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Tag: biology

NC shelter may offer dead dogs for sale

Bladen County Commissioners will consider a proposal tonight to start selling the carcasses of dogs euthanized in the North Carolina shelter to a biological supply company.

According to a proposed contract, the company wants to pay $4 each for dead dogs weighing between 25 and 45 pounds, assuming the carcasses are in “reasonably good condition.”

The company would pick up the dogs weekly, preserve the bodies with chemicals and then offer them for sale to “facilities and/or laboratories designed for scientific research and biological educational classrooms” — at prices of $100 or more each.

WECT identified the company as Southeastern Biological Supply.

The county has sold dead cats for $4 each to the company since 2009 — as have Brunswick, Columbus and Pender Counties in southeastern North Carolina. New Hanover County donates cat carcasses to veterinary schools.

Pender County made $1,604 selling dead cats last year, and Brunswick County raked in $4,788, WECT reported.

It all sounds like a pretty questionable and nasty business — this marketing of carcasses — and historically it has been. But those who defend the practice say it contributes to science, specifically the teaching thereof, and is no less dignified than the traditional means of disposal: taking dead dogs to the landfill.

The Humane Society of the United States, while it doesn’t oppose the transfer of euthanized animals to educational and research institutions, says shelters should not be making money from such exchanges.

“So-called ‘surplus’ dogs and cats are a result of the tragic pet overpopulation and millions of dogs and cats are euthanized yearly in U.S. shelters. When money can be made in dealing in their carcasses, it can give the perception that there may be less incentive for addressing overpopulation or that the shelter would rather gain from this tragedy than spend the money necessary to solve it,” the HSUS says.

The organization also believes the owners of any pet euthanized by a shelter should, when possible, be notified when a carcass is being transferred for scientific research, and it advises shelters to be transparent when it comes to what they do with the carcasses of animals they euthanize.

“Full public awareness of any animal transfer policy is vital to maintaining public trust in animal shelters,” it says.

When it comes to what becomes of the bodies of euthanized pets, I think we are pretty far from full public awareness. Even when the information is made available, it’s a topic most of us prefer not to delve too deeply into.

Still, it manages to rise to the surface once in a while.

Back in the 1980s, it grew into a full blown scandal when it was discovered that employees at Winnebago County Animal Control in Illinois were receiving payments and gift credits in exchange for providing carcasses to a Wisconsin biological supply company.

An investigation by Rockford-area authorities into missing funds in the animal control division of the county Health Department turned up evidence that, between 1982 and 1988, the division was receiving $2.25 per cat and $6 per dog from Nasco International Inc.

The animal-control unit built up a line of credit with Nasco and periodically spent that credit to purchase items from Nasco`s various equipment and gift catalogs, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1988.

A county public health administrator at the time said he thought selling the dog carcasses to a biological supply company was a better idea than the county’s previous arrangement — paying a rendering firm to dispose of dead dogs and cats, which then ended up in products such as lipstick, mouthwash, rubber and even pet food.

In Bladen County, N.C., where dog carcasses are now taken to the landfill, Health and Human Services Director Cris Harrelson insisted getting paid for dead dogs wouldn’t motivate the shelter to kill more.

“We euthanize them only as necessary,” he said. “As long we have room in the shelter, they stay alive.”

Harrelson said the county had the fourth lowest euthanasia rate in the state in 2012.

I checked on the Internet to learn more about Southeastern Biological Supply, but, if it exists, it doesn’t have any online presence.

I did find Carolina Biological Supply, whose website boasts “bigger pigs at same low prices …”

The company offers both dog and cat specimens to educational and research institutes — all preserved in its exclusive “Carolina’s Perfect Solution.”

“Including the dissection of preserved dogs in your AP Biology lesson plans will give students a hands on experience with anatomy that surpasses print or pictures,” the website states.

That’s one of the things that troubles me most about these grisly exchanges. Today, with computer graphics and 3d models and imaging, we have the technology needed to avoid having students chop up animal carcasses in biology class.

But biological supply companies — accustomed to their near obscene profits — aren’t likely to admit that. And leaders of research and educational institutions, for whatever reasons, aren’t either.

So the demand continues, and the companies, seeking ways to meet it, turn to animal shelters.

I’d like to think animal shelters — whether county run or private — would steer clear of it all, for appearances sake if nothing else.

