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“Pets’ behavioral problems can be debilitating”: Q&A with Dr. Lara Zasaidczyk

A medium brown dog sits on the lap of smiling woman (Dr. Lara Zasiadczyk)and looks toward the camera. They sit in front of a grey wall within veterinary, where framed pitches of other dogs hang on the wall.
Dr. Lara Zasiadczyk with Belconnen Animal Hospital’s clinic dog, Halifax (Hali)

Meet Dr. Lara Zasiadczyk, a highly experienced veterinarian with 22 years of practice under her belt. Formerly part of the emergency sector for a decade, she now forms an integral part of the team at Belconnen Animal Hospital. 

According to Animal Medicines Australia, pet owners in Australia spend more than $13 billion annually to maintain their pets’ health and wellbeing. With food and veterinary services comprising 50 per cent of the total ongoing expenditure.

In a conversation with Dr. Lara, we covered a range of topics related to pet care, including the significance of regular check-ups and proper nutrition, as well as how to support pet owners through the emotional process of euthanasia. Dr. Lara also shared some of the most memorable experiences from her career.

Q: What inspired you to become a vet and what’s your favourite part about your job?

A: I’ve wanted to be a vet since I was about 7 years old and never anything else. I guess I was one of those lucky people who had a passion for it and could identify it early in life.

I’ve always loved being a vet. I will continue to love being a vet until I retire one day, which I hope I never have to. My job has always been extremely important from a therapeutic point of view. As a young child I recognised the bond I had with animals. I particularly recognised the emotional and psychological aspects and how important they are in our lives.

Dr. Lara Zasiadczyk holding Hali, medium brown dog sitting on her lap. Both looking away from the camera.
Hali came into the clinic as an 8 week old puppy in April 2016

I just love animals. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in my family life. When I walk into that door at work, it’s almost like I could forget all my troubles at that moment just being with an animal. Feeling and looking at them, talking to them. In addition to that, I can apply my skills and knowledge to help that animal. I also very much enjoy working with my colleagues, nurses and vets.

I’m a very social person in that respect and always have a bit of fun at work. It’s always good to help people because I find that it’s not just the animal that you’re helping, but a lot of the time even more so, it’s the owners. If they’re not supported, they can’t look after their pets either. 

Q: Can you explain the importance of regular check-ups and preventative care for pets?

A: It’s extremely important. A lot of things can change in behaviour. Most people might think is 12 months is a short period of time, but in a dogs and cats life, it’s a long period of time. Regular check-ups, monitoring, assessing and often picking up early signs of disease has huge benefit in not only improving the quality of their life, but potentially even lengthening their lifespan as well. I think it’s about educating owners as well. As our pets age their needs change, even from a physical aspect. They change in terms of anxiety and arthritis. They’re things that a lot of owners probably don’t have the ability to assess critically. They don’t see it as they’re with their pets every day.

Small frame with a small dog in the picture on shelf near reception reading: Thanks Belconnen Animal Hospital for helping me live, showing you cared, and making my final journey so peaceful.
Greeted with love next to reception
Q: What role does nutrition play in a pet’s overall health and well-being?

A: It’s a bit of a no-brainer. If you have a premium quality science-based diet, to just name a few; Royal Canin, Black Hawk, Hills, Advance, thats always a positive. They’re just a few that spring to mind. It’s like they say, ‘you are what you eat’. If you’re tending to lean more towards some of the poorer quality diets, then you’ll be able to see that affect digestion, coat quality, and sometimes even internal disease. Generally we tend to label them as supermarket food. Diets have been formulated with science-based evidence to help to treat conditions which a lot of pets will develop at some point in time in their life.

Sometimes diet alone is enough to maintain a good quality of health, without the need for pharmaceuticals or medication. Often they’re used together in terms of diet to help with the control and management of the disease. A few common diseases and problems include; renal, kidney, dental, bladder support, weight control and arthritis management. All of those science-based diets, which are premium quality diets, will have variations in the constituents. The ingredients to help manage those diseases will vary in different portions and components.

Dr. Lara Zasiadczyk and the dog Hali in the operating room. Hali is sitting down on one of the operating beds while Dr. Lara is hugging her from behind. Behind them are arrangements of lovely cards from patients on the cupboard shelves.
Dr. Lara and Hali in the operating room
Q: Can you share any tips for owners to help their pets best cope with anxiety or fear during vet visits?

A: It’s great to have a good relationship with your vet so that they can explain or convey the very real problem. I would say 95 per cent of pet owners aren’t even aware that their pets’ behavioural problems can be as debilitating as they can be in a bigger holistic picture.

Small frame with purple background at reception desk, next to a candle reading: If this candle is lit, someone is saying goodbye to their beloved pet. We ask that you please speak softly and with respect during this difficult time. Thank you for your patience and kindness.
Sign and candle at reception when someone is saying goodbye to their pet
Q: How do you approach end-of-life care for pets and supporting their owners during this difficult time?

A: It’s never easy to make that decision on when to euthanise your pet based on poor quality of life. I get very sad when I see some owners who’ve made that decision well ahead of time, or similarly they’ve let it go way too long without actually helping the pet.

Q: If you think the pet isn’t ready to be put down yet, can you prevent the owner from making that decision?

A: You can’t prevent them. It’s ultimately their choice. You can only try and educate them and I guess hope that they’d take that on board. Never make them feel like it’s their fault, as difficult as that sometimes is. Trying to reassure the owner that it’s not their fault, but they can do something. So, for them to just actually make an appointment and come through that door is a huge thing, so they need to be supported in that. 

Q: Can you share a memorable or challenging case you’ve worked on in your career?

A: It’s almost impossible for me to put that down to one thing. Puppies are always such a magic moment. I’ll never forget my first, she was a bulldog. We laid her out on a table on the back. Her belly was nearly wider than the table. They’re pretty short to the ground, so they don’t have a lot of room to move. It was just magic bringing all these little puppies into the world, so that was very special. 

I guess the first time doing major surgeries, they’re an achievement. It makes you feel proud of yourself. It’s not just working with the animals, it’s memorable moments where you work together as a team and everybody pulls together to have a really successful outcome. 

Original photos by Elma Adilovic