My dog has what looks like a red cherry stuck in the corner of its eye

Introduction to cherry eye

Prolapsed gland of the third eyelid

A cherry eye is a non-life-threatening condition that occurs in dogs, and less often in some cat breeds.  It is an extremely descriptive term, as one can see an oval, bright red swelling in the inside corner of an affected dog’s or cat’s eye, resembling a cherry. As a pet owner one can easily become quite alarmed by seeing this, but fortunately, it only causes slight irritation to the dog initially and you will have time to attend to it and take your animal to the vet before the condition gets out of hand. It is never a good idea to just leave it be. The condition tends to occur more commonly in younger dogs and cats, usually between the ages of 2 and 6 years.

How does it happen that an animal develops a cherry eye?

A cherry eye is in actual fact a protrusion (or bulging out) of the gland of what is colloquially called the third eyelid. Dogs and cats have three eyelids, the top and bottom lids that close up and down over the eyeball as in humans, and then a third eyelid, otherwise called the nictitating membrane underneath the upper and lower eyelids. If you press on the eyeball through the upper eyelid, you will notice the third eyelid moving across the ball of the eye from the inside corner of the eye towards the outside corner of the eye.  This eyelid contains a gland that produces up to 30% of the tear production of the eye. The third eyelid provides extra protection to the animal’s eye and keeps the eye moist. The gland in the nictitating membrane is anchored to the corner of the eye by a connective tissue band. For reasons unknown, this connective tissue starts to weaken and the gland slips out of its pocket. If this happens, the gland is exposed to sun, wind, dust, and trauma from the outside. The gland becomes red and swollen, and eventually painful, due to inflammation. One or both eyes may be affected at the same time. The most common breeds affected by this condition are Beagles, Bulldogs, Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Pekingese, and other brachiocephalic (flat-faced) breeds. The condition is rare in cats but Burmese and Persians seem to have a higher incidence of cherry eye.

Other clinical signs associated with cherry eye.

You will quickly notice the red swelling in the corner of your animal’s eye. Other signs that you might notice are a mucoid discharge from the eye and/or redness in the tissue surrounding the eye, called conjunctivitis. Your pet might also show you he/she is experiencing discomfort by pawing at the eye or rubbing his/her face against objects. This can cause even more trauma to the exposed gland.

Course of action with cherry eye

Due to the fact that some dogs don’t seem phased by the popped out gland, some owners might opt to leave it like that. Not treating the gland may however cause more serious problems to the affected eye in years to come. As more damage is inflicted onto the popped out gland, the amount and quality of tear film that protects the eye will decrease causing chronic inflammation and irritation to the eye. The best would be to get treatment of the infected cornea eye as soon as possible. The vet will examine the eye closely and will usually recommend replacing the gland surgically. The vet may stain the cornea with a fluorescein stain to check for ulcers on the eye itself that might have occurred during protrusion of the gland. A few decades ago, it was common practice to remove the gland surgically when it protruded. This is not the practice any longer because by removing a gland that produces tears, the affected eye can dry out causing a condition called keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or more commonly referred to as ‘dry eye’. It is therefore no longer recommended to remove the gland surgically, unless the gland is so traumatised that it will lose its function in any case. Replacing the gland into its original position is usually done under general anaesthesia by anchoring the gland in its pocket with suture material. For an experienced veterinary surgeon it is a relatively easy surgical procedure to perform. The most common complication is a re-occurrence of the cherry eye and trauma to the cornea by suture. If the condition re-occurs it certainly does not mean that the vet did a hopeless job. Between 5 and 20% of dogs have a recurrence of the condition after the surgery. The reason is that the gland can protrude and prolapse to the other side where the sutures were not placed. If it happens the procedure just has to be repeated. There is no way of predicting whether your pet will be one of the unlucky ones where the condition recurs after the initial surgery.


It is not clear why the connective tissue of the third eyelid housing the tear gland weakens causing a cherry eye other than that there seems to be hereditary component.  It is therefore not recommended to breed with affected dogs. Taking your dog to be examined by the vet as soon as you see the signs of cherry eye, can save you a whole lot of problems with your pet’s eyes later in his/her life, and even save his or her eyesight.

© 2019 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty.) Ltd.

My pet is vomiting

Vomiting is one of the most common symptoms of disease seen in pets. It can be quite alarming to see your pet vomit up all his or her food or alternatively continuously wretch and only bring slime or bile. So should you rush your dog or cat to the vet immediately when you see them vomit, or is it safe to wait and see? Because there are so many causes of vomiting, we recommend that if you are ever in doubt, it is always better to visit the vet and have it seen to, even if it is just to put your mind at ease and prevent it from progressing to something more serious.

It is important to realise that vomiting is not a disease or medical condition in and of itself, but rather a symptom of many different underlying causes. Healthy animals should not vomit, so there will usually be some underlying disease process which causes your animal to vomit. This could be as diverse as a brain condition, kidney disease, liver disease, gastrointestinal tract problems or endocrine conditions. It may have an infectious origin, but the cause may not be infectious at all and may vary from a physical obstruction such as a lodged bone to something as sinister as cancer. Distinguishing between vomiting and regurgitation is important. While vomiting is an active process which involves contraction of the abdominal muscles to expel the gastric content, regurgitation is a completely passive process where food is expelled from the stomach or from the oesophagus without any abdominal muscle contractions. Regurgitation usually points to a problem in the upper gastrointestinal tract, like the oesophagus. Nauseous dogs will often lick their lips and start salivating. This “overproduction” of saliva is there to protect the oesophagus against the acidic vomit moving up from the stomach by neutralising it. 

During the clinical exam, the vet will try to establish why your pet is vomiting and will decide after the clinical exam to either carry on with further diagnostic tests if he or she finds anything out of the ordinary, or send your pet home with the appropriate treatment. A full history from a vomiting animal’s owner is often the most useful diagnostic tool, so try and answer any questions the vet may have to the best of your ability. Common questions your vet may ask are: 

  • How many times has your dog or cat vomited?
  • How long has the vomiting been going on for?
  • What did your dog or cat vomit up?
  • Has your dog or cat lost any weight?
  • Is your dog or cat still eating?
  • Has their diet changed in any way?
  • What does the vomit look like?

It is important to know if there is a runny tummy (diarrhoea) associated with the vomiting and if so, to establish your pet’s hydrations status. An animal that is not keeping any fluids down, and vomits throughout the day together with losing fluids through diarrhoea can dehydrate quickly. The vet will most likely feel (palpate) your animal’s abdomen to establish if there is any pain, or perhaps a foreign body stuck somewhere which may be palpable. Depending on the size or the location of a foreign body, it may not always be possible for the vet to feel it. Severe pain in the abdomen will alert the vet to a more serious problem like pancreatitis. Dogs and cats can swallow the strangest things which may cause a blockage in the narrower parts of the digestive tract. This can become a life-threatening condition depending on the type of blockage and the length of time the foreign body is entrapped. Some foreign bodies can perforate the gut which can cause the animal to go into septic shock.

