Underestimation of Pet Ownership Costs or Poor Welfare (PAW Report 2018)

What is the PDSA PAW Report?

The 2018 PDSA Animal Welfare (PAW) Report was released on 12th June.  Late to the table, I read the report last week.  The PAW Report is based around a nationwide survey of cat, dog and rabbit ownership and has been produced annually by the PDSA since 2011.  The PAW Report stats are used by animal industry, animal welfare scientists/ advocates and the veterinary profession to see the latest trends and find the areas of animal ownership which need to be focussed upon to bring about change and improve UK animal welfare.

 

Amongst other things, this year the PAW report looked at the believed costs of pets with the PDSA reporting owners underestimating the cost of ownership.  For instance, the PDSA estimates a pair of rabbits cost around £70/month to own whereas 67% of rabbit owners estimate spending up to £20/month with a further 16% estimating a spend of only £21-£40/month.  I looked at these numbers and wondered if they truly were an underestimation or whether, in fact, owners could spend such a small amount just with basic (or perhaps inadequate) care.

Carl with a treat

I wanted to investigate this possibility!

 

I admit to not knowing exactly how much I spent on my guinea pigs but my rough estimate was around £50/month.  I believe that the care of my guinea pigs would be roughly the same as the cost of two dwarf rabbits especially considering those would have a lower fresh fruit and veg cost compared to guinea pigs.  Therefore, I decided to look at the cost, per month, of what optimal care with good products would cost (ie what I pay) vs really basic care and see if I could safely, and within welfare remits, reach this cost of £20/month.

Some basic rules

  1. Use the normal price; no discounts
  2. Look at the costs for one place, not just go looking everywhere for the cheapest item; I first decided to set this at the costs for Pets at Home (being a nationwide company) but then realised the costs online are cheaper and if I could find everything on one store then this would also be practical.
  3. Fruit and vegetables could be bought elsewhere but still from a nationwide business where I could get online prices.
  4. The prices are correct only at the time of writing 22/07/18

What I Buy and Other Options

My guinea pigs have two separate types of substrate used together; Back2Nature and CareFresh.  I use these two products as they both have low dust, good odour control and Back2Nature is made from recycled paper.  I only use CareFresh in their bed area for comfort alongside the Back2Nature.  With Carl having respiratory issues and only one eye I use product which won’t irritate his airways nor damage his remaining eye (mainly due to me being paranoid!!!).  I, therefore, don’t want him to have hay or straw as bedding which would be a cheaper option especially as bedding hay is much cheaper than CareFresh but if Carl or Ralph take their hay into their bed it remains there.   Cheaper substrate/ bedding to these would be the use of sawdust/ wood shavings, cheaper cat litter or an increasingly favourable option; using fleece as bedding with a towel layer underneath.

 

In terms of hay they usually have Burgess Excel Feeding Hay with Dandelion and Marigold .  The reason for me feeding them the Dandelion and Marigold hay is in a different post but they have other hays at times for variety or if I am looking after other animals and there is some hay left over.

 

With food, I only give a small amount of Burgess Excel Nuggets with Mint per day.  They have a great feeding response to this and it tops up their nutrients.  Nuggets are definitely advisable compared to a muesli-style diet which tends to leave your pet eating the parts they like the most and leaving the rest.  Over time if the bowl does not get emptied it can end up full of what your pet doesn’t like leaving them deficient in vitamins and minerals.

Rabbits in pain may be aggressive
Photo courtesy of Sarah Tait (Twitter @SarahTait23)

Approximately once per month I also give them a new cardboard tunnel covered in hay. These allow stimulation, enrichment and a hiding spot, even well after they’ve stripped the hay away.  The alternative to these are plastic or plain cardboard tunnels which still allow them somewhere to hide.

 

I also then provide them with a few treats which, of course, is optional.

Alongside this, I have costs associated with vegetables.

 

What I Spend

My monthly costings (based on current Pets at Home online prices (not inc offers)) are as follows;

One Back2Nature 30l bag lasts 3.5 weeks = £22.27/ Month

Burgess Excel Dandelion & Marigold Hay 1kg bale lasts 10 days= £19.47/ month

Burgess Excel Nuggets with Mint 2kg  lasts 2 months = £3.25/ month

Carefresh Natural 14l bag lasts a month= £6.99/ month

One Woodlands Medium Hay Tunnel month = £8/ month

One bag of treats costing (commonly VetIQ Nibblots) approximately £1.99/ month

This all adds up to approximately £61.97 per month not including vegetables.

My cage set up

Often I don’t pay this much though due finding deals and often using online stores to buy products; my most commonly used one being VetUK.

If I were to buy the same items on here it would tot up to £47.12/month so that’s already a nice saving however still doesn’t add in vegetables.

 

To come to an approximate cost for vegetables, something which Guinea Pigs need to meet their Vitamin C requirements, I put in approximately the amount of vegetables I’d need to buy in a month into ASDA online shopping which came to £10.52 which, if anything, I believe is an underestimation. One difference between rabbits and guinea pigs is that rabbits don’t need the same amount of fruit and vegetables as guinea pigs so there may be a difference in cost with that.

 

Therefore, for me caring for my two guinea pigs it would come to at least £57.64-£72.49, very similar to the PDSAs estimate for the cost of keeping a rabbit.

The Tunnel Carl and Ralph Currently Have

I priced up different products per month based on the amount I used.  Without actually buying all of the products and seeing how much space they would take up and the amount I would actually need it would be impossible say for definite how much is needed.

Price of Lower Cost Pets at Home Products

Firstly, as before, I looked at products available at Pets At Home based on their normal pricing on their website.  I am not going to note all of the products viewed as this would be a huge list as I compared the pricing of a lot of products.  I also looked at two different types of foods; one muesli type and one nugget.  Per month the nuggets cost around 41p more, however, I believed the need for nuggets from a dietary point of view far outweighed the cost difference.  In order to get to a cost which could come lower than the £20/month they needed to be bedded down and fed the same hay not typically something I recommend as bedding hay doesn’t have the courseness needed to ground down the teeth and doesn’t stimulate the guts as much.

So costings came to the following;

One Pets At Home Nuggets 2kg would last two months= £2.40/month

One large bag of Pets At Home Bedding Hay for Small Animals would last approximately one month= £3.49/month

Two Medium Bales of Pets at Home Wood Shavings would likely last a month = £6.98/ month

 

This totals to be £12.87 and doesn’t include any vegetables so, including those estimated earlier this would total £23.39, over the amount the majority of owners estimated the spent per month on their rabbit.

 

Are Online Products Cheaper?

I looked at a couple of websites but only VetUK had all of the products I’d need.

My estimates don’t include P&P which only becomes free on spending £29 so that may have an influence on price.

 

Here I worked out my spend as;

One Back2Nature 30l bag lasts 3.5 weeks = £13.88/ Month

Burgess Excel Dandelion & Marigold 1kg Hay bale lasts 10 days= £11.46/ month

Burgess Excel Nuggets 2kg with Mint lasts 2 months = £2.05/ month

A new delivery of hay

Carefresh Natural 14l bag lasts a month= £4.37/ month

One Boredom Breakers Naturals Hide ‘N’ Hay Gnaw Tube (Large) = £5.99/ month

One bag of treats costing (commonly VetIQ Nibblots) approximately £0.74/ month

This all equals £38.49 + Vegetables elsewhere (+£10.52)= 49.01; a significant saving but still 2.5 times the £20 target!

Now the Online Cost for more Basic Products

So once again I worked through other options and came up with the following;

Mr Johnson’s Advance Guinea Pig Nuggets would last 1.5 months =£1.90/month

Approximately 4.5kg Pillow Wad Meadow hay= £6.66

VetUK Paper bedding is another alternative I’m just trying

 

Just over a bag of VetUK Woodshavings= £4.00/month (NOTE: woodshavings can be very dusty so are not recommended for any animals with breathing issues.  Always check them for pieces of wood and ensure you remove these and always remove any wet bedding as shavings do notdry or hold in smells as well which your pet will be sensitive to.  Woodshavings is therefore not recommended as the best option)

This comes to £12.56 plus the vegetable bill of £10.52= £23.08, once more over the estimated under £20/month.  This amount also doesn’t include P&P which would only be deducted if you bought over 2months worth at once.

Dandelion leaves are an often free green you can feed

Fleece Bedding Reduces Some Costs

The main other option I could see as reducing this bill further would be the use of fleece bedding.  This would completely get rid of most of the need for woodshavings/ cat litter apart from maybe some in a litter tray.

However,  rabbits enjoy digging so this may not be the best option from an enrichment point of view.

If you were to replace all the substrate with fleece bedding (and towels/ similar underneath) the bill would be reduced to £19.08/ month, NOT including the cost of cleaning the fleece/ towels at least twice weekly.  This would therefore theoretically JUST come under the £20/month but includes no treats/ toys etc and the price would almost definitely go slightly above £20/week when taking into account washing the bedding plus any water given to the animals to drink.

Ways of Further Cost Reduction

Of course, there are ways to reduce costs further;

  • going to bargain stores
  • buying whatever products are discounted
  • buying vegetables close to their use by date can be considerably cheaper (I once purchased a big piece of broccoli for £0.01… I then realised Carl doesn’t like broccoli!).
  • feeding them muesli based diets; NOT RECOMMENDED due to them picking and choosing which bits they eat.

 

Pricing is based on the full clean out of a 140cm*70cm cage every week (plus spot cleaning where more substrate needs to be added); some may believe less often cage cleaning reduces costs.  This is counterproductive.  It can lead to your pet sitting on wet bedding causing sores to the feet (known as bumblefoot) and the ammonia from wet bedding affecting their breathing, putting them at risk of upper respiratory tract infections.  Both conditions need veterinary treatments as well as significantly lowering the welfare of your pet and therefore is not a fair choice to make.

