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Pet Care

Helpful info for pet owners

Rabbit Health

In our clinics we are presented with rabbits with a variety of different-looking diseases such as tooth problems, gut stasis, urine scalding, fly strike, obesity, anorexia and soiling under the tail, all of which originate from inappropriate diet. In fact, 75% of illnesses of domesticated rabbits in the UK are as a result of feeding inadequacy; so we make no apology in concentrating on this subject to explain how these diseases occur. It is sobering to learn that on the continent, where pet rabbits tend to be ‘put out to grass’ and their owners are less keen to purchase commercial feeds, the incidence of these diseases is reduced.

In the wild, rabbits evolved to live on natural grasslands where they eat grass and some other plants, and grass, and grass…and grass. They also adapted to run away quickly from scary creatures that wanted to eat them. Rabbits naturally feed in the early morning, the evening and at night; their stomach is a food reservoir that should never be empty. The hindgut (caecum and colon) is about ten times the size of the stomach and deals with food in a highly specialised way by separating the indigestible fibre from the nutrient-rich soluble food. The fibrous balls are quickly excreted (so as not to weigh the rabbit down when running away from predators), and in the early morning the caecotrophs (soft mucus-covered excreta, which contain valuable nutrients) are consumed direct from the anus (coprophagy), allowing them to undergo secondary digestion, and are an important source of amino acids and B and K vitamins.

Rabbits are selective feeders and, when presented with a muesli mix, will pick out the seeds and nuts, much like children preferring chocolate to more wholesome food. The rabbit gut is not used to large amounts of simple carbohydrates, which promote the growth of toxin producing bacteria, which cause diarrhoea and life-threatening disease. Although rabbits derive little nutrition from insoluble fibre, it is vitally important in the regulation of gut motility (i.e. keeping the gut moving); bloat and obstruction may occur if there is gut stasis. The ideal diet is high in fibre and low in simple carbohydrates, such as grass or hay made from older pastures, which contains a mixture of grasses, herbs and wild plants (modern pastures tend to be monocultures and may not meet all the dietary requirements). Some high fibre commercial pellets are acceptable, together with high fibre greens such as kale, beetroot and carrot tops, broccoli, cabbage, mustard, watercress, chicory and raspberry leaves. Dandelion leaves are a good post-operative appetite stimulant.

Perineal soiling

Many domesticated rabbits have a sedentary lifestyle and this, combined with energy-rich diets, can lead to obesity. Perineal soiling (faecal matter stuck under the tail) can result from obesity, inability or reluctance to groom, or true diarrhoea. In most cases perineal soiling is due to the accumulation of uneaten caecotrophs (see first paragraph). The stimulus to eat these is the odour produced by them, which occurs only if the right food has been eaten: high levels of protein and carbohydrate in the diet will inhibit coprophagy, while low levels enhance it. Fruit and lettuce with a high water content (tomatoes, cucumber and iceberg lettuce) contain little fibre, and caecotrophs are produced that are very soft and remain uneaten. If rabbits do not perform this task they will not fulfil their dietary requirement and the soiled area will scald the skin and attract flies and maggots.

Fly strike

Flies will be attracted to moist, damaged skin and especially to areas of faecal soiling, where they will feed and lay eggs that hatch to produce maggots that will burrow into the skin to feed – all in a matter of days. This usually occurs in the summer, when it is hot and flies are at their most numerous. It can be hard to spot at first, because rabbits tend to sit on the area that is most likely to be affected (under the tail). It is essential to get fly strike treated quickly as it is debilitating and can be life-threatening (it is usually worse than you think). Obviously the way forward is to prevent it happening by providing conditions that don’t predispose to it: appropriate feeding, adequate exercise, shelter in a cool place, fly control and vigilance.


How can misshapen teeth be linked to improper diet?  Rabbits chew very quickly; in fact there are up to 120 jaw movements per minute, with a pronounced lateral grinding action, and the teeth wear down against each other and against hard, fibrous food, which is swallowed only when it has been ground up enough. To compensate for this dental attrition, their teeth grow at the rate of 2mm each week.  If they eat food that doesn’t require much chewing, their teeth will grow long and splay out sideways, and be useless. Furthermore, continued pressure on splayed teeth will cause fractures at the tooth roots, which turn into abscesses. These abscesses eventually burst out in the face, usually do not heal and threaten the life of the rabbit. In addition to the foregoing, poor diet and lack of access to sunlight creates mineral deficiencies, with adverse effects on bone and tooth development. In addition, as with people, foods high in sugars promote dental caries.

