An A - Z of Holistic Pet Care

A fluffy (or feathery...or scaly) little friend can do wonders for your health and happiness. Studies have indicated that taking care of and bonding with an animal can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and relieve symptoms of depression. 

We owe so much to our cuddly companions, and the best thing that we can do for them is to make sure that they are physically and emotionally healthy so that they can live happy little lives with strong bodies and peaceful hearts.

We’ve put together an A - Z of holistic pet care so that you can address your pet’s physical and emotional needs and give it the long and beautiful life it deserves.

Anxiety

Did you know that your pet can suffer from anxiety? This can present in different ways depending on the species. Dogs can get unusually aggressive or bark, chew and pant excessively. Cats might mew, pace and groom themselves more than usual. Birds will typically over-preen and pull out feathers. At the end of the day, you know your pet best, and you will notice if it’s acting out of character. The best way forward is to research the symptoms, make a list of possible causes (e.g. a new animal/person in the space, moving house, etc.), and then call on an expert like a vet or an animal behaviourist, who will be able to figure out what’s going on and suggest possible solutions. 

Behaviourist 

People have therapists, animals have behaviourists. The idea of a dog psychologist may sound silly at first, but if your pet is acting strangely, it can be really helpful to consult an expert. I have seen first hand the value of bringing in a professional behaviourist. A typically friendly puppy started acting overly aggressive and picking fights with other dogs. A behaviourist was called in, and she could see immediately that the dog was suffering from anxiety. A few seemingly small things around the house were causing the distress, and once the behaviour was explained and the triggers addressed, the pup was able to get back to its old self in no time. 

For a comprehensive list of certified behaviourists in South Africa, head to www.happinessis.co.za/behaviourist-directory/.

Calcium      

From childhood we have been told that we need calcium for healthy teeth and bones, and animals are no different! It is essential that dogs, cats and even reptiles get sufficient calcium to avoid hypocalcaemia, which can cause muscle twitches, stiffness, fatigue and osteoporosis. You can help your pet by finding out how much calcium they need, and making sure that they are getting enough – for example through calcium-enriched food and, if necessary, supplements like kelp or seaweed pills (a great way to keep it natural!). 

Dental Care

It’s super important to take care of your pet’s teeth to keep that goofy little smile healthy! It’s good practice to get your furry friend’s teeth checked by a vet at least once a year, and you should visit a vet if you notice any bleeding from the mouth, bad breath (well, EXTRA BAD breath), broken or loose teeth, or a refusal to eat. There are plenty of products out there that can help to keep your pet’s teeth strong, clean and healthy.

Essential Oils

Although we love essential oils for our homes, skin, hair and mood, these can be harmful or even fatal to our pets. There is a misconception that if it’s natural and safe for humans, it must be for animals too, but it is vital that you research any and all oils (and other substances) that your pets are exposed to. The main issue is that essential oils are incredibly concentrated and intense, and animals generally have very sensitive skin, noses and respiratory tracts (birds are especially sensitive to strong scents!). Before you let your pet come into contact with any essential oils (whether this is via ingestion, skin treatments or even aromatherapy diffusers), you need to research if they are 100 % safe. 

Fleas

Fleas can be a living nightmare, both for you and your pets. As with most diseases and pests, prevention is easier than treatment, but if you notice that your pet is scratching or chewing itself excessively and you are getting small red bites that itch like crazy (usually on your legs), it’s probably too late. Time is of the essence when it comes to dealing with fleas. You should immediately wash any bedding, carpets and ESPECIALLY pet bedding (washing and drying items at temperatures around 40 ˚C is ideal, as the heat will kill the fleas). Next, you need to take care of any areas where fleas might be hanging around or may have laid eggs. Spray down mattresses, skirting boards and furniture with a long-lasting flea killer for the home (you can find this in pet stores). And finally, you have to get your pet flea-free! There are a host of options, including flea combs, collars, powders and shampoos. I would recommend Frontline, a worldwide gamechanger when it comes to flea removal. You simply apply the product between the animal’s shoulder blades and it will spread through the skin, killing any fleas, larvae and eggs. You should also consult your vet, online resources, and pet store staff for further advice and assistance.