Vaccinations for Rabbits Come At a Cost Too

When budgeting for rabbits (though not guinea pigs) it is important to remember them needing to be vaccinated against Myxomatosis, RHD1 and RHD2; together this will come to approximately £50-70 per rabbit per year so £100-140 per pair of rabbits, adding an extra £10 to the monthly cost of ownership, bringing the costs of ownership above £20/month.  However, despite campaigns, the PAW Report found that 49% of owners are not taking their rabbit for their first course of vaccinations and 58% not giving them boosters, putting them at risk of these potentially life-threatening conditions especially given how rife both Myxomatosis and now RHD2 can be now across the whole of the UK.

It is also important to discuss with your vet about the need for worming and flystrike prevention for any rabbit you have.

Conclusion

This has shown that owners either underestimate the costs or don’t give their pets as high a quality food as possible.  Even the use of bedding hay for both bedding and feeding may be counterproductive as it is less likely to wear the teeth down as well meaning they are more likely to need costly, and potentially dangerous, dental procedures and could both reduce the efficiency of their gut or make them less likely to at it which will also mean their gut is less efficient and therefore lead to them needing treatment to resolve this.

As rabbits need less fresh fruit and vegetables than guinea pigs it may be that though they are larger their care may actually be cheaper to some degree; especially with breeds such as the Netherland Dwarf.  However, likelihood is if you are managing to pay less than £20 per month on your guinea pigs or rabbits then the likelihood is their welfare may either be reduced ot you are getting some really good deals.

Adopting Ralph the Guinea Pig

Carl’s the Guines Pig’s Early Days

Two years ago, pretty much to the day, I was operating on Carl, a black seventeen-week old guinea pig.  This was the second time I’d operated on him within eleven weeks.  The first surgery I removed his eye and, following months of complications I then closed up the wound during the second surgery.  One week prior I had considered I adopting Carl if no one else was and, during the surgery, I decided I was definite rehoming him.  On that hectic Sunday, as I was sat writing up the last of my clinical notes for the day he was in an open box next to me coming around from the anaesthetic.  This is the start of the journey to adopt Ralph, a long journey!

Guinea pig plastic surgery
Carl after his second surgery sporting his stitches and shaved face

Having adopted Carl, my interesting in guinea pigs grew further and during my MSc I did some work with Cavy Corner Guinea Pig rescue in Doncaster.  We both passed information to each other with me volunteering at some of their events.  I decided that should I adopt another Guinea Pig it would be from them.

Why Carl Was a Lone Pig for Two Years

I do not advocate housing guinea pigs alone. They not solitary species and should always be housed with other guinea pigs whenever possible. Saying that, I kept Carl by himself for almost 2 years. The reasons;

  • Carl was isolated for over guinea pigs from the age of eight weeks so I didn’t know how well he would reconnect with one.
  • Secondly, and the main reason, since before I adopted him, Carl suffered from upper airway infections which proved to be contagious having spread to a friend’s rabbit I sometimes care for. Initially he had flares very often, showing symptoms for several days at a time though, luckily, he always recovered without the need for antibiotics. Any stressful period he faced he suffered with another infection. However, over the last year these reduced in both severity and frequency, with him now not showing signs of them even when stressed.

 

Over the first year of having Carl, it became obvious that me getting him a friend would almost definitely cause him to have a severe bout of infection which would spread to whichever guinea pig I adopted. Therefore, at that point, the risks were really high and, given Carl had been isolated from eight weeks old, the chances of them not making friends of another guinea pig were quite high. It was decided that at that point the risks of getting a friend outweighed the potential benefits.

Guinea Pig in cage

Over the last six months, the tables have reversed that. It became clear Carl wanted friend and, the odd time he’s had an airway infection it is only been very mild. As a result, I decided it was time to try him with a friend.

Discussing Adoption

I contacted Sue at Cavy Corner regarding getting Carl a friend and Sue’s response was very positive. She was very happy about trying him with another guinea pig to see what would happen. However, when I first contacted her the time wasn’t right. I was away from home quite a bit so I wanted things to stabilise before I look to getting him a friend.

 

I stayed in contact with Sue over the weeks and had further discussion with her a few days after I volunteered at Cavy Corner’s most recent fun show. We discussed the possibilities of me getting a friend for Carl and how you go about this in a safe way; both of us deciding it would be a good idea.

 

From my point of view, the first step, order a bigger cage!

 

From Cavy Corner’s point of view, the first step; invite Carl around for a date!

Sue knew that due to

Carl chilling out

Carl’s airway infection and his previous experience of surgeries, I didn’t want him undergoing surgery unless he really needed it so I wasn’t fond of getting him castrated so it was decided to try and match him with a boar. Bonding two boars together is less successful bonding either to sows or a sow and boar but, I knew these risks. There was also a very high risk that Carl, having not been around guinea pigs for so long, would not appreciate the company of another guinea pig and, therefore, leaving him a lone guinea pig. But, I felt it was only fair to turn the decision over to Carl himself.

Carl Goes on a Date

One evening,  myself and Carl took a trip to Cavy Corner. We decided the best way to go about it was the Carl to stay in a separate room to the rest of the guinea pigs at cavy Corner to reduce the risk of his infection spreading; it spreading around the “Caviary” would have been a disaster. However, the chances of a successful bonding were higher if the bonding took place in a neutral environment such as at Cavy Corner. I sat and had a drink with Sue and just discussed what I was up to as well as what she was up to and all the guinea pigs at Cavy Corner I then went home, having left the Carl at Cavy Corner for the night.

 

It was a quiet night at home!

 

Putting Together the New Cage; Nightmare!

 

The next day there was a knock on the door; the new cage. A Ferplast Plaza 140; a flatpack cage. I’d read online reviews saying it took around 90 minutes to 2 hours to put the cage together. I didn’t believe it would take me that long. Having spent times putting many cages together when working at a pet shop in my early 20s (during a break from vet school) and mending cat cages as a vet, I decided after 20 minutes max I’d have it sorted.

An hour and half later I’d only just got it put together! It was a nightmare of a cage to put together.

All of the joints were really stiff and the instructions were unclear. However, once put together, it is a really nice cage which comes to pieces which, to some extent, should help with transporting it. I still struggle to get most of it apart which does make life more difficult when moving it.

The Result of the Bonding

The previous day, whilst at Cavy Corner, Sue asked me what the latest time I’d like to be contacted regarding whether Carl’s bonding was successful or not. My response, any time I don’t mind. Sue’s reply, “I’m often up till 3AM with the guinea pigs, I don’t think you want to be contacted at that time!” I then replied, any time up until midnight but I do want to sleep after then!

 

Sue contact me at around 11 o’clock the next day to inform me that Carl had a friend. My reply do we have a name.

 

“Ralph”

 

That is all I asked.  I didn’t really care about anything else.  I only wanted his name so I could refer to him in some way other than “the new pig”.

Bringing Ralph Home

I returned Cavy Corner later in the afternoon to meet Ralph, a mere nine week old tricolour guinea pig with a very very long nose, huge feet, and facial markings that make look like he has really long fringe!

 

Him and Carl were curled up together and getting on great.

 

After talking to Sue about Ralph and signing the forms, we arrived home and I put them both in the new cage for the first time and, within seconds they were both eating and remained very very calm. Definitely a successful bonding and I was very glad I got Carl a friend. It was obviously just what he needed. My only regret was that I hadn’t done this sooner.

Photo courtesy of Cavy Corner Guinea Rescue

Over the next three weeks Carl and Ralph got on great. Ralph was a very cheeky boy who, for the most part, got his own way. He stole food from Carl, pushed Carl out of bed, and always got the first lot of veg.

 

I also took to task with taming Ralph. This process has already started Cavy Corner but, with having been young, this wasn’t complete. Alongside this, Ralph hadn’t had the best start in life. He’d been adopted from a breeder who had too many guinea pigs and therefore had been neglected on that front.

Not all was Rosy; The Squabbles

Two months on, for the most part, Carl and Ralph are still getting on. As soon as I had owned Ralph for three weeks, coinciding with him hitting puberty at twelve weeks old, we faced some struggles. Before this point Ralph and Carl had never had a squabble but the testosterone surges within Ralph took over a bit and lead to a lot of arguing and some fighting. The opposite to what I thought, Carl is always the one to win fights. Before he was such a pushover but he obviously wanted to remain dominant. They were a rough couple of weeks but it all seems sorted for the most part now.  Carl is the boss but Ralph tries his luck and in some situations get his own way.

Ralph also has one huge benefit, the huge fluffy bed! Luckily for Ralph, Carl has never liked that bed so has never slept in it but Ralph hopped in it when he first arrived home and so it’s definitely his.

How Things Are Now

 

Ralph is still sometimes nervous of being handled but, is chill

 

ed out in virtually any other circumstance. I recently moved house so at times there was a lot of banging and Ralph didn’t even turn round throughout the noise, often sleeping straight through!

 

There is one problem left, when I first adopted Ralph I put twice as much food in the cage. Pretty much all of which was consumed by a very greedy Carl. Carl slammed on weight very quickly and is now very overweight. I have taken action and rationed their food.  I’m sure with Carl now on a diet and losing weight, he will slowly regain a waistline, but I’m not sure is completely happy about the reduced food!

 

Ralph is getting on well and has definitely retained his cheeky side!

Guinea Pigs Need to be Sociable

I want to reiterate that in almost all circumstances guinea pigs should be kept together. They are very sociable species and need to be able to interact with other guinea pigs, ideally within the same enclosure however, if you cannot bond your guinea pigs, the next best thing is for them to be in cages next to each other.  These will allow them to smell, see, verbally interact with, and possibly touch each other.