The majority of pets presenting with vomiting is due to dietary indiscretions and will recover within 24 – 48 hours. In these cases, the animal will show minimal abdominal pain, and hydration status will be normal, and temperature will be within normal limits. They are usually not severely depressed, but stay bright and alert. If the animal is bright and alert and healthy in all other respects, the vet may recommend skipping a meal or providing a liquid critical care diet together with access to fresh water. Food can then be introduced slowly over the next 12 hours. A bland diet of chicken and rice can be fed, or a veterinary therapeutic diet that is easily digestible and which has a low-fat content. 

In some cases of animals vomiting, there will be certain things that indicate to the vet that there is a more severe problem than a simple dietary indiscretion. If the vomiting has been carrying on for more than a couple of days, continuous or intermittent, further investigation is always required. Severe weight loss, dry coat and general weakness are some of the danger signs. Raised or decreased body temperature, severe abdominal pain, and accompanying bloody diarrhoea should also raise concern. These animals should ideally be admitted at the veterinary practice and rehydrated with a drip. Animals that are losing fluids by vomiting and diarrhoea often also develop electrolyte imbalances. Glucose may be low due to anorexia lasting a couple of days, and the vet will need to assess what kind of electrolyte supplementation is required with the fluid therapy. While the animal is being treated symptomatically, the vet will start with further diagnostic tests. After a basic blood smear and microscopic examination, the vet may recommend a urinalysis and faecal analysis as part of a minimum database. If the diagnosis cannot be made with these basics diagnostic tests, more comprehensive blood tests may be required which will include a full blood count, biochemistry and electrolytes. If a definitive diagnosis cannot be made with these tests, further investigation with the help of diagnostic imaging which may include X-rays and or ultrasound may be recommended. Even with extensive testing and diagnostic aids, it may not be possible to make a definitive diagnosis immediately, and in these cases, the vet will discuss the merits of further diagnostic tests or procedures, or referral to a specialist vet, with you. 

Some of the more common conditions that can present with vomiting are:

  • “Garbage disease” – where the animal eats leftover food or other items from a knocked over garbage bin 
  • Foreign bodies varying from stones to clothing garments, to anything other than pet food which the animal may have chewed and accidentally swallowed part or all of. Depending on the size and the type of foreign body it may either cause a partial obstruction or alternatively could cause a complete obstruction of the intestinal tract, which may only be rectified with surgery. 
  • Hairballs in cats
  • Pancreatitis or pancreatic tumours
  • Chronic or acute kidney disease
  • Chronic or acute liver disease including liver tumours
  • Inflammation of any part of the intestine including the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine or large intestine 
  • Megaoesophagus which may be due to auto-immune disease or other causes
  • Any tumours pressing on to, or causing an obstruction in the digestive tract
  • Gastric ulcers

The most important thing to remember is that vomiting is merely a symptom of an underlying problem which may or may not have anything to do with the intestinal tract. If your animal is vomiting and does not stop after a single episode, it is worth a visit to the vet to have it checked out.  

©2018 Vetwebsites The Code Company (Pty) Ltd


My older German Shepherd Dog seems to be getting weak in its hindquarters

This article outlines a genetic disorder that mainly German Shepherd dogs are prone to. There are other breeds affected by this condition too like Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Corgis, Boxers, Wirehaired Fox Terriers and Rhodesian Ridgebacks, however, the disease is mostly seen in German Shepherds.

If one breaks down the name of the disease it describes what happens with the disease. Degeneration refers to a breaking down or deterioration of something. That “something” in this case is myelin which is the insulating sheath around neurons in the spinal cord. Neurons are the “electrical wires” of the nervous system and one can compare myelin to the insulating plastic around the wires, almost like one would find with an electrical cord. Whenever a term is followed by “pathy” it refers to a disease or disorder in a certain part of the body. In this case the spinal cord.

Degenerative Myelopathy is a debilitating condition for which there is no cure but only the potential to slow down the progress.

The occurs typically in older German Shepherd Dogs. The average age at which clinical signs start and progress is from 8 to 12 years of age. This is not a condition with rapid onset but instead is slowly progressive with clinical signs worsening with time. Degenerative myelopathy starts out as a very slowly progressive hind limb weakness and loss of function of the back legs called paresis. It is commonly confused with hip pain because the symptoms can mimic hip dysplasia, another debilitating condition with a high incidence in German Shepherds.

The condition is the result of a demyelination (loss of protective cover) and nerve degeneration of the spinal cord in the region of the mid to hind back. This degeneration is something referred to as an ascending lesion meaning that it starts at the tail end of the spinal cord and works its way towards the head. The underlying cause of the disease is thought to be a genetic mutation (change) of the SOD1 gene. This gene is responsible for the protection of cells against certain particles that damage the DNA of cells. The name given to the damaging particles are free radicles. Under normal circumstances the SOD1 gene produces a free radicle scavenger i.e. it helps to clean up the system and prevents damage to the sheath surrounding the nerves.

The way in which the defect is inherited determines whether a particular dog is at a high risk of getting the disease or if they are a carrier of the genetic mutation without showing clinical signs. An individual dog has to carry 2 copies of the mutation in the genes of the cells of their bodies for it to cause the disease. There is no sex predilection, so male or female dogs may be affected equally. What is interesting about the disease is that even if an individual dog has both copies of the mutated gene and they are at very high risk of developing the disease, there are still other factors that influence whether or not they do contract the disease and to what extent they do.  

As mentioned previously this a slowly progressive condition that has a time frame of about 3 years before severe debilitating disease sets in. The clinical signs noticed in dogs include the following:

After 6 to 12 months of contracting the disease, you will notice weakness and partial loss of function of the back legs. Your dog may seem weak and wobbly on the back legs and they may struggle to get up or be slower to get up that what they used to be. When they run, their back legs may sway abnormally.

After 9 to 18 months on contracting the disease, the back legs start to get even weaker and collapse under the dog from time to time. If one assesses the reflexes in the back legs like the patella reflex, you will find that they are abnormal and weakened.

After 12 to 24 months of contracting the disease, the front legs start to become affected and you may notice that your dog starts losing their normal co-ordination and function. By this point, the hind legs are very weak and your dog may struggle to stand and use their legs correctly. Unfortunately, the nerve degeneration also influences bladder and bowel control and they will start to urinate and defecate involuntarily. This is known as urine and faecal incontinence.

After 24 to 36 month of contracting the disease, and if the dog was able to come this far and still cope with the disease, they develop tetraplegia or quadriplegia which is a paralysis that causes partial or total loss of use of all their limbs and body. The loss is usually sensory and motor, which means that both sensation and control are lost, or put a different way, the dog does not know where its legs are and even if they did, they do not have the ability to correct it. Clearly a very unhappy situation.

