Meet our researchers - Rowena Packer

Description

Q: Can you introduce yourself?

I’m the Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at the Royal Veterinary College. My background is in animal behaviour and welfare science, and to date my work has largely focused upon dogs and finding ways to improve their welfare using science. I’m also a Trustee of the Dog Breeding Reform Group, Founding Member of the Brachycephalic Working Group, and a Coordinating Group Member of the Animal Welfare Research Network.

Q: What are you currently working on and what does it involve?

I’m very fortunate to be working on a fantastic range of research projects at the moment under the broad umbrella of canine welfare, with an equally fabulous group of people.

About half of my group’s research focuses on how human behaviour, perceptions and knowledge influence companion animal health and welfare. This is often very applied in focus, with an aim of helping prospective and current owners make better decisions about companion animals, from acquisition through to end-of-life, to improve animal welfare. Within this theme we currently have projects exploring dog owner information-seeking behaviours for both health and behaviour information, owner expectations of dog-child relationships, the impact of owning a chronically ill dog on owner wellbeing, and knowledge and attitudes towards importing of puppies to the UK - a real mix! This research theme often includes a range of social science methods, including interviews, focus groups and surveys.

The other half of my group’s research focuses on canine health and behaviour problems, including those linked to conformation, and how we can improve their treatment and ultimately, prevention. This includes common disorders in dogs such as epilepsy, where we are pioneering new non-invasive therapies focusing on stress reduction and trying to understand the relationship of this often-debilitating disorder with behaviour and cognition. In addition, we have projects exploring the topical issue of ‘designer crossbreeds’, comparing their health and behaviour to their purebred ‘parent’ breeds, and projects understanding the impacts of brachycephaly and other extreme conformations upon canine health and welfare, and how we can mitigate and ideally avoid these impacts. This research theme uses a wide variety of techniques, from epidemiological approaches using large datasets, to in-depth behavioural studies and clinical trials.

Q: What led you to work on this project? What made you apply for the AWF grant?

In the past three years I have been very grateful to AWF for funding two of my research projects in the area of canine welfare.

In 2020, AWF funded our original ‘Pandemic Puppies’ research project, exploring differences in puppy buying motivations and behaviours before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic. This was part of an AWF funding initiative focusing upon desk-based research, conducted during the height of the Pandemic in 2020. I applied for this funding as I was increasingly concerned regarding reports in the media and from colleagues in the sector that there was a huge surge in owners acquiring puppies during the Pandemic. Having previously studied puppy acquisition motivations and behaviours in the UK, I was keen to generate an evidence base here – was it just ‘normal’ UK puppy buying at a larger scale, or were there changes to how and why people were undergoing this often process, which is often fraught with risks to canine welfare? I was grateful to AWF for their dynamic funding strategy which allowed me to pivot my research online, as my ongoing clinical studies in the RVC’s small animal hospital at that time had been put on hold while COVID risks were at their highest.

This original AWF funding has since led to >£200,000 of funding for follow-on projects, including a longitudinal study of ‘Pandemic Puppies’ acquired in 2020, who are now reaching 3 years old (funded by Battersea), monitoring Pandemic-induced changes to puppy buying into 2021, and exploring public understanding of and attitudes towards puppy importation to the UK (both funded by Research England), understanding relationships between children and puppies purchased during the Pandemic (SCAS), and most recently, characterising private and commercial re-homing/re-selling of older puppies and dogs (funded by Dogs Trust). My team are hugely grateful to AWF for instigating this!

This year, AWF have funded a new programme of research (co-funded by Blue Cross and RSPCA), under their Breeding for Better Welfare initiative. This new project explores alternate ways we can meet demand for brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs in the UK whilst protecting canine welfare.

Work by myself and colleagues at RVC regarding brachycephalic health has documented an alarming disease burden in these popular breeds, particularly those with the most extreme conformations (e.g. French Bulldogs, English Bulldogs, Pugs). Despite efforts to change owner attitudes, normalisation of their poor health persists, and popularity continues to grow. Alternative evidence-informed strategies to change demand are urgently needed to protect canine welfare, and AWF’s mission of evidence-based improvement of breeding for animal welfare really fit with my ideas here. Leveraging the current popularity of ‘designer crossbreeds’ (intentional crosses of purebred-breeds) offers a potential route to shifting demand towards more-moderately shaped dogs, but we know very little about the health and welfare status of brachycephalic-outcrosses. This project explores the innate health characteristics of brachycephalic-outcrosses compared to their extreme-brachycephalic parent-breed (using in depth clinical and behavioural assessments), and explores whether brachycephalic-outcrosses meet the aesthetic-preferences of people who desire extreme-brachycephalic purebreds (using social science methods).

