Saturday, February 28, 2015

Glenn the bearded dragon

Glenn poses in front of The Veterinarian Magazine article which was about him.
This month's issue of The Veterinarian Magazine featured someone who has become a member of the family. Glenn, a Centralian bearded dragon, sustained a severe injury to his tail which required amputation. 

bearded dragon bite wound
You can see the lesion around the middle of the tail in this image.

Note the corresponding radiographic lesion.
(If you're wondering where the name came from, a work experience student called Jack came up with it - and it happened to be the exact same name as the herpetologist who identified Glenn as a Centralian beardie, Dr Glenn Shea. It is not the first time Dr Shea has been honoured by the naming of a reptile after him. In fact, so respected is Dr Shea in herpetology circles that he has several species named after him, including this one).

Glenn Shea herpetologist
Glenn meets Glenn.

bearded dragon in car
Glenn in transit.
Veterinarians Jane Roffey and Robert Johnson, of South Penrith Veterinary Clinic, performed the surgery. The tail amputation itself was very straightforward, but for the uninitiated, bearded dragon anaesthesia is tricky. At the time, Glenn - a juvenile - weighed just 61grams. So he had the tiniest volumes of pre-medication - 5mg/kg morphine and 1mg/kg midazolam.

Dr Roffey monitors anaesthesia during the procedure.
He was induced with alfaxan via his tail vein but the difference between a reptile just chilling and a reptile under general anaesthetic can be difficult to tell...the most striking thing I noticed was that he changed colour, darkering significantly. Jane used an IV catheter with the stylette removed to intubate him and Robin the nurse kept him breathing using IPPV (intermittent positive pressure ventilation). At one point he appeared alarmingly dead...but an ultrasound confirmed his heart was beating away. There were just no instruments quite suitable for monitoring this.

Glenn made it through the surgery, although it took about two days for the anaesthetic to wear off and he didn't eat for around 24 hours.

Because his species is not found locally he can't be released, and he needed a carer. So in he moved and life changed.

He was diagnosed with mild metabolic bone disease so requires daily calcium supplementation, as well as a good dose of UV light to convert cholesterol in his skin to vitamin D (this helps him absorb calcium from his diet). I've never before been so conscious of when the sun is shining or the need to get him outside for some UV light (most Aussies are trained to slip, slop, slap and avoid UV like the plague).

You can read all about Glenn in the February issue of Veterinarian Magazine.

Veterinarians and vet students who want to learn about reptiles can join the Australian Veterinary Association's Unusual Pet and Avian Veterinarians (UPAV) special interest group (visit

Or if you want to know more about husbandry of reptiles, you might want to pop over to the Hawkesbury Herpetological Society's annual exhibition at Penrith Panthers on Sunday. More info in this post here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Animals in Emergencies: Learning from the Christchurch Earthquakes. Interview with Donelle Gadenne

This book may well save many, many lives. 

What happens to animals in emergency situations, for example, when a natural disaster strikes? Could we do better to ensure that animal morbidity and mortality is minimised? Can previous experience, traumatic as it may be, be helpful in guiding us in the future?

Donelle Gadenne qualified as a veterinary nurse in Perth, WA and worked at more than 23 veterinary practices in Australia, as a locum at a surgical referral centre and a university-based veterinary training hospital.

But then she switched careers. In 2011 she graduated from Edith Cowan University with a BA in Writing, Editing and International Cultural Studies. In 2013 Donelle relocated to Christchurch and is about to complete an MA in English at the New Zealand Centre for Human–Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury.

Her most recent major project is a book, co-written with Annie Potts, Animals inEmergencies: Learning from the Christchurch Earthquakes, is published by Canterbury University Press.

What is your day-job and how did you come to be involved in this project?

I ‘retired’ from Veterinary Nursing in 2012 when I moved to Christchurch to study full-time at the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. I also tutor in English at the University of Canterbury.

You began your career as a veterinary nurse. Can you tell us a bit about this and how you moved into writing?

