Our kittens, Lily and Lucy, came before the children. Quiet purrers and beautiful blinkers. Velvet furred links to another lifetime. They came before my Bipolar Disorder.
In my chaotic first few months of motherhood, on a visit home from the psychiatric hospital with my baby, the cats were not impressed. The baby startled and squawked in her rocker, and the cats stalked around the noise and movement, with twitching tails and wide suspicious eyes.
Their suspicion was justified about three years later when that baby – now a toddler – ‘posted’ Lucy through my bedroom louvres out into the garden via a drop of several metres. When I found her meowing on the lawn Lucy was unimpressed, but thankfully uninjured. I sat my toddler down for a talk about treating pets kindly and keeping our indoor cats indoors.
The Easter long weekend the year the cats were eight years old I was mid prep for a family lunch when my now seven-year-old daughter called:
‘Mum, there’s vomit in the cat’s room.’
I abandoned the sprawl of recipe books and followed my daughter’s voice to clarify whose vomit it was. There were patches of it dotting the floor, and the smell of partly digested cat biscuits and bile hung in the air. Cat vomit. And Lily looked flat. I lifted her up and palpated her painful, tense abdomen.
A couple of days before, I had caught her chewing something, but she had shot away when I’d approached. By the time I’d caught her, her empty mouth had concerned me, but I decided to wait and see.
I’d waited and now I was seeing.
The time frame and signs were textbook for whatever she had probably swallowed being stuck somewhere in her gut now. She’d need surgery.
I rang around for a nurse who was free to help me, arranged to meet at the veterinary clinic we both worked at, and loaded a very unhappy Lily into the car.
The incision for an exploratory laparotomy is long. From the bottom end of the sternum to the pubic bone. The exploratory part is methodical. You start with the stomach and visually and manually examine your way down the lengths of intestines. As I worked my way down Lily’s normal looking gut I began to doubt my decision to go in without an X-ray.
And then there it was. A lump. I exteriorised it and exhaled, relieved. The affected intestine was inflamed but not perforated and confined to five centimetres. One simple incision to retrieve…a scrunched-up length of metallic gift-wrapping ribbon.
Lily recovered fully from her surgery, but both cats were mostly confined to their room and cat run, if unsupervised, after that. They were both string, hair tie and ribbon obsessed, and I could not guarantee a house free of these items with a seven and a four year old in the house.
My cat ladies grew into elderly and then old ladies. Of the two, Lucy was always more outgoing and friendly. Lily formed relationships on her own terms and was more skittish. But when we lost Lucy last year, Lily became cuddly.
My now fifteen-year-old daughter, grew into one of Lily’s favourite people. She brought her into her bed and hand fed her morsels of chicken, tuna, or steak. In return Lily was a quietly purring source of warmth, love, and comfort.
Two weeks ago Lily declined rapidly, looking all of her seventeen years, within twenty four hours. Suddenly her bones stood out. Her coat morphed from meticulously groomed to dull. She no longer looked like herself.
I took her to one of the large veterinary emergency centres, requested blood and urine tests, and waited with a deep aching knowledge. In the end she made the decision to let her go – not easy – but black and white. Her blood test results were disastrous. Kidney parameters and blood glucose levels through the roof. I’d have thought twice about tackling both of these issues in a cat half her age.
We gathered to stroke her soft head and thank her for being part of our family for so long. And I whispered my love into her beautiful ears as she slipped gently out of my life.
That night I sat next to the empty cat bed and sobbed my way past midnight.
Two weeks later, I still startle sharply when I enter the cats’ room and am met with absence.
And when the grief hits my children in great stormy waves, I remind them that there is only one way to avoid this feeling, and that is never to have the love of a pet in your life.
My 11 year old clobbered me with this question recently, and it felt complicated.
I say ‘clobbered’ because – for me – the words ‘stay at home mum’ come with baggage. This phrase and I have an uneasy history. My judgement started early.
As a child I never dreamt of future motherhood. At thirteen my family and I moved from Germany to Australia. The change in schools was ‘resilience building.’ The first year or two I learnt to live with being intermittently bullied. Then, to my relief, at the end of grade ten several of my tormentors left school. They were either pregnant or would soon be.
The idea of motherhood, when linked to these girls who had taken such joy in making my life hell, became abhorrent.
Homing in on my goal of becoming a vet drove me through my last two years of school and into university. I worked hard, and with tunnel visioned arrogance. I saw children as a hindrance and the women who devoted their lives to staying at home and looking after them as little more than shepherdesses tending their flock while life passed them by.
When Michael (my now husband) and I started going out I spent the first years of our relationship reiterating that I would never want children. My career would always come first. He supported me.
8 years later we married and moved to the UK to work and travel. After we returned to Australia I continued working and started a second university degree.
Then, somewhere between 31 and 32, I sensed I would regret not trying to have a baby. It took one month to conceive that first baby. The plan was for me to stay at home in the beginning and go from there.
The universe laughed heartily.
