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A practitioner ponders

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I often wonder why so many pets seem to suffer from the same condition as their owners. I have a ‘virtual’ list that I carry with me, and it is quite long, ranging from diabetes (quite common) to polyps (aural in the cat and nasal in the owner).

Initially, I put it down to coincidence but I have now started to think about different causes after a particular incident with my own health. I have been rendered unable to empty anal glands in patients – a serious problem when you are at a branch surgery with no nurse to do it instead. This apparent weakness in my right hand transpired to be carpal tunnel syndrome, but the underlying cause was an underactive thyroid. Thyroxine supplementation has made the hand better without the need for surgery. So I am now more aware of other signs of hypothyroidism in both humans and dogs, rather than just the normal weight gain, lethargy and hair loss. If dogs are apparently stiff or lame I will consider hypothyroidism as a differential diagnosis, and stiffness if already on medication tells me that the dose might need adjusting.

So, if owners are aware of subtle signs of a disease, perhaps this makes them more likely to notice the condition in their pet – lethargy or early changes in water intake for diabetes, abdominal pain after eating for a food allergy and slight wheezing for asthma. Not only might they notice more, it may be that they are more motivated to bring the pet along for treatment because they understand the pain or distress it is suffering from. Are cats with cystitis more likely to be presented for veterinary treatment by owners who suffer from the same condition? Indeed, it is very variable as to what stage, if at all, owners present animals with ear disease or chronic arthritis but perhaps those who have suffered themselves are more likely to bring the pet along for treatment sooner.

We are not very good at assessing pain as a profession so perhaps only those who have suffered chronic pain should be carrying out these assessments. Certainly, highlighting to clients that the pain of arthritis in dogs can be worse at night when the dog is trying to rest seems to ‘ring bells’ with older clients, who admit to suffering the same.

What about breed choice? Surely it was only coincidence that when we decided to have a dog we chose a breed that suffers from a form of partial seizures (Spike's disease in the border terrier) when our own daughter also suffers from seizures? But are owners drawn to breeds that are more likely to suffer from the same condition as themselves? Or is the environment to blame? As the cat wheezes into the consulting room for a checkup for asthma medication, the faint hint of cigarette smoke gives a sign of the underlying cause for both the owner and the cat. And the obese pet with an overweight owner needs little extra thought as to how a shared environment might be causing them both to suffer from the same condition.

Perhaps I am biased and only notice when the diseases are the same, especially as it does make it all so much easier – the person with diabetes knows how to use a syringe and needle to administer insulin, the client with a food allergy understands the importance of not giving their pet with the same condition anything different to eat and the owner on long-term medication simply adds the pet's tablets to their regimen and everyone is happy, so long as the medication is not mixed up; however, if the diseases are the same then it may not matter …

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