Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Goodbye Dr Sophia Yin


Dr Sophia Yin.
The veterinary world is reeling following the announcement of the sudden, unexpected death of renowned behaviourist Dr Sophia Yin yesterday. More information is available here (please be aware this contains upsetting information).

Dr Yin (48 years young) was a passionate believer in the importance of understanding animal behaviour, the need for low-stress animal handling, and the importance of rewarding rather than punishing pets. She knew that the way we handle companion animals - as pets, as vets, as strangers approaching them on the street - could impact their welfare positively or negatively, and wanted to tip the scales on the positive side. Her website is a wonderful trove of resources that demonstrate how to apply these principles.

She created educational resources which she made available for free on her website (you can download these here).



She took her message around the world, speaking at conferences including in Australia. She even visited some remote Indigenous communities in Australia to help put together AMRRIC’s “Staying Safe Around Dogs: Living and working with dogs in remote communities” DVD (launched in Darwin just last week).



She wanted to be a vet since she was a little kid, and is the kind of person many of us want to be when we (eventually) grow up.

What a legacy. We join many others, not just from Australia but around the world, in honouring Dr Yin and sending our condolences to her family. She really did make the world a better place for animals, and we know that those she taught - tirelessly - will continue to do so. 

You can read more in Steve Dale's heartfelt article here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Epidemics and the moral behaviour of animals

Charlie supported his favourite team on the weekend. We won't talk about how it ended, but
at least Charlie had a good time!
In observance of WorldRabies Day (Sept 28th in case you missed it), we’ve enrolled in Coursera’s MOOC on epidemics to learn more about the spread and detection of epidemics.

The eight-week, entirely online course is free to anyone, and would be particularly useful for vets, vet students and nurses as well as pet owners who want to learn more about infectious diseases.

The worst thing we can do in a real infectious disease outbreak is panic. It is often said that during outbreaks healthcare services like hospitals are flooded by the “worried well”. The best way to control panic is to be informed…you might say it’s a social duty of sorts (and if you want to read more, Nobel Prize Laureate Peter Doherty has written a well-informed book on pandemics - check here).

If you want more info on the course click here.


Jessie, also a mad keen Swannies fan, dressed up for the occasion too.
Meantime I revisited this TED talk by Frans de Waal on whether human morality is actually evolved. We often claim moral superiority, but are we really better than animals when it comes to morality, empathy and compassion? 

Another set of questions this video raises is the ethics of keeping and experimenting on animals for the purposes of testing their morality? And is it scientifically sound – i.e. is something a captive chimpanzee does in a lab indicative of the behaviour of wild chimpanzees?

Check out the video here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Cavy cakes and cat carrying

Cavy Cakes by Karen. The hay isn't edible, but these guinea pigs definitely are.

Yesterday I had just finished a guinea pig consult and walked into the treatment room to type up my notes when I was confronted by a herd of cavy cakes!!! The owner of Louie, a guinea pig we are treating for pododermatitis, just happens to be a genius in the kitchen and she constructed these miniature cavy cakes, which deserve to be shared (at least visually) with the world.

Karen's muse and companion, Louie.
Such a work of art were they, we felt they should not be eaten. However, we were advised that they had a jaffa-flavoured centre that had to be experienced. So we did some cavy-cake surgery and down the hatch they went.

guinea pig cakes
The cavy cake in the foreground is modelled on Louie and the others are modelled on his housemates.
Definitely the culinary highlight of the week.

Surgical approach to a cavy cake (as as a pathologist might say: "Figure C reveals the cut surface of the lesion..." [NB just in case anyone was unsure, these cakes are designed for human consumption. Guinea pigs should NOT be feed cakes, chocolate, icing etc etc. - stick to hay, grass, vegies and herbs for your cavy colleagues].
Meantime the Huffington Post discusses the implications of animals being treated as the victims of crime in court. You can read more here (thanks for the link, Mick).

In other less serious news, Pat informs us that country star Taylor Swift was photographed carrying her cat to her car (see the picture here). It’s the sort of photo that would make most vets cringe. Swift claims there was method to her madness:

"The kitten freaks out about being put in the cat carrier," Swift, 24, tells Access Hollywood. "So I was like, 'OK, alright, we're just going to do this!' It was like a 10-foot walk from my door to the car." 