I spent close to the first four months of motherhood in the mother baby unit of a psychiatric hospital. Along with parenthood I was served postnatal psychosis, catatonic depression, electroconvulsive therapy, and a lot of medication. I had no history of mental illness before the birth.
At times I was too unwell to look after my baby. And even when I could – my survival and care had to come before caring for my baby. I didn’t have the luxury of martyrdom. My baby and husband needed me alive.
Eventually I recovered from that episode of illness. But as much as I loved my baby, I found the stay-at-home mum loop of feeding, cleaning, settling, on endless repeat mind numbingly dull.
I returned to veterinary work part time.
My work re-engaged my brain. A day’s work felt like I had achieved tangible results, instead of running on the hamster wheel of domesticity all day.
Three years later, we had a carefully considered second baby whose arrival was also accompanied by a savage return of psychosis, mania, depression and a now definitive diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder.
Once I’d recovered, I struggled with the same aspects of stay-at-home motherhood I had with my first baby and returned to part time veterinary work.
Veterinary work is not particularly compatible with motherhood.
Shift ending times are academic. Needing to be home by a set time after work guarantees an emergency turning up, a regular appointment blowing out, or needing to catch up on phone calls and notes.
Childcare centres with their sharp closing times were not an option. My husband took over childcare when he wasn’t working. My mum helped too. But we largely relied on a nanny to cover my work shifts during the week.
By the time the nanny had been paid, my hourly rate sat at around $15 hour – to consult, perform, diagnostic tests, soft tissue surgery, dentistry, radiography, radiology, pharmacology, emergency medicine, euthanasia – for my patients and to communicate effectively and compassionately with my clients.
I worked for my sanity rather than the money.
At one point I switched to weekend work to make it a little more financially worthwhile. My husband was the stay-at-home parent for those days. He worked weekdays. We tag-teamed parenting and never had any time together as a family.
Veterinary work is rewarding.
It is also emotionally and mentally demanding. Many clients carry anxieties into the consulting room with their pet. At the end of a workday I had little emotional energy left for my family because I’d spent it on my clients.
Thankfully my children’s demands on my emotional energy were minimal when they were little.
But now, at 15 and nearly 12, it is all about being emotionally available. And unlike changing a nappy or cleaning up pureed fruit, sensing where on their emotional barometer they sit and responding appropriately, is something I don’t believe can be outsourced.
Just over 2 years ago I stepped away from veterinary work. In large part to focus on having my book published and explore my writing interests further, but also to be there for my children at ages when I feel they need me most.
I am grateful we can afford this choice.
My thoughts on stay-at-home motherhood have thankfully changed since I was fifteen. But some flinty fragments of my old views persist. I still don’t like the term ‘stay at home mum’. It implies too much domesticity, and that the bearer of this title has no interests outside of her children.
I would be a terrible mother if I hadn’t built a career first, and if I didn’t have interests outside of mothering. But the balance has shifted from shoving my family around the demands of an unyielding career to finding interests and opportunities that drape themselves more gently around the needs of my family.
So, in answer to ‘Am I a stay at home mum?’ My answer is ‘Sometimes.’
My memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published in April 2021 and is available through most online booksellers including Amazon, Booktopia, and Fishpond. You can find an excerpt here Book
Imagine being recommended a medication that you were told could lower your risk of dying. But to be fully informed before taking it, you were first required to spend 24 hours in a room wallpapered with all the potential risks and side effects of taking that medication printed in large, bold font.
The words all over that wallpaper are:
Dizziness, nausea, weight gain, diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain, vomiting, back pain, migraines, suicidality, paraesthesia, restless leg syndrome, blurred vision, ringing in the ears, eczema, itchiness, hives, agitation, irritability, nightmares, confusion, muscle pain, swelling of the face, lips, tongue, and/or throat that may cause difficulty in breathing or swallowing, impaired concentration, poor memory, hair loss, decreased thyroid function, hepatitis, liver failure, hallucinations, slurred speech, kidney failure, trouble walking, tremors, seizures, coma, death
After 24 hours you are let out of the room and presented with the medication. Would you take it?
I’ve had some experience assessing health related risk versus benefit. Professionally I’ve done it with every animal I have recommended a treatment or diagnostic test for, from the simple (routine vaccinations) to the complex (invasive surgery in a patient who is already unwell).
But perhaps my personal experience of taking psychiatric medications on and off for the last 15 years is more relevant. The above list is just a sample of the potential side effects of some of my medications. If I printed them all out, and then wall papered my house with them, I could easily torture myself into not taking any of them.
This is the wallpaper effect.
I don’t disregard any of the words on that list. I know someone who almost died as a direct result of taking one of the medications I take. I have recently been diagnosed with decreased thyroid function, very likely as a direct result of taking one of my medications, There have been other medications I have tried and had to discontinue because of side effects.
And to put the risks I am working with into perspective: Common side effects for many of these medications are considered able to affect up to 1 in 10 people, uncommon side effects may affect up to 1 in 100 people, and rare side effects – so the more serious ones in the above list – may affect up to 1 in 1000 people.
