Methods Animals Communicate with Each Other; Basics

The Different Types of Communication

Communication is present between all animals and, at a microscopic level,  all living cells.  It tends to be species-specific meaning the communication of one species often can only be fully understood by members of the same species; in some respects like people across the world speaking different languages.  Several forms of communication exist which I will broadly introduce throughout the rest of this post.  These are; Vocalisation/ Verbal communication, body language and chemical/ olfactory communication which I imagine the majority of people know little to nothing about.  Alongside this is tactile communication which is where humans/ animals communicate through touch.

 

Most people associate the word communication purely with one type; speech or verbal communication.  Speech is a type of verbal communication used by humans. Whilst speech is widely used between people and towards animals, it plays only a minor role in how non-human animals communicate.

Communication is often similar between species but may be very different

People also use non-verbal communication such as body language.  Body language consists of changes in posture, actions and facial expression.  Most people are adept at reading basic facial expressions however those with neuro-developmental conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder may struggle or unable to read them.

Most animals can read facial expressions amongst their own species but cannot read those of other species which can lead to issues including fighting if two different species are housed together; something still regularly occurring with rabbits and guinea pigs.  Facial expressions between species often do bear some resemblance (though can mean very different things at times) between different species as an artefact of our evolutionary history; as at one point was communicated by Charles Darwin.

The situation between the inability for animals to read the facial expressions of other species is a bit different between dogs and people though.  Our relationship with the domesticated dog and the time we spent together throughout domestication has uniquely lead to many dogs possessing the ability to read our, and especially their owners, facial expression and body language to some degree.  This is one factor leading to the so-called “guilty expressions” that dogs appear to show when they face their owners after performing an inappropriate behaviour (such as emptying the bin or chewing up the sofa); dog’s don’t possess the ability to feel guilt, they are, instead, just displaying this behaviour out of the expectation they are in trouble based upon past experience and their owners body language +/- tone of voice.

Selective breeding may have also lead to those with more traits for this recognition being bred more, thus passing it down to their offspring.  However, the connection between humans and dogs is a very unique one and this recognition of body language is not seen among different species to the same extent.

 

Vocalisation/ Verbal Communication

Though many non-human animals vocalise especially when communicating across long distances (such as warning the rest of their herd of predators), it is usually less commonly displayed than it is between people.

 

Wolves howl to vocally communicate with others

Vocal communication is often thought of as speech but it any noise leaving the mouth of an animal.  No animals have the same complexity to this communication as humans have, even primates, and whilst some parrots appear to talk, they purely mimic the people around them and don’t understand the sounds they produce.

Some animals, especially prey species, remain very quiet such as the rabbit, whereas others have noisy calls and cries such as the dog’s bark and the wolf’s howl (which remains in a few dog breeds).  Some animals have an array of different sounds such as guinea pigs who vocalise a lot with numerous different types.

Whilst other species appear to have developed new vocalisations during domestication.  Wildcats have been observed to purr but generally not to meow.  Meowing is believed to be a vocalisation pattern cats developed, through selective breeding and learning as a kitten, to attract the owner and get them to do what they want them to.  This adaptation demonstrates that an animal’s communication can diversify to meet the situation.

 

Body Language

The most common way animals communicate with both ourselves and others.

A snarl both makes a sound and changes the look of the face to pass a communicate unhappiness to those around

Poor communication or the presence of miscommunication (possibly due to the mixing of two or more species), may cause fights to break out.  Miscommunication is often seen between the animal kingdom and ourselves; chimps for instance, “smile” when afraid.  Humans view chimpanzees as being similar to themselves and see this behaviour as a human smile and believe they are happy when the opposite is true. What we think of as a smiling chimp is one displaying a fear grimace; the chimp is scared and they feel threatened by us smiling at them.

Lop-eared rabbits have reduced body language as they are not able to freely move their ears

Body language can be subtle with just hair standing on end (piloerection) occurring either just in a particular area or over the whole body, or the movement of some whiskers or be more obvious such as a snarling dog.  Whether subtle or more obvious, the animal may be trying to communicate something of true importance and so paying attention to any body language is very important.

