Monday, October 12, 2015

Animal-related word of the day: "poophoria"; a free course on canine cognition and emotion and why we need to lift our game on the plastic bag front

Feline litter tray habits can be mysterious. Why do cats run away from their own stool? Is it fear of something foreign? Or are they celebrating? The experts reckon they have the answer.

Does this sound familiar? You’re minding your own business when you hear some digging around in a litter tray somewhere not too far away. Then, silence. Then frantic scratching around in the tray. And BOOM. Your cat explodes trhough the door, racing past you at Road-Runner speed, and you know immediately that they’ve deposited something solid in the tray. 

I won’t embarrass anyone by naming names, but one feline member of my household does this daily. 

What is the explanation for this sudden, dramatic and sometimes alarming behavioural change? Science has failed to deliver an answer, probably in this case because no one has been particularly interested in investigating. But the internet abhors a vacuum.

A recent article on quotes Erin Willis, an animal physiologist, speculating that cats may be experiencing “poophoria”. This on the basis of a gastroenterologist who suggests that in humans, defecation may stimulate the vagus nerve which may lead to – among other feelings – a feeling of exhilaration. You can read it here.

It’s hardly data that would convince practitioners of evidence based medicine, but it’s a fabulous – perhaps even craptacular - portmanteau word. 

And the online discussion did get me wondering, how might you design an experiment that would yield a reliable explanation? Would you compare the post-toileting behaviour of domestic and wild cats? What variables would you want to control for (diet? Litter type? Number of cats in the household?) And who would fund the research?

In other news, online education provider Coursera is offering a free course on Dog Cognition and Emotion taught by Duke University’s Dr Brian Hare. You can find out more here.

In addition, you can test your own dog’s cognition (for a fee - $19 for a once-off test) at Dr Hare’s site hereMight be a good gift for the dog lover in your life.

Finally this comes as a sharp reminder that we need to ban plastic bags and do a bit more to get rid of marine debris. It may involve a very brief inconvenience for us, but could prevent significant animal suffering. If we stopped using plastic bags and took this simple step every time we went somewhere, we could prevent a vast number of unnecessarily, drawn-out deaths.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Upcoming conference on links between animal abuse and domestic violence

This year Australian's are focusing on the impact of domestic violence, with our Australian of the Year Rosie Batty leading the charge to speak out and reduce the terrible suffering that can occur in domestic settings. Animals are often victims.
An upcoming inaugural conference will look at the links between animal abuse and domestic violence and consider what can be done.
The Conference run by Lucy's Project is running over a weekend in Byron Bay, NSW: 7-8th November 2015 (Lord Byron Resort)
Topics to be discussed include Human-Animal Crisis Services, Vets and Domestic Violence, Challenges faced by Rural and Remote Australians, Children and Animal Abuse, the role of Veterinary Forensics, Empathy and Anti-Violence Education Programs.
There will also be presentation of results from current research projects examining some of these issues in Australia. As well as talks from invited speakers, there will be discussion and focus groups on a range of topical subjects.
Speakers include Dr Catherine Tiplady, author of Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People, Moo Baulch, CEO Domestic Violence NSW, Gillian Cohen, General Manager, DomesticViolence Service Management NSW, Dr Di Evans, RSPCA South Australia Animal Welfare Advocate, Sandra Ma & Matt French, Safe Beds for Pets Program, RSPCA NSW, Associate Professor Eleanora Gullone, Psychologist, Monash University, VIC, Lisa Peel and Richard Wainwright, Saving Grace Project, WA and Dr Lydia Tong, Forensic Veterinary Pathologist. 
To book, visit here.

Friday, October 9, 2015

What is a feral cat?

The late Lil Puss loved boxes, but hated veterinary hospitals and became very defensive. Was that enough to label her, even transiently, "feral"?

What do you mean when you use the term “feral" in relation to a cat? Do you use the word to refer to a cat that is a tad feisty? One that hisses at the vet? Or is this something you reserve for a cat you consider wild and untameable??

It turns out there is no real consensus about what “feral cat” means, which could be an issue as the welfare and management of feral cats depends very much on what we’re thinking when we use the term. I must admit to using the term “feral” to describe the behaviour of a small proportion of patients. For example, my own cat, the late Lil Puss, was a sweetie at home, but turned “feral” the moment I brought her into work. And by feral what I guess I mean is, beyond safe handling by any staff member, including myself. The use of the term in such circumstances is really shorthand for describing a type of behaviour.  