Carl in his fluffy bed!

Though they are a sociable species, they should only be housed with other guinea pigs. Housing them with other animals is inappropriate. Their body language and other methods of communication are different to those of other species, as is their diet. Many believe they can be housed with rabbits and they sometimes still are in pet shops but, rabbits being a lot bigger can hurt them. Also, the dietary requirements change with eat species and therefore they should be kept separately. Astonishingly I recently heard of someone housing guinea pigs and birds within the same cage! This is wholly inappropriate for both species and is likely going to cause a lot of fear amongst the two.

Guinea Pigs, like rabbits, do enjoy interacting with people either through gentle handling or talking to them.  Every little thing helps for them to remain happy, have interactions with others and settle with as little stress as possible.

Unless there is a strong medical or psychological standpoint, as was the original case with Carl, it is of utmost importance for guinea pigs to be housed with others.  On the odd occasion where this is impossible and a guinea pig has to be completely isolated from others of their species, housing them close to another mammal will provide some socialisation, interaction and enrichment to their lives.  If your guinea pig is alone it is of huge importance that you spend a lot of time with them to help with their need social needs.  However, it is important to realise that however sociable you are with your guinea pig, it will be nowhere near as beneficial to your pig as them having another guinea pig friend if at all possible.

A special thanks to everyone at, or supporting, Cavy Corner. You have all in some way helped with the rescue recuperation and adoption of my little tricoloured Ralph and, Carl’s increased, sustained happiness and welfare.

Photo courtesy of Cavy Corner Guinea Rescue

The more information on Cavy Corner Guinea Rescue, visit their website or Facebook page and, to discuss the care or possible adoption of a guinea pig contact Sue or Winston; details are on their website. Feel free to also ring them with any concerns about the welfare of any guinea pigs and they can give advice or support on these matters.  Alongside that, feel free to contact myself regarding the behavioural or social needs of animals.  I will also answer aim to answer any comments left below.

 

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How to Give Medications to Guinea Pigs/ Rabbits

Today I thought I’d do a tutorial on how to give medications.  Here I show you with Carl, my guinea pig, but it’s a similar method with hamsters (though they are much more wriggly!), rats, degus and rabbits.

 

Along with this blog, I have filmed a basic tutorial of how I do this with, of course, Carl and Ralph demonstrating!

They are not currently on medications so I gave him water.  I would not have given him anything he didn’t need and I would not have done this if he minded!

 

Step 1; Get a Syringe and the Medication

Prescribing medications usually come in a bottle which you can fit a syringe into.  Your vet should also have given you an appropriately sized syringe.  Usually, with rodents, this is a 1ml syringe but it may be bigger if you have a rabbit.

A 1ml syringe; the size used for most medications in rabbits and rodents

If you have a medication called Metacam (the active ingredient is Meloxicam which is also sold as Loxicom) this may come in a special bottle with its own syringe; follow the instructions from your vet.

Make sure the syringe is clean.  The first time you use it it will be sterile.  You should clean it after each time you use it.

 

Step 2; Fill the syringe with the medication

To fill the syringe, submerge the end into the liquid and pull the plunger back.

Put more of the medication in that what they need.

Drawing up the medication into the syringe

Take the syringe out of the medication, and then carefully press the plunger to put any extra medication back in the bottle.

Make sure you check the bottle; your vet should have put a label on it to say how much your pet wants and how often.  Give them the amount they say; if you’re unsure how much to give then contact your vet.

Often when a syringe is first used there is an air bubble in it.  This takes up space that should have the medication in so if you leave the bubble there your pet will get less medication than they need.

You my see a bubble in the middle of the picture; that is normal when using a syringe for the first time

To get rid of the bubble(s) put the syringe upright with the nozzle at the top and the bubble should rise to the top.  If it doesn’t rise then flicking it and pulling the plunger back may help it to rise.

Once the bubble is at the top of the syringe, pull back on the plunger to suck more air in then push the plunger until there is no air left in the syringe (don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if there is a small amount due to it just going into their mouth).

As you put in more medication than your pet needed, push the plunger until there is only the prescribed amount of medication in the syringe.

If you end up with not enough liquid left in the syringe then don’t worry, suck some more back up.

Certain medications have a specialised syringe fits a nozzle on the bottle. If this is the case, attach the syringe to the bottle, turn the bottle upside down then pull the plunger back until the desired amount is in the syringe.

Step 3; secure your pet/ get someone else to hold them

Try to get someone else to hold your pet whilst you give them their medication.

Your pet should be held ideally on the floor so they don’t fall if they get away.  Otherwise, they could hold them over a table or on your lap.

They should hold them with 2 hands if they are guinea pig or rabbit sized, one hand over each shoulder, and hold them firmly but not tight.  They should allow you to take your pets head if need be.

Make sure the guinea pig is held in both hands

Another option is to wrap them in a suitably sized towel.  Depending on the size of your pet and towel it may help if this is folded in half first.

Then place the towel over the surface

Put your pet in the middle of the width of it with their head at the front of the towel.

Placing your guinea pig in the centre of the towel

Place 1 half over their back then the other side.

Make sure their front legs are tucked into it

Have both sides of the towel over them and firmly t the top near where both sides meet

Hold it by the top firmly but not too tightly; they need to be able to move their heads and not have their chests squeezed.

I’m securely and firmly holding Carl in a towel

If you’re just doing in by yourself, hold them in one hand with 1 or 2 fingers between their legs and the rest of your hand around their side and back.  It may be easier if you lift them up and rest their back against your chest.  Make sure they’re not lifted far above the surface though in case they get away.

Place your hand around one side of them with a finger or two between their front legs

Step 4; Place the Syringe into their mouth

Pick up the syringe with the medication in your free hand.

How I’d recommend syringing medication if without a towel and on your own

 

They have a gap in the side of their mouth between their front teeth (incisors) and cheek teeth (premolars and molars).

Place this syringe into this gap pointing towards the back of their tongue.

Put it in some distance but don’t force it back too far.

Carl is calmly allowing me to give him his medication (in this case water as an example)

Don’t worry if your pet chews on the syringe, it won’t harm them.

Step 5; Press the Plunger

Press the plunger before removing the syringe from their mouth.

Step 6; Give them something nice and tasty or give them a fuss

Though some medication tastes nice, most of it doesn’t.  Most animals get stressed when you give medications to them.  To make sure that they are as happy as possible and to make it as easy as possible give them a stroke in their favourite spot or maybe a treat or piece of food they like.

 

Be careful when you give medications; it will take a while to get used to.  You don’t want to scare your pet.  Take it steady and if you’re struggling and only manage to get half their medication into them stop, give them a break, and then try again.  You’ll be more successful and have an easier time in the future if you don’t allow yourself or your pet to get too stressed.

 

 

Do you have any further questions? Leave them in the comments below or contact me directly.  If your animal rabbit or guinea pig has an illness causing pain then check out my guides on signs of pain in those species to help you monitor that.

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Fourteen Signs of Pain in Guinea Pigs

Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus) are very common pets.  The interactions between themselves and people and them being easy to tame means they’re often sought after as pets.

Guinea Pigs are naturally prey animals and to stop themselves being caught by predators they hide signs of pain and illness really well, similar to the rabbit.  When scared, guinea pigs tend to freeze, a process known as tonic immobility, rather than show obvious behaviours of pain or fear.

Pain in guinea pigs often shows as very different to our own people often overlook it and don’t usually realise it’s due to pain.  People naturally associate how humans react to pain and expect painful animals to cry out which often is not the case.  When people don’t recognise the signs of pain in their pet they often misinterpret it, sometimes believing their pet doesn’t feel pain in the same level or some things which are painful to us don’t hurt them. Usually, this is not the case, they experience pain just demonstrate it in a different way. Species such as cats, dogs, and rabbits all experience pain the same but the signs they show are unique to the species (though there are some similarities present).

 

Though Guinea Pigs are common pets, as well as sadly being used as lab animals in potentially painful procedures, the symptoms they show when in pain still haven’t been fully studied and are often unknown.  Throughout this blog I will explore already known or highly suspected the signs of pain in guinea pigs  I’m hoping this will help you identify if your guinea pig is ever in pain.

1.Change in Posture

This is a very consistent sign and shown in various ways depending where the pain in a guinea pig is.

Having the back arched is seen with other species such as the dog.  This is seen if they have belly ache for instance if their guts are not working properly or they’ve had surgery like neutering.  They stand or walk with their bodies very tense and their spines curved over making their back appear rounded rather than flat.

Changes in posture are also seen when lying.  Normally guinea pigs lay with their back legs tucked under them. Pain in guinea pigs from their spine, belly or legs may lead to them holding one or both back legs stretched out behind them or splayed to the side.

Remember healthy guinea pigs sometimes alter their position even when not in pain.  When looking for signs of pain you need see if they are in this position lot or are also showing other signs of pain.

  1. Squeaking/ Screaming (AKA Vocalising)

Sometimes, with sudden pain, guinea pigs may make loud and high-pitched squeaks which sound different and often lasting longer than their normal lower pitched noises.

They don’t always cry out when in pain, but sudden, intense types of pain rather than aching pains can cause this.  One example is if a sore part of their skin is touched or if they hit a sore leg against something.

If you’re only trying to identify pain through them making noises, you’ll miss it most of the time.  Lack of noise doesn’t mean their pain is less severe.  Pains which are grumbling away often don’t lead to them crying out.

  1. Eating less and Weight Loss

When you’re feeling unwell you don’t want to eat as much and, to some extent, that’s the same in Guinea Pigs.  Guinea Pigs enjoy eating and spend much of their day eating.

When in pain, guinea pigs often eat less but may still readily accept treats they like when offered.

