When it was first born as a profession, human public health was about infectious disease: preventing cholera by cleaning up the water supply, preventing tuberculosis by vaccination. But in recent decades, public health has come to be more and more about lifestyle changes: improving nutritional choices, encouraging increased exercise. I’m obsessed with animal welfare and behavior, so I love the idea of a veterinary public health specialty focused on improving what we might call “lifestyle problems” in animals. Here’s my list of what some companion animal lifestyle problems might be:
- Behavior problems, such as separation anxiety or aggression
- Dogs on chains in yards
- Dog fighting rings
- High rates of surrender of animals to the local shelter
- Low rates of adoption from the local shelter
- Lack of veterinary care, either because community members cannot afford it, or because it is simply not available
But check out the articles in the Journal of Preventive Veterinary Medicine: articles about disease, articles about food animals, articles about disease in food animals. Any articles about disease in dogs are most likely to get published if they are about diseases that threaten humans. Articles about lifetyle problems in pets are few and far between, and I have yet to find an article about an initiative proactively addressing one of these problems. Of course preventing infectious disease is important, but isn’t changing poor husbandry important too? Is veterinary public health actually decades behind human public health in its reluctance to focus on lifestyle diseases?
I asked myself what questions a public health veterinarian might ask about a particular community. Smaller communities are probably more manageable than large communities, but in theory a community could range from a neighborhood to a city to a country. Of course, remember that I am not a public health specialist — I don't have a Masters in public health and I don’t work in public health — so please take my ideas with a grain of salt. But here goes.
- What are the most significant problems of animals in the chosen community?
- Why are these problems happening? What does the community need to do in order to solve the problems, and does it have the resources it needs in order to make those changes?
- How can we work with the community, providing it support in bringing about change? How can we provide the community a path to self-sustaining change, rather than coming in from the outside and mandating change?
And there are more and more such efforts out there, programs to address canine and feline obesity, to help build fences for yards to help owners stop chaining up their dogs. I’ve been calling such initiatives “community-based public health,” and I want to know more about them from experts. Randomized controlled trials are going to be impractical if not impossible in these situations, but I want case studies!