With Dr Louise Nicholls

Queanbeyan Vet hospital, Kippax Vet Hospital


What is The Canberra Mob and Utopia Program?

Canberra Mob Indigenous Dog Health is a group of veterinarians, veterinary nurses and like-minded supporters who provide a dog health program to indigenous communities in the Utopia region in the Northern Territory


How did you get involved?

Anyone working within our group of clinics becomes aware of what we do – I got involved because I worked closely with Alison the clinic owner, so I naturally became involved with the program as it developed.

I started coordinating the fundraising while I was at Kippax, which involved mostly organising the main annual fundraiser which has developed from a general auction night of various donated goods to now being an art auction of paintings that we get from Utopian artists, many of who’s dogs we are treating. The artists are willing to sell us their works, many of them will do work specifically for us knowing that their works contribute towards the ongoing financial sustainability of the program.


Why is this charity important to you?


I think I’m very lucky to be working as a small animal vet working in a city practice with well-educated and financial clients. It’s very easy however to take this situation for granted, and it does us all good to be reminded that there are many people and communities out there that aren’t as well off as we area.

The indigenous communities rarely have access, let alone financial capabilities, for vet care, so the basics that we take for granted of worming and desexing the dogs is just totally inaccessible for them. The conditions are poor and whilst the dogs are treasured, there just isn’t the education or resources available for them to be looked after. By providing some basic parasite treatment every 3 moths and once-off desexing, we can make these dogs lives, their general health is massively improved, the social conditions they live under are greatly improved and the communities become healthier places for both the dogs but also importantly the flow-on effects to the people are hugely beneficial.


Tell us about Utopia


Utopia is formed of about 16 out-stations and communities, all anywhere from 10 – 40km from the central area. We set up our vet clinic generally in one of the central outstations called Arlparra – this is where there’s a store and school. We get the Barkley Shire dog worker (Brian Radovic) to come out and assist us for the week, he usually brings one or two of his local workers with him from Tennant Creek, and they assist us with communication and with the dogs, working as translators, dog collectors, vet nurses and every other job that needs to be done! The dogs have a large cultural significance in these communities; some of the dogs are believed to take on the spirits of deceased ancestors. As well as this, the dogs play an important role in protection and warmth. It’s typical for every person to have at least 1 if not 3 – 5 dogs, so every house that we visit (there might be anywhere from 3 to 12 houses in each outstation) has often got up to 20 dogs (or even more) running around.

The biggest problem is that most of the dogs have to scavenge for food, they’re not desexed so pregnancy is common, along with inter-dog aggression and noise during the night (disturbing the people and children trying to sleep), there is growing incidence of dog-bites due to the aggression. There is perpetual disease transmission between the dogs and people (particularly the children).

The children’s nappies become a source of food for the dog, the dog gets any gastro bugs that are going around and then contacts the children during play, reinfecting the children and so on. There was a hugely high incidence of scabies and parasites, which causes a transient itch in people which they then scratch and get skin sores from. When we first started going every dog had a high mange score – it was rare to see a dog that didn’t have a mange lesion somewhere on them, and common to see what we call Leatherbacks, dogs with complete fur loss and thickened,lichenified and pigmented skin. Now it is very rare to see these dogs and more often than not we are seeing no mange lesions or very minor lesions.


What has working for this charity taught you?

We have developed a relationship with Charles Sturt Uni – we always took students at Kippax and Queanbeyan for clinical placements, but we’ve been able to offer the opportunity for a student to come on each trip with us to experience something very different to routine clinical vet work. We’ve learnt to deal with every eventuality up there – from unexpected surgical complications to treating unwell dogs – we see a few cats up there for routine desexing, we see a few pigs that are kept as pets up there too.

We’ve learnt to deal with everything that we’re handed – on one occasion we arrived to find our surgical instruments had all been thrown out accidentally in a clean-out of the health centre (we used to store stuff at the health centre – after this we started storing it all ourselves!!!!). We’ve had to deal with the unexpected deaths of dogs during surgery, an occasional escapee in the middle of the desert.

We’ve learnt to set up a clinic in every condition – we’re lucky to have a shed that we tend to use, but often we go to one of the further away outstations and set up under the verandah of a small shed, working completely outdoors in the open air, flies and all.  Language barriers are a big one – we have a couple of local community shire workers who come with us to each community who help to translate and discuss what we’re doing. Often we go one day and chat, then return the next day by which stage the people are ready to let us desex one or two dogs (usually those with less emotional or cultural significance) and then when they’re ok the following day they let us have more dogs much more readily.


What improvements have you seen since being involved with the charity?

The health service has been able to report a 75% drop in use of topical ointments to treat skin sores in the people after less than 3yrs of our program.  The owners of these dogs are now proud of their animals, they like seeing them healthy and shiny coats and even getting fat!