But when it comes to which ones do, and which ones don’t, we don’t really know.

A drug to make your dog live longer?


Two University of Washington scientists think it might be possible to slow the aging process in canines and are launching a pilot study with 30 dogs to see if the drug rapamycin significantly extends their lifespans.

The researchers, using $200,000 in seed money from the University of Washington, plan to use pets, not laboratory animals, for the initial study, and recruit volunteer dogs — or at least dogs whose owners volunteer them — for larger scale studies in the future.

Daniel Promislow, an evolutionary geneticist, and Matthew Kaeberlein, a molecular biologist, say the study is aimed at determining whether rapamycin could lead to longer lives for dogs — as studies have shown is the case when it’s used on yeast, fruit flies, worms and mice.

“We’re not talking about doubling the healthy life spans of pets,” said Kaeberlein. “But at a minimum I would predict that you would get a 10 to 15 percent increase in average life span, and I think bigger effects are possible.”

In the pilot study, 30 large, middle-aged dogs will be involved — half receiving low doses of rapamycin, half receiving placebos.

The researchers say that subsequent studies will seek to enroll pet dogs from across the country.

Kaeberlein and Promislow hosted a meeting in Seattle last week where experts from across the country discussed the drug rapamycin and its possible effects on the health and longevity of dogs, the Seattle Times reported.

Currently used along with other medications to prevent rejection in organ-transplant patients, rapamycin has been called a promising anti-aging drug — though there have been no studies involving humans.

But almost 50 laboratory studies have shown that the compound can delay the onset of some diseases and degenerative processes and restore vigor to elderly animals, extending life spans by 9 to 40 percent.

Rapamycin functions, in part, by inactivating a protein that promotes cell growth. As a result, cells grow more slowly, which retards the spread of cancer.

Promislow, who has two elderly dogs of his own, noted that even if the drug doesn’t increase the life span of dogs, it could serve to keep them healthy longer. “We’re trying to understand why some dogs age better than others, and help all dogs age in a better way,” he said.

The drug has been shown to have serious side effects, including poor wound healing and an increased risk of diabetes, when used at the high doses required for organ transplant patients.

But the low doses used in anti-aging research with mice and other lab animals cause few side effects.

There have been no large-scale human trials. Studying how the drug affects dogs — who suffer many of the same old-age ailments as their masters — makes it possible to explore the possible benefits of rapamycin both more quickly and at a lesser cost.

If it does turn out to be a sort of  fountain of youth — for dogs, humans, or both — the potential profits would be enormous.

“I think it’s worth a go, not just from what it can teach us about humans, but for the sake of the animals themselves,” said University of Alabama Biology Department Chairman Steven Austad, an expert in aging research who is not involved in the project. “It may not work in dogs, but if it did, boy, it’s going to be huge.”

According to the Seattle Times article, drug companies aren’t very interested in rapamycin because it’s no longer under patent.

But the researchers are hoping dog lovers, dog-food companies and some foundations might be willing to contribute to further research.

They’ve set up a website,,where people can donate and sign their dogs up to take part in the research.

“Given how I feel about my pets, I see this as a unique project where there’s a real potential for citizen science,” Kaeberlein said. “I think it would be great if pet owners who are really interested in improving the health of their animals would help fund this work.”

(Photos: UW scientists Matt Kaeberlein, with his dog Dobby, and Dan Promislow, with his dog Frisbee; by Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

What part of “no” don’t you understand?

You know how frustrated you get when you have to tell your dog something over and over again?

Come here. Come HERE. Listen to me. Get over here right now. Don’t make me say it again. COME HERE!

In this video, the shoe is sort of on the other paw.

John Ventresco, of New Hampshire, is trying to persuade his 11-month-old husky, Blaze, to get into her crate.

Not only does Blaze physically (but peacefully) resist, refusing to budge, but she says what sounds like “no” — 30 times by my count, at least 10 of those quite clearly:


Posted on YouTube just two weeks ago, the video is approaching 5 million views, meaning a lot of people are getting a chuckle, and learning how not to train a dog, and debating whether Ventresco — as gentle and good-humored as his urging is — is going to get bitten one of these days, and, if so, will he have deserved it.

Eventually one of them will have the other properly trained, I’m just not sure if it will be Ventresco or Blaze. Right now, it appears to be a draw.

