A Lack Of Cats

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.

You may also like to check out these:

Goodbye My Thought Food Cover Girl

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

Our Vets Are Dying For Your Pets

Guilty Of Postnatal Psychosis

(Content Note: suicide and infanticide are mentioned in this post)

Who am I?

I am a veterinarian.

I had my first baby at 32.

I developed postnatal psychosis after the birth of that baby.

I had no history of mental illness before that.

I have a perfectionist personality.

This is me.

But given this information, you could mistake me for Melissa Arbuckle.

If you’ve read even just the headlines this week, you will know Melissa’s baby Lily died in horrific circumstances, as a direct result of Melissa’s undiagnosed postnatal psychosis and depression.

Melissa’s story is an important one. But I have yet to read a story by a journalist who gets the narrative of postnatal psychosis (or any form of psychosis) right. Journalism around psychosis, even decent journalism, focusses on the sensational.

But despite the inevitable sensationalism, in this case the journalists got one thing right. They investigated the lead up to this horror story. And that shows us the number of times this horrific outcome could have been prevented.

Melissa’s baby was born in April 2021.

The Age reports ‘Maternal health notes showed that as early as May 19 the new mother revealed she was having difficulty coping and became teary, later telling a lactation consultant she felt ‘out of control’.

According to News.com ‘Victoria’s Supreme Court heard that in the weeks leading up to Lily’s death, Ms Arbuckle had been ‘really down’ and she believed she injured her baby after rocking her bassinet too vigorously.’

She hadn’t injured her baby at that point, but her thoughts (believing she had injured her baby) were delusional, for weeks before her daughter’s death.

The Age also reports ‘The night before the incident, Arbuckle told her husband she was having suicidal thoughts, but assured him she could never go through with it.’

Lily died and Melissa nearly died after being struck by a train on the following day, July 11 2021.

Melissa was diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis the day after her daughter died.

When I think of all the points on this timeline that Melissa’s and Lily’s odds could have been dramatically improved, anger steals my breath.

Regarding the Maternal health notes made in May 2021:

‘Maternal health notes’ imply a nurse or midwife assessed Melissa at some point and, aside from making some notes about her difficulty coping and being teary, did nothing.

Midwives and nurses need to be taught: The baby blues and mild anxiety are not always the cause of a teary mother who is having difficulty coping. They need to know when and how to refer a new mother for assessment with a psychologist, psychiatrist, a mother baby unit, or at least a GP. And they need to err on the side of caution!

I am not surprised a lactation consultant didn’t know what to do with a mother feeling out of control. Lactation consultants tend to be laser focussed on getting breast milk into babies at all costs. But again – educating lactation consultants to look far enough beyond ‘latching issues’ and ‘milk supply’ to consider referral to qualified mental health care professionals when red flags are raised, would be a good idea.

In the weeks before Lily’s death, when Melissa is described as ‘really down’ – these were the weeks that preceded the night before Lily’s death.

The night when Melissa told her husband she was having suicidal thoughts.

From my standpoint and lived experience, I struggle to give Melissa’s husband much benefit of the doubt here. I understand (based on the article in The Age) that her husband lost his own father to suicide as a teenager. So, there is possibly a barrier of unresolved grief and trauma that prevented him from reacting appropriately to his wife’s symptoms.

But presumably he noticed Melissa being ‘really down’ for those weeks. Did he attempt to get help for her? And if not then, what was stopping him when she expressed suicidal thoughts to him on that night? The fact that she claimed she wouldn’t act on those thoughts? Did he not consider the amount of mental pain one needs to be in just to have suicidal thoughts?

For everyone reading this: If anyone ever expresses suicidal thoughts to you, PLEASE ACT! Even if there is no option but an ambulance to the nearest hospital. And if the person experiencing suicidal thoughts tells you they won’t act on them, not only are they too unwell to make that assessment, they are also suffering intensely and need help!

Yes, our public mental health system needs a lot of improvement, and there are nowhere near enough public mother baby units available. But even if the ideal of a private psychiatric hospital with a mother baby unit, was not available or an option for Melissa and Lily, a public hospital might have given them a fighting chance.

Back for a moment to the journalists reporting on psychosis. They tend to give all the characters surrounding the person living the horror of psychosis a voice, even if some of those voices are irrelevant and add to the stigma psychosis is already steeped in.

In Melissa’s case that person is her baby’s great aunt. In The Age article, this great aunt doesn’t want to be named, but she does suck up more than her share of oxygen. She has publicly expressed that she thinks Melissa’s actions were ‘catastrophic’ and ‘cruel’.  Catastrophic – absolutely. But ‘cruel’ implies the malicious intent of someone whose mental health is totally uncompromised. She used the words ‘Melissa’s actions’ but what she communicates is ‘Melissa is a cruel woman, and that is why she killed her baby.’

To that great aunt, I would say this:

If people like you didn’t perpetuate the stigma surrounding illnesses which feature psychosis by giving uninformed stigmatising quotes to journalists, then Lily’s father may have had some clue about what to do when presented with the symptoms of severe mental illness that were obvious in his poor wife for months before they led to such unbearable pain for everyone. If you want to blame something, blame this horrible illness, in the same way you might blame cancer for taking loved ones too soon.

