Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Are Dogs Good for Our Health?

We’re used to reading that they are, but it’s more complicated than you think.

A young woman and her dog play with a stick in the park
Photo: legenda / Shutterstock

A new study by González Ramírez and Landero Hernández in Mexico compares dog-owners with non-dog-owners to find out whether or not dogs are beneficial to people’s health and well-being. They wanted to improve on the design of many previous studies by comparing two groups of people who were similar except for the fact that some owned dogs and some did not.

There are several reasons why pets might be good for us. It could be that we have an instinctive bond with nature, and so the company of animals lowers stress and makes us feel better. This is the biophilia hypothesis, which also says we have an especial liking for baby-faced animals, which has an evolutionary advantage. An alternative idea is that animals provide social support themselves and also encourage interactions with other people, thus making us less lonely and helping us to have better mental health.

602 people took part and answered a set of questions including standardized measures of perceived life satisfaction, health, happiness and stress. The dog-owners completed an extra set of questions about their relationship with the dog. The two groups of participants were matched in terms of age, gender, level of education, marital status, whether or not they had children, and the proportion that had a chronic health condition. 

The results are very interesting because they show that the groups differ in some ways, but are similar in others. The people who had dogs had better scores on measures of stress, mental health and general health.  But the two groups did not differ in terms of how happy they are, their satisfaction with life, or in some other aspects of their physical health.

The scientists say their results support the biophilia hypothesis that interactions with animals reduce stress and anxiety. Because the two groups were the same on measures of happiness and satisfaction with life, the social support hypothesis is not supported by these results. 

One thing that may have influenced the results is that about two-thirds of the dogs lived in the yard or garage. Just under half of the dog-owners said their dog was a member of the family (47%), a third that it was a pet (36%) and 12% described their dog as a watch-dog. Only a third of the dogs slept in the house at night (7% in the owner’s bed, 9% in the bedroom and 15% elsewhere in the house). The results may be different for people whose dogs live in the house, as they may have a closer relationship with their dog.

Hal Herzog says people are more aware of research that finds pets are good for our health than that with negative findings – in part because of publication biases towards significant results, and in part because the media is more likely to pick up the positive stories. If you really want to know if owning a pet makes a difference to people’s health then you have to do a randomized controlled trial, he says, the same as you would for a new drug. This is obviously tricky in real life, and impossible to do ‘blind’ since people would know if they had a pet or not. 

Although this study is not a randomized controlled trial, it is an improvement on many other studies because the two groups of participants were matched on some important variables. The results show a correlation and do not prove causality. For example, people’s health may be a factor in their decision as to whether or not to get a dog.

This study found that although dog owners perceived themselves to be healthier than those without dogs, there was no difference in happiness. This will be a surprise to many animal lovers, but it shows that the relationship between people and animals cannot easily be generalized.

Do you think owning a pet, or not owning a pet, influences your health and happiness?

González Ramírez, M., & Landero Hernández, R. (2014). Benefits of dog ownership: Comparative study of equivalent samples Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6), 311-315 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.08.002  
Herzog, H. (2011). The Impact of Pets on Human Health and Psychological Well-Being: Fact, Fiction, or Hypothesis? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (4), 236-239 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411415220

You might also like:
Do Children Prefer Baby-Faced Animals?
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Do Dogs With Baby Expressions Get Adopted Sooner, and What Does It Say About Domestication?

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Should Pets be Included in Emergency Planning?

And can they help vulnerable people be more resilient?

An elderly woman holding her black and white cat
Photo: Nika Art / Shutterstock
A new paper by Thompson et al (2014) in Australia considers how pets can be incorporated into planning for emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and forest fires. It can quite literally be a matter of life and death. For example, they say, “over 8% of flood-related fatalities in Australia from 1788 to September 1996 resulted from people’s attempts to save ‘stock, property or pets’ – even when the animal or pet was not their own.” 

People sometimes risk their lives in an emergency because they do not want to leave their pets behind. If someone refuses to evacuate because they cannot bring their dog, their life may be at risk, as well as the lives of emergency responders. It’s not just pets – sometimes people are motivated to risk their own lives to try and protect farm animals or wildlife.

The question posed by the paper is, given we know animals are a risk factor in an emergency, is it possible instead for animals to play a protective role? For example, if someone is reluctant to plan for emergencies, would they do so for the pets, if not for themselves? We already know that pets can help vulnerable people. For example, in recent research by Lem et al (2013), homeless individuals talked about how they were motivated to find housing instead of living on the street because it would be better for their dog or cat.

