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Unique Pet Health and Welfare Research Draws International Attention

October 30, 2018

A unique health and welfare check initiative for pets running alongside healthy lifestyle people assessments has attracted keen interest in the international research community.

PATU Pets, the Furry Whānau is the brainchild of a team from EIT led by Associate Professor Rachel Forrest.

The research methodology and results were presented at the Companion Animal Conference held in Auckland in September. Titled Human Behaviour Change For Animals, it was attended by veterinarians and other animal health academics and professionals from around the world.

“Our Patu Pets Project is centred on the ‘One Welfare’ concept that recognises that human wellbeing, animal welfare, and the environment are all interconnected,” says Rachel.

“Our research is to explore whether a local community initiative such as Patu Aotearoa can be used to facilitate human behaviour changes that result in positive pet welfare outcomes.”

Patu Aoteraoa, established initially in Hawke’s Bay by Levi Armstrong, runs gyms nationwide that combine group exercise and healthy lifestyle education with te reo me ōna tikanga Māori (Māori language and culture).

Levi is a graduate of EIT’s Bachelor of Recreation and Sports degree and is Ngati Kahungunu. He established the social enterprise organisation in 2012, in a bid to “fight the war against obesity and to reduce inactivity”.

The philosophy around Patu Aoteraoa is whanaungatanga or connectedness. Rather than ‘members’, those attending are whānau and working together to support each other to achieve positive lifestyle changes, is the ethos and kaupapa.

Being more active and eating nutritionally for better wellbeing is the emphasis with weight loss and fitness a secondary benefit. 

Exploring ways to extend this holistic wellbeing, the EIT team thought to extend its research from the whānau – providing longitudinal data to help meet funder expectations – to the furry whānau.

“The whānau are very supportive of our research and are quite comfortable with our work now, so it wasn’t a big stretch to include their pets into the regular Patu weigh-ins. It allowed us to reach local community pets that may not always have the opportunity to be regularly seen by animal health professionals,” says Rachel.

“It also provides our EIT students a valuable opportunity to practice their skills and connect with the local community.”

EIT Centre of Veterinary Nursing staff and students carried out the pet checks. At the same sessions, EIT Bachelor of Recreation and Sport, and Bachelor of Nursing staff and students helped with the human weigh-in and data collection.

The involvement of EIT undergraduates, as opposed to post-graduates, as part of the research project drew particular attention at the Companion Animal conference.

“This is not a common practice and we got a lot of questions around this,” Rachel said. “It’s awesome that our undergraduate students volunteer to give back to the local community and are also contributing to valuable community research. Several of the students are also Patu members so they got to showcase their skills and role model for the younger members.”

The research project has seen three free pet health checks so far at the Ahuriri and Heretaunga Patu gyms, with 26 dogs assessed. Cat owners have not felt comfortable to bring their cats knowing that dogs would be present, so dedicated cat sessions may be held in future.

“Feedback from our tutors involved was that it gave them the chance to see a side of students not evident in the classroom, while students found the opportunity to gain face to face experience with clients very helpful. A little daunting being faced with questions they had to answer on the spot, but helpful nonetheless.”

Each dog owner completed a pre-check questionnaire about how they perceived the health and wellbeing of themselves and their pet.

The dogs were given a head-to-tail check by the veterinary nursing students, supervised by tutors. Advice was given to the owners on how they could improve their pet’s quality of life. The majority of the advice given by the student vet nurses was around dental hygiene, healthy weight and diet, and nail trimming.

In addition to the pet checks, some of the owners were interviewed about responsible pet ownership and attitudes towards euthanasia of feral, stray, unwanted and unwell pets.

The research team also developed a pet version of the Meke Meter they had developed to provide Patu whānau with an imaged-based, holistic, wellbeing self-reflection tool. Using the pet version owners can rate their animal’s mental, behavioural, and physical state. This is then updated in subsequent checks to see if improvements are occurring.

“We have had really positive feedback from owners on the dog Meke meter. They can easily see where they need to make changes to improve things for their pets.”

A national survey is being developed by the EIT research team to further explore attitudes towards animal welfare issues and factors influencing them.

“We’re also keen to keep running pet checks in Hawke’s Bay and start implementing them nationally,” says Rachel.