Simply asking a patient if he or she owns a pet can help physicians improve patient care, says Dr. Alan Monavvari, Vice President Medical Operations at Markham Stouffville Hospital. “People like to talk about their pets,” explains Dr. Monavvari. “It strengthens the physician-patient therapeutic alliance and generates a wealth of clinical and psychological data on the patient’s health environment.”
Pets build social capital, are agents of harm reduction, motivate healthy behaviours and are constructive in treatment plans. Many physicians have prescribed pets instead of anti-depressive medication, with great success
In hospitals and hospices, therapy animals are used to relieve stress. And in nursing homes, patients with advanced dementia who won’t eat will begin eating if a tank of swimming fish is placed in front of them. Horses and dolphins are also invaluable therapeutic animals for autistic children.
In 2015, Dr. Monavvari launched a pilot study with veterinarian Dr. Kate Hodgson. The goal was to educate healthcare professionals on the value of incorporating questions about pets into their examinations. In the first stage of the study, 225 healthcare professionals were surveyed to discover if they routinely asked patients about their pets. Participants in the study then agreed to query patients about the number and species of pets in the home and requested that the patient share their veterinarian’s contact information.
The study changed physicians’ practices in many ways and supplied them with comprehensive information for medical assessment and treatment: 70% reported that patients told them more about themselves, 83% learned more about a patient’s physical activity and 48% developed a better rapport.
The second stage of the study generated materials from the study’s findings for patients to offer their physicians. “The patient’s response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” says Dr. Monavvari, who sees no downside for physicians. “Five minutes going through a brochure could change the behaviour of a doctor and improve the outcome for a patient,” he says. “Thirty seconds of questions to a patient is a no brainer to adopt.”
Dr. Monavvari is seeking funding for the third phase of the study, a populationbased study focusing on overall well-being and health measured through quality of life scores and chronic disease management.
The mental and physical stress on individuals caring for elderly loved ones with chronic and terminal disease is well-documented and known as caregiver burden. It is linked to depression, anxiety and poor quality of life. There are ways to prevent and treat it. But what about caregivers of pets with chronic and terminal diseases? Do they carry the same level of stress and burden?
Until recently, very little scientific research has been published on what these caregivers go through and how they handle the stress.
go through and how they handle the stress. It took Mary Beth Spitznagel, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in Kent State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, experiencing it firsthand with her own adopted dog, Allo, to realize she in fact was suffering from caregiver burden. She was subsidizing Allo’s quality of life with her own. It inspired her to study the topic further and publish the results of a collaborative study in the journal Veterinary Record.
The article, “Caregiver Burden in Owners of a Sick Companion Animal: A Cross-Sectional Observational Study,” was co-authored with veterinarians at Stow Kent Animal Hospital (Dr. Mark Carlson and Dr. Melanie Cox) and Metropolitan Animal Hospital (Dr. Dana Jacobson). Carlson is Spitznagel’s trusted veterinarian who has treated her dogs for years, including Allo, who passed away a year ago after a difficult bout with both Cushing’s disease and transitional cell carcinoma in the bladder.
Spitznagel said that this is the first study that has ever examined pet caregiver burden and the pet owner’s psychological experience in the context of sick pet caregiving. She created an online questionnaire using previously validated measures from human caregiver burden research and put it out on social media with general posts and specific online pet disease support group posts. She got an overwhelming response from 600 pet owners
“It turns out that the effects of caregiving for a sick pet — burden, stress, anxiety, depression, low quality of life — are in many ways similar to what we see in a person caring for a sick family member, for example, a parent with dementia,” Spitznagel said. “In the case of this study, burden is at a high-enough level that for some people, it could be causing symptoms of anxiety and, more likely, depression.”
Spitznagel created a science blog, www.petcaregiverburden.com, on this topic and is doing additional studies with a veterinary clinic clientele and pet disease support groups. She also has four additional papers in the pipeline.
“Something striking in this study participant group of pet caregivers is that a good number of people feel stressed out but don’t stop to think about why,” Spitznagel said.