The authors say, “given that more than half the population own pets, there is arguably more risk in not helping people to safely accommodate animals in their emergency plans.” (emphasis: original).

The paper considers the role of pets in the lives of different groups of vulnerable people: Indigenous Australians, seniors, children and youth, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, people with disabilities, homeless people and people with mental health problems. 

The full text includes a detailed description of the role of pets in the lives of these varied groups of people. Pets may play a different role for each group, and even within a group there will be differences, as well as individual differences in vulnerabilities and resilience. Nonetheless, taking these into consideration can improve emergency planning.

An emergency does not break the human-animal bond; it may even make it stronger. For most people, their pets are part of the family. However, many emergency shelters will not take pets. In addition, people who do not have pets themselves may not want animals in a shelter and may not understand why others want them there. 

The authors say, “The most renowned example of a forced separation was witnessed by people around the world as footage of the Hurricane Katrina evacuations recorded a dog named Snowball being torn from the arms of a distraught young boy who was not allowed to bring his pet on a bus.”

Being separated from a pet causes grief because people are attached to their animals. Separation may cause other problems too. Those who rely on a service animal may be unable to get around or perform basic tasks that are needed for independence. Indigenous people who have lost their hunting dogs may struggle to hunt for food. Some vulnerable people will simply be incapacitated by grief. 

So what are the solutions? Animal-related networks, such as assistance dog groups, those who provide pet food and vet care to the homeless, and animal therapy groups, could help provide access to vulnerable people for emergency planners wishing to spread the message about disaster planning. These networks may also be able to help communicate about the need to plan, and what should be done; for example, via face-to-face communication rather than written materials.

Just as pets can help vulnerable people cope with the challenges of daily life, they may also help them recover after an emergency. And the authors say another issue is that emergency responders may have to cope with the sight of sick or dying animals, as well as the human cost of a disaster. They say, “Avoiding these disturbing experiences, and maximizing the value of pets and other animals in improving the recovery of vulnerable people after disasters is a compelling rationale for ensuring that all measures are taken to ensure that pets as well as people survive natural disasters.”

The full paper is valuable reading for anyone involved in emergency planning. For individuals, it’s a reminder to consider pets in thinking about natural disasters. For example, if you live in an area that might be affected by earthquake, do you have a few days’ supplies of food and water for your pets? Is your pet crate-trained in case you ever need to evacuate? And what should be done to help vulnerable people in your community, whether via a community organization or simply some neighbours that you keep an eye on?

Have you given much thought to how you could help your pets in a natural disaster?

Lem, M.,, Coe, J.B.,, Haley, D.B.,, Stone, E.,, & O'Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: A qualitative analysis Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 40 (4), 285-304  
Thompson, K., Every, D., Rainbird, S., Cornell, V., Smith, B., & Trigg, J. (2014). No Pet or Their Person Left Behind: Increasing the Disaster Resilience of Vulnerable Groups through Animal Attachment, Activities and Networks Animals, 4 (2), 214-240 DOI: 10.3390/ani4020214

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

How Many Dogs is Enough for Canine Science?

And does it matter which dogs they are?

7 Australian Shepherd dogs pose for a photo by the sea
Photo: Julia Remezova / Shuterstock

The number of dogs that take part in each research study is variable. Often, the sample size is small, because of the difficulty of recruiting dogs and their owners. And while scientists know how many are needed for statistical analysis, there are other things to take into account too.

For example, breed may or may not be relevant. If only ten dogs take part in a study and they are all Australian Shepherds, the results may not be the same as if they were all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. 

There are 180 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. Studies can’t possibly include them all, and then there are mixed breeds to consider too.  Some researchers get round this by grouping dogs according to breed type (e.g. toy, working), and trying to include some of each. Scientific papers usually report the breed(s) of dog that took part, along with other variables that could potentially influence results, such as whether or not the dogs were neutered/spayed, their age and gender. 

Even within a breed, there may be differences in behaviour, as Lofgren et al’s recent study of show line and working line Labrador Retrievers found. (Incidentally, this study did a nice job of taking into account the fact that many pedigree dogs are related to each other). 

Another consideration is whether the study requires interaction with strangers (i.e. experimenters), and training to teach the dog to operate some equipment or perform a particular behaviour. Dogs that are able to complete the training within the timescale of the study may not be typical of all dogs. There are often some drop-outs and some dogs that are too fearful to pass initial screening. 

