Saturday, February 13, 2016

Does commercial cat food live up to the claims on its labels?

Feeding cats, especially as they get older and fussier, can be a challenge. Even more so if there is a discrepancy between what's on the label and what's in the package.
Cats tend to prefer one type of food over another. Yes, they go through phases, and what was ravenously devoured yesterday may be sniffed at and rejected the next. But in my experience many cats know what they like when it comes to commercial food, and they stick to it. Woe betide the cat owner who comes home late from work and discovers they are out of their cat’s favourite food and try to substitute another brand they picked up from the service station. There is a good chance that said cat will walk away from this novel offering, or – to use internet-speak - “nom and vom”.

Which means that we rely on our cat’s favourite commercial food to do what it says it will on the label: provide a nutritionally complete diet.

But a recent study by University of Sydney researchers, published in the Australian Veterinary Journal this month, found a discrepancy between the composition of some commercial cat foods, their package labelling and their suitability for meeting feline nutritional requirements. The findings are concerning.

Chemical analysis of 10 unnamed wet and 10 unnamed dry commercial foods labelled as “nutritionally complete” was performed. The results of this analysis were compared against

The brands of food tested are not named by the authors.
Interestingly, despite claims printed on labels, 9 out of 20 foods did not match their “guaranteed analysis” and 8 out of 20 foods did not adhere to standards for nutrient composition.

The authors found deficiencies and excesses of crude protein, crude fat, fatty acids and amino acids in the majority of cat foods analysed. For example, five wet and five dry foods provided too much crude protein and fat, while two wet and three dry foods had inadequate amounts of daily crude fat. Crude fat is needed – it is a source of essential fatty acids, it carries fat soluble vitamins and even improves the taste of food. But too much and cats are at risk of becoming obese.

This is important research. As a veterinarian I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of commercial foods over the years, along with an increase in cost. Pet food is big business. And if it is enhancing the health and welfare of animals, it should be.  

As pet owners we are paying for research and development, better quality ingredients and assurance that we are meeting the needs of animals in our care. We certainly don’t want to cause health problems by providing a nutritionally inadequate or inappropriate diet. At the same time cats are obligate carnivores with strict dietary requirements for high protein, taurine and arachidonic acid. If commercial foods aren't cutting it, there's no easy alternative. It’s hard to whip up a home-prepared feline maintenance diet that is nutritionally complete and not something most of us mere mortals would have time for.

As the authors of the study point out, these findings highlight a pressing need for the Government to work with pet food companies and ensure that they are indeed meeting the Australian standards, and that the label information accurately reflects what is in the product.


Gosper, E., Raubenheimer, D., Machovsky-Capuska, G. and Chaves, A. (2016), Discrepancy between the composition of some commercial cat foods and their package labelling and suitability for meeting nutritional requirements. Australian Veterinary Journal, 94: 12–17. doi: 10.1111/avj.12397

Friday, February 12, 2016

Can resilience inoculate vets against burnout, depression and suicide?

Psychologist Nadine Hamilton has some positive solutions for the veterinary profession.

First the good news: we are seeing unprecedented action focusing on improving the well-being of members of our profession. The bad news, of course, is that we need this so much. Psychologist Nadine Hamilton has just submitted her PhD on psycho-educational intervention in veterinarians and has used this data to create a novel intervention program. She chatted to SAT about the elements of well-being, stress in the profession and the benefits of positive psychology.

What is your day job?

I have run my own private psychology practice on the Gold Coast for the past five years, which essentially has focused on counselling.  However, due to the success of my doctoral research, I am dedicating my work to my passions – training and educating people to help them achieve and maintain wellbeing, so they can live a life they love. 

Lately we've heard a lot about suicide prevention, burnout and depression and awareness around mental health issues in the profession. How common are these problems?

Sadly, they are very common.  Research has shown the veterinary industry to be around four-times more likely than the general population to suicide, and twice as likely as other health professionals.  There are many contributing factors to stress, burnout, depression, and suicide, and my research identified some key triggers being: performing euthanasia, dealing with difficult clients, financial issues, and unrealistic expectations (both on themselves and by others).  In the general population, it is estimated that around 1 in 5 people will experience some type of mental illness within their lifetime. 

