Prof. Michael Meehan

Our companion animals enhance our lives in many ways: they can provide security, encourage us to exercise, become playmates for our kids. For some people, though, the bond between them and their animals is something they value as much as a relationship with another human.

“The strength and the meaning of the bond are almost comparable to the connection with another family member,” says Prof. Michael Meehan, who joined the Department of Population Medicine this summer.

You can see that in the way we live with companion animals, says Meehan. While at one time, most dogs and cats were kept outdoors most of the time, Meehan cites research from his native country, Australia, that found 26 per cent of dog owners now allow their dogs to share their beds. Another 28 per cent of the people surveyed allowed the dogs to sleep in the bedroom but not on the bed, and 20 per cent more kept the dogs in their houses but not in the bedroom. This left only 26 per cent of the dogs sleeping outdoors.

“There are very few people in our lives we’d allow to share our bed,” points out Meehan. “Our animals are living in very close proximity to us, and the theory of attachment suggests that closeness means more interaction, more communication and ultimately a deeper bond.”

This human-animal bond and communication and what they mean to veterinarians are the topics of Meehan’s research and the courses he’ll be teaching at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC).

Meehan did his veterinary training at the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science in Australia and then worked in a small animal practice for several years. After that, he moved to the U.K. and spent five years doing locum work in England and Wales before returning to Brisbane in 2000 to continue practising in Australia.

“I’d become interested in the human-animal bond,” he explains. “I did an honours degree in psychology at the University of Queensland and wrote a mini-thesis on that topic.” After graduation, he was hired by the School of Veterinary Science to lecture in professional skills. During that time he also completed his PhD with a focus on understanding the human-animal bond and improving communication skills for veterinarians.

“Veterinary students need to understand that not all people value their pets in the same way,” says Meehan. “Studies have shown that clients who are very attached to their animals expect the veterinarians to ask them about their connection and to communicate with them in a way that shows empathy and understanding of their concerns for their pet. If that doesn’t happen, the client is less likely to comply with treatment recommendations and, in some cases, may choose to see a different veterinarian. Therefore, there are clear implications for the health and well-being of pets.”

He adds that these strong attachments mean that if a pet is ill or dies, their owners suffer from real grief. “Every time we tell a client that their animal has developed kidney failure or cancer, the client knows that this might mean the end of the animal’s life. This needs to be handled with sensitivity and understanding,”

Meehan studied with a grief specialist in Australia who taught him a powerful lesson: “A person will inevitably grieve at the loss of an animal he or she cares about. But veterinarians have the ability to either alleviate or aggravate the grief process by how we communicate with that person.”

He says he’s excited about working with colleagues and veterinary students at Guelph. Some of Meehan’s time will also be spent at the new OVC Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Centre, where student-client interactions can be videotaped for later discussion.

“We need to keep students to a gold-standard level of communications,” says Meehan. “The primary health care centre is ‘gold standard’ in my mind and a wonderful opportunity for me to work with like-minded colleagues.”

Meehan says his research interests are broad. Most of his previous work has been with companion animals, but he hopes to do more research about the connections people have with large animals. He’d also like to bring his psychology background to bear on the stresses many veterinarians experience. “Even being a veterinary student can be very stressful, so self-care and stress management strategies are key to getting through tough times,” he says.

One way Meehan deals with stress in his life is by spending time outdoors. “I enjoy what we call in Australia ‘bushwalking,’” he says. “I think Canadians would say hiking or backpacking?” His partner, who is finishing a degree in Australia, will join him in Guelph at the end of the year. She also enjoys the outdoors, and Meehan says they plan to take up cross-country skiing and canoeing.