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BBC’s Trust Me I’m A Vet – informative educational television let down by poor scientific technique

The first series of Trust Me I'm A Vet on BBC2 was anticipated with hopeful curiosity by vets and pet owners. With the BBC's reputation for good quality science, and the direct input of vets in practice working closely the UK veterinary schools, this was an exciting opportunity to spread good quality information about pets and veterinary science. This type of prime time public education has the potential to make a serious difference to people's knowledge about animals and so consequently to improve the quality of care that pets get from their owners. So after the three episodes that made up the first series, did the programme live up to expectations?

Interesting and informative television

Each programme lasted an hour, including different aspects of pet care presented in novel ways. These included experiments designed by the BBC team, reports on new veterinary research, interactions with groups of pet owners to highlight important topics,  discussions with experts on specific areas of interest, and coverage of clinical surgery to showcase some new, innovative ways of treating pets. The programmes were easy to watch, with articulate, engaged veterinary presenters, plenty of shots of cute animals, and skilled editing to keep the segments short and snappy enough to avoid people losing interest. Trust Me I'm A Vet highlighted some areas of pet care that, to date, have gone under the radar of the general public, including:   Each of these segments provided a useful update for viewers about our current understanding of pets, performing a valuable public education role.

New treatment techniques presented in a compelling way

The segments that showcased new treatment methods were remarkable and eye opening:
  • The brain surgery to remove the pituitary tumour that's involved in the one-in-four cats that suffer from diabetes
  • The nerve-stimulating implant that allows a paralysed Dachshund's bladder to empty when his owner presses a button on a remote control
  • A new surgical technique that can cure a common nerve-related disorder of horses

The science sections "could do better"

With the BBC's track record of high quality science programmes, expectations were high for Trust Me I'm A Vet's science segments.  The topics chosen for study were relevant and interesting, but loose experiment design and limited information about the results left these subjects wide open to public criticism which undermined the overall success of the new series.

Research results

  • In the first episode, commercially produced pet foods were criticised for having lower than the recommended levels of minerals. However there was no detail given about how low the levels were (1% too low or 30%?)nor about the specific likely consequences. This left viewers worried and confused.
  • In the third episode, it was hinted that kidney disease in cats may be linked with arsenic levels, and that diets including fish could be a source of arsenic. Pet owners were then told to "feel less cat food containing fish". Again, there was a lack of certainty, without specific facts and figures, and rather than feeling informed and updated, cat owners were left feeling uncertain and anxious.

Experiments by the presenters

The Trust Me I'm A Vet presenters carried out some interesting experiments to highlight different aspects of pet care: this is a tremendous idea, but poor implementation of the concept meant that it failed to live up to its potential.
  • In the first episode, a trial was undertaken comparing different methods of home dental care for dogs. This simple trial demonstrated that tooth brushing was more effective than either specially formulated tooth-cleaning kibble or the daily use of dental-cleaning chew treats. However viewers were left wondering about the benefits of the latter two methods compared to "doing nothing". The simple inclusion of a "doing nothing" group as a negative control would have been a simple and useful modification of experiment design.
  • The first episode also ran a comparison of different methods of environmental flea control. This was a missed opportunity for public education: first, the presenter glossed over the topic of "spot on flea products", neglecting to point out that these vary widely, from half-effective herbal drops available in supermarkets and pet shops to the latest, most recently developed flea and tick killing products available on prescription from vets. And second, the trial only measured the ability of the household treatments to kill adult fleas, neglecting to mention the importance of insect growth regulating inhibitors to ensure that dormant flea eggs don't hatch into hungry young fleas in two or three months time.
  • In the second episode, feeding raw food to dogs was critiqued by taking swabs from the empty bowl and from the tongue of dogs fed on raw meat diets. The profusion of bacteria cultured, including pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, was highlighted. It was not made clear that there was a control group, with many viewers believing that the trial had only been carried out on the raw feeding group. It can be difficult to get clear messages across on television, where time is of the essence, but especially when tackling controversial topics like raw food, it's essential to strongly emphasise details like this so that it is made clear to viewers
It would have been easy to modify these segments of the programmes to avoid these deficiencies: some thoughtful planning is all that would have been needed.

Future episodes of Trust Me I'm A Vet?