We hear a lot about stress and burnout in the veterinary profession, but surely we're not alone in this. Are there other professions that suffer comparable rates of stress and burnout?

Absolutely!  Perhaps one of the closest professions is the construction industry, with estimates of suicide around 1 in 3.  In particular, fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers are at a high risk due to the demands of their jobs, being away from home, loneliness, relationship issues, and so-on.  Also, many health professionals are also ‘up there’ – such as doctors, dentists, anaesthetists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. 

Can we really inoculate ourselves against these, or are they inevitable?

I believe we can inoculate ourselves – but, and this is a big BUT…..we have to be aware of it first and be prepared to take proactive steps to do something about it.  As an example, in the US the founder of positive psychology (Martin Seligman, PhD) reported that they retrained the entire US Army in resiliency skills. 

They investigated why some soldiers returned from war and developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and yet others didn’t.  When they researched this, they found that the ones who didn’t experience PTSD were the most resilient!  Likewise, with any profession, why is it that some people are affected and others aren’t?  I do think this comes down to their coping skills, personality, optimism, and resiliency. 

My intervention program provides participants with evidence-based, effective strategies to help them address psychological wellbeing from many different levels.

So many excellent mental health resources are couched in terms of suicide prevention. Is there a chance this could alienate people who are suffering from distress but don't feel they are suicidal?

I think that’s a great point!  And potentially, I think it could alienate people.  Also, I think there is so much stigma around mental illness and mental health that many people don’t want to know about it, or they are in denial about how serious things might actually be for themselves.  I tried to promote my intervention program as a “wellbeing” program, in an effort to avoid this stigma.

How can positive psychology enhance the well-being of veterinary professionals?

I am a huge advocate for positive psychology!  Personally, I think that for veterinary (and other) professionals who are experiencing any psychological issues, effective psychological coping tools are necessary (personally I prefer Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as opposed to some of the more common interventions, as I find it is fairly easy to use and implement, but can be extremely effective). 

If I am working with clients for psychological issues, I like to use ACT, but supplement it with positive psychology (as I believe it is necessary to have strategies that help you deal with unhelpful thoughts and feelings, which ACT does).  Positive psychology is essentially about “the good life” and focuses on all the things that are “right, or positive” in your life, instead of getting caught up in all the things that are “wrong, or negative”. 

Typically we are so focused on all the things we don’t like, or aren’t happy with, and we dwell on them.  When we do this we lose sight of the good things we DO have, so positive psychology reminds us that despite the not-so-good things, there are still things to be grateful for.  I also love positive psychology because I find it a great intervention to use to enhance wellbeing.  As well as identifying our character strengths and working to enhance them, it also uses exercises such as gratitude, random acts of kindness, three good things, the perfect day, positive relationships, engagement, positive emotions, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment. 

Therefore, as I mentioned earlier, not all veterinary professionals will be feeling stressed, burnt out, depressed, or suicidal, and I feel that positive psychology is a great way to be able to maintain and enhance that level of wellbeing.

Can you tell us about your workshop?
Sure!  The workshop in my research was run as a one-day program, mainly due to time constraints for participants.  However, the workshop I’m holding on 22- 23 March will be 1.5 days to allow additional time and to make it less-rushed. 

It was also run in 2014 as a pilot program within the general community (funded by Gold Coast Medicare Local), and was a huge success.  When I developed the program, I tried to incorporate all the things I thought were essential for wellbeing, and this included:

  • how to set SMART goals that you can actually achieve - after all, if you don't have goals, how do you know where you're headed
  • effective stress management techniques to help manage stress the healthy way
  • evidence-based psychological exercises for achieving - and maintaining - wellbeing based on the concepts of positive psychology
  • evidence-based strategies for dealing with unhelpful thoughts and feelings more mindfully, so you can respond in more helpful ways and achieve much better outcomes in the long run
  • easy ways to build your resiliency and develop a resilient mindset
  • how to manage your time and become more organised
  • simple - but potent - ways to deal with difficult people more assertively
  • basic relaxation exercises that will help you to feel more calm and balanced.

How do we know this approach works? 

When we analysed the data from the intervention program, it returned statistically significant results for reducing anxiety, depression, stress, and negative affect – so it was very promising indeed! 

Do you have any advice you want to share with vets or future vets?

