Friday, April 28, 2017

Book review: The Trainable Cat. Plus that Downward Dog video and dogs day out.

Hero, Trainable cat, domestic medium hair, cats
Hero and I will be trying out the key skills in this book.

“[Vet] visits are essential for keeping your cat in tip-top health, but your cat cannot know this, and you cannot afford to simply take the attitude that what happens at the vet’s stays at the vet’s. You may be able to forget the struggle your cat put up while being examined, your vet may be able to dismiss it as one of the expected hazards of the job, but your cat will not forget so easily.” (Bradshaw and Ellis, 2016:225).

Some wise words from my new favourite book. One of the most offensive things I do on a daily basis, in fact multiple times per day – at least from the point of view of my feline patients – is to remove them from the cat carrier to examine them. Some cats will walk out voluntarily, and proceedings are ALWAYS better. 
They have a sense of control. But those that don’t resort to all sorts of behaviours which make this a struggle – adopting the “starfish” position. Digging in. Curling up and becoming heavier than titanium.

If you lived with a cat, plan on living with a cat, know someone who lives with a cat, or don’t live with a cat but you’re interested in animal cognition and learning, you will love The Trainable Cat: How To MakeLife Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

Hero, the trainable cat
Hero has the crazy ears in this photo because he was about to chew on the book.
This book is not a book about training your cat to do stunts or tricks. Rather it recognises that we expect cats to adapt to our world, even when it goes against their natures. They do a pretty good job, but sometimes it overwhelms them.
It may shock readers to learn that, “lacking the necessary brain structures, cats must logically perceive their relationships with their owners (and with each other) in a far simpler way that we conceive of our relationships with them” (p14). That does not mean they’re not intelligent – it means we have to learn how cats learn. (And yes, it’s also unlikely that cats can be devious, spiteful or scheming – a myth that unfortunately is associated with very unhelpful punishment of cats – the authors explain why this inevitably fails to change their behaviour).

The book opens with a discussion of feline evolution and ethology. How do they live in the wild and what are their natural behaviours?

It provides a core set of key stills, all outlined in one chapter, that can be used to help cats cope with a range of challenging yet common situations (outlined in the other chapters): adapting to an indoor lifestyle, dealing with being touched, going to the vet. And the carrier. As far as I am concerned these authors have nailed it: there is an entire chapter on how to get your cat in (and out) of the cat carrier. There is even a beautiful flow chart.

If every cat owner read this book and applied these principles, the welfare of their cats would be excellent – and the bond between cats and owners would be stronger – to the benefit of both parties. This weekend, I'm making Hero a toolbox, and investing in a more suitable carrier.

Meantime, on an anthropomorphic note, check out this video, “Downward Dog”. As one of my colleagues said, they weren’t 100 per cent sure about it – but it says a lot about human behaviour. Its 11 minutes so you’ll need a cup of tea. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Finally, if you’re in Sydney this weekend with a canine friend or two, the Pawfect Day Out will be held at the Vic on the Park on Sunday from 2-5pm. More info here. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Metal projectiles in cats

Air gun pellet, slug, metal projectile, cat
Can you see the air gun pellet in this x-ray?

Occasionally when we radiograph animals, we stumble across incidental lesions, also referred to as “incidentalomas”. They’re not related to the current disease state but can indicate a previous disease or injury. Unfortunately, one not uncommon incidentaloma in cats is the air rifle pellet or slug.

Take Fluffy (not his real name), a cat I was investigating for an ongoing cough. This lovely cat used to live in a peri-urban area where, as it happened, someone in the neighbourhood with a distinct lack of empathy decided to use him for target practice. His thoracic radiographs revealed the presence of an air rifle slug. Such wanton cruelty is pathetic and objectionable, but this isn’t a one-off case. I’ve seen other cats with the same radiographic findings.

In a case series published in the Journal of FelineMedicine and Surgery, metal projectiles were found in 2.1 per cent of cats. That may not sound so high, but think about it. That’s two in every hundred cats with a deliberately inflicted injury. Almost 40 per cent of these cats suffered fractures as a result, but many did not show signs. Two-fifths or 38.5 per cent of cases in which metal projectiles were found on radiography were incidental findings. The majority (80 per cent) of projectiles were from air guns. Many cats had multiple projectiles, with almost one third of cats having metal projectiles in two or more body regions.  This study looked at cases presenting to a teaching hospital during the 2012-2014 period. But the authors noted that not much has changed since a 1970 study, which found a prevalence of 1.7 per cent.

