Stop Importing Feral Dogs Before It Is Too Late

Well-meaning people all over the developed world are importing feral dogs from other countries, sometimes their near neighbours (continental Europe to the UK for instance) in the mistaken assumption that the dogs will have a better life as companion animals. No doubt that is true for some of them, but it is also true that very many are given no support in adjusting to a life for which they are not epigenetically conditioned and suffer long-term by becoming the classic boomerang dog, just being utterly miserable or eventually being euthanised anyway.

For every “heartwarming” story of a successful rescue (at least on the terms of the owners), there may be untold numbers of dogs who would have been much better off being left to fend for themselves in the way that 80% of the world’s dogs do. There has, quite rightly, been a furore over the way that dogs are treated when prepared for the meat trade in Asia, especially Korea. Although dogs have been raised for centuries as food animals, major annual festivals can result in companion animals being stolen and kept in extremely poor conditions leading up to and including slaughter. Quite apart from the fact that the way dogs are treated in countries that import these dogs leaves much to be desired, there is now a major risk of the spread of disease that affects humans and other animals and that could have devastating consequences.

The Bark recently reported on one such case.

A consignment of dogs was imported from South Korea into Western Canada last autumn to save them from being used in the meat trade. One dog was infected with the Asia-1 strain of canine distemper virus (CDV) which had not been reported previously in North America. It was 2 weeks before the dog showed any signs of being ill, during which time it could have not only come into contact with other dogs, including those shipped in the same consignment, but could have risked infecting wild animals with a strain to which they have no resistance. The dog was so ill that it was euthanised.

Dr. Edward Dubovi, Director of the virology laboratory at the Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Centre where the new strain was isolated and a Professor of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences Director summed it up when he stated that “Well-meaning people are trying to save animals, but when you move animals, you move their infectious disease. If this particular Asia-1 strain got out into the wildlife population, then it’s here forever, because you can’t get rid of it once it hits wildlife.”

It is not yet known whether the Asia-1 strain of the canine distemper virus has been contained. Dr Dubovi added “There’s probably a whole host of others things we haven’t tested for. If we aren’t looking for it, we aren’t going to find it until it’s too late.

A canine influenza virus first appeared in the Chicago area in 2015 and was also traced back to rescued Korean dogs. A recent canine influenza outbreak cost US dog owners $75 million for diagnostic testing and vaccinations, not to mention the effects on their dogs.

There is also serious concern that dogs imported from countries with lax attitudes to antibiotic use help to spread the extent of antibiotic resistance in humans and animals. Owners who then go on to feed raw food contribute even more to the spread of potentially lethal pathogens. Approximately 75% of new and emerging disease strains are zoonotic and could be transferred to humans.

Don’t think that it can’t happen closer to home. Canine distemper is similar to the measles virus and we have seen recently how serious measles outbreaks can be . Canine distemper killed thousands of seals in the Caspian Sea in 2000 and caused several fatal epidemics in jackals, African wild dogs and foxes within the Serengeti–Mara ecosystem of East Africa. A closely related virus then emerged abruptly in the lion population of the Serengeti National Park, resulting in a fatal neurological disease that resembled epilepsy; the lions that died also had encephalitis and pneumonia. The epidemic spread north to lions in the Maasai Mara National reserve, Kenya and affected an unknown number of hyenas, bat-eared foxes and leopards. It has re-emerged in Belgian wildlife, including badgers and foxes.

Between 20% and 50% of infected dogs die. CDV re-emerged in Finland in 1990 after a 16-year absence. 41% of the affected dogs had been vaccinated and 30% died. An estimated 5,000 dogs in total were affected. CDV can be transmitted to humans through direct contact with infected animals, their body fluids or faeces but the risk is low. CDV is already being imported in puppy farmed dogs and others and the increase in unvaccinated dogs risk spreading it.

A similar story is true of canine parvo-virus; an outbreak in the autumn of 2018 spread across the UK and is again being brought in on puppy farmed and other imported dogs.

These are just two examples but there are many more, including outbreaks of diseases not previously known in the UK such as “Alabama rot” (cutaneous and renal glomerular vasculopathy) and babesiosis, spread through infected ticks.

By all means campaign for better welfare for dogs all over the world but leave them where they are, for the sake of all animals.

Hidden In Plain Sight

I recently wrote about the seasonal dangers of hidden adders and oak processionary moths, but the Veterinary Poisons Information Service highlights a recently published paper reporting that there is a canine hazard hiding in plain sight – the common stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Two gun dogs developed signs of neurological toxicity after working in the same area on the same day. One was a seven-year-old castrated male springer spaniel weighing 18kg and the other a two-year-old spayed female Labrador retriever weighing 21 kg. The dogs presented with slightly different signs that included a skin reaction (urticaria), rapid, abnormal breathing (tachypnoea), hypersalivation, constricted pupils in both eyes, reduced ability to walk showing in all four legs, twitching muscles and decreases in normal reflex actions. One dog suffered three episodes over a three week period and the other just one. Both dogs made a complete recovery after veterinary treatment. Some dogs have been reported as circling and showing signs of gastrointestinal problems and collapse after exposure to stinging nettles.