 

Body language can also be miscommunicated between animals of the same species.  This may be the case if an animal is, for whatever reason, isn’t adept at interpreting body language such as if they have been isolated from those of their own species.  Another reason, which is seen with dogs in particular, could be from modifications to their body.  Dogs communicate with many different parts of their body, including the position or movement of their ears and tail.  If dogs have their tails docked and/ or their ears cropped the language they can display may be affected and therefore may be misinterpreted.  Those with very long hair may also struggle as the movement of particular parts of their body may not be easily visible to others.

This dog’s hair gets in the way of seeing subtle movements of much of the body and blocks their sight too

Chemical/ Olfactory Communication

Under all different circumstances, each individual cell releases chemicals/ compounds/ hormones to interact with the surrounding cells.  The surrounding cells receive these, often as a signal, allowing the body to react appropriately to the current scenario.

Cat demonstrating the flehman response whereby they ensure pheromones pass to the vomeronasal organ

Along with cells releasing chemicals to act upon other cells, certain areas of the body release chemical signals to send messages to the surrounding animals.

 

Some of these signals may be scents, such as urine helps mark out a territory in dogs due to other dogs smelling it.  Other signals released by one animal may affect other animals but do not a smell to them; these are known as pheromones.  Different pheromones affect animals in different ways. Some calm them down whilst others help them detect when a female animal is in season (“on heat”).

The flehman response of a horse allows them to detect pheromones

Pheromones are usually detected in an organ within the nose (the vomeronasal-organ) where signals are then sent to the brain.  Different animals get pheromones into their Vomeronasal organ through different methods; dogs flick their tongue against part of their mouth whereas others wrinkle their noses up and stretch their necks really long, lifting their heads and noses high in the air.  These are known as the Flehman response.

A tapir demonstrates their flehman response

There are also some chemical signals which are neither a scent or pheromone.  One of these includes a protein released in the milk called Alpha S1-Casein (or variants of that depending on the species).  This calms down infant animals after suckling.  A synthetic version (Alpha- Casazephine, derived from Alpha-S1 casein from cows milk) is now produced as a food supplement to reduce anxiety if used for several days.

 

Cats and dogs both release pheromones, the main ones being Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), and the Feline Facial pheromones. These, amongst others, can help them to both create territories or calm them down which can then also be used synthetically to alter behaviour in different circumstances and are available in different forms.  These will be discussed more in-depth in another post.

Suckling animals receive compounds in their mother’s milk to calm them down

The Round Up.

This is just a basic introduction to the ways in which animals communicate and is nowhere near exhaustive.  This post is just to demonstrate how complex communication is and why it is difficult to completely follow and understand.

 

I will follow this up with further posts looking at different types of communication and how these are carried out in different animals.

What’s Involved with Spaying Your Cat

A cat spay is considered in veterinary surgeries as a routine procedure. Vet students (under the direct guidance of qualified Veterinary surgeons) spay cats before qualifying and they’re performed on a daily basis by most small animal vets.

Many UK rescue centres, such as Cats Protection, offer deals for certain groups of people to get their cats neutered either free of charge or at low cost. Many rescue centres also insist on female cats (Queens) being spayed before, or very soon after, being adopted.

What’s the reason behind this, should all cats be neutered and what are the potential pros and cons. These are factors I’m going to explore over the rest of this blog.

What is Spaying?

Spaying is the name given to neutering female cats. It involves removing the ovaries and often the uterus. With women, this is known as an Ovariohysterectomy (“Ovario-” refers to the ovaries whereas “Hysterectomy”, removal of the uterus (or womb) so, put together, it means removal of the uterus and ovaries) and it’s definitely not a routine procedure in human medicine. In fact, in human medicine, it’s not done when at all possible.

With people, though they usually just perform a hysterectomy (ie they leave the uterus alone), the ovaries are almost always removed in veterinary species. Usually, with the cat, sometimes it is only the ovaries removed and the uterus left in place; the opposite to women.

Women without ovaries are at risk of Osteoporosis (meaning pores, or holes, in the bones) but this doesn’t appear to be the case in spayed cats. Osteoporosis in women is often due to the reduction in oestrogen levels post-ovariohysterectomy/ menopause.