As risks go, they are not exactly tiny.
And yet I opt to religiously take these potentially life-threatening medications. Why? Because the risk of side effects (in me, at the moment) is less than the risk of my Bipolar 1 Disorder symptoms being poorly controlled.
I have a higher risk of both a poor quality of life and death from my Bipolar 1 Disorder if it is unmedicated than I do from my current medication regime. My risk of death if I do nothing to manage this illness sits between 15%-20% (including not only suicide but non intentional causes of death due to manic or psychotic symptoms, which can include increased risk taking, hypersexuality, poor judgement and delusional thinking).
Thanks to modern medicine, humans in first world countries are confronted with death less often. It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that death can be avoided if we ‘do our research’ and make the right choices.
Speaking of ‘research’: True research is not a google search. Neither is it being spoon-fed unsubstantiated claims on social media by someone who couldn’t make their way through one research paper if they tried, let alone the hundreds it would take to qualify what they were doing as actual research. Research is something academics, including scientists and some medical doctors, are trained to do. It is rigorous, unbiased, and a skill that takes years to learn.
I believe the choices most of us make about our health have less to do with ‘research’ and more to do with the biases our environment soaks us in.
If you see mobile morgues or dead bodies outside your window, you are more likely to want the vaccination that reduces the chances of you dying from what killed the people outside your window, even if the vaccine carries a very small risk of death.
If you don’t know anyone who has died from that same illness, but you are marinated in the announcement of a potentially fatal side effect of the vaccine every time you look at a screen, you are likely to be more reluctant to be vaccinated than someone in the first group.
The scientific risk of death due to side effect is identical in both populations but the human response is different according to which narrative is shoved into our malleable brains. The capacity to weigh true risk against benefit flies away.
And that is why I choose not to live in a house wallpapered with my medication side effects.
Naomi Osaka’s decision to step back from her job for reasons of mental ill health has stirred up a lot of debate in the last week. And yes, it’s great that she is being open about her mental ill health being the reason for this decision.
But Naomi Osaka is not representative of most people who experience mental ill health during their working life. The main reason is that (financially) Naomi can afford to take enough time off to recover.
I don’t point this out to minimise her suffering. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It will make you feel equally shit whether you are wealthy or not. But the luxury of time off for an employee to recover fully from an episode of mental illness is not one many workplaces will or even can accommodate.
This week several experts have stated that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees living with a mental illness, that these employees have a right to time off and to have their work modified to accommodate that mental illness.
I have mixed feelings about this. I feel exasperated, bemused, and tired. Because these earnest, well intentioned experts have no idea how mental illness and work mix in the real world.
The first time I experienced mental illness (postnatal psychosis followed by rebound depression) I was hospitalised for close to four months. ‘Luckily’ for my employer I was on maternity leave, so absolutely no thought had to be put into managing my absence, because it had already been planned for.
After I recovered, I continued to work as a small animal vet for another 12 years before taking a break to have my book published. In those 12 years I experienced a severe Bipolar 1 episode on average every 2-3 years. When I say severe, I mean requiring hospitalisation for weeks or months on end followed by a gradual re-integration to life outside the hospital.
Here are the two deal breakers my illness presents to most work places:
Firstly, for me, the onset of episodes of illness is sudden – ie between 24-48 hours. There is no time to plan or find someone to fill in.
Secondly, when I’ve had to phone work to say I would not be in for my next shift, I’d have to follow that with ‘I have no idea how long I will need off’.
Again – luckily for my employers – in those 12 years I was a casual employee. This meant I was effectively fired each time I got sick.
The practice I worked for was not doing anything illegal, and from a practical and financial point of view they could not have indefinitely held a position open for me. Each time I eventually recovered, and because there is almost never a shortage of work for vets – new hours were found for me. But me being able to slot back into the same workplace each time was due to the nature of the industry, not due to any laws to protect my position and income.
I am privileged, and thankfully my husband could support our family without my wage when I got sick. But my survival and roof over my head have had absolutely nothing to do with my workplaces being able to accommodate my mental illness.
Just because it isn’t legal to fire people or make their life hell because they live with mental illness doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I know plenty of people who live with this reality.
This injustice occurs because of a gargantuan power imbalance between an employee who lives with a mental illness and their employer. Whether employers are aware of it or not: They hold all the power. Here’s why:
Stigma still prevents many people from disclosing they live with a mental illness to their employer – especially when they are asymptomatic. Once that person becomes symptomatic, they are likely to struggle just to get through each day or hour. Symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, distorted thinking, irritability, a sense of hopelessness, panic attacks, and non-existent self-esteem, (to list just a few) make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to not only schedule a meeting with their boss or with HR, but then present at that meeting as a fully functioning human being.
And if they do, and their boss discriminates against them they often don’t have the mental resilience and the finances for a legal battle to bring their discriminating employer to justice.