Pretty much everyone will have been stung by nettles – was it just my dog who chose to defecate amidst nettles or brambles? They are also often a hazard when wearing short sleeved clothing when it is easy to brush against them on overgrown paths. Nettles grow hairs known as trichomes that contain, amongst other chemicals, histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin), all of which can cause toxicity in humans and other animals. Different species of nettle contain different concentrations of toxins and individuals vary in their susceptibility.

I am particularly interested in this report because I suspect that I might be particularly susceptible to at least one toxin. If I am stung, symptoms often persist over several days and flare up when I think that they have died down. I don’t know of anyone else that reacts in the same way.

So, it seems that we need to be cautious when our dogs are rooting around, seemingly unperturbed by nettles and perhaps consider it as a possibility if any of the above signs are seen following a walk or after a dog has been working in nettles.

This Year’s Crufts Controversies

Tragically, it seems inevitable that there would be something considering how little improvement we have seen in many suffering breeds and how entrenched poor breeding and judging still is.

In the show ring, Pedigree Dogs Exposed reports that the pug Eastonite Randy Andy won Best of Breed. I would like to think that one glance at this dog would make even the most ardent fan of snorting, brachycephalic dogs think that something was awry – literally – (I live in hope). Not the KC judges, however (I am not surprised).

The dog has severely stenotic nares and strabismus. In other words, it can barely breathe and it, again literally, cannot see straight because one eye is turned outwards permanently due to a shallow eye socket. The KC breed standard says that this dog’s eyes should be “full of fire” when it is excited. Maybe because it is so angry that humans keep on writing stupid rules and rewarding severe defects deliberately caused by in-breeding.

It is common knowledge that first cousin marriages in humans double the chance of severe birth defects in offspring. Various studies have proved that being born to a marriage of first cousins produces a one in sixteen chance of suffering from a congenital abnormality. First cousins have an in-breeding coefficient of 6.25%. If a grandfather produced an offspring via his granddaughter, their in-breeding coefficient would be 12.25% and father to daughter 25%.

Eastonite Randy Andy has an in-breeding coefficient of 19.8%. This compares to the breed average of 4.9%.

So much for the KC Pug Health Scheme. The KC Pug Information Pack says that “The Kennel Club will not register merle pugs, including those imported from overseas. This is because the merle gene in this breed carries an increased risk of impaired hearing and sight problems”.

True. However, the KC does not seem to worry that extreme in-breeding of registered dogs that are a “recognised” colour is just as likely to result in problems such as those presented in poor Eastonite Randy Andy, whose owners will no doubt use the BOB as a promotion to perpetuating his line as much as possible. The information pack does not even mention BOAS. Recent research, funded by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, found that half the dogs in the study of 189 pugs, 214 French bulldogs and 201 bulldogs were suffering from BOAS which was likely to shorten their lives by 3 years – approximately one third of their expected life span. That is equivalent to lopping nearly 27 years off the average life expectancy of a man in the UK purely because of deliberate in-breeding fuelling the demand for severely deformed dogs. 30% of affected dogs also have a tendency to regurgitate saliva or food in addition to not being able to breathe, frequent fainting and the ever-present danger that they will just die in their sleep.

Where the KC leads, others follow.

Royal Canin market so-called breed-specific food. Royal Canin say on their website “At Royal Canin, we believe that every dog is unique. We research breed-specific traits before combining scientific and nutritional research from our veterinarians and nutrition experts to create precise nutrition for your dog. Whatever your breed of dog, this range contains a multitude of formulas tailored to individual dog breeds. ”

“Whatever your breed of dog?” hardly. You’re catered for (literally) if you have a beagle, bichon frise, boxer, CKC spaniel, Chihuahua, Cocker spaniel, Dalmatian, dachshund, French bulldog, GSD, golden retriever, great Dane, JRT, Labrador, Maltese terrier, miniature Schnauzer, poodle (size not specified), pug, Rottweiler, Shih Tzu, WHWT or Yorkshire terrier. That leaves 196 of the UKKC “recognised” breeds untouched then, never mind the remaining 150 or so that the FCI “recognise”.

Royal Canin go on to state that their breed-specific food “…features high-quality protein sources, unique nutrients, and [is] designed with specific shape, size and texture for each dog’s facial and jaw structures and biting patterns.”

Unique nutrients? This amounts to a few more herbs here and a few more (unproven) nutraceuticals there by the looks of it.

I couldn’t find any detailed information on the UK website but the Australian site does have a breakdown of the breed-specific food. Some are more active and require joint support. Others need their appetites kept under control. Then there are those whose jaws make it hard to pick up kibble. These needs are why Royal Canin make specific breed-specific diets”.

