particularly fear-inducing for your dog or cat.

How do you calm a fearful dog?

From as early on as possible, puppies need to be socialised with as many different people and animals as possible in a range of different environments. Ultimately, this will help them to build confidence and not be so fearful of new situations, people and other pets. That being said, even the most well-socialised animals can still experience anxiety in unpredictable situations. The following solutions can help to decrease their anxiety levels:

Take them out of the stressful environment

If you’re having a dinner party, remove your dog to another room, away from the noise and lights, and give him a chew toy or a comforting plushie. If he’s trained, give him the ‘place’ command and reward him with some treats for going to his bed.

Do a quick training routine

With a handful of treats, give your dog the ‘sit’ command and reward him. ‘Down’, ‘stay’ and other behavioural commands with rewards for obedience can completely change your dog’s demeanour and bring him out of his anxious state.

Don’t reward the stress

It’s important to give your dog a job to do (‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘paw’) before giving him treats as a comfort for his anxiety. By giving him treats or a toy without a command, it could be seen as rewarding the anxiety, which can become problematic in the long run.

Exercise and play

If you’re anticipating your pup getting anxious around the guests and noise, spend some time exercising and playing with him earlier in the day. Pent-up energy can worsen the effects of anxiety, so tire him out first. The serotonin from the enjoyment of playtime can help your dog to relax. If your dog is nervous and withdrawn while your guests are around, spend time playing with him afterwards to get rid of his anxious energy. 

Pheromones in the environment

Calming collars, diffusers, sprays, gels and tablets can help to regulate your dog’s anxiety with the distribution of pheromones. If you’re anticipating a large dinner party, family members coming to stay, or a fireworks display, start giving your dog pheromone therapy for a week or two in advance. This can help to keep him calm when these holiday events arise.

Calming music  

Dogs respond well to calming music – classical music works exceptionally well and can be used to calm a dog down ahead of time or during an anxiety-inducing event.

Desensitisation

If you’re anticipating a thunderstorm or fireworks and you know your dog is going to be terrified, try a desensitisation strategy a few weeks in advance. Play the sounds of a thunderstorm – quietly at first and gradually increase the volume over time (hours or days) as your dog does not display signs of anxiety. If he becomes aware of the sounds, reward him with a treat or playtime – this will help to change his response to the noise. Done thoughtfully and consistently, desensitisation can offer your dog relief from the anxiety associated with loud noises.

Veterinary assistance

If your dog is extremely anxious and shuts down completely or is uncontrollably stressed, arrange a visit with the vet to address the problem. Make a note of all the strategies you’ve adopted that have not been effective. The vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication and suggest behaviour therapy and counter-conditioning with a behavioural specialist.

How can you help your cat with anxiety?

Cats can do equally well with socialisation and exposure to different people and animals. However, cats – more so than dogs – are either sociable or more independent and will choose when they prefer the company of others (or not). If your cat is anxious when there are lots of people around and especially lots of noise, try some or all of the following to relieve her anxiety:

Take her to a safe space

If you often find your cat hiding in the linen cupboard or behind the couch when you have company over, it should give you an indication that she needs a safe space away from the crowds and the noise. Provide a comfy cat ‘cave’ if your cat likes to hide; or a tall cat tree or window perch if she likes to be away from the party, but to still observe her surrounds.

Exercise and play

Engage your cat’s hunting instincts with a feather toy, laser pointer, wind-up mouse or catnip toy. This will encourage engagement with reward-based behaviours, which help to reduce her anxiety.

Keep the litterbox clean

Some cats’ anxiety is elevated by a soiled litterbox. Double up on the frequency of scooping the litterbox or even put out another litterbox just in case.

Pheromone therapy

As with dogs, cats may respond well to the relaxing effect of pheromone diffusers, sprays, food additives and tablets.

Natural remedies

From catnip to CBD oil and valerian herbal remedies – there are a range of natural remedies that can help to calm down anxious cats. Speak to the vet about which remedy could be most effective for your cat. Be very careful of essential oil diffusers, as these may release fumes that are toxic to pets.