Urine scalding

The backs of the thighs and hocks become damp with urine, eventually leading to raw areas and soreness. This is most frequently seen in overweight rabbits, and prevention should be aimed at dietary modification and exercise. Diets rich in calcium promote the formation of crystals in the urine, which turn it ‘sludgy’ and it leaks out down the legs. Avoid alfalfa hay, spinach, parsley and celery.

Other diseases

Myxomatosis is a viral infection, transmitted between rabbits by fleas and flies. It is prevalent in wild rabbits and causes death after about three weeks. Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is another fatal disease that we see in this country. There is no treatment for either, but rabbits can be successfully inoculated to protect them against both. If you want to know more please find it at: Vaccinating Your Rabbit.

If you would like further information about caring for your rabbit please contact one of our Veterinary Nurses on (Usk) 01291 672637 (Caerleon) 01633 430053.

Choosing a Puppy

Guidance on choosing your new puppy

The Dog Breeding Stakeholder Group, comprising organisations such as the British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA and the Kennel Club, has formulated advice from which this has been extracted

1. Carry out your research first. Different dogs have different needs and temperaments depending on, for example, their age, breed, health status, gender, and past experiences. Usk Veterinary Centre will also be able to give you information and advice on this.

2. Take into account the average lifespan of the dog you would like to own and the estimated costs of lifetime care (both financially and in terms of your own time) before buying. Consider asking a pet insurance company how much it will cost to insure the type of dog you are considering taking on.

3. Make sure that the dog you choose is suitable for you, your home and your lifestyle. Usk Veterinary Centre will be able to give you information and advice on the health problems that certain breeds are prone to; you can also get advice from the organisations associated with this document.

4. Bear in mind your “duty of care” obligations under the Animal Welfare Act, which states that pet owners MUST ensure that each of the five welfare needs for animals under their care are met. These include the need:

  • For a suitable environment (place to live) 
  • For a suitable diet
  • To exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • To be housed with, or apart from, other animals 
  • To be protected from pain, injury, suffering and disease

5. Avoid buying animals with exaggerated physical features that are likely to affect their quality of life, and don’t base your decision on appearance alone. You should prioritise health, welfare and temperament over appearance when choosing a dog.

6. Always see your puppy with its real mother in the environment where it was raised, and ask to see its brothers and sisters, if they are still there. Make sure that you know whom the father is and that you get an opportunity to contact its owner. Ensure that the parent(s) and the puppies are happy and healthy and that the environment is suitable to meet all the puppy’s welfare needs.

7. It is important to ensure that your puppy is well socialised and has had appropriate good experiences. Ideally, your puppy should also have had good experiences with people, some other types of animals and in the places and situations it is likely to encounter as an adult, including a normal home environment.

8. Ask to see the puppy’s health records and ensure that these are available by the time you buy the puppy (this includes any records of vaccination, worming and flea treatment as well as other veterinary treatment). Also check that the puppy’s parents have taken appropriate health screening tests relevant to the breed and ask if the puppy or its parents have received any veterinary attention relating to an inherited problem. These should be available for you, or us, to take a look at.

9. Make sure your puppy stays with its mother until a suitable age; this may vary, but normally would be until 8 weeks of age.

10. For pedigree puppies, ensure that any recognised registration papers and the parents’ hereditary disease screening certificates, where appropriate, are in order and available at the time you buy the puppy.

Animal Dental Care

Dental disease in cats and dogs is unfortunately very common and can lead to more serious conditions such as heart and kidney disease. Here at Usk we have an ultrasonic descaler and polishing machine to remove tartar from your pet's teeth, and then polish them to smooth the tooth's surface. This prevents bacteria from immediately settling again, and gives your pet a nice, white smile!

For instances of root decay or gum disease, we have a high speed drill which we use for any necessary extractions. We also have a burr to file down rabbits' teeth when they grow out of position. Frequent scale and polishes are less of a health risk than gum disease and multiple extractions. As always, complimentary nurse clinics are available if you have any concerns on these matters.

To book a free nurse dental check please telephone (Usk) 01291 672637 or (Caerleon) 01633 430053.

Elderly Pets

There will come a time when your energetic best friend starts to slow down and act calmer. Changes in your pet to look out for are sleeping excessively, difficulty getting up or jumping into the back of the car, knocking into furniture, loss of appetite or changes in temperament or developing incontinence.

