The role of animal welfare in veterinary science education and research

It has been a while. My last blog post was in June. But rather than starting with an apology, I am going to take a page out of a friend’s book and begin with a thank you. Thank you for waiting for this blog post. Let’s start in a positive place together1.

It has been a busy second half of the year. Since June I have presented at three conferences: ISAE congress in Canada; ANZCVS Science Week in Australia; and the NZCAC conference in Auckland.

It has been busy, but fantastic! I have learnt a lot about myself and met many fun and interesting people along the way.

My PhD is progressing. I am in the final stages of data analysis and writing up. It is a little difficult to assess progress. My 3-year doctoral scholarship expires at the end of May and I aim to submit before the money runs out. But I am also allowing myself a little leeway. Stressing about deadlines is not conducive to meeting deadlines.

In the meantime, I have also been involved in animal welfare, behaviour, and ethics (AWBE) lecturing. It is my passion. I enjoy working with tertiary students. Teaching is in my blood. An academic career is the perfect fit for me because I love the combination of research and education. With this in mind, I sat down to read the book ‘How to be an academic’ by Inger Mewburn. In the first chapter she talks about writing a ‘mission statement’ for your career. This got me thinking about my own.

The areas I enjoy most are: animal welfare, behaviour, and ethics. It doesn’t feel like work when I am thrilled to teach students or to conduct research in these areas. So perhaps my mission statement is: ‘AWBE are necessary and important areas in veterinary and animal science education and research. My mission is to grow them to the point that they are integrated realities within these disciplines’. The wording needs work…

I have found my calling, and I am prepared to fight for it.

AWBE are also increasing in importance in veterinary and animal science. An academic career in these areas is not just a passion project for me, but it is also smart.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) released comprehensive Animal Welfare guidelines at the recent world congress in Singapore. That a worldwide veterinary association recognises the need to develop a document promoting it, clearly shows how vital animal welfare is to the veterinary profession.

My main PhD supervisor describes where animal welfare fits so beautifully. She uses The Five Domains Model of animal welfare assessment to show where veterinary and animal science contribute to, and fit within, animal welfare:

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Credit: Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil

This way of structuring veterinary and animal science as subjects within animal welfare is not only intuitive, but also aligns with the veterinarian’s ‘…special duty to protect animal welfare and alleviate animal suffering’ (VCNZ) and the profession’s role as ‘experts’ in animal welfare.

It is obvious that veterinary science makes up such a large section of the Health Domain. But it also makes up significant portions of other domains, thereby contributing significantly towards Overall Animal Welfare.

However, in the traditional model of veterinary science, animal welfare science occupies just a small portion. This is still largely reflected in current veterinary education and the veterinary profession:

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Credit: Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil

A holistic, overarching, structure of animal welfare science makes more sense than the limited ‘subject’ view above. How can veterinarians be animal welfare experts without The Five Domains holistic view?

For example, animal nutrition could be taught in the context of animal welfare, rather than animal welfare within animal nutrition. Poor nutrition is a leading cause of animal welfare compromise in production animals, and excessive feed intakes are causing an obesity epidemic in companion animal populations.

Small animal behavioural problems are a leading cause of relinquishment and so-called ‘convenience’ euthanasia. The welfare of these animals would benefit from targeted behavioural interventions with a focus on improved welfare – for both humans and animals.

Even within the Health Domain, the ‘key’ domain for veterinarians, there are issues. As animals are living longer, largely a result of better nutrition and improved preventative health care, veterinarians are forced to deal with diseases of ‘old age’ – hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and arthritis in older cats are just a few examples. And there are issues associated with end-of-life decisions for these older animals. How do we differentiate between age-related decline and severely compromised welfare? And at what point do we draw the line and say that euthanasia is necessary?

Some of these questions relate to judgement calls, where we need to consider veterinary ethics. Understanding how others think, question, and decide, is vital to relating to them. The caring profession of veterinary science needs to make sure it cares enough to relate to people from a wide range of backgrounds and belief systems.