Though a lack of oestrogen doesn’t appear to have the same issues in cats, however, conversely, the presence of Oestrogen causes undesirable traits or conditions in cats. The fact that the removal of oestrogen causes few issues whereas the presence causes more problems is a big reason for spaying.
Oestrogen, along with other sex hormones it, lead to queens coming into season (“on heat”), becoming pregnant and increases the risk of some diseases.

Early neutering can be done from 4months old, sometimes earlier
Photo; Instagram @ xa_j_sx

About the Op?

In cat’s spaying is a major surgery but is relatively easy to do with adequate training and skills. Most new graduate vets (remember these have already undergone at least 5years of training at university) can spay a cat unassisted. Experienced vets can often manage the whole procedure in under fifteen minutes, often leaving an around 2cm in length if on the flank (side) or slightly longer if under the belly (known as midline).

Two methods are commonly performed in the UK. The flank spay is where cats are spayed through the (usually left) side of their abdomen. In a midline spay, the incision is underneath their belly, like in a bitch. Each vet tends to prefer one method over the other and use that method most of the time but the method used depends on a number of factors.

A flank spay is good for stray cats as you can monitor the cat’s wound from a distance following the surgery. Whereas, when you clip the hair of some oriental breeds, such as the Bengal, the hair regrow a darker colour. If you spay these breeds via the flank approach they will have a square patch of visibly different hair on their side whereas this is less visible under their belly.

Another benefit to a midline spay is that the uterus can still be easily removed if the cat is pregnant. This is sadly done quite often and sometimes because before the vet starts to spay the cat the owner isn’t aware of the pregnancy or, the owner wanted the cat spaying as a way to stop the pregnancy.

If your cat goes to be spayed and the vet finds out your cat is pregnant during the surgery, find that she is already pregnant, don’t worry. Before the vet proceeds further with the surgery he or she will contact you to discuss the situation. Your potential options will be for the surgery to be halted and your cat stitched back up so the pregnancy should proceed as normal or for her to still be spayed meaning the kittens will die.

Spaying for both species, despite the different approaches and complexities, is basically the same. For both, they have stitches internally and in the skin (which may or may not need taking out), and they should be rested for a couple of weeks to some extent.

In cats, it depends on the individual vet whether the ovaries are removed alone or with the whole of the uterus removed with them. Most issues affecting the uterus are due to the hormones released by the ovaries. If the ovaries are removed, therefore, these often don’t occur or, at least, are much less likely to. The reason the uterus may not be removed is that sometimes this is more difficult to do due to the position of the incision but shouldn’t make a difference to the cat overall.

