Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Asking the big philosophical questions about animals - AASG conference

Why is the human species so fascinated with non-human species?
The existence of animals, and our interactions with theme, raise huge philosophical questions that we frequently overlook as we go about our day to day business. In some respects that’s fair enough – as a card-carrying graduate of an arts degree with a philosophy major, I can attest that engaging some of the big questions head on can leave one paralysed or send one into a nihilistic whirlpool. But questions need to be asked.

Our assumptions about other species can have dire consequences, in terms of the way they are treated, housed, and killed.

The Australian Animal Studies Group (AASG) is co-convening a conference in July 2015 and looking for contributors.

The conference, titled “Animal Publics: Emotions, Empathy, Activism” is co-convened by the Australian Centre and the Human Rights & Animal Ethics Research Network (HRAE) and will be held at the University of Melbourne.

The human/nonhuman animal relationship is continually in flux. In the twenty-first century our relationship with other species is more complex than ever. Images of animals dominate advertising and the internet. Many people feel a profound connection with their companion animals, consider them part of the family, and grieve when they die. At the same time almost all the species we breed for consumption are processed through the animal industrial complex, and are neither seen, nor heard, nor touched in a living state. Animal exploitation and commodification is increasingly hidden from public view.   The predominance of some species, and the complete absence of others, in our relationships with animals, raises important questions about how we understand and empathise with others. Why do so many people have such an emotional response to animals? Why do children bond with animals? What have we lost by excluding so many animals from the public domain – from our cities and day-to-day lives?     New advances in science indicate that we are only beginning to understand the complex nature of the emotional and ethical lives of animals. Philosophers have begun to re-think the way in which they have theorised some form of ‘essential’ divide between human and nonhuman animals in order to define what it means to be ‘human’. Political scientists have begun to discuss the issue of social justice for animals. Artists, writers and filmmakers now question the validity of an anthropocentric viewpoint in their creative works.    In this interdisciplinary conference, Animal Publics, we ask: How can the lives of animals be made visible - brought into the public domain? How might they be transformed? What roles might direct engagement, academic discourse, bearing witness, the arts, or community debate take? What part do emotions play in the changes taking place across a range of key discourses and in our relationships with nonhuman ‘others’? How should we understand our emotional response to animals and how important should the emotional lives of animals be to us? How might the emotions, empathy and activism be brought to bear on making the lives of animals visible in the public domain?   
They are after abstracts that address the theme ‘Animal Publics: Emotions, Empathy, Activism’ in relation to humans and other species:

-     In what sense can we ‘know’ nonhuman animals? 
-     What role does empathy play in the human/nonhuman relationship?
-     How might the emotions help us to rethink the boundary between human and nonhuman?
-     How does anthropomorphism influence the human/nonhuman relationship?
-     Why is the human species so fascinated with nonhuman species?
-     How can the lives of animals be made visible – brought into the public domain?
-     How can we use the law to regulate the lives of animals when most animals are absent from our lives?
-     Why are some species rendered invisible to the public while others enjoy a privileged status?
-     Why are animals so frequently omitted from discussions about sustainability & the future of global food production?
-     Why does the human species ‘deny’ its animal origins?
-     What role should emotions play in ethical responses to animals?
-     How has science influenced the human nonhuman relationship?
-     What role do emotion and empathy play in response to species extinction and climate change?
-     Why do we care more about some creatures than others?
-     What impact do representations of animals have on the human/animal relationship?
-     Is ethical consumerism an adequate response to species with whom we do and do not empathise?
-     What can the ‘othering’ of animals teach us about ourselves? 
-     What role should animal welfare science play in teaching us about the needs of nonhuman animals and other species? 
-     What has the animal protection movement contributed to our understanding of nonhuman animals? 
-     How should we live ethically and emotionally with other species in the era of the Anthropocene?

If you feel like tackling any of the above questions, click here, or submit a 250 word abstract for a 20 minute paper by November 17, 2014 to

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Avoiding Errors In Medicine

There's a difference between being cavalier and being a cavalier.
Over the last decade or so there has been a trend in medicine to discuss and disclose error. This has coincided somewhat with a cultural shift away from a person-centered approach (individuals – and their inattentiveness, forgetfulness and carelessness are to blame) towards a systems-based approach (starting from a position that to err is human, but systems can be designed in such a way to minimise the risk of error) and that makes sense.