If your dog is beginning to stiffen up there are lots of things you can do to help.  Keeping your pet in the best of health may mean adjusting routine slightly.  Perhaps take your dog for a few shorter walks to keep joints mobile rather than one long one where your pet becomes overtired and stiff the next day.  Swimming is an excellent way of keeping those joints mobile.  If you own a larger breed dog, help your pet by placing a ramp to climb into the car.  Perhaps provide a thicker more supportive bed to ease aches and pains or pressure sores, or a warmer draught free spot.  If your pet has difficulty in eating perhaps provide a raised feed and water bowl if your pet has difficulty eating from the ground.

Cats now live longer lives too.  In older years, due to changes in its teeth or gums, your cat may stop grooming as thoroughly and need more brushing.  Older cats also become creatures of routine and can become distressed by changes in their routine or their living area, just little things like moving the furniture around can cause stress.  If your cat seems to sleep 24 hours a day provide a warm cosy spot but try to encourage a short walk around the garden to keep joints mobile and encourage your cat to take an interest in its surroundings.

Ideally your pet should be blood tested annually as there are many illnesses your pet it may suffer without any apparent symptoms and often the sooner the diagnosis the better the chances of recovery.

Your pet's teeth and mouth will need regular check for signs of tooth decay and gum disease. If your pet takes less exercise that in younger years, its claws will become longer and need trimming. Our Veterinary Nurses will be pleased to do this for you.

Less exercise can also mean gaining weight so you may need to make a change in your pet's diet.  Please come and use our weigh scales and ask the nurse or receptionist to record it on your pets clinical notes. Early recogniton of weight issues may help prevent stress on joints or the start of diabetes.

Your pet should be checked by a vet annually and it is important to keep vaccinations up to date.  Take advantage of our free nurse clinics to ensure that your pet is in the very best of health.  These clinics are available to your pet no matter what age, from small puppies right up to elderly pets.  There are a lot of ways your vet can improve the quality of your pet's senior years from supplements to dietary advice.

If you would like further information please telephone 01291 672637.

The Five Freedoms

The Animal Welfare Act 2007 lists the Five Freedoms - your responsibilities when caring for a pet:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by providing fresh water and the right amount of food to keep your pet fit
  2. Freedom from discomfort by making sure that your pet has the right kind of environment including shelter and somewhere comfortable to rest
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease by preventing your pet from getting ill and by making sure that pets are diagnosed and treated rapidly should they fall ill or suffer an accident
  4. Freedom to behave normally by making sure that your pet has enough space and proper facilities
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by making sure their conditions and treatment avoid mental suffering

For further information on the Animal Welfare Act 2007 visit RSPCA. If you would like further information on caring for your pet or to book a FREE NURSE CLINIC then please telephone one of our Veterinary Nurses on 01291 672637.

Tortoise Hibernation

Tortoises, like crocodiles, have been wandering this planet relatively unchanged since prehistoric times – far longer than us hominids. They tend to inhabit the hotter countries where vegetation is sparse, and have adapted to browsing intermittently whenever they find suitable food plants.  In these countries the winters are short and cold, which is why some species hibernate. In the UK, we have mild autumns and irregular temperatures during the winter, which can precipitate periods of hibernation that are too long to allow survival, especially if tortoises are not physically prepared. In the natural state hibernating tortoises will bury themselves about a foot underground (sufficiently close to the surface to allow some oxygen to percolate, but away from predators and the extreme effects of the cold weather), and their metabolism will slow to almost zero but, crucially, there will besome energy (i.e. food reserves) used up over the ensuing months.

In the wild

Tortoises that live in tropical climates never hibernate (they will die if they are forced to). Certain species that inhabit Mediterranean countries and Asia Minor do hibernate, although it is not necessary for them to do so in this country. Before deciding to allow them to hibernate it is essential to identify correctly which species of tortoise you own: examples hibernators kept commonly as pets include Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni), Horsfield’s (T. horsfieldi), and some of the Spur-thighed group (T. graeca).

Physical fitness

In order to survive hibernation tortoises must have built up sufficient body fat reserves, which assists in the provision of energy and the storage of water and vitamins that are required for the ‘long haul’. This food reserve must be in place by mid-August when the biological clock has started ticking, and available food takes longer to digest. There must be no food still in the gut when hibernation commences because it will decay and cause disease. It takes about 4-6 weeks for it to pass through at this time of year. Tortoises must be adequately hydrated beforehand however they do not seem to want to drink – the appropriate procedure is to place them in a small lukewarm bath (on a plank angled so that the head remains above water level); this encourages them to void urine and faeces, thereby emptying their system, and they may sip as well. A special formula (the Jackson ratio) has been devised to assist with checking whether one’s tortoise has sufficient body reserves to survive hibernation, but it is important that this is done correctly. In addition to the foregoing, attention should be paid to the effects of parasitism (worms) and other aspects of general health, including eyes (swelling, discharge), mouth (inflammation, blood spots, cheesy discharge), tail (smell, unusual excretion), legs (unusual swellings) and general demeanour, before considering hibernation.

