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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.

If cats were banned from going outside, the rats and mice of the world would celebrate

Dr Peter Marra, an academic who is the director of the Smithsonian migratory bird centre in Washington, has written a book called “Cat Wars”, and he's made a call for all cats to be kept indoors or on a lead to address the “devastating impact” that they have on wildlife.
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A message from the Easter Bunny for owners of pet rabbits

I've often wondered about the oddness of the Easter Bunny. What does a rabbit have to do with Christianity? And why on earth would a rabbit produce eggs? A little internet research was enough to find some answers.
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BBC’s Today Programme asks a profound question: how much is a dog’s life worth?

Dogs and vets' fees took centre stage in the UK media yesterday when they featured on the BBC's Today programme, the most popular show on Radio 4, with over 7 million listeners every week. One of the presenters, Evan Davis, brought his whippet, Mr Whippy, into the studio, and a discussion on vets' fees followed. Mr Davis recounted how he'd spent £4000 on fixing Mr
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Is that “veterinary nurse” really a veterinary nurse?

Language and terminology is important. Our society recognises this fact, and in some walks of life, you cannot call yourself by certain terms unless you are appropriately qualified. The medical field is the area where so-called “protected titles” are most prevalent: there's a long list from “music therapist” to “dietician” to “clinical scientist” to “physiotherapist” and “paramedic”. If you read the list, you'll be surprised, and I suspect that you'll be reassured too: it's good to know that when you go to see a “hearing aid dispenser”, under law they must be properly trained and qualified. There are serious penalties for people who try to set themselves up as one of these practitioners when they are not entitled to do so: anyone using one of these titles must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, or they may be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000. Interestingly, not all professional titles are protected. The words “doctor” and “nurse” have been in general use for hundreds of years to describe a variety of people, and so they are not specifically protected. The title “doctor” is used far more broadly than just for medical doctors, with a number of professions (including dentists and now vets) using it as a courtesy title, as well as people who hold academic doctorates, such as PhDs. Similarly, the title “nurse” is not protected: as well as medical nurses, it's used by nursery nurses in nursery schools, and sometimes by veterinary nurses. The fact that the terms “doctor” and “nurse” are not protected can lead to issues where the public can be mislead by individuals who use the terms to their advantage (such as a person who is an academic doctor trying to pass themselves off as a medical doctor). For this reason, the terms “doctor of medicine” and “registered nurse” are protected titles, but for the public, arguably this is not sufficient to avoid confusion. There are some professions that would like to have protected titles, but for various reasons, this is not possible. Anybody can call themselves an “engineer”, a “scientist” or a “surveyor” because these terms are said to be in such widespread use. These professions have had to add prefixes to their titles to try to minimise confusion, such as “incorporated engineers”, “biomedical scientists” or “chartered surveyors”. Only properly qualified and registered vets are allowed to call themselves “veterinary surgeons”, but there is a major anomaly in the veterinary world: anybody, even without training or qualification, is allowed to call themselves “veterinary nurse”. The veterinary nursing profession has so far had to use the protected title “registered veterinary nurse” to be used exclusively by properly trained and qualified nurses, but there's a strong argument that this is not enough. Most readers, I'm sure, would agree that if they were dealing with someone calling themselves a “veterinary nurse”, they would assume that the person was qualified. Unless something changes, it's very likely that unscrupulous individuals will use this confusion to their advantage, misleading people into believing that they are qualified. What has to change? Clearly, the term “veterinary nurse” needs to be made a protected title. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Nursing Association all believe that this is necessary. They are asking Parliament to change the law to protect the title “veterinary nurse”, and they need as much help as possible to achieve this. Please sign the official petition to register your support. The aim is to get 100,000 signatories which will trigger the issue will be considered for a formal parliamentary debate. The petition is currently at 20,594 signatures and the petition closes on 14th February 2016 so time is running out. The engineering profession tried a similar tactic to protect the word “engineer” last year, but the attempt failed after their petition only reached 6176 signatures. It makes clear sense that the term “veterinary nurse” should be trusted as the recognised name for a skilled, trained and qualified profession. If you agree, please sign this petition now, and ask as many as possible of your friends and contacts to do the same. Please follow this link to the petition. The RCVS has also produced a short animation stating the reasons behind the petition:  watch this by clicking here. Animals are the ones who will benefit from "veterinary nurse" being protected: so if you care, take action now.