Why would more active dogs require joint support? Surely a dog that is suitably stimulated and exercised just needs to eat well, not be stuffed full of prophylactic joint supplements. There is of course no control over owners who may feed additional supplements. This suggest that amounts in food are so low as to have little efficacy, not least given that there is no warning not to give additional supplements and there is no loading dose which would be the case if a vet prescribed them.

There is very little relaible information on the nutrient requirements of different breeds. Thus, breed-specific dog and cat foods may not contain breed-specific, optimum nutrient contents , never mind a suitable dose for an individual. There are definite breed-specific nutritional needs such as carefully formulated food for large breed puppies to control growth and prevent surplus weight damaging joints. Useless though if the dog is then over-exercised. Great Danes have a unique metabolism and require more calcium and protein than small and medium-sized breeds to ensure that their bones and muscles develop properly. Arctic breeds can suffer from zinc deficiency, Bedlington terriers can suffer from copper storage disease and both Bedlingtons and Great Danes are affected by copper and calcium toxicity at lower intake levels than other breeds.

That aside, the Crufts controversy was caused by Royal Canin’s marketing of “bulldog-specific” food. Now, as they point out in their marketing, severely brachycephalic dogs can find it very difficult to eat due to the poor conformation of their face and teeth and the fact that many are struggling to breathe simultaneously through their mouths (not a normal way of breathing for dogs) just to get enough air in to survive. Many struggle to even pick up kibble and are more prone to dental caries and related health problems because of the misalignment of their bite. The explosion in the numbers of such dogs being bred, registered by the KC or not, provides a potentially lucrative market for dog food companies, especially if they can convince owners to buy breed-specific food. The in-breeding coefficient of KC-registered bulldogs is 8.4%. Pretty grim, and much worse than the pug or the French bulldog (2.5%)

Royal Canin, official sponsors, compounded the issue by using a drawing of a severely brachycephalic dog to advertise their breed-specific foods at Crufts. The massive deformed face was flaunted on a giant banner until protests by vets and other concerned individuals obliged them to remove it and apologise. This occasioned the usual counter-protests from breeders who are perpetuating the phenotype but was not picked up to a great extent by other media. Perhaps it is a form of compassion fatigue because there are so many reasons for Crufts to raise the hackles of people genuinely concerned for canine welfare.

Minor in comparison, but an indication that poor practices are creeping into non-showing activities at Crufts was the acceptance of Rachel Ward’s Shimmer in the agility ring when it was dyed pink. Allegedly she was told to remove the dye but she clearly did not, and perhaps it is time for other disciplines to tighten their rules to prevent this sort of abomination being perpetuated.

Snakes In The Grass And Other Seasonal Dangers

As we see the final parting shots of a tepid winter, the warmer weather brings a couple of common dangers to parks, gardens and the countryside.

The oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) is a native of southern Europe that was accidentally introduced into the Britain in 2005 on oak trees imported from continental Europe. The first outbreak was identified formally in west London in 2006 and the latest data on its presence are available here. As with many invasive species, it is not a problem in its native environment because predators and other environmental factors have evolved to keep populations in check. It has now become a major pest in London where they not only threaten the health of many oak species but pose a danger to human and animal health too. The caterpillars are covered in thousands of tiny hairs which contain the urticating substance thaumetopoein as a defence mechanism to prevent the caterpillars form beaing eaten. Contact with the hairs can cause itching skin rashes, sore throat, breathing difficulties and eye problems in humans and animals that come into contact with the caterpillars or their nests or if the hairs are blown by the wind.

White, silken webbing nests are built in early summer on the trunks and branches of oak trees and white, silken trails can be seen on the trunks and branches, although they blend into the tree after time. Nests are hemispherical, tear-drop shaped, bag-like or like a blanket stretched around part of a trunk or branch and range in size from and inch and a half across to several feet from ground level to high in the oak tree. They can also fall onto the ground. The caterpillar gets its name from the nose-to-tail processions that they make, often in an arrow formation, with a single leader and subsequent rows of several caterpillars abreast.

The Forestry Commission and Defra are working with entomologists from the Forest Research agency and local authorities to eradicate popoulations and many parks spray annually. However, the Veterinary Poisons Information Service has advised on a case of a dog that mouthed plant material from a nest of processionary moth caterpillars and developed tongue necrosis. The damage to her tongue was caused by thousands of hairs penetrating the tissue and by a reaction to the toxic compound thaumetopoein. Signs after exposure in the mouth include hypersalivation, pain, dysphagia, oedema (lips, facial, sublingual, submandibular, tongue), facial pruritis, blisters and necrosis of the tongue, submandibular lymphadenomegaly, pyrexia, vomiting, laryngeal oedema, respiratory distress and cyanosis. There may also be a reaction in the skin and eyes. Prompt treatment is essential.

All cases or sightings of these caterpillars should be reported to the Forestry Commission (or 0300 067 4442) or the relevant local authority.