The bigger question it raises, to me, anyway, is whether the day will come when dogs really do talk. I predict it will — that they will someday talk, on their own, without the aid of implants, headsets, devices that monitor their brain waves and apps that translate what they’re thinking into words.

Several projects are underway that do just that — because we humans want to know what’s going on in their heads, and we want to know now, and somebody somewhere thinks it might make some money.

We’ll take advantage of technology to bring that about and get it on the market as soon as possible, rather than wait a few hundred or thousand more years when, I’d venture, dogs will have evolved to the point that they’re talking on their own anyway.

It’s only natural for that to happen, with them living so closely to us, observing us around the clock,  and watching too much TV. They will continue to pick up our skills – learning to operate a remote control, warming up some chicken nuggets, uttering words, then entire phrases.

Mark my words. By the year 2525 (and that’s just a wild guess), dogs will be saying “yes” and “no,” and more:

Feed me.

I want to go outside for a while.

But wait, there’s more. Details at 11. Ohmigod, they killed Kenny. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.

Put me in that damn crate again and, I swear,  I’m going to call my attorney.

They may never have as sophisticated a vocabulary as us, may never be as erudite, snotty, self-promoting and adept at making barbed comments as us. But the day will come that they use words.

The question is not whether dogs will someday learn to talk. It’s whether, when they do, we’ll listen.

We already stink at that — in terms of listening to our fellow humans, and in terms of hearing what our dogs are silently saying. We’re so dependent on words we don’t hone our wordless communication skills, even though that mode is often more honest and meaningful.

My fear is that, through continued domicile-sharing with humans, dogs are going to learn to talk, but also – like Blaze, like Ventresco — not to listen.

It all brings to mind some lyrics from a song that has nothing to do with dogs — Don McLean’s “Vincent.” When you think about it, the misunderstood artist and modern day dog have much in common. We wonder what they’re trying to say, fail to see their brilliance, and don’t appreciate them fully until they’re gone.

Instead, often, we taunt, ridicule and shame them.

How much shorter might Van Gogh’s career have been, how many appendages might he have lopped off,  were he around in the Internet age, reading nasty comments from people about his paintings?

How much quicker might the civil rights movement have progressed if people had shut up and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr., the first time?

Are we getting any better at listening, or quicker to turn a deaf ear?

As the song “Vincent” says:

They would not listen, they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will…

Let’s give it a listen.

Reflections on the dog paddle


Throw a dog who has never gone swimming into a pool and, pretty much instantly, he’ll start moving his four legs in a series of motions we’ve come to call the dog paddle.

Throw a human who has never gone swimming into a pool and — though the possibilities are much higher for helpless flailing about, cussing, drowning, or becoming traumatized for life — he may eventually come to his senses enough to try and work his way back to the side of the pool. He’ll do so not using a butterfly stroke, breast stroke or Australian crawl, but by doing what dogs do.

The dog paddle: It’s seemingly instinctual. It’s primitive. And though we humans mostly outgrow it, it remains sort of the default mode of propelling ourselves through water.

Just how primitive it may be is under investigation by Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University who — maybe because of his name, maybe not — has spent most of his career studying how marine mammals swim.

Most recently, he has been studying the swimming motions of dogs, and he has concluded that they are very similar to the motions dogs use in trotting. That explains the  ease with which most dogs can make the transition from land to water — requiring no lessons, and (generally) little coaxing: They basically propel themselves the same way in water as they do on land.

That their stride and strokes are nearly identical is interesting in itself, but Fish thinks it could also help explain how whales and dolphins ended up in the ocean.

Fish subscribes to the theory that marine mammals were intitially four-legged land dwellers who ventured into the water one day (likely dog paddling at first), decided they liked it better there, then evolved into such super swimmers that they no longer needed legs, or, for that matter, land.

underwater dogsFor his research, Fish set up some underwater video cameras and enlisted eight volunteer dogs (including his own) of six different breeds, ranging from Yorkshire terrier to Newfoundland.

He borrowed a swimming pool used to rehabilitate horses at the University of Pennsylvania.

Analyzing the video, Fish and fellow researchers saw that dogs swim much like they run — with diagonal pairs of legs churning in unison, according to Science Daily. Fish presented his findings at the 2014 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Austin.

While there’s plenty of dog research we’d categorize as a silly waste of time, we find all this pretty intriguing.

