It is rare that something crops up on Twitter that makes you sit up and say “Hey! That is truly awesome!” Today, however, was one of those days. I was casually flicking through my Twitter feed glossing over the usual fare of celeb announcements and product plugs when lo-and-behold this cracking story made itself known… True genius on an epic scale!
Nat Morris, an IT consultant and dog owner from Wales, put his technology skills to legendary use by rigging up a fun system that provides his Border Terrier, Toby, with a treat every time a message is tweeted to @FeedToby. The system, which incorporates a mini-computer, that receives the tweets and drives the funky device, sounds a buzzer to alert Toby of the imminent arrival of a tasty snack, and a camera that snaps a pic of Toby and tweets it back to Nat so that he can see that Toby has eaten the food. There are, however, self-imposed limits on the system to prevent Toby get overfed as a result of being the recipient of loads of well-meaning tweets!
I have just been listening to a section on BBC Radio 2 about dogs, breeding and the idea that many people are simply acquiring dogs that, to be honest, are wholly unsuitable to their lifestyle and, by extension, to the dog’s innate drives. This can, and often does, result in a doubly disappointing situation: a dog who is frustrated, and may end up displaying symptoms of that frustration, such as destructive behaviours (eg furniture chewing), and may end up being abandoned or rehomed; and owners who are equally frustrated, and end up with mixed emotions, including possible feelings of resentment towards their dog, or guilt that they can’t seem to satisfy their dog’s exercise or behavioural needs, and who may feel that they are left with few choices over what to do. The facts are that rescue and rehoming centres are seeing record numbers of dogs being admitted, reflecting a depressing state in which too many dogs are being given up by owners, for a multitude of reasons. However, on the flip side, as a vet I regularly see lots and lots of new puppies, purchased from breeders, often for hundreds of pounds, and in many cases perhaps questionable in terms of their suitability for that particular family or owner.
Why are dogs being given up?
There are many reasons why someone might feel they have to make the decision to rehome their dog, and it is important to point out that in the vast majority of cases such a decision will not have been reached lightly and will represent a heartbreaking and traumatic event for both the owner and the dog. The owners that I speak to in this position feel that there is simply no other choice and it is emotionally devastating to those clients, most of whom will have already explored all the other potential options for their dog (eg rehoming with a family member, seeking behavioural therapy, and more). The main reasons that I encounter for dogs being given up for rehoming are:
Lifestyle factors – the breed of dog that was originally purchased as an adorable bundle of 8 week fluff has actually grown into a super-athletic, busy, intelligent animal who needs to be continuously stimulated and requires regular and long periods of exercise in order to stay both mentally and physically fit and stable. The classic example here is a Border Collie, which is traditionally a working dog used for herding. I have a friend who trains for and runs ultra-marathons. He takes his Collie out with him on runs and whereas he is ruined by the time he gets back in, his dog will have spent the entire run darting ahead and back, and generally not stopping, covering, in all likelihood, about five times the distance. And not even be tired! How can the average family, or even someone living in an urban environment or with a busy job, possibly be expected to cater to such a dog’s apparently insatiable exercise needs? We then act all shocked and upset when the same dog starts turning on our sofa to burn off some of their nervous energy. Who was on hand to advise that new owner about whether such a breed was actually a good lifestyle fit for them? Whose responsibility is it? Vets? Breeders? The Kennel Club? The Government? The owner’s themselves?
Change of circumstances – many people will purchase, or otherwise take on, a dog as a family, or perhaps with a partner and all is rosy and joyful at the time of acquiring said pooch. Life, however, has a way of serving up curveballs and some of those relationships may hit the ropes and, sadly, break up. What happens to the dog in those situations? Who is responsible for them? What was agreed at the time of getting them about what would happen in such an unthinkable scenario? Oh, nothing was discussed? This is a situation that unfortunately does seem to occur all too often and the dog ends up being in limbo between owners who either don’t want them or haven’t got the means or set-up to continue caring for them. The result is that said dog finds itself in a rehoming centre. Sad all round. Now, some may be baulking at the idea of a ‘puppy pre-nup’ but I think the idea has merit. We are used to thinking about our options and possible worst-case scenarios in many other aspects of our lives, including marriages, so why not take the time to really discuss and agree what would happen to Freckles the Labrador should he find himself in the middle of a messy break-up? It may be that the result of this discussion is that you both decide to get a different breed, which would be more suitable to a potentially different situation, or even, dare I say it, to opt for a cat instead, although that’s a whole other discussion. The point is that taking on a dog means to accept the responsibility for another life, much as you do when bringing a child into the world, and so you owe it to that dog to be sure about what will happen to it in the future. Unfortunately, too many people seem to just rush into the whole ‘get a puppy’ thing, caught up in the giddy excitement of the experience, without thinking long-term.
