Pedigree Dogs Exposed

I recently watched the BBC documentary from a few years back, called “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”. In a nutshell, it explains the problems faced by pedigree dogs and their owners, and delves into the ongoing moral debate into whether we have the right to manipulate a species for (in most cases) our own enjoyment or leisure. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in a while and seriously called to question my views of the whole industry!

Before watching the program, I spent a week in one of of Goddard’s 24 hour hospitals. Being quite a big one, it had a specialist who happened to deal with syringomyelia cases. Little did I know at the time that she featured several times on this programme! Her job is very relevant to the debate, as syringomyelia is a hereditory disease that affects at least one third of Cavalier Spaniels and also Chihuahuas. And that is saying something, seeing as they are one of the UK’s most popular pets. One of the first things shown on screen was one of these spaniels with a severe form of the condition, which causes the brain to be too small for the skull. The brain can therefore not expand and contract naturally as it should with every heartbeat, which causes a buildup of pressure and thus intense headaches. This much was clear from the video: the poor dog was displaying the commonly seen twitching of the head, rubbing his head agains the floor and howling. What was really shocking was the specialist’s explanation, which went something along the lines of “If you hit a dog to create the pain caused by syringomyelia you would certainly prosecuted, yet breeding Cavaliers who are known to have the disease is not prosecutable, yet in doing so owners are knowingly allowing more dogs to be in pain in the future”.

And that really sums up the problem- not only is it partly the fault of humans that such diseases emerged (because we bred the heads to be smaller for our shallow aesthetic appreciation, against evolution), but I think the truly disgusting fact is that people continue to inbreed these and other such dogs. The winner of the cavalier dog show in Woucester admitted on the programme that she knew that her dog had the condition, yet went on to breed from her. If that isn’t selfish then I don’t know what is. Similarly, the Pekingese who won Krufts in the year of the documentary had a soft palette problem which meant that it’s frantic breathing caused it to overheat so it had to be sat on an ice pack while receiving the award. Despite the knowledge of this heritable condition, the owner bred something like 18 litters from it.

What was really interesting was learning why this has not been stopped. Following complaints and pressure, the Kennel Club minorly adjusted their guidelines so that dogs had to be deemed “healthy” to win dog shows such as Krufts, along with a few other minor adjustments to the ideal breeds guidelines. Sadly, however, the reason that they refuse to do more is for financial reasons: the dog trade is huge, and dog shows etc make a lot of money. Therefore, if it were made illegal to breed dogs such that they might inherit these conditions (which is true to some extent for most ideal breeds these days), then the aforementioned organisations would loose money because people would breed them outside of the system. So, effectively, thousands of people are compromising animal welfare for their own pride, treating their animals as prized possessions. I really had no idea it was this bad.

Of course, not all pedigree dog owners have this attitude. In fact, there are campaigns ongoing by owners of cavs, for instance, to reduce and eliminate the problem. It just really shocked me how materialistic the whole industry is; a dog should be a companion and loved regardless of whether or not it has a ridge or screwtail. Obviously a vet should treat whatever comes through the door equally, so pay no regard to whether the owners were responsible for breeding a sick dog… Yet hopefully in time attitudes will change, inbreeding will be reduced, and the unnecessary pain of animals will diminish, because it really does seem as shame that human materialism is compromising the health and wellbeing of innocent animals.

Mammary gland infections in cats

I saw a particularly interesting case in small practice last Friday. It was a cat with a severe case of mastitis.

The cat came in looking very unhappy indeed, staying completely still when it was not being handled. The reason for this soon became apparent: one of its cranial abdominal glands was horribly swollen and pussing, most probably due to a case of mastitis left untreated for far long. So that the vet could examine it, I had to hold it up by the shoulders as touching the wound would have been far too painful. Luckily, the other glands were unaffected so it looked unlikely to be fatal, so the nurses put the cat on fluids and antibiotics and Metacam overnight.

The nurse genuinely felt for the poor cat, reluctant to lift its foreleg sideways to insert the catheter knowing that stretching the skin must be so painful for her. It was obvious that this was the case as the only movement it made was to move its leg back in wherever possible. It did show me how quickly infections can spiral out of control if ignored… the owner certainly realised the same thing, just a little too late! She looked incredibly guilty, so much so that she began to cry uncontrollably when she tried to describe when she first spotted it etc. This must be one of the hardest things for a vet to deal with; there seems to be a fine line between comforting an owner and sounding patronizing. This particular vet seems to just always keep calm and relaxed. In fact, his demeanour didn’t change at all, he just offered her a tissue.

