Friday, December 19, 2014

Preparing for the festive season: fires, food and fireworks

Merry Christmas from Buddy (courtesy of Heike Hahner)
The festive season is supposed to be fun, but it also brings a number of hazards that can land your pet into trouble. Fires (usually of the bush variety), food (of the festive kind) and fireworks (we're thinking New Year's Eve in particular) can all cause dramas for companion animals.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas is cold. But down South, it’s hot, hot, hot. While our Northern counterparts need to worry about hypothermia and frostbite in animals (like this poor dog), we need to worry about keeping pets cool – providing water, shade, avoiding heat stress and, unfortunately, bush fires.

The ACT RSPCA has produced a guide on bushfire preparedness (read it here), including planning in advance for evacuation. It’s a great reminder to also update your microchip details and make sure your pet is wearing a collar and tag where possible so can be reunited with you without delay in the event of becoming lost.

Its also that time of year where it hits home to me how seasonal companion animal work is. In the lead-up to Christmas, and its aftermath, we see a real peak in gastro (vomiting, diarrhoea), pancreatitis, and gastrointestinal foreign bodies as pet's overindulge in festive food.

Please read SAT's tips about BBQ hazards (here) and remember to be sensible when feeding treats to your pets. Pets tend to consume a more restricted diet than us, so a festive food blow-out can make them extremely ill.

If your pet is frightened by fireworks, you may want to take precautions on New Year's Eve (your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication for your pet - they will need to examine your pet first), and/or you might consider admitting serial escape-artists to a boarding kennel for the night (or shipping in a dog sitter). You might also want to check our post about fears and phobias here.

Don't be sucked in by those adorable eyes. Buddy appears to be anticipating a few Christmas treats - be sensible about what you give your dog, and remember, you may not be the only one at the party smuggling them treats under the table.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Dilemmas in Animal Welfare

Hero literally "sitting on the fence". Some dilemmas will do that to you. But in real life we need to make decisions that impact on animal welfare. (Honestly I was so excited that Hero sat still long enough for me to take this photo. It rarely happens).
Just about everyone I know feels that animal welfare is important, but that doesn’t mean they agree on decisions that impact the welfare of animals. So it was nice to see a textbook that acknowledges animal welfare dilemmas – and explores these in more depth.

Dilemmas in Animal Welfare states that the field is full of dilemmas because our decisions around animal welfare are rooted in human values. These vary between humans but also within individuals.

The book uses case examples in animal welfare about which people may be polarised, such as the question of whether tail docking is justified or whether dairy cows should be group-housed, then looks at the scientific evidence and ethical arguments on each side. It also asks the bigger-picture questions, something that can be missing from scientific literature. For example, with regard to tail docking piglets to prevent tail-biting, and associated morbidity and mortality, Sandra Edwards and Pauleen Bennett ask whether it is justifiable to condone a procedure (tail docking) as a short-term solution to existing suboptimal practices (overcrowding) and if there is a risk in delaying more desirable, longer-term solutions.

Other topics tackled include obesity in companion animals, quantity of life – often overlooked in welfare which tends to emphasise quality of life, intensification of farming and how we factor in the environment in ethical decision making, making decisions around whom we should eat, public health and animal welfare, balancing the need for conservation of a species vs our obligations to individual animals, conflict around feral cat colony management, and what we actually mean when we talk about suffering of animals.

Of course some of these won’t look like dilemmas to some readers. If you’re vegetarian or vegan the question of whom you should eat is already answered. But the arguments are well researched and constructed, and no matter which side of the fence you stand, or lean towards, you will be challenged.

This is an excellent book for anyone working in the field of animal welfare or animal production, as well as students in veterinary science, science, agriculture, conservation, bioethics and so on. It is one of those textbooks that can be read cover-to-cover but you can also dip in and read a chapter or two – they’re nicely contained.

My one criticism is that I think the final chapter – What is suffering in animals?  by Daniel Weary – should be the first. It raises some profound and unsettling questions about what we mean when we talk about animal suffering, what we need to know to make decisions and the limitations of this knowledge.