The adder (Vipera berus) is the UK’s only venemous snake and lives in woodland, heathland and moorland and is a grey/brown colour with a distinctive zig-zag pattern down its back and a red eye. Like most snakes, it mostly avoids people but dogs (and people) can be at risk from being bitten when they tread on snakes hidden in undergrowth or surprise one at close quarters. Although they usually hibernate between October to March, the recent unseasonally warm weather has resulted in four requests for assistance from the VPIS in the last week alone and other reports state that adders can be seen all year round in some parts of the UK. Bites generally happen around the legs, feet or face of a dog that may then exhibit rapid and painful swelling localised around two small puncture marks. Fang marks may not be visible under the swelling. This may progress to pale gums, salivating, lethargy and vomiting or diarrhoea. Bites can be fatal. the VPIS received notification of 101 cases of adder bites in dogs in 2015, five of which resulted in death.

If you suspect that your dog has been bitten, keep him calm and as quiet as possible to prevent the venom from circulating quickly in the bloodstream and get veterinary help immediately. Bites can be treated with just painkillers and anti-inflammatories but anti-venom is also available. This is a preparation designed for humans and may not be in stock in most vets, although they may be able to request a dose from another practice.

Memorial To Maly – A Ban On The Public Sale Of Fireworks

Nine years ago today I lost the dog of a lifetime. I didn’t even realise that he was until he was nearly half way through his life. Maly was a collie/shepherd, the offspring of an unplanned mating a friend’s dog and a reluctant acquisition on their part. My friend was in an abusive relationship that would contribute greatly to her early death. Much of the abuse spilled over to affect Maly, indirectly and directly. He began to look to me for comfort and assurance and frequently, regular exercise. As I became more aware of the domestic circumstances, I suggested that perhaps I take Maly on. At the time, I was freelancing as a professional performer and this was used as a, not unreasonable, excuse for refusal. Maly ended up becoming a piece of property which neither side would relinquish but which neither really wanted. Eventually my friend moved out of London, exacerbating her isolation and her domestic problems. She died just three and a half years later.

Knowing that she was terminally ill, she had asked me to take Maly but I had nothing in writing and, in spite of looking after her in her final months, her family shut me out at the last. Her partner and most of her family were drunk before they got to her funeral. I made the decision to simply walk off with Maly and take him back to London. I got him microchipped the next day and began the long, slow road to rehabilitating what was by then, a very traumatised 11 year old dog.

Maly died on his 16th birthday, just five years later. They were undoubtedly the best five years that I will ever have with any dog and all too short. In that brief time, he discovered a love of competing in shows, usually walking away with the trick class, being the brightest dog and fastest learner that I have ever encountered. He was Your Dog Golden Oldie of 2009 and I still get a thrill when his images are used in the magazine.

I had taken a job in a vet at the time Maly became very ill. I nursed him at home on a drip for five days and, on a gloriously sunny March 1st, exactly 16 years after he was born, knew that I could do no more. My colleagues, a vet and the senior nurse, came to my house and together we ended his life and took his still beautiful but lifeless body into the practice for storage.

The following days were ones of raw, agonising grief. I felt as if I were a fish that was being gutted alive. I woke myself up calling for him. I spent a long weekend in the country with friends staring at the sea for hours, numb with misery. If they hadn’t fed me, I doubt that I would have bothered to eat. I had dealt with many bereaved clients at the vet and discussed final arrangements with them. I knew that I could not bear for Maly to be reduced to ashes. I began to search for someone to set his skeleton.

It took weeks. I called museums and veterinary schools but it seemed that the few people who possessed the necessary skills had either retired or given up the work.

Then I found Luke Williams at Skeletons UK. Not only is Luke an extraordinarily talented young man whose work is in demand all over the world, he is one of the most sensitive people I have ever come across. He kindly picked me up from the station after an horrendous journey (apart from the emotional impact, taking a frozen dog on crowded trains without help is not to be recommended). We ended up in the pub sharing gallows humour as a release from all the tension, although I still shudder when I go through Birmingham station remembering how hard it was to transfer to the local train. He explained every step of the process and afterwards even sent me images in a book, keeping me updated throughout the months that the work takes. I was just about to ask Luke to preserve Maly’s heart, but he anticipated my wishes, enabling me to bury it in the garden of the house where he was born along with a ‘time capsule’ telling his story.

Finally the time came when my beautiful skeleton was ready. This time, I managed to get a lift there and back. Maly-bones now looks over my bedroom. I confess, I converse with him all the time and always rush in to see him when I have been away.

A year after he died, I took on a rescue Siberian Husky. I felt disloyal, guilty and sometimes even resentful of him for some time after. I deliberately took on a dog that I knew was in a bad way and was a huge handful as it left me less time to fret over my lost love. He died three months ago at a ripe old age, leaving another gaping hole in my life.

I have been longer without Maly him and miss my Sibe more than I ever thought possible. They have both led me to places and situations that I would not have imagined and I am now awaiting a successful mating that will lead to my new puppy.

