Big Data For Small Animals

Posted on: March 20, 2018

Big Data primarily refers to the processing of large, complex and rapidly changing data volumes. In research, new insights can be gained by linking large amounts of data and statistical evaluations. Prof. Alan Radford is the academic lead of the Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network (SAVSNET), an initiative from the University of Liverpool. SAVSNET plays a pioneering role in the analysis of clinical data in real-time in order to identify trends that might indicate outbreaks of infectious disease or an occurrence of new diseases in pet populations in a timely manner.

For many years companion animals have been the poor cousins of population health surveillance. As a result, researchers lack a regular data source to better understand disease, and the welfare burden of disease in these populations has often gone unquantified.

But healthy animals make the world a better place. Dogs and cats play a hugely beneficial role throughout our lives and have many positive effects on the health of pet owners. As a result, lack of data could have an negative impact not only on an animals’ well-being, but also on that of their owners.

A new area of science is seeking to address this gap in data using big data science and the increasing accessibility of electronic patient health records. When a pet animal sees a veterinary surgeon or nurse, a health record is created, and where these are digitized they become accessible for research and surveillance under strict ethical and professional guidelines that maintain owner privacy. So-called Veterinary Health Informatics allows anonymized electronic patient health records to be collected in large quantities and reused for research and surveillance.

Through SAVSNET and VetComapps, the UK has been one of the first to recognize the potential of health informatics research in companion animals, driven largely by the well-developed companion animal sector in the UK. Veterinary practices who are part of the SAVSNET network display information in the waiting room allowing owners to read about the project and decide whether they would like their pet’s information to be analyzed for research. Currently, over 500 veterinary sites in UK have joined the network.

When an animal is taken to a veterinary practice, a sample may be taken to help the veterinary surgeon further assess its health. There are a range of samples which can be taken such as blood, swabs, urine and feces and samples will very often be sent to a national diagnostic laboratory for testing.

The majority of the larger laboratories in the UK have now also joined SAVSNET, submitting the results of the tests they perform. This complementary data also enables researchers to reveal important insights into the current disease status of small animals.

Veterinary health informatics is a rapidly growing discipline and by collaborating with owners, practitioners and laboratories researchers now have access to a unique data source, and are able to provide new insight into the health of the pet animal populations we all care about.

Put it another way, it enables individual pet owners and their four legged companions to contribute to a new and desperately needed source of data, which can be repurposed to increase knowledge and improve care of companion animals.

Interview with Alan Radford

1.) What do we mean by Big Data for Small Animals and how will that change our role as responsible pet owners?

There is no precise definition of Big Data. However, with over three million consultations and many more diagnostic tests, we feel SASVNET certainly qualifies as Big Data. Projects like SAVSNET (and VetCompass) provide an easy opportunity for individual pet owners to contribute anonymized data to future research. As these projects mature, owners will be able to benefit from increasingly personalized health messages, allowing them and their veterinary surgeon to make the best decisions on the care of their pet. All animals are not the same, and it is increasingly clear that an animals age, species, breed, gender, neuter status and location all likely impact on their health. Big data helps researchers untangle these risks and prioritize the important health messages to the most at risk pets and their owners.

2.) How can the results of the data analysis be used for prevention and treatment?

By collecting large volumes of electronic patient health records, we can shed new light on all the reasons why pets go to see their veterinary surgeon, whether sick or well. Our research priorities are currently on antibiotic resistance, infection, and the impact of climate on disease risk. Our recent paper on ticks has highlighted at a new resolution, the geographical areas and seasons where tick bites are most common. And our work on flystrike has highlighted the increased susceptibility of aged female-entire rabbits. Each of these findings can allow veterinary surgeons and nurses to target health messages to their most appropriate clients, at the most important times. Vets that take part in SAVSNET get access to a free portal where they can see how their data compares to their peers, and any vet, whether in SAVSNET or not, can benchmark their own antibiotic prescriptions using mySavsnetAMR.

3.) What options are there for transferring this data collection and analysis to other countries?

Whilst we are a funny breed in the UK, very little of the network we have developed through SAVSNET is unique to the UK. We are really keen to see the benefits of this research cascade into other countries, communities or sectors. On our journey we have had to crack important problems notably on ethics of data sharing, how to encourage participation, funding, and perhaps most importantly how to clean messy data and make it research ready. We are very keen to share these outputs with others seeking similar data sources for their own countries.

Alan Radford, BSc, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS

Professor of Veterinary Health Informatics, University of Liverpool

Institute of Infection and Global Health, School of Veterinary Science