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Second thoughts about dog cloning

SONY DSCOne of the men behind the push to clone dogs — and market the service to bereaved pet owners — seems more convinced than ever that doing so was, if not a mistake, at least a quest that led to some bad places.

Lou Hawthorne, who established a cell bank (Genetic Savings & Clone) and pushed researchers at Texas A&M University to try and clone the world’s first dog in the late 1990s — in hopes of turning dog cloning into a profitable business — said in an interview last week that cloning has led to thousands of dogs suffering each year.

“A cloned dog contributes to the happiness of a family but I do not think it is possible to do it without a huge amount of suffering to hundreds of others,” Hawthorne told The Mirror, which was reporting on the first dog cloning for a customer in the UK.

Hawthorne has been out of the dog cloning business since shutting down BioArts, the successor to Genetic Savings & Clone, which closed not long after efforts to clone a dog at Texas A&M were dropped.

That research was funded by John Sperling, the wealthy founder of the University of Phoenix and the boyfriend of Hawthorne’s mother. Millions of dollars were poured into the attempt to clone Joan Hawthorne’s dog, Missy, a husky-border collie mix.

SONY DSCWhen Texas A&M dropped the project, scientists as Seoul National University in South Korea began their own effort to clone the world’s first dog.

They picked up where American scientists left off, and dog cloning was achieved within two years with the 2005 birth of Snuppy, an Afghan hound manufactured from cells taken from a veterinary student’s dog.

Hawthorne, under the auspices of Bio Arts, later teamed up with Hwang Woo Suk, one of the lead scientists on the Snuppy project who opened his own lab after being fired from the university.

First, he had Hwang clone Missy, resulting in a dog named Mira, but when the clone was delivered to Joan Hawthorne she didn’t want her. She told a New York Times reporter at the time the puppy was too rambunctious.

SONY DSCThen Hawthorne and Hwang teamed up to produce and sell more clones. They held a “Golden Clone Giveaway,” in which a free cloning was offered to the winner of an essay contest, and an online auction where five winning bidders, offering upwards of $150,000, had their dogs cloned.

A second South Korean company RNL Bio, with help from another of Snuppy’s creators at SNU, was also cloning dogs — and it produced the first one sold to a customer not connected to the industry, a pit bull named Booger, five copies of which were cloned from the dead dog and, eventually, brought home by the California woman who owned him.

RNL pulled out of cloning pet dogs in 2011, not long after the publication of my book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

Hawthorne had already stepped away from the business by then. In September of 2009, Hawthorne pulled out of the partnership with Hwang, citing, among other reasons, his concerns that accepted animal welfare protocols – or at least those accepted by most Western countries — weren’t being followed by the South Koreans.

He also, at the time, blamed court fights over patent rights, the high cost of cloning, deformities and abnormalities that occurred in the cloning process, and what he called the ”distraction factor” — annoying questions from the media and bloggers about the wisdom and ethics of cloning dogs.

doginccover (5)(As a newspaper reporter who wrote one of the earliest articles on commercial dog cloning, then a blogger, and then the author of “Dog, Inc.,” an expose of the dog cloning industry, I’m pretty sure that latter group included me.)

In his interview wih the Mirror, Hawthorne referred to the vast numbers of dogs that it took — up to 80, he said – to clone just one.

And, he said, random dogs used for cloning by Korean researchers were returned to the dog farms they were borrowed from — farms where dogs are raised for their meat.

“That is why I got out,”  Hawthorne said. “I couldn’t care less if the cloning business world collapses but I care about suffering.”

Sooam told me, in 2009, that dogs used in the process were returned to the farms. In more recent years, however, Sooam has insisted that both the dogs from whom egg cells are harvested, and those who serve as surrogate mothers, are sent to adoptive homes when their use in the laboratory is completed.

Hawthorne’s remarks came after the birth of Mini Winnie, a dachshund cloned by Hwang’s lab for a London resident who won a contest sponsored by Sooam. As Sooam attempts to spread the word about its unusual service, Hawthorne has taken to speaking out against it.

SONY DSC“Dog cloning is unviable,” Hawthorne said. “It cannot be achieved at a price people can afford.”

Hawthorne now cares for two clones of Missy — Mira and Missy Too.

The Mirror reports Hawthorne has more recently been working on cures for human cancer and Alzheimer’s, and the newspaper quoted him as saying human cloning would be safer and more viable than dog cloning.

“Unlike the dog industry, no human would die.”