The BBC's programme format has shown itself to be a useful vehicle to highlight areas of concern, and to educate and inform the public about compelling areas of animal health and welfare. There are many other areas that deserve to be featured in the future: here are some ideas:
  • Pedigree dog health, including the advances in genetic screening of breeding dogs, the challenge of improving breeds with poor conformation and a demonstration of how the Kennel Club is successfully using computerised technology to choose optimal breeding pairs
  • Farm animal welfare, including issues like tail biting in pigs, dairy cow lameness, femoral head necrosis in chickens and many more
  • Ineffective herbal treatments masquerading as effective medicines using carefully chosen language on labels
  • Cover Your Ass veterinary care (doing every test that can be done to "cover your ass" as a vet, even when the vet may know in their heart of hearts that it isn't really necessary, but they want to avoid criticism of their work up, and want to reduce the possibility of being sued for some sort of negligence)
  • Upselling of pet products and services by some vets: does this happen, and if so, what can the public do about it?
  • Vaccine boosters: the truth about what's necessary, from vaccine choice to serology testing - a science based analysis
Are there any areas of pet care and veterinary science that you'd like to see covered? If so, please add these to the comments section below.
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Why does the MP’s report on animal welfare want to muzzle the RSPCA?

Last month's EFRA Select Committee Report on Companion Animal Welfare came up with some excellent recommendations to improve the welfare of pets in the UK. More controversially, the report also recommended that prosecution powers should be withdrawn from the RSPCA, and this is what made headlines in the newspapers. Yet when the composition of the committee is looked at in detail, perhaps this is no surprise.
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Urgent call by vet profession to stop suffering of brachycephalic dogs and cats

The Pug in the photo below may look "cute", but when you look closely, you'll see that there's a dark circle in the centre of his throat. This is a permanent tracheostomy which had to be surgically created because the unfortunate animal was unable to breathe properly through his nose and mouth. He had started to collapse, suffocating, when he went about his normal daily activities. The tracheostomy was needed to stop him from dying a frightening, choking death.
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Caring for your new rabbit – essentials for proper bunny welfare

Did the Easter bunny come this year?  Not the imaginary kind that drops off chocolate, the real kind that lives for 10 years or more and deserves to have a better life than being trapped in a hutch at the bottom of the garden.  If they did, or you are thinking of getting one, here’s my guide on how to care for them.

Diet

The majority of problems that vets see in rabbits are related to an inadequate diet.  So, if you get their food right, you will give your pet the best chance of a healthy life!

The mainstay of a rabbit’s diet should be hay and every day they should eat a pile as big as they are. Rabbits have teeth that are constantly growing and chewing on hay keeps them in good shape.  One of the most common issues for rabbits is sharp, overgrown teeth that can be so painful they stop eating altogether. Hay is also vital for healthy digestion, particularly important in rabbits for whom diarrhoea can be fatal.

Rabbits should also have a handful of fresh food everyday and a small amount (a tablespoon at most) of hard, pelleted food.  Avoid the museli mixes as these allow your pet to pick out their favourites and become short on vital vitamins.  For the majority of their day, your rabbits bowl should be empty (just like a dog or cat!), so they only have their hay to nibble on.

Vaccinations

All rabbits should be vaccinated annually against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD).  These are both fatal and vaccination is the only protection.  The injections can be given from 8 weeks of age.  This visit to the surgery is also an opportunity for your vet to ensure your new pet is healthy and for you to ask any questions.

Neutering

Having your rabbit neutered is very important.  Females should be spayed when they are around 6 months and males can be castrated from 4 months.  Entire rabbits can be grumpy, prone to biting and often urine spray, so not great pets!  Also, 80% of entire female rabbits will develop uterine cancer in later life.

Training and handling

Rabbits are prey animals, so they are naturally nervous.  This can mean they can be flighty and startle easily.   As soon as you get your new rabbit, work with them to gain their confidence.  Sit on the floor with them, offer treats, encouragement and try to get them to come to you.  Don't pick them up until they are used to you and always handle them calmly but firmly.

Also, rabbits should never be kept alone.  For a social animal, solitary confinement is akin to torture.  Neutered pairs of the opposite sex work best and they can be bonded in later life, if they have previously lived alone.

Parasites

The most common parasite in rabbits is a fur mite. It causes flaky, itchy skin and is easily treated with veterinary ´spot-on´ drops. They can also get fleas, just like dogs and cats, and again these are easily treated with veterinary products.  They can also suffer from internal parasites (worms) but they are not common.

Fly Strike

Fly strike is a horrific, and often deadly, problem.  It develops when flies lay their eggs on the dirty fur around a rabbit’s backend.  These develop into maggots which burrow into the rabbit’s flesh, causing huge pain and damage, often within just a few hours.  This is why all rabbits should be handled and checked at least twice daily and there are preventative treatments available from your vets.

Pet Insurance

There are now several companies which provide insurance policies for rabbits and it is something all rabbit owners should consider.

