Saturday, July 4, 2015

Date with your cat: reading Oliver Sacks, On the Move

Oliver Sacks On the Move
Michael likes nothing more than siting next to a human hot water bottle whilst a book (preferably a big one) is being read.
Winter weekends are perfect for reading, and if you’re going to be sitting around reading and generating body heat, SAT recommends that you keep a cat warm whilst doing so. And if you’re looking for something to read and interested in science, the humanities or both, you can’t really go past Oliver Sacks.

He is one of the most popular medical writers of our time. Recently he learned he has metastatic cancer (he reflected about his diagnosis and morality here).

I was fortunate enough to see Dr Sacks speak in Sydney in 1998 (gasp!), and he came across as a very shy, very English, introverted person with a huge wealth of knowledge. It was only after reading his last autobiography, “On the Move: A Life”, that I learned he was an avid motorcyclist, a body builder and one of many medical doctors of his era who experimented (rather a lot) with illicit drugs. He had a really interesting version of work:life balance and sustained some amazing injuries and heartbreaking losses (I don't want to give too much away here). 

What does this have to do about a companion animal blog, you ask? Well, Sacks is more into plants than animals, but there is a touching passage about how he met Puss, his only feline companion.

“Early in the summer of 1994, I was adopted by a stray cat. I got back from the city one evening, and there she was, sitting sedately on my porch. I went into the house and brought out a saucer of milk; she lapped thirstily. Then she looked at me, a look that said, “Thanks buddy, but I’m hungry, too.”
I refilled the saucer and came back with a piece of fish, and this sealed an unspoken but clear convenant: she would stay with me, if we could arrange a way of living together. I found a basket for her and put it on a table on my front porch, and the next morning, I was happy to see, she was still there. I gave her more fish, left a bowl of milk for her, and took off for work. I waved good-bye to her; I think she understood that I would be back.
That evening, she was there awaiting me; indeed, she greeted me by purring, arching her back, and rubbing herself against my leg. I felt oddly touched when she did this. After the cat had eaten, I settled myself, as I liked to, on a sofa by the porch window, to eat my own dinner. The cat jumped up on her table outside and watched me as I ate.
When I got back the next evening, I put her fish out on the floor again, but this time, for some reason, she would not eat it.  When I put the fish on the table she jumped up, but it was only when I settled myself on the sofa by the window that the cat, lying parallel to me, started to eat her supper as I ate mine. So we ate together, in synchrony. I found this ritual, which was to be repeated every evening, remarkable. I think we both had a feeling of companionship – which one might expect with a dog but rarely with a cat. The cat liked to be with me, she would even, after a few days, walk down to the beach with me and sit next to me on a bench there.
I do not know what she did in the day, though once she brought me a small bird and I realised she must have been hunting, as cats do. But whenever I was in the house, she would be on the porch. I was charmed and fascinated by this interspecies relationship. Was this how man and dog had met a hundred thousand years ago?” pp285-286.
Puss, as Sacks named her, was subsequently rehomed with some friends because of his travel commitments. I think he underestimates how social cats are. There are, for example, plenty of companion cats who prefer to be watched when eating.

One thing I liked about Dr Sacks is that - at least in his opinion piece - he doesn’t really distinguish between humans and animals. In reflecting on his (now precarious) existence, Sacks wrote that he was grateful that:
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Friday, July 3, 2015

Animal behaviour lessons learned from Jurassic World

Imagine if people could keep dinosaurs as pets? 
 A dinosaur movie may seem little more than escapism, but like many science-fiction movies, JurassicWorld is a morality tale. Along with the typical “don’t mess with nature” message, the stereotype of scientists as so obsessed with their creations they don’t care about the wider implications, and other important life-lessons like don’t fly your helicopter without your instructor two days before you get your license, there are a few lessons about animal behaviour sprinkled throughout the movie that are worth the air-time. Here are the messages I took home from Jurassic World. (The trailer is embedded below if you've not seen it).