Guinea Pigs may still eat treats when in pain

 

Guinea Pigs eating less usually isn’t noticed instantly, usually, it’s only noticed the next time you feed them where you will likely find more leftovers than usual.  Monitoring eating as a sign of pain can be difficult and inaccurate because you’re likely to only realise they’re in pain after several hours have passed by which point they may have improved or have suffered in a lot of pain in the meantime, adversely affecting their welfare.

  1. Drinking Less

Similar to eating, pain in guinea pigs may be seen as them being uninterested in drinking.  This doesn’t necessarily mean they stop drinking altogether, but, they drink less and noticed when you change their water.  Therefore, this sign, like with eating less, may not be that helpful by the time you notice.

Noticing your guinea pig eating or drinking less and possibly losing weight gives you a clue they’re not feeling 100%.  Once you notice this behaviour change it’s worth looking for other signs of pain to help decide if they are in pain or what else is occurring.

  1. Unkempt Coat and Grooming Less

Any animal in pain tends to stop grooming themselves either because they don’t well enough due to the pain or their pain worsens in positions needed to properly groom themselves.  As Guinea Pigs don’t groom consistentlyand may groom themselves when hiding, this sign is difficult to spot.

With pain in Guinea Pigs it’s not always easy to notice a reduction in the time spent doing a relatively sporadic behaviour.

The first way you may notice your guinea pigs aren’t grooming fully is due to their coat looking unkempt.  It may be dirtier than usual, full of dandruff or, if long-haired, there may be more knots in it.  A guinea pig’s coat being unkempt takes a while to develop and become visible with the guinea pig being in pain for some time (usually longer than twelve hours) before their hair gets to the state where it’s noticeable, before then there often won’t be a visible change in the coat at all.

Guinea pigs may be in sore when touched
  1. Moving Less and Lying More

When in pain, any movements can worsen the pain so animals tend to stay still to avoid further pain.  Pain is also tiring leading to your guinea pig lying down and sleeping more.

Along with lying and moving less to avoid pain, your guinea pig will be scared due to the pain.  When guinea pigs are scared they tend to freeze their body.

Pain in guinea pigs are likely to make them quieter if you’re around due to increased fear that you’ll pick them up or touch them and them naturally hiding pain when in front of people.  Therefore, some will act normally if you’re watching them for signs of pain.

Guinea pigs moving less could be for many reasons such as stress from the surgery or due to medication side effects.  For instance, the pain killer, Buprenorphine, causes Guinea Pigs to lay more even when they’re in less pain so this can become confusing. Therefore, guinea pigs being quiet should not be interpreted as them always being in pain.

  1. Writhing/ Abdominal Contractions

Like in Rabbits, the signs of pain in guinea pigs are very subtle.  One of these is them writhing and having abdominal contractions.  Some abdominal contractions, to make it more difficult, can be normal in Guinea Pigs, however, these tend to worsen with pain.  Looking at them carefully and seeing contractions and them stretching their body out at the same time is likely due to pain, especially if they do it often.

  1. Flinching

Most animals flinch when in pain.  This is a sudden involuntary movement where the animal is trying to move away from whatever is causing the pain.  This may be from you if you try to touch them or they could be appearing to just flinch if nothing is near them due to pain within the body rather than just in the skin.  Flinching is more common with sudden and shocking pain rather than a duller constant pain.

Eating less is a sign of pain
When in pain, Guinea pigs often eat less

 

  1. Shaking

Pain in guinea pigs, either due to fear or adrenaline, may cause them to shake.  Shaking may be very difficult to see as it is only very subtle.

As shaking is a very subtle potentially due to not only pain but also medication side effects and stress, it is not the most reliable of signs.  Due to this if you see your guinea pig shaking you should keep an eye on them and monitor them for other problems to try and work out what their problem is.

  1. Paying Attention to a Painful Area

Like ourselves, if a guinea pig has a painful area they will tend to look at it or touch it.  Your guinea pig may groom, lick, scratch or chew at that area more which may be noticed by them having wet hair or it could even lead to the skin or hair being damaged in some cases.

  1. Moving slower

Pain in Guinea Pigs tends to worsen when they move.  Therefore, as a result, they tend to move slower.

Guinea pigs will tend to move slower, potentially an altered posture and moving more stiffly.  However, medications causing sedation such as painkillers or anaesthetics may cause your guinea pigs to move slower even without pain so they should be monitored for other signs of pain.

  1. Limping

Limping is only a sign of pain if the pain is in their legs or sometime in their spine.  Lameness is usually due to pain, especially if it suddenly comes on, however in some cases it could be due to other problems such nerve or muscle problems.

Whichever leg your guinea pig is limping on is likely the one causing the pain. If they’re in pain with several legs, then the one they’re limping on is likely the most painful.

Not all guinea pigs in pain will be limping.  Also, even if they are in pain and are limping they may show no further signs of pain than the limping.

Metacam is tasty!
Carl nibbling on the Metacam  (a painkiller) Syringe

 

  1. Cage Bar- Biting

    Rodents normally chew but this can worsen or change when stressed.

    Most happy, healthy guinea pigs don’t chew their cage bars a lot unless they are stressed or bored.  If they suddenly start cage-biting it’s a sign something isn’t normal.

    Once they start cage-biting it is important for you to find the cause and try to treat it or correctly alter their behaviour whenever possible.

    Though you can buy foul-tasting liquids to spray on cage bars to prevent chewing.  This just acts as a deterrent and is unlikely to stop them chewing in the long term.  Also, chewing is only a sign of another underlying problem in a lot of cases so you need to discover what this is, correct it and then try to resolve their chewing if it continues.

  2.  Grinding Teeth (Bruxism)

 

Guinea Pigs sometimes grind their teeth when their mouths or teeth are sore.  This is usually the case if their teeth are overgrown or not meeting properly so some grow more than others.

If your guinea pig is grinding their teeth you need to see your vet ASAP as issues with their teeth/ mouth stop them eating properly, leading to other health problems.

The summary

The signs of pain in Guinea Pigs are very subtle and still poorly understood.

Unlike rabbits, mice, rats and other species, no long has studied the effects of pain on facial expression to aid with grading pain.  There are some easier signs to detect such as limping or crying out but otherwise you need to focus on subtle signs which, each on their own, could be unrelated to pain by being related to behavioural or medical issues or are a result of medication side effects.

The best way to detect signs of pain in guinea pigs is to look out for all potential signs and, if they show any, then try to identify if others are present, monitor them and look for the cause.

 

If your guinea pig show signs of pain you should take them to your vet.  Your vet can help to work out if they are in pain, where this is and then diagnose and treat them.

 

With Guinea Pigs, just being stressed from pain or them eating less can cause other health problems, some of which may be fatal.  This means trying to resolve pain not only improves your guinea pig’s welfare but, if you don’t they could become very ill.

Finally, the signs of pain fit into a couple of big groups, normal behaviours they have stopped doing (such as being active or eating) and pain behaviours they have started (such as writhing or sleeping).  It must be remembered that Guinea Pigs hide pain when people are around, so it can be very hard to spot; even if you only see a pain behaviour performed a couple of times it may suggest a major problem.

Final Words

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If you have any questions regarding pain, guinea pigs or something else entirely feel free to ask in the comments below or, otherwise, contact me directly via my form.

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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Fourteen Signs of Pain in Rabbits

I have commonly met owners who’ve told me that rabbits don’t feel pain.  As rabbits don’t show easily obvious signs of pain these owners completely believed this.  They believed that like people or other vocal species, rabbits in pain and act totally different which often isn’t the case.  The truth is, the signs of pain in rabbits are similar, just more subtle, than in other species.

Not only did I constantly hear this from owners but I also noticed a lack of recognition of pain amongst my colleagues in rabbits.  As a result of many vets not being able to recognise pain in rabbits I suspected they underestimated the amount of pain relief rabbits needed after injuries or  operations.

One day after being frustrated with these thoughts and after meeting another owner stating the same to me, a lightbulb shone in my head.  My brain woke up and said,

“If they don’t recognise it and there’s few studies demonstrating pain in rabbits then why not study it yourself”

A few enquiries to different universities later and, to make a long story short, my Masters Degree dissertation developed.  I spent several months reading about the recognition of pain in rabbits (amongst other species).  This was spent many many hours filming, watching and analysing video clips of rabbits who may or may not have been in pain from potentially being castrated; I say potentially, some clips were filmed before rabbits were castrated!

So, you could say detecting pain is an interest of mine, especially with my favourite rotation at vet school being Anaesthesia which included Analgesia (the posh word for painkillers!).  Some people think it’s a bit of a weird interest and that I maybe have a morbid fascination with pain.

The reality, if we are in pain we take a couple of paracetamol tablets or see a doctor for stronger painkillers.  If animals are in pain they can’t do this (well, ignoring research studies where Chickens have both normal feed and feed laced with painkillers in their pens.  Then chickens who’re in pain will likely eat the feed with painkillers in… yes I’m a geek!).

Given the choice, chickens select food with pain killers in.

How do Rabbits Show Pain?

  1. Hiding or laying more
    1. This is seen in most species
    2. Rabbits in pain tend to hide or sleep more.
    3. You may not see them at all or as much.
    4. This is to protect themselves both from predators (our pets believe there may still be one) and make sure their injuries don’t get worse.
  2. Less Active
    1. Rabbits in pain move around less as they avoid doing anything that hurts.
    2. This may not be as obvious as them stopping moving completely; many are still active at times.
    3. However, if you scare them or go to pick them up (something which most rabbits hate) painful rabbits will usually still dart away.