My love for animals and my love of English (particularly literature) have been in competition most of my life. I always dreamed of writing a novel one day and so reading novels was naturally a joy for me.

After enrolling in a BA with a focus of writing, I found myself always being drawn to essay topics that I could mould to involve some focus on animals. I recall the first essay I wrote at university was about captive animals in zoos. In this process, I became aware of the then nascent academic field of Human-Animal Studies and knew this is what I wanted to pursue. It was a perfect way to combine my interest in animals and literature (as I now critique literary representations of animals!).

Human-animal studies is a burgeoning academic field, yet few people make the transition as you did between the veterinary industry and the humanities. Do you think the veterinary industry could benefit from more cross-pollination?

I have been told that it is rare to find scholars who have backgrounds in both science and the humanities, and so I guess in that regard I am a unicorn! I think cross-pollination is becoming more common as we recognise the value of it. Certainly the interdisciplinary nature of Human-Animal Studies indicates that valuable insight into human-nonhuman animal relationships needs to draw inspiration and knowledge from all areas.

Do you have any non-human companions and can you tell us about them?

I live profoundly scarred by the sudden loss of my canine companion, a long-haired Chihuahua named Bear, who passed away in 2007 aged nine. In every possible way, he remains my inspiration to this day. I was also blessed to have cared for two cats, Max and Harley, who both passed away many years ago now leaving me saddened. I think and hope they all lived wonderful lives. 

Donelle and the late Bear. Gone but not forgotten.
Were you affected by the Christchurch quakes and if so, how?

I was one of many Australians who sat in the comfort of our living rooms watching the horror of the February 2011 earthquake unfold live on the news. I had no idea at the time that I would soon move to study and live here. Upon discovering The New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies is in Christchurch, I was equally hesitant and intrigued to come here. I do not regret the decision to move as Christchurch is a special and inspirational place to be right now during the rebuild.

When we read about natural disasters in the media we are trained to measure their severity in the number of human fatalities. The truth is that many animals are killed in such events. How many were killed in the Christchurch Earthquakes?

As a result of the September 4, 2010 earthquake more than 3000 chickens at a commercial poultry farm, eight cows, one dog, a lemur at Orana Wildlife Park, and 150 tanked fish perished but these animals, of course, represent the ones we know about. Water bird species such as the royal spoonbill suffered from avian botulism as a consequence of the polluted waterways.

Ducks, river fish such as brown trout, the endemic longfin eel, the city’s hedgehogs, the coastal dwelling seals, and all manner of urban wildlife would have been killed as a direct result of the earthquakes and relentless aftershocks.

To what extent is what occurred in Christchurch a model for what may happen in other situations?

It is our belief that the principles of ensuring animal welfare in emergencies applies to all disasters, natural and human-made. We learned valuable lessons from the US tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and continue to learn lessons from the more recent tragedies such the Adelaide Hills bushfires and the present situation in Queensland with the damaging Cyclone Marcia.

There will always be disasters, for example, floods, droughts, fires, tsunamis and snow storms and ensuring animal welfare should always be a priority. We have a duty of care to the animals we invite to share in our lives as well as to all those animals we confine in labs, zoos, and on industrial factory farms. Preparing for the safe evacuation of animals and ensuring that they are not simply left behind are necessities no matter what type of disaster or where it happens.   

Do you have any tips for veterinarians, nurses, pet owners and others about planning and preparing for disasters?

We include National emergency management expert Steve Glassey’s Guide to protecting pets in the book, which includes:

  1. Take pets with you when you evacuate.
  2. Have a family emergency plan that includes all animals.
  3. Obtain or create a pet evacuation kit.
  4. Keep electronic images of companion animals online or USB in case they go missing.
  5. Ensure companion animals are de-sexed and micro-chipped before disaster strikes and maintain accurate registration records.
  6. Place an identification tag on each pet.
  7. By far the most important thing is to be prepared!

Of course, we provide comprehensive appendices and link to access further information and resources in the book. 