But there’s a dark side to the term. I grew up in a sociocultural context where the adjective “feral” immediately rendered a cat a status as lesser than. People would openly brag about how they (often inhumanely) dispatched with so-called feral cats. Yet one concern is that a normal reaction to a cat to a potentially terrifying situation (being handled by a strange human being) may risk it being deemed “feral”.

This cat was found approximately 20km from the nearest human settlement in the Northen Territory and immediately sought refuge when we walked past. Was it a lost moggie or a feral cat?
The question, “What is a feral cat?”, is the subject of a fascinating paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. According to the paper, which was published in 2013, the global population of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) is around 272 million, of which the majority (58 per cent) are free-living and undomesticated.

There are concerns about this 58 per cent as a potential source of zoonotic diseases, as a reservoir for diseases that affect the other 42 per cent of cats, as a public nuisance and as predators of wildlife. In Australia, the Minister for the Environment, declared war on feral cats.

But who is the enemy? Depending on how you define feral, it could apply to any cat from one born and raised in the wild, hunting for survival, to a semi-owned cat or a grouchy housebound moggie.

According to a study of feline experts in the UK, a feral cat is one that is unapproachable in its free-ranging environment and can’t be caught without a trap. They are fearful of humans and have zero tolerance for human handling.
(As any vet can tell you, domesticated cats can demonstrate this exact behaviour, although in most cases one might expect a domesticated cat to acclimatise to human handling over a short period of time).

What the group could not agree on is whether actively or passively benefiting from human intervention (e.g. feeding) made a cat less feral. One potential compromise is the view that a feral cat can survive without human assistance, but will make the most of it if offered. Some semi-owned cats would fall into this category.

One surprise piece of information in the paper was that the earliest age at which any of the experts was willing to desex a cat was four months. As someone who was trained in early-age desexing, this seems a lost opportunity for population control as many of these cats would be easier to catch as kittens than as juvenile cats.

The experts were divided about whether feral cats could eventually be tamed.
The challenge with regard to population control is there is no inherent property of a cat by which it can be identified as feral. 

The final proposed definition of “feral cat” is this: “…a cat that is unapproachable in its free-roaming environment and is capable of surviving with or without direct human intervention, and may additionally show fearful or defensive behaviour on human contact.”


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Should veterinarians advise human patients about zoonoses?

Humans and animals can share diseases. Should they share doctors?

Should veterinarians play a formal role in advising human patients about zoonotic diseases? It’s an interesting question, addressed in a fascinating paper by Emeritus Professor Rick Speare and colleagues. Professor Speare is a veterinarian and medical doctor, and has worked with humans and non-human patients, so he has a fairly unique perspective. He’s also committed to ensuring that “OneHealth” isn’t just a buzzword.

Zoonotic diseases are those acquired by humans from non-human animals (for example, rabies may be transmitted from animals to humans in some circumstances, and dog bites remain a major source of rabies transmission in endemic countries). Humanoses are those diseases acquired by animals from human sources (for example, H1N1 influenza was spread from humans to pigs and poultry; Mycobacterium tuberculosis has been transmitted from humans to cattle). Some diseases travel both ways, so they’re both.

The argument the authors make in this paper is interesting. Previous surveys have established that, in general, doctors feel that vets know more about zoonoses – perhaps more in terms of how to reduce the risk of being exposed to the bugs that cause them and less about their treatment in human patients.
However, in the main – aside from a few exceptions (and they are around, for example a number of prominent veterinarians are involved with the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases) – doctors don’t talk to vets and vets don’t talk to doctors.

“The outcome is that the profession thought to be the most expert on zoonoses is not involved in the management of individual patients.”