  • Animals need to be socialised from an early age. As Owen the vested, chested, motorbike-riding, gun-toting animal trainer points out, the reason the test-tube dinosaur Indominus Rex (“untameable king” – talk about nominative determinism) has become a psychopath is that she has been raised in isolation. This leads her to kill for the fun of it. After all, what else has she got to do with her time? It’s not like she can spend the rest of her day exhibiting natural behaviours like interacting with cohabitants, nesting or whatever else an Indominus does (in fact scientists don’t know what natural behaviour for this species is, because there’s only ever been one of her). We often overlook the impact of “containment” and isolation on animals. Captivity limits their options – so the minimum we can do is provide cohabitants and/or enrich their environment. Solitary confinement is a form of torture, yet we subject animals to it frequently.
Imagine rocking up to puppy preschool with this fellow in tow.
  • Operant conditioning, or any form of training, doesn’t give you control over an animal’s behaviour. As Jurassic World is at pains to point out, control is an illusion. Even Owen knows that while he can ask his raptors to do things, it’s up to them to cooperate, and there’s limits to how much they can or will. When he’s asked to train dinosaurs for the military, Owen points out that there’s a smidge of a gap between holding a raptor’s attention for a few seconds and delivering a reward you’ve been waving in front of it, to using a clicker to get them to enter the chaos of a war zone and act according to our instructions without stopping to snack on innocent people or members of your own army. Another lesson exemplified by Owen is that alpha males are not the most aggressive, toughest, enemy-toppling members of the pack but lead by example. More in thisarticle
  • Human expectations around animal behaviour are usually unrealistic. Everything is bigger in Jurassic World – as park owner Simon Masrani points out, part of the thrill lies in realising how small we are. The movie also caricatures human beliefs about animals – from dangerous anthropomorphism (oh yes, she considers me the alpha and wants to make me happy so she won’t unpredictably bite my head off even though that’s natural behaviour for this species), to wanting to stick everything in a theme park, to the idea that animals can be trained to behave perfectly in a single session. No, no, no, says Jurassic World. There a scene where Masrani, a rich guy who clearly hasn’t thought through the ethical implications of his business plan, confronts his senior scientist Henry Wu, and says: "You created a monster!", to which Wu replies: “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being a cat”.
Moisie the kitten strikes her most convincing velicoraptor pose.
  • You can’t genetically select for bigger, nastier, “cooler” predator traits in an animal without selecting for the predatory behaviours that go with it. In the beginning of the movie, Claire is supportive of the company’s mission to feed the public’s appetite for “more teeth”. Owen the animal trainer explains why this is insane, although it’s not til Claire is being pursued by the genetically engineered, dentally enhanced psychopathic result of this mission that she changes her mind. (Curiously enough, as she develops more empathy, Claire’s hair progresses from a straight bob with a fringe to wavy with no fringe, implying that good people are more relaxed with their hair – although why she didn’t have to go through the hell that is growing out a fringe I don’t know). The point is that breeding to enhance features of an animal's appearance can have a negative impact on its temperament (and health, although the movie doesn't stress health effects, although we don't really have time to see those manifest since Indominus rex eats everyone who looks at her).
We're thrilled by the concept of predatory dinosaurs, but anyone contemplating a genetic bake-off to create the ultimate predator has some serious ethical and welfare issues to consider first (there was no ethica committee in Jurassic World but then I'm not sure an ethics committee meeting makes as exciting viewing as carnivorous dinosaurs chasing tourists).
  • Get a decent vet! The methods used to try to subdue the animal are useless tranquilisers administered by untrained security personnel, which clearly don’t work or if they do are seriously low doses, or weapons. How about someone with some training to calmly sedate the animal? I know its science fiction but you’d think any facility holding that many animals would have an on-site veterinary team and hospital that could engage in some fear-free handling and judicious chemical restraint.
Jurassic World incorporated a baby dinosaur petting zoo. Nice idea, but these animals do grow up and require a lot of care.
  • Animals aren’t the idiots here. When Owen suggests that Indominus might be a little self-aware, Claire retorts, “We’re talking about an animal here.”“A highly intelligent animal” – he replies. In fact, in the movie, it is the humans who make most of the dumb decisions, and unleash the sequence of unfortunate events that necessitate all-out war against their own creation. The message? Science needs to slow down, evaluate the risks and benefits of its intervention, and think about the welfare of the animals it creates as well as the welfare of humans that creation may potentially want to nibble on later.
We already share the planet with dinosaur-like critters. According to Jurassic World, we need to focus on looking after those ones before we cook up bigger, bitier versions.
  • We need to appreciate the dinosaurs we already have – or their descendants. The movie is a little more subtle about this point but right at the beginning, a big, fat, three-toed reptilian looking foot stomps on the ground. It belongs to a tiny bird. Yes, they are kind of dinosaurs, and if people paid more attention to them and appreciated them for what they are (instead of creating demand for dinosaurs) we’d live in a better (and safer) world.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How do I help my dog behave in public?