The tasks can be complicated. For example, in McGowan et al’s (2014) brilliant study of the Eureka! effect, dogs were trained to perform specific actions with pieces of equipment, such as pressing a dog piano with a paw or pushing a box off a stack.  And in Berns et al’s (2012; 2014) ground-breaking MRI studies awake dogs voluntarily keep still during scans. The MRI dogs are highly-trained by definition, since they must take part in months of extensive training to be able to do the study. 

In other cases, dogs are surveyed in an environment that is natural to them, such as Ottenheimer Carrier et al’s research on dog parks, or Westgarth et al’s (2010) observations of dog walks. Here, they are studied when going about their normal daily life and engaging in normal behaviours.

Seven King Charles Spaniels post for a photo on a bench
Photo: Lenkadan / Shutterstock
Even though pet dogs are the focus of most research, other kinds of dogs are studied too, such as Savvides (2013) on street dogs in Bangkok. Then there are assistance dogs, therapy dogs, medical alert dogs (such as diabetes alert dogs (Rooney, Morant & Guest 2013)) and working dogs. Even with working dogs, there are striking differences: some live with their handler, while others live in kennels; assistance dogs must be used to people and an urban environment, sheepdogs not so much.

If we want to be able to say something about dogs in general, then all kinds of dogs need to take part in research. 

It’s different again for research on cats, since they are rarely accustomed to going places with their owners (except, perhaps, to the vet). An experiment in a lab will only be suitable for a special kind of pet cat. 

Even studies at the cat’s home will not work for all cats – most people know of a cat that runs and hides under the bed if someone new comes to the house.

The other thing to bear in mind is that our own experience with pets may not be the same as other’s. For example, some people take their dog for a walk every day, but others rarely if ever walk their dog (see e.g. Westgarth, Christley and Christian 2014). If we want to know about dogs and cats in general, all of these differences in lifestyle must be taken into account. 

So it’s not just a question of how many dogs (or cats) take part in a study, but also whether they are the right kind of dogs and cats. There are many things to balance when designing research. This is why so often we have to say ‘more research is needed’, as no one study can achieve the perfect design on all fronts. 

Do you think your dog or cat would like to take part in a research study?

Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2014). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011
Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2012). Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2047085  
Lofgren, S., Wiener, P., Blott, S., Sanchez-Molano, E., Woolliams, J., Clements, D., & Haskell, M. (2014). Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 156, 44-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.006  
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x  
Ottenheimer Carrier, L., Cyr, A., Anderson, R., & Walsh, C. (2013). Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 146 (1-4), 96-106 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.04.002  
Rooney NJ, Morant S, & Guest C (2013). Investigation into the value of trained glycaemia alert dogs to clients with type I diabetes. PloS one, 8 (8) PMID: 23950905  
Savvides, N. (2013). Living with dogs: Alternative animal practices in Bangkok, Thailand Animal Studies Journal, 2 (2), 28-50  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., Pinchbeck, G., Gaskell, R., Dawson, S., & Bradshaw, J. (2010). Dog behaviour on walks and the effect of use of the leash Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (1-2), 38-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.007

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

How Does a Dog's Brain Respond to the Smell of a Familiar Human?

And what does it tell us about the importance of people to their dogs?

Silhouette of a happy dog and girl at sunset in autumn
Photo: hitmanphoto / Shutterstock

New fMRI research by Gregory Berns et al (in press) shows that dog’s brains respond differently to the smell of a familiar human compared to an unfamiliar human and other canines – suggesting that certain people are special to their dogs.

The research focussed on a part of the brain called the caudate, which has been much investigated in humans, monkeys and rats. The scientists explain that “caudate activity is correlated with salient, usually rewarding signals that cause the animal to change its behavioural orientation to approach or consume the stimulus.” Previous research by the team showed that this part of the brain lights up when the dog is given a hand signal that means it will be given a treat, confirming that caudate activation in dogs is connected with rewards.

The results showed that the caudate was activated significantly more in response to the smell of the familiar human than to any of the other smells – even the familiar dog. The scientists say, “Importantly, the scent of the familiar human was not the handler, meaning that the caudate response differentiated the scent in the absence of the person being present. The caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate that scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. This speaks to the power of the dog’s sense of smell, and it provides clues to the importance of humans in dog’s lives.”

Does this mean we can say that dogs love us? It’s certainly the case that when people look at photographs of loved ones, the same part of the brain is activated. But it's hard to interpret the activation on the scan in terms of the dog's subjective experience.