Thank you Donelle for your time. You can view the book here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Interview with Liza Sandanam, self-proclaimed crazy cat lady and feline fashionista

Gold Hat Photography
Liza's feline-themed wedding dress. (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography).

I met Liza at a blogging workshop. I had themed my outfit dogs, she was head to toe in cats. Its fair to say we connected. Her energy, enthusiasm and passion for all things feline is infectious. Her blog is awesome, but when I found out about her wedding I had to take a look at the photos. I go weak at the knees for a themed event, and themed weddings just rock. Liza was kind enough to allow me to share some insights about her blogging, her bond with the non-humans in her life, and her awesome wedding snaps. 

What’s your day job?

I run my own HR Consulting and Executive Coaching business called Small Solutions.  It’s another part of my “Small” empire!

What is your blog, thesmallworld, about?

My blog is about “All Things Feline”.  The focus is on fashion and unique finds, art, gifts and collectables and a few anecdotes about our own cats and living in a house that is entirely dominated by its felines.

Who is Archibald and how did you meet?

I find it quite hard to put my relationship with Archibald into words.  He’s the love of my life and my soul mate (and luckily my husband is OK with that).  He’s a beautiful ginger and white Cornish rex who is now 15 years old.  I’m not especially romantic about my human relationships but I feel like Archie and I were destined to meet.

Liza and Archibald.
As a child I started collecting artwork containing ginger cats and always called them Archibald.  I felt I would meet the real life Archibald one day - and then in my early 20s I found him - in a pet shop called Heavy Petting in Sydney. I generally never shop at pet shops (although it’s not your average pet shop - he was bred by a very reputable Cornish Rex breeder and housed in luxury) - but that particular day I walked in and there he was! He has been everything I ever dreamed of and more and has truly inspired my creative pursuits as an adult. He is always by my side when I am working at home or putting my blog together.

Who are the other non-humans in your life?

We have 3 other gorgeous cats - Soho is a 15 year old Devon Rex, and Atticus and Sam are both 2 year old Cornish Rexes. Unfortunately we had integration issues when we adopted our kittens, so we run two separate households - we are part retirement village and part kindergarten! Luckily we have a big house and both my husband and I run home offices in different parts of the house so it all works quite well. I feature their many adventures on my blog and via my instagram feed.

What is the appeal of cats in particular?

I have loved cats and always had a cat since I was 3 years old - and as an only child they have always been my siblings, best friends and confidantes.  I love all animals and have lived with other species, but I find kittens through to big cats so visually beautiful, and also so complex and interesting.  Cats can have such a diverse range of personalities and traits but I love their independence and intelligence.  If a cat truly befriends and respects you, then you have definitely earned it!  Plus they are hilariously funny.

We've been invited to a peak at Liza and Dean's wedding...
You are world famous for your feline-themed wedding. How did you feline-ify the day?

I’m not sure I am quite world famous!  But yes our wedding did have a very strong feline theme and we were honoured to have it featured in Rock’n’Roll Bride

Most of the wedding decorations and accessories had feline touches - from invitations and place cards to our wishing-well (a cat piƱata) - right through to my dress by Sandie Bizys. We really wanted to make sure our pets were front and centre on the day so we had framed “quotes” from them at the entry.

Liza's mum handmade this stunning robe for the day. (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography).
My mum hand made the robe I wore getting ready and a beautiful pillow for our rings. Possibly my favourite thing was our beautiful cake-topper, which featured our whole family of 8.  We had 2 dogs at the time - 14 year old cardigan corgis who sadly both passed away later in 2014 - and they were featured too.  They were such beautiful, loving members of our household and are very sorely missed every single day.

All of the little details featured cats. I love the card-eating cat! (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography)

Feline-themed place settings. (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography).
Is this the best cake ever? (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography).
The term “crazy cat lady” is often used in jest or even disparagingly. But you apply the term to yourself. How come?

Yes it’s definitely a term that I claim and am quite proud of! On one hand I recognise that living a life so obsessively focussed on one “thing” is outside the norm.  My house and wardrobe are literally filled with feline inspired things and I am covered in cattoos.