Griffin puppy
Is your dog the perfect angel in public, or does the idea of a walk when there are other people and dogs about fill you with dread?

Your dog might be the perfect companion at home, but how is he or she in public?

Dr Eloise Bright is a veterinarian who loves helping animals and their owners with behaviour problems. She’s been good enough to answer a few questions and share her top five tips with SAT.

What’s your day job?

I’m a veterinarian in Sydney and mum to two young boys and one furry family member.

Why did you pursue specialisation in canine behaviour?

As a vet I frequently come across pets that may be otherwise healthy, but are not happy. Similar to humans it is estimated that 20% of our pets suffer from anxiety and mental illness at some time in their lives. Vets are traditionally not so great at addressing these problems, so I wanted to learn more so I could help these pets.

Dr Eloise Bright shares her useful tips on canine behaviour.
Do you have any non-human companions?

I currently only have one family pet, my cat Jimmy who I took home from my first vet nursing job, while I was studying to be a vet. He was completely bald due to ringworm, so he ended up coming home with me! He now has a magnificent coat and is undeniably handsome. I’ve been pestering my husband to add a dog to our brood, after my elderly rescue Pomeranian passed away last year at the ripe old age of 15 years.  As our clinic works closely with Paws For Thought I’m keeping an eye out for the right little dog to fill that gap!

How can we ensure pets behave well in public places?

1. Socialisation

The most important part of raising a puppy is socialising before 12 weeks of age. For many puppies that are adopted at 8 weeks, this only allows 4 weeks to expose them to all the sights and sounds of normal life. Poorly socialised dogs often do not cope with the hustle and bustle of traffic and loud noises and may be aggressive towards other dogs, children or people.  Check out this article to learn how to safely socialise your puppy before the vaccination course has been completed.

2. Reward your dog’s attention

Positive reinforcement is vital for developing a great relationship with your dog. Whenever your dog responds to his name, give a reward (a game can be a good reward if your dog is play motivated). When you are out and about, say your dog’s name and reward him for paying attention to you. This is the basis of having an attentive, obedient dog. Training your dog that you are leading him on his walk is also important to establish yourself as the pack leader.

3. Off leash recall

To train your dog to come back to you when off the leash, first train the behaviour at home with no distractions around. Call your dog’s name and gives him a reward when he comes to you. Then take it to a fenced dog park and train with distractions. If your dog is a little less attentive than is ideal, you can use a long lead rope. One way to trick a dog who is refusing to come is to run in the opposite direction as though a game is about to start. Never punish your dog, particularly for not coming when called. Carry high value treats with you every time you go to the dog park and keep on delivering them (as well as some fun and games), so that coming back to you does not signal the end of all the good times.

4. Train your dog to ‘go to place’

This one can be so useful in a huge variety of settings. If your dog reliably goes to his mat and stays there until told otherwise, you will be able to take him everywhere, put his mat down and know that he will stay put. To start with, encourage your dog to go to his mat (a towel works fine too) and throw a treat there. Reward him for staying there for longer periods of time. Clicker training is a great way to teach advanced behaviours such as this.

