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Cultural differences evident in attitudes to welfare issues

01 November 2010, at 12:00am

DICK LANE reports on some of the papers presented at this year’s AIHAIO conference in Stockholm

PEOPLE for Animals for Life was the theme for the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations (AIHAIO) Conference in Stockholm in July.

Based at the modern conference facility in the city, there was little reference to aggressive Scandinavian invaders who once conquered much of northern Europe. 

Travelling from York, a city much affected by Viking raids and later settlement, the north of England again suffered after the Norman Conquest with the “Harrowing of the North”. Vikings who first settled in France were responsible for the Norman invasion of England in 1066 that led to most drastic changes to the British Isles – even greater than with the Roman occupation 1,000 years earlier. 

At the main social event of the four-day AIHAIO meeting, a battleship towered over the dining area. The warring King of Sweden in 1628 insisted on his very recently-built warship sailing to Poland but it sank within one mile of its starting point after firing a farewell salvo of guns in salute!

The Vasa ship museum was used as the setting for the gala dinner. The enormous hull of this well-preserved wooden warship, raised from the sea for preservation, was a fine setting as the conference diners consumed their meal of seafood followed by “spring chicken”. 

The Swedish meal the next evening of Biff Rydberg was more to my liking with an almost raw egg yolk beside a very tender beef steak and chopped Swede as the vegetable.

The conference programme, with often four simultaneous sessions, covered a wide range of topics. Aggressive behaviour by humans did not feature except in the use of AAA (Animal Assisted Activity) in a report by Arnold Arluke on anti- violence programmes for adolescents in the USA.

In the opening address, Dennis Turner discussed varying attitudes towards animals and animal welfare, making cross-cultural comparisons: the elimination of rabies and the Queen of Jordan’s interest in canine welfare had led to a changing attitude to dogs in many Muslim communities, he said. During the next parallel session, Swedish researcher Linda Handli reported on the association of cortisol and oxytocin levels on the relationship between dog owners and their dogs. Her study, funded by the Swedish Research Council, was based on 10 middle-aged ladies with their Labradors who were observed over one hour after each spending three minutes stroking their dog.

Over the hour, 10 serial blood samples were taken to measure oxytocin and cortisol levels; the dogs also had blood samples taken in the period.

Oxytocin was found to have a close relationship with the formation of bonding and attachment as well as its stress-reducing effect. Dogs that were kissed every day by their owners had higher oxytocin levels as did their owners.

A questioner suggested that in the age group of ladies studied there may well have been “empty nesters” and the results could not be extended to all other dog owners. More research was called for but oxytocin was repeatedly linked with dog attachment and social support in subsequent papers presented.


At the next day’s plenary session, physiologist Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg spoke further on the role of oxytocin based on her work in Stockholm. In her human patients, oxytocin was important in the stimulation of social interactions by reducing anxiety and increasing trust in others.

Oxytocin, when used as a nasal spray, had the effect on her patients of better recognition, especially of social cues, increased trust and a well-being effect. Oxytocin reduces the activity in the HPA axis leading to lowered cortisol levels whilst dopamine and serotonin are antagonistic to increased oxytocin secretion.

Oxytocin secretion is well known to be associated with stimulation of the urino-genital tract and of course in breast feeding. Oxytocin secretion is also activated by skin contact, especially with the sensory nerves in body areas associated with the recently born.

Conscious rats stroked on the front of their bodies showed a rise in oxytocin; when cortisol was measured in sleeping rats, the cortisol levels went up after a “pinch”, but stroking the rat with a toothbrush reduced the cortisol levels. Babies pushing on the mother’s breast skin produced similar effects with oxytocin released.

Tactile skin contacts are important. The suggestion was made that as massage of the shoulders was now used to reduce aggression in special needs schools, oxytocin nasal sprays might also have a beneficial effect.

With primates, the face-to-face body hug is instrumental in the bonding of relationships and similar responses from oxytocin release are considered important in developing affectionate relationships.

In another presentation, Manuela Wedl from the University of Vienna said that dogs’ attachment to their owners was strongly affected by the personality of the owner and the dog, the owner’s gender and the quality of the attachment.

Saliva was collected from owners and dogs to measure testosterone and cortisol levels. In the owners’ personality tests, recognising “neuroticism” was closely related to the dog-regulated distance: the more the owner considered the dog as a “social support” and an understanding partner, the more often the dog came to the owner who was kept distracted from the dog during the tests.

The distance away from the owner was increased when the dog personality axis “vocal and aggressive” was negatively related to this parameter. The dog’s attachment to its owner was strongly affected by personality and by owner attachment

Dogs with autistic children

It was said that there is an increasing recognition of “autistic spectrum disorders” (ASD) in children, a condition known to have an inherited factor but also with a strong early environment component in its development. Defined as a neurological disorder that interferes with the normal development of the child, ASD could well be linked with early failure of bonding with adults and siblings.

Such children were described by Enders-Siegers at Utrecht as

  1. lacking verbal and non-verbal communicative skills,
  2. lacking imagination and not understanding humour very well, and
  3. may display hyperactivity, running away or “bolting” unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, Enders-Siegers in her paper referred to “guide dogs for ASD children” and this title caused confusion amongst many in the audience relying on translations from English.

The use of assistance dogs to help with ASD children is now well established in the UK by the charity Dogs for the Disabled and there too it is the subject of research. The research reported in the Netherlands was based on the earlier successful projects in Canada and Ireland where dogs unsuited to work for blind persons as guides were retrained as dogs to help young children.