First, it reminds us that practice makes perfect — to think that long, long ago there might have been a couple of four-legged dolphins who didn’t know how to swim, hesitating at the edge of the water: “I dunno, it looks dangerous … should we go in?”

Second, in an era when we’re increasingly relying on computers to do our thinking for us, it serves as a warning that those muscles we don’t use can disappear. It raises a host of interesting questions about our future, and our past.

Why is it we humans tend to dog paddle in our first encounters with water? Is that some sort of instinctual nod to a past when we got about on four legs, instead of two?

If cavemen had spent more time at the swimming hole, might we homo sapiens have evolved into something more amphibious?

Given that, might mermaids really exist?

It’s kind of inspiring to think there might have been a day when dolphins, the planet’s most graceful swimmers, were total klutzes in the water — that they started off splashing about with some awkward looking dog paddling and progressed to the point where they could actually leap out of the water.

It reminds us that, maybe, anything is possible with enough hard work — even when it comes to behaviors we might think are genetic and therefore unchangeable. Do we sometimes wear our genes too tightly, and allow them to restrict us from leaping into new things, and getting over old ones?

We wish Fish luck in unraveling how four-legged terrestrial forms evolved into no-legged, finned ones. And as long as the dogs involved in his research are having a good time –  given Fish is letting his own dog be used in the study, we assume they are – we have no problem with them helping the professor prove his point.

In other words: Go Fish!

(Top Photo, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology; bottom photo, from the book Underwater Dogs)

There’s more than one way to skin a frog

frog dissection

Holy Formaldehyde! Times are changing. As of this fall, thousands of Catholic school students in the Philadelphia area can opt out of that once mandatory, highly stinky rite of passage — dissecting a frog in biology class.

The  Archdiocese of Philadelphia has established a policy under which students in its 20 high schools who have concerns about traditional animal dissection are allowed to use alternatives to frogs, cats and other actual animals.

As an increasing number of high schools and universities are realizing, there are plenty of options to cutting up an animal, and students can learn just as much about biology through models and computer graphics.

“As the 21st century evolves, greater use of virtual dissection experiences will be encouraged and eventually replace the use of scientifically preserved animals,” said Mary E. Rochford, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “With the availability of virtual lab experiences and other Internet instructional tools, students can arrive at the same learning.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s policy is modeled after the Pennsylvania Students Rights Option, a law established in 1992, which enables public and non-public students from grades K-12 who do not want to harm animals as part of their coursework to use an alternative instead.

You can learn more about the Pennsylvania law here.

“The Archdiocese’s student choice policy can serve as a model for other schools in the state of Pennsylvania, in addition to other dioceses across the U.S,” said Laura Ducceschi, Director of Animalearn, a project of the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

Tens of thousands of cats, frogs, and other animals are killed annually, specifically for dissection and other educational purposes, despite available alternatives and studies showing that students learn as well or better by using virtual dissection and other humane alternatives, according to Animalearn.

Animalearn’s website offers a searchable database of over 450 alternatives to dissection, downloadable software, and other humane science tools. A free resource to students and teachers nationwide, The Science Bank offers interactive models, videos, and virtual dissection CD-ROMs and DVDs.

Three genes account for variation in dog coats


Short, shaggy, smooth or wiry, nearly all the differences in dogs’ coat types result from variations in just three genes, according to newly published research.

Variations in the DNA  in more than 1,000 dogs from 80 breeds were studied by the researchers, and compared to descriptions of various coat types, according to an Associated Press report.

The study, published Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science, found that nearly all of the varieties of dog coats can be accounted for by combinations of genes called RSPO2, FGF5 and KRT71.

“What’s important for human health is the way we found the genes involved in dog coats and figured out how they work together, rather than the genes themselves,” said Dr. Elaine A. Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda.

“We think this approach will help pinpoint multiple genes involved in complex human conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity,” Ostrander, chief of the cancer genetics branch, said in a statement.

The findings apply to purebred dogs: “We don’t know enough about the genetics of mutts,” commented co-author K. Gordon Lark, a biology professor at the University of Utah.

Dogs are descended from wolves and, like wolves, short-haired dogs such as beagles had only the ancestral forms of the three genes, none with variations.

Dogs like President Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog have variations in all three genes, producing animals with curly hair plus a “mustache” and large eyebrows.