      Rabbits in pain eat and drink less
      Like many animals, rabbits eat and drink less when in pain
  3.  Eat and Drink Less
    1. Studies have consistently shown that rabbits in pain eat and drink less.
    2. To see if your rabbit is in pain you can just compare how much they eat and drink compared to what they usually have.
    3. If you have two rabbits it may be impossible to tell as if one rabbit eats less due to pain the other may just enjoy the extra food it has left to eat so you don’t notice.
    4. It’s not always the case, some rabbits don’t change their eating patterns at all.
    5. Also, if your rabbit stops eating there may be a reason other than pain such as stress or feeling ill.
    6. Not eating can, in itself, make a rabbit very unwell.  A rabbit’s digestive system is designed for them to eat almost constantly.  If they stop eating or eat very little this can actually stop their guts from working.  This can be life-threatening so if your rabbit stops eating for whatever reason get it checked out ASAP; sometimes even just leaving them a few hours to get checked may be fatal.
    7. An advantage to checking their food and water is that you don’t have to disturb your rabbit.  This is definitely a bonus as they don’t want to be messed with when ill or in pain.
  4. Limping
    1. If your rabbit has a sore leg they may limp.
    2. Not all rabbits that are in pain will limp, even if their legs hurt, and not all rabbits limping are in pain.  Limping rabbits may have something affecting their brain or an old injury which cause them to limp despite not causing pain.
    3. However, if your rabbit starts limping and they weren’t before it is likely they are in pain.  Just don’t rule out pain because they’re not limping.
  5. Stand differently
    1. Rabbits with bellyache may stand with their backs arched up similar to what a dog or cat may do.
  6. Move Differently
    1. Rabbits in pain, when stood, may writhe a bit.  This is often seen with belly ache where they are twisting and stretching their bodies to relieve the pain.
    2. This is not always obvious as it often is done very quickly, each time lasting only a second or two.
  7. They may sleep more
    1. Being in pain is tiring.
    2. Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
    3. This means they may be in their bed more.
    4. Rabbits may also lie with their eyes shut when in pain, even if they’re awake.
  8. They may become more aggressive
    Rabbits in pain may be aggressive
    When it pain often rabbits stay away from each other or become aggressive
    1. Rabbits often don’t want to be played with or lifted by people even when they’re not in pain.
    2. When they’re in pain this is even more likely as they don’t want people making that pain worse.
    3. To try to make sure they’re not in more pain, rabbits do all they can to stop people handling them and stop playing with other rabbits.
    4. This may mean your rabbit becomes more aggressive and may even scratch or bite especially if someone is touching a sore area.
  9. High Breathing or Heart Rate
    1. Most owners don’t constantly check their rabbit’s heart or breathing rates. But, when a rabbit is in pain, you may notice their chest rising and falling as they breathe quicker.
    2. Them breathing quicker or their heart beating faster is both a sign of pain and stress so it can be difficult to use this as a method of detecting pain.
    3. This is especially so for rabbits who become stressed when around people or if people decide to lift them to check their heart rate.  In these cases, their heart or breathing rates would rise when lifted even with no pain.
    4. A vet may notice high heart or breathing rates when examining your rabbit BUT it may be hard to tell if this is due to pain or simply stress.
  10. Changes in Grooming Habits
      1. If your rabbit is in pain it will tend to clean itself less.
      2. However, if they’re in pain in an area of the body they can get to they may lick it more.
      3. Sometimes if a rabbit has surgery and they are in pain they may remove their stitches from nibbling at the area.
  11. Screaming
    Pain in rabbits can be seen by them lying down
    Rabbits may lie down more when in pain
    1. As a rule, rabbits do not cry out when they are in pain.
    2. However, there are exceptions to every rule.  In this case, rarely and when in severe pain, a rabbit may scream out.
    3. It is unlikely that they will scream but it is heard in some cases.
    4. Sometimes rabbits can be heard making slight whimpering noises but again this is uncommon and is very quiet.
  12. Grinding Teeth
    1. This may be seen with tooth pain and, uncommonly, with gut pain.
    2. Sometimes very ill or stressed rabbit’s abdomens bloat up.  This may also be caused by certain foods. Bloating is a result of your rabbit’s digestion slowing or even stopping.
    3. This is incredibly painful and can, sometimes, cause them to grind their teeth, especially if you’re feeling over their belly.  Bloat also causes rabbits to writhe.
  13. Weight Loss
    1. Rabbits in pain over several days or longer may lose weight.
    2. Your rabbit will both eat less and use up more energy from stress and having higher heart and breathing rates.
    3. If your rabbit appears to have lost weight then it may be due to pain but there are many other causes too.
  14. Change in Facial Expression
    This rabbit is just resting rather than in pain. His ears are back but his nose is a U shape
    1. Pain causes us to screw our eyes shut and open our mouth.
    2. Many mammals do similar with pain and rabbits aren’t an exception.  Some of the signs they show are subtle but all of them together may be due to pain.
    3. Eyes Closed; rabbits in pain, even when awake, may have their eyes closed or only partially open.
    4. Tense Whiskers; their whiskers may become tense and instead of pointing outwards from their face and moving quite a lot, they may be held very close to the face, together and be held downwards
    5. Nose Changes; Rabbits normally have a U shape to their nostrils when relaxed.  When in pain, however, this alters as the bottom part of their nose is tensed causing it to become smaller and leaving their nostrils to form a V shape.  This is very subtle though
    6. Ears Closed; Rabbits normally have nice open dome-shaped ears which are help upright.  When in pain this completely changes. Their ears may be held back, sometimes lie along their backs.  Their ears also close leaving the opening very narrow.
    7. Cheeks may flatten.  This is very hard to spot.  Rabbits cheeks are usually very rounded and easy to see.  However, when they’re in pain these become tense and no longer stick out but, instead, flatten and may even curve inwards.

What Should I do If My Rabbit Is in Pain?

The first step is recognising pain.  Once you’ve noticed your rabbit may be in pain you should take them to your vet.  As rabbits stop eating when they are in pain and them notIf your rabbit stops eating you must take them to a vet straight away as not doing so could, along with the pain, make them severely unwell.

Vet checks may be scary for both you and your rabbit but they are the only way to find out exactly what is wrong and treat it.  As rabbits don’t like being handled they may find it even more stressful than other pets but if they’re in pain then getting them checked is definitely the best thing.

If your vet finds out what is wrong with your rabbit and they need medications, don’t worry the majority of thse for rabbits are liquids.  These medications can be squirted straight into their mouths and your rabbit may like the taste of some of them.  The quicker you find the cause of their pain and start their treatment, the better and the less stressed and ill they’ll become overall.

 

Quick Recap

The main signs of pain in rabbits are changes in their facial expression, an increase in their heart and rates, them eating less, wanting to be left alone, sometimes becoming aggressive, and being quiet.

If they’re in pain take them to the vet to find and treat the problem.

 

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Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions or discussion points.  Also feel free to get in touch with me to find out more about this topic.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Tait (Twitter.com/ SarahTait123)

The Problem with Pugs (and other Brachycephalic Dog Breeds)

I’m going to touch on a subject which I believe is very important and currently, there are several media campaigns raising awareness on it.  This campaign is related to Brachycephalic (flat-nosed/ flat-faced) breeds of animals.  My intention of this blog is not to cause offense to anyone, nor state all brachycephalic animals have poor health/ welfare but to raise awareness of the general issues facing these breeds.  I want to state that I personally do not believe the breeding of brachycephalic breeds should be banned.  Instead, I feel breeding associations such as the Kennel Club (KC) and American Kennel Club should carefully reconsider their breed guidelines to reduce the health problems facing these breeds.  Failing a change in breed standards, the development of health programs for issues facing brachycephalic breeds (similar to hip scoring done in Labradors and German Shepherd Dogs) should be considered.

 

What is a Brachycephalic Breed?

Brachycephaly describes animals that have flat-faces with a very short nose which may be almost flat against the face.  Brachycephalic animal breeds are where the breed characteristics include brachycephaly as a feature.  People usually associate the term brachycephalic breeds with dogs however, brachycephalic cat and rabbit breeds exist.

Rabbits and Cats can be Brachycephalic too

Rabbit and cat breeds are often overlooked by their canine counterparts when it comes to this issue.  This means the public/ owner awareness of brachycephaly in rabbits and cats is even lower than with dogs.  Brachycephalic cat breeds are as follows;

  • British Shorthair.
  • Exotic Shorthair.
  • Himalayan cat.
  • Persian cat.
  • Scottish Fold.

Whereas brachycephalic rabbit breeds are;

  • Netherland Dwarf
  • Lionhead

both of which are very popular.

Persian cats are brachycephalic too
Brachycephalic Breeds are just Pugs and French Bulldogs, right?

When you mention brachycephalic breeds of dogs, the ones which come to mind are Pugs, French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs.  However, many more breeds are brachycephalic including;

  • American Bulldog.
  • Boston Terrier.
  • Boxer.
  • Bullmastiff.
  • Cane Corso.
  • Dogue de Bordeaux.
  • Mastiff breeds.
  • Japanese Chin.
  • Pekingnese.
  • Rottweiller.
  • Shih Tzu.
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier is considered brachycephalic too.

Some of these breeds are more commonly affected by brachycephaly associated health conditions more than others explaining why many breeds on this list are not highlighted in campaigns.

 

So What Are The Problems with Brachycephalic Breeds?

Brachycephalic breeds have shorter, sometimes almost non-existent muzzles with their nose almost completely flat to the face in severe cases.  Breathing becomes more difficult in brachycephalic dogs for a number of reasons best explained by comparing the x-rays of a Labrador (non-brachycephalic) with a severely brachycephalic English Bulldog.

NB; On x-ray, Air is black, bone is white and soft tissue (eg skin or the throat) is grey.

I am going to work down from the front of the face to the lungs to highlight the issues on this xray (used with the kind permission of Cat The Vet, a UK veterinary surgeon and vet/ animal welfare campaigner and blogger).

