Citizen science helping pave the way for better animal care

BENEFITS: A recent survey helped change the way Elizabethan collars are used. Picture: Supplied
BENEFITS: A recent survey helped change the way Elizabethan collars are used. Picture: Supplied

People often ask me how they can help animals.

Some volunteer at the local animal shelter.

Some undertake training to rescue, rehabilitate and release wildlife.

Others donate money to charities.

But there is another way that all of us can help animals without leaving home - contributing to important research by responding to surveys.

First, I must declare a conflict of interest.

In my academic role, I occasionally collect data from members of the public for studies I am performing.

For example, I have previously been involved in a survey asking owners of companion animals about their animal's behaviour while wearing an Elizabethan collar.

The more people who respond to the survey, the more reliable the data, and the stronger conclusions that can be drawn.

As someone who lives with companion animals, I am also a doer of surveys.

Surveys help us understand how animals are perceived and cared for, what treatments or interventions really make a difference to an animal's quality of life and how we can best support those caring for animals.

They can generate important findings.

That survey of owners whose pets had worn an Elizabethan collar in the last 12 months revealed that the collars negatively impacted the lives of animals wearing them.

This led to the development of recommendations to minimise those negative impacts while maximising the benefits of the collar in stopping animals from accessing a wound.

Surveys help us understand how animals are perceived and cared for ...

The trouble for both researchers and those who complete surveys is that we live in a world saturated with surveys - scientific surveys administered by researchers, marketing surveys, customer satisfaction surveys and polls.

Survey fatigue is a thing.

Some surveys take mere seconds to complete ("Do you like chocolate ice cream? Yes or No"), while others may take 10, 20, even 30 or more minutes, and require us to engage in deep thinking ("What flavours of ice cream have you tried in the last three years? Of this, which, if any gave you brain freeze?").

Some surveys are performed at multiple points in time (these are called longitudinal surveys).

None of us has limitless time, so how do you decide which surveys you are going to contribute to?

Surveys should be accompanied by a participant information statement, detailing what the survey is about, what data will be collected, whether your particular data will be identifiable, how it will be stored, what happens if you decide to withdraw from the study and what will be done with data at the end of the survey.

The statement usually includes an ethics approval number, showing that the survey has been assessed by a human research ethics committee (a rigorous process which can take weeks to months).

It should also provide contact details of a member of the research team.

Surveys should also provide inclusion criteria - who can participate in the survey (for example, "cat owners over the age of 18" or "people who have visited a veterinarian in the last five years") as well as exclusion criteria (for example, "persons under the age of 18" or "people who have never visited a veterinarian").

Rest assured, when it comes to good quality scientific research, your responses don't disappear into a vacuum.

They are aggregated, analysed and the results usually written up in a scientific journal.

They may be presented at conferences (these days, most conferences are virtual).

Many surveys provide an option at the end of entering an email address so you can receive a summary of the results or the resulting publication.

Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.