Please don’t be afraid to talk to someone if you are struggling with anything – it is not a sign of weakness…in fact, I think it takes an incredible amount of courage to admit something isn’t right, and to try and take proactive steps to address it!  I have so much admiration for those who take control of their wellbeing and realise they are worth it!  But I also want to emphasise that you can take proactive steps to maintain and enhance wellbeing, and it’s not all doom-and-gloom.

Thank you Nadine. For more information about the workshop, visit the website here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Does climate change increase the rate of feline reproduction?

Kittens: They grow up faster than you think.

The short answer: we don’t know.

The slightly longer answer: yesterday Kristina Vesk, CEO of the Cat Protection Society (CPS), and I were interviewed on ABC News 24 by KumiTaguchi about a reported association between an increase in temperatures during the winter months and an increase in the intake of kittens by the CPS. Traditionally there was a distinct “kitten season”, usually spring, but CPS has noted a trend in its data saying that “season” is much longer in years where winter temperatures are warmer. Which is a problem, because already there are too many cats without homes.

As CPS acknowledge, there are limitations with this data. This is a trend, and does not prove that climate change means more kittens. In fact, adverse weather events may increase kitten mortality, particularly neonates that have less ability to thermoregulate. In Sydney, for example, minor flooding is common. Many litters are born in drains and in heavy rain they may perish. We don’t really know, as CPS CEO Kristina Vesk pointed out, there is no census of homeless cats and kittens (despite the fact that cats and kittens continue to rule the internet, they have not yet mastered its use). We also don't know how well an increase in admissions to CPS correlates with overall cat population numbers. It may be in fact that during those years where spikes were recorded, there was a spike in good samaritans. The data has not yet been subjected to statistical analysis, although the hypothesis that climate change alters reproductive rate is biologically plausible. 

What we do know is that changes in climate and photoperiod can impact on feline reproduction, although no one fully understands exactly how. We also know that there are too many cats killed in Australian shelters because they cannot find homes. To this end, early-age desexing and the practice of adopting cats and kittens from shelters are more likely to impact feline numbers than any interventions directed at climate change, even if a link is proven. Some owners still don’t realise that cats can become sexually active early in life, and that the gestation period is only around two months. One female cat can produce dozens of kittens in her lifetime.

It is, however, worth considering how climate change impacts animals more broadly. The Australian Veterinary Association has a draft policy on Climate Change and Animal Health, Welfare and Production (published in the January/Feburary 2016 AustralianVeterinary Journal). AVA members are invited to comment on the policy by March 25. Significantly, it states that the AVA “supports the science of climate change and accepts that human activity is contributing to climate change”. The policy acknowledges that there is more scope for veterinarians to support and participate on research on the impact of climate change on animal health, welfare and production.

Key areas where animals are impacted by climate change include:
  • Changes in the habitat of native fauna
  • Changes in the epidemiology and distribution of vector-borne diseases (in small animals this includes diseases like heartworm (dogs and cats) and calicivirus (rabbits), which are spread by mosquitoes).
  • Changes in the potential for spread of arboviruses and henipahviruses
  • Pasture growth and nutrition

All of the above changes will also impact human health and well-being.

At a practice level we’ve seen the loss of a distinct “tick season”, with paralysis ticks – traditionally favouring the warm months – being found on dogs and cats even in winter. In addition, we’ve seen and heard of a lot more cases of heat stress in animals in the Sydney area. It is hard for owners to plan for marked and unpredictable variations in temperature. Watch this space.

If, in the meantime, you're teetering on the brink of adopting a cat, this post may just tip you over.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Vets Speaking Up for Animal Welfare: new BVA policy

Can vets have a bigger impact on animal welfare? It would seem the British Veterinary Association believes so.

The British Veterinary Association released its animal welfare strategy last week, making it very clear that veterinarians should be advocates for animal welfare. Entitled “Vets Speaking Up for Animal Welfare”, the policy identifies six priority areas that the BVA seeks to develop: animal welfare assessment, ethics, legislation, education, advocacy and international.

I think it is fair to say that there is genuine confusion in our profession about animal welfare. On the one hand, graduates “solemnly swear to practice veterinary science ethically and conscientiously for the benefit of animal welfare, animal and human health, users of veterinary services and the community” yet often, the interests of the client and others are prioritised (granted, there may be solid ethical justifications for this).