The researchers caution there is another possible explanation in terms of conditioning. It may be that the familiar person had previously given the dog food and so the scent was simply eliciting a conditioned response. The researchers say they think it unlikely it is a conditioned response, because it was typically the handler – not the familiar human – who was responsible for feeding the dog.

The results also showed that the olfactory bulb in the brain was activated by all five smells. This is not surprising but it is useful to know the result is as expected. The canine brain presents a bit of a challenge for fMRI studies – training needs aside – simply because of the great variety of head shapes in dogs. 

12 dogs took part in the study. They had all previously taken part in fMRI research, in which they had to lie absolutely still during the scan. The smells came from swabs taken from the armpit of humans and from the perineal-genital area of dogs.

The scents used in the study were of a familiar human, an unfamiliar human, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, and the dog’s own scent. The familiar human was not the dog’s main caregiver – as that person was present during the scan – but someone else from the household, typically the husband or child of the main caregiver. The familiar dog lived in the same house.

The dogs were trained using positive reinforcement and models of the equipment.  A clicker was used in initial stages of the training, but since the equipment is noisy it would not be heard during the scan itself. The dogs were taught a hand signal that meant they would get a reward, and this was used to replace a clicker in later stages of training. 

The training specific to this study included preparing the dog for a different head-coil than in previous scans, and getting used to having scent-impregnated cotton wool swabs put under the nose while they remained still.

The number of dogs is small, and there are always trade-offs in the statistics used to make sense of fMRI scans. But the results are very intriguing, and we look forward to future research from this team.

The full paper is available (open access) at the link below. Photographs of the dogs who took part are on page 3. 

Do you have a special place in your dog’s heart?

Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2014). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Are All Labrador Retrievers the Same?

Or do show dogs and field dogs vary in temperament?

A chocolate lab sitting proudly
Photo: c.byatt-norman / Shutterstock
It’s often said there are personality differences between Labrador Retrievers bred to show (conformation dogs) and those bred to work (field dogs). And chocolate labs have a reputation for being different than black and yellow labs. Is it true? New research by Sarah Lofgren et al (Royal (Dick) Veterinary School, University of Edinburgh) investigates.

Although many Labrador Retrievers are family pets, some work as hunting dogs while others are bred for the show ring. There’s a difference in appearance between field (or working) Labradors and conformation (or show) dogs, and some people think they have different personalities too. 

Almost 2000 owners of Labrador Retrievers registered with the UK Kennel Club completed a demographic survey and the C-BARQ, a questionnaire that assesses canine personality. The survey included questions about exercise, and whether the dog was a family pet or a working dog used for retrieval or as a show dog.

Gundogs were given higher ratings for trainability, fetching, and attention seeking than show dogs and pets. They were also rated as less likely to bark, less fearful of loud noises, and less likely to have a stereotypy (unusual behaviour). Most of these are not surprising as they fit with the requirements of a dog that has to work at retrieval in the field. For example, it’s good they are considered less fearful of loud noises since they will routinely hear gunshots as part of their work. They need to be good at retrieval, and they will spend periods of time waiting in between retrieves.

The show dogs were rated as less fearful of humans, objects and noise, less aggressive to people who are not the owner, and less agitated when ignored. Again most of these fit with the requirements of a dog that will perform well in the show ring, where there are unfamiliar people and sounds, and the dog will be handled by the judge who is a stranger to them.

Compared to black and yellow Labradors, chocolate Labs were given lower ratings for trainability and fear of noises, and higher ratings for unusual behaviours. Compared to black Labs, they scored lower on fetching but were more excitable and more likely to be agitated when ignored; however these were not different compared to yellow labs. It is not known if the genes for coat colour also affect behaviour in this breed. It is also possible that other genes exist by chance at greater levels in certain kinds of Labrador, particularly since some dogs were related. 

One of the nice things about this study is the range in the amount of daily exercise; while some dogs had less than an hour, others got more than four hours of exercise a day. In general, the dogs who got more exercise were less fearful of humans and objects, less likely to have separation anxiety, and less aggressive. The authors suggest that dogs who get less exercise may become bored and frustrated.

One potential confound the researchers acknowledge is that dogs originally bred to work, who subsequently turn out not to be very good at it, may then become family pets instead. Hence it is possible that the dogs kept solely as pets include some ‘failed’ working dogs.