The way in which this condition is diagnosed by the vet is through a number of tests as well as the typical clinical signs and also the breed of your dog. These, together with the thorough history of the condition, should provide the veterinarian with some very important clues to what is going on with your dog. The important diseases or differential diagnoses to rule out are spinal disc disease (like a slipped disc) and conditions affecting the lower part of the spine where the hips meet the spine, like hip dysplasia or joint disease. The biggest difference with degenerative myelopathy and the other conditions is that degenerative myelopathy is painless because it is the loss of sensation and function which underlies this disease. Special tests such as MRI’s may be done to visualise the damage within the spinal cord and there is also a DNA test available to check if your dog has the genetic mutation discussed earlier.

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment available. Certain supplements can be used in an attempt to slow down the condition, such as vitamin E and aminocaproic acid. The vitamin E is an essential vitamin which helps various systems in the body to protect it from these damaging free radicles. The aminocaproic acid is an agent used to prevent the breakdown of clots in the bloodstream. The reasoning behind using this is that it is believed that the spinal cord may be indirectly attacked by the body’s own immune system. Antibodies in the bloodstream attach to the foreign material within the bloodstream forming complexes and these stimulate a response from the immune system. These complexes are usually removed by the liver and spleen. Sometimes they can stick to the walls of blood vessels, damage the walls and stimulate the formation of blood clots. The breakdown of these clots are associated with inflammation and this may result in damage to the surrounding tissues, so-called collateral damage. If this happens in the sensitive tissues of the spinal cord, the damage is devastating because the nervous tissue is not able to regenerate and repair itself. The thinking behind using aminocaproic acid is to inhibit clot breakdown in these delicate tissues.

Lastly and most importantly, the most effective treatment for this condition and the only one proven to actually slow down the progress is the use of physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. Another key factor is, the sooner the dog is diagnosed and treatment started, the better the progress of the disease can be slowed, and the more time the vet can give you with your dog. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that eventually, the disease will lead to complete paralysis and eventually, in most cases, euthanasia.

Genetic disorders like degenerative myelopathy can only be prevented by not breeding with animals where there is a family history of the disease. Make sure if you buy a puppy, that you get references on a breeder before you buy.

©2018 Vetwebsites The Code Company (Pty) Ltd

Help! My pet has just drank some Anti-Freeze

Winter has arrived and many people, as a precautionary measure, are putting antifreeze into their cars’ radiators, to prevent the water from freezing.

Ethylene glycol is the main ingredient found in antifreeze. Antifreeze is not as commonly used in South Africa as on other very cold parts of the world, as we do not get the very cold temperatures found in some parts of the Northern hemisphere. It is however found in many other products, which are found in South Africa. It is found in lower, less harmful concentrations in hydraulic brake fluid, solvents, motor oils, paints, film-processing solutions, wood stains, inks and printer cartridges.

Ethylene glycol is a sweet, odourless liquid that dogs and cats may find quite tasty. Ethylene glycol has a very narrow margin of safety. This means that only a very small amount needs to be ingested in order for it to be toxic and very often fatal.

As little as a tablespoon may cause severe acute kidney failure in dogs and as little as one teaspoon may be fatal to cats. Animals are often attracted to ethylene glycol due to its sweet taste. It has a repulsive aftertaste but often the animal has ingested enough of the fluid by the time the aftertaste kicks in, to cause disastrous effects.

What are the signs that your animal may have been ingested ethylene glycol?

Early signs of intoxication may be seen from 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion and may include any combination of the following signs:

  • Drunkenness
  • Excessive thirst or urination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Panting
  • Sedation
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Muscle twitching
  • Fatigue
  • Coma

Ethylene glycol poisoning can be divided into three stages:

  • Stage 1: occurs up to 30 minutes after ingestion and includes fatigue, vomiting, incoordination, excessive urination, excessive thirst, low body temperature (hypothermia), seizures and coma.
  • Stage 2: occurs 12 to 24 hours after ingestion. Some of the clinical signs seen in the first 30 minutes may improve but during this stage, the animal may become very dehydrated and develop an increased heart rate and breathing rate.
  • Stage 3: occurs 36 to 72 hours after ingestions. There is generally severe kidney dysfunction at this stage. The dog or cat is generally in much pain and they do not produce urine (this is referred to as anuria). The patient may become more depressed and tired. They may lose their appetite and vomit. They may have a seizure or fall into a coma, which eventually leads to death.

How is ethylene glycol toxicity diagnosed?

If you suspect that your dog or cat may have ingested antifreeze or any other product containing ethylene glycol, it is important to seek immediate veterinary attention. If your animal is showing any of the clinical signs described, it is important to bring your pet to the vet immediately to be looked at. If there is any possibility that your pet may have been exposed to ethylene glycol but not showing any signs, they should still be brought to the vet.

If your pet has vomited or had diarrhoea, collecting a sample to bring to the vet may be beneficial in making a diagnosis. If a diagnosis can be made quickly and supportive treatment is given sooner, the prognosis, although still very poor, is that much better.

It is important to provide the veterinarian with a good history with as much detail as possible. The onset of symptoms may give a very important clue as to the potential cause. In some countries, there is a specific test for ethylene glycol toxicity but this is not widely available. The ethylene glycol concentration in the blood also decreases very rapidly so it is important to test as soon as possible after suspected ingestion. Diagnosis is usually made from history, clinical signs and laboratory data.

Ethylene glycol is processed or metabolised by the liver into toxic by-products that are damaging to the kidneys. Kidney function is measured by two main products in the blood, namely Creatinine and Blood Urea Nitrogen, both of which are nitrogenous waste products. If the kidneys are not functioning properly, these two products build up in the blood. These levels can be tested relatively easily. They are not a specific test for ethylene glycol poisoning, but they do indicate kidney damage. By the time these levels increase, it is unfortunately very often too late.

Looking at the urine may also assist in confirming exposure to ethylene glycol and subsequent kidney damage. The urine is often very dilute and contains blood, proteins and specific crystals. The urine is often acidic.

Is there a treatment?

Quick action and treatment are essential if there is any chance of survival. There is an antidote for ethylene glycol toxicity but it is very expensive and unfortunately not readily available in this country. The antidote also needs to be given within five hours of ingestion. Alternative treatment such as ethanol are available but animals need to be monitored closely as the drugs used for treatment have side effects. Sodium bicarbonate administered in the drip will assist with the metabolic acidosis.

In suspected cases, supportive treatment is essential and this will include intensive monitoring, fluid therapy to correct dehydration and correction of any pH imbalances in the body. Despite treatment, the prognosis is often grave to poor and many animals do not survive antifreeze poisoning.

The old saying, “Prevention is better than cure”, stands true here. It is important to be aware of any household products that contain ethylene glycol and store them safely, away from animals. Clean up any potential spills immediately and if you are unsure of potential exposure seek veterinary care immediately. There are many potential threats within a home of which the drinking of antifreeze is only one, and so it is important to be aware of them and take the necessary precautions to safeguard your animals.

© 2018 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty.) Ltd.

Can I, or my dogs or cats contract bird flu from my pet birds?

The information provided here is not an official statement but is meant to provide some general information on bird flu because of the break out of bird flu in September 2017 in South Africa.

