‘Harmless fun’ or ‘animal abuse’? - Veterinary Practice
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‘Harmless fun’ or ‘animal abuse’?

PETE WEDDERBURN continues his reports from the BlogPaws conference held earlier this year in Washington DC with a look at some of the weird and wonderful products on show in the exhibition

LAST month I wrote about the BlogPaws conference in Washington DC: an event aimed at “pet bloggers” (but including anyone who writes about animals online).

As I said, the event was similar to a stream of the BSAVA conference dedicated to “working with social media”, but with any animal enthusiast as welcome as vets.

Just as the commercial exhibition is a key attraction of many veterinary conferences, so it was at BlogPaws, but exhibitors were showing products with a general “animal” slant rather than pure veterinary wares.

There was the usual plethora of gourmet dog foods and treats, pet toys and pet clothing (who’d have thought that you could buy a pink leotard and tutu for a dog in six different sizes?).

The USA often seems to be the starting place for new cultural and technological trends, and while some of the extremes of pet barminess may never leave North America, many of the products and ideas on display will be seen in the UK in the coming years.

Sony’s new dog-video cam is a good example: the “Action Cam with Wi-Fi” may have been originally designed as a helmet-mounted sports camera, but Sony has cleverly repackaged the product to be strapped onto dogs, via a custom-made harness.

The matchbox-sized camera produces full high-definition footage, allowing you to obtain a dog POV (point of view) of the world. The camera is housed snugly into a waterproof case, in case your dog charges through surf or rolls in puddles. The wi-fi capacity of the camera gives you “real time” viewing of what the camera is filming.

You can see the image from the video camera live on your smartphone or tablet, as long as you stand within 20 yards of your pet. The Action Cam is already available in the UK, priced at £259 (www.sony.co.uk), so if you are looking for a different type of holiday video this summer, why not pass the responsibility over to the family pet?

The commercial exhibition also acted as a showcase for a range of advocacy groups and charities. There has recently been increasing awareness of the need to restrain pets safely in cars, to protect human passengers from the missile effect of a small body hurtling around inside a car during a crash, as well as for the safety of the animal itself.

Little testing

But what sort of restraint is most effective? Is testing carried out on the various belts and harnesses that are widely available? One owner in the USA, Lindsey Wolko, discovered that the harness used for her pet was less effective than she had expected, and when she investigated the industry, she discovered that, compared to human safety equipment, independent testing of pet products was virtually nonexistent.

She took the initiative, establishing a non-profit research and advocacy organisation titled “The Center for Pet Safety”. The centre uses crash test dummy-dogs to evaluate different methods of pet restraint for cars. Its exhibition stand at BlogPaws showed slow-motion videos of dummy-dogs in cars that are deliberately crashed, vividly demonstrating the inadequacy of many commonly used methods of pet restraint.

The centre has received funding from Subaru to continue its research: pet safety could become a new marketing angle for car manufacturers.

Fire safety might seem a bit obscure for a pet-related conference but, again, there was an angle here: Molly the Dalmatian has been trained as a “fire-safety dog”, and she was demonstrating her prowess as an educator. She has been trained to teach children about what to do in a house fire.

Her owner, Dayna Hilton, has taught Molly to climb into a child’s bed and to pretend to go to sleep. Then when Dayna sets off a smoke alarm, Molly gets out of the bed and crawls along on her tummy to go to the fire assembly point outside. Her almost comical belly-crawl gives a vivid demonstration of the importance of staying close to the floor, away from the smoke, when caught in a house fire.

Children love Molly, and as well as visiting local schools, she does nationwide television broadcasts from a mini TV studio, and she uses Skype to connect up with schools across the USA as well as internationally (http://sparklesthefiresafetydog.com).

Scooter rider

While Molly was crawling around at one end of the exhibition, Norman the Scooter Dog was showing off his scooter-riding ability elsewhere. Appropriately sponsored by the Natural Balance pet food company, Norman is able to ride the scooter as well as any human four-year-old child.

The public in the USA seem to adoringly lap up humanisation of pets: dogs were welcomed to sit at the table with their owners during meals at BlogPaws. It is seen as “normal” to dye pets’ fur in vivid colours, and nobody bats an eyelid when an eight-year-old Sphinx cat is pushed around in a pram, wearing a long frizzy wig on the first day, and a straw boater hat with a human-type shirt and tie the next.

In the UK, some might feel that this is almost a type of animal abuse; in the USA it’s seen as harmless fun.

The veterinary profession in the USA recognises the value of engaging with the pet-owning public at these events: the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) had a fullystaffed stand, with the current president, Dr Kate Knutson, talking to delegates about the value of highquality veterinary care.

A conference would not be complete without an awards ceremony, and BlogPaws did this in style, with a red carpet entrance for dressed-up people and pets. The “Pet Blogging and Social Media Awards” included categories such as “Best Blog Design”, “Best Blog Photos”, “Best Facebook Design” and “Best Blog Video”.

As befits an internet-based event, global live coverage was a feature, with a video connection to an Australian dog rescue centre and regular tweeted updates on Twitter. I’ll swear I heard the cat in the USA asking the dog in Australia: “Does my tail look big in this dress?”

  • Next month: the lectures from BlogPaws: what should vets know about making the most of social media?

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