A solid grounding in animal welfare science, behaviour, and ethics will assist veterinarians and animal scientists in answering these questions and more.2

So yes, AWBE is the way of the future – for the veterinary profession, and for me.

~

1Here is a good explanation of the power of saying “thank you” instead of “sorry” when you do something wrong

2because I am sure there are, as yet undiscovered, questions that will need answering in the future

 

 

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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

My Research

As I finished my postgraduate diploma last year I was recently asked by Massey University to complete a graduate profile for their website. This gave me a chance to reflect on my research and where I am heading with my career. I also thought it would be a great opportunity to write my first blog post – using a combination of the questions Massey supplied me and a few of my own:

Kat Paws B+W
Kat Welfare Matters Facebook Page

What is your thesis title?

Quality of life assessment in geriatric cats

Please expand on your research topic and why it appealed.

I am undertaking research in animal welfare. My PhD focuses on the assessment of quality of life (QoL) in companion animals, specifically as it relates to end-of-life or euthanasia decision-making in cats.

I have been trained as a veterinarian to detect, diagnose, and treat animals – often with the intention of extending their lives. As the level of veterinary care available to cats has improved, many of these animals are living longer. This, coupled with the popularity of feline pets in New Zealand, has led to an increase in the number of geriatric animals. But is this increase in life expectancy also representative of a good QoL? How can we assess this? And, more importantly, how can we help pet owners and veterinarians improve their end-of-life decision-making to safeguard animal welfare?

I am focusing on the methods currently available to assess QoL in companion animals, and how these could be improved upon to better assist owners and veterinarians in making end-of-life decisions. I will explore the factors that influence end-of-life decision-making in geriatric cats, and cats with chronic disease, from both the owners’ and veterinarians’ perspective. I would like to know what processes veterinarians and owners are currently using to make end-of-life decisions, including what is being taught in undergraduate veterinary science curriculums across Australasia. I am particularly interested in geriatric cats and/or cats with chronic disease whose slow progression, and eventual death, may result in them being kept alive beyond an ‘acceptable’ level for their quality of life.

Why did you decide to do a PhD?

I knew early on during my undergraduate degree in veterinary science that I would like to either become a specialist veterinarian or enter into a research career. After graduating I undertook an internship at a specialist practice in Auckland, followed by some time in general practice, after which I realised clinical practice was not for me. I returned to Massey University in 2015 to undertake a Postgraduate Diploma, with a focus on animal welfare science, and further developed my research topic. I was lucky enough to be selected for one of Massey’s doctoral scholarships and started my full-time PhD in March 2016.

Why did you decide to do your PhD at Massey?

Massey University was the obvious choice. It has some of the top animal welfare scientists in the world based in the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre (AWSBC) of the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences (IVABS). I also jumped at the opportunity to return to the veterinary school and the potential to be involved with future veterinary scientists.

Describe your study experience/support from supervisors.

My supervisory team is made up of top representatives of their field. Two are based in IVABS and the third is from the School of Psychology. It is great having a mixed team on my side – we have really interesting discussions with very different points of view. We meet regularly and I feel like I can always approach them for a chat.

I am also very lucky to have met and made friends with a really supportive group of postgraduate students. It is good to have that support network to share stories with and laugh about the silly things that we do. The IVABS postgraduate team are also very supportive – our lovely administrator goes above and beyond to make our lives that much easier.

Have you done any internships or leadership programmes while at Massey?

I was invited to act as a facilitator for VetStart 2016 – a programme for first year veterinary undergraduate science and veterinary technology students. I had enjoyed the programme as a student and was excited to be invited to attend and co-facilitate the same experience for a group of students. The camp involved team-building exercises as well as outdoors activities, experiential learning exercises, and a karaoke evening.

What are your plans for the future?

While completing my PhD, I will be studying for the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) membership examination in animal welfare. This will bring me one step closer towards becoming a specialist in animal welfare. I hope to continue in the academic/research field and be actively involved in supporting the next generation of veterinarians and animal scientists.