Science Heroes: Dr. Emma Milne

Animal welfare has become a collective interest across a multitude of animal-based industries around the globe. Ranging from the treatment of laboratory rodents, training elephants in the circus, to the overbreeding of dogs, there are a wide variety of issues that concern animal scientists. Unfortunately, not everyone who is interested in ameliorating these issues is able to effectively do so; unless of course you are famous UK veterinarian, Dr. Emma Milne.

Bristol Veterinary School [Source].

Emma Milne grew up in Kent, Medway Towns, just outside of London, England. Like many people who become veterinarians, Emma knew she wanted to pursue this career since the early age of 6. Obsessed with animals, she fervently consumed all the veterinary and nature programs on the television. Emma worked extremely hard while applying to veterinary school. In her first round of applications, she was denied from all five universities despite having good grades. Instead of becoming deflated, Emma took a year off, working in a local vet’s surgical office and volunteering on farms, developing a glowing rapport with her supervisors. The next time she applied, she received two unconditional offers, and accepted the offer from Bristol University Veterinary School, where she started in 1991.

Veterinary school is certainly no easy experience for anyone with long long nights studying and grueling hours caring for patients, but Milne adored her time at Bristol University despite all of the difficult experiences. When I asked Dr. Milne what her most rewarding experience was in veterinary school, she said it was also her most challenging. Dr. Milne describes that how during the summer, she and a team of four would have to care for all of the animals at the veterinary school hospital, and “on our week we ended up having a record number of surgical colics [surgery in the abdomen] in the first three days which needed hourly checks plus all the inpatients and ICU animals. It was THE most exhausting week I’d ever had.”

After graduating in 1996, Emma worked in both small animal and mixed practice clinics (small and large animals), each with their own specific challenges. In 1997, she was casted into successful BBC show Vets in Practice, which followed the lives of four young veterinary surgeons. She participated in this show for all 11 seasons, and the show regularly had 8-10 million viewers! Milne shared that working on the show was “the best thing for me… it opened doors and gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had… like TV appearances to talk about welfare issues and the book writing. I think the show has helped me reach way more people than if I’d just been a vet in practice.”

A small selection of Dr. Milne’s authored works [Source].

In 2003, she met her future husband while on a trip to the United States, and ended up moving from England to work with him in his small animal practice. However, after years of being disheartened by treating so many animals with pedigree-related health issues, Dr. Milne felt that she needed to work to prevent these issues rather than “pick up the pieces of breed-related disease.” Thus, her first book was published in 2007 titled The Truth About Cats and Dogs?, where she discusses the cruelty of modern-day pet breeding and challenges breeders who continue to perpetuate these issues to think about the impact on the health and longevity of animals they breed [1].

Around this time she also traveled to Capetown and Johannesburg in South Africa, to highlight the various veterinary opportunities abroad and inspire other veterinarians to help. Dr. Milne treated an array of malnourished and heavily parasitized animals, many of whom had owners struggling with extreme poverty. This trip confirmed her desire to leave a traditional veterinary practice in hopes to devote more time to charitable veterinary work and advocacy. While making this career pivot, Dr. Milne gave birth to two children and from 2011-2018 she worked as a technical advisor for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a billion-dollar pet food company. Now, Dr. Emma Milne spends her time speaking and writing about ethics in the veterinary industry, where her audience includes fellow veterinarians, policy makers, the public, and more. One of her most passionate welfare subjects is talking about the inhumane breeding of brachycephalic animals.

Pugs are one of the most common breeds to be plagued by the health repercussions of brachycephaly [Source].

The American College of Veterinary Surgeons defines brachycephalic syndrome to be “certain breeds of dogs and cats are prone to difficult, obstructive breathing because of the shape of their head, muzzle and throat. The most common dogs affected are the ‘brachycephalic’ breeds.” Some of the more well-known breeds include pugs, variations of bulldogs, and Persian cats. The reason that this is of such concern to Dr. Milne, is that this extreme short-faced conformation causes a multitude of known health problems to the animals, yet they continue to be bred across the globe. Emma founded the organization Vets Against Brachycephalism to increase awareness and encourage policymakers to fight against breeding these animals. She has gained over 2,000 signatures from veterinarians in 66 countries who are also frustrated by the continued over-breeding of brachiocephalic animals. Milne poignantly states on her website how brachycephalic animals “would not exist in nature, they suffer lifelong pain, discomfort and distress, they lose eyes, they die after anaesthetics because they have no airways as they recover, their teeth don’t work because they don’t fit in their mouths, they can’t sniff things properly, their undershot jaws make eating a daily challenge. Life is a constant struggle.”

This diagram illustrates what the airway structure looks like in a brachycephalic dog. The brachycephalic dogs has a shorter snout which causes the nasal (1) and oral (2) cavity airways to be shorter, because they are being pushed closer together. Due to this phenomenon, a brachycephalic dog has an elongated soft palate (3) which can cause most of the problems with the dogs breathing. They can also have problems getting enough air through their pharynx (4), larynx (5), and nasopharynx (8) because of their elongated soft palate and shorter airway. Also labeled is the dog’s trachea (6), esophagus (7), and hard palate (9) [Source].

To those of us involved in the animal welfare industry, Dr. Milne’s concerns about breeding are well-founded and grounded in empirical science. However, she receives continuous backlash and bullying from breeders and on social media, who disagree with the importance or repercussions of breeding animals with these health concerns. Yet, with the same motivation and perseverance she had when re-applying to veterinary school, she does not allow the bullying to dissuade her.

“We need to make ourselves heard as much as the wealthy Kennel Clubs and breeders do. We have to be clear and united that it should be illegal to produce animals that we know are going to suffer. For me, this suffering is as tangible as physical abuse and it has to stop. People are frightened of banning breeds but I see no reason not to. When the Kennel Club in the UK started in the 1800s there were 19 recognized breeds, we now have over 200. If we did without them before, we can do without them again.”

Some of Dr. Emma Milne’s continued work in 2021 includes speaking to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Congress to discuss the ethics of extreme conformation and breeding. She is also a trustee of the Dog Breed Reform Group, regularly works on her Vets Against Brachycephalism organization, and participates in a wide variety of webinars, interviews, and talks to continue raising awareness about modern day welfare concerns in the veterinary industry. I hope to make as much of an impact in my field of Animal Welfare as Dr. Emma Milne has for hers.


WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column on Animal Adventure Thursdays for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.

Check out Dr. Milne’s website for more information about her, animal welfare projects, and more!

Watch The Ethics of Breeding for Looks and Wags Lyrical Feature to hear more about Dr. Milne’s work.

WANT TO READ EMMA MILNE’S PUBLISHED WORK?

[1] Milne, E. (2008). The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Book Guild Ltd.

For a complete list of publications, check out Dr. Milne’s website.

Isabelle McDonald is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is interested in studying stereotypic and abnormal behaviors in dairy cattle. She is currently researching oral behavior patterns in dairy heifers. She’s also an avid dog-lover!

[Edited by Karli Chudeau]

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