Amy Jerram with some of the hardest workers on her parents' Ongaonga farm.

Health of agriculture's 'hardest worker' to be studied

A world-first study into the health of farm dogs will provide an insight into their contribution to New Zealand agriculture. Masters student Amy Jerram will also develop measures that could improve working-dog well-being and add value to farming operations.

Based at her parents farm in Ongaonga, Central Hawke’s Bay, Miss Jerram has observed farm dogs throughout her life. “The farm dog is New Zealand agriculture’s hardest worker,” she says. “We have always had heaps of them and we are with the dogs all day – they are a passion. They work really hard, spending all day trying to please you.”

Ms Jerram says she has not been able to find any epidemiology-type health-related information on farm dogs, although there are many studies undertaken throughout the world on pets and commercial livestock.

“We don’t even know how much work farm dogs do,” she says. “It totally depends on where the dog is – on a station they might be covering huge kilometres every day, in other instances they may be covering only a small distance. But that’s only distance. People may only use them at certain times of the day or for certain reasons – it may be there’s a huge variety too in the number of dogs used.”

Associate Professor Mark Stevenson, who is supervising Ms Jerram’s research, says dogs are a very important part of the farm operation.

“A good dog does the work of several men on quad bikes, in terms of being able to get to the stock quickly and effectively and move them, ” he says. “There’s good dogs and there’s not so good dogs and it’s important that if farmers find good dogs we can maximise their longevity and keep them productive.”

These high-performing farm dogs are the elite of the farm dog population, Dr Stevenson says.

“When good dogs are found we want to know how long  they last and why they are being retired – is it due to old age or injury? If arthritic conditions are identified as an important reason for loss, for example, then a useful outcome of this study will be to provide owners with some early intervention strategies: maybe a reduction in the intensity and length of work periods and providing a few home comforts."

Miss Jerram completed a Bachelor of Health Sciences at Auckland University, before returning to the family farm and starting postgraduate study at Massey’s EpiCentre, the largest veterinary epidemiology training and research centre in Australasia. The centre has expertise in the understanding and control of disease in animals, the transmission of disease from animals to humans, and hazards in food of animal origin.

Information will be collected from more than 100 farms in Manawatu, Wanganui, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa. “We want to find out about the farming operation, experiences of the people with working dogs, the health of dogs currently in work on the farm and dogs retired from the farm in the previous 12 months,” Ms Jerram says. “It will only take 30 minutes for farmers to complete but we will analyse the data to identify common health problems and risk factors for farm dogs, and initiate changes to assist the dogs.”

Ms Jerram will be supported by the University EpiCentre staff Dr Naomi Cogger and Associate Professor Mark Stevenson.

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