5. Always supervise your dog with children

Part of being a great pet parent is not putting your dog in compromising situations. Even the most laid-back, lovely dog can be pushed to the limits. Children are often rough, steal toys, don’t respect personal space and will often get overexcited and squeal around dogs. A classic situation is a dog tied up outside a shop. Children who go and pat such a dog without gaining permission first can often startle the dog and the dog is unable to get away due to being tethered. A pat on the top of the head is also quite threatening to dogs so show children how to put their hand out, palm down for a sniff.

Thanks Dr Bright. 

Dr Eloise Bright has worked in as a vet in Sydney for over 8 years and is the resident vet for the online pet store She has completed a veterinary acupuncture course, specialised in dog behavioural issues and is currently completing her Masters in Small Animal Practice. She likes to share animal advice and tips, get social with her on Google+.

Monday, June 29, 2015

What does it mean to be a veterinarian?

Even superheros are prone to burnout.

The topic of veterinary mental health has had a lot of airtime recently, thanks to greater awareness and genuine efforts of organisations (within and outside of the profession) to de-stigmatise mental health issues.

Last week US based companion animal veterinarian Dr DeanScott wrote a thought-provoking essay on why being a vet should not entail being a superhero (read the full essay here or see reference below). His aim was to give vets permission to be ordinary human beings when he feels there is a pressure for vets to be superheros.

It’s topical at SAT HQ at present due to our literal attempts to be just that – albeit not quite in the way Dr Scott is referring to. He’s not worrying about people running around in fancy dress (bring on that epidemic, please!). He’s concerned about people lining themselves up for the morbidity (and sometimes mortality) associated with professional burnout.

He persuasively argues that aiming to serve people and animals 24/7 is a recipe for burnout – and he’s right. It can be exhausting. He goes on to argue:
Ultimately, no matter what else, being a veterinarian is a job. You may call it a vocation or a career or a calling; it still comes down to being a job. I don’t define myself by my job. When I say I’m a veterinarian, it’s not who I am, but what I do.
One issue that has been raised by a number of people in our profession is the problems that start to occur when one cannot separate who one is from what one does. (You can listen to a fantastic podcast by veterinarian and consultant Dr Sarah Page-Jones about this very issue here). 

Sounds simple but what happens if something in your life changes and you can’t be a vet anymore? If what you do is who you are, that requires a total rehaul of one’s identity.

Dr Scott comes to the conclusion that his job is not exactly what he thought it would be.
I think we suffer from the realisation that many pet owners are not as invested in their pets as we thought when considering this profession. It can be very disheartening.
This, he argues, sets some people on a path of “veterinary heroism”, where some vets do more and more outside of work (spey clinics, animal rescue, volunteer work) to try to address the imbalance.
We want to be viewed as the good guys. We seem to think that the more we do for others in this profession – especially when we’re not compensated for it – the more the world will like us.
All of which can lead to burnout.

These are valid points, although I’ve been ruminating over this and have a couple of thoughts I’d like to throw in to the mix.

  • It depends where and how you practice. I have worked in some practices where, for social, economic and other reasons, I have cared more about animals than (a large percentage – maybe 30 per cent) of the owners have done. This is emotionally exhausting and advocating for animals in such a context can be like banging one’s head against a brick wall. But I work in a practice now where most of the owners care for their animals as I do my own. So much depends on our case load and that depends on the practice you work in and the way it is managed.
  • Extracurricular veterinary activities aren’t always done for altruistic reasons. The volunteer work I’ve done has given me an immense source of personal satisfaction, entertainment, travel to amazing destinations, the opportunity to make new friends, interaction with unusual and exotic species, the opportunity to get a different perspective on what I do, a source of continuing education, a break, a change of pace…I could go on. Most of my clients would not know I do this stuff, they just know I'm away from work. Some people need unstructured time to recharge. That just doesn’t work for some people. Sometimes doing something in a different context can be re-energising. There are also costs to consider - financial, emotional, time, risk of injury, fatigue and so forth. If the costs outweigh the benefits its not sustainable.
  • Work can be fun. One of my mentors constantly reminds me of this. There are moments of hilarity which occur at work and it’s important to acknowledge them with an appropriate guffaw. There's also the whole concept of can feel "in the zone" when one is absorbed in a routine surgery, for example. Its a luxury to focus on one task, get it finished, and see the result. Something that seems to happen less in less in this multitasking, information-overloaded world.
  • There are some fairly major differences of opinion about whether veterinarians belong to a profession, an industry, or both, and what this means in terms of personal identity. For some the notion of a lifelong vocation works just fine – for others it’s a disaster. It think, like any area of mental health, the answer is complex. For some people, a sense of belongingto a profession and identifying with their career might be a source of greatmeaning which may benefit their mental health, while for others it does not. And it may change depending on what is going on in your life.
  • The concept of work-life balance can be a source of stress, guilt and dissatisfaction for some people. For real. It is one of those terms that is bandied around and equated with well-being, but it doesn't work for everyone and that's okay.    

