April 11, 2006

Students learn companion animal care in class

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Agriculture students considering veterinary careers should think small — small animals, that is.

"Fifty, 100 years ago, the emphasis was on production animals — companion animals were kind of a second thought," said Nancy R. Henry, a licensed vet who teaches companion animal care and management for Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition.

"Times have changed. Pets have become very important in our lives — over 60 percent of American households have pets, and for many in the veterinary profession, companion animals have become the bread and butter of their practice."

What qualifies as a companion animal? The usual dogs, cats and birds, of course, but Henry has found when she asks this question of students just starting off in her class, she gets some surprising answers.

"Ducks, chickens, mules, horses, hermit crabs, a tree frog, a rooster, an alligator (I don't think that's a good idea)," she said, flipping through the questionnaire she'd distributed at the first of the semester.

"Basically, it seems to come down to, ‘You don't eat them, they're treated as individuals and they're friends.'"

Henry's course focuses on companion animal selection, care, nutrition, reproduction, health and ethics.

"I teach my students that each animal is an individual with its own traits and should be treated as such," she said.

"I strive to teach them to be careful, respectful and to know their limitations. If they try to fix a problem they don't know how to handle, they could get hurt or the animal could get hurt or the condition could get worse. Our No. 1 rule is: Do no harm. It's much easier to get help before you do something than to have to get help afterwards."

Highlights from Henry's class will be on the afternoon program of SIUC's second annual Agricultural Industry Day set for April 22 at the University's farms. This year's theme, "Go to College" Days, focuses on the broad range of classes available in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"The Pre-vet Club participated last year with a petting zoo that was great — we'll do that again this year," Henry said.

"There will be a demonstration of basic first aid and a lab on heart worms, plus a demonstration of how to handle dogs, cats and horses. We'll have some exhibits and stations to visit. The presentation will be informative and lots of fun."

For those who can't make it to Ag Industry Day, Henry offers these tips on choosing and living with an animal companion.

• Do some homework before you get your pet. Have some idea of what you want and find out everything you can about that particular kind of pet — from what kind of food and housing it needs to its likely medical problems.

"Be prepared!" Henry warned. "A lot of people don't realize how much time, care, commitment — and money — are involved in keeping an animal."

• Buy from a breeder who loves the breed. Avoid those with scads of animals — large numbers often indicate the breeder is running a puppy mill or cattery, where diseases and genetic defects often run rampant. If the animal's parents are on site, ask to see them and look for any indication of health or behavior problems.

• Have your vet check the new pet as soon as possible.

"That way if there are problems, you can address them immediately or return the animal before you get too attached to it," Henry said.

• Spend some money on pet chow specifically formulated for that particular type of animal.

• Spay or neuter your pet.

"Spaying a dog or cat before their first heat reduces the incidence of breast cancers by 100 percent," Henry said. "Neutering reduces the incidence of prostate cancer, roaming and fighting. You may also reduce aggressive behavior and some marking behavior."

Having a dog or cat altered also reduces the number of unwanted animals.

"Eight million dogs and cats wind up in shelters every year," Henry said.

Offering career-planning services to students is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.