This week, I had one of those cases that brought to mind some of the peculiar physical characteristics of pets. The patient was a cream-coloured, two-year-old male shorthaired crossbreed named Buddy. Buddy’s owner brought him in expecting to have her pet dog undergo a series of X-rays.

Pointing to a rib bone that was clearly visible on Buddy’s lean frame, his owner announced that she thought her dog had broken a rib. Buddy’s owner needn’t have worried. The rib that so obviously jutted out from the latter part of his ribcage is referred to as the floating rib.

Floating ribs are a physical characteristic that is present in all dogs. They are the last pair of ribs in the dog’s ribcage but, unlike the other ribs, this last pair is attached to the spine but does not extend all the way round to the frontal part of the ribcage – the sternum. The bony protrusion that you sometimes see in some dogs is the end of the floating rib – the cartilage that caps it off.

Although Buddy’s owner had nothing to worry about, she was still perfectly right to take no chances since dogs do suffer from illness and disease that affect the ribs. Typical causes of rib pain may include fractures, as Buddy’s owner suspected, bruising, lung damage, tumours and respiratory illnesses among others.

The case of the floating rib brought to mind some of the other cases I have encountered where peculiar features of pets were happily mistaken for illness or trauma.

A common misconception happens with the occipital protuberance on the head of dogs.  This bone, also referred to as a sagittal crest, is a prominent bone that looks like a knob perched on the apex of a dog’s head. Dogs with long faces, such as Afghan hounds and doberman pinschers tend to have a more visible occipital bone. Under normal circumstances, there is absolutely nothing to worry about if your dog has a prominent occipital bone, but there are circumstances where you should take your dog to the vet to be checked out.

For example, if the bone starts to become more visible because of muscle wasting in the head, then you need to find out the underlying cause for your dog’s loss of muscle tone.  Injuries to this part of the head are quite common. Ordinary and repeated bumps can cause a false bursa to develop on the top of the head. A bursa should be treated by the vet who may need to drain it depending upon the nature of the case.

More serious trauma can actually cause a fracture of the occipital bone. This is a serious medical case that needs urgent veterinary attention. But it’s not all bones that make up the compendium of odd physical characteristics of pets.

The nictating membrane is a curious feature of the eye. It is found in various mammals including dogs, birds, reptiles and even cats. It can sometimes be seen when the dog is asleep with its eyes half open. The membrane, also referred to as the third eyelid, provides added protection and moisturising of the eyeball. But where it is usually smooth when the cat or dog is healthy, its texture changes when the pet is unwell.

In cats and dogs, it typically protrudes and may even be red when they are sick. Owners of the English bulldog usually get to be familiar with disorders of the nictating membrane since this breed often suffers from inflammation of the third eyelid to the extent that it needs to be surgically removed.

Floating ribs are a physical characteristic that is present in all dogs

But while cats and dogs share some common features, there is one peculiarity that they certainly do not – furballs. Furballs are literally balls of fur which form within the intestine when your cat has ingested too much fur while grooming itself. Furballs cause stomach upsets and the first symptoms you could notice is vomiting, gagging and retching, during which the cat may or may not manage to bring up a furball.

In severe cases, your cat could lose appetite, become lethargic and suffer constipation. As a cat owner, the important thing is that you do not assume that sustained vomiting, gagging or retching is necessarily due to furballs, and that you take your cat to your veterinarian for a check-up.

Another trait that catches first-time owners of female cats unawares is their estrus cycle, commonly referred to as ‘heat’. I have lost count of the number of times first-time owners have visited the clinic thinking that their unneutered female cat is in agony, only to learn that this is her first heat. Funny for some; not funny for the cat owner, because a female cat on heat is a very, very loud one.

Female cats come into their first heat at around five months of age and will have multiple estrus cycles thereafter. The most obvious sign of estrus in the female cat is behavioural and, among other symptoms, a cat on heat will make insistent and loud cries. Here too, your veterinarian is the best person to discuss with you all possible options and solutions.

Although cats and dogs are the most common household pets, rabbits, hamsters and birds also feature very strongly. I sometimes see rabbits because their novice owners are unaware that their pee is often red due to the type of diet. In most cases, this is quite normal but, in case of doubt, do consult your vet.

Hamsters are occasionally brought in with their owners thinking that they have facial tumours. Hamsters have large cheek pouches which they use to store food, and this is what owners sometimes mistake for tumours. However, food does sometimes get stuck inside the pouches and the hamster suffers from impacted cheek pouches. Your vet will be able to remove the impacted food and relieve your hamster from its discomfort.

With birds, the difficult question is always, “is it cold or sick?” This question is invariably asked when it fluffs up its feathers. The straight answer is that your bird could be either but, if it is sick, you may notice changes in its body weight and even behaviour – for example, it stops singing or eating, or you find it sleeping at the bottom of the cage.

Buddy’s owner left the clinic much happier than when she walked in. But she did the right thing not leaving it to chance. Whenever you encounter unknown physical or behavioural situations with your pet, it is always safer to assume the worst than let a potentially serious condition go untreated until is then too late.

Dr Martin Debattista is a veterinary surgeon.

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