This was such a contrast to the mastitis case in a heifer I saw at Morrisons’ Farm. Its such a common condition there that, aside from the daily udder-emptying and antibiotic injections, they just go about their daily lives, whereas for a cat it is obviously more serious due to their size. One thing that really does get on my nerves, though, are owners who ignore conditions that are clearly problematic, hoping they will just disappear. My friend saw a similar case in a rabbit, except the wound was maggot infected and it never recovered. Those owners were reported to the RSPCA. I suppose that’s the trouble with the common fear of vet bills; people don’t seem to realise the extent of their responsibility to their pets. So many dogs come in with gingivitis because owners couldn’t be bothered to take them for their checkups. If they were more systematic they would realise that they would save themselves money as dentals can be expensive, but the same problems seem to recur!

Lambing experiences

I recently visited Morrison’s farm for a week for my first experience of industrial farm work (as opposed to the city farm at which I worked for 8 days), which was great! I was lucky enough to see lambing and calving, as well as a visit from the farm vet.

Before visiting the farm, I had never realised how much thought goes into lambing, such as the techniques farmers have for making sure the lambs are well distributed, so to speak. The first interesting case I saw was a lamb who had a still birth during the night, the large head of the lamb indicating that its birth had taken too long and that it had been strangled.  Because of this stillbirth, the shepherd wet twinned another lamb onto the ewe. However, on returning in the morning he found that the ewe had had another lamb, but this one alive. Because the ewe was not producing enough milk, he had to “unnattach” the adopted lamb. However, because peak season had not yet begun on that day, he could not wet twin the adopted lamb onto another ewe as there had been no other births immediately before. However, there were a few ewes who had lost their only lambs to stillbirths, who were still producing milk. Because he could not wet twin the lamb on, he put one of these ewe in the clamp and allowed the lamb to suckle. He explained to me that although this probably annoys the ewe at the time, it is good in the long run as it allows her to get rid of her milk, and orphans are expensive to feed. Besides, in a day or so the ewe forgets the smell of her own lamb and assumes that the adopted lamb is hers, around which time the shepherd can unclamp the ewe and allow her to see and tend to the lamb as if it were hers.

Another really interesting case was a heavily pregnant ewe who looked to be producing a lot of milk but had only scanned to have one lamb. So, the shepherd decided that she could probably take a newborn lamb who had been rejected by his mother. He caught the adoptee lamb on the way to seeing to the pregnant ewe. When we arrived at the pen, the ewe seemed to be struggling so he began to intervene… looking back, its clear that neither of us expected what was coming: he could not get the lamb out! He sat there for 20 minutes or so, applying more and more lube, struggling against the moaning sheep to extract the seemingly huge creature inside her. About 5 minutes in, he exclaimed, amidst grunts “it has horns!”. No wonder the sheep was in pain, and you could certainly tell; I’d never heard such a tortured sound escape the mouth of a sheep!

Finally, after the momentous struggle, the lamb popped out. And it was gigagantic- a whopping 9kg, and easily the size of many of the month-2month old lambs that I had seen earlier in the week. Needless to say, the adoptee lamb who had originally been carried along to be twinned on was unknowingly rejected by yet another mother; she was going to need all the milk she could possibly produce for such a huge lamb.

The final unusual case with which I was involved was yet another ewe with a stillbirth. The farmer had an inkling that she was a good mother, seeing as she was producing lots of milk and still licking the lamb half a day later. Another lamb in the neighbouring pen didn’t exactly seem to be the apple of her mother’s eye; she was being barged into and squashed by the seemingly frantic ewe. The farmer then decided that he would allow the calmer ewe to adopt this lamb but, again, there was no placental fluid. Because the lamb seemed quite weak because its mother had not been allowing it to feed, and because it was lame, the farmer tried an alternative method to the clamp: skinning. He skinned the dead lamb in the barn, tossed the carcass aside and literally dressed the adoptee lamb in the old lamb’s skin. As shocking as this was, it served two purposes. Firstly, it gave the lamb the scent of the ewe’s original lamb, and secondly it kept it warm. Sure enough, it worked, and the lamb was happily adopted.

What was really interesting to see in all of these cases was the shepherd’s attitude to his sheep. Although was somewhat immune to deaths, seeing hundreds every week, he still seemed to really care about his animals. For example, one morning he came along on his scooter carrying a lamb’s (it had been devoured by a fox) head joking that he was going to put it on his bedpost, whereas on the other hand he seemed to be determined to give his animals as good a quality of life as possible. This was evident with the skinning case. I remember him saying, “there’s something about this lamb that makes me sure that I want to give it a chance”. He also said a few times “it never gets old”, as he watched with admiration the newborn lamb lifting its head as the mother began to lick it clean. It just makes you realise that animals are their life as well as their job, making the job of the vet all the more important, I suppose!