Caregiver burden was not a new topic for Spitznagel. During her training as a clinical psychologist, she worked on a federally funded project examining family members providing care for people with dementia. In recent years, she has held clinical privileges at Summa Health System in Akron, where she provides patient care, working with dementia patients and their families, one day per week.
“It can be overwhelming for some — the burden of almost constant attention, sleepless nights and weekly trips to the doctor,” Spitznagel said. “Difficulty managing that stress contributes to anxiety or depression for many. Over the years, I’ve worked with dementia caregivers who seek counselling for these issues, and I’ve heard similar comments from some of our pet caregivers.”
During her journey of caring for Allo, Spitznagel joined a social media support group for pet owners going through similar experiences. While it helped to share and cope with the stress, it also made her realize the bigger picture.
“There is a ton of research and support for those who care for humans, but virtually none for pet caregivers, even though 85% of pet caregivers consider their pets members of their families,” Spitznagel said. “I could see, as a group, we were coping. But, we were all hanging by a thread.”
“The strain on individuals caring for human patients is well-documented and taxes the caregiver both mentally and physically,” Carlson said. “Since our pets have become family, the hypothesis is that those same struggles plague pet owners also. Compounding this is the fact our pets can’t tell us what’s wrong, which adds to the stress. The more difficulty the owner experiences, the harder it becomes to care for the pet and a vicious cycle ensues.”
Spitznagel said more work is needed to determine how to best help burdened pet caregivers, but the first step is to help people recognize that taking care of their pet is likely to take a personal toll on their own lives.
“They need to know that it is okay to feel stressed out by the situation,” she said. “Acknowledging the stress doesn’t mean they love their pet any less.
“I would also recommend that the pet caregiver takes stock of how much help they are getting from others in the household — are there other people who could pitch in and provide some respite for the primary pet caregiver?” Spitznagel continued. “But if someone is experiencing significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, enough that it interferes with daily functioning, it may be a good idea to consult with a mental health professional.”
Scientists at the University of York have shown that using “dog-speak” to communicate with dogs is important in relationship-building between pet and owner, similar to the way that “baby-talk” is to bonding between a baby and an adult
Speech interaction experiments between adult dogs and humans showed that this particular type of speech improves dog attention and may help humans to socially bond with their pets.
Previous studies on communicating with dogs had suggested that talking in a highpitch voice with exaggerated emotion, just as adults do with babies, improved engagement with puppies but made little difference with adult dogs.
Researchers at York tested this theory with new experiments designed to understand more about why humans talk to dogs like this and if it is useful to the dogs in some way or whether humans do this simply because they like to treat dogs in the same way as babies.
Dr. Katie Slocombe from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, said: “A special speech register, known as infant-directed speech, is thought to aid language acquisition and improve the way a human baby bonds with an adult. This form of speech is known to share some similarities with the way in which humans talk to their pet dogs, known as dogdirected speech.
“This high-pitched rhythmic speech is common in human interactions with dogs in western cultures, but there isn’t a great deal known about whether it benefits a dog in the same way that it does a baby.
“We wanted to look at this question and see whether social bonding between animals and humans was influenced by the type and content of the communication.”
Unlike previous experiments, the research team positioned real humans in the same room as the dog, rather than broadcasting speech over a loud speaker without a human present. This made the set-up more naturalistic for the dogs and helped the team test whether dogs not only paid more attention to dog speak but were motivated to spend more time with the person who had spoken to them in that way
Researchers did a series of speech tests with adult dogs, where they were given the chance to listen to one person using dog-directed speech containing phrases such as “you’re a good dog,” and “shall we go for a walk?,” and then another person using adult-directed speech with no dog-related content, such as “I went to the cinema last night.”
Attention during the speech was measured, and following the speech, the dogs were allowed to choose which speaker they wanted to physically interact with.
The speakers then mixed dog-directed speech with non-dog-related words and adultdirected speech with dog-related words, to allow the researchers to understand whether it was the high-pitched emotional tone of the speech that dogs were attracted to or the words themselves.
