Friday, August 28, 2015

How do animals sleep?

An aerial view of a hairless cat sleeping.

How did you sleep last night? Sleep is a funny thing. Get less of it than you need to and your function becomes impaired – driving, operating heavy machinery and performing complex tasks are risky when little sleep has been had. People talk about their sleepless nights, interrupted sleep, insomnia and sleep apnoea, but it’s rare for clients to discuss their pet’s lack of sleep with me. And when they go home on heavy pain meds or after a general anaesthetic, we don’t have to warn animals not to drive or operate heavy machinery. Point being that we don’t often notice when animals are drowsy, because it doesn't alter our interactions with them and so it doesn't matter to us.

But as I learned when reading The Science of Animal Welfare, sleep (or lack thereof) can significantly impact an animal’s welfare. The authors compiled an impressive review on the scientific literature around sleep in animals. It is a daily activity in all vertebrate species (with the exception of vet students the night before exams), and invertebrates exhibit “sleep like behaviour.”

A ferret sleeps.
Most animals don’t clean their teeth, throw on PJs and tuck themselves up in bed with a good book. But we know they’re sleeping because they generally exhibit behaviours characteristic of sleep, like specific postures. They’re also behaviourally quiet during this phase and they have an increased stimulus threshold (but they’re still easier to rouse than vet students at 3am on a dairy prac).

Scientists talk about monophasic sleepers (most humans and some animals) who sleep in one big chunk, and polyphasic sleepers who sleep in small bouts or as I like to call them chunkettes. Interestingly, carnivores sleep longest, herbivores shortest, and omnivores are in the middle. That makes sense: when you are at the top of the food chain and don't really need to worry about predators, you can rest easy. If you're a prey species you can't afford to bliss out in deep, long sleep lest a predator take advantage.

You know you need to jazz up your bedside manner with the patient sleeps through a weigh in and vaccination. 
Brain patterns are altered when we sleep. Interestingly, we engage in bihemispheric sleep, where both hemispheres of our brains show the same electrical activity (REM or non-REM), but aquatic mammals and loads of birds sleep unihemispherically – i.e. only half their brain shows the sleepy electrical patterns. The other half of the brain shows wakeful patterns on EEG. That is handy if you need to continue to swim or fly while you sleep. It’s a kind of autopilot. I am sure some students try to attend lectures unihemispherically, not sure it works though.

Newborn animals don’t really “wake up” until they are a few days old. This has complex implications around pain perception. The point I really want to discuss though is sleep in older animals.

Sleep, the authors conclude, has restorative function. We know this ourselves because without it most of us are unbearable, irritable, less than happy creatures. But we need to think about the conditions in which we keep animals that may impact on their ability to sleep. When it comes to farmed animals, for example, inappropriate lighting or light cycles, crowding or confinement in an area that precludes them adopting their preferred sleep posture can impact on their sleep.

Some animals can't let it all go. Koalas need to cling to branches when they sleep. 
Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, and ongoing sleep deprivation leads to immunosuppression. Sleep also enables animals that are sick a break from their discomfort. While they are sleeping they are generally insensible to any pain and discomfort (it’s one reason that we talk about euthanasia as “putting them to sleep” – the emphasis is on minimising suffering). Sleep enables sick animals to recover quicker.

The upshot is that sleep is an animal welfare indicator. Animals that have disrupted sleep patterns may be suffering or in pain, and lack of sleep can worsen that suffering. The authors conclude that we need to pay more attention to monitoring sleep in animals, and investigate the ways in which sleep can be used to improve the welfare of animals.

Hero has perfected the fine art of sleeping on anything I am trying to read at that very moment, even if it looks really uncomfortable.
In terms of my patients, the use of sedatives to facilitate sleep can be helpful (for example, senior patients with cognitive dysfunction syndrome). 

Understanding the implications of disrupted sleep gives us additional impetus to treat conditions that affect sleep, such as scratching all night (With flea season about to explode down under, I can guarantee there will be more sleepless animals). I wonder to what extent behavioural problems such as anxiety are exacerbated by lack of sleep?

Is there scope for using sleep and its associated properties therapeutically (e.g. pain control) and to improve animal welfare? Could we breed some animals to sleep more, or better? Are there non-pharmaceutical ways to induce sleep in animals? Maybe we need to look a bit harder at this.