Rabbit are entertaining, inquisitive and rewarding but they do need the similar levels of care and attention as other pets.  They are not the low maintenance, children’s pet  many people think they are.  Hopefully this article has helped you if you do have a bun and if it has inspired you to own one, get in touch your local rescue, they always have rabbits needing loving homes!

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS - Read more of her blogs at www.catthevet.com

If you have any worries about your rabbit or any pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.

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Banning no-stun slaughter in the UK: a step forwards for animal welfare or a populist anti-religious minority measure?

The issue of  "no-stun slaughter" has hit the headlines in the UK press this week and there's a fair bit of confusion about what's going on. The current discussion has been prompted by the British Veterinary Association's petition to end no-stun slaughter in the UK. It's a debate that's long overdue: consumers should have a right to know the background to the meat that they're eating, and currently in the UK and Ireland, it's impossible to tell if an animal was stunned or not prior to slaughter. That's not fair to the consumer, and the absence of the need to declare the type of slaughter is likely to increase the number of animals that are killed without being stunned first, so it's unfair to animals too. Killing is by definition an unpleasant business, with physical trauma to a living creature and spilling of blood. For some individuals, animal slaughter is so abhorrent, that vegetarianism is the only answer (7 - 11% of the UK population is vegetarian, with twice as many women as men). But for the majority of citizens in the United Kingdom, meat is a desirable part of the diet, and slaughtering animals is seen as a necessary part of society. Legislation has been put into place to ensure that animals suffer as little as possible during the process, and this is enough to satisfy most people. To ensure that animals do not suffer as they die, the law insists that the animal is first stunned e.g. with a captive bolt applied to the brain, or via a strong electric shock to the head. This pre-stunning means that the animal is completely unaware when its throat is cut a few minutes later: there is no sensation of the knife passing through the flesh, nor the blood draining away. There is one exception to this rule: so-called ritual, or no-stun slaughter. When this is done, the throat is cut with a sharp knife with no preamble, and the animal is conscious for that short period as it bleeds to death. In the current media debate, the meat industry seems to be blurring the lines of what this means: a spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association is reported as saying “What kills the animal is having its vital arteries cut; it doesn’t die from stunning”.  He seems to be avoiding the fact that there's a gap between having the vital arteries cut and dying, and during that gap, the animal is conscious of what's happening to it. When an animal has been stunned, there is no such consciousness of what's going on. No-stun slaughter is an important part of some religious communities. Current animal welfare legislation requires all animals to be stunned before slaughter apart from exceptions for those religious groups: Dhabihah slaughter for Halal food as part of the Islam faith, and Shechita slaughter for Kosher food as part of Jewish beliefs. There is variation within religious communities, with some Muslims accepting meat pre-stunned electrically and some not. Around 80% of Halal meat is currently pre-stunned: this fact makes the debate murky when newspapers like the Daily Mail talk about "Halal meat" being the issue, rather than "no-stun slaughter". The Muslim and Jewish communities comprise just 4-5% of the British population. Around 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats and 4% of poultry are killed by non-stun slaughter in the UK (pigs, or course, are never killed in this way because pork is not eaten by these religious communities). No-stun slaughter of sheep and goats increased by 70% between 2003 and 2011 to 1.5 million animals a year. Non-stun slaughter of poultry increased 300% in the same period to 32 million. Part of the reason for this increase is that non-stun slaughter meat enters the mainstream food chain without being labelled: it's more convenient for the food industry to have "no-stun" meat as a default: it can be eaten by all consumers, whereas pre-stunned meat cannot be eaten by religious communities. It is partly this increasing trend towards no-stun slaughter that has motivated animal welfare advocates to press for action on this issue. On the face of it, the argument is straightforward: if we have standards for animal welfare that we believe in, we should stick to those standards, even if it means stopping ritual slaughter. In practice, it is more complicated: bans of ritual slaughter target Muslim and Jewish minorities, so legitimate animal welfare concerns get mixed up with anti-semitic and anti-immigrant voices. This can make it difficult to be against ritual slaughter without being accused of being racist. And it can mean that the strongest political allies against no-stun slaughter include political parties with anti-minority views. After many years of debate on this issue, the British Veterinary Association (BVA), with the support of the RSPCA, has recently launched a government e-petition to end non-stun slaughter. The BVA hopes to achieve 100,000 signatures to the e-petition, which would mean that the government would have to have a debate on the issue in the House of Commons. Within a few days, over 11000 signatures were received and the number is rapidly climbing. No-stun slaughter is about to become an active political debate in the UK. So far slaughter without prior stunning has been banned in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Poland. Will the UK soon join this group?
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