Usually when errors are investigated, multiple contributing factors are identified. (It’s one reason why I enjoy watching Air Crash Investigations even though I hate flying – usually there are MULTIPLE things that go wrong – it’s not usually just a drunk pilot or a leaky fuel tank or a dodgy fuel indicator that brings the plane down…it’s when all three happen at once that disaster strikes). Moreover, people are hardly going to be open about error if they know they are going to be scapegoated or hauled over the coals.

Incident reporting, clinical audit, retrospective case note review and morbidity and mortality meetings are increasingly common in human teaching hospitals as a means of quality control but also to identify actual and potential errors and minimise the risk of these occurring. One reason these strategies are less common in the veterinary setting is that we have smaller, less complex systems. It can be much easier to trace the root cause of an error in a smaller system. That said, veterinarians are just as capable of erring as human doctors and we can learn a LOT from our human-treating counterparts.

The difference between a good doctor and a bad doctor is not that the latter makes errors whilst the former does not. Rather, a good clinician learns from errors [a quick aside here – The Bad Doctor is also the title of a very awesome graphic novel which puts paid to the notion of perfect doctors – read more here].

The Bad actually a really GOOD read.
Avoiding Errors in Adult Medicine(Wiley-Blackwell) is designed so that doctors and medical students can learn from the errors of others – but this is an excellent read for vets and vet students also.

Many errors, of course, do not result in poor outcomes (these are the “near misses”). But some are devastating. The authors estimate that one in ten patients admitted to hospital in the developed world are the victim of error, and 1 in 300 patients admitted to hospital dies as a result of such an error.

“Healthcare professionals tend to act in good faith and medical error has many victims – patients, families, those very medical professionals (and their families)…”ix
 The authors have done a brilliant job in researching a range of cases, commenting on the specific details of these (including medicolegal comment) but also drawing out general pearls of wisdom (these could equally apply to veterinary patients). Here are my favourites:
    1. “It is easy to identify a severely unwell patient. The challenge is to spot the patient who is not yet severely unwell but who may deteriorate rapidly if he does not receive the right treatment. Such patients present alongside hundreds of other patients with self-limiting conditions.”p12
    2. “When cases involving sick patients who were not correctly identified are reviewed, it is often found that the patient had a single abnormal parameter and that this was not acted upon.”p13
    3. “…it can equally be that sometimes, when patients are seen very early in the course of a critical illness, that there are no early warning signs of a severe illness to identify. This only serves to reinforce the need to give patients very clear ‘safety net’ advice, when they are discharged from medical care: that is advice about when they should re-attend the ED or the GP, if the patient fails to get better. Such advice should be given no matter how trivial the presenting complaint may appear to be.”p12
    4. “Practical procedures require good communication skills, manual dexterity, patience, a calm and gentle touch, and supervised practice…The objective should be to perform the correct procedure on the correct patient, on the correct side, competently and with appropriate consent.”p13
    5. “The term ‘Units’ should be spelt out in full when prescribing (e.g. insulin or heparin) in order to reduce the chance of U being interpreted as ‘O’ leading to a tenfold error.”pp15
    6. “…make sure you develop the competence before the confidence…have regard to your position on the spectrum from cavalier under-investigation [did make me think of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel…] through to defensive medicine.”p59
    7.  “Keep calm in all clinical interactions and step away from the situation where necessary…If you are upset defer practical procedures where possible. Seek advice from senior colleagues when you are in a situation you have not faced before.”p102
    8.  “Whenever you propose a diagnosis or explanation ensure the facts fit the mechanism you propose. Be logical and analytical – it is why you spent years learning basic anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and pathology.”p116
    9. “Doctors who make mistakes may become better at their jobs as a result. They can, and do, go on to have successful and productive careers. The key is to reflect on errors and pay heed to any lessons that can be learnt.”p164

    It all sounds crystal clear and very obvious, but the retrospectoscope has 20:20 vision. When one reads about the challenges these health professionals faced at the time the errors were made, at least in some cases, one can understand why someone made a particular decision or assessment, or how easily an oversight was made. It’s a very good reminder of the kind of mistakes almost anyone can make – and the life-saving importance of learning from these.