Young kittens who have only just been born

Positives to Spaying

  1. Stops your cat going into season.
    1. You won’t get the few days every three weeks throughout Spring to Autumn of them constantly calling out waking you up from your sleep.
    2.  The constant worry and risk of them becoming pregnant is gone. This means you no longer have to worry about them going out and meeting with a Tom. Therefore, once cats are spayed many owners are happier about them going outside which is often better for their welfare, at least from a psychological point of view however it does depend on the traffic in your area as to whether you feel it is safe or not.
  2.  Birth control.
    1. Pure and simply once spayed a cat cannot get pregnant.
    2. To avoid pregnancy, most vets advise you do not allow your cat to go out before they are neutered. This is especially the case with young kittens. It is possible for kittens to get pregnant from four months old in some cases; at this point, they are not fully grown themselves and becoming pregnant can jeopardise the health of them and their litter.
    3. As the population of cats UK exceeds the demand (as seen by rescue centres constantly being filled to the brim), kittens are difficult to sell so may end up in shelters or straying.
      1. An entire (not-spayed) queen is responsible for the birth of 20,000 kittens over just five years, many of whom may be unwanted.
    4. Sex hormone-related cancers
      1. Mammary cancer (a cat version of breast cancer) risk rises after a queen’s first season; those spayed before six months old have a 91% less chance of developing mammary cancer compared to those spayed when over six months. Up to a year of age cat’s are still at a 86% lower risk of getting mammary cancer than those who are older.
      2. Mammary cancers are still quite rare in cats likely at least partially due to the majority being spayed early.
      3. The risk of mammary cancers is NOT reduced by a queen having a litter.
        1.  It is a myth that a cat should have a litter.
        2. Cat’s aren’t like us in that they don’t dream of having offspring or view it as something that should happen.
        3. Cats can get quite unwell when they have kittens. They often lose a lot of weight, they may have infections develop in either their uterus or mammary glands which will make them really unwell.
        4. Some don’t build an attachment with their young leading to them rejecting so the kittens will need hand-rearing. Whilst hand-rearing sounds cute, it takes a lot of work. Hand-reared kittens are more prone to disease as they don’t get the immunity they usually would from their mother. Many also don’t thrive well In the early stages they only drink very slowly and need to drink milk every two hours throughout both the day and night, leaving you, your family, and potentially your friends exhausted.
        5. Cats can either have benign mammary cancers which are usually resolved by surgically removing the affected mammary gland or malignant ones.
      4. Malignant mammary tumours are cancers that spread to other parts of the body. In dogs there is a 50:50 chance of getting one type or the other. Sadly in cats there is an 85% chance that the cancer is malignant. Malignant cancers will spread to other mammary glands or further around the body, often to the lungs causing coughing, breathlessness and weight loss.
        1. Cats with malignant cancers have a very poor prognosis, they are unlikely to survive long. If the cancer has spread to other areas of the body then removal of the mammary glands will not dramatically improve survival rates. For this reason, In cases of mammary cancer vets will usually advise taking XRays of the lungs to look for spread before doing surgery. These are not done to cost you more money but to see if surgery is the best route for your cat.
      5.  Ovarian Cancers
        1.  These only occur if the ovaries have not been removed. As these are removed the vast majority of the times when cats are spayed they will not be present in unsprayed animals (unless only the uterus has been removed)
        2. Ovarian cancers are rare in cats and only make up approximately 3% of cancers, mainly affecting older cats. The reason for the low level of this is the high percentage of cats being spayed.
        3. These can spread to other areas of the body or also be benign, sometimes just looking like cysts. If they are benign then removing the ovaries will sure them.
        4.  With a function of the ovaries being to release sex hormones, tumours there can affect hormone release. This may lead to changes in fertility, changes in their cycle, behaviour changes (aggression developing), vaginal discharge, pyometra
        5.  Other, non-hormonal signs of an ovarian tumour are weight loss, vomiting, eating/ drinking less, pain, lethargy.
      6.  Uterine Cancers
        1. These are rare and account for less than 1.5% of cancers in the cat.
        2. They tend to be hormone related so it’s very rare these occur after Ovariectomy (removal of just the ovaries which some vets perform when spaying).
        3. Many are malignant so spread to other areas of the body, often within the belly but not all of them. In benign cases often a hysterectomy will resolve them.
        4.  These can cause your cat to have a swollen up belly, increased or bloody vaginal discharge, changes in fertility and their cycle of when they’re in season or not. Some cats also lose weight and eat/ drink less and may become more sleepy or inactive.
      7.  Pyometra= “Pus in Uterus”, a life-threatening hormone-associated uterine infection.
        1. Less common in queens compared to bitches however they shouldn’t be ignored as they require urgent treatment, usually an emergency spay.
        2.  A pyometra spay is a much bigger surgery than a routine spay.
          1. if the uterus is damaged before it is removed, pus can leak into the belly which is very dangerous and potentially lethal.
          2. To ensure the uterus and ovaries are removed intact, and there is space to remove the enlarged uterus, the wound is bigger so they may be in pain for longer.
          3.  They will usually require antibiotics after to kill any bacteria leached into their bloodstream and ensure your cat fully recovers.
        3.  Approximately 5.7%, which is just over 1 in 20, of cats suffering from a pyo will die even with appropriate treatment. This figure that is slightly higher in dogs who are more commonly affected.
          1.  Approximately 17 cats out of 10,000 unspayed queens in any one year suffers from a pyometra.
            1.  This figure varies between breeds though.
            2.  For instance, 433 out of 10,000 unspayed sphynx cats get a pyometra every year, that’s almost one in twenty and 25x the risk of an average cat getting one.
            3.  Across all breeds, the likelihood of getting a pyometra is increased when your cat reaches seven years old, compared to dogs where risk increases once they reach ten years. Therefore, pyometras shouldn’t be thought of as an old age condition in the cat.

              A cat uterus thickened likely due to pyometra or cancer
      8.  Spayed cats are less than likely to roam.
        1. This reduces the risk of Road Traffic Accidents and them going missing.
        2. They also are less likely to get fighting-related or sexually transmitted diseases such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV, similar to HIV in people.