She used 11 Labradors aged one- and-a-half years placed with families that had an autistic child: the families kept diaries for the 12- month period of observation.

One dog had to be immediately withdrawn as the child “could not stand the smell” of the dog. In the other 10 dogs placed with children, three girls and nine boys aged between 4 and 7, nine of the dog placements were considered a success.

One boy became very aggressive and the dog was withdrawn on welfare grounds but the other combinations all showed positive results. The mobility of the children increased, social behaviour too improved with the children showing more interest in their environment and the parents reported development of speech and in eye contacts.

It was reported that there was increased relaxation in these Dutch families: one mother said “we are a normal family again” and siblings were especially appreciative of the assistance dog that came to live in their home. The close contact with the dog at the same eye level as the child, the child’s hands frequently touching the dog’s hair and the dog acting as a social facilitator with other people, were all considered factors in the improvements observed.

More research is called for. A questioner from Japan said he had met difficulties with such dog placements whilst in the USA a court case where a school had refused to allow an assistance dog to enter with its child handler was another problem presented.

Cultural differences and attitudes can be a problem: in Holland one mother did not like to be seen in public with her child and the assistance dog as this she felt labelled her unfairly.

Japanese research

A large attendance from Japan followed the success of the last AIHAIO conference held in Tokyo three years ago. Research had been conducted among 130 veterinary students 18 to 20 years old, by Izawa and co-workers in Japan, on how a dog’s appearance and its actions influenced people’s attitude to dogs.

There, the various breeds of dog and characteristics were important but after making contact with the student, the dog’s hair type and the feel of the hair was as important as was the dog’s overall appearance. Negative effects were found when “the dog only watched the person”, or it did not come near, or if it was nervous or “did not seem to enjoy being touched”.

Again, cultural differences were evident and I am sure UK veterinary students would have reacted very differently but they might not have recognised the most favoured Siba amongst the breeds used in the experiment.

In another Japanese study, by Sugita et al, attitudes to euthanasia of dogs were surveyed amongst 3,000 veterinary hospitals; of the 932 who replied, the veterinarians disapproved of euthanasia except when “no hope for animal to recover” and “the owner demands euthanasia” was the reason.

Decisions were based on Japanese values that “being alive” was considered more important than the quality of life and the vets would prefer not to be the ones who put the animal to death. This finding was similar to the survey of dog euthanasia in Italy reported in the UFAW conference held in England in June (see the September issue of Veterinary Practice).

Assistance dogs in Sweden

The AIHAIO conference was supported by the Swedish Kennel Club which has issued special breed-specific instructions regarding “exaggeration in pedigree dogs”: 47 out of approximately 300 breeds have been listed with a view to improving their health.

Close to 60,000 puppies are registered each year by the club and as animal insurance is almost a requirement in Sweden with 78% penetration, records of illness and behaviour problems are quite extensive and available for research. Between 1995 and 2006, Agria insured approximately 200,000 dogs, 100,000 horses and up to 200,000 cats.

Data on longevity and chronic disorders are more readily available than in the UK where there is less penetration of insurance in the pet ownership market, said Agria’s Simon Wheeler in his talk.

Breed health is of particular relevance to The Swedish Service and Hearing Dog Association which has over 100 self-trained dogs at work; owners can choose whatever breed they wish and trainers visit the homes during the training processx from early puppyhood.

Advice is given on choosing and acquiring a breed with the least health problems and the system of training the disabled person’s own dog is unique in Europe. Judged by the dogs present in the conference centre, it seemed a successful scheme; service dogs including trained “alert dogs” for epilepsy and for diabetes were present and a start is about to be made on providing dogs for ASD and ADHD families.

At present there is government payment for all assistance dogs with a €3,000-5000 cost to cover the education of the dog, the help of the trainer taking between one to one-and-a-half years. If the dog is not up to standard with its tests at the end of the first year, then the disabled person has to buy a replacement dog to train, which is not easy for someone managing an adolescent puppy from a wheelchair.

In a small organisation with only 100 dogs, there may be advantages in this personal approach to providing an assistance dog, but with a new project for 50 to 60 dogs to be trained in the next few years using local tax money, new problems may arise.

There was a feeling that the welfare of the dogs could suffer if the system were more widely applied and close monitoring of the dogs would be necessary.

Welfare issues

Several conferences attended this summer showed how wide the issues of welfare are now spread. Reports in Sweden included horses used in human equine-assisted therapy, guinea pigs used for autistic children in schools and of dairy cows. Reports come regularly from the Green Chimneys Farm in the USA that uses chickens, goats and rabbits to improve adolescents’ social behaviour.

Farm animal welfare in large production units concerns the public but in Stockholm Christina Kolstrup asked if the health of dairy cows was associated with the health of their caretakers – after surveying 61 dairy herds. Researchers found that healthy cows required caretaker devotion and diligence.

The workload involved with too many dairy cows may result in poor health on owner/managers and employees, as herd size increase in numbers. There were very few mental health problems in the stockmen whereas physical health disturbances were more frequently reported.

Though the caretakers seemed to be content with their psychosocial work environment, the study indicated that good animal health may be associated with poor stockmen health. A possible explanation was that healthy cows require caretaker devotion and diligence which can increase workload.

A cow housed all the year round with little or no access to grazing can have a satisfactory standard of welfare, according to a recent report from the Farm Animal welfare Council in the UK, but due regard should be paid to the workers’ welfare based on the AIHAIO People and Animals for Life conference proceedings.