Wellness Warehouse stocks a variety of Vondi’s products, which are great natural pet care solutions. For fleas, consider their Khakibos Flea Repellent Spray, Rooibos Anti-Itch and Khakibos Shampoo.

Green Veggies for Dogs

Most dogs actually love their leafy greens, and they’re a great source of fibre, vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium and antioxidants! The best greens for your pup are kale, broccoli, spinach, green beans, brussels sprouts and cucumber. Guinea pigs, rats and rabbits also love some veggies, but be sure to research which greens are safe for your individual pet (and consult your vet to be extra safe).

Hygiene

Just like we need a clean environment and a clean body to keep healthy, our pets will thrive when they’re living in hygienic conditions. Make sure to trim your cat’s, dog’s and bird’s claws when necessary, clean out cages weekly, wash toys and bedding frequently, ensure good oral hygiene, clean food and water dishes regularly, and wash and brush your pet to keep its fur in good nick.

Insurance

You may not have heard of pet insurance, but it is an essential part of responsible pet care, and may end up saving you thousands of rands. Even if you have money set aside for your pets, surprise emergencies can pop up and they may need x-rays, hospital stays and medication, which can be super expensive - especially in the case of dogs and cats. 

Dotsure is a great option, and if you head to the PetSure or InsurePet website, you can check out a range of companies and plans. 

Joints

Joint care is especially important for your pets, as it affects their mobility and general comfort. Dogs and cats in particular can be badly affected, as they can develop arthritis. Possible causes include age, hereditary defects, excess weight, breed and trauma. Keep an eye on your fur babies, and if they are moving strangely or seem to be experiencing pain, get them to your vet so that you can get some medication, supplements or tips for exercise and nutrition.

Kennels

If you’re going away for a long weekend or a vacation and you can’t find someone to pet sit, a boarding kennel can be a good option to make sure that your dog or cat will be well looked after while you’re away. Some are better than others, though, so make sure to look for one that is clean, spacious, has a veterinary service, and has staff that genuinely enjoy caring for animals. Be sure to check out the kennel before you book (if they don’t offer this option, it’s probably not the best kennel out there). Try to send your pet’s own bedding along for a familiar scent, and ensure that all inoculations are up to date before you leave.

You can check out petsplace.co.za or petssa.co.za for a list of boarding kennels in South Africa.

Lice

If your pet has fur or feathers, they are likely susceptible to lice. There are two types of pet lice – chewing lice and sucking lice, although sucking lice are more common. Besides causing irritation, lice may also carry diseases or other parasites. They are often drawn to old or dirty pets, so ensure that your pet and the surrounding environment are kept clean. If you notice your pet scratching excessively (especially if it’s causing loss of fur), get it to the vet so that you can identify the problem and fix it.

Check out Proguard’s Lice Repellent Spray (available at Wellness Warehouse) for a natural solution.

Microchips

It’s vital to get your dog or cat microchipped. Getting the chip is no more painful than an inoculation, there are virtually no risks, and it can be very affordable. If your pet goes missing and is handed in to a shelter or vet, they will be able to scan the chip and get your details so that they can contact you. This is an essential part of responsible pet ownership.

Check out pethealthcare.co.za for more information and a list of microchipping organisations. 

Neutering

Sterilising your pets will not only stop your own animals from breeding with each other, but it is also the ethical and responsible thing to do considering how many animals are living in shelters and on the streets looking for a home. Hundreds of animals are euthanised due to overcrowding in shelters, and if your pet has babies, this will only be adding to the problem. Spaying and neutering are especially important for cats, as they tend to wander around and they could encounter another cat (even if your pet doesn’t explore the outside world, you should still sterilise it just in case it gets out). You can either take it to the vet, or to a shelter such as the SPCA for a more affordable option. 

It would also be amazing if you could organise the sterilisation of any stray animals that you find, or at least get them to a shelter that can sort them out.