Euthanasia of animals

During my usual weekly visits to my local vet practice, I witnessed something unlike anything I had previously witnessed during work experience. It was the euthanasia of a cat; of course I have seen many, but never one quite as bizarre (in my opinion) as this.

What made it stand out was the owner’s attitude to the prospect of putting her cat down. Just to give you an idea of the situation, a woman came in with her 12 year old black cat who had lost a bit of weight thus was looking rather unhealthily skinny, was not eating but drinking excessively and was making strange rumbly or rather groany noises quite incessantly. The owner did say that he had “always had strange vocal chords”, but the vet reckoned that the loss of weight was probably the cause of the strange noises, or at least worsened the sound.

So, clearly, this was not a necessarily detrimental or emergency case; cats often come into practice with such symptoms, excluding the strange noises  but these did not seem to be pointing to a particularly more serious diagnosis. As expected, the vet suggested several differentials: Renal failure, some sort of virus or at worst a tumour. However, despite the fact that a simple blood test could have determined the cause of the symptoms, the decision to put the cat down was made surprisingly quickly, suggested by the vet himself in fact, which really surprised me. Never had I experienced a decision so easy with regards to the life of a much-loved animal! The owner repeatedly said, “I just don’t want him to suffer” then claimed that he had collapsed by the back door a few days ago during the heat and said that she didn’t want “a repeat situation”. So she requested to go out front and not to witness another of her cats’ deaths because it upsets her, a squirt of pentobarbital to the liver and that was it. Dead cat.

You may be wondering why this situation surprised me so much seeing as euthanasia is a accepted and necessary practice in veterinary medicine that I should really be accustomed to. The fact is that there was a high probability that this cat’s condition would have been curable; the vet said so himself when I asked him on his opinion on the situation as he was putting the cat to sleep. I asked “Do you agree with her decision?” to which he replied (more or less), “It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. You see, that is what makes a good vet- you can be a boff, know all the cures and have all the meds, but your worthless if you can’t relate to your client. Did you see what I did? I assessed her mood. I could tell that she had made the decision, so there was no point in me saying, ‘but I can cure this, you know?’ because I suggested a blood test, which was my role, but she wasn’t having any of it. And over and above all, it’s the client’s decision. She wants to feel as if her decision is approved by the vet, like we’re on the same team; that’s what it is my job to do.”

So, in effect, he never even gave me his opinion. Thinking about it now, the fact of the matter is that he could not have said what he would have done in her situation, because he  does not know her exact position. Clearly finance may have come into it, although she would have been looking at £100, max £200 for such a test, as my estimation (that may well be inaccurate!). That would have been very understandable. However what shocked me is that she was so quick to decide; the cat had only been ill a few days and this was not a chronic condition which had surfaced previously; the practice had not seen this cat in years.

The question playing on my mind since the incident is how can someone so easily throw away the life of a pet? She said, “I don’t want him to suffer” knowing that the vet could cease the suffering, or at least attempt to see if it would be possible. It was just utterly contrasting to anything I had ever seen. Where were the tears? She was just too accepting, which I found discerning, especially after 12 years of your life spent with an animal. As the vet mentioned, there are clients who would rather not pay for the treatment of an animal, but would prefer to replace it with a new and healthy one. This rather angered me, to be honest. Domestic animals should not be disposable or replaceable in that way. If it were a major operation which would be very costly I would totally understand, but she would end up spending that £100 on a new cat over time (through food, insurance or whatever it might be) were she to replace the one she owned, therefore allowing him to die without investigation, in my view, is simply not justifiable.

The incident cast my mind back to the book I have been reading for my extended essay, ‘Animal Liberation’ by Peter Singer (I would really recommend his books for anyone interested in the moral position of animals within society, they’re really fascinating!) in which he talks about the replaceability of animals. Keeping animals for consumption, he states, according to a branch of utilitarianism, is moral. This is because (PROVIDED THAT they are kept in conditions which allow for their happiness on a daily basis) breeding these animals adds happiness to the world (the aim of utilitarianism), so as long as the animal killed is replaced by another in the same conditions, there is no net unhappiness. However, surely this can only be held for farm animals? This is my opinion because domestic animals are considered much like humans; they live with them, we name them and grow fond of them, they are often like a member of the family, and kept to increase our happiness and for the purpose of them living, not for being slaughtered for consumption. Debatably, humans are also brought into being for the same purpose. So, as the ‘purpose’, so to speak, of humans and domestic animals are similar, what is there to justify killing an animal who is sick without knowing their condition yet having the ability to verify it? In my opinion, it is difficult to find such a justification. If I had a baby who was sick (I chose a baby to illustrate my point as they, like animals, have little ability to express themselves) I would not wish that the baby die and that I have another who is healthy. I would wish for the survival of my current baby. In my opinion this logically should have been the situation with the cat.