Bird flu or Avian Influenza (AI) is a family of influenza viruses that mainly affect birds. They are named according to two proteins on the surface of the virus (Haemagglutinin and Neuraminidase). The only ones of commercial concern are the H1, H5 and H7 types. There are dangerous (HP or highly pathogenic) and LP (low pathogen) strains. So when you see someone talking about HPAI H5N8 that means the dangerous type of H5N8 avian influenza.

These viruses have been around for a long time and are spread mostly via migratory waterfowl.

Many wild birds can have the viruses without becoming ill. Bird, swine and human flu are very similar viruses.

The panic at the moment is due to a HP strain of H5N8 spreading rapidly through South Africa.

This strain is rapidly fatal to chickens and ducks and could decimate our commercial poultry industry if left unchecked.

Also, one of the biggest concerns with bird flu is that it could mutate to become dangerous to people. The current strain doesn't affect humans and as far as we are aware cannot be transmitted to dogs or cats.

There have been recorded bird deaths all over South Africa, including in some of our best zoos and parks. Current government policy is to cull all poultry on an affected commercial premise, like a chicken farm, and to institute quarantine. The exact details depend on the situation.

Parrots can get bird flu but cases are rare. It is critically important that you minimise contact between wild birds and your pet birds or your bird collection to prevent infections. Keep birds indoors or under roof and prevent wild birds from getting near food and water supplies. Do not take in any injured or sick wild birds. Ideally, do not have chickens or ducks on the same premises. If you find a dead ibis, Egyptian goose etc, place it in two sealed plastic bags and send it for testing. Talk to the vet about how to submit dead wildlife to the State Vet.

Maximise your biosecurity by using F10, Virkon or other good disinfectants, and use footbaths and hand sprays before entering your aviaries. If not absolutely necessary rather do not handle your pet birds physically.

What about vaccination?

There are vaccines available overseas but vaccination is currently not allowed in South Africa. Using a vaccine in a commercial setting as with poultry could theoretically worsen the situation by increasing the chances of the virus mutating to affect people and could also theoretically adversely affect South Africa's ability to export poultry products. Some countries recommend vaccinating at-risk endangered species of birds.

Be careful of bringing wild birds that appear to be sick to the vet without a telephone call in advance to see that it is in order. This is because it may be risky if there are domestic/exotic birds which are hospitalised, which could lead to cross contamination. If you have an injured or ill waterfowl from your own collection or should you have a sick parrot that you may suspect may have bird flu, special arrangements may have to be made for seeing the bird, to prevent other birds being affected.

© 2018 Dr Dorianne Elliott – Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital Onderstepoort


Is your pet safe?

Fatal Diseases that can easily be prevented

There are some fairly common fatal diseases in animals which can and should be prevented wherever possible. This article looks at how these diseases present, what they lead to and most importantly how they could be prevented. Today we have more information about our animals and the diseases they may suffer from than ever before. With this knowledge comes the means of preventing these conditions that years ago would have meant certain death to our beloved pets. The most important means of disease prevention readily available to us is vaccination. A simple annual health check and vaccinations can help ensure your pet lives a long and healthy life. Other important means of prevention includes regular deworming as well as tick and flea treatment.

Here are just a few of the conditions our animals can be prevented from getting:

Rabies (affects dogs and cats)

Rabies is a viral disease affecting the brain and spinal cord of all mammals, including cats, dogs and importantly humans as well. This is a fatal condition for which there is no cure once infection has taken hold. It is important to remember that the idea we have of rabies and how an infected animal may present and act may only be half the story.  A rabies infected animal (domestic and wild animals alike) can present in one of two forms – the commonly known aggressive form, and the lesser known ‘dumb’ form. The aggressive form will be the animal that appears very aggressive, tries to bite and often is salivating at the mouth. The ‘dumb’ form is unusual and not well known because animals appear tame, calm, docile and even slightly sedated. These animals may have excessive salivation but not always. This animal appears calm until approached and then will just as easily bite you. Both forms have the same end result for the infected animal or human – severe inflammation and damage to the nervous system resulting in death. Rabies is transmitted through contact with an infected animal’s saliva, most often through a bite but other contact may also result in infection. In the event contact is made with any body fluids of an infected animal there is a risk for infection.

Treatment: None

Prevention: Vaccination

Distemper (this is a disease that only affects dogs)

Distemper is a serious viral disease that is highly contagious and for which there is no known treatment. This virus is transmitted through direct or indirect contact with infected animals, and may even be transmitted via the air. This virus first attacks the tonsils and lymphatic system (the body’s drainage and filter system) and then spreads to the gastrointestinal, respiratory, urogenital (kidneys and bladder system) and nervous systems. Initially the dog is feverish and un-well and there may be vomiting and diarrhea. Later there is progression to involve other internal organs and systems including the brain which may lead to seizures, behavioural changes, paralysis etc. Animals may also develop hard thickened foot pads. Most animals diagnosed with distemper need to be euthanised.

Treatment: None

Prevention: Vaccination

Parvoviral infection (CatFlu) in dogs

Parvovirus infection is mainly a problem in young unvaccinated puppies but can also affect dogs of any age if they have not been vaccinated. Initially is was thought that dogs contracted this disease from cats but this is not true and cats are not affected by this disease at all. The small and very tough virus that causes this disease attacks and destroys the intestines, resulting in vomiting, lack of appetite, and a severe watery bloody diarrhea. Even with intensive treatment puppies often succumb to dehydration with loss of nutrients and electrolytes essential for life. Treatment is costly, intensive and can still result in the death of your pup. Parvo is a preventable disease, with adequate vaccination of mom, ensuring she passes on essential protective antibodies to her pups. Once the pups are born they have to undergo a complete puppy vaccination program from 6 weeks of age onwards to ensure they remain protected at all times.

Treatment: Intensive therapy with intravenous fluids by having the dog on a drip, antibiotics (which cannot kill the virus but protect against bacteria infecting the animal whilst the virus is causing damage, drugs to prevent vomiting, electrolyte supplementation, nasogastric tube feeding and monitoring of electrolytes, proteins and blood counts

Prevention: Vaccination

Infectious Canine Hepatitis (affects dogs)

Infectious canine hepatitis (ICH) is a worldwide, contagious disease of dogs with clinical signs varying from a mild fever and red mucous membranes to severe depression, white blood cells deficiency, and bleeding tendencies. It is also carried by a number of wild canids (dog like animals) such as foxes, wolves and others. These carriers don’t often show clinical signs of the disease but are important in its spread to our dogs. As suggested by the name this virus attacks the liver primarily and results in varying degrees of damage which leads to clinical disease. The disease in a dog can vary from a mild fever from which they can potentially recover with supportive treatment, to death (especially in younger animals). The main route of infection occurs through ingestion (either directly/indirectly) of urine, feces, or saliva of infected dogs. Dogs that have survived infection shed the virus in their urine for more than 6 months. 

