Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tokyo Kittens and Urban Cowboys.

The words and phrases we use tell a lot about how we think about our pets. I meet owners whose fluffy bundle of joy has come from a "rehoming centre". Pets in these centres get a second chance because animal welfare advocates, in theory match animal to owner. A "rehomed" dog is implicitly part of the family."Adoption centres" are widespread. "Adoption" has a legal-sounding tone with connotations of responsibility and provision of care. "Dog Pounds" have austere echoes in our minds. They are the last chance saloon,akin to prison's death row for strays in which searching owners are in a race against time.Ten days is the usual grace period given in Ireland's crowded pounds before a dog is euthanased unless claimed.

What is significant about the words rehoming and adoption is their link to children. They have a borrowed use in animal welfare where it is understood that animals,like children inhabit our world and are our dependents. But the commonest term used in animal welfare,"rescue" is the most emotive of these words. Whether a "rescue dog" or a "rescue centre",there are negative connotations about the animal's previous relations with humans. Rescue dogs which are saved into new homes from neglect, abuse or euthanasia,are a growing phenomenon because animal abuse and neglect remains part of society.

In some countries vets encountering non-accidental injury such as obvious cruelty or neglect to an animal are legally obliged to report this.The reason why was illustrated this week by a story in the New York Times linking animal abuse to same household abuse of family members. Youngsters with "aggressive conduct disorder"(sic), according to research the NYT cited, become desensitised to cruelty and suffering by practice of animal abuse. Researchers looked at MRI scans of groups shown images of pain and suffering. Troubled youngsters within the study exhibited heightened activity in the brain's "reward centre" while viewing cruelty and abuse. The report concluded that some people have impaired systems of empathy and crucially that part of the brain involved in self-regulation switches off as empathy is eroded.

This report is not the first of its kind.Many serial killers began in their childhood with animal cruelty. Animal abuse is now in fact proven to be gateway behaviour which on a continuum of sociopathic relations with sentient beings is a stage towards cruelty to humans. There are also hopeful studies that have shown how empathy can be rekindled by caring for animals. Learning to relate to sentient beings such as horses can improve damaging behaviours towards humans. Equine therapy programs where teenagers muck out, groom horses and learn to ride are now common in urban areas all over the world including Ireland and form part of accepted interventions for troubled teens.

Why then are punishments and sentences for animal abuse and neglect not more severe? Animal life is valued so much less than human in our value system and perhaps rightly so. But proof of a behaviour gateway to murder, rape, domestic violence and child abuse strengthens the argument for severe addressing at source of sociopaths and violent criminals. This approach is an auhoritarian view of crime and punishment. But consider the problem from the liberal perspective. If you believe that most abusers can be rehabilitated, deserve a second chance and that early interventions can and do work, the question becomes this.Why are equine therapy programs,empathy building programs involving animal companionship, NOT a widespread and integral part of our legal justice system? The reason why not is because that debate is ongoing and unresolved. Prison rehabilitates some, if not others. Intervention programs help some also, if not others. And the most draconian penalties, even the ultimate capital penalty fail to provide an ultimate deterrent to some perpetrators of heinous violent crime.

I believe piecemeal interventions and a prison service which attempts rehabilitation in an authoritarian environment are only reactive answers to violent crime. We know animal contact helps us learn moral behaviour and build empathic relationships therefore schools should provide pet interactions or even contain small pet zoos. Young offenders institutions could teach dog grooming and animal training. Prisons could incorporate responsible pet care as therapy for recovering addicts and for those most socially disconnected. Meanwhile new large stable yards as equine therapy centres in the worst urban areas of the country should be properly funded. The urban cowboys of West Dublin, Ballymun, Limerick city have a culture already of horse ownership which it would be easy to officially endorse and build on. The earlier the young bareback riders of deprived urban areas can be helped swap kalashnikov for saddle and whip the more likely that cycles of feuds and poverty can be broken.

The case for rehabilitation by animal therapy is more than a liberal do-gooder delusion.There is a need in people which animal companionship can satisfy.Peata is an Irish organisation which brings pets on visits to nursing homes, hospitals and hospices where patients are shown to benefit medically from regular contact with dogs. Peata can be reached through the DSPCA.

