How technology affects the world of veterinary

Pete Wedderburn

Published 27/08/2016 | 00:00

Technology now allows collars to be connected to computerised devices
Technology now allows collars to be connected to computerised devices

Every aspect of life adapts to change, and the veterinary profession is no different.

In our generation, technology is the area that's changing most rapidly, with computer power doubling every 12 to 18 months. New ideas frequently transform different areas of our lives

In 1900, city planners were worried that towns were getting so busy that they'd soon become completely clogged up with horse manure. Vets at that time spent 80% of their time working with horses. Motorised transport meant that cars, vans and trucks replaced horses almost instantaneously, and by 1920, vets were only spending 20% of their time working with horses. In twenty years, one new technology had fundamentally changed the veterinary profession. So is there a twenty first century equivalent?

The biggest visible change is the Internet. A recent survey showed that 90% of vets report that their clients often use the internet to get information about their pets' diseases. Yet they also report that this is only useful in 40% of cases.

I have noticed this myself in my own practice: 'Dr Google' has often been consulted before my patient reaches the consulting room. Of course, this is often helpful, but not always. These days, people are far more likely to be full of fear of cancer or some other dreadful outcome by the time I intervene. It is difficult to gather information from the Internet in a way that puts your pet's situation into the proper context.

I learned this for myself in a family medical situation, when my young children had chicken pox. I decided to learn all about chicken pox from the Internet, and I was horrified to discover that there was a mortality rate. Yes, my mildly ill children could die of this disease! Since then, I've been far more careful about Googling illnesses. There are good reasons why we consult doctors (and vets): they have been trained to deal with illnesses effectively and diplomatically, taking care to be as safe as possible at all times, and only alerting us to serious dangers and risks when it's appropriate to do so. Dr Google has no such sensitivity.

The latest development of the Internet is so-called 'wearable technology', and this is beginning to make its way into the veterinary world. You can now buy fitness collars, similar to those monitoring watches for humans that have become so popular. It's possible to continually monitor the blood pressure, temperature and heart rate of pets, something which can be very useful in sick patients, or those recovering from surgery. Wearable devices are also used in the animal world to train animals (subtle collar vibrations triggered from a remote, handheld device can be used to influence animal behaviour). And in farm animals, monitors can be used to predict events like cows calving, saving time and worked for farmers.

Internet-connected devices do not need to be wearable. Tailio is a smart litter box, which measures the frequency of cat urination and defaecation, weighing the amount produced, and the length of time a cat spends on the litter tray. This is useful information for owners to pass on to vets.

Petnostics is another example: this is a kit available on Amazon for just €10. The owner collects a urine sample in the device, turns it upside down for a moment, then removes the lid. The inside of the lid contains a mosaic of small square patches like a traditional dipstick, so the urine reacts with these, provoking a colour change. The owner emails a photo of the lid to their vet. In theory, the owner is saved the hassle of carrying the urine sample down to the vet clinic. In practice, of course, it's a bit different: there are often other, more useful tests that vets like to do on urine.

Another novel computer-linked device is a tiny camera that can be swallowed by a pet to help investigate disease of the digestive tract. The camera passes along the same route as food, taking photos of the lining of the stomach and intestines as it goes. The vet retrieves the camera as it is passed in the faeces, cleaning it then returning it to the supplier, who then sends the vet hundreds of photos for analysis. It isn't yet possible to take a biopsy with this tiny camera, so an accurate diagnosis can still be elusive, but still, it's a major step forwards.

Three dimensional printing is another area of computer assisted technology which is changing how vets work. Dogs can now have custom made artificial limbs, printed specially for their specific shape. Veterinary surgeons can transfer MRI generated three-dimensional images of internal organs into full scale printed models that they can use to practice, before carrying out highly delicate major surgery on the living animal.

As well as innovative physical objects, computers are rapidly changing our use of information: artificial intelligence is beginning to be able to scan microscope slides of pathology samples from pets, giving an early diagnosis more rapidly and cheaply than a human scientist.

Telemedicine, where diagnoses are made over the Internet by a vet many miles away, is beginning to have an impact. I often use this myself, emailing the details of complex cases to panels of veterinary experts in other parts of the world.

We may not be witnessing a revolution like the motor car replacing the horse, but in this internet/computer world, who knows what's coming next?

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