Treatment: Supportive and symptomatic treatment which includes fluid therapy (placing them on a drip), antibiotics to prevent secondary invasion of the body by bacteria and controlling the bleeding tendencies that result from the damaged liver which amongst other things produce the clotting factors which prevent an animal from bleeding spontaneously.

Prevention: In recent years there has been a reduction in the incidence of this disease as a direct result of active vaccination programs. Vaccination is the only sure way of preventing the disease and with the many carriers of the disease it is important our animals are continuously protected.

Feline Panleukopenia (affects cats)

Feline panleukopenia is a highly contagious, often fatal, viral disease of cats that is seen worldwide with kittens being the most severely affected. The virus is very resistant and can persist in the environment for a long time. Cats are infected by exposure to the stools or other secretions of infected animals or contaminated objects. The virus infects and destroys actively dividing cells in bone marrow, lymphoid tissues, intestinal cells, and in young animals the nervous system. It may also lead to abortions in pregnant cats. Animals infected with this virus may die acutely, or may present with fever, weakness and later vomiting and diarrhea. On examination they often have painful abdomens. They can also appear anemic (pale). Eventually affected animals become systemically ill and septic, eventually resulting in their death. In young kittens affected with the virus they can show a variety of nervous signs such as ataxia and tremors with increasing severity depending on the age of the kitten when infected and the extent of damage to the nervous tissue.

Treatment: Supportive and symptomatic treatment with fluid therapy, antibiotics (to prevent secondary bacterial infection), checking electrolytes and other body systems on an ongoing basis until the animal is better. Some animals may even require blood transfusions with severely anemia. The outcome of treatment cannot be guaranteed.

Prevention: Vaccination.

If you are in any doubt as to when your animals should be vaccinated or what diseases they should be vaccinated against, please phone the veterinarian to book an appointment and to make sure you keep your animals safe from potentially fatal diseases.

© 2018 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty.) Ltd.

False Pregnancy

False pregnancy, also known as Phantom pregnancy or Pseudo-pregnancy, is a condition of both dogs and cats, whereby the unsterilised female animal (regardless of whether she was mated or not) shows some or all of the typical signs of pregnancy but is not really pregnant. In other words, she shows mammary gland development (with or without milk production) but does not produce any offspring.

Symptoms appear usually about 1 to 2 months after oestrus (heat) has finished. Animals that have experienced a false pregnancy after a heat cycle may or may not experience the condition again after any future cycles.

Pseud-pregnancy is a fairly common condition and can be quite confusing and frustrating for the owner or breeder that wishes to breed with their animal. Although the astute pet owner or breeder may be able to correctly diagnose their animal as pregnant, non-pregnant or pseudo-pregnant, one should always consult a veterinarian if pregnancy is suspected.

A veterinary visit will help to ensure that the mother animal is healthy enough to support a pregnancy and that any potential complications are dealt with early. It will also ensure that you are adequately informed and correctly advised on how to care for both mum and babies during pregnancy and once they are born.

What are the typical signs of pregnancy in animals?

  • Pregnant animals typically start showing a more pendulous belly as gestation progresses and weight gain may be the presenting complaint in animals that are found to be pregnant or pseudo-pregnant.
  • Some animals will pour all their energy and body fat reserves into the unborn offspring and appear to be emaciated with muscle wastage in favour of a large developing belly. (This should not to be mistaken for parasitic causes of pot-belly).
  • Some animals show signs of “morning sickness” such as vomiting/nausea/inappetance although appetite may increase in order to supply enough nutrients for the increasing energy demands of the growing offspring.
  • Nesting behavior may become apparent, whereby the pregnant female is more affectionate (motherly), scratches at bedding to make it more comfortable, or seeks a warmer environment in which to rest.
  • Decreased activity levels or being less inclined to play/run may be noticed in pregnant animals which may be mistaken for depression.
  • The female may become more agitated and restless and in some cases even aggressive.
  • Mammary glands become enlarged and watery white or slightly brown-tinged fluid may be able to be expressed.
  • Teats (or nipples) will become enlarged, usually during the first 3-4 weeks of pregnancy.

What is the length of the gestation period for dogs and cats?

Cats are pregnant for an average of 66 days, with a range of 62 to 67 days. Cats can have litter sizes of anywhere from 1 kitten in younger queens, to 4 or 5 kittens in older more mature queens.

Dogs are pregnant for an average of 65 days with a range of 58 to 65 days. Dogs can have litter sizes of anywhere from 1 puppy in smaller breeds e.g. Chihuahua, up to 15 puppies in some larger breeds e.g. Labrador.

What causes a False Pregnancy?

The un-sterilised female animal is continually under the influence of a number of hormones, including Oestrogen (feminising hormone), Progesterone (pregnancy maintenance hormone) and Prolactin (milk production stimulating hormone), which all play an important role in the recognition and maintenance of pregnancy.

The exact cause of pseudo-pregnancy is not currently known, but hormonal imbalances (mainly involving elevated levels of Progesterone and Prolactin) play a significant role.

After being “on heat” (oestrus) the female ovaries naturally produce more of these hormones in order to prepare the uterus and body for pregnancy in case she has been mated, and if pregnancy is recognised by the uterus (if embryos are present) the hormones will continue to be produced in order to maintain the pregnancy. If no embryos are present (the female is not pregnant), the Progesterone and Prolactin levels of a normal female animal will slowly decline in favour of a rise in Oestrogen in preparation for the next “heat” cycle.

Hormonal disturbances, whether due to inherent pathological conditions e.g. underlying infection or tumours that affect hormone production, or human intervention such as sterilisation (whereby the ovaries and uterus are surgically removed) have been known to occasionally result in false pregnancy-like symptoms.

I think my pet might be Pseudo-pregnant – what now?

A specific diagnosis of pregnant / pseudo-pregnant will need to be made by your veterinarian.

Once your veterinarian has collected a full, detailed history of your pet’s health, a number of diagnostic procedures will be performed which will usually involve a full clinical examination (temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, capillary refill time of the gums, gum colour, general overall body condition score) and may also involve additional routine diagnostics such as a blood smear, blood testing, a faecal float, a vaginal smear and a urine analysis. This is in order to rule out any other potential illnesses which may be the cause of your dog’s apparent false pregnancy.

If your animal is suspected to be pregnant, your vet may need to take survey radiographs (abdominal X-rays) to assess the size, number and position of the foetuses. Foetal skeletal maturation occurs after the 49 days of pregnancy, so very young foetuses may not be visualised until after this point in gestation. In the case of early pregnancy, an abdominal ultrasound is more rewarding.

Where abdominal ultrasound is performed, pregnancy can be detected from 4 weeks after mating, and your vet will be able to assess the heart rate of the foetuses (which will indicate if the offspring are in fact alive and/or if they are stressed), as well as taking a closer look at the abdominal organs of the mother including the uterus and ovaries.

False pregnancy will quickly be diagnosed if there are no foetuses present. In this case, your vet may elect to run further diagnostic tests (such as routine blood testing involving a full blood count and biochemistry profile) to find out why your animal is showing signs of phantom pregnancy.

