Thursday, April 17, 2014

Advice from Nobel Prize Laureate Peter Doherty

This photo was taken about eight years ago when I met Professor Doherty at a book signing. He very good-naturedly posed for a photo, possibly for the 50,000th time that day. (Mind you, how does he manage to look so relaxed and professional while I look like "Nerdsville: Population - Anne"? I think its the backpack full of library books).
It isn’t every day that one gets to converse with a Nobel laureate, but I had the opportunity to interview immunologist, author and Nobel prize-winner Peter Doherty this week for The Veterinarian Magazine

Professor Doherty has a long-standing interested in infectious diseases and zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals). He is also passionate about pandemics (understanding and preventing them, that is).

In July this year he will be addressing the AustralasianSociety for Infectious Diseases (ASID) Zoonoses Conference.

Professor Doherty trained as a veterinarian then did an MVSc at the University of Queensland and worked as a veterinary officer before moving to Scotland to pursue a PhD at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

In 1996, Professor Doherty and colleague RolfZinkernagel (Switzerland) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the way the immune system recognises virus-infected cells.

Professor Doherty has over 20 honorary degrees and has published 397 peer-reviewed papers. (I had to change the toner in my printer just to print his CV!!!)

As I learned in his biography, “The Beginner’s Guide toWinning the Nobel Prize: a Life in Science”, with big prizes come huge responsibilities. Dinners with prime ministers and dignatories, public lectures, school visits, honorary degrees. In 1997 he became Australian of the Year, a title which came with more responsibilities. In addition to that Professor Doherty continues to read and write about immunology and infectious disease, including most recently “Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know” and “Sentinel Chickens: What Birds Tell Us About OurHealth and The World”.

Sadly, Professor Doherty doesn’t currently have pets as commuting across the world and working as a tireless ambassador for science requires too much time away from home to make it work, but he did have some great advice for veterinarians, vet students and scientists: TALK ABOUT SCIENCE. You don't need a Nobel Prize to do it (and - not his words mind you - if we all did our bit, it might give the actual Nobel Prize winners the odd moment off to tend to their houseplants and get to the supermarket).

Science can only work well when people are convinced of its value, and we are ethically charged with the duty of promoting science. Particularly when the science sector is facing challenges from every which way.

Vets need to think of themselves as scientists…there are so few people in the community who have real scientific training. By that I mean taking an evidence based view of the world, not just belief. Anyone that deals with diagnosis has to take evidence based view…they have to be good observers and come to rational based conclusion.

Everyone who has got some sort of science training – and I keep saying this when I talk to professional groups – can be an ambassador. Learn how to talk about it in simple and clear terms, talk about it at school board meetings, stick up for science, and try to explain to people how things work.

Clear communication about the risks and the risk perception around infectious diseases can be particularly important. Needlessly scaring the socks off people can lead to harmful consequences, while failing to inform them can have just as dire consequences. 

Professor Doherty is also passionate about citizenscience

The citizen science movement…is powerful. Vets might think about that in terms of getting citizens involved in observations that are important. We’re already seeing citizen science working with the bird community, looking at beaches, marine animals and pollution. If you can get people organised – they all have cell phones with cameras – they can collect data. We need to involve people, not tell people. We not to stop lecturing and start involving, if we can do that will do a lot better job of communication.

If you’d like to hear more about Professor Doherty’s concerns about zoonotic diseases, sign up for the ASID conference in July.

You can register, and read about the 2012 Zoonoses Conference, here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Building a business to help animals

Michael McTeigue left the rat-race to set up a business that helps rescue dogs. Here he is with his Lab aka Chief Tasting Officer Buddy. (Note to self: write pets into business plan!!! Genius).

Here at SAT we like to try to help animals every which way. We support various animal causes, we aim to provide info for vets/vet students/pet owners, we volunteer our time, and we try to shop ethically. Heck, we even adopt them sometimes (in a sign of just how helpful we are, one is warming his little tushy against the computer as we type). The philosophy we try to live by is one of harm minimisation/benefit maximisation in life, and we're always interested in different approaches people take to help animals.

So we were interested to learn about a guy who threw in a major corporate job to put his eggs into the basket of a startup company to support rescue dogs. SAT spoke to Michael McTeigue about his company, SavourLife, and how it all works.

You left a successful corporate career for a startup venture designed to help dogs in need. What was your previous job and did anyone suggest you were crazy at the time? 

I was a marketing executive at one of Australia’s biggest companies, it was a great job working at a great company, working with some very talented people. I’m sure people still think I’m crazy (!), but I’m doing something I’m passionate about and I think we are really making a difference. The bigger we get, the more we’ll be able to help and that really excites me. 

