Vet who can make a dog's life a bit more bearable

October 8, 2004

Danny Mills may not be able to talk to the animals like the fictional character Doctor Dolittle, but he certainly understands them better than most.

Professor Mills holds the UK's first chair in veterinary behavioural medicine, at Lincoln University. The recent appointment left one newspaper unable to resist describing him, incorrectly, as "professor of animal psychiatry", conjuring up images of counselling sessions for neurotic cats.

Professor Mills is no psychiatrist, but he has carved out a niche as an expert in analysing and solving animal welfare problems.

Much of his research has been aimed at improving conditions for companion pets. Britain may be a nation of animal lovers but, while many people have the best of intentions, modern lifestyles can wreak havoc on pet welfare.

Professor Mills said: "People may think it is all right to leave a dog at home alone for ten hours while they are at work, but dogs are social creatures. It may be better to find someone such as a retired person who can look after a dog during the day but doesn't want the burden of owning one.

"Much of my work is about finding novel solutions to problems such as these."

Professor Mills carried out research into pheromones, chemical messages emitted by all animals, and how they can be used to treat stress-related conditions in cats, dogs and horses.

Sceptics question whether attributes such as happiness and sadness, which we recognise in fellow humans, can be attributed to animals. Such arguments have been played out in recent years in the debates over the hunting of animals for sport.

Professor Mills said: "You need to distinguish between the emotion of happiness or unhappiness and the feeling. We do not know how another human feels when they are unhappy, but we know that they are capable of processing information in an unhappy way. This is where I think the analogy can be drawn."

With animal experimentation high on the political agenda, it is impossible to avoid asking Professor Mills for his views as someone who understands animal behaviour. No invasive animal testing is carried out at Lincoln, but Professor Mills recognises that the use of animals in medical experiments is sometimes necessary. And he is critical of the methods employed by some of those who take the opposite view.

"It's a utilitarian argument," he said. "It is also why we need to start looking perhaps at the possibility of using clinical cases rather than lab animals as models of human psychiatric problems. They may be better models and will reduce the need for animals.

"But when people advocate violence, it limits the dialogue you can have with them. It becomes very difficult."

Professor Mills thinks that pet dogs might be more appropriate models for certain types of behavioural research than more commonly used species such as mice, rats and even primates. "Pet dogs are better matched to the human mind than any other animal, even the chimpanzee," he said.

Professor Mills followed in his father's footsteps by training as a vet at Bristol University. But one day he went to a public lecture on behavioural science. It "absolutely blew my mind", he said.

He wrote to the speaker, Robert Hinde, a Cambridge psychologist noted for his work on animal social behaviour, who told him the discipline was in need of trained vets.

So, after graduating in 1990, Professor Mills practised as a vet before securing a lecturing job at De Montfort University.

"An academic position came up and I thought, 'Why not?' It's been more than ten years now and I haven't looked back," he said.

At De Montfort, Professor Mills did his PhD with a thesis on horse weaving.

This is a condition in which horses walk on the spot, swaying their front and neck from side to side repetitively. It is believed to reflect social isolation.

Professor Mills found that the simple installation of a mirror in the stable gave many horses the impression of companionship, helping to alleviate the weaving.

"It's not always possible to keep horses in groups, but a mirror means they have a companion for life," he said.

Lincoln's animal behaviour clinic includes the equine facilities at the university's Riseholme Park campus. And Professor Mills said that as a result of his research and his practical solution to the problem, the horses were happier.

"We don't have any weaving horses now, which means I have to go looking elsewhere for them."

But this aside, Professor Mills said that his greatest achievement to date was organising the first international conference on veterinary behavioural medicine, in Birmingham in 1997. It brought together vets from across the world, generating great interest, and has become a biennial event.

"The first conference generated a great deal of cultural exchange, and the field has become much richer as a result," he said.

This week, Professor Mills spoke in Glasgow to the tenth conference of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations, hosted by the Society for Companion Animal Studies.

For an academic so committed to teaching and research, climbing the management tree by accepting a professorship may seem to be an uncharacteristic move. But he was adamant he had done so only because it was not an administrative position.

Professor Mills said: "The vice-chancellor (David Chiddick) made it clear the chair was in recognition of what I was doing for the discipline, rather than at the university alone. He went up in my estimation considerably after that."

    • I GRADUATED FROM  Bristol University
    • MY FIRST JOB WAS as a vet with the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals in Warwickshire
    • MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS increasing the public's awareness of unintentional animal suffering
    • WHAT I HATE MOST is political interference in scientific and academic activities
    • IN TEN YEARS' TIME I want to be doing the same thing I am doing now


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