But my own quirks aside, I think the things that make us “crazy” or unusual are in fact the things that make us unique and interesting and should be celebrated.  I spent a very long time feeling like an outsider for all the things that made me “different”, but now I think that one person’s “crazy” is another person’s “fascinating”! I wish more people would be open about their quirks, obsessions, craziness or their challenges to “fit in”. I’m pretty sure every human will experience those feelings at some point in their lives.

Oh yes, Liza bagged the man of her dreams. (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography).
I feel like I was there on the day! Thank you Liza! (Image courtesy of Mark from Gold Hat Photography).
What could we do to make the world better for non-human animals?

It makes me sad that there isn’t more compassion (or more resources) for animals - and that we live in a world where battery farming, live exports, habitat destruction and animal exploitation (circuses, racing, fighting, etc) still exist.  Similar to my comments about humans, I wish more people would see animals as different but equal and worthy of the same respect and dignity that we afford ourselves. 

Educating adults and children about animal welfare is a great place to start.  There are lots of advocacy and rescue groups that do amazing work and I am really proud to do my very, very tiny bit for the Mini Kitty Commune in Sydney - a really wonderful community-based organisation who are setting a new standard in cat welfare.

As the owner of senior pets, you’ve spent plenty of time at the vet. Is there any advice you’d like to share with veterinarians and future veterinarians?

Genuinely I can’t imagine improving any of the vets I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with! In my experience vets are wonderful, compassionate people as are vet nurses and administrators.  I think working with sick animals and their guardians would be incredibly challenging and heartbreaking at times and I have such admiration for people who enter into careers in these fields. 

If I’m allowed a shout out, I’d love to acknowledge all the staff at Animal Tracks Vet Clinic and the Animal Referral Hospital who have provided us and our family with so much care and support over many, many years. Dr Kath Briscoe at ARH in particular does so much for Archie and Soho - she is genuinely one of our favourite people on the planet!  So my only advice - keep up the good work gorgeous vets and know that you are well loved and appreciated!

Thanks Liza! And thank you also to Mark from Gold Hat Photography ( who took the photos (except invitations). You can plug into Liza’s social media channels here:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Three things I learned about determining the cause of death

Last week I attended a lecture by forensic pathologist Professor Jo Duflou, Clinical Director of Forensic Medicine for the Sydney, NSW Forensic and Analytical Science Service. Forensics is a very sexy topic these days and when I said I was off to the talk, there was much forensics-envy. But those in the business agree its not quite as sexy in real life as it is on TV. They don't show good-looking actors buried under mounds of paperwork or caught up in decade-long inquests. Mind you its been a while since I've watched TV. I digress.

Professor Duflou, as a forensic pathologist, is charged with determining the cause of death and/or injuries, so he has spent his career largely in the post mortem room. He provided a fascinating insight into some of the challenges of pinpointing exactly how someone died.

For those who don’t know, an autopsy involves similar things to other medication investigations: taking a history, imaging, performing an external examination, then an internal examination, any additional special investigations (histopathology, toxicology, microbiology), and retention of organs. The forensic pathologist takes a methodical approach and progresses from a working diagnosis to the final diagnosis (although the final diagnosis may not be a definitive diagnosis).

When the rest of us recoil in horror when we read about a mass accident or multiple fatality in the paper, Professor Duflou and colleagues know there’s a high likelihood that the victims (deceased) will appear in their workplace.

In New South Wales, forensic pathologists investigate deaths under the Coroner’s Act (homicides, suicides, suspicious deaths, sudden unexpected deaths and so on) as well as non-coronial cases (consented autopsies under the Human Tissue Act). Coronial autopsies are ordered examinations determined to find out “what happened”, and collect evidence which may be used in legal proceedings. The number one reason for a coronial autopsy is sudden death where the cause is unknown.

These examinations can save lives. A lot of diseases that kill young people unexpectedly are familial, and other family members may need to be tested and treated for that potentially fatal condition.