The paper does not suggest that vets open our doors to non-human patients and start treating them (not that we don’t get the odd request, which is always politely redirected). But it does suggest that veterinary expertise could help in a number of ways:

  • Vets could provide accurate, comprehensive information about the epidemiology of the disease a patient has, which may be useful in differentiating between human, animal or environmental sources of a disease (for example, ringworm in a patient);
  • Vets could help evaluate specific risk factors for zoonotic disease exposure – for example advising animal caretakers how to decrease risks of infection of their animal with zoonotic diseases (for example, there has been a spike in cases of Brucella suis in pig hunters and their dogs in Northern New South Wales this year);
  • Vets could advice on the management of affected animals, including vaccination strategies (for example, for leptospirosis in a dairy herd);
  • Vets could provide advice to patients at increased risk of zoonotic disease or at increased risk of catastrophic effects from zoonoses – for example, people undergoing immunosuppressive treatment, those with an immunodeficiency disorder, or pregnant women.
  • If vets and doctors worked together, it would be much easier to determine in the source of the infection or reinfection is the animal, the environment or human. The way I read the article was that the doctor would still be in charge of treating the human in the equation, but the veterinarian involved would treat (if required) affected animals and ensure that risks of further exposure or reinfection are minimised.

Professor Speare and colleagues analysed survey data and found that, in Queensland at least, the majority (79.8 per cent) of respondents would be willing to seek advice from a vet about zoonotic disease if their doctor recommended it. That proportion climbed to 90.7 per cent if the bill was funded by Medicare.

Is this a case of vets trying to encroach on medical turf? Not at all. Doctors in Australia refer to a range of allied health professionals and Medicare provides rebates if patients are referred to eligible providers (for example, dieticians, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, psychologists, osteopaths and so forth).

The authors argue that, just as these allied health professions have expertise in their areas, “Veterinarians have multi-species training and experience and are more familiar than physicians in considering management strategies involving more than one species.”

Not all of my colleagues agree that this argument is compelling. Some feel that many veterinarians do not have the level of expertise and training around human patients that would be required. One colleague argued vehemently that a good infectious disease physician knows more than any vet OR doctor about zoonoses.

Certainly if such a model were adopted, and one could be referred to a veterinarian as PART of the management of a zoonotic disease, additional training of a select group of veterinarians would be required. Perhaps these veterinarians should undertake postgraduate training in public health (as many already do) or maybe they should be specialists.

Personally I think this is an idea worth exploring. As a veterinarian I am often asked for advice by clients about zoonoses in general, often because they have been misinformed. For example, I have counselled pet owners who have been advised to euthanase their cat if they are pregnant due to what their doctor believes is an unacceptably increased risk of catastrophic consequences from infection with Toxoplasma gondii during pregnancy. Often the doctor involved does not realise that people are more likely to acquire the infection from other sources (unwashed fruit and vegetables, undercooked meat) and that the risks of feline transmission can be minimised by simple hand and litter tray hygiene.

I do give general advice about reducing risk of exposure when animals have an infection (for example, a kitten or puppy with ringworm). I always, always recommend that humans consult a doctor about medical issues that may affect them. But it would be helpful to establish a more formal path of communication between veterinarians and doctors.


Monday, October 5, 2015

A brush with rabies

Rabies vaccines may not be accessible to all those who need them.
Rabies is a disease that is invariably fatal. It is also preventable. But an email from a colleague last week provides some insight into the challenges of rabies prevention in rabies endemic countries. She has given me permission to share it.

This colleague is volunteering in the South of Nepal with the Himalayan AnimalRescue Trust, an organisation that does important work by providing desexing and vaccination of dogs. This is important not just in terms of controlling dog overpopulation, but of reducing the spread of rabies. Unfortunately, dog bites are a very common route of transmission in rabies endemic countries.

She was bitten by a dog, as can occasionally happen even when the utmost care is taken. As with all of the volunteers, she has been vaccinated against rabies. Nonetheless, given the consequences of rabies infection are catastrophic, post-exposure vaccination is required. (In fact it is recommended that the wound be washed with soap under running water for at least 15 minutes – difficult in areas with limited water supply; then alcohol or povidone iodine applied to the wound before consulting the nearest doctor).

It was getting the vaccination that proved challenging, as she wrote:

One of the vet technicians was sent with me on the trek to find a rabies vaccine. This was really scary as we went to so many hospitals that didn't have any. The large government hospital closes at 2pm so we went to the emergency clinic. I really can't see the logic as the out of hours emergency had no access to vaccines. We were told if I came back the next day and went to the emergency ward tomorrow when the hospital was open then I probably could get a vaccination. What upset me was how difficult it was to find a vaccine. Nowhere we went did anyone offer to ring around and find where we might find one.  This is a 100% fatal disease if untreated.

