Most people working in research understand that the work often includes hours spent behind a desktop, with your head stuck in books or staring at excel worksheets. It is incredibly rewarding when you can get away from the desk and actually spend time with the animals you are studying. This is especially rewarding when you start to recognise individuals, how they interact with each other and you see their characters coming out! STRAYS has now begun a project in Italy where we will be studying the community dogs over the next year. Over the last few days, the team have found some charming dogs within the Pescara Province of Abruzzo. The community dogs here are under the responsibility of the town mayor and after the dogs have been neutered and vaccinated by the local veterinary health unit, they are released back to their territory. The team have been conducting surveys of these dogs in the early mornings, at a time when the town is most peaceful. During our surveys, we have seen the dogs travelling around the town, using pedestrian crossings(!), sniffing and interacting with the other community dogs along their way. One particular dog which has charmed us, is this hairy sleepy boy (photograph below). He was very relaxed and mostly slept as we observed him. We have seen this dog in a couple of surveys now and it will be interesting to see if he is still here when we return in a few months!
The STRAYS team will also be studying the street dogs of Ukraine in a few weeks, so watch this space for more updates as the study progresses!
Our new paper based on the epidemiology of canine osteoarthritis went live online this morning! The paper entitled ‘Prevalence, duration and risk factors for appendicular osteoarthritis in a UK dog population under primary veterinary care’ was conducted as one part of my MRes project, using the VetcompassTM database. Using veterinary primary-care electronic patient records, information was gathered to provide epidemiological data for canine osteoarthritis. The key findings for this paper include prevalence, duration of and risk factors for development of osteoarthritis in UK dogs.
Of 455,557 study dogs, we identified 16,437 candidate osteoarthritis cases through a combination of search terms to highlight potential cases. 6104 (37%) of these were manually checked and 4196 (69% of sample) were confirmed as cases. Further data on demography, clinical signs, duration and management were extracted for a proportion of these confirmed cases. Estimated annual period prevalence of appendicular osteoarthritis was calculated at 2.5% equating to around 200,000 UK affected dogs annually. Risk factors associated with osteoarthritis diagnosis included breed (e.g. Labrador, Golden Retriever), being insured, being neutered, of higher bodyweight and being older than six years. Duration calculation trials suggest osteoarthritis affects 11% of affected individuals’ lifespan. These findings provide evidence that osteoarthritis can have a substantial impact on canine welfare at the individual and population level, and should not be overlooked as a disorder in veterinary medicine!
The paper is available via open access at www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-23940-z
In the tranquil surroundings of the University of Reading campus, on the 11th of January, we held our first annual stakeholder meeting for the PigSustain project. This was a very exciting time for the PigSustain team, as it was our first chance to showcase all of the hard work we have been putting into the project since we began almost a year ago! We had a great turnout, with representatives of the industry from farm to fork – producers, processors, vets and retailers, as well as policy makers and assurance schemes.
The morning kicked off with short presentations from each work package on the progress made over the course of our first year. I think I can safely say that everyone was very impressed with the amount of work and effort that has been put in so far. We are already starting to get exciting results from the consumer demand for pork analysis and the progress on the development of the automatic detection system had everyone very excited!
After a quick coffee we had a great talk from Prof Sandra Edwards, who had made the long trip down from her beachside residence in Scotland! Prof Edwards talked about developing measures sustainability in pig production and we discussed how we might use these on PigSustain.
With lunch over and everybody suitably caffeinated, it was time for a bit of audience participation in the afternoon. Firstly, we had Dr John Ingram (GFS Coordinating group, Oxford University) set the scene by inviting us to think about Resilience. PigSustain aims to predict the impacts of intensification and future changes on UK pig industry resilience. However, assessing resilience turns out to be much trickier than we might have thought. Resilience of what, to what, for whom and for how long were questions that John had us pondering over in relation to the UK pig industry in the afternoon workshops. We had lively discussions and great insights from all of the stakeholders and the project team was very busy keeping record of all the information so that we can feed it into our systems model!
The day ended with a lovely meal out in Reading with those who could make it. Overall, we were delighted with the meeting and the enthusiasm of the stakeholders. This has given us a great boost of energy to start off our 2nd year of this 4-year project. With a massive thanks to everyone involved and watch this space for more developments in 2018 on PigSustain!
