Reflecting on ANZCVS Science Week 2017

I have already written a blog post about the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) Membership exams. The oral examinations (membership & fellowship) are sat by candidates each year on the Gold Coast in Australia. After the exams, there is a conference to complete the veterinary ‘Science Week’. Each chapter within the college has its own stream of presentations. Veterinarians and scientists are invited to attend and present.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to present to the welfare chapter this year. The theme was ‘One Welfare – key drivers and new technologies’. The One Welfare concept is like that of One Health; interdisciplinary collaboration and solutions are important. #OneWelfare recognises the interconnections between animal and human wellbeing and the environment. Here I will summarise the presentations in the animal welfare chapter.

My lanyard

The first two speakers were asked to provide updates after attending conferences. Amy Little from the Australian Government spoke to us about the OIE global conference in Mexico, while Anne Fawcett of Small Animal Talk regaled us with stories of different coloured glitter in the faeces of polar bears in Canada – something she saw while attending the inaugural international One Welfare conference. Anne also emphasised the need to remember the conservation focus of One Welfare. For them to be truly interdisciplinary, ecologists and geographers should be invited to speak at these conferences. She also reminded us of the One Welfare portal and showed us how the Chatterbox tool can be used in teaching: to explore ethical questions.

My presentation was on the first day within the ‘companion animal’ section. It was based on my PhD project that explores end-of-life decision-making in owners of older and chronically ill cats and their vets. I was excited to present my research and preliminary findings to vets, animal welfare scientists, and others in attendance. Mags Awad (of PetSure, formerly with RSPCA Australia) also gave an excellent presentation on shelter welfare assessment and how it relates to One Welfare. Mags spoke about the ‘No Kill’ shelter movement and what it means for animals. There is the potential for animals to be kept alive when their welfare is compromised (e.g. with severe behavioural/anxiety issues). She spoke about the ‘Drives for Lives’ project, where animals are moved from an area in a state where there is an oversupply of animals to one where more are needed for adoption. Mags reminded us that the shelter environment is novel for many animals and that there is a need to remove fear and anxiety. Improving cat housing in shelters has the greatest impact on their wellbeing.

In the afternoon, Nat Waran from EIT in the Hawkes Bay told us what One Welfare means to her. If the people in developing countries are not enjoying good welfare, then how can we/they focus on companion animal welfare? She emphasised the need to make animal welfare relevant to people that may not be thinking about it. Becky Murphy from Dogs NZ (formerly The New Zealand Kennel Club) completed the companion animal section by talking about ethical breeding standards. Becky has the difficult task of working as the canine health and welfare officer for an organisation in the spotlight for (un)ethical breeding standards. The 2008 ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ exposé and the 2010 Bateson Report rocked the pedigree dog world by emphasising how selective breeding has changed the shape of breeds: features are exaggerated to the point of threatening health and welfare. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC)’s report on animal welfare issues associated with selective breeding has also drawn attention to issues with breeding standards. Unfortunately, brachycephalic dog ownership is still on the rise in New Zealand. And a brachycephalic breed sold online will fetch three to four times as much as a Labrador puppy. But Becky wants us to be clear with our terminology. A ‘pedigree’ dog is one with a three-generation pedigree from the Kennel Club, while ‘purebred’ can mean the same thing, but is often used to refer to ‘backyard’ bred unregistered dogs with no pedigree. The problem is that referring to issues in ‘purebred dogs’, without being specific about which animals we are talking about, results in purebred breeding problems becoming pedigree problems. The blame is then lumped onto organisations such as the Kennel Club who have no control over unregistered breeders. This then results in extreme defensiveness and backlash from these groups who feel like they are being vilified. Becky admits that breed standards need to be updated to discourage extremes and the good news is that the bulldog breed standard is currently being reviewed in New Zealand.

Virginia Williams, representing MPI, spoke about the regulatory framework for animals in research and how it has been progressed. The definition of ‘manipulation’ has been broadened to include killing an animal for research, testing, and teaching. Genetically modified animals have also been incorporated.