There are plenty of good causes worthy of our attention. What is it about rescue dogs that inspired you to take action? 

I grew up with dogs and have always been a big softie when it comes to them. I guess I’ve been really affected by the innocence of rescue dogs. They are there through no fault of their own and are powerless to change their outcome. I wanted to be able to do something to change that situation. 

A happy rescue dog.
Why did you make the leap instead of donating cash to an animal charity? 

From a personal perspective, I thought I could use my own money to create a business that could eventually deliver many more donations than I, as an individual would ever be able to. Kind of like planting a seed for someone and watching it grow. I wanted to build a business that would continually be able to generate donations for animal welfare groups. From a wider perspective, not everyone has the means to donate cash to animal charities, so I thought if I could create a way for people to lend a hand to a great cause just by buying something awesome for their own dog, then everyone would win. 

How big a risk is it for a startup to donate 50% of profits? 

It’s a big risk, we are a family company, we are not backed by some big investors with lots of money, and like every start-up, yes sometimes it’s a struggle. But we are in this to help rescue dogs, so really that’s what it’s all about and I feel very strongly that we are doing a really unique and great thing. The support from people we don’t even know has blown me away; we just love it when people help us spread the word. I know we’ll be successful with the help of people just like the ones reading this blog; they’re the kind of people who are going to make us a success. 

How does SavourLife help rescue dogs? 

We partner with four, medium-sized pet rescue organisations throughout the country, you can check them out in detail on our website. We chose them very carefully, all are no-kill organisations, which was important to us. They are the experts in their fields, I just hope to facilitate them in doing their work even better. 

So there’s a few way we help. There’s the direct assistance we give in the form of donations to our partners, that goes to things like vets bills for example which make sure the dogs have the best health, no matter what background they’ve come from.

We also give them our products for them to use with their dogs, whether it be for playing, training, feeding or just simply for rewards. Which really helps makes rescue dogs a great choice as the new addition to your family, you know that they are in good health and they even get basic obedience training!

[Ed - if anyone doubted the trainability of rescue dogs, check out this article about the fantastic display courtesy of Dave Graham and the Australian Canine Sports and Training Centre in The Australian].

And then lastly we help promote the dogs through the unique “See Who You Helped” code on each of our packs. The 7-digit code from your SavourLife pack is your key to seeing the picture and profile of a real-life rescue dog, just like the ones your purchase is helping. You can sign up for updates on how your dog is doing and even share his profile with your friends. You never know, by sharing him you might help us find him a new home! By doing this we are getting these dogs in front of thousands and thousands of people who would otherwise not have seen them, so we know that helps drive more adoptions. 

Are there any non-humans in your life and can you tell us a bit about them? 

Ah, yes our CTO (Chief Tasting Officer), Buddy! He takes his work very seriously! He was the inspiration behind SavourLife and you can see him on the back of every one of our bags of treats. He is an 11 year-old yellow Lab and the world most perfect dog, he has the best nature of any dog I have ever met, I could be biased though….He’s hilarious, or at least I think he is, he’s got a very funny personality and loves his routine. I know what time of day it is, literally, by looking at him and what he’s doing. He is my mate, he’s been with me through thick and thin. 

Here's Buddy again in case you missed him.
How do you spend time together? 

He comes with me pretty much everywhere. He’s with me all day in the office which is great; but when I am not working (which is not very often at the moment!) we love walking as a family, so we’ll all go out and just wander for a couple of hours around where we live. He’s a Lab, so he loves the water, so I take him for a swim at least once a week. He’s also got the most incredible tennis ball radar, he’ll smell one from 50 metres away, I swear, so he loves playing fetch with those. 

What could we all do to improve the lives of non-human animals in Australia? 

There’s so many things you can do. You can volunteer at your local shelter, you can donate goods or money, you can be a foster carer for an animal. I know people are time poor, so simple things like telling your friends what a great option a rescue dog is instead of purchasing one from a pet shop is a great thing to do. When you buy SavourLife, just the simple act of buying something awesome for your own dog, will in turn help rescue dogs across Australia.

Thanks Michael. I love this idea for a business and I like the idea of a business based on giving back. 

Speaking of rescue dogs, this is a beautiful account about a dog named Bran who was rescued by some compassionate and dedicated peeps.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oh, rats!

