How the truth about an­i­mals changes in time

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - LIFESTYLE - PETE WEDDERBURN

AS a vet writ­ing in the papers,

I have been an­swer­ing peo­ple’s ques­tions about their pets for nearly thirty years. If the av­er­age is ten ques­tions a week (and some­times the num­ber is higher), that’s about 500 ques­tions a year, which makes fif­teen thou­sand ques­tions over three decades. That’s a lot of ques­tion-an­swer­ing, and it means that I have a huge archive of in­for­ma­tion stashed on the hard disc of my com­puter.

I have been ask­ing my­self re­cently what I might be able to do with this mini-li­brary. In my dreams, the text could be tagged, tweaked and repack­aged, cre­at­ing an in­stant search­able in­ven­tory of in­for­ma­tion about pets and their ail­ments. And I could add to that by edit­ing and cat­a­logu­ing the many hours of ques­tion an­swer­ing in au­dio and video for­mats that I’ve done for ra­dio and tele­vi­sion.

In re­al­ity, it’s time con­sum­ing and costly to ac­com­plish this type of bu­reau­cratic en­deav­our. So in­stead, I’ve spent a smaller amount of time sim­ply re­fil­ing the ques­tions and an­swers into a com­puter folder, so that at least if I am ever asked a par­tic­u­lar ques­tion, I can eas­ily find out how I’ve an­swered the topic in the past.

One of the in­ter­est­ing as­pects of do­ing this re­view is that I have seen for my­self how thoughts have changed over this time frame. The French revo­lu­tion­ary, Saint-Just, said “the present or­der is the dis­or­der of the fu­ture” and this is true in the vet­eri­nary world as much as in any part of life.

At any given mo­ment, we be­lieve that the facts we know are the ul­ti­mate, long term truth. In fact, as sci­ence learns more, we all need to re­view the facts that we’ve learned, and some­times we need to ac­cept that old truths are no longer true.

This week, I am go­ing to go through some of those now-dis­proven facts about pets. I find this un­set­tling: it means that in the past, I’ve some­times given out in­for­ma­tion that was, in fact, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, in­cor­rect. The only con­so­la­tion is that at the time, that was what ev­ery­one be­lieved to be true. Our un­der­stand­ing of the truth has moved for­wards.

The first area is an­i­mal con­scious­ness. When I qual­i­fied as a vet, an­i­mals were thought to have a very dif­fer­ent type of mind to hu­mans: es­sen­tially, they were a bun­dle of non-think­ing re­flexes. If peo­ple tried to as­cribe hu­man emo­tions to an­i­mals, they were told that they were mak­ing the mis­take of be­ing “an­thro­po­mor­pic”, imag­in­ing that the an­i­mals were far more hu­man like than the re­al­ity. Th­ese days, with ad­vances such as bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy, bio­chem­istry and more in­for­ma­tion about how the brain works (from dy­namic MRI stud­ies), we now know that an­i­mals have a con­scious­ness that is far more like us hu­mans than we used to be­lieve. The clear line between “hu­man” and “non-hu­man” is now blurred. We are now told that when an an­i­mal looks as if it is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a hu­man emo­tion (such as fear, pain or hap­pi­ness) then it al­most cer­tainly is do­ing ex­actly that. This has se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for an­i­mal wel­fare.

The so­cial needs of pets are the next area that’s changed. We now know that an­i­mals have sig­nif­i­cant so­cial needs, and it’s to be wrong to keep many an­i­mals as sin­gle pets. Ex­am­ples in­clude gold­fish, guinea pigs, bud­gies and rab­bits: th­ese should be kept in pairs or small groups. The only com­mon ex­cep­tion is the Golden Ham­ster, who is soli­tary in the wild, and he should be kept on his own as a pet too.

Our view of an­i­mal cru­elty has changed, and this is now en­shrined in the new An­i­mal Health and Wel­fare Act. “Cru­elty” used to mean de­lib­er­ately hurt­ing a pet, while now, it is more all-en­com­pass­ing, mean­ing that own­ers have an obli­ga­tion to ac­tively care for an an­i­mal, rather than just “not to hurt them”. Own­ers must now pro­vide the five free­doms to an­i­mals un­der their care: free­dom from hunger or thirst, free­dom from dis­com­fort by pro­vid­ing shel­ter , free­dom from pain, in­jury or dis­ease by preven­tion or treat­ment, free­dom to ex­press nor­mal be­hav­iour and free­dom from fear and dis­tress. This new def­i­ni­tion means that an­i­mals in our so­ci­ety should have a far bet­ter life than in the past.

Be­havioural ad­vice has changed sig­nif­i­cantly: pos­i­tive dog train­ing is now al­most uni­ver­sally ac­cepted. This means re­ward­ing dogs for be­hav­ing well, rather than pun­ish­ing them for be­hav­ing badly. The old idea that it was im­por­tant to dom­i­nate dogs has been shown to be false, and even shown to cause se­ri­ous prob­lems in some cases. It’s still im­por­tant to have bound­aries for dogs, but just as for chil­dren, this does not mean hurt­ing them if they cross that bound­ary. Pain­ful phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment has been shown to be un­nec­es­sary.

In the vet­eri­nary world, there have been many changes, with new treat­ments and bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of dis­eases. The right choice for pets is now far more in­di­vid­u­alised than in the past: it’s not nearly as easy to say “one size fits all” when it comes to par­a­site con­trol, spay­ing and neu­ter­ing, vac­ci­na­tions and treat­ment of dis­ease.

One thing does re­main the same: if you are wor­ried about your pet, do talk to your vet. For all the changes and de­vel­op­ments, vets are still trained as an­i­mal ex­perts, and they’ll al­ways be the best peo­ple to give you up to date ad­vice on car­ing for your pet.

Our un­der­stand­ing of an­i­mals has changed in the past 30 years

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