    If you like this book, you'll also enjoy The Bad Doctor (more here) and How Doctors Think (more here).


    Ian RecklessD. John ReynoldsSally NewmanJoseph E. RaineKate Williams,Jonathan Bonser (2013) Avoiding Errors in Adult Medicine. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-0-470-67438-3

    Monday, September 15, 2014

    A pit bull as therapy and Rookwood Cemetery open day

    Christophe and Dennis on horses. They have participated in funerals before and, as we discovered, are partial to an apple or two (but definitely not three).

    On Friday I posed an ethical question about breed identification and received a range of comments, mostly from people who didn’t want to post publicly which is fine. It is, like many animal welfare topics, fairly emotive.

    A colleague sent this video (if it isn't showing on your device, click here). In places where pit bulls are banned it seems shocking to see a “dangerous breed” in a therapy role – but it certainly provides food for thought for those consequentialists contemplating the conundrum.

    Speaking of pets as therapy, yesterday Phil and I popped over to the Rookwood Cemetery, aka Rookwood Necropolis, the largest Necropolis in the Southern Hemisphere. [There is something about the word Necropolis – its Greek for “city of the dead”, which to me conjures up thoughts of very industrious dead working away at their projects]. Naturally they were selling tea and scones and Phil tried his hardest to perform some quality assurance by taste-testing.


    The cemetery was actually pretty stunning.
    They had an open day so we got to take a little tour, and we met a remarkable Newfoundland called Mo, who is a trained therapy dog. Not only does Mo visit people in hospitals and nursing homes, he also attends funerals. His owners are funeral directors, hence his personalised Guardian Funerals bib.

    Mo. He's big, he's beautiful, and he brings joy to people he visits in hospitals.

    There is something very lovely about the idea of a calm dog at a funeral. I think people take great comfort in the presence of animals when grieving. 

    This gorgeous cat was just hanging out at the florist, flirting with the customers and making a lot of people smile.
    Interestingly there were also horses, which may be requested to lead a funeral march, and also a very friendly little cat at the florist. And on that note, if you missed our post on 50 reasons to adopt a cat, check it out here.

    Saturday, September 13, 2014

    Date with your dog: the best cup of tea, RSPCA weekend activities and rethinking speciesism

    Contender for the world's most awesome tea pot is road-tested by my mum. The puppies are the salt and pepper shakers she scored for Christmas.

    This has to be in the running for the best-tea-pot-in-the-universe prize. I was not even intending to buy a tea pot but when I walked into the Tea Centre and saw this bull terrier looking at me I envisioned hosting all kinds of world-changing tea parties (none of which have happened thus far I should add, but one has to be prepared, and now I feel ready).

    Meanwhile the RSPCA is holding an innovative fund-raising weekend in October called Reigning Cats and Dogs (and let’s hope it won’t be raining cats and dogs as it seems to have done for the last month or so).

    Saturday is Rescue Me: Rescue Dog Adoption Day. It’s an opportunity to meet and greet dogs that are up for adoption, and see them in park surroundings engaging with other animals – including your own dog if you have one to bring.
    On the Sunday night the International Cat Film Furstival will be held under the stars. As someone who has spent the last countless weekends writing papers and marking assignments, it sounds almost perfect (just add a world-changing tea party and it would be perfect). More info and bookings here.

    Rethinking speciesism

    Speciesism, or the way we treat different species differently, is a well known topic in animal ethics and worthy of discussion. It raises some interesting, and sometimes quite shocking, contradictions in our belief and value systems.

    If you are based in Queensland, Voiceless is hosting a fascinating looking panel discussion on rethinking speciesism at the University of Queensland on October 16.

    We love our dogs and cats, yet continue to eat pigs, cows and chickens in their hundreds of thousands. We condemn other nations for hunting whales and dolphins, but happily consume seafood and hunt fish for sport.These contradictions are often justified on the grounds that some animals simply matter more than others. But why? And how do we decide who matters and who doesn’t? Voiceless Rethinking: Speciesism is a seminar which will unpack the concept of “speciesism” – namely, giving preference to some animals, including humans, based solely on their species.
    The seminar will feature a panel of renowned speakers who will consider the psychological and ethical underpinnings of speciesism, the laws that regulate our relationship with animals and how these laws facilitate discrimination on the basis of species. 
    For more information or to register, click here.