Calming music  

Like dogs, cats also have super-sensitive hearing, and respond positively to soft, calming music. When playing music to counter the effects of thunderstorms or fireworks, also close the curtains and make sure your cat’s environment is safe and muted.

Veterinary assistance

If your cat does not seem to be responding positively to your anti-anxiety efforts, schedule a visit to the veterinarian to discuss possible solutions. The vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication, but a long-term strategy will need to be devised to reduce your cat’s anxiety in a healthy way, and increase your cat’s quality of life in the long run.

© 2023 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty) Ltd

Mange in cats

What is mange?

Mange is a skin condition that develops when there is an infestation of parasitic mites or an overpopulation of mites on or in a cat’s skin. The presence of these mites, some of which burrow into your cat’s skin, causes itching, redness, and other uncomfortable symptoms. As with dog mange, cats can suffer from different types of mange based on the types of mites present on their skin. In this article we explore the different types of mange that cats can get, how the different types of mange are diagnosed and what can be done to treat the mange. 

Types of mange

Cats can experience a number of different types of mange, caused by different types of skin mites. These include:

  • Sarcoptic mange (canine scabies)
  • Notedric mange (feline scabies)
  • Demodectic mange (demodex or red mange)
  • Otodectic mange (ear mange)
  • Cheyletiellosis (walking dandruff)
  • Trombiculosis (chiggers)

What causes mange in cats?

The different types of cat mange are caused by tiny mites that infest the skin surface or burrow into the skin. These mites usually come from the outdoors and contact with other animals, or cats pick up the mites from the environments where other carrier animals have been. Mange is not as common in cats as it is in dogs, but its effects on cats’ health is just as serious. Here, briefly, are the causes of the various types of cat mange:

Sarcoptic mange 

Sarcoptic mange is caused by an infestation of the scabies mite (Sarcoptes scabiei) that is typically found in canine scabies. The mite has a flat round body and is known for burrowing into the skin to lay its eggs. It’s this burrowing that causes an intense and insatiable itch; and the combination of burrowing and the cat’s persistent scratching causes inflammation, redness, hair loss and other skin symptoms. Cats usually contract canine scabies from infected dogs, which is why all animals in the home should be checked and treated for scabies even when only one animal is showing symptoms. 

Notoedric mange 

Notoedric mange is caused by an infestation of another type of scabies mite, Notoedres cati. This is also a burrowing mite and, while rarer than sarcoptic mange, notoedric mange is highly contagious among cat populations when it does occur. It is also contagious to humans, but – as with sarcoptic mange – the mites cannot burrow into human skin to complete their lifecycle, and only cause intense itching and redness for a few days. When humans are no longer around cats with notoedric mange, their own symptoms subside.

Demodectic mange

Similar to demodex in dogs, feline demodicosis is caused when the cat’s immune system is compromised by another illness or malnutrition, and is not strong enough to control natural populations of demodectic mites – Demodex cati and Demodex gatoi. These mites are a natural part of the cat’s skin microbiome, but without proper immune control, mite populations can become excessive and cause skin issues. Signs of demodex include hair loss on the legs, paws and around the eyes, which is accompanied by a severe itch.  

Otodectic mange

Otodectic mange occurs in and around the cat’s ears and is characterised by itching and redness in their ear canal. These mites – Otodectes cynotis – can be found on the rest of the cat’s body, but primarily affect the ears, and can put the cat at risk of damage to their eardrums, especially when they scratch persistently. A telltale sign of ear mites is a lot of ear scratching and head shaking. 

Cheyletiellosis

Unlike demodex and the scabies mites, ‘walking dandruff’ – as Cheyletiella mites are known – are visible on the cat’s fur and skin, and appear as small white flecks in motion. They live off of skin oils, dander and other skin matter; feeding and breeding on the skin’s surface. Walking dandruff is very contagious to other animals as well as people, creating a skin rash that lasts a few weeks. 