These employees will often just go quietly –because that is all they have the energy for. Then their employer gets to shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Well it was the employee’s choice to leave!’
I am grateful to Naomi Osaka for cracking open the conversation about mental ill health at work a little wider. If it causes even one employer to stop and consider that the playing field between them and an employee who lives with mental illness isn’t even, it will be a good thing.
But there is still a long way to go before people who disclose their mental illness at work can expect to be treated the same as anyone who discloses a physical illness.
A dull ache sits in my centre. My cat Lucy, immortalised next to my old red keyboard on my Thought Food home page, is gone.
2 days ago the vet in me woke to a 16 year old depressed, immobile, incontinent feline patient. I needed more information before communicating with the cat’s owner, who was also me. The owner could read the vet’s face though and it made her feel as though a cactus was growing in her chest.
The vet came back with information later in the day.
Hypothermia, likely anaemia hiding under haemoconcentration, severe azotemia in the face of likely hyposthenuria, severe hyperglycaemia, and elevated ALT
At that point the owner and the vet in me began to overlap, like a Venn diagram, and both parts of me knew enough to know this:
None of these big words gave us a definitive diagnosis. To get to the big word that was causing the multi organ system problems indicated by a physical exam and first round of blood tests, we’d need to enter a new level of the diagnostics game. And with each new diagnostic test we’d opt for we’d open up the possibility of needing still more tests to get to the bottom of it.
What justifies further diagnostics in veterinary medicine?
The chance that the definitive diagnosis is something treatable or manageable to the point of returning the patient to a good quality of life.
When I started work as a small animal vet in 1998 we had fewer diagnostic and treatment options available for pets. It is good to have more options now. There are absolutely cases where we can return animals to a great quality of life where they would have been euthanased when I first graduated.
But this advanced knowledge also complicates matters, particularly when it comes to caring for our geriatric pets.
People often assume that the hardest part of being a vet is euthanasing animals. Yes, it can be devastating. But I have always found it equally as hard, if not harder, to hand hold people through the process of coming to terms with the fact that it is time to euthanase, while their pet is put through diagnostics and treatments that may prolong life but do nothing for quality of life.
An internal medicine specialist may well have wanted to know exactly what the cause of my cat’s abnormal blood results were before giving me their blessing to euthanase.
And, with those blood test results, had my cat been 2 instead of 16, I still would have stopped to consider that euthanasia could be the end point. But I would have gone ahead with more diagnostics because the chances of them leading to an outcome with a good quality of life for my cat would have been higher.
But I also knew that had I insisted on a definitive diagnosis 2 days ago, Lucy could have spent her last days scared, in a fluorescently lit hospital having rectal temperatures, blood and urine samples taken at regular intervals with no knowledge of why it was happening. Had she been able to come home it would have been heavily medicated, and still not feeling 100%.
When I weighed this with the tiny chance that she was suffering something treatable with a chance of return to good health – the risk of putting her through fear and pain for nothing at the age of 16 was not one I was willing to take.
Instead we made the hard choice.
Instead all four of her people cuddled her. We whispered in her little round ears and wet her fur with our tears. And I stroked her velvet neck as she drifted off into anaesthesia and then away into death.
Later that night I laid down next to Lucy’s siter, Lily and burst into deep sobs. These cats entered my life before the mental illness that came with my human children. With Lucy I have lost another part of me that existed before everything changed irreversibly…and not all for the better. The waves of grief beach unexpected thoughts and feelings.
When I work, I am not brutally honest with a vulnerable client if they ask me ‘What would you do in this situation?’ I stick to the facts, lay out probabilities as best I can and make sure euthanasia is part of the conversation so that they can make their own informed decision, in as much as their own time as their pet’s welfare allows.
But if the vet in me had been advising the cat owner in me for Lucy, I would not have held back. I would have said:
‘We can do every diagnostic test under the sun and you will probably get an answer, but we are doing it for you, not for your pet.’
Just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should.
You can find some of my other veterinary content in these posts:
For the last 14 years this emotion and I have had a complicated relationship. Before that, I experienced its giddy joy like anyone else.
It greeted me on the first days of longed-for holidays.
I experienced it on planes during take-off. In that moment of palpable lift, when the wheels left the ground and I shed gravity for a while.
It swooped through my body when I’d meet my childhood best friend, Sandra, at airports and train stations in different countries after years of separation.
Many moments of elation were tied to achievement. School grades, University degrees, getting jobs, have all elicited it. A psychologist would grimace at that, but there you have it.
But when I was nearly 33 something happened that warped elation for me.
I gave birth to my first baby.
The birth of a baby is usually viewed as the ultimate source of elation. Much is made of the overjoy of brand-new mothers.
But I was brewing something sinister when I went into my 33 hour labour on 2 hours sleep. That sleep deprivation, and the massive shift in hormones after the birth became the key that fitted the genetic lock for my dormant Bipolar 1 Disorder. It introduced itself violently, as an episode of postnatal psychosis when my baby was seven days old.