Professor Duflou and colleagues are not fans of shows like “CSI”, which he calls “the worst forensic pathology example on earth”. Why? Because “all of their problem are always solved” (in an hour, no less).

So what did I learn?

  1. Microbiology doesn’t always provide answers. It makes sense. At the time of, and sometimes before death, our natural barriers to bacterial invasion (such as the skin) break down, allowing opportunistic microbes to jump on board. Unless death occurs in a freezer, putrefaction is inevitable. The blood stream is the main pathway of dissemination of microbes. There can also be a delay between onset of disease and death so that the infectious organism may have left the scene of crime before it can be detected. The classic example would be viral myocarditis. “The bug may have gone by the time you do the autopsy,” Professor Duflou said, “so you’re just stuck with inflammation.”
  2. The deceased have comorbidities. That may seem obvious, but think about it. Its human nature to seek a single cause of death. But during an autopsy, a forensic pathologist can end up with a list of conditions present, each one of which could have killed the victim. It can be impossible to determine with certainty which one caused death. And then there is the challenge of marginal pathology: “if there is a little bit of something, can it kill or not?”.  Most natural deaths are diagnosed by exclusion – as Professor Duflou said, “there are very few things that can kill you that can’t be anything else.” There are exceptions – a ruptured aorta or heart, a popped aneurysm. But for others it’s really hard to say it was definitely this infection or that lesion.
  3. Autopsies are a public health tool. Around ten per cent of people in New South Wales will have a coronial autopsy. Performing judicious microbiology on these cases could provide a lot of information that would be valuable for disease surveillance and so forth.

The talk was hosted by the Australian Society for Microbiology, which you can visit on Facebook join here 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A photo-fundraiser with photographer Pierre Mardaga

pet photography, dog photography, Pierre Mardaga
Phil demonstrates his running prowess in the Marrickville Municipality for photographer Pierre Mardaga, who throws a commando roll to capture the action.

This week on SAT we mentioned some compelling reasons for supporting organisations that investigate animal cruelty. We found another fantastic way to help raise funds for the Animal Welfare League of New South Wales.

Balmain-based photographer Pierre Mardaga has an ongoing project called “My Dog’s Territory”. He’s currently seeking dogs from the Marrickville Municipality (Camperdown, Dulwich Hill, Enmore, Lewisham, Marrickville, Newtown, Petersham, St Peters and surrounds to be photographed for a coffee table book.
The $35 participation fee goes to the Animal Welfare League.

Apart from showcasing the wonderful dogs in the area, Pierre is using the book to share the unique character of the Marrickville Municipality.

Pierre joined Phil, my friend Draga and I on our walk, pausing to capture Phil in front of iconic sites. Phil is superb talent but hats off to Pierre who, because of Phil’s height (more specifically, a lack thereof), had to get down on the ground for most of the shoot. Pierre also worked around the fact that Phil will only maintain eye contact with one person (moi) so spent the shoot with me looking over his shoulder. He was incredibly patient, a no doubt honed through photographing several thousand weddings. Phil, for his part, is not exactly a dogzilla.

The making of... Draga releases Phil who runs towards me while Pierre takes an
action shot. Can't wait to see the final result!
This is definitely a project during which Pierre is going to get a lot of exercise! Aside from joining the dog and owner(s) on their walk, he has to get up and down, pose and make “woof” noises so that his subjects look at the camera.

Pierre is a well-known wedding photographer but also has fostered seven greyhounds for the Greyhound Adoption Program (GAP).

You can also follow the project on Facebook here. Enjoy your weekend, folks! 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Live-baiting of greyhounds - how to register your concerns

The papers on Wednesday morning.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" - Edmund Burke.

The day after the Four Corners report showing that the practice of live-baiting of dogs is widespread and occurs in at least three Australian states in the hands of top trainers, the story was front-page news.

Predictably, the papers are moving on.

A straw poll of colleagues found that most people didn’t, couldn’t, watch the report but have seen snippets and are appalled.