The Negatives

  1. Weight gain and obesity
    1. Spaying your cat will make her more prone to weight gain or obesity
    2. You will need to keep an eye on their weight and perhaps put them on a low-calorie diet and give them fewer treats.
    3.  Making sure your cat gets plenty of exercise also helps to keep them fit and lean as well as mentally stimulating them.
  2. Spaying is not a quick and easy way to alter their behaviour
    1.  This is not a negative to the surgery but disappoints people who hope it will reduce any issues they may have with their behaviour which may have initially been linked to hormones.
    2.  Usually, spaying doesn’t alter behaviour at all though, in males, castration can sometimes reduce aggression in some cases but often doesn’t entirely stop it.

Early Neutering

Most veterinary practices and rescue centres recommend early neutering in cats, usually when they are between four and six months old but could be as young as 12weeks (or earlier in some cases).

Early neutering ensures cats cannot reproduce at all. Depending on when your cat is born, they may enter puberty at four to eight months of age (the variation is because they don’t come into season and, therefore enter puberty, over the Winter). It also reduces the risks of mammary tumours when older.

Another reason for early neutering is the surgery is easier and has fewer risks. At this age, cats have less belly fat so this doesn’t surround the ovaries and uterus in the same way as in older cats. Therefore the organs can be seen and removed easier, usually with a lower risk of bleeding.

Summing up the factors involving spaying your cat

Female cats can be spayed from as young as twelve weeks in most cases. The main reasons for neutering them is to prevent pregnancy, reduce the risks of hormone-related cancers and a pyometra. It can also reduce the risk of them roaming and, therefore, the chances of them getting hit by a car. The main negative is that it can cause them to gain weight especially if they have little exercise.

If you still have any questions regarding spaying, either what involved or the pros and cons then feel free to contact me to discuss it in more detail or leave a comment below. Other than that your vet or a veterinary nurse is the ideal person to talk to regarding this and they can also discuss any policies within the practice you use.

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Twelve Signs A Cat Is in Pain

Whilst working as a vet I constantly treated animals in pain.  My MSc dissertation was then on detecting pain in rabbits alongside me looking at the evidence for methods of identifying pain in other rodents.  So detecting pain is an interest of mine.  Some people think it’s a bit of a weird interest and think I have a morbid fascination with pain; the reality, animals can’t speak for themselves and making sure they are as pain-free as possible should be the top of any owner or vets priorities.

 

Cats Don’t Yelp

Usually, cats in pain don’t make a sound.  If they do the pain is excruciating and very few conditions lead to cats screaming out.

In fact cats hide pain and illness as much as they can because in the wild if they show a weakness they will not get the food they need or even be attacked.

So, when looking for pain in cats you have to look for very subtle signs.  This is the mistake owners make, they presume because their cat isn’t limping, is eating and not crying then they’re fine and don’t need treatment.

 

So what are these signs?

  1. Hiding more
    1. Cats may hide behind sofas or under the bed.  They may take themselves to a different room or hide in some bushes
    2. Like people cats want to be alone and not to be messed with when in pain so retreat to somewhere quiet that’s usually covered
    3. They may hide more near to a radiator, heater or fire as heat can often help those achy joints.
  2. Stop Jumping or won’t jump as high
    1. This is a big sign.
    2. Jumping often increases pain so they just don’t jump as high or as often and sometimes they stop jumping altogether
    3. If you notice your cat is staying in your garden all the time when usually they would’ve jumped over the fence at their first chance then the may be in pain
  3. Walking Stiffly
    1. They may walk more stiffly and slower.  Their movement tends to improve the more they move.
  4. Walking with their back more bent
    1. Their back may be arched and remains like that as they are walking
    2. This can be due to pain in their back legs, hip or spine.
  5. They may sleep more
    1. Being in pain is tiring and walking with it is more tiring
    2. Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
    3. This means they may be in their bed more.