Three and a half years later I did get a day of pure elation after the carefully managed birth of my second baby. But I took none of it for granted, as though I had an inkling the psychosis would be back at the six week mark.
Psychosis in Bipolar Disorder is often preceded by mania. For some people mania is preceded by hypomania, which is like an artificial sweetener to the sugar of real elation. Same same, but different.
I do experience hypomania, but it is transient. Blink and you’ll miss it before it progresses to the high speed car chase of mania. I don’t spend weeks feeling fantastic about everything. But I’ve lived through enough hypomania to make me wary of true elation.
I force my elation through an airport security like checkpoint before I allow myself to feel it, because I know it could be the hypomanic second that precedes a manic episode.
So when elation wings its way into my heart, I put it through my metal detector of questions: How are you sleeping? Any racing thoughts? How’s your memory and concentration? Any sense of urgency, a pressure in the part of your brain right behind your eyes?
But right now I am truly elated.
Even my psychiatrist agreed I am entitled to it, after I handed him my third baby a couple of days ago.
My third baby is of the paper variety. Its newborn smell is that of fresh new books. Its gestation period has been longer than a human’s, longer than an elephant’s. 14 years from first words to published.
This baby’s name is ‘Abductions From My Beautiful Life’, nicknamed ‘Abductions’, and it is my memoir.
You will find my DNA all through it. My many selves. The child, teenager, university student, veterinarian, mother, psychiatric inpatient and outpatient, writer, mental health advocate, partner, and friend.
I wrote this book because there are not enough first-person accounts of severe mental illness, especially those featuring psychosis. I wanted to dissolve some of the misconceptions about people who live with severe mental illness, and the stigma that accompanies them.
The road to get this book published has been long, rough, expensive, paved with barely-existent patience, blood, sweat, many tears, diplomacy, and a lot of rejection.
It seems– books that deal frankly with mental illness (other than depression and anxiety) are too prickly for many publishers to touch – or to quote the feedback my agent and I got time and time again:
‘It is beautifully written, and an important story, but it is not commercial enough’ ie it will not make us any money, so we won’t go near it.
After several years of rejections, I did finally find a way to have it published, via a contributory contract with a publishing house in London that I supplemented with my own freelance cover designer and freelance copyeditor, to ensure it was published to a professional standard.
To the countless Australian publishers who passed on this book because ‘although beautifully written, it was not commercial enough’ – I say:
This book was never intended to be the next Harry Potter, or 50 Shades of Grey. But having finally published it I am elated because I have given the people who might be interested, the opportunity to read this allegedly ‘well written important story’.
An opportunity they may never have had if I had given up on it. So if you are one of those interested readers, you now get to decide whether or not you like it, rather than having an anonymous wall of publishers tell you what you should or shouldn’t be reading.
All reviews, feedback, and comments are welcome. For now you can leave them in the Comments section of this post, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you do enjoy Abductions or find it meaningful and you can think of someone else it might resonate with, recommend it to them or maybe even gift them a copy.
Publication, purchasing, and launching information:
Abductions From My Beautiful Life will be published on Friday 30.4.2021
You can preorder it now and continue to order it once it is published from:
To begin with I am planning several smaller private launches over the next few weeks and months rather than one big one. They will probably take place at my house to work as flexibly as possible with ever changing Covid restrictions. But the format will be similar to a traditional launch with drinks, discussion of the book, maybe a reading, and books for sale and for signing, or if you’ve pre-bought your book you can bring it along to be signed.
If you live in or are passing through Brisbane and would be interested in coming along to one of these smaller launches, please email (anitalink73@gmailcom) or Instagram DM me @anitalinkthoughtfood so that I am aware of your interest when I send out invitations.
I will post further information about launches as they evolve.
For more on how ‘Abductions’ came into being you might like to check out:
The second one was released recently and dives deeply into my work life before and after the onset of Bipolar 1 Disorder, and the adjustments I had to make for it to be sustainable. It hopefully goes some way towards dissolving the myth that it is impossible to function highly when living with a severe mental illness.
I was interviewed by Dr Kimberley Khodakah and you can find that episode here:
Every few months a fresh headline proclaims a new tragedy. Having worked as a vet in small animal practice for twenty years, these cases frustrate me because they are often preventable.
Pointing fingers at shell shocked, grieving parents is neither kind nor helpful. But as a society it is our responsibility to be better educated about how to integrate our canine companions into our lives more safely. This means considering our dogs’ mental health as we should the mental health of all our family members.
To further explore the subject of canine behaviour in relation to cohabiting with children I exchanged messages with my friend Leonie, also a vet who is not only passionate about treating canine behavioural issues appropriately but has also done further study in this area. And I thought I’d share some of the key points we discussed, which not all dog owners may be aware of:
By far the most common cause of canine aggression is anxiety that has been ignored or not addressed appropriately.