If the female animal suspected to be having a false pregnancy is suspected to be between 21 to 15 days pregnant, it may be possible to test your animal’s blood for a hormone called Relaxin which, if present in high enough quantity, may be used to confirm pregnancy.

Are there any dangers or adverse effects from Phantom Pregnancy?

If no underlying pathological condition can be found by your vet as the cause of the symptoms being displayed by your pet then no drastic intervention is usually required. Simple remedies such as the use of an Elizabethan Collar to prevent licking of teats, or hot/cold packs on the mammary tissue and even a reduction in food intake will help to reduce milk production.

However, if a disease process is found to be at the root of the problem (for example infection or cancer), intervention to remedy the condition (such as removal of the ovaries and uterus, called sterilisation or “spaying”) may be necessary.

If your pet is sick or physically ill, and if any behavioural changes are severe enough to cause concern, then medical treatment such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, anti-anxiety medication, and/or diuretics may be indicated. Hormonal therapy is rarely necessary.

Most dogs will improve or revert to normal within two to three weeks of the onset of symptoms without any intervention. If your pet is to be spayed, it is best to have the procedure performed after all pseudo-pregnancy symptoms have been resolved otherwise their resolution may be delayed.

Is there anything I can do to prevent False Pregnancy in my pet?

Although False Pregnancy is not a life-threatening condition (as long as it does not involve a disease process), early sterilisation or “spaying” of female animals will not only ensure that pets do not develop the condition again after the initial episode, but will also reduce the risk of other potentially life threatening conditions of the reproductive tract, such as pyometra (uterine infection), in future.

In addition, early sterilisation of females is proven to reduce the risk of mammary cancer and reproductive disorders, and all unwanted pregnancies or mis-matings will also be avoided if all non-breeding stock females are sterilised.

© 2018 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty) Ltd

Why is my dog limping with his hind leg?

Patellar luxation is a condition where the knee cap does not run in its groove but slips off to the side. Luxation is a learned word for “slipping”. It is a condition which is regularly encountered in dogs and more commonly in toy breeds. The condition can be developmental or traumatic in origin.

To understand the condition better, it helps to know what the anatomy of the knee looks like. The patella is commonly known as the knee cap and sits at the bottom of the big muscle group of the upper front part of the hind leg called the quadriceps. The patella makes up the front part of the knee and glides in the middle groove of the big bone of the upper part of the hind leg, the femur. This groove is known as the trochlear groove. The groove looks like a valley with two mountain ridges on either side. The ridges on either side of the groove are known as the trochlear ridges. The ridge on the inner part of the leg is known as the medial trochlear ridge and the one on the outer part is known as the lateral trochlear ridge. The knee cap or patella fits nicely in between these two ridges and glides up and down the groove as the knee bends. The patella is stabilised by the big muscle group to the top of it, the strong ligament to the bottom of it and the ligaments and connective tissue to the sides of it. The patella ligament which sits below the patella, implants onto the front of the top part of the bone underneath the femur, the tibia, also known as the shin bone.  

Patellar luxation occurs when the patella slips out of the trochlear groove, usually when the leg is flexed or bent.

Medial Patellar Luxation

This is where the patella slides off towards the inside of the leg. It is more commonly seen in small breed dogs like Boston terriers, Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians Miniature Poodles and Pekingese. The condition is also often seen bi-laterally, which means it affects both hind limbs. 

Patellar luxation results in discomfort and reduced functional usage of the affected limb.  

There are numerous reasons why this conditions occurs which are mostly related to anatomical problems like the groove in which the patella runs being too shallow, or the ridges on either side of the groove not going up high enough to prevent the patella from slipping over them, to the front top part of the shin bone not aligning well with the bottom part of the femur and instead of running in a nice straight line, the patella is continuously pulled off to one side as the leg moves backwards and forwards. 

Because the anatomy is passed on from one generation to the next, it is not a good idea to breed with an animal affected by this condition. 

Dogs who suffer from this condition have different symptoms. Some will show no symptoms whatsoever and a routine examination will show that the patellae are slipping off to the side whereas other dogs will be limping lame and will hardly be able to take any weight on the affected leg. Owners of affected dogs often complain that the patient carries the hind limb in the air for a few steps, and then shakes or straightens the leg, after which they can take weight on it again. Stretching of the leg aids in returning the patella into its normal position inside the trochlear groove, and once this is done the patient will be more comfortable and carry weight on the leg again.

A diagnosis is often made by the vet feeling up and down the knee and using the fingers to move the patella from side to side and attempt to slip the patella in and out of its groove. The relative anatomical positions of the big muscle group (the quadriceps), the trochlear groove, the patellar ligament and upper front part of the shin bone (the tibeal tuberosity) should also be assessed. Light sedation may be required to assess the integrity of the ligaments of the knee joint. X rays of the hips, knees and lower limbs will aid in diagnosing any other conformational abnormalities or bony changes. At least two X ray views are required to see the bones and joints from different angles.

Four grades of patellar luxation can be distinguished:

Grade 1: The patella can by hand be manipulated out of the trochlear groove but spontaneously returns. This grade shows minimal clinical signs.

Grade 2: There is spontaneous movement of the patella out of the trochlear groove but it can easily be replaced back into the groove by manipulation or by itself. This grade often goes hand in hand with symptoms described as a ‘skipping’ type lameness. The patella, when slipping out the groove, causes the dog to keep the leg in the air and when it slips back into the groove, the dog takes weight on the leg again. Over time, the cartilage surface underneath the patella and on top of the trochlea is damaged which allows progression to Grade three.

Grade 3: The patella is out of the trochlear groove permanently but can be manipulated back into position but usually slips back out of position as soon as the leg is bent or straightened. Bony deformities are usually present and there is inward rotation of the tibia. Usually a trained hand can feel that the trochlear groove is shallow.

Grade 4: The patella sits outside the trochlear groove permanently and cannot be manipulated back into the groove. Early surgical correction is critical to limit bony and ligamentous deformities which make surgery more challenging.

Damage to the cartilage may take place as the patella continues to slip in and out of the trochlear groove, exposing the bone and resulting in arthritis and pain. With the patella luxating, the cranial cruciate ligament, which is a ligament within the knee joint, is also placed under more strain due to the fact that the patella, if it sits in its normal position in front of the knee, provides stability for the joint. When the patella slips to the side it puts a lot more strain on the ligaments inside the knee and this can cause the ligament inside the knee to tear.

Grade one and two are recurrent luxations. With grade three and four, the patella is usually permanently luxated from the trochlear groove. Surgical correction is considered for grade two luxations when there are significant enough clinical signs to warrant it. In cases of grade three and four luxations surgery is recommended early on to limit damage to the bones and ligaments and progressive skeletal deformity and osteoarthritis. Surgical correction is often more challenging when cranial cruciate ligament disease or hip dysplasia is present.

There are several different strategies that are used singularly or in combination, to correct the luxating patella, and the technique used will depend on severity of the condition as well as the conformational abnormalities present. The surgeon will take all of this into consideration when choosing a particular technique. 