If you want to find out a bit more about sleep check out The Sciences of Animal Welfare by DJ Mellor, E Patterson-Kane and KJ Stafford, published by UFAW.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Learn for charity, free aquatic veterinary webinars and more on the embattled cassowary

Dr Graeme Allan is one author (along with Dr Larry Vogelnest) of Radiology of Australian Mammals
This morning began with a hit of adrenalin thanks to an early-hours auction. Vet CPD provider Vetprac is ambitiously seeking to raise $50,000 to assist animals in Nepal following the devastating Nepalese earthquakes. But the approach is a bit different. A bunch of leading specialists have donated their time so that successful bidders (or people who are gifted the prize) win the opportunity to spend a day or two with a specialist.

This is like continuing education gold. Imagine being one on one with a luminary in their field, getting to ask them all of those burning questions and seeing how they negotiate tricky problems – AND the money goes to a very good cause.
I was keen to spend some time with an imaging specialist to learn a bit more about diagnostic ultrasound and advanced imaging, so I placed a bid, only to be outbid. Being not a seasoned ebayer, I was kind of mortified.

This is the sort of cool, tangible stuff that most people buy on ebay.
Acting on the principle that the early bird gets the worm, knowing the auction closed at 6.29am this morning, I jumped in at 6.15 and put in another bid. Their max bid exceeded mine! (Clearly they know a thing or two about ebay).
It got very intense (although I am pretty sure my rival was sleeping soundly whilst I was bidding fervently). At 6.28am am when I put in my final bid and scored. Thence followed much whooping and leaping around the room (which Phil sept through soundly).

The good news is there are plenty of options still open. If you want to spend some time with someone awesome, and do some good at the same time, check out the list. And Dr Graeme Allan, I am looking forward to following you around (in a non-creepy way of course).

In other news, the Fish Vet Dr Richmond Loh has provided a link to the World Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Association’s webinar recordings. This is an incredible resource. The webinars cover a range of topics including:

  • Introduction to aquatic veterinary medicine
  • Diseases of Australian Farmed saltwater crocodiles (we can vouch that was a good one)
  • Veterinary solutions to seasonal health problems in koi ponds
  • Water quality 101 for practising veterinarians
  • Sea snake medicine and diseases
  • Tranquilisation, anaesthesia and euthanasia in pet fish
  • Diseases of dolphins

These talks are interesting even if you’ve never treated a dolphin or sea snake in your life.

To access the webinars and see the full list of topics, follow this link.

Following our post on Monday we were contacted by Mission Beach Cassowaries and alerted that September 26 is World Cassowary Day. The Cassowary has been dubbed Queensland's Forest Gardener. They may be cranky, occasionally aggro gardeners but they're worthy inhabitants of the planet, and for complicated political reasons things just got a whole lot worse for them. To find out how you can lend your support click here.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How to survive a cassowary attack


The Guardian cartoonist who goes by the moniker First Dog on The Moon (and incidentally, is very fond of non-humans) recently drew an interesting piece on the plight of the Southern cassowary – among other things the largest, most intimidating avian frugivore on the planet.

They may eat fruit, but cassowaries weigh about the same as an adult human (55-75kg) and have been known to kill and maim humans. And don’t we love to cite that little factoid. 

Let's explore that for a second. Christoper Kofron, in a paper available freely online, found that there were 8 reported serious attacks (i.e. those that required medical intervention) by cassowaries on humans. The injuries reported comprised puncture wounds, lacerations and a broken bone, with one fatality. In the majority of cases, the birds had been hand-fed by people, and in the fatal case the victim and his dog had been attempting to kill the cassowary. Cassowaries had also been involved in attacks on domestic dogs, though in most cases the dogs were the aggressors.

Why did the cassowaries approach in the first place? According to the author, “feeding cassowaries changes their behaviour, making them bold and often aggressive towards humans. Cassowaries that are fed become habituated to humans, subsequently recognising humans as a source of food” (Kofron, 2003).

The biggest threat to this species by far is habitat loss and destruction. But when we talk about the plight of a species, we have a staggeringly biased, almost surgical idea that if we spend money on breeding an animal up in numbers, we can save that species. Just as we describe cassowaries as dangerous birds – rarely referring to the complex circumstances in which aggressive encounters occur – so too we talk about the species being endangered rather than us endangering the species.