I agree with Dr Scott that, like anyone in any field, we need to focus less on comparing ourselves with others (I think it’s naive to think we can eliminate this tendency – we’re a social species after all) but more on working out what works for us. If extracurricular vet work floats your boat, go for it. If you need to clock off and rehearse for the air guitar championships or spend time with your family or devote hours to hobbies that have nothing to do with animals, that’s fine too.  Or you might personally prefer a combination of both.

One thing I learned when studying philosophy is that working out what constitutes a good life for each of us is not something you can achieve in a semester-long course on “living a good life”. It’s a life-long project. Working out how work fits in is part of an ongoing process.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Date with your dog: Be a superhero, support pet friendly landlords, aid in equine research

Wonderwoman and Superman to the rescue. Photo by Pierre Mardaga.
As someone living with a senior dog, I try to spend as much time as I can with Phil. One of our latest joint ventures has been the Bear Cottage Superhero Challenge. In a nutshell, Bear Cottage is a children’s hospice where kids and their families can have a much needed break while getting 24/7 support. So Sir Philpers and I have been doing our bit to help out.

I don’t have offspring of the human variety, and fortunately I have never had to prevail on Bear Cottage for their services. I learned about them in a newspaper article about Frankie, the live-in assistancedog (she can operate the electric train set and press buttons on the lift). 

My interest was from perspective of a veterinarian, until I visited Bear Cottage and met the staff and families who depend on them. (I also met Frankie who was an angel, though she’s an angel with an appetite and did hit me up for some liver treats). What they do is a huge deal and its a multi-species effort, albeit a bit more on the human front than the non-human front. And every one of them deserves a big, fat, gold medal (except for Frankie who would likely ingest it).

In July every year Bear Cottage runs the Superhero Challenge. Essentially, participants dress as superheroes and raise money to support their activities. Enter Super Phil and Wonder Anne (wondering how on earth Superheroes ever feel confident schlepping round in impractical leotards in public, in winter no less). I've got to say if you're feeling awkward about being a superhero, having a superdog at your side takes a lot of the awkward away.

We’re doing it again in 2015, although neither of us are getting any younger (immortality doesn’t appear to be on our inventory of superpowers).

This was the "superman about to rescue wonderwoman from the burning building"
part of the shoot. Phil is looking incredulous as I was not being very convincing.
Good talent is hard to find! Photo by Pierre Mardaga.
My Dog’s Territory photographer Pierre Mardaga has supported us by taking these photos and allowing us to share them to promote the cause. What Phil and I lack in posing skills, Pierre made up for in masterful photography (if you’re ever considering a themed photo shoot with your pet, he is the guru). The truth is Phil is happy to go along with just about any scheme, as long as it involves a car ride and endless attention. But it's nice to document this one. And these are not the kind of photos one wants to entrust to a smartphone and a selfie stick! 