Trombiculosis

Cats are also susceptible to Trombiculidae mites – more commonly known as ‘chiggers’ during their larval stage. These tiny red-orange mites cause a nasty bite through which they feed on blood before dropping off their feline host when they’re satiated. They leave red bumps, crusty skin, and severe itching even long after they’ve departed. Chiggers are also contagious to humans and are responsible for bites commonly seen around the waist and ankles.

What are the symptoms of mange? 

If you’re curious as to how you would know if your cat has mange, the signs and symptoms for the different types of mange are relatively similar. Despite a specific skin mite being responsible for each type of mange, their presence on your cat’s skin will trigger the same kind of response:

  • severe itch – whether due to the mite burrowing into the skin, or the cat’s immune system producing an allergic response to the mite
  • scratching the head and ears
  • debris in the ear canal and on the skin
  • redness and inflammation
  • bumps and pustules
  • hair loss
  • thickened skin, where scratching and hair loss takes place
  • restlessness (a result of the itching)
  • excessive grooming

How is mange diagnosed?

Just because a cat is very itchy, scratches a lot, and has patchy hair loss doesn’t mean the vet will diagnose them with mange and send you on your way with a skin cream. Each type of mange will require a specialised treatment, so it’s crucial that the vet find out exactly which type of mite is affecting your cat. 

The vet will consider all the physical signs of mange as well as take a skin scraping from your cat and identify the mite by looking at the skin scraping under a microscope. From there, they will diagnose your cat’s specific type of mange and suggest the best treatment to get rid of the mites and help your cat’s skin to heal.

How do you treat mange?

Depending on the type of mange the cat has as well as the intensity of the infestation, the vet may prescribe any number of medications – from an antibiotic to an anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatories, topical cream, a spray, shampoo and/or dip. Many tick and flea medications can also be used to combat mite infestations on your cat. 

Take special note of the veterinarian’s advice on isolating your infected cat from other pets in the house, but make sure your other pets’ parasite control medication is up to date. Wash and sterilise all pet bedding, toys and socialisation areas to ensure all traces of the mites that caused the cat’s mange have been eliminated. 

How to prevent mange

Many cats are roamers, so it’s not always possible to keep them out of environments where they may contract certain types of mites. It’s therefore recommended to keep your cat’s parasite control medication up to date, but to also make sure your cat is healthy and their immune system is functioning optimally. High-quality cat food, adequate exercise, fresh water and even health supplements may all work together to boost your cat’s immune health. Keep their environment clean and healthy, and also groom your cat regularly to take the opportunity to examine their skin condition.

Mange in dogs

What is mange?

Mange is a skin condition in pets caused by an overpopulation or infestation of parasitic mites. The mites burrow into an animal’s skin (sarcoptic) or over-populate the hair follicles (demodex), causing either itchiness and thickened skin, or skin changes and hair fall. There are different types of mange caused by different species of microscopic mites – the most common being demodectic mange and sarcoptic mange. In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms of mange, how the different types of mange are diagnosed and treated, and whether mange is contagious to humans.

Types of mange

Dogs can get demodectic mange or sarcoptic mange. The type of mange is determined by the type of mite infesting your dog’s skin or hair follicles. Demodectic mange is the most common type, while sarcoptic mange is the more devastating type and is highly contagious to other dogs and even to humans. Left untreated, both demodectic and sarcoptic mange can be fatal.

What causes mange in pets?

Demodectic mange

Demodectic mange is caused by an overpopulation of the skin mite Demodex canis (or other varieties Demodex injai and Demodex cornei). Dogs and humans both have a natural population of demodex mites living in their hair follicles, kept in check by a healthy immune system. If the immune system is compromised (due to illness, complications from a medical condition, or genetics), demodex mites are free to flourish and can cause mange. It’s possible for dogs with chronic conditions like cancer or diabetes to develop mange while their immune systems are weak.