The key phrase here is “freaks out”. Cats do tend to be highly strung and DO tend to freak out when they are surprised, hear unfamiliar noises, see an unfamiliar environment etc. Vets aren’t being kill-joys when we insist that people transport cats in carriers. Anyone who has been a vet for more than five minutes has seen carrier-less public cat carrying go wrong. Like, even during a ten foot walk from the waiting room to the consulting room. A startled cat is capable of busting a Cirque du Soleil-esque manoeuvre to escape the grip of the most feline-savvy owner faster than Taylor Swift can open her car door (even if her surname is Swift). So...we're hoping that TS will read our blog and role model responsible cat carrying from now on!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

International rabbit day, international rabies day, and a magnificent frog

International Rabbit Day is upon us.

It’s a weekend that may well confuse some. Today (Saturday, at least downunder) is International RABBIT Day – celebrating bunnies for all their cuteness, companionship, and also recognising their use (and abuse) by humans. Thus for example, Humane ResearchAustralia is promoting the day to acknowledge rabbits used in research. HRA is currently involved in a campaign to legislate against testing cosmetics on animals. For more information read here.

Sunday is World RABIES Day. Rabies is a devastating disease which kills over 50,000 people every year. Whilst we don’t have the disease in Australia an incursion of rabies into Northern Australia is not an improbable scenario. This week I had the opportunity to moderate a hypothetical scenario where a rabid dog made it to Arnhemland in theNorthern Territory.

Rabies is a preventable disease. Appropriate vaccination, education around bite prevention (especially dog bite prevention) and information about post-exposure prophylaxis SAVES LIVES. For more information about rabies awareness and how you can get involved, look here.



Magnificent Tree Frog
A magnificent Magnificent tree frog.
Finally, in Darwin I had the pleasure of meeting this stunning Magnificent Tree Frog, aka the Splendid Tree Frog (Litoria Splendida) living up to its name.

Magnificent Tree Frog/Splendid Tree Frog
Another view of a splendid creature.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Education and animal welfare, and Ag-Gag laws

Conference delegates recieved a goodie bag containing, among other things, an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) plush dog. Pox the chihuahua raided my goodie bag and had a very exciting morning!!!
We’re back from steaming, hot (33 degrees C) Darwin back to Sydney (15 degrees on the tarmac) and inspired after the AMRRIC conference. The theme running through yesterday’s talks was education.

You can have the best dog management program in the world, you can aim to vaccinate hundreds of dogs or desex thousands – but if you don’t convey the reasons you are doing so, the program will fall flat.

For example, Dr Ganga de Silva from the Blue Paw Trust in Sri Lanka explained that when they designed their Colombo rabies vaccination program, many locals knew rabies was fatal – but had no idea it was preventable. This lack of knowledge itself can be fatal – people bitten by rabid dogs might not know how to treat a wound, where to seek help, what to do. Locals are more likely to participate in the dog program if they appreciate that vaccination of dogs will reduce the spread of rabies.

AMRRIC organisers and delegates with Dr De Silva (second from right).
Most dog programs now incorporate school talks, but the Blue Paw Trust also used street dramas and public multimedia displays to get the message out. Dr de Silva talked about the pros of cons of each of these methods and potential improvements for future programs.

Dr Frank Ascione, from the University of Denver, talked about the societal response to the link between animal abuse and domestic or intimate partner violence. This was a really positive talk – many organisations had developed resources to prevent families being separated from their pets in the time of most need. A number of women’s shelters had also incorporated areas where pets could be kept so they too can be protected from perpetrators of violence. As he pointed out, it’s nice to see messages from the number-crunchers in the ivory tower filter down and change practice in the real world.

Dr Debbie Marriot, Senior Specialist in Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, gave a fantastic presentation on potential zoonoses and did much to allay fears about “germs” from animals. She knows a thing or two about dogs, co-habiting with four.

She talked especially about dog bites, which constitute a big public health problem right across Australia – approximately 2% of the population is bitten annually by something (human or animal – yep, humans bite too), and around 80% of these are bitten by dogs. Bite wounds cause damage in two ways as they are a combination of a penetrating wound plus blunt trauma, and she talked about how the blunt trauma may be implicated in severe, fatal bites to the head and neck.

Ultimately, companion animals should not be feared – zoonotic transmission of host-adapted pathogens is uncommon, although we need to respect that domestic animals could be potential reservoirs of these organisms.

It was a fantastic, stimulating, motivating and wonderful conference.

In news from around the web, this story (click here) raises a number of concerns about the treatment of animals by a group of police officers in Canberra.

In this instance incriminating footage sparked an investigation which will, we hope, improve the attitude of these police towards animals. But what if we didn’t have video evidence?