Statue of a mermaid sitting on a cassowary holding a cassowary chick. This behaviour
is not recommended.
First Dog on the Moon made the point on this cartoon, which went viral, that one reason we’ve not been proactive about protecting cassowaries is we don’t particularly like them. Unlike koalas which are portrayed in the media as cute, cassowaries are portrayed as – in the words of First Dog – "a-holes". Are we that petty when it comes to conservation? (That's a rhetorical question - there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we are, favouring "charismatic" species over those we find less exciting, appealing or selfie-worthy).

The cartoon raised a significant amount of public awareness, and the Queensland Government – having committed to close the onlycassowary rehabilitation centre – found $50,000 of funding. But it’s not a simple story with a happy ending.

First Dog describes the response to the cartoon here.

Apparently, the very same week, a veterinarian was instructed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to euthanase any injured adult cassowaries presented – directly contradicting the intent (unless it were merely a cynical PR exercise) of the cash injection.

In a very Yes, Minister manoeuvre, the Department stated it was launching an investigation into why thebird was killed, even though the directive allegedly came from the department.

Veterinary student Patrick Jones witnessed the euthanasia and associating negotiations and posted this account, which suggests that the reality was very different to the media spin.

The incident raises so many questions: why is it acceptable to kill first and reflect after? How committed are Governments really to protecting endangered species? Do we simply care less about animals that are largely out of site, out of mind until they hurt a person or domestic animal? And do we take what we read in the papers for granted?

If you want to help the cassowary cause directly, donate to the community for coastal and cassowary conservation.

Fixing the system is a bit more complicated than that. You can't blame Governments entirely. There's a reason they don't bang on about humans destroying habitat. Its hardly what developers, home-owners and urbanites want to hear. Its a wicked, as opposed to a tame problem, but surely were adult enough to be confronted with wicked problems in the breakfast news. That's a big topic to explore.

And if you’d like a handy survival tip, Christopher Kofron suggests NOT crouching down or curling into a ball when confronted by a cassowary: that will put your head and vital organs in striking range. Instead, you should remain standing, move behind a tree, or quickly move away without turning your back. And don't leave big piles of fruit around in cassowary territory.


Kofron CP (2003) Case histories of attacks by the Southern cassowary in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Musuem 49(1):339-342.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Occupational risks and being fit-to-practise

It doesn't matter how fit you are: some occupational risks like Hendra virus can only be managed through use of vaccination and personal protective equipment. But other work-related injuries can be avoided if you look after yourself physically.

This week is the seventh anniversary of the death of Ben Cunneen, an equine veterinarian who became infected with Hendra virus during the course of his work. It was a very challenging time for the practice as many staff were exposed to the deadly virus. Natasha Wilks, who worked with Ben for a short time, wrote this post.

It’s an important reminder of the risks involved in treating animal patients. Many veterinarians and nurses are injured or infected in the course of their work. A very small number of these cases involve fatalities (one often overlooked cause is motor vehicle crashes – rural based vets in particular do a lot of driving, often at night, on some ordinary roads) but others cause chronic conditions that cause ongoing impairment/pain. Awareness about occupational risks in the industry is growing, which is great, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We are great at looking after people and their animals, but comparatively poor at looking after ourselves. 

Are you doing enough? This (scary) paper might give you some hints as to where you could improve in terms of protective gear.

What about those other injuries like terrible backs, necks and wrists that so many vets seem to have?

We don’t usually think about training for our jobs, but at least one paper equates being a vet or vet student to being an eliteperformer (I love this conjures images of drinking a revolting yet healthy smoothie and running down the street with strapped wrists punching the air to the Rocky theme music before work. This doesn't actually ever happen). Maybe we should be allocating time to ensure we're fit enough for work?

We're more about the gentle exercise here, unless it involves dancing around like a maniac now and then. SAT reader Mick sent this link about the impact of walking on one’s brain – and suggested it might impact dogs in the same way. Maybe so, but even if it doesn’t, it’s an easy sell – walking provides exercise, an escape from the confines of one’s regular environment, and mental stimulation. Now that spring is almost sprung, Phil and I are doing our best to do more of it. Probably without the Rocky theme song but you never know.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Participate in important companion animal research, and don't miss World Farm Animal Day

What is the impact of companion animal hunting on native and introduced wildlife?

Here at SAT HQ we are huge supporters of non-invasive research into companion animals. There are some opportunities to participate in armchair research that we wanted to share.

Does your companion animal hunt? What is the impact on native and introduced wildlife?