In veterinary curricula in general, animal welfare is taught as a discrete subject, not inextricably woven into subjects like pharmacology or medicine – where there is a real assumption that treating illness and injury is sufficient to address animal welfare deficits. And animal welfare is a special interest group within our professional organisation, the Australian Veterinary Association, not something everyone signs up for. Granted, animal welfare science is a “new” area, often referred to being triggered by the 1965 Brambell Report, itself triggered by Ruth Harrison’s expose on farm animal welfare, AnimalMachines.

As someone undertaking further study in the area, the reaction from colleagues is telling. Some say “you’re brave”, others question whether I am a radical activist while some think vets who study welfare are simply seeking to use science to justify current animal use. What’s it got to do with companion animal practice?, I’ve been asked.

Things have improved exponentially over the last decade. Animal welfare and ethics are now at least included in the majority of veterinary curricula; there seems to have been an improvement in the perception of veterinarians who study and work on “animal welfare matters”; the attendance in animal welfare sessions at conferences seems to be growing. But as the BVA’s new policy implies, there is a lot of room for improvement.

And the BVA has acknowledged, in its policy, that “animal welfare is now a rapidly evolving social concern, following on from moral progress towards women, minority groups, people with disabilities, children and others”.

But there is a real sense that vets need to pull up their sleeves and engage in the welfare sphere. Former BVA President Carl Padgett, cited in the new policy, wrote: 
“At practitioner level, concentrating on the immediacy of ill health as the prime indicator of good or bad welfare could almost be viewed as the course of least resistance and it is easy to see how the profession fell into this trap while [animal welfare] science moved around it.”
Or, as the policy goes on, 
“At the societal level, the veterinary profession may have traditionally tended to pursue proximate welfare solutions – optimising welfare within the status quo – rather than ultimate solutions, providing societal leadership to change the status quo. We may have tended towards pragmatism and incrementalism rather than more aspirational goals, and we have historically been nervous or mistrustful around collaborating with other animal welfare organisations.”
Some of the most significant improvements in animal welfare, including legislative change, have been brought about not by veterinarians but by so-called animal activist groups, consumer pressure and direct appeals to public opinion.

The implication is that veterinarians will need to rethink their roles in relation to the welfare of animals at the individual level (vet to client and patient), the practice level (practice to community) and the societal level (advocating for changes that yield improved or “good” as opposed to suboptimal or bad welfare.
“If we don’t speak out about systemic animal welfare problems or if we only do so reactively once a critical mass of favourable public opinion has been achieved, then this can lead to accusations of weak morality and worse, complicity in animal welfare problems.”

You can download and read the document in full here


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Another reason to keep your dog on a leash...

In Australia, its usually dogs chasing bears rather than bears chasing dogs that necessitates on-leash walking in some areas. 

One thing Australian dog owners don’t need to worry about is encounters with large carnivores like wolves, brown bears or polar bears. Sure, we do have to contend with the world’s most venomous snakes and paralysis ticks, but spare a thought for our friends in the Northern Hemisphere.

A paper released this week found that human behaviour can trigger large carnivore attacks – and one of the risk-increasing human behaviours is off-leash dog walking in carnivore habitat.

The paper found that large carnivore attacks have increased significantly in number, probably due to the very large increase in visitors to large carnivore habitat, as well as other factors like climate change. For example, conflicts with polar bears have risen over the last ten years because of increased tourism, increased oil and gas development on the Arctic coastline and reduction of ice volume.

Attacks are still very rare. Humans are more likely to suffer injuries including fatalities from encounters with less-feared animals (mosquitoes, bees, spiders, snails, snakes and large herbivores).

Large carnivores were more likely to attack if they were looking after their young; if they were surprised; wounded; protecting food; seeking out food from humans or if they were chased by a dog. Human behaviours such as leaving human offspring unattended or jogging alone at twilight in the vicinity of large carnivores increased the risks.

According to the authors, “Unleashed dogs can exacerbate the probability of a large carnivore attack, because a dog that runs away from a large carnivore towards the owner can trigger a dangerous situation where the carnivore chases it. When dogs are involved, large carnivores usually focused their attention on the dog rather than on the person.”