Overcrowded urban living paradoxically enforces isolation. The need for animal companionship can be as powerful as the need for contact with other humans. In the city of Tokyo where cramped apartment dwelling is the norm, pet ownership is problematic. To fill the void Kitten Cafes have sprung up which are "staffed" by cats and kittens ready to play with customers who pay by the hour. Kitten Cafes can also provide customers with a "doggie date" as they can rent you a dog for an hourly-rated walk or play date.This type of pet ownership by proxy is a Japanese solution to an urban Japanese problem.What void would a "doggie date" fill in a Tokyo commuter's life? Perhaps the gunslingers of Moyross and Southill experience the same void and could be helped by equine or pet therapy interventions.Make love not war or trade ponies not bullets?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Urban foxes and Urban legends.

The story of twin girls in a UK suburb who were savaged in daylight by a fox while asleep in their cots in an upstairs bedroom, filled a large slot in the news cycle this week. Urban foxes are part of the landscape and fauna of Britain nowadays. Recent wildlife census estimates a population density of 30 foxes per square mile in urban Britain. This is significantly higher than some population densities in the wild. In cities we now hear of humans and foxes interacting in closer and closer ways. Our relationship with this native wild species is thus changing.

Foxes are large predators who live on worms,beetles, mice,voles,birds and by scavenging.They are known to avoid human contact and are normally nocturnal in their habits. In the urban landscape foxes have no natural predator,if human hunters and pest control are taken out of the equation. Their habitat has dramatically altered in 100 years or so of urban sprawl.The British whose landscape once was parkland, forest and farmland are now essentially an urban people. How rapidly has the fox evolved to adapt to this change?

Perhaps our expectations about fox behaviour need to change to take into account its evolved lifestyle, instincts and even diet in an urban landscape. Householders in the UK now put food out for foxes at the end of their gardens and are forced to weigh down wheelie bin lids. Disposable nappies,filled with human excrement are a favoured target. Foxes are now known to enter kennels to eat dogfood, kitchens to eat catfood. Fast food outlets which throw out vast quantities of food are favourite gathering places for urban foxes.If they no longer fear humans as predators then it may not be long before the fox sees us as prey.

In common with foxes, urban living has separated humans from our predators. On first hearing of this fox attack on human babies I doubted it's veracity. The likelihood is that a young fox was attracted by the smell of freshly soiled nappy into the sleeping babies' cot. The injuries probably occurred as the startled fox struggled to leave the cot after the babies woke. But to have entered through patio doors, crept upstairs into a bedroom and then to climb into a cot, undeterred by human scents? This scenario implies an individual fox lacking the inhibition expected of its species. Is it hysterical to fear this mix of new brazenness and native cunning?

Foxes do not have a genetic history of centuries of coexistence on the edge of domesticity with humans as feral cats do.Domestic felines revert to feral with ease when survival instincts dictate.Dogs of course are wholly domesticated.Our pampered pooches, even the macho ones, bear little resemblance to the wild pack animal which was their ancestor. Yet even pet dogs can sometimes attack and even kill humans. Attacks which occur often when humans neglect to train their dog and assert the proper pecking order.

These isles which were thronged with wolves, bears and even large cats are now home to just one species of feral canine-the fox. Other indigenous wild species died out over thousands of years of whittling numbers and changing environment. Yet the fox has thrived through seismic habitat changes wrought in a mere 200 years since the onset of the industrial revolution.To survive these changes the laws of natural selection infer that today's fox must have evolved into a very different species from its pre-industrial forebearer. Our relationship and assumptions about foxes are formed from our tradition as farmers and hunters where the animal's fear of people is the key dynamic. If we no longer hunt the fox and we domesticate ourselves beyond recognition, surely that fear dynamic which works to OUR advantage could crucially alter.