      Cats in pain may sleep more
  6. They may become more aggressive
    1. Moving and playing hurts, even stroking may hurt
    2. Just like people, your cat won’t want people doing anything which may cause pain so they do all they can to stop this.
    3. This may mean your cat becomes more aggressive and will even scratch/ bite you or other animals especially if they are touching an area which may hurt.
  7. They may not want to eat
    1. Sometimes pain can reduce appetite
    2. Pain can also cause your cat to feel nauseous.
    3. Tooth problems may cause pain when eating.
    4. All these lead to many cats not eating as much though this is not seen in all cases; some cats will continue to eat normally when they have excruciating dental pain.
  8. Their eyes are sometimes partly closed or look squinted
    1. This can also be a sign of other illnesses such as cat flu or conjunctivitis so don’t rely on this definitely being due to pain.
    2. If your cat is on strong painkillers or has had an anaesthetic this may cause them to have squinty eyes.
    3. However, if on squinty eyes can be a sign of pain.
    4. Pain can also cause the pupils to be dilated (making them larger).
    5. As they can be a sign of several things, squinty eyes are no longer used to assess pain in cats.

      Squinted cats can be an indicator of pain but also reflects other situations
  9. They may struggle to go to the toilet or toilet outside of their litter tray.
    1. Cats in pain, depending where the pain is, may find it difficult to get into certain positions
    2. Climbing into a litter tray can be harder when in pain, especially if it’s affecting the hips or spine so they may no longer use the litter tray
    3. Squatting may cause intense pain which may prevent your cat from going
    4. Sometimes because of being in pain whenever they go in the litter tray they associate the tray itself with pain and start to toilet elsewhere in the house
    5. They may become constipated or their bladder becomes overfull due to refusing or being unable to toilet.
  10. Changes in Purring
    1. Cats purr for many reasons, not only when they are happy.
    2. Cats also purr when stressed or in pain so if you notice your cat is suddenly purring more then this may be why.
  11. Changes to Breathing or Heart Rate
    1. Now most owners don’t go checking their cat’s heart rate constantly but when cats are in pain you may notice their chest going up and down more as they breathe quicker
    2. With severe pain some cats also mouth-breathe, similar to dogs panting.  If you see this get your cat checked at the vets straight away; it may be a sign of a severe illness.
    3. If you are very observant, and depending how much hair your cat has, you may also begin to see their heart beating faster just behind where their elbow is when they’re laid on their sides.
    4. A vet is likely to pick up on this change during an examination of your cat so may then look more specifically for something causing pain.
  12. Changes to their Facial Expression
    1. Cats facial expression can change similar to when we smile or frown.
    2. When we are in pain our facial expression changes in a certain pattern that suggests we are experiencing pain.
    3. Your cat’s facial expression may also alter when they are in pain however it is quite subtle.
    4. Their ears go down and to the sides rather than being alert and on the top of their head like they normally are
    5. More subtly, the space between their nose and mouth gets smaller but protrudes further and spreads wider with pain.
    6. Facial expression may be unchanged if your cat has chronic pain (pain that lasts for days or even weeks) such as with arthritis so don’t rely on this method alone.

The first step is recognising pain.  The next step is helping your cat deal with it.  This may mean just making changes around the house such ramps onto things so they don’t have to jump.  However, it may also mean taking your pet to see a vet.

Vet checks may be scary for both you and your pet but they are the only way for you to find out exactly what is wrong and to find the best ways to treat it, not only for your furry friend but also for you.

Don’t worry, some of these treatments may not involve forcing tablets into their mouths as some are liquids but work with your vet to find out what is wrong and the best way to treat it.

If their back is sore and they are struggling with toileting sometimes buying a shallower litter tray or cutting a section out in the front so they don’t have to lift their feet as much really helps.

 

Quick Recap

It can be hard to tell when your cat is in pain.  They have evolved to shadow few signs of it.  Hints that your cat is in pain is them withdrawing themselves, acting differently (being quiet or even more aggressive), not eating, changes in their facial expression, purring more, not toileting normally or changes with how they move.

If you’re not sure take them to the vet and they can help find the problem and advise what else to do.

You may find it useful to read my blog describing the signs of pain in a dog; these are slightly different to in cats.  If you want to discuss this issue in more detail feel free to contact me.

 

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Photos by Amanda Sheehan Instagram; xa_j_sx

Festive Foods That are Poisonous to Cats and Dogs

Today, I’m sharing the festive items that are poisonous to your dogs and cats.  Keep a careful eye on any of the food and drinks below and keep an make sure your dogs don’t eat them.