So, to our friends in the North, if you are walking your dog in an area frequented or lived in by large carnivores, keeping your dog on a leash is recommended. Its probably also wise to walk in a group. Off-leash time is important, but requires a safe location.


Friday, February 5, 2016

Snake bite avoidance, obedience training and self-consciousness in animals: interview with Heike Hahner

Heike Hahner
The current "gang" and myself. Photo: (c) Suzie Woods.
Heike Hahner is a dog trainer and obedience instructor, journalist, artist, art teacher and host of Pet Tales on Radio 2CC. She has had a lifelong interest in animal behaviour and human-animal interactions. But it was a “problem” dog called Penny who sparked her formal study in this area. She lives with a menagerie of animals in a part of Australia where snakes and snake bites are very common, and shares how she has managed this challenge. She also thinks deeply about our views about animals, their origin, and where there is room for improvement.
What’s your day job?
I run a business advising pet owners on Dog Training and Domestic Animal Psychology issues. A large part of my work deals with aggression related issues as well as working and controlling dogs in a multitude of situations in the country and city environment. I also work as a Radio host at Canberra Radio Station 2CC's Pet Tales, as a freelance journalist, photographer, artist and art teacher.
How did you become interested in animal behaviour and dog training?
I was very much a horse person and working as an artist, photographer and Visual Arts lecturer at the Australian National University and University of Canberra in 1990, when I found a stray dog. This was a female Kooli Collie, Penny, and my then husband and I decided to keep her.
Having come from Germany a few years beforehand I had never met a dog like her before. Her energy levels were off the scale and she was also quite volatile towards other dogs and people. I ended up going to the ACT Companion Dog Club with her to train. I became an Instructor and in 1992 met Terry Ryan, an American Dog Behaviourist. I was blown away by how quickly and easily a good connection could be established between you and your dog, if you understand and accept their motivations in life. In Penny's case her sole motivation in life was a tennis ball.  I owe it to Penny that I ended up studying psychology, of both animals and humans, and working in a field that I find endlessly fascinating and rewarding.
Heike's first "mad" Australian Working Dog Penny, a few weeks before she died.
What training did you do to work in this field?
I am a qualified Obedience Instructor and I studied with John Fisher, one of the founding members of the APBC in the UK, completing his Canine /Human Interface Course in the 1990's. On the advice of Terry Ryan I studied human psychology at the Australian National University and I take refresher courses on a variety of topics and different animal species.
Over the last 33 years I have also been working with livestock such as goats, cattle, sheep and horses and I have experience with other animals such as birds, poultry, fish and wildlife.
One of the things you specialise in is teaching dogs to avoid snakes. How do you achieve this? 
When I teach snake avoidance my goal is to teach dogs to avoid touching snakes and reptiles even when they are unsupervised. This requires the dog to understand that reptiles need to be approached with caution, rather than outright fear or, worse, aggression. Dogs and cats living in the wild learn to be cautious of various situations through trial and error, in the case of poisonous snakes it’s usually a one-off-scenario, and by observing other animals in the same situation.
There are a number of ways snake avoidance can be achieved in dogs. Dogs like many other animals learn from observing each other and other species. So if another dog or the owner is observed to show caution in the presence of reptiles many dogs are inclined to take this warning on and will also be cautious near reptiles.

Captain undergoes reptile avoidance training.

