Sometimes in quieter moments, the past weighs heavily on me. What makes being a vet great is also what makes it so tough. It’s also one of the main reasons why so many young vets walk away from the job. Being a vet means being responsible for a patient’s care in a way that perhaps only your GP will understand.Continue reading “When Vets Make Mistakes”
It’s not what you think. Once I tell you you’ll wonder why you didn’t see the problem straight away, and I bet you’ll never take the risk again. In fact, even after my mother pointed it out, I nearly made the same mistake as you’ll see later.Continue reading “Why Kids Should Never Walk Dogs Alone”
This isn’t just for dogs and cats in Adelaide. If you live near any city in the developed world these days, you need to know these people exist (click here for specialists in other states and countries). One day you may be very grateful.Continue reading “List of Adelaide Vet Specialists”
The trust our pets give us seems almost like too much responsibility at times. What if we accidentally don’t do the best we can? That’s why we get our advice from trusted sources.
Can you still trust advice when financial interests and your pet’s interests don’t match? Thankfully, yes, just because animal lovers are some of the best people there are. However, I still want you to know of the ways sellers are being tempted to give biased advice.
I can’t apologise enough for not naming names but at least if they ever happen you should be able to spot these tricks, and even help me fix a few.Continue reading “Secret Payments, Incentives & Bias”
Have you heard? Dr Chris Brown is stepping down from the Bondi Vet. The producers are asking pet owners to nominate their favourite vet for his replacement. What a great opportunity for you to do something about what I see as a great problem.
So here we are, in possibly the most female dominated of all the professions, yet all the major celebrity vets are male. Why?Continue reading “Where Are All The Female Vets?”
Thanks to my big mouth I was in trouble from the outset. As a litter of five 10kg puppies were brought in by the scruffs of their necks, all I had to do was shut up.Continue reading “Why Banning Dog Breeds Doesn’t Work”
If you want to see the information your vet uses, you need to get access to scholarly journals. This post explains how to:
- Find articles via Google Scholar
- Choose the best research paper and avoid ‘junk science‘
- Understand scientific and veterinary articles
Researching Pet Information With Google Scholar
- Go to www.scholar.google.com.au
- Choose your keywords carefully; the more precise and technical the better
- The search results will show a link to the right if you can get the full text without paying
- Otherwise, click on the main listing, which will give an Abstract summary only (unless you pay the publisher).
The negatives include:
- Many articles are behind a paywall
- Scholar includes all sources, some of which aren’t reliable enough
- Scholarly journal articles are very hard to read
How To Find Good Scientific Articles
Once you’ve got the list, how do you know which article is best?
Identify scholarly articles:
- The journal’s target audience should be professionals
- The language should be technical
- There are usually multiple authors
- The authors’ credentials and academic positions are shown
- Research Methods and Results are shown
- There are inline citations for each statement of fact (dogs smell17 or dogs smell (Smith et al., 2010))
- These citations link to references where that fact is proven
- Avoid cherrypicking by finding a recent review article, which summarises many scientific studies. Here’s an example: I want to find out whether turmeric will help my dog’s arthritis. I go to Google Scholar and search “turmeric arthritis dog review” and get the screenshot pictured. Try to avoid short abstract summaries; the third one down is a freely available full download from wiley.com and will answer your question perfectly (sadly, there is no evidence turmeric works, but as it’s also likely to do no harm you are welcome to try it).
- Assess the date. Try to use articles from within the past ten years if at all possible. These will reflect the latest knowledge and correct for earlier errors.
- Assess the journal. Is it peer-reviewed? Peer review is part of publishing in reputable journals, where other experts in the field read the paper first. The paper is either accepted or rejected based on the author’s knowledge, methods and conclusions. Peer review is a filter that will usually remove the most inaccurate and misleading articles. See how to find out if a journal is peer reviewed below.
- Observational studies (such as “Average Lifespan of Dogs With Arthritis” can’t generalise from small groups unless they have selected a representative sample from the population. Do the dogs studied represent your dog, or is the group somehow different? Veterinary studies often use dogs that attend a referral centre, for example, which don’t reflect ‘average’ dogs at all.
- Read experimental papers critically by looking for:
- A Control group (untreated) or another treatment group for comparison
- Placebo given to the control group when possible (placebo is hard for some treatments like surgery & when it’s not ethical to do nothing)
- Single or Double-blinding†
- Independent funding
- Researchers disclosing their conflicts of interest
- Full disclosure of methods and results
- Studies with 50 or more animals
- Results with statistical significance* not just ‘improvement’ or ‘correlation’.