The event would not have been investigated. This brings us to the so-called Ag-Gag laws. The laws have been designed to protect farmers against activists.

This is a tricky issue. On the one hand there is the right for farmers to privacy, free enterprise etc. But on the other, it is only because of people taking footage of animal welfare abuse that this is known about. The victims cannot speak or testify.

Ag-gag laws criminalise covert surveillance of commercial animal enterprise, and require all footage to be handed over to enforcement authorities. Animal welfare groups, however, claim that authorities rarely act – whereas when the media airs the footage it allows the public to respond.

But they also require potential employees of commercial animal facilities to disclose current or past ties to animal protection groups. This, argue some, is important in ensuring that employees are on the same page as employers. But animal welfare groups say this is a gross invasion of privacy. Two people, for example, may be members of an animal activist organisation. One may be very active in the organisation, the other may simply pay a membership fee and bin the newsletters. Regardless, do employers have a right to discriminate against potential employees based on their association?

Voiceless is one organisation that has been campaigning against Ag-gag legislation and you can read more about it by clicking here. If you have an interest in ethics or law this is particularly fascinating stuff.

The proposed legislation was defeated in South Australia.

According to Voiceless:

"SA legislators have voted against the Surveillance Devices Bill, which sought to criminalise the public release of information collected through the use of surveillance devices, including a maximum penalty of $75,000 for a corporation and $15,000 or imprisonment for three years for individuals.
This Bill would have had a significant impact on how the media reports on matters of public interest, including the treatment of animals in factory farms. Its tabling attracted fierce opposition from media outlets, workers’ unions and animal protection groups who use such footage to expose cruelty within Australia’s animal industries.
Thankfully on this occasion, cooler heads have prevailed and the Bill was defeated. This is a win for consumer advocacy, workers’ rights, freedom of the press and, of course, animal protection." 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rabies, dog programs and dogmanship

With Dr Jan Allen (AMRRIC), Dr Charles Douglas (NT Centre for Disease Control), Dr Helen Scott-Orr (former Chief Veterinary Officer of NSW), Dr Malcolm Anderson (NT Chief Veterinary Officer), Charlie King (our brilliant MC and commentator) and Dr Joe Schmidt (from the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy).

For those who don’t know we’re currently based at the Animal Management in Rural and Remote IndigenousCommunities (AMRRIC) 10th Anniversary Conference, held in sunny (and sticky) Darwin.

A major theme underlying this conference is One Health and – no matter how you interpret the term – an incursion of rabies into Australia is one event that would certainly be a “One Health” issue.

Yesterday we ran an exercise to look at how communities, local and Federal Governments and other organisations might respond to a hypothetical rabies outbreak in Arnhem Land, and it got the audience very excited. 

Many questions were raised including how quickly the virus may spread between dogs, who might be available to participate in mass vaccination programs given most Australians aren’t vaccinated for rabies (so there may be a lag before some people could help), what has happened in poorly managed outbreaks overseas and how local knowledge about communities and dogs could reduce infection and save lives.

What I came away with is a sense that rabies preparedness is not about being ready to respond in the event of an outbreak. It is about developing relationships with communities and dogs over time, about involving veterinarians and health workers with local knowledge, and ensuring communication and education occur well in advance so that panic is minimised. And that can help manage other health and infectious disease problems in the meantime. We're also very fortunate in that a number of researchers in Australia are currently looking at what might happen if rabies were to emerge here.

I'm not really whinging about the weather. Its perfect. Although not quite prepared to take a dip. (Loved the signage. They're happy to admit that crocs and box jellyfish can kill you but someone forgot to mention that cigarettes kill more people than these animals do).
Other highlights of the day were Dr Ganga de Silva’s discussion of the rabies control program run by the Blue Paw Trust in Sri Lanka. We are very fortunate in Australia not to have rabies, but worldwide someone dies of rabies every ten minutes – around 55,000 people per year.

Rabies infects humans and animals, but dogs are the main reservoir. The only way to reduce the R0 (the basic reproductive rate – which for rabies is 1-2) is to control rabies in dogs.

The Blue Paw Trust has done fantastic work in vaccinating many dogs against rabies. Together with post-exposure prophylaxis, rabies vaccination of dogs reduces human infections. Eliminating rabies from Sri Lanka, an island, is doable, but requires ongoing cooperation from Government and organisations. Dr de Silva’s talk about the work of her team was inspiring.

