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 televisionEach 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:
- The stress endured by solitary-minded cats being forced to live in close proximity to other cats
- The relative importance of reducing food intake rather than just increasing exercise for dogs that are trying to lose weight
- The danger of throwing sticks for dogs to chase
- The stress suffered by rabbits living on their own in hutches
- Understanding the ladder of aggressive behaviours in dogs
New treatment techniques presented in a compelling wayThe 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.
- 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 presentersThe 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
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