Appleby MC, Weary DM & Sandoe P (2014)(eds) Dilemmas in Animal Welfare. Cabi,

Monday, December 15, 2014

What does your dog do when you leave the house?

Phil, as captured on "Philcam" aka The Eyenimal.
Do you know what your pets get up to when you leave the house? You can think you know, but unless you can observe them somehow it’s all a bit of an educated guess. Phil and I are participating in a study (although of course he doesn’t know it and cannot consent to it) about separation anxiety in dogs (you can read more and get involved here).

As part of that study I’ve been allowed to borrow a camera called the Eyenimal – designed specifically for remote pet monitoring but also used for security and baby monitoring – which enables me to leave the house and observe what Phil is getting up to.

Hero with the Eyenimal.
I’ve had clients film their pets before. Usually these are clients who come home to find bizarre changes in the house – like all the stuffing removed from their cushions, or parts of doors chewed off. They want to know for how long their dogs are distressed, and what times of day are the times that interventions (like sending in a dog-walker) will be more effective. Their pets won’t behave badly when they’re home, so the camera means they can observe their pet from afar without influencing the behaviour.

The camera resembles a ye olde school diving helmet.
The Eyenimal camera itself reminds me of a diving helmet from an old, deep-sea diver (you know the ones that look like astronaut helmets) but I can pan it in any direction. Not that I really need to. At this very moment, as I sit outside and blog, Phil is where I left him – on the doormat near the door. Michael, my eldest cat, is sitting near him. It’s hard to tell, as I can only see her from the rear, whether she is intimidating him and trapping him near the front door, or whether she too is waiting.

In fact I was surprised last night to learn that she is the most active of the non-humans in the household, walking past the camera and occasionally sitting right in front of it, taking a “selfie” of her chest and blocking the view of anything else.

Michael sits practically on top of the camera, blocking the view of everything else in the entire room.
Unfortunately Hero, my youngest cat, is onto me this morning and is has managed to open the blinds and spot me sitting outside. He is meowing his head off. The other two haven’t twigged that I am outside.

The striking thing I found is that there is a difference in Phil’s behaviour when I leave at night as opposed to when I leave during the day. At night, he toddles off and puts himself to bed. When it’s daytime, he waits. So if I am going to invest in pet-sitting, daytime seems the better time.

One thing’s for sure. His behaviour isn’t quite what I expected and this technology is offering a fascinating insight. It’s more gripping than watching Home and Away.

Have you ever filmed your pets when you’re out?

In other news, Rosie Allister who volunteers for Vetlife wrote this interesting post which gives some insights into working on a veterinary helpline, and the fact that veterinarians often call late – not so much late in the day as late in trying to cope with a problem or two (hundred). Read here.

And for those with a religious bent, Pope Francis was overheard reassuring a little boy that his dog would go to heaven. Its kind of a big deal, although the comment is being played down. Read more here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Leisure sickness, vultures and dog genetics

dog on beach
Dogs don't seem to suffer from leisure sickness. At least I've never been asked to treat one!
It’s that time of year when everyone goes on holidays. Well, lots of people. Well, possibly many of us are working. But we’re TOLD it’s the holiday season, which can be enough to trigger “leisure sickness” – you know, that awful cold/flu/bug you get when you slow down for a moment and contemplate enjoying an unstructured day.

For those of you staring down the barrel of an xmas/new year break and feeling your blood pressure rise, you aren’t alone. Leisure sickness is a thing, according to James Adonis writing for the Sydney Morning Herald.

You can read the full article here (although a warning, the barbaric – as noted - experiment on monkeys cited in this case doesn’t support the argument at all, and if anything demonstrates how pointless such experiments are. Yes, signs of disease and stress-related illness can have delayed onset – these animals were certainly not subjected to working conditions, nor holiday conditions, and such poor science should not be legitimised with citation).