Day 2 – Production & Food animal species

Day two began with the pork industry – Kirsty Chidgey from Massey University gave an overview of the New Zealand perspective with a focus on farrowing systems. While gestation stalls have been phased out, crates are still being used for parturition and lactation. Farrowing crates are in the best interests of piglet welfare as they reduce crushing injuries, but are detrimental to the sow’s behavioural wellbeing. Kirsty investigated alternative systems for her doctoral studies and gave us a run-down of the use of pens at different stages of parturition and lactation. Kate Plush from SunPork Solutions summarised the two periods of compromised welfare for sows in farrowing crates: during nest-building and parturition, and in late lactation when no respite from piglets is provided. The dairy industry was next, with presentations from Jess Spatz Shelgren of Fonterra, Suzanne Dowling of AgResearch, and Cameron Clark from The University of Sydney. Andrew Fisher from The University of Melbourne Animal Welfare Science Centre concluded with an overview of welfare assessment toolkits. Paul Hardy-Smith from Panaquatic Health Solutions took us through quality and welfare aspects of how we kill fish. The poultry industry was represented by talks from Kate Hartcher from RSPCA Australia and Kerry Mulqueen who provides technical advice to the NZ poultry industry.

Day 3 – A busy day of welfare

Day three was jam-packed with talks ranging from ‘What’s really happening down on the farm?’ by Nita Harding from DairyNZ, to hoarding issues presented by Rosemary Elliott from Sentient. Nita spoke about farm monitoring; why it is necessary, how it is done, what is being found out, and how the information is being used. Kate Blaszak from WAP spoke about advocacy in animal welfare driving change. Virginia Williams spoke again for MPI about the factors underlying animal welfare offending. She gave a candid account of the types of offenders presented to MPI with some case studies. Nat Waran from Napier spoke again about One Welfare and Veterinary Education. There is a reluctance to get rid of old topics in veterinary curricula and replace them with new topics – particularly animal welfare. It takes a passion for subjects to drive them into the curriculum. There is very little integration and applied relevance with animal welfare teaching. She spoke about the difference between welfare and ethics and the need to take the ethical part ‘out of it’. “Welfare is about the subjective experience of the animal, while ethics is about what we think about the animal’s situation based on our own morals/viewpoint”. Jen Jamieson from MPI concluded the talks for the animal welfare chapter with a brilliant discussion of her PhD research. She looked at how human behaviour changes starts with schools – by exploring adolescent views of farm animal welfare. They are the next generation of animal consumers and so their views matter. I highly recommend you check out the YouTube recording of her talk given at the First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare here.

What did I learn from Science Week?

Too much to mention! I thoroughly enjoyed my time and having the chance to learn from so many interesting people. The awards dinner on the final night was truly inspiring. I enjoyed hearing about peoples’ achievements and everything they were doing in their various fields of veterinary science. The most important take-home is a reconfirmation that animal welfare is what drives me. I am re-invigorated to study for the membership examination next year.

***I would like to thank Massey University’s Institute of Veterinary, Animal, and Biomedical Sciences (Postgraduate) for generously sponsoring my attendance at Science Week this year***

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Dr Rebecca Ledger uses the Five Domains Model for forensic animal behaviour analysis

{this post was co-authored by David Mellor}

How can we prosecute cases of animal cruelty when there is no physical evidence? Dr Rebecca Ledger told us. She uses the Five Domains Model, developed here in New Zealand, to explain the mental experiences of animals for cruelty prosecutions mounted in Canada.

The background

Retained as an expert witness by the British Columbia SPCA, Dr Ledger uses animal behaviour to demonstrate suffering. In a recent visit to New Zealand, jointly hosted by the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University, the SPCA, MPI, NZVA, VCNZ and VPIS, she gave a series of talks of particular relevance to those who may be called upon to be expert witnesses in animal cruelty cases.

Historically, prosecutions for animal cruelty relied on proving an animal suffered because of physical harm (e.g. injury, disease, malnourishment). But Dr Ledger has been able to demonstrate emotional suffering using behavioural evidence. She emphasised that welfare assessment using behaviour is not ‘fluffy science’ just because there is no physical evidence. However, there is a need to educate prosecutors and courts about the ways supportable inferences can be made about the emotional experiences of animals. This helps the legal system see cruelty cases through the same ‘lens’ as animal welfare and behaviour experts.