Facial/ neck anatomy Comparison xray
Comparison of a Labrador’s head and neck anatomy compared to a Bulldog’s

 

  1. The nose. There is a drastic difference between the length of the muzzle in the Labrador compared to the Bulldog.  The muzzle and internal structures of the nose contained within both these dogs contain the same number of organs and amount of soft tissue but in the Bulldog this is greatly compacted.  One function of the nose is to allow air to pass through when breathing; when there’s too much soft tissue present, less air can pass through easily making breathing more difficult as is the case with the Bulldog.
  2. Between the nose and circular eye socket of the Bulldog, you should be able to detect darker grey areas which aren’t present in the Labrador. These are the skin folds above the Bulldog’s nose where the skin originally designed for a dog with a longer nose is still present but there isn’t enough space for it to lie flat.  Whilst skin folds don’t affect the dog’s breathing, can affect their quality of life.  This skin becomes hot and irritated and the hot, moist, and greasy area is a perfect place for skin infections to start.  As a result, the skin becomes inflamed and painful before an infection develops.  Many brachycephalic dogs resist you touching their face and one reason for this is their irritated skin.
  3. The teeth. Again, this is not an issue with their breathing, but both the Labrador and the bulldog have the same number of teeth.  In the Labrador, these all have plenty of space but in the Bulldog, they become crowded due to the maxilla (“upper jaw”) being smaller.  The maxilla is also much further back than the jaw so the teeth don’t meet as they should.  The teeth not lining up not only causes problems with dogs picking up food but them not lining up with those on the lower row means teeth can contact the lower gum and vice versa leading to lifelong painful sores or holes in the gum which potentially become infected.  Finally, with a Bulldog’s mouth being too small for its teeth these often either turn and overlap or don’t erupt from the gum.  Them not erupting means they stay within the gum causing pain and potentially leading to an infection requiring the tooth to be extracted whilst it’s within the bone (which the gum covers); a complex surgery requiring bone to be removed.
  4. The back of the mouth/ the throat. Here you see the black airway in the Bulldog is very narrow in comparison to the Labrador. Extra tissue lies in the back of the mouth/ throat, partially blocking the airflow and creating the characteristic snoring or snorting noise when the dog breathes which many people feel are cute. Also, some brachycephalics struggle with their soft palate, a fleshy tissue in the throat, being too long and also blocking the airflow.  These structures reduce the amount of air getting through and cause turbulence in that airflow resulting in the air all flowing in different directions so less air enters the trachea (windpipe).
  5. Finally, you will notice the black trachea running from the throat to the lungs is much narrower in the Bulldog. This means once the Bulldog has used a lot of energy and adapted it’s breathing to force air past all the obstacles before the trachea, there is even more obstruction to airflow.  This means brachycephalic dogs have even more issues getting air to their lungs than if their problems only affected their noses.

Dogs need plenty of oxygen from their lungs to be both physically and mentally active.  If their airflow is restricted they will become easily stressed when active as they will be unable to breathe in enough air to feel comfortable.  In worse case scenarios they can faint or even have seizures (fit) when exercising because the oxygen in their blood is too low to adequately supply their organs including their brain and heart.  In fact, many brachycephalic dogs are very quiet purely because them doing any exercise can be both very difficult and uncomfortable.  Imagine you’re breathing through a straw whilst out on a run; being able to keep on running will quickly make you tired, uncomfortable and you may even begin to feel dizzy; this is how a brachycephalic dog with breathing problems feels.

This Bulldog’s nostrils are so closed they will struggle to breathe at all
Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)

Together, the breathing problems mentioned above alongside a narrowing of the nostrils create BOAS.  This syndrome is diagnosed in brachycephalic breeds whose features cause the breathing difficulties difficult and affects up to 85% of Pugs and 45% of French Bulldogs.  This syndrome severely affects many dogs lives, reducing their welfare as they are unable to act like dogs and struggle to go for walks or even playing. There isn’t a magic pill that helps BOAS, the only effective treatment is surgery. This surgery, or collection of surgical procedures, could cost thousands of pounds and, more importantly, in the short-term, may be painful and dangerous for your dogs to go through.  However, in the long-run, these procedures will massively improve your dog’s energy levels, health, and quality of life.  In fact, surgery changes their lives so much that one of the most common complaints is how their dog has become bouncy and difficult to handle.  The surgery itself has not changed the dog behaviour, or what it wants to do just now they can act in a way in their health was preventing them from doing.  Thus, if your dog is more bouncy and boisterous after BOAS surgery it is a sign they really needed surgery and that it’s been effective.

 

Some brachycephalic dogs do not need surgery at all and live normal healthy lives with few problems.  However, for those that need surgery some may only need one procedure whereas others may need several done together as one big operation.  The simplest procedure, and therefore the most common, is to widen the nostrils.  This allows more air into the nose thus, to some degree, increasing the amount of air getting to the lungs but it doesn’t help with any narrowing or obstructions past the nostrils which is often the bigger problem.  To increase the success rate, along with widening the nostrils, a dog may have its soft palate shortened, and tissue near the tonsils removed.  These procedures together greatly increase the amount of air a dog can breathe in, often completely resolving any breathing issues.

Do Brachycephalic Breeds have other Problems?

Brachycephalic breeds have a large number of health problems and I am only touching on a few here.

Brachycephalic dogs, especially the bull breeds, have very wide heads and relatively narrow pelvises.  This doesn’t affect them unless they are pregnant females.  The vast majority of Pugs and Bulldogs cannot give birth naturally as the bitch’s pelvis isn’t wide enough for the puppy’s head to pass through. Their dogs often need caesareans with each pregnancy with over 80% of Bulldogs, Boston Terriers and French Bulldogs requiring caesarians to give birth.  If they don’t get a caesarean on time, both the mum and pups can die.  The risks of a caesarean are;

  1. The anaesthetic risk (higher due to their breathing problems) which affects both the mum and the puppies),
  2. Infections and problems with wound healing
  3. Rejection of the puppies. When a bitch doesn’t naturally give birth they often don’t recognise the puppies as their own so refuse to let them suckle.  The only way for them to survive is for the owner to hand-rear them, feeding them every two hours newborns.

Finally, caesarians are also very painful. This pain may worsen when nursing, making it more likely for her to reject the puppies.

The Kennel Club guidelines state that bitches from accredited breeders can only have two litters by caesarean section due to the risks and pain that this causes.  However, if the bitch is in labour and the puppies are stuck they NEED to have a caesarean otherwise both the mum and litter will die.  When performing a caesarean, vets will usually offer to spay the mum.  This doesn’t take much longer or increase the risks much but prevents further pregnancies.

 

Some Bulldogs/ Pugs have issues with their spine.  This malformation is related to their curly tail whereby one or more of their vertebra is a triangular shape (called hemivertebra) rather than a rectangle.  This causes their spine to develop a bend called Kyphosis.  This can be incredibly dangerous as well as painful.  If the affected vertebra is in the thoracic part of the spine it may cause the spine to be mal-aligned over the ribcage altering the shape of the chest cavity which can cause breathing problems.  In other areas, kyphosis or lordosis (a similar curved of the spine) may affect the nerves leaving the spine causing reduced the coordination of the legs and, in severe cases, causing paralysis.

This pugs eye is protruding from it’s socked. It also has damage to the cornea (the surface of the eye).

Brachycephalic breeds often have very prominent eyes.  Their squashed faces also cause their eye sockets to be shallower so their eyes to stick out more and are not held in place as securely.  As they are more prominent there is less tissue there to protect them.  As a result, it is more likely that brachycephalic dogs are more at risk of both eye infections (eg. conjunctivitis or uveitis) or, corneal ulcers (scratches to the surface of the eye) which may be difficult to treat.  Many brachycephalic animals have scars on their corneas from previous poorly healed ulcers.  They are also more prone to their eyes coming out of their sockets, something called exophthalmos.  Exophthalmos can happen with trauma to the head or the muscles holding the eye in place becoming weak.  If they get this, they must see a vet immediately.  If taken quickly, their vet may be able to put them back into place with minimal damage caused, though it may recur.  However, if this is left, not only will it cause excruciating pain, it can affect the vision potentially leading to blindness.  Also, without treatment, the eye will also become incredibly infected and damaged so the only available treatment is the removal of the eye.

So Why All the Media Attention and Campaigning?

Due to a large number of Pugs and French Bulldogs, in particular, being in the media, and kept by famous people, the numbers of these kept in the UK has sky-rocketed.  French Bulldogs are soon to overtake the Labrador as the breed with the most dogs registered with Pugs are not far behind (In 2016 French Bulldogs (21,470 registered dogs) were the 3rd most popular dog with numbers increasing by massive 147% from 2015 with Pugs (10,408 registered dogs) being the fourth behind Labradors (33,856 registered dogs) and Cocker Spaniels (21,854 registered dogs)).

However, Pugs and French Bulldogs are not just bred by KC-accredited breeders or from KC-registered dogs leading to a problem.  Many of these dogs are bred by people who don’t know what they are doing and may not realise the problems associated with breeding these dogs, potentially causing them to be in labour longer than they should prior to taking them for a caesarean.  As well as this, many are born in squalid conditions on registered or unregistered puppy farms in the UK and then sold in pet shops or from households where they weren’t born and without their mother but with a stooge dog.  Though these houses often appear nice, the early life of the puppy has been very traumatic and they have been placed in high-risk situations for a disease.  Finally, to meet demand, many Pugs and French Bulldogs are imported or smuggled into the UK from primarily Eastern Europe and Ireland.  These dogs may not have had their full vaccinations, not only putting them at risk but also risking introducing a nasty disease to the UK that isn’t already (eg. Rabies).  Their puppies have been through large amounts of stress which increases their likelihood of becoming ill.  Not only this but they often haven’t been socialised thus leaving them more at risk of developing behavioural disorders and phobias throughout their lives.