Maly was a typical collie-type in that he was inherently noise-sensitive. 11 years of abuse added to his distress, and it took me a long three years of patient desensitisation and counter-conditioning to help him recover. I was proud as punch when he walked past a stand of guns with barely an anxious glance in their direction. Fireworks used to be a nightmare and I was profoundly grateful when my Sibe proved to be bombproof. He even slept through an attempt by a drunken, drugged woman to break down my front door in the early hours, including 20 minutes where she kept her hand on the (loud) doorbell continuously.

Most owners won’t be so lucky, which is why I’ve made a submission to the current parliamentary select committee enquiry into changing the law on fireworks. Pressure to restrict the sale and use of fireworks to organised, licensed displays has increased over the last few years and, in spite of refusing to act on it when last investigated, a new petition has triggered another enquiry. Please add your signature to the petition and add your voice to the enquiry submissions so that we can look forward to an autumn and winter without sleep-disturbed nights and trauma in our companion animals and wildlife.

The Great Insurance Gamble

The history of insurance begins well before the rise of capitalism when medieval merchants decided to hedge their bets against loss and theft. The modern insurance industry dates from the rise of industrialism in the eighteenth century, with London leading the pack. The first animal insurance policy is generally credited to Claes Virgi who founded the Länsförsäkrings Alliance in Sweden to insure horses and livestock in 1890. Sweden also created the first dog insurance policy in 1924. Britain didn’t follow suit until 1947, but now has the second-highest number of animals insured covering 23% of the non-equine companion animal population. By contrast, only 0.7% of the similar population of companion animals are insured in the US.

The principal behind insurance is of course a communal gamble. The insured population provides the pool of resources from which the members can claim according to the rules of the insurer. Thus, the scheme would not work without the element of a gamble in that paying in could be worth it but, from the insurer’s point of view, knowing that only a minority will claim otherwise they would make no profits and the scheme would eventually be bankrupt. Insurance of any sort is therefore constant arms race between providing enough to make the scheme seem worthwhile but not paying out too much so that the scheme collapses.

Companion animal insurance has also led to another “arms race” in that it has made available treatments that could not be dreamed of, even for humans, a few years ago but with a consequential rise in premiums to cover the huge cost of diagnostic technology, surgical interventions and pharmaceuticals as well as behavioural services and complimentary therapies such as hydrotherapy and TTouch. This is possibly beginning to lead to a decline in the number of people taking out health insurance as schemes become unaffordable and the risk of not being insured seems a better option.

Insurers use a variety of means to assess the likelihood of paying out on any given claim. This can lead to a wide variation in the rates of insurance as well as the excess levied (the amount that is payable by the insured person before they can claim on their policy). Excesses are fair in that it would be untenable for insurers to deal with comparatively petty claims but unfair in that they do not (and possibly cannot) take individual’s circumstances into account. Excesses can also be gambled on as some policies allow owners to choose the excess which will of course be reflected in the overall price. Quoting different rates according to breed is also not unreasonable. The owner of a brachycephalic dog for instance, is likely to make far more claims than the owner of a crossbreed with hybrid vigour. Risk also increases with age, so policies tend to get more expensive as the animal ages regardless of any claims, although this is sometimes hidden in policies that even out the cost across the duration of the policy. As with other forms of insurance, the comparative wealth of the population where the purchaser lives will affect the excess rates even if the individual has a low income as do the number of claims made in an area.

I myself am a typical example. Insurance rates for animals where I live are more than double that of other parts of the country. Although the exact details of how insurers work out rates are considered commercially secret, living in an area where the population is relatively affluent means that the locals are more likely to buy an expensive pedigree dog in the first place and more likely to buy insurance to cover fees that include referral services and para-professionals such as behaviourists. They may be better informed about the availability of such services and of course, more likely to have access as the services will be located where the clients are. This made insurance for my pedigree dog (bargain basement rescue!) out of the question for me. The sum that I was quoted for a 3½ year old dog represented 4% of my monthly income. Had I been earning the median income in the year in which I obtained the quote for the city in which I live, it would have represented just 2% and of course, even less for someone living in an affluent area on a much higher salary than the median. Consumer Intelligence data obtained from quotes between May 2017 and May 2018 found that the average annual premium for dog insurance costs UK owners a third of the amount that I was quoted in 2011.