  • Soft tissues around the patella are reconstructed, so that the side to which the patella is slipping is loosened and the opposite side tightened 
  • Deepening the trochlear groove to enhance better positioning of the patella
  • Moving the front, upper part of the shin bone so that the patella ligament runs in a straight line from the top rather than being pulled to the side. 

Lateral Patellar Luxation

Lateral patellar luxation is more commonly seen in young large and giant breed dogs (Great Danes, St Bernards and Irish Wolfhounds). This is where the patella slips towards the outside of the leg.

The main cause of this condition is poor conformation most notably knock knees. Because it is related to the confirmation of the dog, both knees are usually affected at the same time. Intermittent luxation and reduction of the patella in the young and adult animal will result in progressive wearing of the outer trochlear ridge, a shallower trochlear groove and increased instability of the patella. 

Clinical signs can be present from as early as 5 to 6 months of age. Physical examination of the knee joint is often diagnostic and the patella can be felt slipping to the outside of the leg (luxating laterally), but it is often reducible. Just as with a medially luxating patella the cranial cruciate ligament and ligaments to the side of the knee joint should also be assessed. Oftentimes there will be a laxity of the inner side ligament of the knee due to the chronic outer rotation of the limb at the knee joint. X rays are also required to assess potential damage, and/or deformities of the hips, the femurs and the shin bones, which are often more severe than with medial patellar luxation. Three dimensional Computed tomography (CT) may aid in planning where the shape of the femur or tibea needs to be surgically corrected. 

The Grading system (1 to 4) for medial patellar luxations also applies for lateral patellar luxations.

Feeding ultra-premium diets with the correct calcium and phosphorus ratio, will aid in maintaining a slow growth rate, which has been proven to have a favourable effect in minimising hip dysplasia and other bone growth abnormalities, which could complicate and contribute to patellar luxation.

Surgery is the treatment of choice for lateral patellar luxation. 

Post operatively 

Over 90% of owners are satisfied with the progress of their dog after surgery.

For medial and lateral patellar luxations, soft padded bandages are used to aid in reducing the swelling post operatively. Removal of bandages after 3 to 5 days to allow full joint motion is encouraged. Pain medication is used as a matter of course. 

Weight bearing post operatively is desired as soon as possible, as some toy breeds develop the habit of carrying the operated limb in the air. Swimming and hydrotherapy is a good way to encourage movement without having to take weight on the leg shortly after the operation. Restricted movement and leash walks are encouraged for the first 4 to 6 weeks (to promote adequate bone healing). No running and jumping is allowed. Depending on the size of the dog and the severity of the surgery required to correct the problem, dogs operated on one side should usually start taking weight on the affected leg within 10 to 14 days after surgery. 

The prognosis for Grade one and two luxations is usually good. For grade three and four luxations the prognosis is fair to good, especially if the luxations were treated early in the patient’s life. Should the condition have been there for a long time with significant bony changes, the prognosis is more guarded. Secondary arthritic changes and cranial cruciate trauma could complicate long term function.

Osteoarthritis in the affected knee still progresses even after surgery regardless of the grade of luxation at presentation and therefore, depending on the degree, there may always be some degree of discomfort in the joint after surgery.  

The prognosis for luxations in large breed dogs is less favourable especially when combined with angular deformities of long bones, or hip dysplasia. 

Regular check-ups with the vet will ensure early detection and treatment to ensure your dog has the best chance of receiving the correct treatment and the best possible chance of recovery, should it suffer from patellar luxation. 

© 2018 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty.) Ltd.



Arthritis Signs and Diagnoses – Part 1 of 2

So what happens when your beloved canine friend does not want to go for his walk anymore because he is too sore the next morning?

Unfortunately, older pets, and these days even puppies, get afflicted by a condition commonly known as joint disease. This is the same problem we as humans suffer from as well, better known as arthritis. In dogs and cats and more commonly in larger breed dogs, it is concentrated in the hip, knee, shoulder and elbow joints. The spinal column and back vertebrae (backbones) can also be affected.

Arthritis (joint inflammation) happens when the cartilage that surrounds the end of the bones, (a white, glistening and very smooth surface that makes the joints glide easily) becomes eroded due to various factors, resulting in bone grinding on bone. The most common cause of arthritis in dogs and cats is old age, as the normal degenerative ageing process takes its toll. Arthritis is an extremely painful condition which causes the signs like difficult walking and slowing down, in general, we see in our pets. It gets even worse where the body tries to repair the damage at certain stress points of the joint and new bone growth takes place, which deforms the bones and joints. This process of gradual deterioration is called degenerative joints disease and progresses over a period of time. The deterioration cannot be stopped or cured, it can only be delayed with treatment, diet or surgery.

Large breed dogs tend to be more afflicted with arthritis. Numerous factors predispose pets to get this condition including:

  • breeds with bent legs such as the English Bulldog and Basset Hound
  • large breed puppies that grow too fast or puppies that do not receive the correct nutrition whilst growing
  • over-exercising your puppy whilst still growing
  • inherited conditions (bad genes from the parents)
  • trauma to the bones, ligaments or joints
  • obesity (most common)

Hip and elbow dysplasia (the incorrect fitting and/or growth of the joint) in puppies can be diagnosed and treated effectively as early as the age of 4 months. When hip and elbow dysplasia get left untreated, the dog will suffer from arthritis in the later stages of his life. Not all dogs that develop elbow or hip dysplasia show signs of having such a condition and therefore it is not always possible to diagnose the condition early enough so that steps can be taken to delay the early progression to arthritis. The most common symptom of arthritis seen in puppies and dogs are limping and lameness and not taking proper weight on the leg.

So how do you know if your pet may be suffering from this condition?

Usually, it starts with signs of your pet being sore and stiff after going for a walk or a run. They may not even want to take weight on a certain leg. Older animals will have difficulty in getting up, especially after sleeping for a while, and they may tend to slip easily on slippery floors. Animals suffering from arthritis do not run or jump as they used to, and may not want to climb the stairs anymore. Sitting down for a treat becomes difficult and you may see that your dog may have difficulty to squat to pass a stool or urinate. If you manipulate the affected joint by bending the legs, you may hear a creaking sound or feel something like rubbing sand between your fingers, also called crepitus. If your animal shows any of these signs it will be worthwhile to take your pet for a visit to the vet.

Arthritis in cats is exactly the same as in dogs, however, vets do not diagnose it as frequently as in dogs. The main reason for this is that cats are exceptionally good at masking pain and even if they suffer great pain it will often go unnoticed till very late in the progression of the disease. Cats are also often so stressed during veterinary consultations that normal movement cannot be differentiated from abnormal movement. Even though cats are much lighter than dogs and the wear and tear on their joints is significantly lower as a result of carrying a much smaller body mass, studies have shown that 65% if cats over 12 years are affected by feline osteoarthritis. Cats tend to be more active at night (nocturnal behaviour) and lameness and limping often go unnoticed for this reason. The owner simply does not see them moving around as much. Symptoms which may indicate arthritis in cats can be:

  • inappropriate urination in the house, seeing as they cannot jump so high anymore to go outside through an open window
  • not eating when their feeding bowl is up on a counter, or
  • staying in one spot for longer periods of time.