“The difference of 44 years between these publications and the changes in shotgun regulations that have occurred in this period appear to have made little difference,” they write. Disappointing to say the least.

Perpetrators may shoot cats thinking that the harm they do is minimal. This is incorrect. Air gun pellets can reach velocities comparable with other handguns, particularly when fired at close range They are responsible for catastrophic injuries to humans as well, with many eye enucleations (removals) and some fatalities attributed to air guns.

Another risk is that un-diagnosed metal projectiles present a major risk to animals undergoing advanced imaging. If you’ve had an MRI you’ll have been asked to remove all jewellery, report any kind of surgical implant or prosthesis and empty out your pockets. This is because the M in MRI stands for magnetic, and the magnetic field is so strong that metal inside you will migrate – damaging tissue as it does so. The authors argue that the prevalence of metal projectiles in cats is high enough to warrant full-body radiographs in any cat undergoing an MRI.

Acts of cruelty towards animals in Australia can be reported to the RSPCA, the Animal Welfare League or the police, all of whom can prosecute offenders under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (or similar) in their State or Territory.


Monday, April 24, 2017

PhDog - an idea whose time has come?

PhDog, Phdawg
Bosca loves it when people stay home and study all day. As long as they are happy to throw a walk or two in.

I was chatting to a client last week who mentioned that she has five weeks until she submits her PhD. Her next comment was “the dogs have absolutely LOVED having me at home all of this time.”

We moved on to discuss her dog’s specific health issues, but my mind kept coming back to the idea.

Exhibit A: the PhD student. SAT is based in Sydney, home to multiple universities. Consider the number of PhD students in the greater Sydney area, daily whittling away at their doctoral research. Even with a scholarship, PhD students are usually surviving on a shoestring budget. They might be living in a share house or accommodation with little space. Office space at universities has become a scarce. When I started studying, even honours students were guaranteed their own office. Now, not every PhD student is able to have that space. PhD work often requires extended hours of research. A comfortable, quiet space with wifi helps.

Exhibit B: Companion animals whose human companions go to work, leaving their pets home alone for extended periods. It isn’t always an issue – many pets sleep. But the presence of a warm body in the home is often welcomed. A warm body that can provide a walk in the middle of the day might be even better.
Eureka: “PhDog!” – what about a website or app where PhD students could be matched with local people with a spare study and a companion animal or two? Companion animal owners could benefit by having someone around with their animals, and maybe even a dog walk or two during the day, AND the good feeling of supporting scholarship. PhD students would benefit from a spare study, and a companion – and, in the case of dogs, some exercise during the day.

It would operate a little like Airbnb – the ID of all parties would need to be checked and verified. But it seems like a nice way of pairing up otherwise lonely souls who could do with some company. There would probably be a gazillion variations on the theme – maybe some PhD students want to work in their own home but have the space to foster a dog. Or maybe some home owners want to offer free or cheap rent to a scholar in need.

My friend Tanya suggested that when the PhD student graduates, the companion animal who they kept company could get a DOGtorate. Genius.

Of course these things take time and money to put together and we’re preoccupied at this end on some animal welfare and ethics projects, so it isn’t going to happen here. And the thought of monetising this feels like it goes against the spirit of the idea. Possibly, someone is already doing this. There are limitations – it wouldn’t work for PhDs involving extensive periods of field work, or lab work.

There would need to be a feline version – it’s just hard to think of a catchy equivalent. (Although I can think of a program for Mousters students…).

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Early age desexing resources and companion animals in apartments

early age desexing, kittens, neutering, strata and pets
Kittens are all over the internet, but overpopulation in real life is a major feline welfare issue.

Do you work with cats? The Cat Protection Society have put together an educational resource for veterinarians, including a package about early-age desexing.

Early-age desexing or EAD is one strategy to reduce the problem of unwanted litters (others are ensuring all cats are microchipped so they can be returned to their owners if they become lost, and yet another is adopting cats from shelters).

The education resources have been put together by a team, including myself, and are aimed at veterinarians, nurses and shelter staff who wish to help cats. To find out more, click here.