Dr Ledger explained how she writes her Expert Opinions and then described some case studies. Her Opinions begin with a brief summary of how scientific understanding of animal behaviour has developed and now allows the experiences animals can have to be cautiously inferred. Scientific references supporting these inferences are particularly important for this section. She also references the Five Domains Model for animal welfare assessment [1] and then goes on to use the Model to retrospectively assess the welfare of the animal(s) in question.

How is it done

Dr Ledger outlined eight questions we should ask and then answer for the courts. First, whether the animal can suffer i.e. is it sentient? This is where Rebecca shows judges that animals have the ability to suffer both physically and mentally. She has had better results when her Opinions started with these details. Here, the New Zealand Animal Welfare Amendment Act (No. 2) 2015, which recognises animals as sentient, should be immensely beneficial.

Question two asks if New Zealand legislation recognises suffering in animals – clearly it does. The definitions of ‘suffering’ all include mental states or experiences. The third and fourth questions ask if conditions are present that would cause the animal to suffer and which negative experiences (affective states) the animal would likely have. By using the Five Domains Model, she shows that her Opinion is science-based and this enhances the judges’ confidence in what is being concluded. The Model also encourages judges to think about the psychological impacts of specific impositions on the animal.

Questions five and six are to provide insight into the animal’s experiences at the time of the mistreatment. By focusing on the physical and/or behavioural evidence of suffering and how severe and/or protracted the suffering is, these questions help the court appreciate the importance of behavioural evidence. Emphasised here is that behaviours and their associated mental experiences have a function (e.g. fear enables an animal to respond to a perceived threat; aggression creates distance from what it is afraid of).

The seventh question asks if the suffering was necessary – could it have been avoided? For example, dog trainer claims that shock collars are the only way for dogs to learn. An expert witness here would need to be prepared with humane alternatives as examples. The final question focuses on intent – was the suffering inflicted wilfully?

An important caveat

Dr Ledger made it clear that there is a need to ‘choose our battles’. Losing a case may set a precedent that condones the cruelty that has occurred. Rebecca recommends starting with ‘easy wins’ and gradually moving forward from there. She purposely chose dogs because, as companion animals, they are often better understood and more people are sympathetic towards them.

References
  1. Mellor, D.J. and N.J. Beausoleil, Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 241-253.

 

Positive affective engagement: the link between animal welfare science and training for rewards

What better way to celebrate my tenth blog post (it’s still early days for Kat Welfare Matters!) than by taking part in a blog party organised by the wonderful Zazie of Companion Animal Psychology?

The blog party theme is something I wholeheartedly support: ‘training for rewards’. Reward-based training, or positive reinforcement as it is also known, is a form of ‘operant conditioning’[1]. This is just a fancy way of saying it is a training method that involves an animal learning to do something because of the consequences its behaviour has. When animals behave in a certain way they are ‘operating on’ their environment. The positive or negative consequences of that behaviour affects the frequency with which the animal will perform that behaviour in the future. In other words, if the animal does something (e.g. the cat sits) and the consequence of this is positive (e.g. a yummy treat that the cat loves) it results in them doing that more in the future. We can add commands as well, but the basic idea is that the animal does something and we provide the ‘consequence’ of their behaviour.

There is a lot of great evidence for the benefits of reward-based training. I strongly suggest you check out the list of reasons to go positive at Companion Animal Psychology. It makes sense that rewarding animals for a behaviour is more likely to result in better trained animals than punishing them. The escape/avoidance approach to training that was developed in the 1940s relies on negative reinforcement and punishment; animals escape the aversive consequence by changing behaviour. In contrast, positive reinforcement is a ‘modern’ approach to learning and training, as it provides specific information to the animal about the exact behaviour that is required. In doing so, it enhances the human-animal bond.

Linking reward-based training and animal welfare science using the concept of positive affective engagement

Training for rewards emphasises the idea of giving an animal something they find rewarding or enjoyable. These rewards may be different for different animals, but should result in the animal experiencing positives emotions. This links directly with the concept of positive experiences, or affects, that is being increasingly emphasised in animal welfare science.

