Lisa Wallis

Starting in 2020, BSAVA PetSavers funded a major research project at the University of Liverpool, called the ‘Old Age Pets’ project. The project aimed to help pet owners and vets provide the best care for senior dogs. The results of the research showed that it can be difficult for owners to know what ‘normal’ age-related changes (signs of ageing) are or whether signs indicate possible disease that would benefit from veterinary advice and treatment.

Therefore, the Ageing Canine Toolkit (ACT) was created, which includes an owner checklist for home triage, along with a leaflet containing information that ties in with the checklist topics and provides a comprehensive background about the more common health problems affecting aged dogs. 

We spoke to Professor Carri Westgarth, Dr Lisa Wallis, Dr Sally Everitt, and PetSavers Management Committee Chair (PMC), Rosie Godfrey, about their involvement, motivation for the project and the collaboration between each other.

How did the idea for the project come about?

Carri Westgarth

Carri – “Lisa, who is a researcher, wanted to work at Liverpool University and develop a research profile here. She approached me with some ideas around research into canine ageing.”

Lisa – “I was interested specifically in examining older dogs’ welfare, and how we can make their twilight years as comfortable as possible, and to ensure that owners are aware of the signs of pain in their dogs, and when a veterinary trip is necessary.”

Carri – “After some discussion we saw the BSAVA PetSavers funding call and thought that we could use that to fund some research into this area and provide training for Lisa in qualitative research methods during the process, under my supervision.”

What motivated you to get involved with the project and why is it meaningful for you?

Rosie – “There are many elderly pets, and it’s important that they get the care they need. It has long been known that it is difficult for owners deciding what is just an ageing change, and what is the start of a disease or condition that could be helped, stabilised, or treated by veterinary care.”

Carri – “With my last dog Jas, making those end decisions was very complex and not easy, as she wasn’t deteriorating in a clear way for a long time. Therefore, I wanted to explore other people’s experiences and see what we could do to potentially help owners and their pets.”

Lisa – “As a young adult, my dog had quite a few health issues including severe osteoarthritis, and then kidney disease. I have always felt very passionately about maximising the health span of our pets as they have so much love to give us, and we have a responsibility to ensure they receive the best care possible.”

“It has long been known that it is difficult for owners deciding what is just an ageing change, and what is the start of a disease or condition that could be helped, stabilised, or treated by veterinary care.”

What changes do you hope for as a result of the project?

Carri – “That after seeing the toolkit at least some owners are motivated to go to ask their vet about a potential issue when they may not have decided before to do that, without this knowledge. I also hope it helps veterinary professionals in their workday by having more efficient and effective conversations with owners about senior dog health and behaviour.”

How did you persuade others to support the project?

Carri – “I think this one was a bit of a no-brainer really for anyone in the veterinary field or that has ever owned a dog or even known an ageing dog. Rather than pitching it just as a piece of research, we also pitched it as the pilot development of an intervention that could be rolled out at the end, so there was a tangible output.”

Sally – “From the perspective of choosing which project to fund, there was a robust selection process and a Project Board involved in making the decision. However, it is probably true to say that I was impressed by the proposal from Liverpool and the potential for the research to engage with both pet owners and the profession, so I was very comfortable advocating for this project.”

How did you find similarly minded others to collaborate with?

Carri – “We used mainly established collaborations I have with others here in the veterinary school that I have worked with on other projects, so I know their skills and expertise, but I also reached out to other researchers in the area who I had read their papers and loved their work.”

Rosie – “As Chair of PMC I led the conversations we had as a committee about how to develop the draft checklist into a usable BSAVA PetSavers product; something which could potentially help identify health problems of older dogs was really a no-brainer for the vets and nurse volunteers of PMC to support.”

How did you develop such positive working relationships for the project?

Carri – “I believe in making sure you choose to work with people that you like as a person to be around and respect the calibre of their work and expertise.”

Rosie – “We are very lucky at BSAVA PetSavers to have two strong, active committees of volunteers, from within BSAVA’s membership and beyond, to support our work. I think people who volunteer their time have a bias towards being people who naturally enjoy collaborating and working together.”

Sally – “I think it was important to keep communications open and to remember that whatever the challenges, and there were several, we all wanted the project to be a success.”

What challenges did you encounter and how did you tackle them?

Carri – “Just as we recruited Lisa and got our ethics approval for data collection, Covid-19 struck. This meant we had to change our data collection plans from in-person to online, and wait again for approval, which set back the project somewhat.

“Interviewing was arguably easier and could be with a wider range of people geographically. It also meant we were all working virtually (and during a stressful crisis!) which made it hard to establish new relationships and set clear expectations of what needs to be done.”

Sally – “There was also a challenge in balancing the expectations and timescales involved in delivering evidence-based research with providing material for publicity to raise the profile of BSAVA PetSavers.”

Have you got any tips for successful collaboration between different teams or organisations?

Carri – “Regular meetings. It’s very easy for the weeks to fly by without realising and for work to drift. Because of Covid-19, I started to keep a regular set weekly meeting time for the core team working on the project, and monthly meetings for the wider team.”

Lisa – “Working with colleagues who have a shared passion for the health and wellbeing of our pets is a pleasure and a privilege. Making sure that your team consists of people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences can help to ensure that all aspects of the project are considered objectively, without bias. The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that remote communication with the public, and different teams and organisations was indeed possible and was essential for the development of the toolkit.”

What previous experiences did you draw on while working on the project?

Carri – “We took our experience of using past research methods (in-depth interviews, questionnaire surveys, and electronic health record analysis)”

Rosie – “I have worked in a wide range of settings including education, and with a wide range of people and this has developed my people and communications skills and practice at chairing meetings and producing written educational materials.”

Sally – “Having worked at BSAVA I had a good understanding of the aims of BSAVA PetSavers and its importance as the fundraising and grant awarding division of BSAVA.”

What have you learned from the experience of working together on the project?

Carri – “I am perhaps too ambitious with my research proposals and ask a lot of my colleagues. It worked to get us the funding, but it was an extreme amount of work to be achieved for the funded time allocated.”

Lisa – “I had never had the opportunity to use qualitative data collection methods previously, and so learning how to make interview protocols and conduct interviews was a great experience for me. Although I had spoken many times with dog owners who had participated in my research, I was unaware of just how often I potentially influenced their narrative accounts of their experiences. I became aware of how participants should talk about what is important to them, rather than focusing on my own concerns and interests.”

Sally – “That even if you encounter significant challenges, if you keep the end in sight, and keep communications open, you will get there in the end.”

You can find out more about the BSAVA PetSavers Old Age Pets (OAP) project here.

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