Alex Benjamin, PhD student from the University’s Department of Psychology, said: “We found that adult dogs were more likely to want to interact and spend time with the speaker that used dog-directed speech with dog-related content, than they did those that used adult-directed speech with no dogrelated content
“When we mixed-up the two types of speech and content, the dogs showed no preference for one speaker over the other. This suggests that adult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.
“We hope this research will be useful for pet owners interacting with their dogs, and also for veterinary professionals and rescue workers.” The research paper, “‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog-directed speech” is published in the journal Animal Cognition. – University of Yorkv
Freezing temperatures and inclement weather are a threat to not only humans, but pets as well, so Pet Sitters International (PSI) advises pet owners to take some simple precautions this winter to ensure their pets stay safe.
PSI, the world’s leading educational association for professional pet sitters, advises pet owners to only use the services of professional pet sitters for their pet-care needs and to discuss winter weather preparations and policies with their pet sitters.
“Professional pet sitters have the knowledge and credentials to provide quality care for pets, regardless of season,” explained Patti J. Moran, PSI president and founder. “However, in many areas the winter brings unique challenges and it’s important that pet owners and their pet sitters are on the same page regarding protocols for pet care when temperatures or outside conditions become dangerous.”
PSI advises pet owners to follow these tips:
- Know your pet sitter’s inclement weather plan. Most professional pet sitters offer pet-sitting services year-round in all types of weather, but make sure your professional pet sitter has your emergency contact on file should treacherous conditions or impassable roads prevent the pet sitter from reaching your home.
- Keep pets inside as much as possible. Young, old and short-haired pets are more vulnerable to cold weather and should not be left outside unsupervised, and some pets may require warm clothing if they are going to go outside. Pets should not be kept outside in belowfreezing temperatures, as both cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. Consult your veterinarian for additional guidance on pet safety in extreme temperatures.
- Discuss exercise options with your pet sitter. When temperatures drop, your pet sitter or dog walker may need to shorten your pet’s walk or engage your pet in an alternate activity such as indoor play time. Stephanie Novak, owner of Pet Au Pair in Bala Cynwyd, PA. said, “[On frigid days] I tell my clients that I will only keep their dogs out long enough to ‘do their business’ and then play indoors with them for the remainder of the time. I also have an established relationship with two vets in the area. If I am at all doubtful on a particular day, I call them for advice.”
- Watch out for chemicals. Ice-melting chemicals and salt can irritate and burn the pads of your pet’s paws, so thoroughly wipe off your pet’s paws upon returning inside. Also be sure to thoroughly clean up any antifreeze spills and store household chemicals out of paw’s reach, since antifreeze is poisonous to pets.
- Discuss emergency care with your pet sitter. Ask any potential pet sitter if he or she has been trained in pet first aid, and provide your pet sitter with signed authorization to take your pet to the veterinarian in the case of an emergency. Make your veterinarian aware of the arrangement and be sure your pet sitter has up-to-date contact information for your preferred veterinarian.
- Don’t just hire a pet lover. “Often times, pet owners, and even news outlets, use the term ‘pet sitter’ carelessly, referring to anyone — from a family friend to the neighbourhood teenager asked to check in on your pet — as a ‘pet sitter,’” Moran said. “It is important that pet owners understand that pet sitting is a professional career and professional pet sitters offer peace of mind that other pet-care options cannot.”
PSI advises pet owners to ask seven important questions of any potential pet sitter. The questions are outlined in PSI’s free Pet-Sitter Interview Checklist. To learn more about PSI or to find a local PSI member pet sitter in your area, visit www.petsit.com/locate
H3N2 canine influenza has been identified in two dogs in Essex County. The dogs were imported from South Korea (via the United States) in late December and were showing signs of respiratory disease the following day when they were examined by a veterinarian. A small number of dogs that had close contact with the affected dogs also have mild respiratory disease, but test results from those animals are not yet available.
