Friday, September 27, 2013

Interview with Diana Chua: how many unwanted companion animals are in Australia

Diana with a canine patient.
Diana Chua is a fifth year veterinary student at the University of Queensland – and teaches in Singapore during her holidays. She is a final year veterinary student who is passionate about animal welfare and is already busy making a difference in this field. She spoke at the Getting2Zero conference earlier this month about the scope of the problem of unwanted companion animals in Australia.

[And yes, SAT unashamedly supports efforts to reduce these numbers which is why we are featuring so many fantastic speakers from the G2Z summit!]

Tell us a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?

I am currently a fifth year veterinary science student at the University of Queensland. I used to work as an education officer with the Ministry of Education in Singapore. Only 4 years ago, I made the decision to embark on this second degree in Veterinary Science, and thus left the service. However, I still teach whenever I return to Singapore during holidays.

You've had an interesting career. Why the change to veterinary science?

I have always wanted to be a vet. I think a veterinarian is what most children aspire to be (well, the 7 year old kids I have spoken to listed it as their ambition ) and I was no exception. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to pursue my dream then, though I was involved in shelter work back in Singapore. I worked on integrating shelter awareness in education by directing a post exam programme for the children in my school, so as to create a sense of social responsibility and reinforce their belief that they can make a difference. Having been in education, I am well aware of the impact that education has on changing the mindset and values of our society. People do the things they do because it is all they know, so to change how they act on things, we have to change how they see things. When the opportunity to study arose, I leapt for it. I believe I can convey information better and leverage teachable moments if I am empowered with the knowledge to do so.

...and with a calf.
You're a final year student, but you've been involved in extracurricular activities throughout your degree. Can you tell us a bit about some of those?

I have joined a number of special interests groups, such as Small Animals Medicine and Surgery and the Wildlife Association. One particular group that I was actively involved in, as a secretary and then as a treasurer the second year, was Veterinary Integrative Medicine. This group is involved in holistic veterinary medicine. This means looking at animal health as a whole - physical health, mental health (via enrichment and quality of life ) and rehabilitation therapy ( physiotherapy, chiropractic therapy, acupuncture ). I believe that veterinary science is very much like teaching - we do not want to encourage just academic excellence, it is equally important to nurture the other aspects of development - values, life skills and interpersonal skills.

Do you have any animals of your own?

I have owned dogs all my life, and mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, quails. The pocket pets were owned jointly by my class children and myself; the kids were excellent care- givers, I must say. I took a backseat and advised accordingly, but the children took ownership of those class pets. Personally, I have had a shih tzu terrier x pomeranian, a Maltese ( my mom's dog ), a dachshund x JRT and a miniature pinscher x JRT. I do love JRT. They have such big characters despite their small statures.

At the Getting to Zero Summit you talked about the magnitude of the unwanted pet problem in Australia - do we know how many unwanted dogs and cats are processed through pounds each year?
What are the challenges in quantifying this problem?

At this point in the study, based on our preliminary data, we have an estimated number of 200 000 unwanted dogs and 160 000 unwanted cats in Australia in a year. Unfortunately, this is a huge underestimation of the actual figures as we have yet to receive pound and shelter data from agencies in a few states, which we had to contact individually. This lack of a centralised database at a state or national level poses a major challenge to data collection for the purpose of this research. It also hinders efficient data analysis and effective evaluation of strategies that are in place. How would you know how well you are doing if you do not have a benchmark to compare with? We also have to consider the fact that the study focuses on data from state and major animal welfare agencies; smaller independent agencies have not been included. All these contribute to a gross underestimation of the actual national figures.
According to Diana's reseach, there are over 200K unwanted dogs and 160K unwanted cats in Australia - though this is a very conservative estimate.
You sought to find out how many animals are affected. How did you go about collecting the data?

As mentioned above, the lack of a centralised database means that the groundwork was extensive. Most of the animal welfare agencies had their shelter data available through their annual reports online. However, for the state agencies, only NSW has a system where their council pounds submit data that are subsequently published in state annual reports. In Victoria, we had to access the individual webpages of the 79 councils to retrieve information on their pounds. In SA, we were only able to get hold of state wide combined data; AWL SA has declined to release their data. For the rest of the states, we had to contact the individual councils separately via emails and phone to request for their pound data: 134 councils in WA, 73 councils in QLD, 16 councils in NT and 7 councils in TAS (the other 22 council pounds are run by Dogs' Home of Tasmania ).

What are the outcomes for animals that are surrendered or admitted into pounds and shelters in Australia?

The usual outcomes are reclaimed by owners, rehomed if unclaimed or unidentified as well as transfers to other agencies for rehoming. These are considered our live release data. Of course, euthanasia is also an outcome the animals in the pounds and shelters face as well.

Were you surprised by the numbers involved?

At this point, as mentioned above, the figures that we have are an underestimation of the actual national statistics. However, we are heartened to see that some agencies boast of a high reclaim/rehome rate, as compared to other agencies, and we want to highlight these agencies for their excellent performance as well as promote awareness and active sharing of effective management strategies. We also noticed that the intake and euthanasia rate for cats have not really improved over the years, as compared to dogs. More research in this area is warranted.

What are the alternatives to euthanasia as a management strategy?

In United States of America, their ‘No Kill’ movement includes a control strategy   ( cats ) – Trap, Neuter and Release ( TNR ). Unfortunately, this is illegal in Australia, which means we have to look to other areas to have an indirect impact on euthanasia being used as a population control strategy. That will be through the live release rates. Reduction of intake of animals into pounds (through responsible pet owner education, strengthening of the human animal bond and early de-sexing), coupled with effective strategies to increase reclaim and rehoming rates and collaboration with other agencies to drive these factors, would hopefully result in a situation where the use of euthanasia as a population management strategy is eliminated.

What would it mean to "get to zero" in Australia?

As a vet in training, I think that euthanasia is inevitable in our pursuit of animal care and well-being, but it should be on valid medical grounds. Hence, ‘Getting to zero’ does not mean nil euthanasia per se, it means giving all healthy and treatable unwanted companion animals a fair chance at life. This translates to a higher standard of animal welfare in Australia.