While animal welfare scientists used to concentrate their efforts on the negative experiences of animals, we are looking more and more at the potential for positive experiences. Back when animal welfare science began, people were worried about how badly animals were being treated and their potential negative experiences – especially animals confined in intensive production systems. But now that we have learnt more about how to keep animals and what they might need to minimise their negative experiences, we are able to look at providing them with opportunities for positive experiences e.g. play and/or exploration. Ensuring animals are receiving good nutrition (food and water), that their environment is suitable, and that they are healthy typically only moves them from negative/poor welfare towards neutral. None of these ‘survival-related’ provisions [2] are enough to result in overall positive welfare. However, when we start to look at how animals are behaving and provide them with opportunities to behave in ways they find rewarding, we can start to move them towards an overall positive welfare state.

Rewarding animals for a behaviour that we want them to do and that they enjoy could result in heightened states of positive welfare. Hence asking a dog to ‘sit’ becomes ‘playing sit’; the dog starts to associate the command and their response with a positive reward (e.g. food and/or your happy voice). We know that play is a positive experience for most animals, so why would we not want to make training positive for them?

‘Positive affective engagement’ is the experience animals may have when they respond to motivations to engage in rewarding behaviours. The concept includes all experiences that are positive [3]. In reward-based training, the concept could include the state of engagement that results from an animal’s goal-directed, energised performance of a learned task that it enjoys. The enjoyment may result from the task itself and/or be due to the associated reward. A 2015 review by Mellor [4] emphasises the scientific support (via ‘affective neuroscience’) for the existence of positive experiences and their assessment using behaviours we observe in animals. In other words, training for rewards is not only a very effective training method, but there is good evidence to suggest that it could improve the lives (or welfare) of our animals.

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My Jäger cat sits for a food treat

References

  1. Stafford, K., ed. The welfare of dogs. Animal Welfare, ed. C. Phillips. Vol. 4. 2006, Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  2. Mellor, D.J. and N.J. Beausoleil, Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 241-253.
  3. Mellor, D.J., Enhancing animal welfare by creating opportunities for positive affective engagement. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 2015. 63(1): p. 3-8.
  4. Mellor, D.J., Positive animal welfare states and encouraging environment-focused and animal-to-animal interactive behaviours. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 2015. 63(1): p. 9-16.

Exploring end-of-life management of old and chronically ill cats

My second study towards my PhD is well under way. The recruitment phase started on social media (Facebook and Twitter) with a call for cat owners to participate. Interested cat owners who have put down their cat in the last 6 months are redirected to an online survey which takes them through a few quick questions. These are to help us interview the right people.

We want to make sure we are interviewing cat owners who recently euthanased their pet. If it was too long ago then the vet involved may not remember enough details for their (separate) interview. The cat owners, and their vet, must also be in New Zealand. The interviews are done in person so I need to be able to visit them. We are also asking owners to tell us why the cat was put down. If it was due to a disease that lasted a long time, or because the cat was older, then we might get more information about tricky decisions that were made. On the other hand, a cat that was put down because it was involved in an accident would probably provide much less information. The owners also need to give us permission to contact their vet for interview and leave us enough information to contact them.

We have also had a write-up about the study in VetScript – the magazine for The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA). An email has also gone out to all NZVA members. Massey University has got on board with an article on their website and the study has been shared through their social media channels. These various initiatives are helping get the word out about the importance of the study and how to participate.

Why am I doing the study?

The research seeks to uncover how the owners of older cats or cats with chronic disease perceive the role their vets have played in the euthanasia process, before comparing this to the vet’s own understanding of their involvement. We are also looking at the decision-making process and how cat owners, and their vets, are making euthanasia decisions. This improved understanding of what drives owner behaviour would safeguard older cat welfare and further inform vets of their role in end-of-life management.

How can you get involved?

If you are a cat owner who meets our criteria, or you know someone that might, please take the time to visit our online recruitment page and answer a few questions. This should only take 5-10 minutes of your time.

If you are a veterinarian and you think you might have a client that would be happy to chat to me then please direct them to our online recruitment page.

If anyone has questions about the study they can get in touch with me at: K.Littlewood@massey.ac.nz

Reflecting on the March for Science 2017 and when Science goes wrong

I am writing this post after Earth Day and March for Science 2017 for two reasons:

  1. Science is under more and more scrutiny (as it should be!) and we scientists need to be careful what we put out to be read or heard;
  2. I have just started a Journal Club for the academic research group I belong to at my university and the first article I chose to present to them was a great example of ‘Science gone wrong’.