But action needs to be taken to ensure that, once the dust settles and a few trainers and stewards are penalised and/or scapegoated, and the industry claims it has gotten rid of the “bad apples”, the system doesn’t return to the current status quo.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald editorial, “the states cannot allow greyhound racing to continue as it is” (“Ban greyhound racing: the reasons are compelling”, SMH, 18/2/15 p16).
“Keep the dogs in the kennel until the industries’ scandalously short-sighted authorities clean up a mess that had to be exposed for them” (Richard Hinds, Daily Telegraph, 18/2/15 p75).

But this is not new information. As written in the Sydney Morning Herald,

“Evidence about the barbaric practice of live animals including guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens, kittens and possums being mauled to death in greyhound training sessions was given to a parliamentary inquiry into the industry in 2013. But Fairfax media has been told those submissions were never followed up by the state’s industry regulator, Greyhound Racing NSW” (Natalie O’Brien, Lisa Cox, Sydney Morning Herald, 18/2/2015 p2).

Is the regulator entirely to blame? The problem is, when animals are exploited for profit, profit (which earns many, including the Government, revenue) tends to feature higher on the list of priorities than animal welfare. In fact in the last inquiry terms of reference listed animal welfare as item “j” in an alphabetical list. Not a. Not b. Not even c.

greyhound racing live baiting victim
Possums, piglets, rabbits and other species have been reportedly used for live-baiting of greyhounds.
The real victims here – the animals used for live-baiting but also the greyhounds – can’t speak for themselves. That is up to us. The welfare of the dogs is not an insignificant issue, but one problem that came to mind immediately is how are dogs trained using live-baiting meant to be rehomed when they retire from racing? I spoke to a member of the industry off the record who stated simply "they can't be." The combination of live-baiting, poor husbandry and social deprivation is dangerous.

In response to the report aired on Four Corners, the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing is extending the deadline for submissions into its five-yearly review of the Greyhound Racing Act 2009 until March 2.

In particular, the Act provides for the constitution of Greyhound Racing NSW as the industry's controlling body, as well as the functions and powers of Greyhound Racing NSW, the constitution of the industry consultation group and appointment of a Greyhound RacingIntegrity Auditor.

A big concern raised in the Four Corners report is failure of the regulatory body to understand what was happening in broad daylight. The current review seeks to assess whether the existing regulatory system is working and if not, how it may be changed. Members of the public can make a submission. To do so, download and read the discussion paper (20 pages including contents). The paper suggests a number of questions that one might respond to, but also states that the scope of the review is not limited to those questions.

Submissions should be sent to:

The Coordinating Officer
Greyhound Racing Act Review
Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing
GPO Box 7060

Another way of helping is getting involved with or financially supporting the agencies charged with investigating animal cruelty complaints. They are hugely under-resourced and need help. The better supported they are, the more effectively they can do their job.

In New South Wales, those agencies are the RSPCA and the Animal Welfare League.

A secondary and very important question raised by "Making a Killing", the Four Corners report, is the nature of evidence and the ethics of evidence gathering. The evidence was only obtained when organisations placed hidden cameras on the track and then provided the RSPCA with this information which prompted synchronised raids on properties.

As social policy scholar Siobhan O’Sullivan explained, the expose would not have been possible had ag-gag laws – recently introduced by West Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back – been in place (you can read her opinion piece here).

“Ag-gag laws are intentionally designed to ensure animal activists are unable to let the community know about socially invisible animal suffering,” she said.

We’re not talking about radical animal activism here. In the case of Four Corners, the activist groups did not terrorise nor act as vigilantes nor damage property. They gathered evidence and turned it over to the authorities. It’s the only way most of us would have found out that the practice of live-baiting, thought to be a thing of the “old days”, occurs.

The Australian Veterinary Association will provide a submission on behalf of its members.

If you are an AVA member and wish to make your views about this proposed legislation count, contribute to the member’s forum here
(you will need to login to do so). 

