Retired Veterinary Surgeon and OneKind Animal Welfare Ambassador, Andy Cage, shares his professional experience in the UK vet industry and concerns for pet animal welfare:
Challenges in pet animal welfare: The last 40 years
Having recently retired as Senior Veterinary Surgeon after 40 years with veterinary charity PDSA I have been reflecting on how pet domestic animal welfare issues have changed over that time.
In the early days, back in the eighties, much of the suffering that I saw was as a result of disease or malnutrition in various forms.
Distemper was rife in dogs, a horrible disease we rarely see these days, causing at first diarrhoea and discharges from the eyes and nose then severe respiratory signs followed finally in many cases by convulsions. At one point one in every five dogs coming to the practice had signs. Many died or were put to sleep. At the same time we had to deal with our own ‘emerging pandemic’ – parvovirus had just appeared on the scene as suddenly and mysteriously as Covid-19 causing a horrific vomiting and diarrhoea syndrome. Treatment with intravenous fluids, something many vets had never done before that epidemic, was sometimes successful but again many succumbed. Thanks to greater awareness of the need for vaccination these problems are less common today. I have not seen a distemper case in Dundee for many years but parvovirus still occasionally occurs.
Cases of rickets and and other mineral and vitamin deficiencies were not uncommon in pups. Cats fed only on oily fish or liver ended up with painful spinal conditions. Many pets were just fed what their owners ate. I was speechless one day when a client brought in a Yorkshire terrier puppy. When I took it out of the basket it was covered in something white and sticky. On questioning it emerged that the puppy “would only eat jam doughnuts”! Another dog was only fed tinned tomatoes. With improved commercial diets and better nutritional advice these problems are now so rare that many younger vets have never seen cases of these dietary problems. An increasing trend towards raw diets may see us go full circle!
For many people on low incomes the cost of neutering their pet was too great and we saw many unwanted litters of puppies and kittens. A lot of problems with difficulties at the time of birth resulted in pets having emergency Caesarean sections and womb infections (pyometras) later in life. One of the regional veterinary organisation felt that this was something that needed addressed and as I was chairperson at the time I was charged with meeting the then chief executive of SSPCA. We came up with a scheme joined by a number of Scottish veterinary practices whereby the client paid a third, the SSPCA paid a third and the practice discounted a third of the cost. This continued for a number of years until some of the veterinary charities started offering discounted neutering. Sadly, in spite of this help being available, unwanted litters and pyometras remain a welfare issue to this day
In the mid-eighties Tayside was the scene of some of Scotland’s big dog fights.
We had folk bringing injured dogs to the surgery to be stitched up only to see them back a couple of weekends later in a never ending cycle of cruelty and suffering. In those days reporting cases to the authorities was frowned on – the view taken being that if clients were reported they would not go back to the vet in future and the animal would suffer more. In one of my only brushes with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons I had my knuckles metaphorically rapped for daring to suggest to them that this view was out-dated and prevented us from acting in the interests of animal welfare.
Happily, these days a much more enlightened RCVS actively encourages reporting of cases of suspected cruelty – all the more important for society as a whole now that we are aware of the link between animal abuse and domestic violence.
Cruelty and neglect however, have always been much less common than a condition caused by well-meaning ignorance – over-feeding leading to obesity. The problems caused by obesity are well known; arthritis, heart disease, respiratory distress, liver problems and diabetes to name just a few. I really feel a sense of failure here. I have probably spent more hours talking to clients about this issue than about anything else in my career and apart from the occasional rewarding success I have failed dismally – the problem is undoubtedly worse overall than it was when I started. We need a completely new approach – and I don’t know what that is!
We always used to see the odd pug or other flat-nosed breed.
I particularly recall ‘Totsarella’, a fat pug and her lovely but overly made-up owners, mother and daughter, who came every month to have her weighed and were always heartbroken to discover she’d gained weight in spite of ‘nothing having passed her lips’ and who insisted on covering her face with lipsticky kisses. However it wasn’t until the last decade that the craze for flat faces really took off. Thanks to that popularity it is now a major cause of suffering for many pets. Before I retired an increasing and significant amount of my surgical and consulting time was being taken up with the breathing, spinal and eye problems that are the scourge of these breeds.
Types of pets
Changes in the type of pets kept have occurred too. Back in the eighties roughly 80% of my work was with dogs, 20% with cats and I treated very few rabbits indeed along with the odd budgie, guinea pig and rodent. Latterly dogs have decreased in popularity while cats have increased and rabbits are seen much more commonly. A lack of awareness of the needs of rabbits has resulted in welfare problems for them including dental disease due to poor diet and stress due to keeping a solitary rabbit without a companion.
Where do they come from?
There were always unscrupulous breeders of course but over time I have seen increasing problems with puppies sold over the internet many of which have clearly come from puppy farms.
Vets dread asking clients where they got their pet and hearing the answer “Gumtree”. All too often they have collected the animal in a lay-by or service station car park and many turn out to be sick or infested with parasites and require costly treatment or worse, end up put to sleep. Another problem on the rise is the “rescue” of animals from abroad – these animals often bring with them diseases previously rare in Scotland such as leishmaniasis which can then spread causing suffering to our existing pet population. Global warming too may be playing a part in the spread of tick and insect borne diseases which vets are increasingly diagnosing and some of which, like Lyme disease, pose a threat to humans too.
A brighter future
On the positive side our ever-increasing knowledge is allowing vets to treat and prevent many welfare problems affecting pet animals. Better surveillance such as the annual PDSA Pet Animal Welfare (PAW) Report will allow us to monitor progress over time. A positive feature of social media in all its forms is that we now have more opportunities to share knowledge and educate owners in all aspects of their pets’ wellbeing. We must encourage would-be pet owners to get pre-purchase veterinary advice and if we can get pet welfare onto school curriculums the next generation will be so much better prepared. I am optimistic!”
Andy Cage qualified as a veterinary surgeon from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh in 1978. He worked for the next two years in a mixed practice in County Durham not far from Herriot country. His patients here included beef and dairy cattle, sheep and pigs, horses including a couple of racing stables, and being in the north east of England a fair share of whippets and racing pigeons. In a change of direction he then moved to Dundee to work for PDSA, the veterinary charity providing free and discounted treatment to the pets of people unable to afford private veterinary fees, intending to stay for only a few months. However the role proved so rewarding that he stayed until his retirement earlier this year.