Sadly there are some dogs that will not respond well to the caution method. These are often Labradors or Cattle dogs or their crosses. Labradors in my experience do not read their owners fear very well or do not care. While Cattle dogs have a strong guarding instinct and when the owner shows fear of something the dog is likely to attack.
Finally there are also those dogs that become frightened of their owner if the owner reacts fearfully and they do not associate the owners fear with the reptile but appear to think that the owner has lost their mind. So teaching snake avoidance to owners and dogs requires careful assessment of the owner’s dog handling skills as well as the dogs innate reactions to situations that require caution or are frightening.
Finally although I teach snake avoidance and awareness I will also encourage owners to take preventative steps to protecting their dogs and cats, such as not leaving them unattended outside during snake season and to get help from Wildcare Organisations should they locate a snake in their environment.
What makes a dog trainable?
I believe that training dogs, and animals in general, is a team effort between you and your dog. So I find the most important trait in a dog is a willingness to engage and affection for people. Dogs, like people, vary greatly in how willing they are in participating in team efforts. Willingness is not necessarily breed depended, though some breeds have more "willing" members than others.
What are the most common misconceptions people have about dog training?
The two top misconceptions about dog training are that a dog's level of obedience and trainability are a result of intelligence. Obedience and trainability have less to do with intelligence but with willingness to engage with humans.
The other frequent misconception is that dogs come trained, train themselves or should learn by osmosis. Dogs need regular training, especially when they are young, like horses and children.
We accept that horses and children need to be schooled for many years, so that they learn what is required off them in society and when engaging with people. Dogs are expected to just "know" how to behave with very little input from the owner. This is especially sad for me when the dog is a classic working breed such as a Kelpie, German Shepherd or a Border Collie. Dogs that are mentally very active and bred do perform a daily job have a strong need to learn their whole lives. They really suffer psychologically if their intelligence and mental activity is not utilised.
How can we rectify this?
Choose your puppy or dog very, very carefully. Train your puppy or dog until he is at least 3 years old. Most importantly be clear in your own mind on how much time you are willing to dedicate to training your dog. Acquire a breed of dog that suits your attitude to training and avoid choosing a dog for his looks only.
Do you live with any non-human companions? Can you tell us a bit about them?
I own three horses, an older mare and two young ones, which I am currently training with Natural Horsemanship and reward based methods. Then there are seven dogs and a flock of sheep. Five of the dogs are Working dogs and three of these are Australian Working Border Collies who I am training for 3 sheep trialling. To this mixture also belongs a cat, who is often more obedient than the dogs. There is also a batch of chooks, the size of the batch varies on how hungry the local fox population is, and fish. The property that I have been living on since 1993 also keeps cattle and is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including snakes, which means we have daily interactions with many of these as well.
How can we make the world a better place for companion animals? 
I think one of the things that would make the world a better place for animals is for people to be more careful about labelling animals. Labelling of any kind assigns animals to groups such as companion animals, pets, live-stock, etc. Labelling usually also assigns a value to an animal group and animals belonging to that group may be treated according to the group that they find themselves in. For example, livestock in general are treated differently, often much more harshly, than pets or companion animals.
Avoiding conceptualising animals only in terms of their types or groups can also help us understand that they feel and experience their environment in the same way we do. We are at a place in Western society that increasingly requires us to view animals as equals when it comes to their feelings, thoughts and self-consciousness. 
Self-consciousness in animals is my particular concern as it is still seen as something exclusive to "higher order" animals such as primates or dolphins, and often the size of the brain, certain cells or the amount of folding in the brain maybe cited as evidence. Also many people at this point still equate self-consciousness with a certain degree of intelligence or the ability to talk. However, I see self-consciousness as an essential part of the psyche of any living being. Self -consciousness is needed to taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, as well as for engagement with the environment, or with others such as your partner, your group members, or your offspring. Without self-consciousness you cannot fulfil these tasks. 
Any advice you’d like to share with veterinarians and future veterinarians? 
In our society vets are portrayed as experts on both the body and the mind of animals. Very few people know however that our current Western medical system, both human and animal, still largely adheres to a philosophy on how the body and mind function that was devised by René Descartes 400 years ago.
The current approach to dealing with the animal mind is still heavily dominated by Behaviourism, a branch of animal psychology, and a direct descendant of Cartesian thinking and attitudes. Behaviourism dates back to the turn of the last century and was spear-headed by scientists such as Pavlov, Skinner and Watson.
Just briefly, Descartes was fascinated by mechanical puppets and clocks, like many people of his day. He came to the conclusion that living creatures were just puppets repeating patterns of behaviour without feelings, thoughts or self-consciousness. Humans, in his view, were a step ahead of animals, because of our language ability. He equated the ability to talk with the ability to think. So if you can't talk, according to Descartes, you also cannot think. If you cannot think, the equation continued, you therefore do not feel and are not self-conscious [And if you think, therefore you are...(ed)].
This way of thinking about animals freed the sciences and everyone else to treat animals, or anyone akin to animals, as if they were not going to be consciously affected by any procedure they might have to endure. We know today this view is not correct, but sadly we are not making the progress we should have, given that the influential natural scientist, Charles Darwin, questioned this proposition more than 150 years ago. Darwin recognised that there is no absolute hierarchy in nature with us at the top. 
Darwin's theory of evolution demonstrated that the physiological structures such as organs and skeletons, as well as morphology, are the same in humans and animals. According to Bernard E. Rollin, Darwin knew the logical conclusion to this line of reasoning—that if humans share all physical and organic structures and functions with animals, then it follows that they share the same mental functions as well. Crucially, this includes the one we have always denied them—self-consciousness. 
So in my eyes the vet of today and of the future has the responsibility, if s/he wishes to advise on the animals overall well-being in general, and on matters of animal psychology in particular, that s/he should be able to address his/her clients’ needs on a level that has moved on from Behaviourism and, ultimately, Cartesian thinking. It will be essential that s/he embraces modern theories that acknowledge and understand animal thoughts, feelings and self-consciousness.
It will be also essential that his/her grasp of animal psychology and the mind includes knowledge and understanding of self-consciousness, feelings and thoughts in animals - not just in those we view as higher order animals, pets and companions - but in all animals, including those we view as livestock, such as sheep, pigs, chickens and cattle.