This vulture, photographed at a zoo overseas, is safe from diclofenac but has to deal with poor husbandry.
Meanwhile the EuropeanMedicines Agency (EMA) has again raised concerns about the use of an anti-inflammatory drug in livestock. Diclofenac, used as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic (and marketed in Australia as voltaren), is used in livestock in many countries. It’s one of a number of drugs that can have adverse effects not just on the animals it is administered to directly, but others as well.

When vultures and other bird species that consume carcases (necrophagous birds – new word for the day) eat carcases containing diclofenac residues, they can die (due to kidney failure).

According to the EMA, the drug is associated with the rapid decline of vulture populations. Veterinary medicines containing diclofenac have been banned in some Southeast Asian countries. The EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use (CVMP) released a report about the problem, which you can read in full here.

Finally, if you’re genetically minded you might enjoy Jessica Hekman’s post on some of the perils of breeding dogs (read here).

She was asked to expand on some comments she made (esp about Golden retrievers) by the Huffington Post (read here).

Enjoy the weekend, folks – and avoid the leisure sickness.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Evidence based medicine and cultural competence in medicine: is there a conflict

Skittles the ferret. She has little to do with today's post but she is absolutely stunning.

Evidence based medicine and cultural competence in medicine are two key concepts most veterinary and medical curricula are trying to accommodate simultaneously. However, there seems to be a fundamental conflict between the two. I finally understood it when I read an editorial in Health Services Research by Romana Hasnain-Wynia, shared by Dr Martin Whiting.

First though, what does each mean on its own?

Evidence-based medicine (EBM to those who know it well) is the “conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence, primarily from clinical trials, in making decisions about the care of individual patients” (Hasnain-Wynia, 2006).

Skittles looks like she has a Batman mask.
EBM is associated with diagnostic and treatment guidelines, algorithms and protocols. The aim is to standardise patient care. Overall that seems to be a good thing. It means treatment decisions aren’t based on the whims or limitations of one practitioner.

There are a few limitations of this approach. The gold standard of evidence is the randomised controlled trial, but they can be an ethical minefield. For example, subjecting a patient with a particular condition to sham surgery to compare to those receiving a surgical treatment may have an unacceptable welfare cost. So some trials just don’t happen.

ferret walks on lead
Skittles walks on a lead.
EBM is only as strong as its evidence-base, the size of which can be variable. Veterinary trials are relatively thin on the ground, and when they do exist they usually consist of small numbers of animals (with the exception of some large scale, multi-centre studies). Sometimes all we have to go by is a case series or, gulp, a case report. Or extrapolation from first principles. Or asking an expert.

And there are some treatments for which observational studies are convincing enough. Smith (2003) makes this point rather colourfully in a paper suggesting that “the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute” (see the article here).

And again. So its hard to focus on a moving ferret.
Cultural competence in medicine (CCM) is “the delivery of health services that acknowledges and understands cultural diversity in the clinical setting and respects individuals’ health beliefs, values and behaviours” (Hasnain-Wynia, 2006).

It emphasises finding out what is important to the patient. The emphasis is on individualisation, rather than standardisation, of care.

Of course it can be misused, leading to cultural stereotyping, which can be harmful to individual patients and populations. The emphasis of CCM has shifted from providing specific knowledge about certain cultural groups and minorities to promoting humility, communication, understanding patient narrative and so on.

The problem is that EBM and CCM both base recommendations on modal information from studies populations or subgroups – so critics might argue that their recommendations either don’t apply broadly enough or marginalise some individuals. The classic criticism if EBM is that it promotes “cookbook” medicine, a one-size-fits-all approach. The classic criticism of CCM is that, at its worst, is promotes cultural stereotyping.

The real questions are these: can EBM provide patient-centered care? Can CCM demonstrate improved clinical outcomes? And if they do, how can we tell? It can be challenging measuring outcomes for either model (that doesn't mean we shouldn't try).

ferret close up
Skittles held.
Hasnain-Wynia argues that despite the evolution of EBM and CCM, we need to admit that EBM does promote standardisation of care which leads to reduced discretion for clinicians and patients. On the other hand, CCM promotes discretion for clinicians and patients and may leader to greater variability in clinical care. And that is okay. There is a need for both.

