How the truth about animals changes over time
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.