New tricks: talking with Professor Paul McGreevy

Professor Paul McGreevy

Photography: Adam Taylor

He’s someone who wants vets to start looking at the big picture—the very big picture—when treating their patients, writes Harry Pearl.

The end of a winding, corrugated dirt road, bordered by eucalyptus and struggling vineyards, seems an unlikely hub for a big data revolution, but this is where Paul McGreevy works.

McGreevy’s one-storey home sits on a rise above paddocks and bursts of green foliage. Beyond that lie the steep flanks of the Watagans Range. Most days, it’s just his four horses, 10 chickens and two dogs — Bundy and Neville —for company.

Out here, under a clear blue Hunter Valley sky, it’s easy to see why the University of Sydney’s first animal-science professor makes only a fortnightly trip to the big smoke.

“My boss would definitely like to see more of me, but she is very happy with my output,” he says, flashing a sly smile.

As the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and six books, it’s hard to argue.

McGreevy, who greets me in a grey collared shirt and green pants, is a prolific writer and has been instrumental in establishing the fields of equitation science and dogmanship.

In May, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Canine Health Awards for his pioneering contribution to canine welfare and behaviour. Judges praised his “outstanding contribution to the veterinary profession over 30 years.”

McGreevy, who is 54, says he always wanted to work with animals.

He first became interested in animal behviour as a teenager in Stoke-on-Trent in the English Midlands. He and his younger sister, who is also a vet, volunteered at a local horse dealer where they were “cannon fodder” for the horses that needed to be broken in.

“We were aware of the importance of behaviour and how good it is to have a trained horse,” he says, sitting at his dining table. “The horse dealer gave us our first dog and he was an amazing dog that never put his foot wrong, probably because we were listening to what he had to say.”

McGreevy graduated with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science from the University of Bristol in 1987. After working in a mixed practice in Staffordshire for two years, he came to Australia for a working holiday.

He loved it—the people, mainly—and vowed to return after completing his PhD. When he landed in Sydney again in 1996, he secured a job at the University of Sydney within 10 days.

Since then, his research has focused on the behaviour and welfare of horses and dogs.

“My intense interest in animal behaviour is largely because I think it’s the clearest lens through which to see animal welfare,” McGreevy says.

“Whenever you look at an animal you can explore what is good about its behaviour, what’s less desirable about its behaviour, what is normal about its behaviour and what is alarming.”

“Evidence-based medicine dictates how humans are treated in Australian hospitals. You have to be able to refer to the latest evidence to know what is effective…We haven’t had that on a grand scale in veterinary science until VetCompass came along.”

McGreevy’s research into working dogs has revealed important links between behavioural attributes and work output, particularly with guide dogs.

He’s made similar advances in the way horses are understood and trained—research that has sometimes irked the racing industry.

And, working with colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, he’s been involved in groundbreaking studies that have explored the links between dog morphology and behaviour (yes, smaller dogs really are more hyperactive).

Professor Paul McGreevyBut it’s his introduction of a data-based approach to companion animal medicine that could have the most profound impact on the work of vets in years to come.

“Evidence-based medicine dictates how humans are treated in Australian hospitals,” he says. “You have to be able to refer to the latest evidence to know what is effective and know which people are the best candidates for treatment.

“We haven’t had that on a grand scale in veterinary science until VetCompass came along.”

VetCompass, a database to trace pet health and patterns of disease, was launched by McGreevy and academic partners in the United Kingdom in 2007.

By combining big data with epidemiology, it established a cutting-edge disorder surveillance system. Since its launch in the UK, and in Australia last year, it’s gathered information on more than 5.8 million animals.

It’s one of two exciting new pieces of technology (the other being doglogbook) which, by McGreevy’s reckoning, could change how vets work in the future.

“I think it will be part of what is considered best practice to consult the evidence and keep yourself up to speed,” McGreevy says. “That’s the way medics are being trained. It will be the only acceptable form of practice in years to come.”

McGreevy says older models of veterinary care, which have relied on intuition and clinical acumen, may be threatened. However, he’s unapologetic about how these technology-enabled tools could change veterinary practice and animal care.

“As a scientist, I’d say data are always our friends. So being able to graph the progress of an animal in training or as it recovers from a health crisis is critical,” McGreevy says. “It’s far better than just getting a feeling for whether it is improving.”

VetCompass collects clinical resources at a centralised source and allows vets and breeders to identify risk factors. Doglogbook, meanwhile, provides a medium for both professionals and owners to monitor behaviour.

“The owners might be asked to keep an eye on a dog’s behaviour or a dog’s progress after a major health event or surgery,” McGreevy says of doglogbook. “The vet can ask the owners to use the app every time they see a certain behaviour.

“The owner can then nominate the vet to receive those files and all relevant data will be graphed over time. What we’ve got now is an opportunity to use IT to help boost the relevance of behavioural reports to the veterinary practitioners.”

Doglogbook is, in in many ways, a technological culmination of the work McGreevy is perhaps most well known for—dogmanship.

“Doglogbook makes people more attentive to their dogs. It makes people more considerate of how they socialise their puppies, it makes people more reflective of how they train their dogs.”

McGreevy coined the term to describe the ability people have to interact and train dogs. Good dogmanship—similar to good horsemanship—captures best practice in approaching a dog, handling a dog and training a dog.

Teaching dog owners to become better at it could have health benefits for canines the world over.

Research published in The Veterinary Journal in 2013 showed that euthanasia due to behavioural problems is a leading killer of dogs under the age of three in the UK.

By teaching dogs to behave better, their chances of being euthanised and abandoned are reduced, so the thinking goes. Their day-to-day quality of life will see improvement, too.

“Doglogbook makes people more attentive to their dogs,” McGreevy says. “It makes people more considerate of how they socialise their puppies, it makes people more reflective of how they train their dogs.”

Professor Paul McGreevyVets can also use it make tough end-of-life decisions, he says, rather than drawing arbitrary lines in the sand.

“Very crudely it gives you a proxy of the amount of joy the animal is getting from one week to the next. Clearly as quality of life declines, those metrics will also decline.”

McGreevy and his colleagues at the University of Sydney have received ethics approval to use the behavioural data from the app for scientific study. Eventually, he says, he’d like to secure funding for a PhD student to analyse the data.

Because companion animal research is notoriously underfunded, free technological tools like VetCompass and doglogbook—with their stores of electronic data—are shaping up as essential reference databases.

Not only will they help vets and breeders better understand disorders and where to focus resources, but they’ll help inform the next generation of veterinarians.

Take VetCompass. for example. Every time a vet enters data into their electronic patient records, VetCompass is there to accumulate it. Students can then view the data and assess what practicing vets are diagnosing and doing, McGreevy says.

“Ultimately it can help out with which treatments are most effective.”

McGreevy admits the veterinarian profession has not yet reached capacity in treating animal behavioural problems. Critics say constricted curriculums in shorter verterinarian degrees are not doing much to improve the situation, either.

But McGreevy, who has won several awards for his teaching, says advances in technology are helping. Regardless, it’s clear he wants to inspire his pupils to be lifelong students of animal behaviour.

And with a voluminous contribution to behavioural research, pioneering work on tech tools like VetCompass and doglogbook, he’s certainly laid the groundwork.

“I can’t deliver everything,” he says. “[But] I can give them the tools to discover the information and the enthusiasm to keep checking on the developments.”

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