Omega 3

Just like we need the essential fatty acids from omega 3, pets can also benefit from a supplement, since they cannot produce the necessary nutrients themselves. Some medical conditions can also hinder omega 3 absorption, and dogs and cats that are suffering from allergies, arthritis and some autoimmune diseases will likely benefit from extra omega 3. Talk to your vet and check out your local pet store for omega 3 supplement options that will work for your fur baby!

A great option to try is Vondi’s OM3 Omega Fish Oil, which is also available at Wellness Warehouse. 

Poisons

There are a number of human foods that are poisonous or harmful to pets, and it’s essential to know what you should be keeping your animal away from. Raisins, peanut butter, poppy seeds, mango and apple seeds are harmful to rats. Garlic, onions, nuts, chives, dairy and xylitol are all potentially poisonous for cats and dogs, and horses, rabbits and donkeys should not eat avocado.

It’s easy to see how you might not know the danger of some of these foods, so make sure to educate yourself thoroughly and check the ingredients of any treats that you want to feed your animal (try keeping a printed or written list in your bag for when you’re at the shops).

This is species dependent, of course, so make sure to do your research if you have an exotic pet.

Quarrels

If you have dogs or cats, they may end up fighting for one reason or another. Common causes include hormones (especially when your animal is in heat), territorial conflict, the introduction of a new animal, perceived threats (especially to their owners, food, possessions or space), anxiety, jealousy, and redirected aggression (when one animal doesn’t get what it wants or is upset by something else but takes it out on its fellow pet). If your pets are fighting, you can follow these steps:

  • Determine if they are playing or genuinely fighting. 

Did you know that dogs sneeze when they play-fight to let the other dog know that they don’t mean to harm them? This is both adorable and a useful clue that it is not an actual fight. Cats that are fighting usually put their ears back, make a lot of noise, bite each other and unsheath their claws.

  • If your animals are fighting, try to separate them without putting yourself in harm’s way. 

You can try making a loud noise, using an object like a chair to shield them from each other, spraying them with water or throwing a blanket in the middle of them (only separate them physically as a last resort).

  • Once you have broken up the fight, separate the animals and check them thoroughly for wounds. If they are hurt, take them to the vet immediately (try to phone beforehand!).

Once your animals have been sorted out, try to figure out the cause of the fight, and whether it was just a one-time thing. Talk to your vet and give as much detail as possible about each animal’s personality and personal history. If needed, call in a behaviourist to come and meet your pets so that they can guide you through the way forward. Don’t try to reintroduce them or let them ‘work it out themselves’ (i.e. keep fighting) because you might worsen the situation. Consult as many sources as possible to figure out what to do, and make sure that each pet receives equal attention, has its own space and toys, and is not being overly dominant. 

Be patient and don’t give up hope!

Respiratory Issues

All animals can suffer from respiratory problems, but rats (and other small rodents such as hamsters) are particularly sensitive. When choosing cage litter and bedding, make sure to avoid sawdust, especially cedar and pine – these contain aromatic hydrocarbons called phenols that affect your pet’s respiratory system and liver. Instead, opt for corn cob (just bear in mind this is super absorbent and can soak up too much liquid, so you’ll need to change it regularly), paper bedding, aspen or cloth. 

If your little friend seems to be wheezing or has strained breathing, get it to the vet ASAP.

Seniors

Senior animals are just as wonderful as their juvenile counterparts, but they do require some extra care and attention. Regular vet visits are a must! Try taking your pet in twice a year, and ask the vet to do a full physical exam to detect any issues that may have gone unnoticed, such as arthritis, kidney disease or dental problems (these are pretty common in older pets, so be sure to maintain good oral care and general hygiene). Also consult your vet to find out what diet your companion should be eating – it’s essential that senior pets get the right nutrition, and their needs may change as they grow older. Even though they aren’t as springy as they used to be, senior animals still need exercise, and it’s important to ensure that they are getting enough! Especially considering that older pets can be prone to unhealthy weight gain. Make sure that your pet’s bed is easily accessible, and kit it out with lots of soft blankets for extra comfort and support. Finally, make sure to spend time with your furry friend so that you notice any behavioural changes and get these checked when needed. 