- Full papers, not just abstract summaries
The ideal study is large, recent, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, university-based and published in a respected journal. Not every good study will tick all the boxes but missing items can alert you to possible weaknesses. This article gives another view on assessing primary research papers.
†Single-blinded means the pet owner did not know whether they were giving placebo or control. Double Blinded means neither the owner nor the observer knew. This should prevent observer bias.
*Statistical significance is testing to ensure that what was found was very unlikely to have been caused by chance. It’s not enough for a study to show the numbers moving in the right direction; the important thing is how unlikely is it? The benchmark, called the p-value, is usually set at odds of less than one in twenty, or p<0.05.
What Is Junk Science?
A p-value of 0.05 means studies will produce misleading results at least one time in twenty. In practice it’s even higher than this once you add in bias, poor study design and poor use of statistics. These studies are what we call ‘junk science‘, and they are loved by conspiracy theorists, single-issue campaigners and the media. The best defence is to not rely on single studies unless they’re very well conducted.
How To Read Scientific Papers
- Take the technical language slowly and try to look up new words. They’ll keep reappearing.
- Use the Abstract (a short summary) to decide if you’re interested but don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense. I only use the abstract to decide if the subject interests me enough to read the whole paper.
- The Introduction gives a good background to the field. You may find other references cited here you’ll want to explore later.
- The Method shows how the authors designed and carried out the study. Skipping this is OK if you trust them but it’s my favourite place to pick holes.
- The Results section shows the raw data and its statistical analysis. Try to have a good look yourself at any tables or graphs; you’ll be surprised how much you can make out. Authors are always tempted to mention any changes but only pay attention to results that are ‘statistically significant’.
- The Discussion outlines the paper’s main findings and puts them into the context of other work that has been done. If you’ve read the Method and Results sections you may disagree with some of them!
- The Conclusion summarises the most important findings but can’t be trusted alone.
- The References are very important. Look for citations from the major journals in the field.
- Be skeptical of exaggerated claims. Scholars and academics usually acknowledge the weaknesses in their findings and what further work is needed. Ask yourself if the findings are supported by the evidence. This study on coat colour in cats stated that tortoiseshell cats were more aggressive to people. The less sensational fact is that female cats are more aggressive than males, which has been shown before, and that tortoiseshell cats are almost always female.
I would be delighted to answer any questions if anyone took the interest to bring a paper in.
How To Find Out If A Journal Is Peer Reviewed
- Click on the link for the article.
- Click through to the Journal’s home page.
- Read though the information supplied by the publishers. Good journals should always state on their website if the articles are peer reviewed.
- If you can’t see it in the ‘Overview’ or ‘About’ page, find it by going to Information for authors. If it has ‘Information for referees/reviewers’ like this page you already know it’s peer-reviewed.
- Any reputable biomedical journal should be indexed on PubMed
In memory of Tifa, who inspired this page. Please also visit our related post on How To Tell If A Dog Remedy Helps and read my investigations of popular topics:
- Is Desexing and Neutering Good For Dogs?
- Does Bravecto Kill Dogs?
- Does Neutering Cause Aggression In Female Dogs?
Lastly, this TED talk on the misuse of statistics in everyday life is a good way to finish.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.
I love Devon Rex cats (that’s mine above) but they aren’t good for allergies. To cats, that is. (for allergies of cats & dogs, follow this link)
My previous Devon Rex was dumped at a shelter after 18 months being locked in a room. She’d been bought on the misguided belief that she wouldn’t cause cat allergy. It took me years to get her settled after that rough start, and it could have been worse.
I’ve seen plenty of animal lovers who are allergic to their pets. It’s heartbreaking to watch. The good news is there are things you can do to help.Continue reading “Allergy To Dogs And Cats”
Here’s a rare public comment on a dog breeder forum about what I think is one of South Australia’s dirty little secrets.Continue reading “Dog Debarking Surgery”
In July, 2018 the new laws for dogs and cats came into force. You can read the details by following the link.
Although it will not be universally popular, the move towards universal desexing and microchipping of dogs and cats should produce a clear net benefit to pets and the community.
Regarding the concerns I raised below back in 2016, most have been addressed satisfactorily:
- Vets can only give temporary exemptions
- Guard dogs and remote communities are not specifically exempted
- Breeding standards are already law and now breeders must also be registered, making the removal of rogue operators easier
- I’m yet to be convinced of the benefit of cat owners being asked to register their cats. Most owned cats have no harmful effect on communities or councils. There are existing laws on the removal of unidentified stray cats that function perfectly well.
- Compulsory microchipping and desexing are an excellent idea for all cats, but the existing databases you already pay for are still necessary, and in my opinion, all that is needed.
- You can still buy puppies at Adelaide pet shops from interstate puppy farms.