Wow - what a busy few months we've had here in Leeds with lots of conferences, data acquisition and field trips to keep us busy! However, our most exciting development is having Emily Bushby, our new PhD student, join us - Emily will be blogging soon about her move from Lincoln and submitting her Masters thesis!
After a jam-packed summer, last week we found ourselves in the peaceful surroundings of the Peak District for a wonderful few days at Walks and Talks. Walks and Talks is an annual event aimed at early career researchers in Animal Welfare. The concept is simple: short presentations in the morning and a lovely, long walk in the afternoon, with a chance to network and chat to people more about their work. We heard about a range of topics from how people choose their pets, to separation anxiety behaviours in dogs, to the effects of teeth clipping in piglets and walked 10km from the beautiful village of Ilam.
With huge thanks to Natalie Chancellor (Royal Veterinary College) for organising and watch this space for the Yorkshire Walks and Talks in 2018!
The group at Ilam Hall. Photo: Dale Sandercock.
I have always found it interesting how different the onomatopoeias used to describe animal noises are in different languages. And so, I made it a little side project during my pilot field trip to Bulgaria to find out exactly what noise a Bulgarian dog makes!
The (true!) purpose of my trip was to carry out a pilot study and meet the Four Paws stray animal care team, who work in a clinic on the outskirts of Sofia City neutering and providing veterinary care to owned and stray dogs in this region. In the UK, if a dog were to roam the streets without an owner the dog might be thought of as a "lost pet". However, in Bulgaria, it is not unusual to regularly see dogs freely roaming the streets. A proportion of these dogs have owners, however many are stray. In my pilot field trip I have been testing out methods which will allow us to estimate the size of this free-roaming dog population, as well as giving us information about how many of these dogs are neutered, how healthy they are, along with other demographic data. This meant pretty unsociable 5am street surveys to count and record this information! However, the early starts were worth it to observe these animals at a time when the city was at its most peaceful.
Overall, the pilot trip was a success and planning for future field trips have commenced. Watch this space!
And the noise that a Bulgarian dog makes? Not too dissimilar to our barking dogs in the UK - "баф баф" (or baf baf)!
Last week I got the fantastic news that my first paper was now live on Science Direct, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. I can tell you that this really was an amazing feeling! The process of writing for publication is certainly not without its challenges, but is essential in ensuring that the research we do has the impact intended.
This paper makes up one part on my PhD looking at individual differences in pain behaviour in non-human animals. Pain especially chronic pain, in non-human animals can be hard to recognise and treat, as such the broad aim of my PhD is to have a clearer understanding of what characteristics in non-human animals (not related to disease severity) might affect the pain behaviour they show.
The paper entitled ‘Emotional affect and the occurrence of owner reported health problem in the domestic dog’ is based on the results we got from a broader online survey of dog owners looking at their dog’s behaviour and health. We specifically investigated whether dogs with and without current painful conditions could be differentiated by their mood state.
Our findings suggest that dogs who had current painful conditions showed lower levels of positive affect. Positive affective states are characterised by positive emotions and interactions, such as; play, alertness, excitement, and energy. Therefore, our results suggest that painful experiences in dogs may have a detrimental effect on their mood state. Pain is a common sign in many illnesses, in both dogs and other animals, these findings really highlight how important it is to focus on the influence that individual differences can have on health-related behaviour.
If you are interested in keeping up to date with more findings from my PhD, as well as keeping up to date with our research lab please also consider following me on Twitter @sjreaney
With the peaceful Adriatic Sea to the right and the stunning Gran Sasso Mountain Range on the left, it is hard to imagine being stressed when this is your working environment - and this was my working environment during my week of training at Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell'Abruzzo e del Molise (IZSAM) in Abruzzo, Italy.
During this week I was introduced to the exciting and important activities that take place at IZSAM. I was presented with information about IZSAM's role as OIE collaborating centre for animal welfare and as a National Reference Centre for Urban Veterinary Hygiene and Non-Epidemic Emergencies. I received training on the Qualitative Behavioural Assessment for sheltered dogs and was taught about the valuable findings of the Shelter Quality Protocol and the human-animal relationship in long term dog shelters. The team at IZSAM also arranged for me to visit local dog shelters, visit the farm at Colleatterrato and meet professionals involved in dog population management. I visited both Pescara's Local Health Unit and the long-term shelter in Montesilvano, where I had the chance to learn about and discuss the overall dog population management situation in Italy.
