With The Pet Factor Awards in full swing, we speak to our resident super-vet and judge Dr. Zara Boland on the most amazing pets she’s come across in her career – plus what she’s looking for in your Pet Factor entries.
You’ve been working with animals for over 12 years! What are the most memorable pets you’ve met in your career and what makes an animal really stick out for you?
I think the most memorable pets are the rats and snakes! I encountered both of them for the first time when I was a young vet and perhaps that's why they stick out in my memory because I was like, ‘Yikes!'
Once in Australia, a kangeroo had been killed on the roadside. Thankfully someone checked the pouch and found this little baby Joey inside. He was brought into the clinic and I looked after him there and even brought him home with me. He survived and it was just so amazing to see him hopping around my back garden as he was growing up, before I handed him over to get rehabilitated.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but should you judge a pet by its appearance? What are the most surprising pets you’ve met through the years?
Judging a pet by its appearance is hard to do because really it's down to personality. So for example a Pit Bull looks fierce and aggressive, but most of them are really calm, soft and gentle. Same with Staffies! In England, there's a huge problem with Staffordshire Terriers being bred for fights, which makes them really aggressive little dogs. But when they're treated the right way, they're actually beautifully calm and gentle too.
It's the same with cats, actually! Cats can bristle, with their tails going up and their ears going back and they look like they're about to attack you – occasionally they do, especially in a vet clinic. But more often than not, they're just masking what they're feeling. For snakes and crocodiles, it's the opposite! They can look really calm and docile and then suddenly they're not. It swings both ways.
You have a passion for helping people to become more in tune with their pets. What surprising emotions can animals experience and what practical ways can owners get more in touch with what their pet is trying to tell them?
Research is still ongoing, but dogs and cats can certainly experience a range of emotions just like you and I.
I think the most practical way for pet owners to get in touch with what their pets are trying to say is to just observe their behaviour and body language. Learn to understand what different ear angles might mean, or what the way they're holding their tail signifies, as well as just looking at their overall demeanour. You can really tell the majority from the ears and the tail. If a pet goes off their food, there's something wrong and there's usually a reason for it. It can either be behavioural or emotional, or a clinical problem that they should see a vet for.
They’re a part of our families, but can pets pick up on family dynamics and experience things like childhood joy, teenage hormones and sibling squabbles? What funny cases have you seen of pets with family issues?
I've encountered many pets that are facing family issues of their own. The classic one is when a new baby or a new partner comes into a family. I did a whole media campaign once about helping people understand that if they're entering into a relationship with someone who has a pet, they needs to learn to adapt to the situation and adopt their new step-pet. It's a whole process. There are so many stories that I've come across and people that I've met with who say they meet a new partner and their dog takes an instant dislike to them, to the point of being aggressive or jumping on the bed to separate the couple.
Do you think that our pets can help with the issues or hurdles we face in everyday life? How have you seen pets change people's lives for the better?
I see this happen every day and it makes me feel so good. Purina conducted a study in the United States with the local animal shelter and they proved that people who stopped by the just for ten minutes, on their way to and from work, really experienced a reduction in stress hormones and blood pressure. Just from interacting and stroking a pet for that short period of time. We get a really huge surge in release of endorphins whenever we touch and stroke pets.
Pets also do such amazing work as therapy animals. There's a ton of programs that bring dogs and cats to nursing homes, hospitals and retirement homes, where people are often experiencing negative emotions of stress, pain and confusion. Just bringing a pet into the mix can help them and bring some relief and calm. I'm super lucky because I get to bring my dog into work with me everyday. If I'm in a high-pressure situation, I can just reach out and stroke her. We'll have a cuddle and things will be good!
It’s hugely beneficial for kids, too. I was on a panel recently with a woman who worked with domestic abuse victims in the law courts across New York and she had this big Labradoodle called 'Pav' who she brought into work. The dog used to just come with her and over time she realised that the children who wouldn't want to talk because they were be too traumatised would bonded with her dog. They felt safe to start talking to the dog and express how they were feeling. It's just remarkable what pets do, particularly with children.
You’re a self-confessed exotic animal lover – what are the most weird and wonderful pets you’ve met across the UK?
You'd be amazed at the type of pets that people keep in the UK! Not all of them are particularly legit – and I don’t want to give anyone any ideas! Keeping it legal, the ones that stand out are the stick insects and chameleons. But probably the weirdest one that I've encountered – legally – was an elephant suffering from diarrhoea. It was in a zoo (not a domestic situation) but I'll never forget it. I had to go in there in my wellies and try to grab a sample!
They say that pet owners and pets often become alike, both in looks and mannerisms! What types of fabulous owner and pet pairs have you come across around the country?
It's hard to answer that without insulting people! Who wants to be compared to their illegal crocodile? Or the elephant! One thing that I’ve noticed is sort of a trend in hair and coat type or colour. For example I don't know if it's just Afghan hounds, but I've seen a owners have beautiful, glossy tresses themselves. Their Afghan is flowing along beside them and it's like straight out of a TV advert.
Finally, what are you looking for in The Pet Factor winners?
I'm really looking for personality. Also, the strong human-animal bond makes me feel good and inspires me, stories of heroism and adventure. I'm really excited to see and hear what comes in.
Head to our online form to find out more details about The Pet Factor competition and be sure to enter your pet before the April 25th deadline for your chance to win a £100 pet hamper and a photo shoot with your pet.