It isn’t just dogs that cost more to buy initially that will affect the rates that insurers charge, but the relative availability of dogs from puppy farms and back street breeders who are extremely likely to need expensive care, as well as the popularity of severely brachycephalic and achondroplastic dogs amongst young, relatively affluent people. The more that in-breeding affects the supply of all dogs and the more that poorly bred dogs are crossed to provide a dog with “oodle” or “uggle” at the end of its name, the more expensive insurance will be for everyone. Obviously the type of insurance will affect the cost and, in general, you gets what you pays for. Accident only is probably the biggest gamble of all as it won’t pay out for illnesses that are the more-likely to occur. Time-limited insurance often comes as a shock to owners when their “cheap” policy turns out only to cover them for 12 months and their dog has a chronic problem. The nest gamble is to decide with on-time limited insurance what the maximum cap in any 12 month period per condition should be. A friend maxed out her insurance in a couple of weeks after her dog was bitten by an adder. Lifetime insurance is the most expensive up front but provides the most comprehensive cover as the cap is re-applied annually. It is the most effective for chronic conditions typically seen with age or in dogs with a particular susceptibility die to in-breeding. Premiums usually increase annually and that can be sharp as the dog enters higher age brackets. Companies also raise the excess which can be as much as 35% of the claim with a 9 year old dog. Not a problem if you have a giant dog who may not reach that age anyway, but a consideration for a breed or cross that may get well into double figures. Puppies are also more expensive to insure than adolescents as they are more likely to be accident-prone and as an effect of the prevalence of sickly puppy-farmed dogs. In addition, not all policies cover all conditions. Many consider essential dental work such as tartar removal to be “cosmetic” for instance. Not all pay for para-professional services such as hydrotherapy or behavioural consultations.

One of the litany of complaints levied at vets is that the “first question that they ask” is whether the animal is insured. I would be willing to bet that the actual first question is more along the lines of “What seems to be the problem?” However, the perception is that all vets are profiteering and will automatically offer the most expensive option if they know that the animal is insured. How many owners consider that the vet may temper the options according to whether they think that the owner will be able to afford the treatment so as not to make they fret if they cannot afford a more complex alternative? No vet should offer more intervention than is deemed necessary to treat the presenting condition, although of course, they may offer less for clinical as well as financial reasons, with the option to progress if no improvement is seen. Of course vets want to use their skills to give animals in their care every chance but they also have to deal with the real world and know that cost is a consideration in addition to welfare. Opinion among vets and owners differs widely as to how much intervention is desirable.

Having just lost a dog myself, I know how agonising it can be to have to weigh up costs as well as clinical and ethical considerations. That is not just the cost of treatment but the cost of aftercare following intervention including time that may be lost from earning or to look after a very sick dog or to pay back a loan. There are no guarantees that intervention will be successful but the cost will remain to be paid and may affect the ability to own another dog. The only illness that my dog had in the 7½ years that he lived with me was the terminal one that was diagnosed a few weeks before his death which was well within the bounds of the average for his breed. So, in the event, the cost of insurance would not have been worth it. Some of that was due to luck and some to judgment in the decision to buy that dog in the first place and the care and training that he had that made him less prone to accident, illness and disease.

Clinical and ethical considerations would always come first for vet (save for the rare criminally irresponsible individual) and owner but it would be untrue to pretend that money is not an issue for both. As to insurance, it may well be that the balance tips away from favouring insurers if fewer people can afford the products. In that case, it is possible that insurers will offer ever-more complex products in which case – caveat emptor.

At the end of the day, animal insurance has been beneficial to owners, animals and veterinary and human science in general but it, like owning a companion animal is a relative luxury that, like all luxuries, must be weighed in the balance before undertaking.

The Legacy of Dr Sophia Yin

The end of the Year of the Dog also marked the birthday of the late Dr Sophia Yin. Dr Yin is perhaps better known in the US than here in the UK, although her influence on dogs and other animals was global. She was a tireless advocate for non-aversive training for humans and other animals and worked with owners and other professionals to make handling feral, captive and companion animals easier, safer and kinder for them and their handlers. Every time that I see a vet, show judge, groomer, trainer or owner manhandle an animal, I want to make them watch one of Sophia’s videos or at least read her books.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

Dr Yin not only pioneered co-operative handling techniques, she publicised them and started when she was still in veterinary school: her fellow students actually bought copies of her notes which became The Small Animal Nerdbook and which is still being used by students. This was the start of Cattle Dog Publishing.

Whilst Dr Yin’s legacy lives on, her innovative presence is no longer able to inspire in person. Sophia Yin, like many in the veterinary world, was very driven and seemingly very self-critical. In some ways, these qualities are essential for survival in a very competitive field where the demands never slacken, but the toll can be immense. Like too many of her colleagues, Dr Yin committed suicide on September 28th, 2014 at the age of 48.

In the UK where we are not used to paying at source for healthcare, the cost of veterinary treatments can seem excessive. Owners know little of the actual costs incurred by veterinary practices and, because they deal with companion animals, often seem to think that it should be undertaken at cost. Veterinary staff are constantly accused to their faces of profiteering and, having been on the sharp end of many an owner’s tongue, I can promise that it becomes very wearing. No one is obliged to own an animal but, once undertaken, owners have a duty of care. They expect the best professional support but complain about paying for it. Most vets earn far less than owners assume and work very long, very stressful hours. They must always be at their best because their patients’ wellbeing and often lives depend on it and their “bedside manner” is key to the success of the business. Their task is far more complex than that of a GP because of the number of species with which they have to deal and they also have to work within a commercial environment. Yes, they chose to do it but many other people chose their careers without the expectation that they should do it for the “love” and take the abuse to boot.