Chocolate

The most common poisoning at Christmas. 74% of UK small animal vets treated at least one case of chocolate poisoning during the festive period last year. I’ve treated a fair few in my time.

Most people know chocolate is poisonous to dogs yet still feed it as a treat. Small amounts of milk or white chocolate are unlikely to seriously poison your dog.  However, feeding them chocolate isn’t recommended and it won’t help their waistline.

Chocolate Bar
Theobromine in Chocolate is poisonous to dogs

The poisonous ingredient in chocolate is Theobromine. The amount of Theobromine depends on the type of chocolate with more Theobromine being in Dark chocolate.  Feeding any dark chocolate to dogs is strongly discouraged and can cause illness.

The amount of chocolate your dog can eat depends on the type and brand of chocolate and the weight of your dog.  However, some dogs are affected more than others and it’s impossible to tell which are more at risk.

Chocolate is everywhere at Christmas from boxes of chocolates to tree decorations and advent calendars.  Most cases of chocolate poisoning I’ve seen have been accidental; dogs eating their way through advent calendars is common.  The best way to prevent poisoning is not to give your dog human chocolate as treats. Keep anything containing chocolate away from your dog.  Also, remember chocolate tree decorations placed high on a tree can fall off at times so could be eaten.

Most cases of Chocolate poisoning just cause

  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea.

However, in worse cases, it can cause;

  • twitching,
  • involuntary muscle movements,
  • fitting,
  • alter the heart’s rhythm
  • cause loss of consciousness which can be very serious indeed.  If these signs are seen take your dog to your vets (or the out of hours service) immediately.

Getting help before symptoms start is the most effective way to treat it.

To treat chocolate poisonings, within the first hour to 90minutes after it has been eaten, a vet will usually inject your dog with Apomorphine. Apomorphine makes your dog vomit profusely for the next twenty minutes or so, emptying the stomach.  Apomorphine also causes dogs to become drowsy, sedated and wobbly so may struggle to walk.

After your dog has stopped being sick a vet may syringe feed them a black liquid called Activated Charcoal.  Activated charcoal absorbs much of the Theobromine left in the stomach or intestines to make sure it isn’t absorbed into their bloodstream. Usually, if they are well they can go home once they have stopped vomiting.

If your dog has had a large amount or is very unwell a vet may also do an ECG to check their heart isn’t affected.   Vets may also put your dog on a drip if they’re showing signs of being poisoned to stop them becoming dehydrated and help to flush it out of their body.  In the most severe cases where an animal is having a seizure or is unconscious then treatment is based on the symptoms your dog is showing and what their blood results show.

 

Stuffing (Onion, Garlic, leeks and Chive)

Stuffing contains two poisonous ingredients, Onions and Garlic.  These both belong to the same group (which also includes leeks and chives) called Alliums and it is very dangerous for dogs or cat to eat these either raw or cooked.

Garlic and onions
Garlic, onions, leeks and chives are poisonous to dogs

Alliums are dangerous both by themselves or mixed with other foods such as stuffing or gravy, both of which are often served for Christmas dinner.  Dogs and cats tend to be poisoned by eating large amounts at once but can also be poisoned over time if eat smaller portions relatively regularly, even less often than every few days.  Eating more than 0.5% of their body weight in alliums at any one time always causes the animals to become very unwell.

Some dogs and cats are more at risk.  Medications such as Benzocaine (a local anaesthetic), Propofol (a general anaesthetic), some antibiotics (Potentiated Sulphonamides) and Paracetamol (AKA Acetaminophen in the USA) increase the risk of poisoning.  High vitamin K (possibly caused by eating rat poisons) or Zinc levels also mean they need to eat fewer onions/ garlic to be affected.  Finally, Japanese dog (Akita, Shiba Inu, Japanese Spitz) breeds need to eat fewer onions to be affected.

Chewing alliums leads to the creation of more poisonous chemicals which are easily absorbed into the body.  These chemicals damage the membrane surrounding red blood cells. Damage to the membrane surface causes the cells to become very fragile and leak which stops them transporting oxygen to the tissues and prevents them picking up oxygen as often.  As a result, the blood carries less oxygen from the lungs to the tissues.  This process can sometimes be seen hours after your animal has eaten alliums but may take days to be seen.