Cost – it was interesting to note that the Radio 2 discussion did not, at any point, mention cost as a factor. This was surprising as I would argue that for many people who end up giving up their pets, not just dogs, the cost, or rather unexpected costs, of keeping that pet represents a major factor. Owning and caring properly for a dog over the course of it’s lifetime, which on average seems to be about 12 years, costs a lot of money. That’s a fact. The figures naturally vary but some estimates place the total cost at anything up to £15k! These costs include insurance cover, food, kenneling, and of course healthcare. This is the point that I am sure I should be getting ready to become all defensive about vets and what we cost, and answer the inevitable charges of us all being “ridiculously expensive.” I can, and probably will, write a separate lengthy post on this subject, but the facts remain that providing a dog with good, lifelong healthcare is expensive. Failing to provide such care, or attempting to do it “on a budget” is often a false economy. It does always amaze, sadden and usually anger me that many people will gladly fork out hundreds of pounds on a new puppy from a breeder yet baulk at the idea of spending the same amount, or usually less, on a trip to the vets and a course of treatment. I cannot get my head around the logic. The main point, however, is that for some the costs of owning a dog become too great and they feel there are no options other than to rehome that animal, which is desperately sad.
What’s the answer?
I wish I knew as it would be a dream come true to be able to fix the problem and instantly empty the rehoming centres, with all dogs happy and secure in a suitable and loving home. I do, however, have some thoughts…
Breeders – I agree with the gentleman interviewed on the segment about dog breeding best being done by responsible hobbyists, who are in a better position in many cases, to properly socialise their puppies and who are able to advise and cater to potential new dog owners on a local level. Socialisation is one of the key factors in any dog’s long-term health and mental stability, and of course it’s going to be difficult to do a great job at an early age in a large commercial breeding set-up. There may be exceptions, and there often are to both sides, but I think generally small scale, local breeders represent a better opportunity to get it right. In any case, the aim should be for the breeder to really discuss and educate the potential new owner on the actual suitability of their breed for that owner, as I believe they have a responsibility to both the dog they have bred and the new owner to maximise the chances of that relationship being a long and successful one. On the point of ‘local’ there is one word of warning I would offer, and that is to really question how local your breeder actually is. I personally have seen puppies who have been presented by their excited new owners for second vaccinations, and enquired as to where said cute puppy has been bred. The answer in both cases was that they were bred by a local breeder. I then looked at the accompanying vaccination card and saw that the first jabs had been given in, in these cases, Wales. Now, I do not imagine for a second that the ‘breeder’ in question was taking all of their new puppies on a four hour journey for their vaccinations, which suggests that the same puppy that the owner had assumed was bred locally has in actual fact simply been supplied by a middle-man, a dealer if you will. Is it the responsibility of the supplier to make it clear the origin of the puppy, or is up to the owner to ask the question and feel confident about exactly where their new puppy has come from? That’s difficult to know the answer to.
Vets – we are, at the end of the day, charged with a duty of care for our patients and to ensure the safeguarding of their welfare. Should we, therefore, as a profession be doing more to educate and advise potential dog owners on choosing a dog? How do we do this, especially given that most of us only get to meet new dog owners after the event of them having actually acquired the dog? Will we be accused of meddling and sticking our noses in where and when it isn’t wanted? All valid questions and ones worth considering answers to.
Professional bodies – there are lots of groups catering to the doggy sector, from individual breed associations to the one we probably all know, The Kennel Club. What duties do these groups have to advise and educate new dog owners over what type of breed they should consider, or even whether they should be considering a dog at all? They are in a great position to influence owner choices but the main problem at present is that many are failing to sing from the same hymn sheet, resulting in fragmented and confusing advice and information for potential new owners, who may then decide to just buy their new puppy based on cuteness after all.