The mean UK salary for newly-qualified vets is £31,000. This rises to £43,200 following further training in small animal practice and is slightly higher in large animal practices at £44,184 where the on-call demands and poor working conditions can be far worse. Senior vets with more than 20 years’ experience can earn up to £72,360 as employees. The British Veterinary Association found that since student fees rose to £9,000 per annum in 2012, the expected debt for a UK vet graduate was £57,092. This had increased from the £20,000 expected debt faced in the year before fees were hiked. In addition to the difficulty of getting that all-important first job without experience, newly qualified vets not only have to pay all of the usual living expenses and service their student loan, they will be obliged to undertake continuing professional development. Courses are not cheap and are not always paid for or subsidised by employers. All practising veterinary surgeons and registered veterinary nurses must complete the minimum CPD requirement of 105 hours in any three-year period with an average of 35 hours per year for vets and 45 hours in any three-year period with an average of 15 hours per year for registered nurses, regardless of whether they are working full-time or part-time. Many professionals undertake considerably more than this.

Most owners will see vets in the context of small animal practice where vets do not have the livelihood of owners to consider when treating animals but instead need to cope with the huge emotional toll of illness and euthanasia as well as the joys of new animals and routine checks, often in busy, pressured environments and less than ideal facilities.

All this takes a toll. The veterinary profession has frequently had the highest rate of suicides amongst monitored professions in the UK, with women often being affected disproportionately. The US is no different.

We may not be able to influence the economy directly but we can all play a part in making vets’ lives’ easier by recognising that they operate in a commercial environment and that we need to pay a fair rate for the privilege of owning animals and for access to the increasingly sophisticated facilities that they offer. Their motivation is not to rip owners off and, when they offer you the best treatment available, it is because they also want the best for you and your animal.

Let’s us do two things to honour the life of Sophia Yin:

Co-operate with our companion animals instead of coercing them

Make sure that we do nothing to contribute, even in a tiny way, to anything that would make another vet even contemplate suicide.

Perhaps there is a third thing: find out about Vetlife and how they support veterinary professionals and their families when depression and suicide strike and maybe consider making a donation.

Goodbye Year of the Dog

As the Chinese Year of the Dog is about to yield to the year of the Pig, it seems a fitting time to review the way that 2018 affected dogs’ lives, for better and for worse.

Estimates of the dog population in the UK vary according to the source, but are approximately 9 million, with just over a quarter of the population owning a dog and a similar number owning a cat, noticeably more than have at least one child under the age of 16 years old (18.9%). The percentage of the population owning a dog has being relatively stable for some time, whereas the percentage likely to have children is projected to decline. It is to be hoped that this may result in commercial pressure to improve access for dogs to everything ranging from accommodation, temporary or permanent, to transport and the countryside.

The commodification of dogs continues apace and there continues to be serious problems with the sheer number of dogs being bred and imported as well as being relinquished. The Dogs Trust Stray Dogs survey has yet to be published for 2018, but there is nothing to suggest that there will be significant improvements in numbers. The Dogs Trust received 277 rehoming requests in the week leading up to Christmas alone and January 2018 saw them take a total of 5,000 requests.

The BVA advise against importing dogs from abroad and campaign for current EU Pet passport conditions to be tightened because of the increased prevalence of disease (including zoonotic diseases) from even legally imported dogs. 93% of companion animal vets reported to the BVA that the number of imported dogs increased in 2018. 40% had seen new or rare conditions in practice associated with imported dogs with the potentially fatal zoonotic disease leishmaniosis being mentioned by 27% of the vets surveyed.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the UK may be treated as an unlisted country as a result of Brexit and the government has published contingency plans regarding travel after March 29th, 2019. Negotiations are continuing regarding treating the UK as a listed or unlisted third country for pet travel purposes. At the moment, the advice is to contact a vet at least four months before the intended date of travel. The BVA has also listed a statement.

Lack of resources and other priorities at border controls mean that an unverified, but huge, quantity of dogs continue to be imported illegally to fuel demand with many owners rejected by domestic re-homing organisations seeking dogs from abroad, often assisted by unqualified ex-pats establishing unregulated “rescue” centres. Illegal imports from Hungary alone are estimated to have increased by 761% since 2014 and Lithuania 663%. Just 1,117 illegally imported puppies were intercepted in the UK between 2016 and 2018. Vets in the UK and abroad some just hours after purchase. 16.6% of dogs were purchased online in 2017. Website Gumtree announced on August 7th, 2018, that it would impose a fee of £2.99 on anyone trading animals on their site. Not much of a deterrent when prices of up to four figures are being demanded and there is no way of verifying the seller’s details, except to say that trading of live animals online should never be considered as being legitimate. The UKKC estimated that 33% of puppies bought online had become ill or died in their first year.