The University of Queensland is currently conducting online research on this topic. You can complete the survey and contribute to knowledge in this field – and there is room for you to express your views on the topic.

It takes up to 20 minutes to complete, and you need to be over 18. Responses are confidential. Once the study is completed, a summary of the findings will be available on the UQ School of Veterinary Science website.

To participate click here.

How’s your “dogmanship”? Elissa Payne is conducting a PhD on dog interaction styles, to try to determine what makes a good “dog person”. Part of this research involves a survey. It takes around 30 minutes, so you might want to put the kettle on first, but this questionnaire explores how we interpret dog behaviour and emotions. Participation is anonymous and voluntary. You can find out more about the study here.

On October 9, RSPCA QLD is holding its World Farm Animal Day Symposium. This Symposium will be focused on examining how welfare in animal production has improved or changed over the years, and what still needs to be achieved.
You can find out more, including the program, here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Vet's pets: Nicky Quinn and Miss Lisa

Miss Lisa found a second home with vet student Nicky Quinn. Pictures taken by Tim Bamford of Portrait House Photography Burleigh
Nicky is a vet nurse, vet student and companion to a beautiful Tibetan Spaniel. Like many “vet’s pets”, she was initially a patient before she found a home with Nicky. The pair are inseparable.

What’s your day job?

I'm a qualified Veterinary Nurse who is currently undergoing further education completing the Bachelor of Veterinary Science at JCU Townsville. Along with which I occasionally undertake evening shifts at the local emergency hospital to ensure continued experience and receive a supplementary income.

Tell us about Miss Lisa. How did you meet?

My little sweetheart is a 9 year old Tibetan Spaniel who is like a child to me, she is kept shaved short due to the climatic conditions as well as me not being great with long coat maintenance. When I comes to grooming I do however have a special feature I like to maintain and that is her tail being dyed pink with a dog-safe dye, as well as painting her toenails with dog nail polish. Miss Lisa came to me when I was working in a kennel situation and she come in for a visit whilst her then family sorted out some personal issues in their home environment. 

Unfortunately after some major discussions they came to let us know of their 
inability to continue to care for her. At this point I offered to take care of her and we performed a transfer of her details to my name, thus becoming my new baby. Miss Lisa was approximately 3-4 years old when this event took place. 

Nicky and Miss Lisa. Pictures taken by Tim Bamford of Portrait House Photography Burleigh
Does she have any health issues?

What was involved in treatment (acute and ongoing) She fortunately is a breed that is not commonly afflicted by many medical conditions, however being the small breed that she is dental disease is a major issue due to her small mouth. She has previously had a dental under anaesthetic performed and will be going under anaesthetic again for another dental in January 2016.

This is despite having her on t/d (specialised tooth diet), the aim is that after the next surgery I will be doing daily teeth cleaning with a brush and canine toothpaste to maintain best practice in containing this issue. Additionally she did have a major episode of HGE (Haemorrhagic Gastroenteritis) when I first got her due to a error in feeding. However this was cleared up immediately with treatments and has had no lingering effects to her health

How would you describe their relationship?

I would describe my relationship with Miss Lisa as that of a parent caring for a child. To me, pets are family and as such should be treated in the same manner as any other family member.

What do you do to spend time together?

I ensure that whatever spare time I have available is dedicated to spending time together. I have divide up my evening exercise to be a ride where Miss Lisa sits in the bicycle basket five days a week and then on the weekends I take her out for a walk. Any local events that are on where it is permissive for a dog to be along I take her too as well as trying to find cafes and eateries that are pet friendly whist out and about. I have even been known to take holidays where she can specifically come along and just chill out with her in these places. At other times when I am studying she generally hangs out asleep on the bedside me and always sleeps on the bed with me at night. Finally my friends usually know that if possible I will bring Miss Lisa along with me if I am visiting and I will take her along when possible. 

Has caring for Miss Lisa taught you anything you didn’t already know about their condition or animals with this condition?

Having now owned a small dog has made me appreciate how little people are aware of the problem of dental disease and do not regularly even look at their entire dogs mouth, instead simply look at the front teeth.

How has your bond with Miss Lisa changed your approach to patients?

It has made me ensure that I show clients how to correctly check their dogs entire mouth and be more vigilant about plaque build up in their animals as well as being able to impart techniques to help prevent dental disease.

Any parting words of wisdom?