Dogs are so different and it is vital to really spend time and effort in really researching options when it comes to choosing a new dog. Maybe if we all thought longer and harder before diving into the exciting and, ultimately for most, richly rewarding experience of owning a dog then there would be fewer sad cases of abandonment and more empty rehoming centres. We can and do dream.
I wasn’t sure if this was really even worthy of a blog post but you know what, I think it is. Every pet owner needs one of these things. They could save you a load of money and hassle, and keep both you and your pets safe and healthy. They are easy to use, cheap, and once you get used to them (which takes moments) are actually quite fun, in a weird way I guess, to use.
What on earth am I yabbering on about? A tick hook. Brilliant bit of ‘tech.’
I had the pleasure on Sunday of being involved in an official capacity with the Pet Blood Bank, a fantastic UK charity that collects blood from volunteer dogs, with the blood then being processed into packed red cells and plasma, which is then made available to vets around the country for use in emergency situations and for major surgeries.
The organisation was fantastic with the session overseen and administered by a fantastic team from the Pet Blood Bank HQ based in Loughborough. The whole day was relaxed – for donor dogs, owners, and even vets! My role, as an official vet, was to health check the donors, including taking pre-screening blood samples, and to decide whether, in my professional opinion, the dogs could indeed go through to donate. Every dog I saw was an absolute picture of health, and so well behaved, that the entire day just seemed to whiz by in a happy, healthy blur of activity. The criteria for dogs to donate is quite strict, and rightly so, with dogs having to meet the following criteria:
be aged between one and eight years old
weigh more than 25kg
have a good temperament
never have travelled abroad
be up to date on all vaccinations, and not have been vaccinated within the last two weeks
be fit and healthy
not be on any medication, other than routine flea and worm control
Before the dogs can donate they have a blood sample taken, and their packed cell volume (PCV), which is the percentage of the blood that is made up of red blood cells, and total protein (TP) are measured. If they are both within certain healthy limits then they can be cleared for donation. Every dog I saw passed with flying colours! Each dog then donates 1 unit of blood, which is equivalent to about 450ml of blood, and the actual donation stage only takes about 5-10 minutes. The great thing is that every dog then gets to tuck into some tasty food – the equivalent, I guess, of our ‘tea and biscuit’ – after their session and gets a goody bag, complete with toy, to say a huge thank you for their donation.
The great thing is that the blood that is donated goes to help vets save lives in real practice – something that as an emergency vet myself, I have been involved in first hand. Donor blood truly does save lives! The wonderful thing was that the day saw experienced, repeat donors turn up as well as dogs and owners for whom this was their very first experience, and everyone had a good time doing something worthwhile.
Its the time of year again when we see lots of coughing dogs and, as a result, lots of anxious owners. The signs of Kennel Cough, which is simply a blanket term used to describe an upper respiratory infection, are typically a dry, hacking cough, which can sound like they have something stuck in their throat and can cause such frenzied coughing as to make your dog actually vomit. Gently pinching the dog’s windpipe (trachea) can often elicit a cough and this is what vets call the ‘tracheal pinch test.’ If the infection, which is usually a mixed infection caused by a cocktail of viruses and bacteria, is mild then a low grade cough may be the only feature and they will usually recover within about 1-2 weeks. Some cases can be more severe, however, and may require antibiotics and/ or antiinflammatories. The key signs that antibiotics are required are if your dog is hacking up phlegm, or has a nasal discharge, or has a really rattling cough – the kind that you would have with a nasty chest infection.
The best way of thinking of Kennel Cough is more like the ‘Doggy Common Cold,’ and the name is really an historical reference to the fact that we tended to see more cases in kenneled dogs as a result of lots of different dogs coming together and sharing the same airspace. This is very much like the situation when students all return to university and we see outbreaks of ‘Freshers Flu.’
There are Kennel Cough vaccines, which are given up the nose by your vet, and your dog’s annual vaccination actually already provides immunity to one common respiratory virus. The nasal vaccine is not, however, 100% protective and your dog can still pick up an infection, again, due in large part to the fact that the signs are caused by lots of different infectious agents and not simply by the few that are included as part of the vaccine.
So, if your dog has recently developed a cough then maybe, just maybe, they have picked up a spot of ‘Doggy Common Cold.’