Ticks

Ticks are pretty awful little beasties, and they can cause disease and discomfort for you and your pet. Prevention is always preferable to treatment, so chat to your vet about putting your pet on a monthly preventative treatment and check regularly for ticks (focus on areas that could act as good hiding spots, like the ears, neck, between the toes, etc.). If it’s too late and your pet already has ticks, you need to focus on removing them and watching your pet for signs of illness. 

You can remove a tick by using a pair of pointy tweezers to grab its head (or as close as you can get) and pull it out slowly and firmly. You should then submerge the tick in rubbing alcohol to kill it, and make sure to wear gloves and disinfect the bite area before and after removal.

Because ticks bury their heads in an animal’s skin, it is likely that the head or parts thereof will be left behind after removal, but these should be naturally expelled by your pet’s skin (the same way a splinter would be). Ticks (and the removal process) can transfer harmful bacteria and make you or your pet sick, so if the head does not fall out after a few days, or if your pet shows any symptoms of disease, take it to your vet immediately.

Unhappy

Just like your animals can experience anxiety, they can also fall into a depression which could threaten their health. Sudden depression is often caused by a sudden change, such as a move, the addition of a new family member, a traumatic event or the death of another animal. Signs of depression in your pet include changes in mood, loss of appetite, loss of interest in activities that it used to enjoy, and changes in sleeping patterns. Treating your individual animal’s depression can be tricky and it will be dependent on the cause, so if you think that your pet may be depressed, contact your vet or call in a behaviourist.

Veggie Diets

In the age of the plant-based revolution, it may seem like a good idea to feed your pets a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially if you don’t support the use of animal products yourself. However, experts have warned against this (especially for cats and dogs) because a plant-based diet simply cannot provide the right nutrition for your animal, especially when it comes to protein. Dogs and cats are naturally carnivorous, and their digestive systems cannot properly break down a lot of the starches and compounds in plants, so even plant-based protein sources won’t work for your pet. Furthermore, a plant-based diet can actually damage your pet’s organs. It may not align with your moral views, but being a responsible pet owner means putting your animal’s health first.

Worms

There are a variety of worms that can infect your dog or cat, and they can be picked up from infected animals or their faeces. Signs that your pet has worms could include abdominal pain, a pot-bellied appearance, a loss of appetite, diarrhoea and vomiting. If you notice any of these symptoms, take your pet to the vet immediately so that the type of worm can be identified and the correct treatment can be prescribed. 

A great way to prevent worms is to include diatomaceous earth (ground up diatom fossils!) in your pet’s diet, as the tiny granules have sharp edges that will cut through parasites but leave your pet unharmed. Check out Vondi’s pure diatomaceous earth and their DE-enriched biscuits. 

Xylitol

This was touched on in the section on poisons, but it’s super important to be aware that xylitol is incredibly poisonous to dogs, and may be to cats too. Xylitol is an artificial sweetener that can be found in sugar-free desserts, sweets and gum. Symptoms of xylitol poisoning include difficulty walking or standing, weakness, depression, lethargy, seizures and vomiting. 

Yeast

Just like humans, animals can get yeast infections, although these can affect any area of their body, especially the ears. If you notice that your cat or dog is scratching excessively, has greasy or scaly skin, is losing patches of fur or smells slightly sweet or, well, yeasty, it may have a yeast infection. Yeast infections are generally caused by an imbalance somewhere in the body, possibly due to an underlying disease, so it’s important to get your pet checked out. 

Zinc

While it’s important that your cat or dog has enough zinc in its system, too much zinc can be poisonous and even fatal. Zinc is generally found in inedible substances like paints, lotions, medications, nails and coins, so be sure to keep these out of your pet’s reach. Signs of zinc poisoning include vomiting, breathing problems, slow heart rate and lethargy. Above all, never give your pets any vitamins or supplements without checking with your vet first – many of these may contain zinc, and you may end up unintentionally poisoning your pet.

Being a pet owner can be one of the most beautiful, fulfilling and healthy experiences, but it is also a huge responsibility. The number one priority needs to be your pet’s health, so make sure to keep a close eye on this, and check in with your vet for any health concerns. Make it a happy life for them and for you! 

By Emily Wedepohl