News.com reports ‘The case has revealed just how quickly the 32-year-old’s life spiralled out of control after she developed severe major post-partum depression and psychosis following the birth of her daughter in April 2021.’

Melissa’s life didn’t spiral out of control quickly. She developed a life-threatening illness, the symptoms of which were either ignored or not acted on for months, until it was too late. Reporting it was quick, implies it was too quick to do anything about.

My postnatal psychosis set in by day 6 of first-time motherhood. By days 7 and 8 I was completely detached from reality, denying knowledge of my baby and my husband.

And when I was accurately diagnosed with postnatal psychosis in the safety of a mother baby unit in a private psychiatric hospital, my husband asked what he should have done if this had happened at home. This is what he was told:

‘Call an ambulance. Postnatal psychosis is a psychiatric emergency, but it is treatable.’

My greatest sympathy and compassion go out to Melissa. She was failed at so many points.

My memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published last year and (among many other events) includes details of my experiences with Postnatal Psychosis. You can find an excerpt here: Book and it is available to buy online, including at Booktopia, Fishpond, and Amazon. If you are Brisbane based, you can also buy it at Avid Reader and Riverbend bookshops and Ruby Red Jewellery at 107 Romea St. The Gap.

If buying a new book is not in your budget, Abductions is also available to borrow from the Brisbane City Council Library Catalogue.

Other Thought Food posts that may interest you are:

My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

Welcome To Motherhood

Lifeline 13 11 14

The Well Times

What does well look like for you?

I have painted many pictures of myself when a Bipolar episode knocks me out of my life for a while.

But what about my well times?

I don’t identify with the cartoonish cliché of Bipolar Disorder. I don’t spend each day either drowning in depression or being supersized by mania. This depiction of the illness lacks nuance. It’s a stereotype wheeled out for memes or lazy reporting.

I can only speak about the fingerprint of my own experience. Severe, but well managed.  

Sure – when I am unwell, I tend towards very unwell. I won’t sugar coat that.

But, for me…for me – when I am well, I am well…well.

In my well times my life is not a daily struggle. If anything, I struggle less than many ‘mentally healthy’ people. Thanks to my Bipolar Disorder, my box of psychological tools to deal not only with my illness but life in general – is full. But before it thundered into my life, my toolbox contained the equivalent of a pair of tweezers and some toenail clippers.

I am well now.

And it looks a little like this…

It is settling into myself. It is being alert to all I am capable of. It is a beautiful, clear, hard-won self-knowledge

It can be simple things – being able to read and drive and go to the shops, immerse myself in my family.

But it is more than the simple things.

It is actively pursuing my edge, courting the possibility of foundering, because I know the feeling of foundering will be fleeting compared to the dull ache of regret which could plague me for years.

A couple of weeks ago an interesting job opportunity dropped into my direct messages. Both it and I were great on paper. Veterinary qualifications and experience. Writing qualifications and experience. Listed as the first requirements.

 It lit the spark I needed to update my CV, which had been languishing back in 2015.

I applied for it. I was invited to interview.

And perhaps for the first time I thought about what I wanted, rather than blindly throwing whatever I needed at it to get the job.

And so, I clicked ‘join meeting’ with all the skills and experience I could bring (for example writing well) and all that I couldn’t (for example managing stakeholders).

I came away thinking – I could do this, but do I want to? If offered the position I think my ego may have convinced me to squash myself into a shape I didn’t naturally fill, just to prove I could.

Thankfully, being authentic in the interview paid off.

Having a way with words was more important to me, and stakeholder management was more important to them.

And when I got the email thanking me for my time but telling me that I wouldn’t be progressing further in the application process, I felt – a sharp little sting and then… relief, because I really didn’t want to squash myself into someone I wasn’t.

There is always a danger in well times.

It is the fear of what may happen in the unwell times.

There are times, even when perfectly well, I have to resist the pull to sit in a metaphorical corner rocking with my hands over my eyes doing nothing, because I know what has happened to me, could happen again.

I’ve felt that pull many times. I have resisted it many times. Over time I’ve gathered proof that resisting is the only way to have the life I want, even if it is a life lived with this illness. Without that resistance I would lack a lot. My second child and my self-worth top a long list.

Most recently that resistance has gifted me an updated CV and a stronger sense of who I am and what I want.

I know in the last couple of years, mental unease has crept into many people’s lives and distorted their thoughts, feelings, and view of life. It’s a foreign and frightening landscape to find yourself in. And finding your way back to the well times can feel impossible.

For me, the first steps back to wellness always start with a couple of questions:

What does well look like for you?

Does your toolbox contain more than a pair of tweezers and some toenail clippers?

You may also like to check out:

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

My Mental Health Toolbox

On Uncertainty

Goodbye My Thought Food Cover Girl

Lucy – photo by Elsa

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.

In loving memory of Lucy (14.2.2005 – 7.5.2021)

You can find some of my other veterinary content in these posts:

The Cost Of Canine Anxiety

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths

The mental load 2.0 : Airing your dirty dishes on socials

huge heap of dirty disgusting dishes in the sink waiting to be washed by unreliable flatmate

Has it really come to this?