Hi everyone. 
Today's big job at the Sydney Royal Easter Show (at least for the small animal vets) was the vetting of around 475 rats and mice before breakfast. This was a somewhat challenging task, on account of the fact that most exhibitors entered multiple animals - presented in groups like this.
The rats were relatively easy to count. But mice? Not so much [NB these are not the containers the mice and rats were displayed in - they were just used to hold during the vetting process].
We were checking for general health concerns - dermatophytes, lice, traumatic injuries or respiratory tract disease. The condition of the entrants was excellent. Clearly the exhibitors are passionate about their pets. One observation is that naming pets when you have 30 or 40 becomes an excercise in creativity. Entrants clearly trawl TV and movie credits, novels and the bathroom cabinet to come up with names like "Moriarty" and "Midnight Mojo".

Containing the entrants was at times tricky as a few wanted to explore.
Vetting mice before the show.
As a vet I can declare that I've never met such a number or variety of rats and mice in one session. 

Every one of these mice had an individual name and exhibition number which had to be cross-checked.
This kind of set up made identifying and catching mice much easier.
Dr Chris Tan and veterinary student Jess Graham inspect some rats prior to the show.
It was another educational day. Professor Rosanne Taylor and veterinary neurologist Dr Georgina Child attended to observe the vet student program (if you are a vet student and have the opportunity to volunteer at the show, take it up!). Its always interesting discussing conditions like syringomyelia and neuronal ceroid lipofucinosis with the experts (even if one's own participation is more at the listening end of the spectrum).
Professor Rosanne Taylor (far left) with Dr Chris Tan (second from right) and neurologist Dr Georgina Child (far right).
The big shock of the day was a meeting in the dog pavillion with a representative of the breed that Phil most closely resembles, according to a DNA test. The Maltese. Believe it or not, Dr Phil is related to this lady (pictured below), although his haircut wouldn't suggest that.
Indiana the Maltese.
Dr Phil. See the resemblance? Neither did I!!!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Visiting the Sydney Royal Easter Show

"Do NOT pat this bull! ...he does not like it at all!!!" - looks like someone patted before checking first. (Ascertaining an animal's preferences about patting or not - whatever the species - is always good practice).
This week I am fortunate enough to be a member of a team of veterinarians and vet students volunteering at what is effectively one of, if not the largest, veterinary "clinics" in the Southern Hemisphere - The Sydney Royal Easter Show.

The best thing about being a part of something like this is the opportunity to mix with colleagues in different areas within the veterinary profession - large animal vets, mixed animal vets, rural-based vets, city-vets - and to learn more about the husbandry and welfare of species I engage with less commonly. It is also an opportunity to meet the widest variety of dog and cat breeds and breeders.

At the show veterinarians and veterinary students have multiple roles: swabbing (testing competition animals for banned substances), first-aid and veterinary care (for example, in the event of a calving, a colic or lameness), overseeing veterinary treatment of animals, assessing that animals are fit to be shown and addressing husbandry issues that can arise when multiple animals and humans conglomerate in one area.

Its one of the few places in inner-Sydney where one might cross paths with horses.
Everyday the veterinarians meet for rounds, and the amount of planning and attention to detail is far beyond what I think most people would expect for an event that runs two weeks.

Dr Robert Johnson shows a third-year veterinary student how to vet the cats before the show.
Aside from the volunteer duties, the show is an opportunity for the non-rural based to see domestic species normally relegated to properties well beyond the bounds of the city. And its a nice chance to see one's patients in action. It was great vetting the agility dogs this morning and watching their absolute delight as they checked out the course and peed on designated hay bails.

Its also an opportunity to check out some of the more impressive cakes you'll ever see (unless you are in the cake decorating game). This cat-vs-yarn entry by Erin Lidbury was awesome.
On another topic altogether, SAT reader Mick sent a link to a series of beautiful photos - although I should warn that they are attached to a sad story. Have a look at the work of Jessica Trinh here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Weekend inspiration

Can you believe this poodle is 14 years old? Looking good.
Its yet another wet Sydney weekend downunder, and we're blogging late because a) we had to nip out this morning so I whisked Phil over to the Easter Dog Parade to check out the action and b) I've started working on a project which involves a fair bit of reading and research. So today was a blur of Endnote, Web of Science and juggling documents - through which most of the household slept, blissful in their ignorance.

How do you tackle big projects? Some people I know seem to be carried by inspiration, others kick and scream all the way, but the ones who seem to generate consistently excellent work are masters of routine. So I enjoyed this post on how these types get things done.

Coincidentally I had just learned that the novelest Haruki Murakami is also a runner in Damon Young's book How to Think About Exercise. I'd never really considered the philosophy of exercise before, and this book was a beautiful introduction.