Do you live with a companion animal in an apartment? More and more Sydneysiders do. I see a number of clients each week who have concerns about living in an apartment with a companion animal – whether it’s a worry about noise or a landlord who has told someone after they’ve moved in with an animal that companions of the non-human kind are not allowed.

The City of Sydney is again offering a free Strata Skills 101 workshop on Tuesday May 23 from 6-8pm. Strata Paws is presented by Dr Joanne Righetti, an animal behaviour consultant at Pet Problems Solved, and facilitator Robin Miles, Director of Social Equity Networks.

This workshop would suit pet owners about to move into an apartment, those in apartments who have acquired a new companion animal anyone living in an apartment thinking about living with a companion animal (it’s always good to do your homework first). It is useful whether you own your apartment or you’re renting.

To register, click here


To find out about other workshops in the Strata Skills 101 program, check out the website

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why your best friend should avoid chocolate

chocolate; chocolate toxicity
We may feel better when we eat chocolate, but this is a high risk food which companion animals need protection from.

Easter is almost upon us. Not everyone observes the religious holiday, but many, many people religiously observe the tradition of eating chocolate. The problem occurs when such treats find their ways into the mouths of our companion animals.

This week I spoke to Cathy from Pets4Life about chocolate toxicity in pets, which you can read here.

The key points are that chocolate can be very toxic to dogs, the darker the chocolate, the more toxic it is, and that companion animals aren’t deterred by wrappers. They may not have opposable thumbs but if there’s a food reward they can unwrap a box of chocolates faster than you can say “oy, stop unwrapping my chocolates, don’t you know they’re bad for dogs?”. And if they can’t, many will just eat the wrapper.

SAT is having a slight hiatus over the long weekend as I'm involved in an animal welfare project, but we'll be back online on April 19.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lead poisoning in backyard chickens

chickens, backyard chickens, lead toxicity, lead poisoning
Backyard chickens need, among other things, safe, predator-proof housing and a safe food supply.

I was chatting with some friends last night about the proliferation of backyard chickens in Sydney, and the incidence of lead poisoning in these beautiful creatures. It’s not uncommon to see chickens suffering from lead poisoning, due most likely to lead contaminated soil. Its not really a new thing. We learned about this at uni and it continues to occur at a steady rate.

“Why is this not a news story?” my friends asked.

We turned on the ABC news and that very moment there was avian specialist Dr Alex Rosenwax talking about lead poisoning in chickens.

You can read the story here.

This really is a One Health issue. Firstly, affected chickens suffer. They become dull, depressed, lethargic and weak, and may have difficulty eating. They can have vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures or problems laying eggs. And lead poisoning can be fatal (though birds can be treated successfully, particularly early in the course of the disease).

There are also risks to those who consume the eggs of these birds, or eat vegies grown in the same soil if precautions are not taken. And occasionally – depending on the source of lead – other animals can be affected. Several years ago I treated three dogs from the same household for lead toxicity (their signs were chronic vomiting and diarrhoea).


The story is not a reason to panic – it highlights simple precautions we can all take to reduce lead exposure. But it is a good reminder that chickens displaying signs of illness should be checked out.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Can you commit to a daily dog walk for 30 days? Take the Million Paws Challenge

Million Paws Walk, volunteer veterinarians
Phil supporting University of Sydney students volunteering their time to provide health checks at the Million Paws Walk in Homebush.

Every year the RSPCA hosts the Million Paws Walk to raise funds for combating animal cruelty, and to encourage people to get out with their dogs. This year they’re doing the same thing – with an additional option that may have a bigger animal welfare impact.

The RSPCA has introduced the Million Paws Challenge, commencing on 20 April. This enables participants and their dogs to set their own fitness and fundraising goals, leading up to the Million Paws Walk on 21 May. To take part in the challenge, register at www.millionpawswalk.com.au/challenge and set a fitness and fundraising goal.

You will have 30 days to reach your target and can purchase a Fitbark to log your dog’s steps from the RSPCA store here

If you have an older dog who is less mobile, you can still get involved. Setting time aside for a bit of outdoor time together – even sitting on a picnic blanket – provides some enrichment and gets you both out. 


This is a fantastic initiative. Phil and I have volunteered at the event for several years running but we’ve not joined the walk itself due to Phil’s aversion to a) crowds b) walking any sort of distance c) puppies (they’re too in-your-face for Sir Phil). The challenge provides an alternative option and it’s a good excuse to get walking.