This week at least, politicians, veterinarians and even some elements of the greyhound industry agree - once seen, that footage cannot be unseen, and it obliges us to act to put a stop to unspeakable animal cruelty.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Interview with Brian Mc Erlean on suicide prevention in veterinarians

suicide prevention veterinarians
Brian and an equine companion.
Suicide is a major problem for the veterinary profession. I’ve always taken it seriously, but last year six people I know died by their own hand. Some were vets, one was a dedicated nurse/wildlife carer. Some I knew well, others were acquaintances. It was absolutely shocking and really knocked me sideways. It knocked everyone around them sideways. The loss, the lack of explanation, the what-if-I-had-seen-this-coming, the endless mental re-enactments of final desperate moments. I’d always listened, but suddenly I understood on a new level why people like Dr Brian McErlean campaign tirelessly for suicide prevention.

Brian was born in Ireland, “in great antiquity”, he says, and competed a veterinary degree at Trinity College Dublin. He then spent 33 years in mostly mixed practice and was a director of Westralian Drug wholesale company until they were taken over by Provet. Brian is currently a Trustee of the AVA Benevolent Fund and a Veterinary Surgeon’s Board inspector in WA.

You are a former veterinarian dedicated to suicide prevention. Can you tell us a bit about your career as a vet?

My father was a veterinarian but had left practice to be a university lecturer by the time I was born. I started practising in Ireland in 1978 as a cattle veterinarian and then went to mixed practice. In 1981 I settled in Perth and built a large 13 vet practice with the help of 6 partners. Four years ago I retired from it at 56 years of age. My interests were extremely varied over the years from practice management to equine stud work to piggery consultancy to small animal practice and lots in between.

We hear about stress and vets a lot. Why is being a vet so stressful?

It depends on the individual and what stresses them. I remember asking the veterinarians I worked with what stressed them and they all said something different. For me it would be working on my own as I am not very technical.
Most veterinarians are stressed by long working hours, work pressure, difficult clients, management issues and performing euthanasia.

We know the stats about suicide – a veterinarian is four times more likely to take his or her life than just about anyone else. Why is this?

In the US if there is a gun in the house it increases the suicide risk at least 3 times. Our gun in the house is the lethal drugs we are surrounded by. Add to this untreated depression and other mentation issues such as isolation and feelings of worthlessness and you have the picture.

We talk about suicide prevention, but many vets would not identify themselves as being suicidal. What can we do to reduce the risk of stress escalating to the point of suicidal ideation?

Chronic unrelieved stress can commonly contribute to depression. Untreated severe depression puts an individual at high risk of self harm. 

Not all veterinarians that suicide are depressed and not all those with severe depression are suicidal so the picture is not simple. In the general population 90% of those that take their lives have a diagnosable mental condition.

You have to determine your own stressors and deal with them. Shortening working hours, increasing pay and getting a work/life balance should help. Avoid relationship breakdown if you can. Males that divorce are high risk especially if children are involved.

Do you live with any non-human animals? Can you tell us a bit about them?

When the boys grew up and left home we did not replace our dog so we could travel. We do have two alpacas in the back paddock.

What are three things each of us can do to improve the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us?

  1. Exercise vigorously 2-3 times a week.
  2. Get Omega 3 fatty acids in your diet (flaxseed or fish) as your body does not make them and they are great for brain nutrition.
  3. Stay connected to the “tribe” [For example, one could join the Australian Veterinary Orchestra- ed] and do community or voluntary work.
I personally believe that much that ails western society relates to loss of tribe. The horse belongs in a herd, the dog in a pack and the human in a tribe. Cats developed as solitary desert creatures and most of us are not cats.

What kind of resources are needed to continue the successful programs you’ve been running?

We need steady funding to keep the suicide prevention message going in perpetuity. It is okay to talk about suicide but not about the means. As long as veterinarians are surrounded by lethal substances and have mentation issues such as depression we have to keep pushing them to help through education.

Thank you Brian. Support is available to anyone who might be distressed by phoning Lifelife 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36.