Monday, August 31, 2015

Three things I learned about the welfare of dogs

Most people percieved the welfare of their own dog as better than the average companion dog, according to research by Mia Cobb.
What do you know about the welfare of dogs? The more I read about animal welfare, the more I realise I don’t know. Concerningly, our perceptions about animal welfare can be way off the mark when it comes to the experience of animals. Fortunately science can help.

Over the weekend I caught up with a webinar, hosted by E-Training for Dogs.

The webinar was hosted by Mia Cobb BSc (Hons). Her major was zoology and animal behaviour. Mia is affiliated with the Working DogAlliance Australia, and is also a science communicator, SPARCS host, Do You Believe in Dog blogger, and all round amazing woman. She’s spent a long time working in animal shelters as an animal attendant and also in education, also training kennels and vet clinic manager for Guide Dogs Victoria where she began her PhD. Under the now disbanded Australian Animal Welfare Strategy she led the working group looking at working dog welfare.

The Working Dog Alliance was born from the AAWS ashes, and exists to improve the welfare and performance of working dogs in Australia.

But here’s the take-home message: if we are to improve the welfare of dogs in our lives, we need to consider the task, the situation and/or the environment from their perspective.

small dog big shadow
Applying lessons from the natural behaviour of wolves won't necessarily allow us to improve the welfare of domestic dogs like Phil the Maltese.
Here are three things I learned from Mia’s fantastic talk.
  • There’s no consensus regarding the definition of animal welfare. Historically, it was thought to be access to resources needed to survival and ability to reproduce. But you can have all those things and still have poor welfare (for example, a factory farmed chicken or a dog left alone for 12 hours a day without any stimulation). We can compare the existence of a captive species to its existence in the wild. This can be helpful if we’re assessing the welfare of a captive animal in a zoo, in ensuring that an enclosure replicates natural conditions and facilities natural behaviours. But it’s harder with domestic animals: how do you apply data about wolf behaviour to the life of my 2kg, toothless rescue dog Phil? Mia’s definition of welfare is “the state of an individual animal, which can range from negative to positive, and is influenced by physical, behavioural, environmental and affective experiences.”
  • Our perceptions and attitudes have a real impact on the way we care for and treat animals, and thus on animal welfare. But our perceptions and attitudes are influenced heavily by a number of factors. One is social license – whether our community approves of a particular practice, such as the use of lions and elephants in circuses. This has lost its social license in Australia and is thus now quite uncommon, and usually causes a protest when it does occur. There’s also subjective norms – whether we think the people who are important to us would approve or disapprove of a behaviour in question. So your vet, whose opinion you pay for, may recommend desexing your dog and discuss the benefits and risks. But your best friend or mum may discredit this view, and their view may carry more weight even if less informed, because what they think is ultimately more important to you. And then there’s the discomfort of cognitive dissonance – we don’t like to acknowledge that something we’ve been doing for a while is no longer appropriate or in fact never was – even in the light of compelling new information – so we may simply find reasons to justify that behaviour. For example, tail docking was banned in Australia in light of overwhelming evidence that this was not in the interests of animals – leading to pain and reducing dogs’ ability to communicate with other dogs. Yet many people simply argued harder that this was necessary “because changing their behaviour would require an acknowledgement that they have previously been engaging in behaviour that was not ideal.”
  • There is no single, magic test for animal welfare. Welfare assessment needs to take into account an animal’s behaviour (activity budgets, preferences, aversions, stereotypies and other abnormal behaviour) as well as physiology (weight, immune parameters, nutrition, exercise, reproductive parameters) and the human element (how do human interactions impact animal behaviour and physiology). Science is not flawless, and new information comes to light all of the time, but as long as we are aware of these limitations we can use it as a tool. Importantly, welfare interventions such as enrichment programs impact different dogs differently. In Mia’s own research on guide dogs, she found that an enrichment program had some value to some dogs, but not universal value to all dogs.

Just as human psychology has progressed from studying malfunction and disorder to emphasising positive psychology, or the conditions which enable human beings to thrive or flourish, Mia predicts that the emphasis of animal welfare science has moved from being largely negative (animals need freedom from pain) to positive (animals need x and y to flourish) and will continue to shift in this direction. Watch this space.

PS. Re considering welfare from an animal's point of view, you might be interested in this upcoming workshop from VetPrac. According to Ilana Mendels, from VetPrac, in a veterinary clinical context the benefits of managing the worry and welfare of our patients include smoother management of treatments, anaesthetics and procedures and less injury to vets.