We now live cocooned in concrete and no longer kill by our own hand to survive. Instead we rely on remotely processed produce which we eat from plastic. We forget that natural eco-systems are not stopped by the city lines.We dont live in a bubble. After hurricane Katrina, crocodiles were caught in the flooded streets of New Orleans. Alligators are said to live in the sewers of some cities in the deep south of USA. When pet owners die in locked homes their hungry pets will eat their masters to survive.In April this year a particularly brazen fox crossed a frozen lake, scaled a fence and entered an island compound to kill 12 flamingoes in Helsinki Zoo.Wild foxes are showing exceptional ability to evolve and adapt to whatever environment and food sources are available.

As a Vet I have taken an oath to work for the care and welfare of the animal kingdom. I am however a farmer's son. My link with my rural past is only one generation broken. All farmers know there are inherent dangers in working with horses, dogs, cats or in close contact with livestock. Indeed any Vet would agree that the wild instincts of all companion animals should be treated with caution. In our interactions with nature we rely on a pecking order that we impose on animals, not by brute force but by millenia of conditioning and control. The majority of people now in the UK are six or more generations removed from rural life and the familiarity with animals that rural living gives. Those who put food out for foxes at the ends of their gardens are part of an altering dynamic,an evolving natural order and are sending mixed messages to this wild animal on the edge of domesticity. Sending mixed messages will have mixed results.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Epileptic Boxers and Tripping Cavaliers- a word about seizures.

We have seen unusually high numbers of dogs presenting to us at both clinics in recent weeks either during or after seizure episodes. Full-blown seizures are dramatic and sudden in onset. This lack of warning and the violence of the convulsions mean that pet owners are often as distressed by the time they have reached Kildare Vet Surgery as the dogs themselves.

Epilepsy,a word we are all familiar with, is used to describe the syndrome of repeated seizures. It is often genetically inherited in dogs and can occur at almost any age but usually manifests between one and three years old. Secondary epilepsy is the term used to describe seizures triggered by any underlying cause such as liver disease, cardiac disease, metabolic disorder or other neurological disease such as meningitis or meningoencephalitis. Not all seizure cases will be epileptic. Nor indeed will all primary epileptic dogs develop full blown seizures especially if diagnosed early.

As I write this I am conscious that these paragraphs diverge from my usual style of(hopefully) accessible and not too reverent commentary and stray into the jargon of the science journal. This tends to happen when so-called experts are discussing topics of which quite a lot remains unknown.A great word we love to use is idiopathic which literally means "we dont know". In fact the next time you hear a scientist,politician,banker or economist baffling your eardrums with corporate esperanzo you can be sure they either dont know what they're talking about or dont want you to know.

So why would cases of seizure be any more common now than usual? One reason is certainly that we know seizures are triggered. Stress of any sort and changes in weather have both been identified as trigger factors. It's not too fanciful to think that animals in the current zeitgeist have picked up on some of their owners stress. During the recent good weather I have seen cases of latent primary epilepsy triggered by this heat wave and have also found that heat stroke can present to us as a kind of pseudo-seizure.

Precise data on the incidence of epilepsy is not available. But best estimates cite figures of between 1 percent and up to 5 percent of dogs suffer from epilepsy. Figures at the higher end definitely apply to some breeds. As much as 5 percent of Boxers are believed to suffer seizures. While the unfortunate Cavalier King Charles breed which has been the subject of controversy over selective breeding for it's unnatural head shape also have an above average incidence of seizures, epileptic or otherwise.

Treatment protocols for true epilepsy in animals are more limited than the human equivalents. But are relatively simple and successful. Once a diagnosis is confirmed we can often reassure pet owners by giving a quite favouable prognosis. The work will be ongoing. Treatment is continuous and dosages of medication will be modified regularly in the first year after diagnosis. We will be guided by both quarterly blood tests and the feedback we get from owners on how their pet has responded to the meds.

The tests we need to undertake to rule out a whole range of possibles before diagnosing primary idiopathic epilepsy are in themselves the best advert for Pet Insurance. At the end of all that ruling out our drug options generally narrow down to three namely valium, potassium bromide and phenobarbital. The trick however is often in the dosage and in the mix of all three. After that it's down to you the owners to live with your epileptic dog. Become good at giving pills!