Dog owners need to be better educated about early canine anxiety signs, which the dog uses to communicate its discomfort. These signs include, but are not limited to: lip licking, yawning, averted gaze (often misinterpreted as submission), whale eye (when any of the white part of the eye is showing), panting, pacing, and neediness (often misinterpreted as love).
Dogs should not be punished for showing anxiety around a child. This will just increase that anxiety in future interactions and cause the dog to lose trust in their emotional advocate (the adult).
The time to get behavioural advice is when the dog shows anxiety around anyone, not just a child. Don’t wait until anxious behaviour converts to aggressive behaviour.
If anxiety and/or aggression are part of your dog’s behavioural issue, do not seek help from a dog trainer. Seek advice from a vet first.
Your vet is likely to first rule out any physical causes of anxiety and/or aggression. This usually starts with a thorough physical examination, but may also include further diagnostic tests such as blood tests or X-rays etc. Pain or feeling unwell can change even the most placid dog’s behaviour. Once a physical cause can be confidently ruled out, it can be classified as a behavioural issue. In this case a referral to a vet with a keen interest in behavioural medicine (preferably someone who has done some further study in this area) may be recommended.
If you are considering adopting a rescue dog, think very carefully about whether your family and home is going to meet all of that dog’s physical and mental health needs. Rescue animals are prone to anxiety disorders due to previous loss of attachment figures (owners). Animals are also rehomed because they have an anxiety disorder, which exacerbates it further.
Another less common cause of dogs injuring children is prey drive. This is based on instinct. It is a subconscious response that can be triggered by noise and/or movement and could cause a dog to treat a small noisy child or baby as its prey. Even some play is an inhibited form of prey drive (seek and chase during hunting), and particularly if the dog is bigger and stronger than the child this interaction could result in significant injuries to or death of the child.
Prey drive is more developed in some dogs than others. Knowing your dog well and (if their prey drive is strongly developed) keeping them away from children (and other smaller dogs) can avoid a tragic outcome.
It comes down to this:
Before you bring a dog into your family – educate yourself about dog behaviour.
If you as the adult(s) in the household make the decision to have both children and dogs in that household, then you are responsible for the physical and mental wellbeing of both. Generally speaking, neither the child nor the dog has an adult human’s judgement or emotional regulation, and depending on the age of the child they may not be capable of reading the subtle signs of canine emotional discomfort that can precede aggressive behaviour.
If you live with both dogs and children it is your responsibility to model and teach your children empathy, respect, and good behaviour towards animals, from the earliest age possible.
And the one nonnegotiable rule is:
Never leave a dog and a child under the age of 12 (or over 12 if they have not been taught how to read a dog’s body language and respond appropriately) together without the close and careful supervision of a responsible adult who can interpret the dog’s behaviour as well as they can the child’s.
And when I say never I mean not even for the length of time it takes you to go to the toilet.
If we can accept that knowing about canine behaviour is just as important a part of being a responsible dog owner as knowing about keeping your dog physically healthy, it will mean fewer children are injured by dogs, and fewer dogs will die by euthanasia for a potentially preventable behavioural issue.
With thanks to Dr Leonie Thom for contributing to this post.
Please note that a full exploration of all the causes of aggressive canine behaviour is beyond the scope of this post. The information in this post is general and not intended to replace a veterinary consultation.
I am not home schooling my children at the moment.
That implies a level of competence that far exceeds my attempts to provide a bit of supervision while they do what could pass for some form of schoolwork.
In fact, what I am doing could no more be called ‘home schooling’ than calling what my children’s teacher does when they are at school, ‘veterinary surgery’.
The new educational arrangements have made me ask myself this over the last week:
Are there any professions (apart from teachers) who are being asked to convey how to do their whole job to the general public in a very short time, using only online resources? I can’t think of any.
Yet suddenly teachers are expected to translate their university degree and years of practical experience into a format that parents with no training or experience in education can apply to their unwitting children at home.
And there will be some parents who will anticipate the same results as when their kids are being taught at school by the teacher.
I accepted a long time ago that I have no interest in the intricacies of how my children’s education is delivered. And I am not expecting to suddenly become enthusiastic about it, just because external circumstances have changed.
I do care about my children’s education. But my role and the teacher’s role in providing that education are clearly defined and there is little overlap.
I view these as my roles:
To love my children unconditionally and make sure they know it. To set clear boundaries for them. I am privileged to be able to afford to feed them, clothe them, and buy their educational resources. To do my best to allow them a good night’s sleep in a room free of devices, during the school term. To offer them a decent breakfast and a packed lunch, or at least the ingredients to make them. To offer them support in completing homework or schoolwork set by their teacher.
And to make myself available for communication with their teachers at any time.
I regard teachers with awe for the job they do. I know from friends who are teachers the high levels of empathy, patience, resilience, and emotional intelligence, among many other skills, they draw on to do their work well.
I also respect my children’s teachers enough not to encroach on the territory of their expertise.
When I attend parent teacher interviews, I only tend to ask four questions:
‘Does my child seem mostly happy and engaged? Is their behaviour appropriate? Are there any areas they are falling behind in? And, Is there anything else you would like me to know?’
