Pet Talk | Thinking inside the box

Pet Talk | Thinking inside the box

By UI College of Veterinary Medicine

Call it "house soiling," "inappropriate elimination," "going outside the box" or whatever you like: It is a big problem for cat owners.

Going No. 1 or No. 2 in the wrong place is the No. 1 issue that drives cat owners to seek help from veterinary behaviorists. It is also the No. 1 reason cat owners relinquish their pets to shelters.

So when two veterinarians decided to team up to introduce members of their profession to a new approach to problem-solving, naturally they chose one of the biggest problems around to kick things off.

The first annual University of Illinois Veterinary Hackathon, coming on Wednesday, Oct. 10, will bring together dozens of divergent viewpoints to "hack" the intransigent problem of cats going outside the box.

"Veterinarians are brilliant people," says Dr. Aaron Smiley, chief of staff at Devonshire Veterinary Clinic in Anderson, Ind. "But when everyone in a problem-solving group has the same background and training, they may tend to come up with the same solutions. Our goal with the Hackathon is to bring divergent thinking to veterinary problems and inject new ways of thinking that can generate solutions that would not have otherwise been conceived."

Vet Med 2.0 promotes divergent thinking

Smiley found a like-minded veterinarian in Dr. Brooke Fowler, a veterinary oncologist who practices in Boulder, Colo. Smiley and Fowler earned their veterinary degrees from the UI in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Recently, they connected at a veterinary conference and were frustrated by the lack of creative solutions to veterinary problems and decided to form a partnership, Vet Med 2.0.

The mission of the company is to create environments in the veterinary space that allow divergent thinking to flourish.

The term "hackathon" originated for short bursts of intensive collaboration around developing computer code. But just as a "hack" came to refer to any ingenious solution to an everyday problem, so a hackathon does not have to involve computers and computer code.

"Veterinarians, students and professionals from all disciplines, and cat-lovers in the community are invited to join us as we explore cat-friendly and humane solutions encouraging felines to eliminate at desired locations," Fowler said.

Cat-friendly ideas only

While novel ideas are the goal, the ground rules for the hackathon will definitely require solutions to be veterinary behaviorist-approved.

Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinary behaviorist who sees clients in Chicago and who is a faculty member at the UI, sees lots of feline patients for the problem of inappropriate elimination. She welcomes new ideas but emphasizes that improving the relationship between the animal and owner must be part of the solution.

"Cats should never be punished for inappropriate elimination," Ballantyne said. "Punishment merely increases the amount of stress on the animal, which is not helpful for the pet or the person, since house soiling can be a stress-related behavior."

She says that soiling outside of the litter box can stem from either a medical or a behavioral problem, so no single solution is likely to work for all cats.

"An example of a medical problem could be a cat with a urinary tract infection that feels the urge to urinate more frequently and therefore cannot make it to the litter box each time," Ballantyne said. "Behavioral causes include marking — a form of communication in cats— which can occur when the cat is stressed, and inappropriate toileting, which is when the animal develops aversions to something about the litter box or develops preferences for soiling in other locations."

She believes there may be lots of unexplored solutions just waiting to be identified.

$2,500 prize

Smiley and Fowler agree. And so do several companies they've contacted seeking sponsorship for the hackathon. To incentivize divergent thinkers, Vet Med 2.0 has arranged a $2,500 prize for the best team idea.

Corporate sponsors include Purina, Boehringer Ingelheim, Elanco and Medici. The event is also sponsored by the College of Veterinary Medicine, Vet Med 2.0 and the student-run Veterinary Business Management Association.

The event will begin at 4 p.m. with a brief background and understanding of the problem from the perspective of veterinary behaviorists.

Participants will then divide into teams to brainstorm creative solutions.

At the conclusion of the brainstorming sessions, the teams will present their ideas during the project showcase, and the judges will select the winners. Plenty of food and beverages will be on hand to ensure that the hackers have fuel for thinking.

Registration for the Hackathon is free and is encouraged in advance at vetmed20.com/services/.

"I can't wait to see the creative solutions veterinarians produce when they are put in an environment that unleashes their creative minds," Smiley said.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy at beuoy@illinois.edu.

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