To the women who document their displeasure about the unequal distribution of their mental load passive aggressively on social media:

The likes and laughing emojis you get from hundreds of strangers might give you a quick sugar hit of instant validation, but will they solve the issue of your unequally distributed mental load, or will it just corrode what sounds like the already leaking vessel of your marriage further?

The writers appear to feel more solidarity with the anonymous commenters than with the person they are in a partnership with. Underneath the jokes sits violently simmering resentment.

Let me back pedal to the source of my lack of admiration for this approach for a moment.

The first was a recent article a woman wrote about the (extensive) difficulty she was having getting her dog to feed her husband. Sorry her husband to feed the dog – although with the tone she used to describe her husband’s ineptitude, she could easily have meant it the other way around.

The second – I think it was on Youtube – an account of a woman who ‘went on strike’ and stopped washing the dishes and then posted updates about the ‘apocalypse’ unfolding in her house as a result of this. Piles of dirty dishes. The husband in question using a baby spoon to stir his coffee rather than doing the dishes.

I am not trivialising or dismissing the message these women are attempting to send their partners, but their delivery is conflicting.

In one breath it’s attempting humour and in the next red-hot anger.

Clearly we are not dealing with one of those minor sources of marital discord that can be shrugged off as a normal part of any relationship here.

The unequal distribution of the mental/domestic load is real and needs to be taken seriously. But is turning it into a farce and publicly infantilising the people whose behaviour you want to change the way to go about it?

Returning to the article about feeding the dog for a moment. The writer explicitly stated that in the four years she had off work outside the home, before returning to her career, she took on 100% of the domestic load. Feeling (rightly) entitled to a break, she then seemed surprised when the hand over of one chore (feeding the dog) didn’t run as smoothly as she wanted it to.

She also displayed another classic trait of the mental load martyr: overcomplicating a simple task, by insisting on her husband’s dog being fed a thermomix cooked diet for the sole reason that she thought ‘It made the dog’s coat shiny’.

Having read her article, I posted the following response:

As a small animal vet: The best diet for your dog is a high quality dry biscuit, something like hills science diet, water, and (if your dog tolerates them well) fresh raw bones for their teeth. You are wasting everyone’s time, energy, and to be honest a lot of words in your article on preparing fresh food for your dog. 

As for the distribution of mental load: You mention that in your four years off you shouldered 100% of the domestic load. Why? Did you both consider your husband less of a parent or part of the household in that time? If he worked long hours, he may not have been able to do as much of it as you, but does that mean he should have done nothing in that time? If he had been living in a hypothetical share house instead of your family during the time he worked long hours, would his housemates have been happy to do his laundry, dirty dishes, and feed his dog?

So maybe setting the bar so low during those years is making it harder now? The martyrdom of women shouldering and complaining about the mental load is real. Change your dog’s diet for everyone’s sake – including your dog’s. Tell your husband if he doesn’t feed his dog you will report him to the RSPCA. If you stop treating your husband like a an inept toddler, he might stop acting like one.

To be clear – I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving your partner a wake up call to shoulder their share of the domestic load, by letting things slide. But make a choice – it’s either something funny that you don’t really care about that you post on social media, or it is a serious issue in your relationship, in which case yes, let the dishes pile up until your partner gets the message, but don’t then simultaneously trivialise and weaponise it by posting it on social media. Doing so might get you the hit of anonymous likes, but it’s not going to solve the problem in your relationship.

I have previously written about the equitable division of mental and domestic load in my relationship. Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility We both have careers. We share two children, and a menagerie of pets, and all the mental load. I have been called ‘lucky’ because of this.

I am not lucky.

I made a choice to be with my husband. We work on communicating well and from the very beginning of our relationship I have never given him the illusion that I would carry 100% of the domestic load.

But if either of us ever resorted to shaming the other on social media, if we had a significant issue in our marriage (such as the unequal distribution of the domestic load) I suspect we would each seriously re-examine our choice to stay with each other.

Post script: This post is not in any way aimed at those living with or who have escaped domestic violence or who are living with mental illness or any other disadvantage. It was intended as a prompt to reflect for the women who do not live with domestic violence, but do live with straight, white, cis-gender, non-disabled, privilege and who have choices but prefer martyrdom.

You may also like to check out:

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

My new little niece

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths which received a lot of attention, especially in the US and resulted in me doing a couple of podcast interviews.

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:

https://anchor.fm/time-to-paws/embed/episodes/Living-a-good-life-despite-everything-el0eqc/a-a3o42u4

The other veterinary podcast episode with Dr Andy Roark https://drandyroark.com/cone-of-shame-episode-30-unspoken-truths-about-covid-19/ came out in May. This one is a bit more veterinary industry oriented than Kimberley’s.

Happy listening!

If you are interested, you can find all of my radio and podcast interviews here:

Radio And Podcast Interviews

The Cost Of Canine Anxiety

Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.com

A baby or child fatally injured by a dog.

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.

You may also be interested in:

Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths

Our Vets Are Dying For Your Pets

Not So Body Positive

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