Do you know what I never ask about?
The curriculum. Because I trust the teacher to know it inside out.
I feel for the parents who ask in depth questions related to the curriculum during parent/teacher information sessions, because right now they may struggle with the concept that they can’t single handedly provide their child’s school education at home, no matter how much they research the curriculum.
From an epidemiology point of view, at the time of writing, I believe the best place for my children is at home. But at the same time, my care factor for the quality of my children’s academic education ranks way below how much I care for not only my mental health, but the collective mental health of my family.
I acknowledge that while the two cares might not be mutually exclusive for many households, in mine – they don’t always sit well together. I may be biased by my own life experience, but that experience tells me this:
If my children fall behind in the curriculum, I am confident they will eventually catch back up to where they each normally sit. And they won’t be alone in that experience.
Yet if I tried to deliver the full curriculum to my children at home, I would transfuse the stress of my unsuccessful attempts into them. Over time, their mental health would suffer. Mine might suffer to the point of me having to be hospitalised again.
It would make as much sense as my children’s teachers attempting to perform surgery on their dog with only my online instructions to guide them through.
So, the alternative of my children having to work harder to catch up when this is over feels fairly benign. And this doesn’t mean they are doing nothing now. It just means I don’t hold myself to the unattainable standard of replicating my children’s in school educational experience at home.
And I could be way off here, but I imagine whenever I eventually return my children to their formal school based education – their teachers may prefer those children with their mental health relatively intact and their academic knowledge lagging, rather than the other way around.
(Additional note: The veterinary surgery analogies were drawn from my experience of working as a small animal vet.)
Long before Covid-19 arrived, vets and vet nurses were quiet, hard workers who didn’t complain about less than ideal working conditions. And, possibly unbeknownst to most of the pet owning public, for many veterinary staff, challenging working conditions were the norm.
Since this crisis hit, these essential workers are not getting much opportunity or airtime to communicate the difficulties they currently face at work.
The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has put the challenges of veterinary work on steroids.
I know a bit about what it takes to work in this industry.
I fell in love with veterinary work at fifteen, when I started volunteering at a local vet clinic. I wiped down tables, cleaned cages, and held animals. Then I started work as a casual junior vet nurse on Saturday mornings.
I committed the second half of my teenage years to the tunnel visioned hard work it took to get into veterinary science at university.
I worked as a small animal vet for twenty years, in many different practices in Australia and the UK. Working conditions ranged from excellent to atrocious.
Thanks to my experiences, I know this:
Vets don’t talk about their work stresses outside their own tightly knit vet circles. Some of us don’t even confide our struggles to our colleagues. We talk about our cases in detail for hours, but many of us still cringe at opening up about the state of our mental health.
Our clients get our kindness, our compassion our sympathy our skills our knowledge, our communication skills. But they never see our vulnerability. They don’t understand how high our risk of burn out (borne of caring too much and being overworked and undervalued) is.
They don’t see that when we walk through the door of the clinic our rostered working hours become irrelevant because we give ourselves over completely to everyone else who walks through that door after us.
Our clients don’t feel our pain when we lose yet another amazing member of our profession to its sky-high suicide rates.
I am currently taking a break from veterinary work while I concentrate on writing and mental health advocacy work. But I have many vet friends who are out there working and hurting.
I have spent the last couple of weeks collecting descriptions of work life from some of my (currently working) veterinary friends and contacts, because I believe that for the veterinary profession to survive this pandemic with its collective mental health relatively intact, the pet owning public needs to know about the difficulties its workers face at this time.
Here are some of the (summarised, paraphrased, and quoted) insights these vets generously shared with me:
On Covid-19 Regulations:
Some aspects of veterinary work make social distancing between staff impossible. For example, it is not feasible for a nurse giving a wriggly, excited puppy a cuddle and a vet looking in its ears with an otoscope, to be 1.5 metres apart.
Some of the protocols necessary to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission, such as contactless consultations (where the owner waits outside the clinic in their car, the pet is transported inside by a nurse in PPE, the vet examines the pet and then phones the owner to discuss further diagnostics or treatment), severely hamper efficiency and slow everything down.
Vets are used to working as efficiently as possible:
‘Normally I would type the history while the owner is in the consult and do an exam in between taking notes. Now I can only do one of these things at a time.’
Contactless consultations also limit a vet’s ability to read their client’s body language during the consultation, which can interfere with effective communication between vet and client.
Pets can be more anxious when separated from their owners. This may mean it takes longer to perform a physical exam, or it may be impossible to do as thoroughly as the vet would like.
Covid-19 level cleaning recommended between consults is more labour intensive and takes longer than usual.
Downsizing or closure of a practice due to further restrictions or a Covid-19 infection will have negative effects on the practice’s financial stability very quickly.
