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Vets can’t do this on their own
  1. Adele Waters

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The veterinary profession is increasingly vocal about extreme breeding practices and the health and welfare problems associated with designer pets, from brachycephalic dogs to Scottish fold cats.

Now it has another dog craze to deal with – ‘teacup puppies’. Already popular in South Korea and the USA, there is an emerging market for these miniature dogs in the UK, which also suffer a host of life-limiting health and welfare problems.

The link between the behaviour of pet (and potential) owners and their impact on animal health and welfare is a hot topic in the veterinary world right now.

It has been the subject of debate at a number of recent welfare conferences and in November the BVA’s programme at the London Vet Show will largely focus on this issue.

But it is not just about extreme breeding practices, vets see the impact of poor owner decision-making in their daily practice – whether it is dealing with skin disorders as a result of owners clothing their dogs to the more serious challenges of managing disabling obesity due to poor lifestyle management.

As Sandra McCune, a human-animal interaction expert at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, told a recent welfare conference, even though many pet owners have good intentions, they are generally pretty ignorant about pets and how to look after them.

There are certainly knowledge gaps. A survey carried out by the BVA earlier this year asked vets to pick out things they wished animal owners knew. Vets did not hold back, pointing out owners’ lack of a basic understanding of animal behaviour as well as more prominent issues such as obesity, lameness and extreme breeding. ‘Dogs need a waistline,’ said one vet. ‘Brachycephalics aren’t cute, they’re deformed,’ said another.

But many vets also say – rather wearily – that the profession has recognised and has been trying to bridge this divide between professional and owner knowledge for the past 50 years and yet, still, the challenge persists and may even appear to be getting worse. Clearly, if that’s the case, the old strategies aren’t working well enough. It must be time for some more radical thinking?

At a conference organised by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) and the Royal Veterinary College last month, experts suggested a range of practical strategies to tackle these human-induced animal welfare concerns head on.

Panellists recommended the introduction of educational programmes in schools – as well as workshops for adults – to encourage responsible dog ownership.

They also suggested that public education campaigns could be used to increase awareness around the most challenging welfare issues. The current advertising campaign launched by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home on tougher animal sentencing is a good example of bold and creative messaging in this field.

Too often potential dog owners are influenced by social media and misinformed celebrities – so panellists at the conference agreed there needed to be a counter-movement, clever messaging using different media and celebrity endorsement to correct misinformation.

These are all great ideas, and it would be great to see them take off, but it might be helpful to recognise that this is a particularly difficult problem to solve. Just as the route cause isn’t solely that owners are ignorant or that vets aren’t doing a good enough job at education, the solution doesn’t lie in one camp or the other.

The challenges are significant. First there is a spectrum of needs and attitudes. Owners have a range of educational levels and needs – while some simply want to be told what to do by a vet, others appreciate a more collaborative approach. While some clients need basic information, others want as much detail and discussion as they can get.

There is also a spectrum in a how vets view their education responsibilities. While some vets regard client education as a core part of their role, other vets are less persuaded – they may see it as more of a nurse’s remit, for example. Consultation time is also an issue – there is a limit to how many education messages a vet can tackle in a 10-minute consultation.

There is also a culture wrapped around the dynamic of veterinary practice – that of knowledge provider and knowledge receiver. Some from within the profession have become quite critical of the attitude towards clients by some colleagues, calling them paternalistic, even patronising or dismissive. The extent of this is not clear but certainly any explicit judgement can make people fearful of asking questions and drive them to get their answers elsewhere – via social media or Dr Google.

Recent years have seen an explosion of online advice forums and veterinary information sources, some of it poor quality. And this point speaks to the future of the profession – veterinary businesses must find a way to be the premium, consistent and credible source of veterinary advice.

Currently that is not always the case. In a study carried out by Nottingham university in 2015, researchers called 1362 practices to ask about diet for rabbits. They were recommended 14 different approaches, with the most common being a diet of pellets alone, against standard advice. While such information may have come from front-of-house, it shows that this problem isn’t just about owners – veterinary businesses can up their game here.

There is also a need for a reality check – just as some owners can have daft questions, so can vets or their staff provide incorrect answers. I was talking to a vet the other day who told me of his surprise and disappointment when a qualified vet asked him when snakes started to wean their young. There is no question that vets are clever – they simply wouldn’t get into vet school in the first place if they weren’t – but they are human too and we all make mistakes. That’s just life.

Researchers are really only on the cusp of understanding how human behaviour impacts animal welfare and how we might influence positive change. Recognising the scale of that challenge may help to open the door to other collaborative approaches to finding solutions to human-induced problems – with communication experts, psychologists, social science researchers, for example.

But we need to add clients to this list. Clients are partners in patient care – they are the ones who have to look after animals, medicate them, change their feeding regime. If the vantage point is always ‘them’ and ‘us’, opportunities to exploit the vital intelligence they can provide will be lost to the profession.

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