Eventually she got the vaccination. In developed countries we are used to life-saving drugs being readily available – or at least rapidly sourced. But in countries where rabies is endemic, there may be barriers to access which ultimately mean that some people succumb to what is a preventable disease. 

At least in this case the dog bite victim was aware of how serious potential rabies exposure is, and how pressing the need to find a vaccine, and she persisted until she found the required treatment. Many dog bite victims are children and they don't appreciate how important it is to tell someone they've been bitten. Education is critical in this regard.

If you have not done so already, it’s worth completing the Rabies Educator Certificate via the Global Alliance forRabies Control website. It is free of charge, reasonably straightforward to complete, and it just might save a life. Click here to sign up.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Celebrating World Animal Day Weekend

The RSPCA in New South Wales is hosting some colourful events this weekend to mark World Animal Day. More info here.
Are you doing anything to mark the World Animal Day Weekend? Phil and I popped down to Bicentennial Park in Glebe where the RSPCA’s Reigning Cats and Dogs event is in full swing – at least the dog part of it (the actual official World Animal Day is October 4).

Today they’re hosting Rescue Dog Adoption Day. If you’re in Sydney, head down to Glebe where you can meet rescue dogs from a range of organisations. It’s also a chance to support companion animal charities including the RSPCA, Animal Welfare League and other rescue groups.

The dedicated teem from HERD2HOMES dog rescue gives working breed dogs a second chance at life. More info here.
Phil cosies up to some wonderful Animal Welfare League NSW volunteers. For more info on the Animal Welfare League visit here.
Charlie from Furry Friends Forever Rescue is looking for a forever home. For more info visit here.
You can pick up a personalised dog bowl from Janet at Personalised Pet.
Humans need first aid too. St John's Ambulance volunteers are on hand to look after the first-aid needs of human guests, while the RSPCA has a dedicated team of volunteers on hand lest any non-humans require first aid. We're hoping neither eventuates. Phil loves volunteers.
A number of greyhound rescue groups are present today. Greyhound Rescue are selling these amazing collars, designed especially for sight hounds. For more info check them out here.
Tomorrow night the RSPCA is hosting its second inaugural feline film festival.
Phil said g’day to a few volunteers but as the weather is getting toasty he has returned home for a nap.

Plenty of greyhounds are in need of homes, and there are a number up for adoption. If you are greyhound curious or just want to find out more, check out the Greyhound Adoption Program.
Dogs were making the most of these portable shell pools.
Don’t forget the birds!

This month Birdlife Australia is seeking citizen scientists to count the birds in their yard. Visit here to find out how you can download the free app and collect data that will help conservationists understand the numbers and distribution of urban avian species. To get involved click here.

Friday, October 2, 2015

More on the dog cafe - and a talk on Cats 101

A beagle enjoying a treat at dedicated dog cafe, the Dog Barkery.

I had some great feedback about a photo from this week’s post on dogs and love with quite a few people asking for the details. It was taken at the Dog Barkery in Belmont, New South Wales – around two hours North of Sydney if you are driving. Alas I was dogless at the time – we happened to drive past when I saw the words “Dog Barkery” and caught site of a huge, wagging Golden retriever tail under a sign which read “Dogs allowed” I knew we had to stop.

You wouldn't want to accidentally lock your dog in this shop overnight.
It’s an interesting concept for a business. They sell gourmet dog treats, as well as dog “coffee” (Liver Lattes, Puppaccinos etc) that can be consumed on site. They have the service down pat – the waiter or waitress brings a bowl of dog coffee (doffee?) and puts it on a placemat and they go for it. Its not a place you would necessarily take a dog suffering from dietary intolerance, pancreatitis or obesity. But it might be fun for an occasional treat. Apparently many dogs celebrate their birthdays here.

For obvious reasons, dogs must be kept on lead in the store. It would be far too easy to be tempted otherwise!

The window.
Check out their website here

On a feline note, if you are located in Queensland or will be travelling through next week, behaviourist Dr Janice Lloyd will be giving a presentation on Cats 101. The talk is on Tuesday, October 6 at the Riverside Gardens Community Centre in Townsville. Janice is a fabulous speaker, so it promises to be an informative and entertaining session.