It just seems unfair to me that the cat did not have a say in this. Obviously, cats never have a say, but sometimes it is much more obvious as to what they would wish to happen. If a cat is lying on the consultant room table looking seriously sick, and has been so for weeks, then it is highly reasonable to suggest that it may be the best option to end its life. Contrastly, sick as this cat probably was, it was walking around (between its odd noises) and enjoying the affection I was giving it as it rubbed its face against my hand. That, in my view, is not a total lack of happiness. There may still have been the will to live in that cat. Therefore (and I stress) if the reason was not mainly financial as it seemed to not be in the aforementioned case, then it does not seem justifiable to have put the cat down.

But I suppose there really is no objective answer to euthanasia cases such as these; ultimately it is the client’s decision… I just believe that an owner should take more care as to when and why their cat’s life is ended.

I must just outline that I have nothing against this owner at all, and fully appreciate that there may have been many other reasons behind her decision of which I am unaware; this was mainly a discursive and reflective discussion for interest only. I do not by any means believe that my view is necessarily the right or absolute one, and do not intend to offend any animal owners with my comments so am sorry if I have done so. I was just itching to talk about this because animal welfare is something I am really passionate about and it really made me consider how we should value our pets! It has also shown me the importance of people skills in practice, which all the unis stress but which can only really be understood in situations like these. So I thank the vet for that :)

Just a little nature ramble…

I went out for a bike ride this afternoon on the common, which we’re lucky enough to live two minutes from. On my way back, I spotted something amazing- wild rabbits! This may not sound so interesting for those who live in the country, but to see rabbits in London, and not just one but a whole family, is quite amazing.

In fact, my friend and I used to go cycling when we were younger just in search of these rabbits, and never did we spot so many at once if any at all, so I really wish she could have been there with me! They are so much smaller than domestic rabbits, mostly brown with white tails, and especially as they were next to a road I’m surprised they didn’t run away. I’m not sure how long I stood there for trying to get closer to them, but I certainly didn’t rush home! Being in an exploratory mood, I also investigated a rustling and spotted a tiny vole scurrying about amongst the leaves. Only today did I realise the variety of nature which is outside my front door.

It did make me consider becoming involved in conservation at some point later in life, or if I ever have to take a gap year. After all, without it, a significant amount of the beautiful natural species that we have would have disappeared. Perhaps I’ll do some research into the sumatran tiger progect that ZSL is pioneering at the moment, or volunteer there again, in that section of the zoo. I just hope that becoming a vet will aid me in getting involved in things like these!

Vet-Medlink

I think it would be appropriate to write my first entry on the very event that prompted me to start this blog, Vetlink at Nottingham University. What can I say: such a great week! I learnt so much and (as I had expected it would) it really reinforced my determination to become a vet. Always the keen note-taker, I filled up a whole notebook, so at least that way I will remember every last detail!

First was Pathology and Parasitology. I learnt the that the study of disease is not only applicable in the vet surgery during diagnostics, but also in necropsy, research and academia. What was outlined to me particularly was the problem solving aspect of pathology; every case has countless differential diagnoses which, through a process of testing and elimination, lead to eventual treatment. An example that the lecturer presented which particularly interested me was that of a racing greyhound who died on the track. His necropsy found extensive haemorrhage in the abdomen, thighs, brain and neck. This prompted the vets to investigate the lack of blood clotting, through which they discovered traces of bromadiolone in his liver. therefore his death was ultimately through hypovolemic shock. Needless to say, it would have taken me an extensive amount of time to even think of rat poison as a cause of a racedog’s death, as the obvious assumption of a protovet like me would be that the race itself caused his death, perhaps through overexertion.

This rat poisoning case casts my mind back to July 2011, when I spent a week in a rural vet practice in France and saw the short term treatment of a dog who ate rat poison: force feeding oxygenated water to cause vomiting before the poison is absorbed by the body. Only now do I fully understand the reason for this treatment, and the implications if it hadn’t been done! I was also told the following by the vet Sarah at the local vet I work at every friday: when I asked her one of my innumerable questions, “What is your favourite part of the job?” she explained excitedly that she loved solving problems in consult, and preferred it operations. I know appreciate the intrigue and satisfaction a vet can find in unveiling such seemingly far-fetched cause for disease, which I would love to (and am determined to) do myself one day. I will add to this blog later as there are so many things I’m dying to write on the conference, but for now I have to unpack!