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Is there something on your mind?

by
01 April 2016, at 1:00am

Dr David Williams wonders what is going on in the minds of animals we treat and their own utterances when it comes to how they are feeling and thinking...

GLORIOUS ISN’T IT – TO WAKE UP ON A SPRING MORNING AND LISTEN TO THE DAWN CHORUS? I wonder what they are all saying to each other, these birds bursting into song?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Cambridge logical philosopher of a century ago, would have thought such an idle question was worthless. “If a lion could speak we would not understand him,” he writes.

I’m not quite sure what he meant by that. Perhaps that with such a different world view we could not hope to hazard even a guess at what a lion’s utterances would involve.

Thomas Nagel’s influential paper What is it like to be a bat? talks about the impossibility of entering into the world of another individual. I cannot know what it is like, argues Nagel, to sense the world through echolocation, to spend much of my life hanging upside down, to y by my own power.

I can have a go at imagining what it must be like, but even then I am imagining what it would be like to be a human echo-locating, hanging upside down, flying, not really understanding it truly from the bat’s perspective which we can never know.

But as vets we have to make an attempt to enter into their world; not bats maybe, but getting to some degree into the internal milieu of the patients we treat. It was a rather crazy vet I saw practice with who always sat on the floor with his patients, to see the world as they saw it. And while I don’t spend all my time sitting or squatting like that, I always think it is important as the animal comes into the consulting room from the waiting area to get down to their level – I am much more interested in meeting them than their owners, at least to start with!

These days we are much more aware that having separate areas for cats and dogs in waiting rooms is just common sense, as is ensuring that hospitalised birds are housed high up, being less stressed in a setting that better mirrors their natural environment. Yet we always have to keep in mind that we cannot know what is going on in the mind of the dog or cat or lizard or budgie we are caring for.

On the other hand, gentleness of touch and quietness of voice can never go amiss in calming any animal that must be stressed coming into a veterinary clinic. Or can it?

Take the strange case of a rabbit with a thymoma gradually enwrapping its jugular veins. The presenting sign in many of these animals is a transient bilateral exophthalmos occurring when the animal is stroked. As the blood pressure increases the ow of blood into the retrobulbar venous plexus is not matched by the jugular out ow, hence the exophthalmos.

Removing the thymoma is not an easy task, but to my mind the main issue here is one that extends to all rabbits, not only ones with unusual tumours. We all know that stroking an animal reduces our blood pressure, but does it cause hypertension in the therapy animal? It certainly seems to in the rabbit. Indeed this prey species probably lives in a constant ocean of stress.

Over the past few years, opinions on appropriate welfare standards for rabbits have changed markedly with concepts of rabbits kept singly in hutches being very much, and quite rightly a thing of the past. But you only have to go out for a spring walk and see a group of rabbits together feasting on the new grass to see that keeping rabbits housed singly must be way off target.

Just to stray off tangent for a moment (and those who have been lectured by me know that is all too often a failing of mine!) I was searching for the right word for a group of rabbits. It was a short stretch across the table to James Lipton’s great book An Exultation of Larks, which lists more than a thousand collective nouns.

So imagine how disappointed I was to find that the only two terms for a group of rabbits were a colony or a nest. It’s a husk of hares, next in the list species-wise, although I’m not at all sure that hares ever really group together – I’ve only seen them singly running or boxing as a pair, and that only twice.

Next to the rabbits alphabetically come the rabbis of course – a commentary of those, you’ll be interested to know, with an om of Buddhists and a transmigration of Hindus. “Focus!” shout the students and we get back on track...

Well actually here is an interesting link – I was speaking at the Western Paci c Veterinary Conference a few years ago in Bangkok, and I protested that flying all that way, to give a day’s worth of lectures and then a flight straight back was just not on. Find me some elephants and tigers I asked, preferably some with eye problems!

And so it was that the day after my lectures I found myself in the middle of the Thai jungle on the way to an elephant hospital by the river Kwai – a fair number of cataracts there together with elephants with periocular irritation because of the elephant louse Haematomyzus elephantis.

You could tell there was self-trauma here because of the shortness of the eyelashes, normally beautifully long, and the associated severe ocular surface damage. And then we travelled on to a tiger temple where the monks cared for tigers rescued from owners in high rises in Bangkok. They had purchased the animals as cubs and then relinquished them when they grew too big.

The animals were remarkably tame, rather too tame for my liking, but certainly not sedated – I was with them all day without seeing any tranquillising medication being given. No, said the Buddhist monks – and here’s the link to the “om” we noted earlier – the animals are calm, I was told, because in fact they are reincarnated monks. Interesting.

But the worrying thing was that a number of these tigers, ones kept in enclosures rather than allowed to mix with the tourists coming to the temple, were blind with cataracts. These animals had been fed as cubs on cow’s milk and had developed osmotic lens opacities.

Without the possibility of surgery, I did wonder whether it was appropriate to keep these blind tigers alive. Thinking about their five freedoms, food and drink were in plentiful supply but freedom from disease and ability to fulfil their natural behaviours was sadly lacking. And who knows about fear and distress?

All of which take us back to the need to work out what the animals we deal with are actually thinking and feeling. But I’m already well over a thousand words so more thoughts on that will have to wait for another perambulation!