In this post, I will be using this article as an example. I am not trying to single out this article, nor the authors, but I thought it was a good example of what we should be avoiding. And, for those of you reading and citing scientific publications, I have a message: it is not OK to just read the abstract and conclusions of a scientific article (even if it is peer-reviewed) without critically evaluating its methods and results. It is not OK to cite an article you have not read completely. I have been tempted to do this myself when under time pressure, but we need to stay alert! And this post aims to show you WHY.

Blog post 8 image

Before I get into the article itself, I thought I would share with you the main ideas behind our Journal Club:

  • The meetings are fortnightly
  • Everyone in the research group is encouraged to present at least one article during the year
  • Presentations are also encouraged from postgraduate students (including Masterate students) and undergraduates at the stage that they will benefit from presenting and critically evaluating an article
  • Attendees can read the article before the meeting, but presenters should be aware that not everyone will have had time to read it and should address this in their presentation of the article i.e. begin with a background to the study before the critique
  • Critical appraisal is encouraged. Presenters are welcome to present their own work, but a more balanced critique is likely to occur when the author(s) is not present.

You will have noticed how much ‘critical appraisal’ has been emphasised in this list. As scientists, it is our job to be critical of everything we read and hear. The need for this became obvious when we evaluated our first article:

Sandøe, P., Nørspang, A. P., Forkman, B., Kondrup, S. V., Lund, T. B., & Bjørnvad, C. R. (2017). The burden of domestication: a representative study of welfare in privately owned cats in Denmark. Animal Welfare, 26(1), 1-10. doi: 10.7120/09627286.26.1.001

I chose this article because I am interested in the indoor versus outdoor cat debate, the issue of neutering, and selective breeding. This study was published in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal. The aim was to investigate how indoor confinement, neutering, and selective breeding may impact on the health and behaviour of domestic cats.

Their statistical analysis involved prevalence and odds ratios i.e. measures of association between the outcome variables (behavioural problems OR health issues) and the exposure variables (breed, neuter status, housing).

The abstract would lead you to believe that the major findings of this study were: (1) confined cats had ‘significantly’ more behavioural problems than free-roaming cats; (2) entire cats had ‘significantly’ more behavioural problems than neutered cats; and (3) ‘significantly’ more purebred cats had diseases than domestic shorthair cats.

However, we found major issues with the methods and results. The study involved a questionnaire, but this was available in different formats to different age groups (a ‘mixed mode design’) – with the assumption that those over 65 would prefer to answer by telephone interview and those 18-64 would be happy to complete it online. This difference was not dealt with in the authors’ later analysis.

The original questionnaire was available in the supplementary material online and, after closer inspection, the questions they asked were not always well reflected in their results. They re-defined ‘How cats are kept’ using a range of responses given by the pet owners – and not all of these made sense. The question they asked to get these results gave confusing options to owners where ‘indoor’ was defined in various ways not necessarily consistent with most people’s definition of indoor cat housing. The only behavioural problems that were significantly different between how the cats were kept were: ‘house-soiling’, ‘damage furniture or things’, and ‘displays signs of boredom’. These could have been associated with, for example, other cats in the household, availability of toys and environmental enrichment. However, despite these follow-up questions being in the questionnaire there was no evidence of them being used in the analysis.

For neuter status, the only behavioural problems that were significantly greater in non-neutered cats were ‘aggressive behaviour towards guests’ and ‘other problems’. These were poorly defined categories and/or could have been the result of natural feline behaviours.

When it came to looking at the prevalence of health issues, the authors did not adjust for the number of vet visits. Owners are potentially more likely to know about their cat’s health issues if they visit the vet more often. Instead they controlled for vaccination status – claiming it to be a proxy for concern about cat health. They reported that more purebreds had one or more of the diseases of interest. But this was compared to ‘domestic short-hair’ cats, with a separate ‘mixed breed’ category. Purebred cats were grouped together as there were not enough of them in the study for them to be separated by breed. They did not appear to use the information they had about the amount owners spent on their cats in this analysis either.