    And if you are still stuck for something to do, enter our competition to win tickets to a night talk at the Australian Museum here.

    Friday, September 12, 2014

    Is this dog a pit bull terrier?

    Pit bull, Staffordshire terrier or something else?

    If you’re interested in ethics and welfare, a recent paper in the Journalof Applied Animal Welfare Science is certain to spark discussion.

    Answering the question “what breed is that” based on assessing a dog’s physical features alone (without meeting the parents/littermates, without DNA testing etc.) can be challenging. But what if the assessment you made about an animal’s breed had life and death consequences?

    Assessment of pit bull terriers is controversial due to the existence of restrictions around the breed in certain areas. In some areas – and depending on legislation and shelter policy – the determination that a dog is a pit bull means that the animal is euthanased.

    The recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, found that 41 per cent of shelter workers would knowingly mislabel a dog of a restricted breed, presumably to increase the dog’s adoption chances.

    Those in support of breed-specific legislation may argue that such people are being irresponsible. Are they? The researchers found that there was little consensus about what constitutes a pit bull terrier, in both US and UK settings. The precautionary principle, on the one hand, would suggest that if you are making a life and death decision based on breed, you want to be sure. If there is a chance the animal is NOT a pit bull, and the label incurs death for the dog, then it would be dangerous to label it as such.

    Another application of the precautionary principle takes a different approach. If there is any chance this COULD be a pit bull, and therefore a potentially (note potentially) dangerous dog to people or indeed other dogs, it should be labelled as such. What if someone were attacked? What if a child were killed? What if those things happened and it was a shelter worker’s assessment that allowed that person or family to adopt that dog? What would be the implications for the shelter?

    This paper raises a number of fascinating issues. The application of ethical frameworks and the precautionary principle are not explicitly tackled but certainly apply. There is also the question of just HOW breeds are identified – for example, some based their assessment of breed on the presence of docked tails and cropped ears (fortunately not common in Australia due to legislation), which are changes caused by human intervention and not due to breed. One can appreciate the moral stress that persons making such assessments can be under.

    So a question for our readers: you are a shelter worker and you are presented with a dog that has the physical characteristics of a pit bull. A breed assessment of “pit bull terrier” means euthanasia for this dog. How would you assess this dog and what would factors would you take into account?

    On another note, we’ve had a few queries lately about separation anxiety in dogs. Some readers might find this post of interest.


    Christy L. Hoffman, Natalie Harrison, London Wolff & Carri Westgarth (2014) Is That Dog a Pit Bull? A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification, Journal of AppliedAnimal Welfare Science, 17:4, 322-339, DOI:10.1080/10888705.2014.895904

    Thursday, September 11, 2014

    50 reasons to adopt a cat

    Kittens: "You need us in your life". See 50 reasons below.
    This week we asked the Cat Protection Society to brainstorm ten reasons to adopt a cat. Naturally that took about ten seconds. But they kept going...and came up with fifty good reasons to adopt a cat. All VERY good reasons. 

    Cat Protection's shelter on Enmore Road is always brimming with beautiful cats and kittens. They do a very good job looking after them, but they don't want them to stay permanently. So as you read this, and you are currently without feline OR you are considering adding to the pride, think about paying a visit to CPS.

    In no particular order, here are just 50 very good reasons we think you should adopt one (or two) of our fabulous felines.

    1.   To experience love
    2.   To keep you company
    3.   To keep you sane
    4.   To keep you entertained

    ...and to justify your purchase of that fancy glass table.
    5.   They are spiritual guardians over your home
    6.   To teach you another language
    7.   To keep you warm at night
    8.   To give you a darn good reason to get out of bed in the morning
    9.   To teach you unselfishness

    Hero: he gives me a darn good reason to get out of bed in the morning. And a darn good reason to get in it at night!
    10.        To enrich their lives
    11.        To know that animals have feelings
    12.        To experience a uniquely wonderful relationship
    13.        To experience joy

    Because foster kitties need furever homes.
    14.        To experience unconditional acceptance
    15.        To strike up conversations with good looking strangers in the pet food aisle
    16.        To be reminded to be humble
    17.        To be needed and trusted
    18.        To make your life more meaningful and purposeful
    19.        To be wowed