They know us well now, they know what we have provided and they willingly let us treat their dogs when we come up.


How are you educating the communities when it comes to caring for their animals?

When we’re up there, either Alison or a shire education officer (occasionally an AMRRIC provided education officer) will come into the schools and chat to the kids about dog care – the basics of feeding, water, shelter, desexing and parasite control). It’s heartening that we now see small changes like a water bowl being placed under the dripping taps so the dogs have free access to water, dog food sold in the store now, that sort of change. We often have one or two school classes come down each day to look at the clinic and see what we’re doing. We’ve often been able to show kids a sarcoptic mite under the microscope so they can see the parasite that causes the problems on the dogs skin as well as on their own skin.


What are some practical tips that help you in the outback when the resources for surgery and restraint are scarce?

Be ready and open to any eventuality! Expect the unexpected! You need to be open to any options, think outside the square and use whatever resources you have to come up with an acceptable way of doing what needs to be done.

We all work to a very high standard at home in our clinics, using the most modern techniques and materials and equipment. Learning to leave that security behind and go back to basics, monitor anaesthetics without all the toys (we have isoflurane machines and pulse oximeters up there), use drugs that might be slightly less familiar but more adaptable to this sort of situation – we use acepromazine, atoprine and butorphanol SC for a pre-med as we get solidly good sedation from this combination, followed by IV diazepam/ketamine for induction as we like the amnesia effect as well as the smooth recovery. We do occasionally have to resort to oral acepromazine, occasionally combined with phenobarbitone, for ‘cheeky’ dogs – these are the dogs that the locals can’t catch and that tend to bite at people. Getting the locals that the dogs know to catch the dog’s works great – the dogs often run from white people, whereas they let their indigenous owners and families catch them more readily.

We top up castrates IV as needed, but place all spays on gaseous anaesthesia. All animals are intubated, irrespective of the length of the procedure. All animals get metacam for pain relief on recovery and they all get Noroclav (castrates) or Convenia (speys) for antibiotic action – this is a precaution based on there being relatively no post-op care, once they are back at home they’re generally straight back into the dirt and supporting themselves. We aim for a sheltered spot to set up the clinic, but outdoors tables under a verandah are not uncommon.

We basically do everything as we would at home, just without the fancy monitoring equipment – we decided before we ran our first trip that simple things like intubation and pain relief should never be an optional thing based on being remote, everything we would see as standard and necessary in our clinics should be necessary out there as well. We didn’t want our standard of care to slip, simply because of our location.

In honesty, most of the difficulties come from unexpected things happening and just being malleable and flexible, working towards a greater goal rather than a short-term goal is important. Sometimes for whatever reason we might see no dogs one day whether there is sorry business (a death in the community) or due to a big footy carnival being on, you just need to work with whatever you’re given and go with it.

Having a local familiar face around is great; the locals find it very reassuring rather than being met with total strangers. And having local speaker help enormously!


What is your favourite immobilisation drug and why?

I’ve always been a fan of val/ket combo – interestingly our younger vets (new grads etc.) often haven’t used it at all, in fact they often seem to see it as a poorer cousin of newer agents like alfaxalone. However, I tend to use it quite a lot for short quick procedures, or for light anaesthesia (such as when I’m wanting to do quick radiographs). Alison is a big fan of acepromazine and butorphanol (mostly Iv admittedly) for sedation – she does a lot of ultrasonography and finds a low dose of this mixture allows for perfect sedation for these procedures.  We’ve both been using these drugs longer than we’ve been doing this program, but being able to adapt to using something that is for whatever reason more applicable (cheaper, convenience, storage etc.) has allowed us to set up good protocols to follow up there and provide a knowledge base for these that are less familiar with these drugs).


What hopes do you have for this charity in the future?

The situation has become more stable now at Utopia, very much entered a maintenance phase so we now desex maybe 40-70 dogs per week there, as opposed to 150 or so on our first few visits. This means we do have the opportunity, resources and time to do a few days at another area, hence our willingness to extend to the Central Desert Shire as well.

We are adamant that every program we establish MUST BE LONG-TERM SUSTAINABLE. We do not want to start a program then leave after a few visits, as we know this will lead to mistrust from the communities. Each trip we take at least one familiar face so that there is always a head co-ordinator that the people know and that the health service knows.


How can others get involved/find out more?

We have a Facebook page – search for Canberra Mob Indigenous Dog Health), and all of our trips have reports and pictures on this site. There is a mailing list for the Canberra mob – email [email protected] and we can add you to our mailing list. Any further information or support/enquiries can be directed to Alison at the above email address, or myself at [email protected]