The discussion section was interesting, if irrelevant at times. The section on body condition scoring (BCS) underestimating the level of body fat percent was a very good review. But as they did not use either BCS or fat percentage estimates it felt a little redundant. Probably the most important conclusion they reached was that we need to do more research on cats. Research into purebred cats lags behind canine research.

In conclusion, I hope I have shown that just reading the abstract and discussion/conclusion of a peer-reviewed article is not sufficient to cite it and/or propagate its findings. After our Journal Club meeting we all felt that this article was trying to prove a set of conclusions (neutering is good, purebred cats are bad, and outdoor cats are better than indoor) rather than fully investigate them. Importantly, we left with it clear in our minds that critical evaluation is important for academic writing. We felt that this article is, unfortunately, going to be highly cited due to: (1) the journal it has appeared in; (2) the authors; and (3) the subject matter i.e. for the very same reason I chose to evaluate it in the first place.

The New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy Draft

This post has been a long time coming. I had been holding out for a resolution to the New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy proposal that was released in draft form in September 2016. However, a recent article in The Dominion Post hints that Wellington is going ahead without The Strategy, as the capital city looks towards new rules for the management of cats (and other animals). This follows on from the bylaw Wellington introduced last year, implemented early 2018, which mandates that all domestic cats over 12 weeks of age be microchipped and that all such microchips be registered with the NZ Companion Animal Register (NZCAR).

Maybe I should back up a little here. What is going on in New Zealand with our domestic cats? It has long been recognised that cats on islands, such as New Zealand, cause problems by predating upon wildlife [1] – and there is particular concern for native and endangered species. New Zealand has many beautiful native bird species, most of which have evolved without the need to protect themselves from predators such as cats (who were introduced later by humans). This puts them at risk of declining numbers and potential extinction. Several ‘predator-free’ (predators also include: stoats, rats, and possums) islands and land-based reserves have been established in New Zealand, in order to provide a protected environment for native species. However, there is still a need to protect the wildlife not within the confines of these sheltered areas, and to provide future-proof environments. There is a plan to make New Zealand predator-free (of possums, rats, and stoats) by the year 2050. However, this plan does not extend to cats.

Some large cities (e.g. Wellington – our capital city) are near several of these protected areas, and native bird habitats often extend outside their sheltered zone. This, in addition to wildlife already resident in the capital, has been causing problems with owned domestic (and often feral) cats. Cats are skilled hunters [1], and unfortunately their hunting zones may overlap with native bird habitats. A call to ban domestic cats in New Zealand did not go down particularly well with cat owners. New Zealand is unique, in that unlike many other countries that favour dogs, cats are our most popular companion animal pet [2]. And cat owners can be very protective of their right to own a feline friend. This provides for an interesting clash between wildlife advocates and domestic cat owners.

There is an obvious need for compromise and so representatives from various interest groups sat down together and drafted the NZ National Cat Management Strategy. The Strategy’s working group is made up of members from: The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA); NZVA Companion Animal Veterinarians (CAV); New Zealand Companion Animal Council (NZCAC); Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA); Morgan Foundation; and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ). The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) are technical advisory members. “The key principles of the strategy are the promotion of responsible cat ownership, humane cat management, and environmental protection.” (The Strategy pg7). The Strategy makes a point of recognising the positive benefits and value in cat ownership, but also acknowledges the impact cats have on native species. This gives credit to both sides of the argument for (e.g. ‘Feline Rights New Zealand’) and against (e.g. Gareth Morgan and The Morgan Foundation) cats in New Zealand.

A summary of The Strategy is available here. Briefly, the 17 key recommendations agreed by the group relate to: (1) the recognition that cats are sentient animals; (2) a focus on non-lethal control methods; (3) the identification of different cat populations (owned, feral, stray, etc.); (4) management programmes targeted specifically at stray cats; (5) targeted trap-neuter-return programmes for stray cats; (6) communication and collaboration with all stakeholders; (7) addressing inconsistencies in legislation; (8) implementing a national cat management task force; (9) A National Cat Management Act that allows for the creation and implementation of cat bylaws; (10) incremental changes to legislation; (11) cat management advisory groups for local governments; (12) evaluation of cat management strategies; (13) the reporting of these evaluations; (14) a centralised national database of cat management statistics; (15) an integrated approach to cat management; (16) those implementing cat management strategies understand the animal welfare implications and best practice for the techniques; and (17) identifying areas of high conservation value and implementing strict controls for these areas. According to the RNZSPCA, The Strategy was due to be presented to Government before the end of last year. It will be interesting to see what eventuates.