‘The nature of small to medium sized veterinary practices even in normal times is to run with incredible efficiency, but still on very low margins. They cannot sustain even mild to moderate downturns. They will not survive and jobs will be lost long before the drop of 30% revenue occurs required to be eligible for the Job Keeper Payment.’
Locum vets are particularly vulnerable to job loss now. As practices work to minimise the risk of a Covid-19 infection in their permanent staff, many locum vets are having their shifts cancelled, and are facing the financial difficulties and mental health challenges that come with job loss.
Vets are also more aware than ever of the financial constraints facing many of their clients.
‘It is super sad when you see a client who wants to do everything for their pet, but they have lost their job and can’t afford it. It breaks my heart. I am doing a surgery at a 25% discount tomorrow. The client didn’t ask for it, but I feel so sad for them.’
‘I feel even more conscious of the usual dilemma we have in vet practice of having to mix financial discussions with emotive ones as most people are understandably a lot more stretched financially right now. But veterinary practices are also under a lot more financial stress and if our invoices are not paid, there won’t be a vet for clients to take their animal to.’
And now more than ever vets are at risk of being on the receiving end of their clients’ financial frustrations.
‘I’ve already been abused in the car park once this week and I am preparing myself for a lot more of that to come as the stress is almost palpable in the air.’
On Mental Health
Vets often hold themselves to a very high standard. Under sub optimal working conditions that pressure will increase stress levels further.
‘Veterinary practice is already an emotionally draining vocation with highs and lows every day. Our staff feel responsible for their patients and care for our clients. And it goes against the grain to just drop our standards of care because of what’s going on. So, we are not going to start cutting corners.’
Many clinics have split their staff into two or more teams to reduce the chance of the whole clinic having to close if one staff member contracts Covid-19. This means vets and nurses may be working under short staffed conditions and even longer hours than usual:
‘The phones are ringing constantly. We hang up and pick up the next one. I am answering dozens of phone calls daily as a vet, as well as being my own anaesthetist, recovery nurse, and doing the usual vet things. And right now none of us have regular access to our stress relieving hobbies.’
Splitting staff into teams at work usually also means no contact between teams outside of work.
‘There were genuinely tears after the last ‘normal’ shift as people realised they may not see some of their friends for weeks, months even.’
Before Covid-19 brought added work stressors with it, vets were already at a high risk for mental ill health. This knowledge weighs heavily on many of us:
‘I’m concerned that abuse of controlled substances will increase and don’t even want to think about the suicide issue the veterinary industry already faces.’
Vets appreciate the many clients who are doing the things that make their work less stressful, such as practicing social distancing, being patient when things take longer than normal, and assessing what might constitute an essential phone call.
For example, now is not the time to phone your vet clinic for a lengthy discussion about which breed of cat you should get.
‘If the public can show extra understanding towards vets and vet nurses that will only be a good thing. We are not the only profession under strain but the pressures we are under are very real. Everything is taking longer so people need to be patient.’
‘We place a lot of blind faith in the honesty of strangers at the moment…I feel angry when I hear of my colleagues having got to the end of a consult only to have a client mention that they just came back from a cruise a week ago.’
‘Thankfully 99% of our clients are understanding and adhering to protocols without complaint, but I don’t think they quite understand how hard everything is for us right now.’
‘The shortage of equipment is tricky – no hand sanitiser, limited paper towels and gloves. It makes it hard to follow the guidelines to use hand sanitiser between every patient. Some human medications we use are in short supply, which will be hard to explain to clients when their pet’s medication needs to be stopped suddenly.’
‘We have also been asked to supply a list of things we can donate if needed – such as ventilators, propofol, midazolam, and surgical gowns and gloves.’
What is getting us through?
Now more than ever, humour, teamwork and appreciative clients balance out the challenges of veterinary work.
‘On the positive side of things, I work with a group of amazing humans and the way we all have each other’s backs has definitely shone even more so in recent times.’
‘On the upside we have always been good at the ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Also, we were born for this – we just need to pretend every person is a parvo puppy!’
(Parvovirus is a highly infectious, potentially fatal viral infection, most common in puppies, and requires full isolation nursing.)
‘Our team are amazing and have chosen to pull together with a plan to fight and minimise risks to client and staff safety, mitigate risk to the business and work toward sustainability.’
‘We have had wonderful support from our clients and community who have commended us for our initiatives during this pandemic to ensure both human and animal welfare,’
To conclude I will reach for words one of my close vet friends passed on to me. Even though upper management of veterinary practices, can be notoriously out of touch with the needs of its veterinary workers, this directive from the upper management of my friend’s practice encapsulates perfectly what I would want all vets working through this pandemic to hold close to each day, and what I would want all veterinary clients to be aware of and respect:
‘Throughout our career, veterinarians have always put our patients first, then our clients, then ourselves. In this pandemic, we must put our safety and the safety of our nurses and support staff first.’
As a result of this post creating some interest in the US, I was invited as a guest on a couple of US veterinary podcasts, the first of which you can access below. The second, with Dr Kimberley Khodakhah, can be accessed in the Media section of the site.