    Geoffery the Burmese performs a somersault and is captured on camera a nanosecond before landing. Definitely a "wow" moment.
    20.        To be wooed
    21.        To be motivated to do more yoga
    22.        They can be very funny

    Cats have a great sense of humour.
    23.        To give you a reason to come home at night
    24.        To make you curious
    25.        To teach children about responsibility
    26.        To teach children about kindness

    Because behind every crazy cat guy is...a crazy cat. Of course.
    27.        To make life-saving room at the shelter for a new cat in need
    28.        To hear them purr
    29.        To improve your non-verbal communication skills
    30.        Lower maintenance than dogs

    Cats are lower maintence than dogs (although Phil is an honorary cat).
    31.        More entertaining than a pet fish
    32.        To give your kids a friend who will keep their secrets and help them get through the tough times growing up
    33.        Cats don’t often answer back
    34.        Nothing makes you more zen than patting a nice kitty
    35.        Their calm company will reduce your stress

    Even their amazing feats of share-chairing are a site to behold.
    36.        Helping with mental illness
    37.        To give peace to a person who loved their cat but could no longer care for them
    38.        They look super cute!
    39.        To keep your dog company

    Who's got the remote? Cats can be awesome companions for dogs.
    40.        To keep your cat company
    41.        To help you assess the worthiness of your new boyfriend/girlfriend

    Because they put up with our quirks: The first (and last) time Michael tried the "cats in wigs" trend.
    42.        They let you know if someone’s coming near your front door
    43.        To cheer you up when you’re sad
    44.        To keep you on your toes
    45.        To improve your health
    46.        To have hundreds of gorgeous photos on your smartphone

    It is widely known that cats are the single justification for the smartphone.
    47.        To be connected to one of nature’s creatures and understand that the world isn’t just made up of people
    48.        To inspire you
    49.        To  know that the simple act of adopting one cat changes their world forever, for the better
    50.        Because EVERY cat deserves a loving and responsible home

    Honestly peeps, do you need more reasons??? Hero and Mike say "Go and check out the Cat Protection society and find the love of your life. And PS two cats are better than one!!!".
    Visit for more information and more cat awesomeness.

    Wednesday, September 10, 2014

    Does your dog love or loathe the bath?

    dog in the shower
    Bosca is a bit too big for the bath but happy to take a shower...if he gets a massage.

    Here at SAT we’re major fans of grooming. Not so much the bouffant-shaping kind as the keeping-fur-clean-and-eye-boogers-at-bay kind. And just to be clear I am talking about my dog.

    In my experience a lot of clients worry about the prospect of over-grooming their pets, and it is possible – though rare. When my dog is itchy, the first thing I do (apart from look for fleas and flea dirt) is give him a wash. It removes surface allergens, soothes his skin and also allows me to inspect him very carefully.

    When it comes to shampoos less is more. I avoid those that are scented or designed to whiten, and chose based on the state of his skin (I’m a fan of Dermcare’s Aloveen as a maintenance shampoo but if Phil has itchy skin I tend to select Malaseb). I don’t wash the inside of his ears. Putting water in ears is playing with fire (or, more literally, tempting otitis externa).

    Washing is ONE PART of a multifactorial approach to itching. i.e. depending on the skin, I use adjunctive treatments including conditioner, moisturisers, antibiotics and even steroids. And again, good flea prevention. If you’ve got an itch-prone dog anyway, it just takes one pesky flea to send him over the itch threshold.

    It really is worth making sure that giving your dog a bath is a positive experience. Some dogs love a bath but lots of them really loathe it and you can understand why – difficult-to-stand-on, slippery surfaces, cold water, scary noises, being manhandled and scrubbed on bits you don’t normally let people pat etc.

    Approaching slowly, placing a non-slip surface, ensuring the water doesn’t run too fast (or loud), avoiding clanking showerheads against the bath, administering praise and treats – all of these can help reduce anxiety in the bath.

    Also being less anxious yourself can help – if you dread your dog’s bath time, your dog picks up on that too. On that note, if its really a battle to bath your dog I am not a fan of forcing it. Its worth chatting to an experienced groomer or vet who offers grooming. We have the benefit of purpose-built facilities and extra-hands, both of which can make a difference. 

    Life is just better if your dog enjoys bath time. Like this dog here (thanks Rachel for the link):