Cape-swishing and superman-holding simaltaneously is actually hard work!
Photo by Pierre Mardaga.
For our part, Phil and I are completing a few Superdeeds for which you can sponsor us. So far we’ve been sponsored to commit a (hopefully victimless) fashion crime, help a shy dog come out of her shell, proofread an essay, mow a lawn and change a nappy (the scariest of all deeds thus far). A very cheeky vet nurse is negotiating a deed involving Wonderwoman doing the grocery shopping for her at peak hour! If you want to see what we're up to or even sponsor us (all money goes directly to Bear Cottage), just click this link

In other news...

Have you transported a horse in the last two years? Help improve the welfare of horses by taking a few minutes to answer this survey. It is part of a PhD study.
Are you a tenant with a pet-friendly landlord? There should be many more of these, which is why it is important to celebrate yours! The Animal Welfare League is asking tenants to nominate their pet-friendly landlord or real estate agent. All you have to do is click here, explain in a few words why this person is deserving, and submit your entry. You can win a $250 gift card by doing so.

You can also check out this interview with culturalgeographer Dr Emma Power, who spends her time researching how we live with companion animals.

Horses aren’t exactly small animals but they are companion animals. Barbara Padalino is doing a PhD on equine transportation through the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. As part of this she is running a survey to study transportation management and transport related disease in horses.

If you have horses you have moved in the last two years, please complete this survey and contribute to important knowledge that will aid in equine welfare.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Things I learned about reptile care

Spike observes the world from the roof of his hide.
I’m currently enrolled in the Centre for VeterinaryEducation’s online reptile medicine course under the tutelage of Dr Robert Johnson. Dr Johnson is an experienced exotics veterinarian, former Taronga Zoo Veterinarian and co-owner of South Penrith Veterinary Clinic. He is also currently the President of the Australian Veterinary Association. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe he is the first exotics veterinarian to fill this role.

Anyway, the discussion board has been going off and one of the most interesting activities has been evaluating the husbandry of reptiles. Our tutor or class members post a photo of a snake, reptile or turtle enclosure and we have to comment on whether it is suitable for that species and how it might contribute to disease.

The framework that many of us have been using is the 8 H’s of husbandry, which is a nice framework to structure a husbandry assessment around.
  • Heat (and light, including access to UV light and provision of a heat mosaic – including use of themometers and thermostats);
  • Hide (somewhere reptiles can get some privacy; also very useful for handling the nippier species);
  • Humidity (optimal humidity varies from 40-80 per cent depending on species; to some extent this is controlled by the size of the water bowl);
  • Health (of the animals – including behaviour, such as soaking in the water bowl which can be a sign of mites, clinical signs including lesions);
  • Hygiene (including ease of cleaning, substrate and the cleanliness of the enclosure, as well as water quality);
  • Healthy appetite (anorexia can be a sign of disease but it can also occur because of poor husbandry – not keeping the animal in its preferred optimal temperature zone, stress or offering inappropriate food items);
  • Habitat (size does matter – snakes need to be able to stretch to their full body length but very large enclosures make thermoregulation more of a challenge);
  • Handling (over-handling is a contributing factor to metabolic disease in lizards as whilst they are being handled they are usually not exposed to UV light; it’s also a common cause of regurgitation in snakes, who take quite a long time to digest their food and should not be handled for at least three days after a good feed).
Analysing husbandry has been the most entertaining homework I’ve had in ages. It’s amazing what you can tell from a few images of an enclosure. If reptiles are not presented in their enclosures (and often this is highly impractical) it is very much worth encouraging the owners to take a few snaps so you can see if the set-up is deficient in any of the above.

There are 8 modules in the course (introduction to reptile medicine, the consultation, common conditions of reptiles, interpretation of diagnostic tests, hospital care, critical care, anaesthesia and surgery) which can be completed over the next four to six weeks, and there is still time to enrol.

On a related note, check out this lovely story about a police station that looks after blue tongue lizards. It’s great to see their community service isn’t limited to humans!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Telemedicine in veterinary practice

No, we're not making a movie. We're practising teledermatology on a dog with chronic pododermatitis.
Telemedicine is a rapidly growing area in human medicine, and it was mentioned at the Pan Pacific veterinary conference as a technology we will see more of in the future.