Blog post 7 image
A native New Zealand Tui enjoys the spring flowers at Massey University, Palmerston North

What will the future of cat ownership in New Zealand look like? And what are some things we could be doing now to help? Keeping cats indoors at night is likely to reduce some of their predation habits. The use of anti-predation cat collar covers may also be beneficial [3]. Having your cat(s) microchipped now could also be a good idea. Microchipping is the recommended best practice method for identification of cats in the New Zealand Companion Cats Code of Welfare, and is preferred to collar use. Desexing cats is another key owner responsibility. Chatting to (as opposed to criticising) cat owners about the harmful effects of cats on our wildlife, and giving them a few things they can try now to combat these effects, will go a long way to help New Zealand resolve this issue. Words written by a cat lover.

“There will always be cats in New Zealand and the only viable route to effective cat management is to implement facilitating legislation and simultaneously work with the stakeholders involved with all cat populations to find agreed solutions that are acceptable and have a realistic chance of reducing cat numbers and mitigating cats’ negative impact on wildlife.” (The New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy Draft 2016)

Here is a short YouTube video about the New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy.

References

  1. Medina, F.M., et al., A global review of the impacts of invasive cats on island endangered vertebrates. Global Change Biology, 2011. 17(11): p. 3503-3510.
  2. New Zealand Companion Animal Council Inc., Companion Animals in New Zealand. 2016: Auckland, New Zealand.
  3. Willson, S.K., I.A. Okunlola, and J.A. Novak, Birds be safe: Can a novel cat collar reduce avian mortality by domestic cats (Felis catus)? Global ecology and conservation, 2015. 3: p. 359-366.

 

Edit (30th April 2017):

As a result of an email taking issue with my recommendation of anti-predation cat collars and their safety to cats, I would like to clarify the type of collar I suggest.

I recommend those that fit over the cat’s current (quick release or breakaway) collar and are open at one end – so that both collars release if the cat gets caught. An example of them can be found here: https://www.birdsbesafe.com/ and can be made yourself with instructions found here:

AVC Winter Webinars

This week I enjoyed the first of three ‘Winter Webinars’ run by the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at The Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC). For those of you who are not familiar with these, they are web-based seminars (aka ‘webinars’) available to veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Enrolment is free to students – including postgraduates. Last year’s webinars were very good, so I have enrolled again this year. The webinars are hosted at a set time and you login via a link that is emailed to you. There are opportunities to ask the speaker questions during the webinar, and a copy of the recording is emailed to you later. This last point is a real bonus for those of us in different time zones. Last year I could attend the webinar ‘live’, but as it is being run at a different time this year, I watch the recording later instead.

The theme for this year is ‘New Approaches to Old Diseases’ with the aim of going over some approaches for discussing end-of-life (EoL) with clients. The webinars are given by Dr Caroline Hewson and Dr Christine Savidge. Caroline has published widely on EoL care [1-3] and is The Pet Loss Vet. Christine is an assistant professor at the AVC and a small animal internal medicine specialist (Dip.ACVIM).

The first webinar (last week) was titled ‘The Toolbox’. Caroline went over some tools to deliver terminal diagnoses and to identify when to start taking about euthanasia with clients. I am going to briefly review the webinars.

Caroline started by going over why The Toolbox is important; why it is needed in the first place. She said the tools could help us (veterinary professionals) to prevent animals from suffering, to support our clients in talking about EoL and their concerns, and to help our clients be ready for clinical uncertainty. She mentioned a study by Fernandez-Mehler, Gloor [4] where roughly a third of clients would have preferred the EoL issue was raised sooner.

Caroline has FOUR tools in her toolbox. They are: (1) disease trajectory graphs; (2) a key question; (3) communication tools; and (4) a euthanasia decision-making tool.