Signs of poisoning;

  • depression
  • red urine (caused by the presence of haemoglobin in it after leaking out of red blood cells).
  • yellowing of the gums and irises (the whites of the eye).
  • the heart beating faster.
  • breathlessness or an animal breathing faster or panting.
  • weakness.
  • not wanting to go out for walks or stopping/ slowing down when on a walk.
  • not wanting to eat.
  • diarrhoea.
  • an arched back is seen with a belly ache.

If your animal has eaten alliums then take them to a vet straight away, even if they’re not showing signs; remember it can take days before they become ill.  If taken within two hours of alliums being eaten the vet can simply give your dog or cat an injection of Apomorphine and possibly feed them activated charcoal (as described above) and the shouldn’t have any further problems.  After two hours making an animal sick will not help and other treatments are needed.

As alliums destroy red blood cells your dog or cat may need a blood transfusion to replace them.  Finally, if they have vomiting, diarrhoea, are very breathless or have a low blood pressure a vet may put them on a drip or give them vitamin E.  Some vets will also want to do blood tests over the next few days just to check the about of healthy red blood cells they have is increasing.  One thing you can do that may help is avoiding giving semi-moist foods.  Semi-moist foods may contain propylene glycol which increases the effect of the poisoning so should be avoided however this should only be done along with seeing your vet.

 

Alcohol

Alcohol is also around throughout there year but is often more prominent around Christmas.  It is illegal in the UK to give your animal alcohol to drink but you can buy alcohol-free dog beer and cat wine should you wish for your companion join you for a drink!

Wine and Beer glasses
Alcohol is poisonous to dogs and giving them it to drink is illegal in the UK

Alcohol is a poison which all animals, including humans.  A drunk person is someone affected by its poison. Drinking too much alcohol can be fatal through either you stopping breathing or choking on your own tongue.  Similar is the case with animals.

Signs of an animal having alcohol poisoning are;

  • being wobbly,
  • lethargy,
  • vomiting,
  • diarrhoea,
  • shaking
  • breathing slowly
  • slow heart rate
  • falling into a coma.

If your animal drinks alcohol a vet can inject them with Apomorphine within the first two hours to reduce the amount absorbed by causing them to vomit.  Other than that they can keep them warm as alcohol drops the body temperature, put them on a drip to keep them hydrated and monitor their blood sugar levels as alcohol causes these to drop which, in itself, can be dangerous.  Usually, unless they have drunk large quantities, animals recover fine.

Make sure you don’t leave an alcoholic drink where dogs can access and clean it up if you spill any.

 

Raisins/ Sultanas

Sultanas and raisins are often in festive sweet foods.  They are poisonous both when raw or cooked and are in mince pies and Christmas Pudding so refrain from giving your dog or cat any of those products.

These affect dogs and cats but, unlike most other poisons, the effect doesn’t depend on them eating a certain amount.  Some dogs are affected by eating a small amount of them and others aren’t.  Also, your pet may eat just one or two and become severely unwell whereas others can have a large number with no problems.  As there is no way of knowing which pets are affected more severely, all of them need to be treated.  Any dogs or cats who have eaten raisins or sultanas should be taken to a vet ASAP who will give them Apomorphine to make them vomit if it is within two hours of them consuming the fruits.

Mince Pie
Raisins and sultanas damage dog’s kidneys

If the sultanas and raisins remain in the body or they were in the body for some time before the animal vomited then they can cause kidney damage and even failure.  Signs of kidney damage are;

  • having no appetite,
  • lethargy,
  • drinking loads,
  • urinating a lot,
  • bad breathe,
  • diarrhoea and
  • weightloss.
  • By the time your pet is at the stage of showing clinical signs or their blood/ urine tests reveal kidney damage they need a lot of treatment such as going on a drip and being given medications which help protect the kidneys.  They may also need to go on a special diet to help the kidneys and will need regular blood tests to check their kidney function.

Make sure you keep any raisins, sultanas or grapes and any foods containing these are kept somewhere where your pet can’t get to and don’t give them these as a treat.

Note; there are other foods that are poisonous to animals.  This is not an extensive list.  If you’re unsure about anything or think your dog may have eaten something poisonous please talk to your vet.

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