In addition to meeting the excellent team at Torre del Cerrano (which is literally a castle on the beach), I was also able to meet the experts working at the IZSAM headquarters in Teramo. The professionals here provided me with guidance for my upcoming fieldwork in terms of epidemiological approaches to animal sampling and also introduced me to the technology available at the institute.
Overall, it was an extremely productive week at IZSAM and I really look forward to collaborating with IZSAM in the future - and of course travelling back to this stunning location!
One of the keys to the door leading to academic success has to be writing. I've often heard from students and peers alike that they hate writing, that they're not good at it, that they had specifically dropped English at school over the sciences because they had no intention of spending their lives committing words to paper. I've always enjoyed writing, which is not to say that I find the process of scientific writing particularly easy. Indeed, one of the things I personally struggle with is that blank page at the start of any writing project. The horrors associated with the very whiteness of that page have at times led me to procrastinate, something that is all too easy within the academic role - there are always lectures to prepare, meetings to attend, emails to send, collaborators to call, students to advise. Indeed, most of my time is spent communicating in one form or another, so quite why the blank page looms so ominously from the corner of my desktop (minimised, but open just in case) is peculiar. One thought is that the formality of the scientific writing style makes it so out of the way of the rest of my everyday scientific communications. I don't tend to hold my conversations using passive third person phraseology, or by regurgitating reels of academic papers citing authors and years as I discuss scientific arguments. Maybe I should, but it doesn't feel very natural to do it.
Another possibility, which has been raised before by numerous academics, is that time to write is typically fractured. I know just a handful of people who are able to effectively use a spare 5 minutes between meetings and teaching to dash out a paragraph or two on a paper. I do not count myself among them - my 5 minutes between appointments is typically spent doing rather more mundane but essential activities, like grabbing a quick coffee, or sending an email.
Making time to write must be a priority. We know this. And yet so few of us put it as an event in our weekly calendars, just as unmissable as that faculty board meeting, or lectures. Shut Up and Write Tuesdays is a virtual writing workshop for academics. I first heard about it from Mary Friel, who participated in this during her PhD thesis write-up. The idea is to help academics to set aside time to write, and to support each other to do so. Starting from next week, our research group is planning to hold our own Shut Up and Write sessions, and act as writing support for each other. We will each come to the session with a plan of what we're going to write, we'll then settle down and write solidly for an hour before stopping for our usual Monday morning coffee and pastries, where we'll talk about how we got on. My hope is that it will also provide extra support to the earlier career members of the group. I'm really looking forward to it, and the blank page is blinking at me in anticipation.
My PhD viva was on the 28th of April, and after much worry and preparation, I actually found it to be a very positive experience! I had two lovely examiners (Dr Alan McElligott and Prof Ian Montgomery) and we had a very enjoyable discussion about animal welfare science, pig farming and my research, my favourite things to talk about! I must say, it is a huge relief to have the viva done and now I can really get into my new role as postdoctoral research fellow on the Pig Sustain project. This is a really exciting and ambitious project to build a systems model of the UK pig industry. I am really enjoying learning much more about pig farming and working with our industry partners to collect the data. This has been a very busy week, preparing for having a stand at the Pigs 2022 conference (http://www.pigs2022.com). This will be a great opportunity for us to meet new people and spread the word about the Pig Sustain project. And most importantly get more people involved, the more the merrier! So, life after the viva has been busy but very enjoyable and I'm looking forward to settling into my new life here in Leeds and working hard on the Pig Sustain project! If you happen to be coming to the Pigs 2022 conference please call over to our stall and say hello :)
The stray dog project (and my PhD!) officially began on the 23rd of January. The beginning of this week marked my four-month anniversary - and what an exciting time it has been so far! Since beginning, I have settled into life in Leeds, attended animal welfare conferences in Birmingham and Brussels, become familiar with the literature around dog population management (after searching through the 3000 articles which resulted from a systematic review!) and I'm planning my first field trip to Bulgaria.
This project is funded by Four Paws International and I will soon be joining their stray animal care team at their clinic in Sofia, Bulgaria. During this field trip I will be carrying out a pilot study collecting data on dog population demographics and public attitude towards stray dogs. Having never travelled to this part of the world before, I'm excited for the field trip and also, to see what data I collect while I am there. However, before I set off for Bulgaria, I will be travelling next week to Italy to train with our collaborating institution the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell'Abruzzo e del Molise (IZSAM) in the beautiful location of Pineto!