Whilst these are exactly the issues that critics target, neither is inherently bad, and neither justifies canning the whole theory (or as philosophers love to say, throwing out the baby with the bathwater).

Hasnain-Wynia (2006) Is evidence-based medicine patient-centered and is patient-centered care evidence-based? Health Services Research 41(1): DOI 10.1111/j.1475-6773.2006.00504.x

Smith G (2003) Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ 2003;327:1459

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Call for Pet Santa Photos

Sanchez in his Santa hat. Which he wore for three seconds in exchange for a parsley bribe.

Yesterday we interviewed Nick Baldas, the artist behind the exhibition My Human Family Rescue Dogs Find a Home. Today we’re helping them out by calling animal lovers to submit their pet Christmas photos and help spread the word about rescue pets.

I hope this little dude gets his Elizabethan collar off before Christmas.
If you have a photo of your pet looking festive, you can email them to so they can go up on the My Human Family facebook wall.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Billy's legacy: My Human Family

Pound dog Billy. Gone, but not forgotten.
Anyone who works with animals knows the experience of tragic and senseless loss. But artist Nick Baldas turned the devastating loss of a pound dog, Billy, into a beautiful legacy. He spoke to SAT about how his pet project, My Human Family Rescue Dogs Find a Home, came to be.

What is your day job?

I am an artist, I work with community groups, councils, galleries and individuals on project that I am passionate about.

Where did the idea for the My Human Family Rescue Dogs Find a Home exhibition come about?

The idea was inspired by Pound Dog Billy, I was sent his tragic story and image and it broke my heart, he was nearly rescued from a pound, his new family were coming to collect him but due to an IT glitch he was euthanised that night, so when the family arrived Billy was dead. I cried and out of my sorrow the exhibition was born - in memory of Pound Dog Billy and all other pound dogs that need a home.

Were you surprised by the number of entries?

No I had no expectations, I would have been happy with 1, 2, 10, 100 entries, the main thing was that we were doing something important for abandoned and neglected dogs. Creating a new opportunity to celebrate the beauty of these dogs and make some noise - BIG WOOFS

How many exhibitions have you had now?

Gee, we have shown in 3 parliament Houses - NSW. QWLD & VIC. 2 galleries. Pine Street Gallery (City of Sydney) and the Margot Hardy Gallery (University of Western Sydney) and 1 library - Campsie Library. So I count 6 showings. 

What is it about these images that touches people?

I think it’s the stories, people love the images because the dogs and families in them are cute, but I think people are really touched by the stories. Most start in really tragic places and end up in LOVE. I think people are surprised at the horror some of these dogs have been through. They are then rescued and loved. I also think the exhibition is successful because we focus on the LOVE, we keep positive.

This exhibition can save lives: how?

I hope the exhibition can save lives through open and honest sharing of photos and stories via social media and via holding the exhibitions in high profile venues, which hopefully will gain the exhibition free editorial. I hope it will stop people buying from breeders and pet shops and visit a pound for their next dog. 

Have you always been a dog person or was there a transformative moment?

I was never allowed to have a dog when I was young, so when I turned 30 I drove out to the RSPCA in Yagoona to find my first dog. Her name was Daisy and she was a white staffy cross puppy.

Daisy passed away 2 years ago - old age, she was 16, she was a great dog and I still miss her every day. Yes I have always been a dog person.

My transformative moments and a blessing to my life is to have been able to share it with Daisy. I was very lucky to have found her. RIP Daisy. 

Do you live with any non-human companions?

Not at the moment, my partner and I have decided to travel for 1 year so we can't adopt a new non-human companion until we return. When we return I intend to adopt 2 dogs and a cat. All from rescue shelters.

How do you think we can make the world better for companion animals?

I honestly don't know, humans and not very nice to each other and we can communicate. We have to try, we have to use our voices, stories and photos for our companion animals. Through LOVE create understanding. 

Thanks Nick. To keep up with My Human Family click here.