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Importance of assessing each individual

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01 July 2015, at 12:00am

CAROLINE BOWER reports on the BVBA’s study day prior to the main BSAVA congress, which had a series of lectures on aspects of behaviour as well as five presentations on original research

KEEPING the Peace was the theme for the British Veterinary Behaviour Association’s annual study day on 8th April in the ICC in Birmingham.

The BVBA is an affiliate group of the BSAVA and has a membership of vets, nurses, behaviourists, students; in fact anyone with a real interest in behaviour and welfare in companion animals.

This year there was a pot pourri of four main lectures, and in addition no less than five short presentations of original research work on a range of subjects from “reasons for premature retirement of guide dogs” to “classification of cat facial expressions in relation to their emotional state”.

Professor Daniel Mills presented a thought-provoking paper summing up the behavioural effects of neutering, with multiple references to published data. From a purely behavioural point of view, trying to make sense and reach practical conclusions as to which individuals should be neutered and when can be difficult for veterinary surgeons in practice.

Clients often think of neutering as a cure-all but many behaviours have a strong learned component, so Prof. Mills stressed the importance of assessing each individual and offering behavioural advice when possible.

Neutering is commonly recommended in relation to aggression, but Prof. Mills pointed out that testosterone per se does not cause aggression but it does affect the tendency to roam, which may lead to higher risk situations.

There is, however, sound evidence that neutering tends to increase sensitivity to threat, so neutering may be contra-indicated in anxious individuals.

Responsible neutering confers enormous benefits, both in terms of population control and health benefits, he said; however, we should also take into account the behavioural risks and benefits where leaving the pet entire may be considered a reasonable option.

Dr Claire Corridon discussed patterns of behaviour in multi-dog households, using her own dog daycare scheme to show many examples of dog interactions.

She discussed the benefits of dogs being housed with compatible companions, and also the potential pitfalls.

She described the careful introduction of a new dog, allowing exploration of the new environment without interference from other dogs, controlled introduction to other dogs in a neutral setting, care to avoid resource competition, and the importance of effective planning, predictability and control.

Trevor Cooper, lawyer with Dog’s Trust, then entertained us with stories and anecdotes relating to changes in dog laws, and to illustrate the fact that not all lawyers are boring or unintelligible!

There was a serious side to his talk too, with implications for dogs showing aggression on private property, and difficulties in interpretation of certain aspects of the new laws also becoming apparent.

One issue highlighted was the fact that, from 6th April 2016, not only will all dogs have to be microchipped by the age of eight weeks (unless a vet certifies it could affect a dog’s health), but also that it will be a criminal offence not to report an adverse event relating to a microchip.

This would include failure to transmit, chip migration, or a health condition relating to the chip. See www. doglaw.co.uk for more information on new microchipping laws.

He also pointed out that The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has now been extended to include assistance dogs, and maximum prison sentences for offences have increased.

Our last speaker was Lauren Finka, of Lincoln University, who considered multi-cat lifestyles for feral, rescue and domestic cats. Lauren’s presentation was carefully referenced and conclusions were evidence-based.

Some interesting facts which emerged were that although group living can be stressful, it need not be so, and stress is related to multiple factors such as temperament of individuals, previous social experience, consistency and predictability of the environment, and care in preventing resource competition (including the owner).

In one study of group-housed cats, higher cortisol levels were generally recorded in cats over two years of age, and also in those cats who were frequently handled, particularly in areas of the body associated with sensitivity, such as caudal regions.

In another study using cortisol as an indicator of stress, it was found that human density and numbers had more effect on feline stress than density and numbers of cats in the household.

In busy households there is likely to be more social activity and more visitors, so it was surmised that general disturbance and frequent or intrusive visits from unfamiliar people were responsible for increasing social “pressure” on cats in the home.