This shows the degrees of severity of brachycephaly based on the skull anatomy

 

A normally proportioned dog skull

The use of brachycephalic dogs in ads only adds fuel to the fire.  It keeps them in the public eye, thus increasing the number of people who want them when they otherwise may not have. Not only this, it glamorises the breed and makes it seem like they have fewer problems than the reality, leaving people who buy them unaware that their dog may be suffering and need expensive surgeries just to have a normal.  Ideally, the KC needs to try and alter the breed standards for these dogs and try to encourage breeding only from those without BOAS and with a longer muzzle.  This type may not be to everyone’s taste but it reflects how the breeds were only a century ago and will greatly improve their health, making these friendly dogs happier and healthier for future generations to enjoy.

 

 

I hope you found this blog both interesting and educational.  As mentioned earlier I am not against these dogs and do not want to see these dog’s, or the breeding of them, banned.  However, I feel that the way these are bred should be changed and more importantly, I want to raise awareness of the problems facing brachycephalic dogs to ensure they live healthier and happier lives.  In order to try and get the message across regarding brachycephalic breeds and improving their welfare, it would help if you could share this blog far and wide.

 

To check out more about the issues Brachycephalic dogs are currently facing check out the British Veterinary Association’s website and the Brachycephalic Working Group.

Dealing with Firework Fear in Dogs

Around New Year’s Eve or Bonfire Night, many dog owners worry about how their dogs will react to fireworks.  There’s a huge spectrum of how dogs react to fireworks; some happily watch them out of the window whilst others remain in their beds shaking due to fear.  In this blog, I will look the causes of firework phobia and different ways to help it.

Dog stood up
Dogs have sensitive ears, eyes and noses.
Dogs Ears and Nose are VERY Sensitive

People in the UK know the weeks surrounding bonfire night are filled with people setting off fireworks, sometimes from as early as mid-September.  Over the last two decades letting fireworks off at midnight (or before children go to bed) on New Years Eve has become very popular. People are aware of these traditions and every year we know it will happen.  Our dogs, on the other hand, aren’t aware of these patterns and don’t know what fireworks are.  To them, a bang is not supposed to be there, a sudden noise which is out of the ordinary which may be due to danger.  Their ears are more sensitive than ours and they can hear a much wider range of noises.  This means that to them fireworks will not only be much louder but they may also sound different as there may be pitches the dog can hear but a human can’t.  Dog’s can hear sounds that are four-times farther than with humans so they can hear fireworks that we can’t.

Fireworks also create a smell.  The smell of explosives and burning is unpleasant and one which dog’s, like people, do not enjoy.  To them, this is magnified as their noses are at least 1000 times more sensitive than our own.

Along with dogs smelling fireworks more clearly and hearing them louder and possibly different to us, they will hear ones which we cannot.  Therefore, if you dogs are terrified around bonfire night but you don’t hear any fireworks, that may still be the problem.

Farm Border Collie
Bring dogs inside when there are fireworks
Dogs Don’t Know What Fireworks Are

If something behind you made a loud bang or smashes, you’d jump and turn around.  You were startled and momentarily surprised so looked around to see what happened but relaxed when you found out you were safe.  If this were to start happening over and over again though you’d probably get a bit anxious.

 

Well, dogs are the same.  Loud bangs from fireworks, which are louder to them than us, do not make sense to them.  They don’t know what fireworks are or that they won’t hurt them so they become anxious or scared.  Dogs evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to react to loud bangs and horrible smells as they may be dangerous.  They believe this is the case with fireworks so their natural reaction is to become stressed and anxious with some developing phobias.

 

Multi-coloured firework
Fireworks look pretty but sound quite scary
Signs Your Dog is Scared of Fireworks
  1. Your dog is much quieter than usual and/ or they’re hidden.
  2. They’re shaking in their bed.
  3. They’re urinating when in the house when they wouldn’t normally.
  4. They are running around like mad rapidly looking around each time there is a bang, often panting and possibly shaking.
  5. They have stopped reacting to you when you’re shouting or looking at them.
  6. They are whining and crying.
  7. They have been scratching around a door as if they want to go out or chewing on something when they wouldn’t usually.
  8. They won’t settle, play or eat.
Firework distraction
You can put the TV to distract your dog from the fireworks
What can Help Your Dog Get Used to Fireworks
  1. Stay with them when there’s a lot of fireworks.
  2. Make sure all the windows and doors are shut; reduces the noise and smell.
  3. Closing the curtains reduces the flashing.
  4. Keeping the TV or radio on; the noise disguises the fireworks and helps them focus on something else.
  5. Keep an area where they can retreat and be undisturbed. Covering their bed to create a “fort” will give them space to relax.
  6. Provide at least one resting place/ bed per animal, plus an extra. They can all relax at the same time without any fighting to get into a quiet spot.
  7. Reassure and talk to your dogs to make sure they are OK.
  8. Do NOT act like overly concerned or fussy.  Though this may seem like it will help your pet will sense there’s something to fear.  They may become more
  9. anxious and this may continue into the future
  10. Don’t walk them when fireworks are set off; the noise will be louder and the area will smell more so your dog will be more likely to react.
  11. Keep children away from your dogs.  If a dog is messed with when they are scared they are more to bite whoever is messing with them.
  12. Stick to a Routine.  If your dog usually gets fed at six O’ clock then keep to that time even if there are fireworks.  Stable routines will help them relax even if the situation is otherwise stressful.  Leave their food dog; if your dog doesn’t eat they can come back for their food later.
  13. Socialise your puppies and expose them to different sounds when young; around eight to sixteen weeks.  This is the easiest time for them to adapt.  Sounds Scary (see later) may be used for this.
  14. Be Prepared.  Find out where and when local firework displays.  Talk to your
    neighbours and see if they will be setting any off and discuss with them whether they can use quiet ones.

These tips only help with dogs who do not have a phobia of fireworks. The information below explains how to help dogs who are fearful or phobic around fireworks.

Relaxed Tess in Bed
Only put Sounds Scary on when your dog is calm; see below

 

Firework Phobia CANNOT Be Solved Overnight

Over the years, hoards of people have brought their firework phobic dogs to me just before Bonfire Night or on 30th December.  These owners hoped I’d just give them something to stop their dogs being scared of the fireworks.  Many of these also want to go out to see the fireworks, leaving the dog alone.

In reality, this doesn’t work.  Yes, vets may be able to sedate dogs so they don’t react to fireworks but that’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem.  Dogs being sedated once will not stop them being scared of fireworks the next time.  Fears take a lot of time and work for both humans and animals to get over.  It can take weeks of training for dogs scared of fireworks to remain calm around them and it doesn’t work with all dogs.  Helping dogs requires the owner to spend their time helping and reassuring their dog and putting things in place to help them.  Also, dogs whose firework fear improves may still be scared of them and, over time, their phobia may come back.  Keeping their fear at bay is a long-term commitment where they may need training on and off forever.

Quite a few different ways of helping dogs with their firework phobia exist.  Not all methods work for all dogs or owners so if you try one and it doesn’t help then try another.

Speaker
You can play Sounds Scary through a Bluetooth speaker
Sounds Scary

Sounds Scary is a method of systematic desensitisation or habituation.  It is a number of soundtracks of firework noises to play when your dog is relaxed.  You should first play the tracks very quietly so they can hardly be heard, and with time you gradually increase the volume ONLY if your dog is calm.

The aim of “Sounds Scary” is for your dog to get used to the sound of fireworks and recognise that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Over time they shall remain relaxed with the soundtrack so will no longer fear real fireworks.

This process takes time and every dog reacts differently.  The soundtrack shouldn’t just be put on for five minutes at a time but for longer periods and the volume raised only when your dog is COMPLETELY relaxed.  If the volume is increased too quickly or when your dog is stressed it can overwhelm or scare them.  Developing a fear of the soundtrack will worsen their anxiety requiring you to start Sounds Scary from the beginning again. Sounds Scary should be used daily, often needing to be played for a number of weeks until your dog isn’t affected by loud firework sounds.  Even when your dog is unaffected by loud firework sounds it is still worthwhile to play the soundtracks every so often to ensure they still remain calm.  If your dog your dog appears anxious with the soundtrack or real fireworks at any point, restart the training.

Sounds Scary is available for download, along with a guide explaining the program, from the Dog’s Trust website.  I strongly recommend reading the guide before training with Sounds Scary.

Tess at the kitchen door
Scared or playing? Definitely not calm
ThunderShirt

A ThunderShirt is a dog coat which applies a constant pressure to the skin. This constant pressure affects the sensory receptors in the skin and calms your dog down.  This either works by giving your dog something else to upon or the release of endorphins (feel-good chemicals).

ThunderShirts work for a large variety of fears and behavioural issues.  They are similar to autistic people becoming calm when under weighted blankets.    ThunderShirts reduce stress in up to 80% of dogs without the use of medications/ supplements.  Though they don’t need to be worn for a specific time period, I’d recommend putting it on your dog before fireworks start.  I advise this as once your dog is stressed it may not be possible to put the ThunderShirt on safely and calmly.

Stereo
Sounds Scary can be played on a stereo or music/ radio can be played when fireworks are being lit elsewhere

 

Adaptil

Adaptil is a chemical similar to Dog Appeasing Pheromone.  Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is a pheromone (a chemical animals release to send messages to others through smell) produced between the teats of dogs when puppies are suckling. DAP calms the puppies down.  Adaptil is so similar to DAP it also calms dogs when it is released into the air.