Keeping them awake. It should be emphasised that it is not necessary for tortoises to hibernate in this country and they can overwinter in a vivarium (also useful for bad weather days at other times of the year), which can be set at appropriate temperatures. During the day temperatures should range from 25-32degC, and allowing for a 5-7degC drop at night. Maximum-minimum thermometers should be positioned at either end and monitored continuously, and a good ultra-violet light source should be switched on for 12 hours every day (with no glass in between to filter important rays).

Hibernation period 

Juveniles should not undergo hibernation, and the young tortoise’s first hibernation should be short (about 6 weeks), thereafter periods up to 3 months only should be allowed. People do push it longer but it is not recommended. Tortoises normally lose about 1% of their body weight per month whilst hibernating and it is perfectly acceptable, and sensible, to weigh them at intervals during this period; if weight loss is excessive, they must be brought out of hibernation. The temperature must be between 5-8degC: too low and they will freeze to death, too high and the body may become more active and dehydration may result (if for instance, during a check, you notice that the bladder has been emptied, the tortoise must be woken up). One of the frequently occurring problems of very low temperatures is blindness resulting from changes in water density in the eyes.

Preparation for hibernation

This is known as the cooling-off period. For the first week the tortoise should be kept at normal vivarium temperatures and enjoy daily bathing and feeding; during the second fortnight the tortoise should be brought to room temperature, feeding should stop but daily bathing should continue, and for the next two weeks bathing should stop and the tortoise kept at outside temperatures (i.e. in garage or similar). Once it has been weighed it should be placed on a plastic tray, or cardboard box and put into the hibernation unit. Hibernation units can be created using polystyrene insulation blocks, which will slow down the temperature differential (but not stop it), so mild winters may ruin the process. Dedicated fridges are a perfectly good alternative, but whatever system is used, reliable maximum-minimum thermometers must be in place. During this period, weekly checks are advised when this also allows for air exchange.

Post hibernation

Bring the vivarium up to the appropriate temperature, lukewarm bath daily and offer food the next day. Don’t expect your tortoise to eat straight away, but it should be active and eating within a fortnight, if not bring it in for a veterinary check-up.

Your Pet at Christmas

Whilst we love your pets you may not want to include us on your visiting list over the Christmas period. It’s worth being vigilant with pets over Christmas and New Year as a change in routine at home provides extra risks for our best friends. Children excitedly scatter toys and batteries around – tempting for pets to investigate and swallow, and some adults drop their guard during the festive season leaving pets to make their own mischief culminating in unexpected visits to our surgeries.  Here are a few pointers to ensure your furry friend has a safe Christmas.

A Christmas tree adds a touch of serenity to the home, but it will shed sharp needles, which stick into paws, or get swallowed – so vacuum them up.  Cats may decide to use the tree as a new scratching post, and large dogs can bump it over creating an electric hazard, and scattering tinsel and baubles over the floor (choking hazard), so ensure it is secure.  Some decorations such as snow globes contain harmful substances (antifreeze).

Choose your Christmas plants carefully:  holly, mistletoe, lilies, poinsettias and yew twigs and berries, all are poisonous.  Decorative candles should be positioned with care if you have a curious feline. Make visitors aware of the unwritten house rules: e.g. pets not allowed into certain rooms, not let out unsupervised, kept on a lead near roads.

Provide a safe quiet corner, a bed under the stairs or a familiar comfortable crate so that the weary pet can escape rowdy revellers.  In cold wet weather make sure he or she is dried off well after walks; (a warm snug waterproof coat would make an ideal present for more senior pets).

Before slumping on the sofa after Christmas dinner make sure there are no leftovers accessible for your pet to steal.  Cracked turkey bones can wedge between the teeth or damage the intestine, and some human treats are poisonous to animals: sultanas, currants, grapes, raisins, salt, coffee and chocolate; (cooking chocolate is seven times more poisonous than eating chocolate).  Tobacco should also be stored out of reach.

Keep alcohol and medicines out of reach of both children and animals, and don’t be tempted to break your pet’s normal feeding routine as overfeeding or feeding inappropriately can cause digestive upsets which are unpleasant for both of you. Make sure that if your pet is on regular medication you stock up in advance so that you don't run out over the holiday period.

If you want to spoil your pet at Christmas consider treats or toys that are provided by reputable pet shops or your veterinary surgery.If you require any further information about caring for your pet over the festive season then please contact us on 01291 672637.