Q: What fuelled your passion to study the topic?

I’m passionate about canine welfare in general, as although we often think of companion animals as well loved and well cared for compared to animals in other sectors such as farms and labs, this can often lead to a false reassurance that their welfare is good. This sometimes leads to accusations of being the ‘fun police’, and that there are other more important areas to research. In reality, the way we breed and buy dogs in the UK, and indeed, internationally, is commonly in direct opposition with what is best for their welfare. Whether this is breeding at extremely high volume in poor conditions that are not conducive to good health or behaviour long-term to meet ‘demand’, impulsively buying puppies the first time you meet them without their mum present, or breeding for extreme body shapes that burden dogs with long-term impairments to their health and welfare in the name of aesthetics and fashion.

I am passionate about generating an evidence base regarding what the key issues are for contemporary dog welfare, why they are happening, and what we can do to improve them. Given the lifetime of companionship dogs offer us, I feel we owe it to them to make life as positive as possible for them, and to avoid burdening them with a lifetime of unnecessary, avoidable challenges.

Q: What is your favourite aspect of the project?

For both of my AWF-funded projects, my favourite aspect is working with a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary team. I really believe that science is a team sport, and the best outcomes are achieved when we bring together diverse expertise and views. I feel extremely fortunate to work with world experts on both of these projects, who are also great fun to work with!

Q: Why is this project important/necessary?

Both of my AWF funded projects are important to animal welfare, as the way that dogs are bred, in terms of both the physical body shapes they are selected for, and the early life conditions and experiences they are exposed to, can have important long-term impacts upon their welfare.

Setting a dog up for a life where good welfare is achievable requires selection of body shapes that respect the ‘innate health’ of that species: this includes both their physical health e.g., avoiding breeding for specific features that directly predispose to disease, such as heavy skin folds on the face that result in skin disease, but also their behavioural/emotional health e.g. avoiding features that negatively impact their ability to play and use their face and bodies to communicate effectively with other dogs. Understanding how conformation interplays with physical and emotional health is key to driving evidence-based strategies to improve dog welfare via improved breeding.

Although a fundamentally healthy body shape is one key ingredient to future welfare, if puppies are raised in environments that do not respect their behavioural needs, including an appropriate length of time with their mother, and appropriate socialisation/habituation to stimuli important in their future, then their future welfare will also be impaired. Understanding how puppy buyer behaviour risks dogs being raised in such poor environments (e.g., by not following key advice laid out in The Puppy Contract), we can create bespoke educational initiatives and campaigns aimed at prospective owners, as well as influencing policy to better regulate breeding where possible.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job as a researcher?

I love that my job as researcher is so dynamic and responsive to emerging, contemporary problems in animal welfare – although this sometimes feels like a depressing game of whack-a-mole, with new problems arising far too often, it also keeps me on my toes and always thinking of novel ways we can use science to tackle these problems, which is a really exciting and fulfilling job. I love working will colleagues across the sector, including those in charities, policy and industry, to keep my awareness of emerging issues as up-to-date as possible, and working together to make change for the animals.

Q: What would you like to achieve with your research/project?

Ultimately, I would like my research on dog buying and breeding to help lead to a better future for dogs where they are bred in a way that prioritises their welfare (including their health and behaviour) over their looks, or their monetary value to humans.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking for a similar career?

My main advice would be to try and grasp opportunities to experience what life in research is really like. I have really enjoyed my career to date, but I am also conscious of the challenges that come with it. Academia is a highly competitive environment and getting used to disappointment (e.g., in the form of grant or paper rejections) is a huge part of this – we often only present our successes but for each of them, there is likely to be multiple ‘failures’.

Making sure you are really passionate about conducting research and the topic(s) you are investigating can really help to overcome some of these challenges. Seeking out opportunities to work with researchers in your area(s) of interest can be really inspiring, is great for networking and mentoring, and can help to set your expectations. This could be, for example, during research projects in taught undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, but also additional projects, such as summer studentships funded via student grant schemes, or research-based postgraduate degrees such as MRes or PhD projects. Emailing the researcher who works on your dream topic to see if there is an opportunity to work with them in some capacity could open more doors than you appreciate at the time, so be brave and send that message!