Enjoy every day and every minute with your pets continuously making memories, you never know what is around the corner in terms of their health.

Thank you so much Nicky. If you are a vet, vet nurse or vet student who is happy to share your story about the bond with your non-human companion or companions, drop us a line.

Monday, August 17, 2015

What do cats and crocodiles have in common? Three things I learned about saltwater crocodiles

I came across this footprint from a saltwater crocodile on a beach in the Northern Territory.
Actually as soon as I asked that question I could think of multiple answers, such as the fact that they're both magnificent species, they are both partial to a seafood dinner, they can both suffer from fur balls - albeit from different sources), they can both surprise you with a little nip etc. etc., but one thing I wasn’t aware of until last week was this: they both get herpes. Actually most species have their own species-specific herpesviruses, but herpesvirus in crocodiles is a relatively recently described phenomenon.

I learned about it during a fantastic webinar presented by veterinary pathologist Dr Cathy Shilton and hosted by the World AquaticVeterinary Medical Association (WAVMA). The topic was diseases of farmed saltwater crocodiles in Australia.
Crocodiles are distributed in Australia’s tropical north. There are around 14 crocodile farms in Australia, approximately half of which are in the Northern Territory where Dr Shilton works. 

The largest farm holds around 40,000 animals. Around 70,000 eggs are harvested from the wild per year. (Back when I was a veterinary student I participated in one such harvest and was given the unpopular/hair-raising job of climbing onto the nest with an eski actually collecting the eggs from the nest while two big blokes kept lookout for mum).

Crocodiles are farmed primarily for their skins, which are sold into the luxury leather market. The majority of crocodiles are “harvested” from 2-4 years of age.

Saltwater crocodiles on a farm in the Northern Territory.
I learned a lot in the webinar, but if I had to pick three key points they were:
  • Bacterial sepsis is the main cause of mortality, with gram negative pathogens mostly to blame. These include Providencia rettgeri, Morganella morganii, Edwardsiella tarda, and salmonella species (all of which sound like very exotic names for one’s offspring if nothing else). The majority (95 per cent) of mortalities occur in hatchlings. Bacterial sepsis likely occurs secondary to stress, which may be due to inappropriate temperatures (reptiles should always be kept in their preferred optimal temperature zone, and crocodiles like an ambient temperature of around 32 degrees) or other stressors like noise, disruption of the normal routine and so on. Interestingly, Dr Shilton observed that even if they present for sudden death, the stomachs of crocodiles with bacterial sepsis are always empty, i.e. they’ve been off their food for at very least one feed, possibly more. There may be some scope for further honing our skills on assessing the systemic health of reptiles.
  • A herpesvirus is responsible for two distinct syndromes in Aussie salties. It usually affects 6-12 week old hatchlings. The first causes a conjunctivitis-pharyngitis which is a bit similar to the syndrome caused in cats, and apparently tortoises, although it sounds like it’s a bit more severe. That may be because there is a feline herpesvirus vaccine, or possibly because feline herpesvirus is endemic and maybe croc herpesvirus is rather new. Interestingly this syndrome was described in 2006. In 2009 another syndrome was described. This affects juveniles (6-10 months old) and is associated with systemic lymphoid proliferation and non-suppurative encephalitis. Clinically they fail to thrive. They may have splenomegaly or pulmonary oedema. This is more similar to Marek’s disease seen in poultry or bovine malignant catarrhal fever. There are currently no vaccines. Use of drugs such as famciclovir which are used in cats (and people) for herpesvirus signs have not been trialled, probably due to cost being prohibitive.
  • Stress of some kind – possibly maternal stress – seems associated with “runting” or hatchling failure to thrive, which affects 10 to 15 per cent of stock each year. According to Dr Shilton farms have a vested interest in the welfare of animals as their aim is to produce blemish free skin, and stressed crocs tend to get diseases that cause skin lesions, or experience delayed wound healing. Stress is managed to an extent by managing stocking rates (not too low, as crocodiles get territorial, and keeping numbers of females higher than males, but also making stock numbers are excessive in pens). Hatchlings are also graded by size monthly to ensure that they are in pens with animals about their size. Even so, it seems as if welfare assessment of farmed crocodiles is an area where research is lacking.

This was a very well-presented, really informative webinar. WAVMA hosts some excellent webinars, so if you have any interest in creatures that swim, I'd encourage you to join up.