Adaptil is sold either as a spray, a diffuser fitting into an electrical socket or a collar.  All forms work in the same way but some take longer to work than others.  The spray, for instance, when sprayed around a room spreads quicker than DAP released from a diffuser but it doesn’t last as long.  The collar is good if only one needs DAP.  The collar constantly releases DAP around that dog but it doesn’t diffuse around the room.  It, therefore, wouldn’t affect other dogs unless they are constantly next to each other.

Like all products, Adaptil doesn’t work on all dogs and doesn’t work instantly.  I’d recommend using it for a few days before fireworks are expected.  This will allow it to fully diffuse and affect your dog(s).

For DAP to be rapidly effective you could combine a spray and a diffuser.  It will cover a room quickly with spray and whilst lasting longer with a diffuser.  However, if you have only one dog, a DAP collar will also work rapidly.

Dog with toy
Rocky playing with his toy; toys can be a distraction from fireworks
Supplements

A number of supplements may be bought to calm your dog down.  Every dog’s body works differently so some supplements may work well on one dog and not affect others.  There are quite a few supplements available but I’ll only mention three here.

Zylkene appears to works very well on some dogs but doesn’t help others.  It is similar to a calming chemical in the mother’s milk and calms dogs when they take it.  Zylkene doesn’t work straight away. You should give it to your dog for 7+days before fireworks are expected and every day whilst fireworks are going on.  Zylkene, therefore, may have to be taken for over a month.  Whilst it is impossible to know whether it will work on your dog before using it, it is very safe and doesn’t cause side effects.

Nutracalm is only available from veterinary surgeries but doesn’t need a prescription.  Like Zylkene, this supplement is safe and effective for many dogs, but it doesn’t work with them all and it isn’t a sedative. Unlike Zylkene, it acts quickly, calming your dog within an hour and it doesn’t need to be given daily.  Whilst Zylkene contains one active ingredient, Nutracalm contains several including; L-Tryptophan causing sleepiness and GABA, a calming chemical in the brain.  These and other ingredients in it are naturally within the body.  Nutracalm containing several active ingredients means it doesn’t rely on a dog responding to just one.  Dogs only need to respond to one of the ingredients in it so it may help more dogs, however, it doesn’t help everyone.  It also isn’t a sedative.  Nutracalm should be given an hour before fireworks as it’s less effective if given whilst your dog is stressed.

YuCalm, like NutraCalm, helps calm dogs using several ingredients.  YuCalm contains L-theanine helping the body produce more Serotonin (a relaxing chemical in the brain), Lemon Balm to increase GABA in the brain (calms dogs) and finally fish proteins which alter GABA and dopamine levels (two brain chemicals which calm the dog).  However,  similar to Zylkene, YuCalm does not work immediately.  It needs to be fed to your dog this daily for 3-6weeks before your it helps to calm your dog.  Due to this, you would have to start giving this ideally six weeks before fireworks are expected.

Sedatives

If you’ve tried training, supplements and ThunderShirts but your dog is still very fearful of fireworks, the next step is trying sedatives.  These should NOT be the first thing option as they can be dangerous due to side effects.  Sedatives also don’t phobias, the just calm dogs down whilst they are effective and won’t help in the long term.

 

The main sedative prescribed is Diazepam.  Diazepam acts on the brain to calm your dog down but may slow the heart and breathing.  It can also cause dogs to be sleepy and wobbly.  Diazepam cannot be used all the time as it is no longer effective and can cause them a physical addiction.  Though Diazepam is very effective in a lot of dogs, they don’t work as well in some dogs.  It can also cause confusion potentially causing dogs to become aggressive around people.  Diazepam works very quickly, often within 20minutes and lasts between three and twelve hours depending on the dog.  If your dog is prescribed these you need to stay with your dog after they have eaten them, at least the first time.  This is to make sure that your dog doesn’t become ill and to check they help.  If diazepam causes bad side effects or is ineffective you need to speak to your vet about what to do.

ACP (AKA Acepromazine) used to be used for phobias though it is no longer recommended. ACP is purely a sedative and affects the heart, lungs and brain, causing dogs to seem calm and they no longer react as much.  However, ACP doesn’t reduce the fear dogs experience (whereas diazepam does).  This means when a dog is on ACP they will still be as scared of fireworks but won’t look concerned and so their owners will believe they are not scared.  Treating phobias with ACP, therefore, is a welfare concern and can worsen the phobia over time.  Finally, every dog acts differently to ACP; some dogs stop breathing whilst it causes Boxers to faint.

Other medications (eg Fluoxetine or Clomicalm) may be advised for anxiety.  Describing these in more detail isn’t necessary here.  They aren’t useful as sedatives as they must be used for several weeks before they help and they cause other side effects. I’ve mentioned these purely because they are great options for some dogs with severe anxiety/ phobias. So, if your dog is really fearful and nothing else will help discuss this with your vet to see if anything else may help.

 

If you don’t know where to turn and have problems with a pet and want further advice then feel free to check out the services I offer or contact me for further info.

 

Dealing with Firework Fear in Horses

Unexpected loud bangs are often a sign of danger.  They startle people and animals alike.  Humans know what fireworks are and that, for the most part, they are not a threat.  We also know what times of the year to expect them.  Animals do not know what fireworks are so are unprepared for them.  Their hearing and sense of smell are also more sensitive than ours causing fireworks to cause even more discomfort and fear.  Saying that though, some animals are more affected by fireworks than others. I know of horses who are not bothered by fireworks at all whereas their companions are terrified. To some degree how you interact with your horse when fireworks are around helping alter how they react.  It can also help them to deal with better coping mechanisms towards them.

 

Why are horses scared?

Horses are prey animals who live in a herd.  In the wild, they are hardly ever seen alone as this would make them more vulnerable to predation.  When as a herd, there’s always one or two horses that are still awake and stood when others are asleep.  These horses are listening and watching for predators all the time.  Horses can smell predators from long distances and they also keep their heads raised, allowing them to detect predators early.

Horses can also detect predators easier through their almost 360-degree vision, good night vision and sensitive hearing.  If one horse in the herd notices a potential predator they will scream, squeal or whinny to alert the others to the potential threat.  This quick alert allows the horses to wake up to assess the situation and flee if needed.  Being prey animals who rely on their senses to avoid predators in the wild, horses feel most confident when they can see all around them.  They are also more confident when around other horses to ensure predator detection is at its peak.  As a result, they prefer to be in open spaces with other horses.

Horses are naturally scared of the loud bangs such as fireworks.  To them, it’s likely a predator coming after them.  This is made worse by a firework’s acrid smell.  If horses become frightened they have evolved to go into flight mode rather than fight.  This means, if they are able to, they will flee or charge away from the source of the noise.

Horse in a stable
Stable your horse for fireworks?
Should they be in their stable??

Most horse owners feel the safest way to care for their horses when there are fireworks around is to keep them stabled.

Horse owners often believe stabling their horse is safer as being confined prevents them from becoming injured through carrying out flight behaviour.  They also believe that being stabled reduces their horses stress due it being both darker and quieter. However, most stables will not insulate the sound to an extent where horses are comfortable with fireworks.

Most stables mean horses are unable to fully see or touch their companions.  This seclusion increases their stress as they can no longer act as a herd when exposed to threats such as fireworks.

Finally, the restriction in a stable means horses can’t flee from the noise, they no longer have the choice of a proper flight reaction.  The horse is expected to overlook its own evolution and no longer react to a threat by fleeing.  Being unable to react in a normal manner can lead to phobias developing or worsening as the horse cannot act appropriately to the threat.

Some horses, however, follow their instinct and flee, resulting in them crashing through or jumping over their stable doors. Fleeing understandably and easily causes serious injuries from damage caused by the door or by fleeing towards other hazards.

Horse and fireworks
Turn them out into the field when there’s fireworks?
Or The Field?

Compared to when stabled, horses kept in a field can flee much more easily though this depends on the size of the field. As they have got more space they’re also less likely to get injured when trying to flee.

If outdoors, there is a larger area which they can look over rather than being enclosed and only seeing a small space.  Allowing them to see into the distance gives them the opportunity to investigate what is occurring and find places to flee to.

Finally, when in the field, a horse is likely to be with some companions who will help reassure each other through strength in numbers.

I have, however, heard of horses stampeding through fences due to fireworks and causing injuries or even fatalities. That risk is still present if stabled though as horses are more than strong enough to break out of their stable by sheer force, especially when panicking.

Saying that though, horses like a routine.  Their stress levels will be greater if you break their routine.  Therefore, it is often better to treat them as you normally would rather than suddenly go against their routine.

Stereo to distract from fireworks
Put on some music to help distract from the fireworks
How best to Help

Whether they are stabled or in a field you can do things to make them as calm and safe as possible;

  • Around bonfire night/ New Years Eve keep your eye out for local firework displays. Also, talk to your neighbours to see if they are letting any fireworks off.  This will help you prepare more as you will know how close they will be and the times they will be set off.
  • Allowing them to at least see a companion can help calm them down a bit
  • Putting on some music; that can both muffle the noise of fireworks and distract the horse from the fireworks.
  • Make sure there is no debris/ hazards in the stable or field that they could injure themselves on.
  • Try and ensure the field or stable is as secure as possible.
  • Ensure your horse is not left alone; someone needs to be there in case something goes wrong.  However, if a horse panics do NOT go in a stable with it.  If you do you will cause it more stress and may get injured.
  • Make sure you have your vet’s number in case they have an injury or are becoming extremely distressed.
  • If your horse has previously been distressed by fireworks talk to your vet about using sedatives to keep them calm.  Sedatives are not suitable for all horses.  Also, if your horse is sedated you must stay with them until it wears off to monitor them for problems with breathing, falling over and colic.
Further Advice

The British Horse Society also gives out information on how to help your horse around fireworks.

I hope this blog helps horse owners, riders and general members of the public to understand the issues facing horses and to try to help to reduce the horse’s fear levels.

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