The results are correlational and do not show causality. The differences between the two types of Labrador Retrievers could be due to genetics (being bred for a different purpose), environment (being raised and trained differently), or a combination.  In addition, the results rely on reports from owners who are likely aware of widely held beliefs about the breed.

The scientists say, “This large-scale study of behavioural characteristics in Labrador Retrievers revealed a number of associations between physical, lifestyle and management characteristics of the dogs and personality traits. The explanatory factor with the largest overall effect was the Working Status of the dog, where pets showed dispositions that are generally considered less desirable than those of Gundogs and Showdogs.”

The study is fascinating because it looks at personality differences within one breed, which is unusual. It also shows a relationship between exercise and temperament. The higher ratings for trainability amongst gundogs – who have received large amounts of training – make me wonder if this is a fixed trait, or if training leads to increased trainability.  

Many people think Labrador Retrievers are the perfect family dog. What kind of Labrador do you prefer?

Lofgren, S., Wiener, P., Blott, S., Sanchez-Molano, E., Woolliams, J., Clements, D., & Haskell, M. (2014). Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 156, 44-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.006

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.

A panhandler's German Shepherd Dog on the street
Photo: everst / Shutterstock

Research by Michelle Lem et al (University of Guelph) asks homeless young people (aged 18-24) what their pet means to them. Previous studies have focussed on the benefits to homeless people of owning a dog or cat. The aim of this study was to get a balanced picture of both the advantages and disadvantages. 

Ten homeless young people took part in in-depth interviews about their pet. 8 of them had a dog, and 2 had a cat but had previously had a dog whilst homeless. Most lived on the street or in a vulnerable housing situation (squatting/couch-surfing), and three had found stable housing.

The main theme to emerge was that of putting the animal first. Everyone in the study said they put their pet first, even if this meant suffering hardship themselves. For example, they would not take up housing if they could not bring the animal with them. This shows the value they place on the companionship they get. The authors point out that for some youth their relationship with their pet is the most meaningful relationship they have, and potentially the only loving relationship in their life. For example, one youth said, “My relationship with MacKenzie [the dog]… is the best I ever had.”

Some young men described sleeping on the street because they were unable to find a shelter that would allow pets. Another had become homeless because the dog was not allowed at the relative’s apartment where he had been living. 

One man described how he had a job, but with no home he had nowhere to leave his dog while he went to work. At first he found someone to mind the dog for him during the day, but they were not reliable which meant that sometimes he could not go to work, and so he lost the job.

Pets helped people in several ways, such as providing motivation to find housing that would allow pets, so that the dog would have a roof over its head. For example, one said, “I love him and I get a place for him. Really, like, if it wasn’t for him, I’d be on the streets.” 

Some participants said the pet helped them to stay out of trouble with the police and to use less drugs. (Some participants did not mention drug use).

There were different views about begging, with some saying it was wrong to take an animal begging, and others liking to because it meant they made more money.

There were stresses associated with looking after an animal. One young woman said, “It’s really hard taking care of them because I can’t always get them food… I’m worried that something might happen to them.” Several people had lost an animal, in one case when it was run over, and in two cases when it was taken in by animal control (following arrest/being sent to jail) and subsequently euthanized.

The authors say, “Companion animals appear to serve as a vehicle for youth to learn about unconditional love, trust, and constancy in a relationship. With such strength of attachment, it is not surprising that youth consistently choose to forego opportunities for shelter, housing and employment in order to be with their companion animals. Although these choices may be to the detriment of their own health and success in getting off the street, for some youth this “Pet before self” theme may be a driver for reducing their use of drugs and hence number of arrests, as well as beneficially affect their daily activities by creating structure and routine.”

The research took place in Toronto and Ottawa, and involved very detailed interviews with a small number of people. The advantage is a rich dataset, but it is not possible to generalize from such a small sample and so more research is needed. The recommendations will be especially helpful to organizations that cater to homeless people. Suggestions include allowing pets in some shelters, schemes to make pet food and veterinary care available to the homeless, and even dog daycare at shelters to help people transition into employment.

Some organizations have programs to assist with pet food and vet care for homeless and low income people. For example, the BC SPCA has an outreach program called Charlie's Food Bank, which goes to Vancouver's DownTown East Side every Thursday morning.

The importance of housing does not only apply to people who are homeless – lack of suitable housing is a very common reason for companion animals to be surrendered to humane societies. Making more pet-friendly housing available would benefit both people and their pets.