This is the first known incursion of H3N2 canine influenza in Canada. The virus is widespread in some parts of Asia and is causing outbreaks in various locations of the United States, especially in shelters. Canine influenza virus is of concern because it is highly transmissible between dogs, particularly in areas (such as Canada) where dogs do not have natural immunity from previous infection and where canine influenza vaccination is rare.
A few important points should be noted:
- Most dogs that develop influenza do not get seriously ill. Respiratory disease that is indistinguishable from other infectious respiratory diseases (canine infectious respiratory disease complex, also known as ‘kennel cough’) usually occurs, although serious (including fatal) infections and/or complications can develop.
- Infected dogs can shed influenza virus for a short time prior to the onset of disease. So, dogs that appear to be healthy are still a potential source of infection.
- Canine influenza vaccines can reduce the risk of disease and are available from veterinarians in Canada.
- Cats can be infected but this appears to be rare.
Canine H3N2 influenza virus is different than the human H3N2 influenza virus that is a common seasonal flu virus in people. There is no known human risk from H3N2 canine influenza virus; however, the risk of reassortment (or mixing together) between the canine H3N2 virus and human seasonal influenza viruses is a potential concern. As cases of novel influenza in animals are reportable to public health, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs are involved in the investigation, along with the University of Guelph.
The investigation and response are ongoing, and at this point, the concern mainly involves the imported dogs and their close contacts. Affected and exposed dogs are being confined by their owners to help prevent further spread. However, dog owners in Windsor and Essex County should be vigilant and watch for signs of respiratory disease in their dogs, particularly dogs that frequently have contact with other dogs
Because canine influenza virus (as well as other infectious causes of respiratory disease) can be highly contagious, care must be taken with sick dogs. Dogs with signs of respiratory disease (e.g., cough, decreased appetite, nasal and eye discharge and fever) should be kept away from others dogs for at least two weeks. If a dog with potentially infectious respiratory disease is taken to a veterinarian, the veterinary clinic should be informed in advance so that they can take appropriate precautions, such as admitting the dog directly to an examination or isolation room and using isolation precautions.
Editor’s note: Information accurate as of January 8, 2018. For local updates consult www.wechu.org. Ask your veterinarian about the benefits of canine influenza vaccine.
Your beloved dog Spot is sick. You take him to see your veterinarian and they take Spot ‘to the back’ to run some tests. But what, or rather who, is in the back? Likely it’s a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) who will be running those tests and caring for your animal under the direction of a veterinarian.
You have likely seen and interacted with an RVT at your clinic without realizing it. RVTs are formally educated and trained professionals working as members of the veterinary healthcare team.
“RVTs are integral members of the veterinary team, who meet and surpass the high standards that clients have come to expect for their pets,” said Laurie Williams, RVT and continuing education manager for the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians (OAVT). “RVTs combine excellent practical skills and knowledge with a genuine passion for animal health and welfare.”
genuine passion for animal health and welfare.” RVTs are involved in many different aspects of pet healthcare. They help to ensure clinics run smoothly and efficiently and help to deliver the best possible care for your pets.
The following list contains just a few examples of RVT duties:
- Husbandry, restraint and handling of animals;
- Capturing and processing diagnostic radiographs and ultrasounds;
- Diagnostic laboratory tests for the purposes of hematology, clinical chemistry, and urinalysis;
- Surgical preparation and assistance;
- Anaesthetic administration and monitoring;
- Administration and dispensing of medication and treatments as prescribed by a veterinarian; and,
- Nutrition management and planning.
In order to use the title RVT in, for example, Ontario, an individual must have attended an accredited college veterinary technician program, passed a national exam, submitted a clear criminal record check, completed professionalism and ethics training and be a member of the OAVT. RVTs also must complete continuing education regularly in order to keep their credentials. Each province has its own member association for RVTs. For more information about RVTs in Ontario visit www.oavt.org.
Next time you take Spot to the clinic, ask to talk to an RVT to see what they can do for you!
— Canadian Animal Health Institute