Puppies can sometimes experience demodectic mange, since they acquire the skin mites from their mother. Normal, healthy puppies host demodex with no problems; sometimes experiencing bouts of overpopulation that need a simple topical treatment to bring back under control. However, puppies with a genetically weakened immune system can develop juvenile onset demodectic mange, which is very serious and needs immediate and intensive treatment.

Sarcoptic mange

Sarcoptic mange is caused by an infestation of the skin mite Sarcoptes scabiei. Sarcoptic mange is also referred to as canine scabies, and it occurs when the mite buries itself deep within the skin, causing severe itching and skin changes. Dogs with canine scabies will bite and scratch their skin incessantly, trying to get at the source of the irritation. This causes primary and secondary symptoms, which we will discuss below.

What are the symptoms of mange?

Since the different skin mites take up residence in different parts of the skin, the symptoms of scabies and demodex may differ. Let’s look at both:

Symptoms of demodectic mange

  • hair loss (alopecia) on the face, especially noticeable around the eyes
  • itchiness (though not as severe as with sarcoptic mange)
  • red, scaly skin patches
  • acne-like bumps
  • skin crusting
  • skin thickening and darkening
  • swelling
  • pain and fever if the condition has progressed
  • ear infections

The dog may appear lethargic and have leaky wounds if the demodectic mange is generalised (all over their body and not confined to the face) and has progressed quite far. They will need immediate treatment.

Symptoms of sarcoptic mange

  • intense itching and persistent scratching
  • hair loss as a result of the scratching
  • secondary bacterial and yeast infections
  • red, inflamed skin
  • skin thickening
  • crusting skin

In advanced canine scabies infections, the dog’s lymph nodes will be inflamed and they will become lethargic and malnourished.

How is mange diagnosed?

A veterinarian will do a skin scraping and look at it under a microscope to identify the presence of skin mites or their eggs. The demodex mite is elongated and slightly tapered, while the scabies mite is rounded.

How do you treat mange?

The treatment for both types of mange will depend on how far the infestation has progressed. There are oral medications as well as topical treatments and medical baths, both to kill the mites and promote the healing of the dog’s skin.

The sarcoptes mites may still be in the dog’s bedding and living environment, so it’s important to keep them away from these areas until they’ve been disinfected and bedding has been thoroughly cleaned. Also keep other pets away from the infected dog, to prevent the spread of canine scabies and the animals reinfecting each other.

In the case of demodectic mange, the veterinarian may also identify the systemic illness that’s weakening the dog’s immune system; be it old age, chronic disease or a genetically underdeveloped immunity. They will want to ensure the demodex is kept under control, since a compromised immune system may result in an overpopulation of demodex again in future. If the systemic illness is not being managed, demodectic mange can be fatal. Severe demodectic mange may take a long time to treat, and all dogs respond differently to treatment, but generally the prognosis is good.

Can mange in dogs spread to humans?

We have our own population of skin flora (including demodex mites) to keep our skin microbiome in balance, and cannot be infected with canine demodex mites. Demodectic mange is not contagious to humans or other dogs with healthy immune systems, but sarcoptic mange is a zoonotic disease and highly infectious. What does mange do to humans? Canine scabies mites cannot complete their life cycle in human skin, but people with canine scabies will still experience redness, itching and what appear to be inflamed welts – symptoms that will last until the mites die off. (Be aware that canine scabies is not the same as human scabies, which is caused by Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis or the human itch mite, and needs immediate treatment to kill the mites as it is highly infectious).

How to prevent mange

Pet owners can prevent demodectic mange by ensuring their dogs are healthy and not suffering from other diseases. Regular vet check-ups give the veterinarian the opportunity to screen your dog and potentially pick up any health conditions that may compromise your dog’s immunity and lead to demodex overpopulation.

You can prevent sarcoptic mange by ensuring your dog is contained within your yard (not exposed to stray animals or unknown environments where a sarcoptes infestation may put them at risk). By keeping your pets away from dogs with known sarcoptic mange, you prevent infection.

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