Having gone to the gym twice in my life (once in the mid-90s, another valiant effort made more recently), Young articulated my until-then-undefined unease about gyms: they really are based on a type of flawed dualism.

To overcome the sedentary lifestyle, many turn to the gym...To begin, this encourages the idea that mental and physical work are somehow at odds: different worlds, with different uniforms and music. In the office, I work with my mind; in Fitness First, with my body. ...But exercising only for health can worsen the very dualism that led to a sedentary lifestyle in the first place; we behave as if we were minds servicing bodies, like a sports repairman fixing a raquet" (p9-10).
Well said! And forget the uniform thing. I was disappointed to discover that even in inner Sydney, sequined leotards are frowned upon. But the intention of Young is not to discourage exercise - far from it. He points out that the ancient philosophers were sold on exercise.

For Socrates, promoted by exercise. 'Many people's minds are so invaded by forgetfulness, despondency, irritability and insanity because of poor physical condition,' Socrates argues, 'that their knowledge is actually being driven out of them'. (p14).
Walking the dog, then, is good for one's character and brain - as well as the dog! 

Anyway, if that's too much to contemplate and you are committed to couch-surfing this weekend, you might want to consider modifying your furniture to suit its primary devotees - the felines in your house. I hope someone from Ikea is paying attention to this brilliant design concept.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Do pets have bucket lists?

Phil at the beach.

We hadn’t considered the question until this week, when we were forwarded links about a woman (Riina Cooke) who drew up a bucket liston behalf of her dog (Romeo) when he was diagnosed with cancer.

The concept of a bucket list is very odd when you think about it. The assumption is that most days we go about our routine lives being unfulfilled. But the threat of impending death tends to focus our priorities and, if we have time, we can do all those things we wanted to do…typically bungee jumping, learning to cook marshmellows or writing a note to someone who changed our lives [NB these aren’t from my list, there’re from here].

Once we’ve done it, it is ticked off the list – and we move onto the next item.
When you think about it, it’s a very bizarre take on life. The value of living, it suggests, is in those intermittent peaks that can’t be anything more than transient. The meaning of life is reduced to ticking boxes. And what happens if you get to the end of the list – can you die happily? I’m not sure there’s any evidence that someone who skydived, learned to iron underwater and met Bill Clinton/the Queen/insert influential figure here dies any more at peace than someone who didn’t.

The concept of a bucket list applied to animals is interesting and dare I say controversial. How do we know, as proxies, what our pets would include on that list? (Do you really know for sure what would be on your best friend or mother’s bucket list? What about your partner’s? You might be able to write a list, but check yours against theirs.)  

Items on human bucket lists tend to be things we’ve never done before – but how do we know a pet will enjoy something they’ve never done before, except by extrapolating from what we do know? Would your cat really love to run free in the bush? Not necessarily. Does your dog want to travel? Not all of them do.

I had some wonderful clients whose dog was diagnosed with a brain tumour. They were offered radiotherapy but the prognosis was very poor. Instead, his owners decided to make several trips to his favourite beach and enjoy quality time with him until it was time to go. It wasn’t a list as such – more like a plan.

In Romeo’s case the bucket list was a way for his owner to structure and record their time together before he was euthanased due to advanced metastatic cancer. They enjoyed breakfast in bed and she spent time giving him massages. A lot of dogs would enjoy those experiences – and many would be happy to do that every day.

But there are one or two things on the list that a dog might take or leave. Having your photo in a fire truck or police car. Most pets aren’t big on having their picture taken. So seeking an elaborate photo opp may not be ideal (if it involves time spent together, and a car trip which the dog happens to love – which I suspect it did in Romeo’s case - that’s a different story). The point is that it’s about the journey, not ticking the box. It would be unfortunate if copy-cats tried to out-Facebook each other by posting pics of terminally ill pets posing in novel settings without considering the animal’s experience.

One other item that was controversial was the feeding of a cheeseburger to the dog knowing diarrhoea would be theresult – but the eating would be enjoyed. If we’re feeding a gourmet food item that a dog’s gastrointestinal tract will tolerate, that’s one thing. But if it’s going to cause discomfort, should it be on the list?

There are positive spin-offs to the bucket-list approach – in this case Romeo’s owners made an attempt to think about all of the things he enjoyed, and prioritised spending time with him. Clearly they had a close bond and focused on his quality of life.

But it raises the question of whether we really capable of generating a suitable “bucket list” (if such a thing can ever be suitable) for non-humans? When you think about what might be on your pet’s bucket list, the activities they most enjoy, you might come up with some odd entries. Given the chance, Phil delights in sniffing and snorting the excretions of any other dog and he will do it for hours. If I am honest, I am pretty sure he would prefer that to some of the activities I would pick for him.