So how do vets know that an animal has arthritis and it isn’t just a sprained muscle?

The vet will start with a proper examination including feeling and manipulating the joints of the front and back legs, moving the head from side to side and up and down and placing pressure on the spine from head to tail. A patient that cannot bend a knee or that has a joint which creaks whilst being manipulated is more likely to suffer from arthritis than having just a muscle sprain. A definitive diagnosis of dysplasia and arthritis can only be made by taking an x-ray of your pet. This may show how the joint is malformed and/or where the new bone growth and arthritic changes are taking place. Sometimes in the early stages of the condition this is not clear on the radiograph and the vet can then take a sample of the fluid that surrounds the joint and analyse it microscopically to see if there is any sign of inflammation.

In part two on Arthritis we look at the treatment and prevention of this debilitating condition.

© 2018 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty.) Ltd.

Scratch scratch scratch – Part 2 of 2

In the first part of this two-part series we looked at the complexity of itching and scratching in pets and the fact that although the symptoms eventually manifest in the same way i.e. itching and scratching,  there could be many different causes for it. Itching or pruritis, as vets call it, can be described as the sensation that elicits the desire to scratch. The skin, being the biggest organ in the body and acting as a sort of outer nervous system, provides feedback to the brain of things like temperature, touch, pain and itching through a network of nerve endings.

So what then are the most common causes of scratching and how can it be treated? Probably the most common answer most vets will give you is that it is fleas. These tough little parasites have survived for centuries and are still plaguing our domestic animals today. Fleas feed on blood and biting and latching onto an animal often causes the itching we so often see in animals with fleas. It is like experiencing tiny pinches all over the body which, understandably, become very irritating the more fleas there are on an animal. Fleas only live between two months and a year but their eggs can survive for more than a year in the environment and one flea can produce up to 600 eggs. Needless to say, a few fleas can quickly lead to a flea epidemic. It is therefore particularly important to use effective and long lasting anti-flea remedies as soon as possible after you spot a flea on your pet. Since more than three-quarters of a flea's life is spent somewhere other than on the animal, it is not adequate to treat only the animal, but also important to treat the environment. Thorough vacuuming, washing linens in hot water, and treating all animals in the same household at the same time even though one may not see any fleas on any of your other animals is essential and if possible, should be done on a regular basis.

With cats that groom themselves, one has to be especially careful because anything you use on a cat’s skin will also be taken in by the cat itself and if it is some kind of terrible poison that not only kills the fleas but everything else around it as well, it may not be safe for your cat. Due to flea eggs surviving so long, one should also try to use something which will clean the environment in which the animal lives of fleas. Some clever products have been devised for animals over the years, some which harden the flea eggshell so it cannot hatch, others that stay on the animal’s skin for up to two months, turning the animal into a walking “exterminator”, because as soon as a new flea hatches and jumps on the animal, they are exposed to the product and dies. Products which are water resistant, staying on the animal’s skin even though it gets wet, are very useful. Ultimately any product one uses needs to be safe for the animal itself and therefore the development of products which targets invertebrates like fleas and are safe for vertebrates like our pets, have gone a long way in fighting the war against fleas. It can also happen that an animal develops an allergy to flea saliva which then only takes one flea to bite an animal and cause a massive skin reaction completely out of proportion to the number of fleas found on the animal. The typical symptoms seen with flea allergy dermatitis are loss of hair on the back, close to the tail area in dogs, and in cats one can also find little scabs and skin flakes around the head and neck of the animal called milliary dermatitis. (It looks and feels as if someone took bird seed and rubbed it into the hair around the head and neck of this cat.)

Other forms of skin allergies are very common in animals and the most common is inhalant allergy which is similar to hay fever in humans. This is called atopy. Dogs and cats rarely suffer from a running nose or blocked sinuses so typical of hay fever in humans but dogs, more so than cats, suffer badly with a generalised itching and scratching because of allergy to pollen and other plant material. There is usually a seasonal prevalence of this condition and knowing that the season for it is coming up, one can prepare by taking some precautions to “soften the blow” of the condition. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition and this is one of the most common conditions for which pet owners will seek second opinions because it will seem like the vet is simply not able to make a proper diagnosis and treat the animal effectively. The most effective way of treating this condition is to remove the animal from the environment causing the atopy, but unfortunately, this is not an option for most people. The treatment of this condition can include amongst other things:

  • keeping the animal inside,
  • anti-histamines and cortisone,
  • adding omega 3 fatty acid oils into the diet,
  • changing to a prescription diet which naturally addresses the problem to some degree,
  • topical lotions and using specially formulated medicated shampoos,
  • having special desensitising vaccines made which is injected over a period of time to try and reduce the body’s over-reaction to the offending allergens, etc.

There is not a single recipe which works in every case of atopy and the vet has to consider the symptoms, the environment and circumstances of the pet and the owner, the response to treatment and the budget available for treatment, when making therapeutic decisions. Not an easy mix and often frustrating because the condition cannot be definitively treated but only effectively managed.

Other forms of allergy, which are less common, include food allergies and contact allergies and through a process of elimination, the vet usually has to determine which the primary source of allergy is. An animal with a food allergy has to be fed an elimination diet (usually a diet which contains a novel protein like duck, and a novel source of carbohydrate like rice) for at least eight to twelve weeks. Needless to say the commitment of the owner, and the animal for that matter, needs to be immense, to make sure that no tit-bits or other food are fed in between.

Mites, which are tiny microscopic creatures, can also cause itching and scratching and some of the more common mite conditions like demodicosis, scabies and cheyletiellosis need to be considered as possible causes of skin problems when presenting an animal to the vet for itching and scratching.

Fungi like ringworm or Malassezia have the potential to cause itching and scratching (similar to athlete’s foot in humans) and the vet will look at these conditions as possible causes for itching when examining and doing a diagnostic workup on an itchy pet. Bacteria that live on the skin of animals as normal inhabitants of the skin also has the potential to “get out of hand” and start causing infections which may cause itching and scratching. Sometimes it can be very difficult to determine if bacteria was the primary cause of the itch or if the itch leads to an irritation of the skin which in turn lead to bacteria starting to overgrow and cause secondary infections.

Some other less common causes for itching and scratching include hormonal conditions, cancer (like Sertoli cell tumours), immune-mediated disorders, genetic disorders and a poor diet.

When your dog or cat is itching and scratch, scratch, scratching, and it is driving you mad, make sure you get it to the vet as soon as you can for a thorough check-up to find the cause as early as possible and start with treatment. Keep in mind that certain conditions are never going to be cured and will require lifelong management and dedicated treatment from your side.

© 2018 Vetwebsites – The Code Company Trading (Pty.) Ltd.