In case you didn’t know, telemedicine is basically the use of technology (computers, cameras, internet) to provide health care from a distance.

In human medicine it’s used for city-based specialists to log in and assess patients who are in rural and remote areas, for example. You might also use it to assess patients you can’t have contact with (for example, those in isolation, those that have been treated with radioactive substances and so on). Doctors are using terms like “teledermatology”, “telecardiology” and “telepsychiatry”. The idea is patients have increased access to specialists, doctors (especially those that are isolated) have better support, and there are other potential applications like education.

Is there a place for telemedicine in veterinary medicine? To some extent it’s already done in some large organisations and it has been argued by some authors that since the advent of computers veterinarians have practiced an informal telemedicine among themselves.

But given its success in the human field, manufacturers are listening to vets. For example, in the human health care sitting it’s acceptable to have the camera mounted in one place.

That’s a bit harder when you’re examining patients that range anywhere from less than 1kg to almost 100kg (my largest patient ever weighed 94kg). You have to be able to adjust those things! Sony has now developed a sturdy stand so you can move the camera around – and it’s strong enough not to be knocked over by rowdy patients.

Of course the first time one gets hold of new technology like this one wants to examine one's own dog! The smart phone tends to crap out when you get too close, but this technology allows me (or any interested party with access) to go extreme close up on his problematic nose - without getting in his face.
I struggled initially seeing the difference between telemedicine, a more expensive technology, and use of a smartphone or tablet to do the same thing. 

But there are some key differences. 
  • Telemedicine units are designed to maintain privacy and security. You can’t access the system unless you are authorised to do so.
  • As you might expect, the resolution is much higher and it utilises optical zoom (the unit we saw demonstrated uses 36x optical zoom) – you could have a remote specialist, for example, zooming in on tiny nodule or distichia. And it can also be used to view equipment in the room – from anaesthetic machines to ECGs and radiographs (though hopefully you can email those to a specialist).
  • Unlike skype or facetime or whatever program or app you use, the telemedicine unit is controlled by the person logging in at the other end and the camera moves around, so they can zoom in and out on different parts of the animal.
  • While I think this technology is unlikely to be taken up in inner city practices where nearby specialists abound, I can see potential veterinary applications.
  • While they can’t dive in and ligate a bleeding artery for you, a specialist surgeon could log in and talk you through a difficult surgery. This would be extremely useful and potentially life-saving in rural and remote areas.
  • Assessing the behaviour of patients that have already had medical complaints ruled out. There are behaviour specialists located in most cities now but people in remote areas have to travel a long way – and often can’t – for the benefit of their advice. Being able to see the patient interact with the owners and clinician and take a behavioural history may be valuable in these cases.
  • Monitoring herd health between farm visits. Pig, poultry, sheep and cattle vets often have clients that are located very far apart. Being able to more accurately assess the herd will ensure that their health and welfare is maintained between visits.
  • There may be specialists who just do telemedicine. They may be retired or unable to visit practices for other reasons (e.g. a medical condition, kids at home, being a full-time carer etc.) and this sort of working situation may suit them very well.

Of course you need a system where speciaists are available and prepared to help at the other end, and clients would need to pay an appropriate fee to cover costs of the specialists and the use of the technology.

The obvious downside is the specialist or consultant can't touch the animal, either for the purposes of examination or treatment (you can't palpate an abdomen without putting your hands on that abdomen) - nor can they deliver a liver treat. Telemedicine will never replace hands on practice.

It will be interesting to see how this technology is used by veterinarians in Australia and what systems it is built into.

According to one review on the subject,
Telemedicine is not a technology, a separate branch of medicine, a new branch of medicine, the preserve of computer nerds, or a mature discipline. It is an evolving field. Telemedicine will in time become an integral part of the practice of certain aspects of veterinary medicine. It is not a matter of it, but when (Mars & Auer, 2006).
Are you already using telemedicine? How? We’d love to hear from you.


Mars M, Auer RE (2006) Telemedicine in veterinary practice. Journal of the South African Veterinary Association 77(2):75-8.