1 Disease trajectory graphs

These ask, ‘what is the change in physical functioning over time?’ Caroline showed us some examples of disease trajectory graphs from a human paper [5]. These types of graphs provide a visual aide to owners, showing them what the disease progression may look like and what they should expect with their pet. Caroline indicated that we don’t need to have one for every disease, but a few generic ones instead. For example, we could have one for diseases/illness that have long-term limitations with intermittent serious episodes – this could be used for cases of renal insufficiency or heart disease. I like this idea. We can overwhelm our clients with lots of statistics and quote numbers at them from textbooks or the latest research, but a simple diagram invariably shows more than all those numbers ever could.

2 A key question

This is a trigger question for veterinarians to ask ourselves (in our head) when we diagnose a condition and at every check-up with a diseased animal. It is meant to help us decide if it is appropriate to discuss EoL with our client(s). The question is: ‘Would I be surprised if this dog/cat died in the next 6 months?’ The idea being that if you answer ‘no’ (you would not be surprised) then Caroline suggests you must raise EoL with the owner. This is quite a good way of thinking about it. If you, as the veterinarian, think the animal may die soon (i.e. in the next 6 months) then shouldn’t you bring this up with the owner? Wouldn’t it be better to have that discussion sooner rather than later (later potentially being in 8 months’ time, when the owner suddenly realises the animal is suffering terribly and wishes they had contacted you sooner OR wished you had brought it up with them sooner [4])?

3 Communication tools

If you have decided you need to have this EoL discussion, or the owner has come to you wanting to discuss euthanasia, then good communication is key. Caroline has three areas that she thinks are important: empathy, honesty, and finding out information preferences.

Empathy can be learned and involves recognising emotion in others and reflecting this understanding of their emotion back to them. Caroline said that instead of empathising, veterinary professionals can sometimes be guilty of lecturing (i.e. giving lots of information) or distracting (ignoring feelings by offering tea/water/platitudes) clients. Honesty is also important; ‘protecting’ clients from reality isn’t helpful. Asking clients outright how much information they would like to know (i.e. finding out their information preferences) may help with this.

4 Euthanasia decision-making tool

Designed to answer whether the animal has a ‘life worth living’ [6] or to assist the client who asks “How do I know when it’s time?”, Caroline uses her own ‘A-B-C Yardstick for euthanasia decisions’. Much like the ABC’s of CPR, this initialism mneumonic stands for three steps in the decision-making process. In this case, they are:

  • A for ‘Agony’: Is the animal in unmanageable pain or distress OR at imminent risk of these?
  • B for ‘Burden’: Is treatment a burden to the animal?
  • C for ‘Continue to enjoy positives of being alive’: Does the animal have what s/he wants and enjoys?

This is a great little way to get our clients to think about their animal and their treatment, but, like some of the EoL scales already in use [7, 8], it does limit the areas (or domains) [9] considered.

Overall, I enjoyed the first webinar and look forward to hearing Dr Savidge speak to us this week about the use of disease trajectories in renal disease.

References

  1. Hewson, C., Grief for pets – Part 1: Overview and some false assumptions. Veterinary Nursing Journal, 2014. 29(9): p. 302-305.
  2. Hewson, C., Grief for pets Part 2: Realistic client care so that you ‘do no harm’. Veterinary Ireland Journal, 2014. 4(8): p. 431-436.
  3. Hewson, C., End-of-life care: the why and how of animal hospice. Veterinary Nursing Journal, 2015. 30(10): p. 287-289.
  4. Fernandez-Mehler, P., et al., Veterinarians’ role for pet owners facing pet loss. Veterinary Record, 2013. 172(21).
  5. Lynn, J. and D.M. Adamson, Living well at the end of life: Adapting health care to serious chronic illness in old age. RAND white paper, 2003.
  6. Yeates, J.W., Is ‘a life worth living’ a concept worth having? Animal Welfare, 2011. 20(3): p. 397-406.
  7. Villalobos, A. and L. Kaplan, Canine and feline geriatric oncology: honoring the human-animal bond, ed. L. Kaplan. 2007, Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing.
  8. Hilst, K., J.O.U.R.N.E.Y.S.: A quality of life scale for pets. 2013.
  9. Mellor, D.J. and N.J. Beausoleil, Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 241-253.