Lem, M., Coe, J.B., Haley, D.B., Stone, E., & O'Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: A qualitative analysis Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, XL (4), 285-304

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Surprising History of Veterinary Medicine for Dogs and Cats

And the ‘dangerous’ woman who played a vital role.

A tabby cat looks at the camera
Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH
We are used to the idea that veterinarians treat dogs, cats, rabbits and other small animals, but it wasn’t always so. Before the automobile, the main role for vets was in the treatment of horses. As the number of horses declined, two British government reports (in 1938 and 1944) suggested vets should specialize in the treatment of farm animals. 

The change to small animals is often explained as due to increasing standards of living and people’s desire for companion animals after the Second World War. A new report by Andrew Gardiner of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (University of Edinburgh) shows the real reason is the rise of animal charities, and the role of one woman in particular: Maria Dickin.

It’s a tale of politics and intrigue. Gardiner says that in the period between the two wars, “a new territory of animal care was opening up. By the time the veterinary profession realized that things were moving beyond its control, it was almost too late.”

Maria Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor in a basement in 1917. Dickin was in her 40s and had no previous experience of looking after animals, but she saw the need for them to receive care. “Bring your sick animals! Do not let them suffer! All animals treated. All treatment free” said the sign.  

The organization grew enormously. Ten years later, they treated 410,000 animals in a year and had even opened clinics in other countries. Although the people who took their animals to the PDSA would not have been able to afford to go to a vet, the veterinary profession still looked down on the organization. 

The people who worked at PDSA clinics had no veterinary training. This was not illegal, because the law at the time only prevented people from calling themselves veterinary surgeons without training, not from caring for animals. The large number of animals passing through the clinics meant that staff quickly became experienced, and apparently many vets at the time – more used to horses – were not good at handling small animals. 

In 1926, when a woman called Sarah Martha Grove Hardy left the PDSA £50,000, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons tried to claim some of the funds. G.H. Livesey, a prominent vet, called people involved in animal welfare ‘cranks’ and said, “All of us who have had experience in dog practice, know that there are ladies (generally childless) who have to turn their attention to something, and nearly always they turn to dogs.”

The funds from Grove Hardy were used to set up a Sanatorium in Essex. Gardiner describes it as “a comprehensive treatment, training and headquarters complex with numerous wards, stables and kennels, X ray and UV light treatment facilities and a spacious operating theatre. Educational facilities included lecture rooms and a library.” The Sanatorium had just one actual veterinary surgeon. As well as treating animals, it was a training facility for PDSA staff.

The vets of the time were not keen on other animal charities either. Writing in 1931, the then-secretary of the RCVS Warwick Fowle said "The lady [Maria Dickin] is dangerous and energetic; the RSPCA is timid and apathetic."

Since the law could not be used to close down the animal clinics, the veterinary associations turned to a moral argument about animals having a right to ‘proper’ diagnosis and treatment. Gardiner writes that they were also beginning to realize that treating dogs (and cats) could be enough to support a business. Changes in the law were being considered that would have meant the PDSA had to hire vets – not that many would have wanted to work there.

Against this backdrop, Dickin (now retired from some of her PDSA roles) and the President of the RCVS, G.H. Livesey (he of the ‘cranks’ jibe above), came to an agreement. Large PDSA clinics would hire a veterinarian, while smaller ones would refer to a local vet when appropriate (and local vets did not have to take the work if they did not want to). 

Although some vets supported the change, many did not. One wrote “I would like to point out … that the ‘dear little doggy’ stuff is quite a futile line to take with our profession. Some of us, thank goodness, have a real job of work to do. He mentions little doggies and pussies having a vote in the matter. Believe me, if this were the case, the cats would be too occupied in passing anti-castration laws to worry about the PDSA.”

Nonetheless, the changes went ahead and over time vets developed a better appreciation of dogs and cats. In 1957 the British Small Animal Veterinary Association was formed. PDSA still exists today and provides free veterinary treatment to 2.3million animals a year in the UK. 

Gardiner says, “The role of Maria Dickin and the PDSA has been marginalized within the history of British veterinary medicine.” His account shows that, in developing a network of animal clinics that the veterinary profession had not imagined possible or desirable, they started a new discipline of small animal practice.

Gardiner, A. (2014). The 'Dangerous' Women of Animal Welfare: How British Veterinary Medicine Went to the Dogs Social History of Medicine, 27 (3), 466-487 DOI: 10.1093/shm/hkt101