Thank you Heike. This brings to mind the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, declared back in 2012 by neuroscientists. If you’d like to hear more from Heike, listen to Pet Tales on 2CC

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Who loves you more: your dog or your cat?

Do cats really love us less than dogs do? I am not convinced. 

Recent reports in the media suggest that science has proved that dogs love humans more than cats do.

The finding comes from an experiment performed by neuroscientist Paul Zak by a BBC documentary, Cat v Dog. Zak is known for his research on oxytocin, what he calls the attachment neurochemical or “the moral molecule” because it motivates us to nurture offspring, and treat others with care and compassion.

When humans engage with each other socially, our bloodoxytocin levels may increase by 10 to 100 percent – with greater increase correlated with greater amounts of attachment or pleasure involved in the interaction. For example, our oxytocin levels may increase by 5-10 per cent when a new acquaintance shakes our hand, but they shoot up by up to 100 per cent if your own child hugs you.

According to reports, for this experiment Zak took saliva samples from 10 cats and 10 dogs at T=0 (ie before they interacted with their owners). They then engaged with their owners for a short period of time and he repeated the tests (T=1), in both cases measuring oxytocin.

After the experiment, dogs had an average increase in oxytocin of 57.2 per cent while for cats it was around 12 per cent – and some had no oxytocin at all.

What is fascinating is how this study – for which I cannot locate a peer-reviewed journal article – is being reported. In The Times of India, the headline reads “YourDog Loves You 5 Times More Than Your Cat: Study”.

Some reports, such as this one, suggest that the results are based on blood and not saliva tests. But the word "proof" is being thrown around as if the result of a single experiment is the definitive last word on a matter which may impact the way humans interact with animals and therefore impact their welfare. 

Before you give your cat the cold shoulder, remember there are limitations to every study. This one involved a small sample size, measured a single parameter, didn’t provide details about selection criteria (were there key differences in cats selected as opposed to dogs?) and didn’t measure cats in their own environment. 

As noted by Dr Zak, cats are territorial and may be secure in their own territory, but are often terrified when removed from their homes (the saying goes, “dogs love people, cats love places”) – which may have impacted the results. 

Methods can also impact results, particularly when different species are involved in a study. Measuring parameters in feline saliva is challenging for a number of reasons, not least of all because it can be difficult to collect an appropriate volume of saliva. False negative results may occur because of this methodology and there is still significant work to do to refine this modality.

On the other hand, blood tests (if they were performed) are stressful. In my experience, cats are generally more stressed than dogs about having blood drawn, although there is major individual variation (some cats don’t show any overt signs of stress, some dogs get very stressed). This might also impact results.

Is it fair to compare cats and dogs in a context that favours the dog in the first place? Is it fair to compare cats and dogs at all? What are we seeking to achieve here? And is the question who loves us best a tad anthropocentric? What does it say about us? As someone who works and lives with dogs and cats, reports about experiments like these don’t change the way I view my relationships with animals. And when it comes to cats, I think as a species we often read (and study) them wrong.

How did you react to the findings?