Dr Kirsty Officer, who has volunteered with a number of organisations including Animals Asia, AMRRIC and Vets Beyond Borders, gave a brilliant talk about dog programs. She argued that we need to think about the big picture – programs are “more than just spaying dogs”. Really, volunteers should be aiming to “do themselves out of a job”. The aim is to ensure that locals are left with a sustainable program.

But the little picture itself is really important – every dog counts. A dog management program should never be about how many dogs you could desex in a day. The welfare of those animals should be optimised at each stage of the process. She suggested that dog catching was the limiting factor in many dog projects and one where welfare gets compromised often. There is a need to understand, role model and promote humane handling.

Easy-to-catch dogs are often caught first while the aggressive, problem dogs on the fringes may be considered too-hard. But programs that ignore these dogs don’t help in the long term – those dogs are the ones that hang around and breed, and their offspring inherit/learn the same ways.

She also discussed the need for minimum standards of veterinary care, which can be a challenge to maintain in tough conditions. They are essential in optimising animal welfare but also ensuring programs are sustainable.

Another highlight was Professor Paul McGreevy’s talk on dogmanship. We are all familiar with the term horsemanship – horsey people just seem to be better at being around horses, not irritating them, engaging with them, handling them better and so on. Professor McGreevy argued that the same applies with dogs.
Studies have shown that good dog trainers are consistent in their behaviour, optimise the timing of cues and rewards, and can effectively communicate with animals (i.e. they can grab their attention and keep them engaged) – but what about just generally good dog people?

His team are looking at peer-reviewed evidence for elements of dogmanship (different attributes that impact a dog’s level of arousal and mood). Some of these include whether an individual dog is familiar with us, ability to capture the animal’s attention, activity sharing and even using a clear, higher-pitched voice around dogs.

What was less clear was how the attachment of the animal to the person, or vice versa, impacted the relationship.

If we could work out the elements of what makes a person good with dogs and break these down into bits we could teach people that are likely to encounter dogs – any person who might meet and greet dogs in their work (e.g. a postie), or anyone handling, training or caring for a dog.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What does One Health actually look like?

A sick sea turtle. How is a One Health approach to this animal different?
SAT HQ has relocated to beautiful Darwin, for the 10th Anniversary AMRRIC (Animal Managementin Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities) conference. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with AMRRIC since its inception, and attended the conference of its precursor, Big Lick, up in Darwin in (gulp) 2000. Fourteen years ago!

Another delegate who was around back then is Rick Speare, whose title should be “Emeritus Professor Dr Dr Dr Dr Rick Speare”, as he has degrees in veterinary science, medicine, a PhD and a Doctor of Veterinary Science in amphibian medicine.

The same turtle. Note the scales are peeling away.
He gave a stirring talk yesterday about the concept of One Health – we use the term but not everyone responds to it in the same way. It is accepted at the highest levels and written into policy, but people on the ground have mixed feelings about it. Some of us think we’re doing it anyway, some think it just applies to the topic of zoonotic disease, and some think it means human health should be number one.

Professor (if I may be so bold as to abbreviate) Speare looked at different models of One Health and suggested that in some ways it is limiting. He also discussed some of the differences between veterinary patients and those of human doctors and made some interesting points. For example in veterinary medicine quality of life is more important than life itself (a bold statement but look at practice and policies in human and animal medicine), that our patient’s lives are expendable, that some animals exist solely for economic gain, and that we have more control over our patients than doctors do.

Prof. Speare talked about the need to understand what One Health looks like on the ground. There remains a need to prove the concept, i.e. to show that an integrated approach to human, animal and environmental health improves outcomes, for example better prediction and control of communicable disease. He suggested that while it has been long discussed that dog health programs in communities are a good model for promoting public health, that assumption needs to be tested. Can such models be built on? Do healthy dogs give communities a sense of control? What determines the incidence of dog bites in communities?

As Prof. Speare concluded, the term One Health is here to stay. But if we are going to use it, we need to understand what it means, how outcomes can be measured and ultimately what “One Health” looks like.

Today I am honoured to be facilitating a hypothetical rabies incursion scenario in Arnhem Land, along with Dr Malcolm Anderson (NT’s Chief Veterinary Officer), Dr Charles Douglas (NT Health Department’s Centre for Disease Control), Dr Joe Schmidt (from the Australian Government’s Northern Australian Quarantine Strategy) and Dr Helen Scott-Orr (former Chief Veterinary Officer of NSW).

What would happen if a rabies case was detected in this area? What agencies would become involved and who would be responsible? How would the outbreak be controlled and would we have enough resources? Stay tuned.


Meantime if you’d like to find out more about AMRRIC, visit their site here.