Cooke is honest: she admits that the bucket list was a coping mechanism for her.

“I was just so upset for the first few days [after the diagnosis], I needed to do something to occupy my mind. I decided to put together a list of fun things for us to together,” she said.

In Romeo’s case, despite all of the elaborate arrangements his owner made, she felt his favourite activity was eating a steak dinner. And that is just it. Making your pets happy doesn’t need to involve an event manager – the simple, routine things are probably more important.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Three things I learned: rethinking flea control (or, HELP! there’s a biomass in my carpet!)

Fleas are the number 1 cause of pruritis (itchiness) in dogs and cats that I see in practice. By a mile.

Not sure if you’re noticed, but fleas are going INSANE this month and they can be a nightmare to control. One of the biggest challenges of managing fleas is managing the expectations of owners – and maybe vets too.

Fleas caught when I bathed Phil and flea combed him. (He is on several reputable flea products - how can it happen? Read on).

ProfessorMichael Dryden, or Dr Flea as he is known in the business (not to be confused with Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers), is a world expert on fleas and has played a pivotal role in development of some of the more commonly used antiparasiticides (say that with a mouth full of cereal). He presented a webinar last week on flea biology which was entertaining. (The webinar was hosted by MSD Animal Health, and it should be declared that MSD has just launched a new flea product in Australia).

You would think vets would get sick of continuing education on fleas, but actually they are one of the commonest woes of our patients, causing everything from alopecia (hair loss) to fulminant dermatitis to behavioural changes and lack of sleep (for the owner and the animal). One of my goals in life is to fight fleas more effectively - but that ain't no humble goal.

Dr Flea's take on fleas is a bit different to others I have heard. I often instruct owners to treat their environment because fleas on the animal represent the tip of the iceberg of infestation.

Dr Flea says this: By the time a pet owner notices fleas, immature flea stages have been developing in the home for the previous 1-2 months. (The fleas came from pupae, which came from larvae, which came from eggs 1-2 months before).

The “biomass” (what a creepy concept) of immature flea stages in the home environment will continue to re-infest pets. Most of us are in denial about the biomass in our carpet. And if the word biomass doesn't make you feel like Sigourney Weaver taking on aliens, I don't know what will. It elevates the battle against fleas to intergalatic warfare.

As pet owners we want the infestation over yesterday (amen) but it isn’t biologically possible to eliminate that biomass overnight. You can kill the fleas on your pet, but more young fleas will emerge from this biomass, continuing to do so for 3-8 weeks, up to three months in some homes. Up to 95 per cent of the biomass will develop and complete its emergence within about two months.

If the product you are using effectively prevents flea reproduction, you need around a three month timeline (with variation between individual households due to temperature and household conditions).

With the release of decent spot-on treatments in the 1990s we moved away from blasting homes with chemicals to using products to break the flea life cycle, either killing fleas before they reproduce on animals or directly inhibiting reproduction.

The initial speed of kill of any residual insecticide is directly proportion to its concentration. The longer the product is on, the longer the speed of kill (the residual speed of kill) – until eventually the speed of kill slows down enough to allow fleas to lay viable eggs before they die (they only need 24-48 hours).
This is the reproductive break point. The ideal product kills fleas before they lay eggs, or actually destroys eggs.

Dr Flea went into great detail about the way he performed flea studies, a methodology he has refined over decades. So where do flea researchers go for their field studies?

Tampa,Florida, it turns out. This is the flea capital of the US. Temperatures vary from 27 to 35 degrees C with 75-85% humidity. Flea heaven. Some of the infestations he described (>250 adult fleas visible on pets) made me wince. 

Even Dr Flea said it isn’t ethical to use placebos in his studies because the infestations in this area are life-threatening (heavily infested animals die from anaemia or flea-borne infectious disease).

He looks for fleas in an interesting manner. He combs certain areas – for example the dorsal midline, base of the tail, lateral thorax on left and right and the inguinal region. The number of fleas he sees in these areas represent 23 per cent of the total adult flea burden on that animal (try this at home). 

For those of you who feel like fleas are worse than ever you might be on to something. Dr Flea has observed a gradual steady increase in flea infestations since 1997. He added that no flea product can kill every single flea before it can feed.

You can read more about Dr Flea's research on fleas on his website which is a treasure trove of fact sheets, flea research info and even videos of fleas if you so desire. (He is also a keen hiker and photographer).