On a positive note, new licensing legislation enacted in October is to be welcomed, although it is unlikely to be effective as resources required to enforce it continue to be diminished. The long-awaited proposed legislation to ban third party sales of puppies and kittens and to ban the use of aversive “training” collars was not enacted and fears continue that the current parliamentary shenanigans will mean that neither may come to pass. The last public announcement on the collar legislation was made in August 2018 and on the third party sales ban in December 2018.

Financial uncertainties and realities mean that there is not likely to be a significant improvement in the numbers of responsible dog owners who obtain dogs after conducting suitable research, train them and take optimal care of their welfare. Few owners have a clue about their legal obligations and most are likely to get away with breaking the law on a daily basis, whether that is not putting their dog on a lead, not picking up or not having a legal collar tag on when out in public. Political decisions made over the next few days and weeks may unwittingly curb the number of dogs imported and have a positive effect on the transmission of diseases by dogs that have travelled abroad.

Watch this space.

Yet Another Raw Food Recall

In the dying days of 2018, the FSA announced yet another recall of commercially prepared raw food due to the presence of dangerously high levels of salmonella.

The aptly-named “Just Natural” range highlights, however unintentionally, that pathogens are just as naturally occuring as nutrients in raw food. The company has been forced to admit that the dangers posed include handling and serving raw food and cleaning of utensils and feed bowls when pathogens can be spread widely. This is of course in addition to the pathogens shed and spread by animals consuming raw food. Cross-contamination of foods and surfaces can also happen if raw food is not stored or defrosted separately and if hands are not washed thoroughly. Even then, the risks will always be much higher than with cooked food and extend well beyond the household in which the products are used.

Keeping Your Dog Secure Is Not Just For Christmas

Dog theft has been on the increase for some time with thieves understanding exactly the amount of blackmail they can levy for the emotional distress suffered by owners.

DogLost has just circulated an alert about a scam that has seen 70 incidents reported to police across the country and that seems to be prevalent in Mersyside. Of course, it is imopssible to know how many incidents have not been reported, not least because drastic cuts to policing throughout the country make reporting difficult and make people feel as if it is not worth reporting anything if they think that no effective action will be taken.

The Insurance Emporium examined reported dog thefts between 2015 and 2017 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, finding a general rise of 2% in England and wales and a drop of 25% in Northern Ireland. The most commonly stolen dogs in 2017 were:

  • Staffordshire bull terriers
  • Crossbreeds
  • French bulldogs
  • Chihuahuas
  • Jack Russell terriers.

Yorkshire and the north-west of England had by far the highest incidences of recent dog theft in England and Wales, perhaps reflecting relative poverty as well as the distribution of dog ownership across the country. Wales had by far the lowest, again reflecting the relative distribution of population and dog ownership. West Midlands police recorded a 24% fall in reported thefts between 2016 and 2017, while the East Midlands force reported a 43% rise. Again, this only reflects the thefts that were reported, not necessarily the prevalence.

The Campaign group Pet Theft Awareness are calling for relatively minor changes to existing legislation to assist in preventing theft and in making the offence more serious, which could also lead to tougher sanctions on conviction.

Many vets will automatically scan patients and owners can and should ask for chips to be checked as they can fail or migrate, although this is rare. However, the resistance of the BVA amongst others to making this compulsory is not unfounded. It is not reasonable to expect vets to take on the duties that should be undertaken by dog wardens because it blurs the line between clinical care and policing and could place the vet in a position of expending a great deal of (unpaid) time if an animal is indeed suspected of being illegally imported or stolen.

It is important therefore, that we continue to put pressure on government at all levels to make adequate provision for supporting existing legislation with adequate resources, not least the new requirements introduced in October.

As ever, the best remedy is prevention:

  • Keep your microchip details up to date (this is a legal obligation)
  • Make sure that you have a correctly inscribed tag on your dog’s collar and that your dog always wears a collar and tag when out (this is a legal obligation unless you have a dog that is working by herding, hunting or picking up game)
  • Neuter unless you have a very good reason not to so that your dog is less attractive to potential puppy farmers
    (clinical, showing etc)
  • Be on your guard if asked about the cost of your dog or the gender and tell the enquirer that your dog is neutered
  • Train for reliable recall and reinforce periodically
  • Supervise your dog as much as possible and ensure that doors, fences and gates are secure by checking regularly for damage and keeping your dog in sight during building works or if doors could be left open by visitors
  • Don’t leave your dog unattended in a garden even if in a kennel
  • Don’t leave your dog unattended in public, including in a car.

Take responsibility for keeping your dog safe and secure – and not just at Christmas.

If the worst happens and your dog is stolen, report it to police and to DogLost and do not be tempted to pay a ransom or accede to another demand such as collecting the dog. If your dog is insured, you may find that your insurers will cover the cost of publicity and some even provide templates. You can also take out enhanced cover from some microchip companies that provide this service.