(Photos: Lou Hawthorne with Mira; Snuppy at Seoul National University, James Symington, winner of the “Golden Clone Giveaway,” with five clones of his former police dog, TrakR, in Los Angeles; Mira at the dog park; by John Woestendiek)

Give us the goods on your veterinarian

veterinarian symbolWe want to know about the veterinarian of your dreams – whether you’ve found him or her, or not.

For an article in an upcoming issue of The Bark on how we choose a veterinarian, we’d like to know what – in your eyes — are the most important factors.

If you’ve found the perfect vet, just what is it that makes him or her perfect? If you’re still seeking that person, just what exactly is it you’re looking for?

As our dogs become more and more like family members, the choice of vet is a decision humans probably take more seriously than they did 50 years ago. Time was one’s choice of veterinarian was based in large part on proximity.

We’re guessing that has changed. Now we seek opinions from friends, question fellow denizens of the dog park, turn to online reviews, and perhaps even make some in-office visits, all in our quest for the perfect vet.

But what makes the perfect vet?

Is it where he or she went to school? Is it a friendly staff, reasonable rates? Is it how quickly you can make an appointment or how long you spend in the waiting room? Is it bedside manner, how much empathy, or compassion a vet exudes? Is it how clearly that vet can communicate? Whether they honor your pet insurance? Is it how the vet connects with you, how the vet connects with your dog, or both?

We want to know what is (or was) the single most important factor in your choice of veterinarian, and how you found the one (if you have) that you can’t imagine ever leaving.

Tell us about the veterinarian of your dreams by leaving a comment, preferably with your name attached, on The Bark’s blog, or here on ohmidog!

(John Woestendiek, who produces the ohmidog! website, is a frequent contributor to The Bark. His story on finding the ideal veterinarian will appear in an upcoming issue.)

What we’d spend to save our pet

A majority of pet owners would pay $500 for life-saving veterinary care, but less than half would fork over $1,000, only a third would spend $2,000, and only about 20 percent would be willing to pay $5,000.

So says an Associated Press-Petside.com poll about the cost of health care for animals, conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media.

Only at the $500 level were dog owners (74 percent) more likely than cat owners (46 percent) to say they would likely seek treatment. In the higher price ranges, the two are about equally likely to seek vet care.

“Euthanasia is always sad but when finances have to be considered, when you feel there is a possibility you didn’t or couldn’t do the right thing, you feel guilty,” said veterinarian Jane Shaw, director of the Argus Institute in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. “We are at a point where we are talking about basic life needs or survival needs.”

One in five pet owners said they fret a lot about being unable to afford seeing a vet. Dog owners are more likely to worry than cat owners, and low-income people are among the biggest worriers, which is probably because they have the biggest worries.

About one in four people, or 27 percent, said pet insurance is a good way to save money on vet bills, though only about 5 percent of pet owners actually have it.

The AP-Petside.com Poll was conducted April 7-12, 2010, and involved phone interviews with 1,112 pet owners nationwide. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

Vermont case argues pets more than property

The Vermont Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case that could create a new precedent for animal lovers who sue over the loss of their dogs.

shadowThe lawsuit was filed by a Maryland couple — Sarah and Denis Scheele of Annapolis, whose mixed-breed dog “Shadow” was fatally shot in 2003, according to an ABC News report.

Lewis Dustin, 76, of Northfield, Vt., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and was given a year probation. He also was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 to the Scheeles for the costs of adoption, medical bills and cremation.

The Scheeles, however, say that doesn’t come close to covering the emotional cost inflicted by the incident and the loss of companionship.

“Shadow was our little boy, our son, our child,” Sarah Scheele wrote on her website JusticeforShadow.com. “We loved him as if he were our own flesh and blood.”

The couple filed a civil suit against Dustin in 2006, arguing that the dog was more than “mere property.”

The incident occurred during the Scheeles’ July 2003 visit to relatives in Northfield, Vt., a small town south of Montpelier. Shadow wandered into the neighboring yard of Dustin, who fired an air pellet rifle at the dog to scare him off his property.

Only 1 in 6 distinguish dog from human food

The American Association of Wine Economists has reported that a blind taste test it conducted shows most people can’t distinguish a certain brand of high-end, canned organic dog food from human food.

So the good news is, should the recession force you to turn to dog food, it will be both palatable and good for you. The bad news is you probably won’t be able to afford it, either.

Researchers provided 18 volunteers five food samples to try in a blind taste test – all blended to the same pate-like consistency and topped with parsley: duck liver mousse, pork liver pate, liverwurst, spam and Newman’s Own-brand organic Canned Turkey & Chicken Formula (for Puppies/Active Dogs).

Only three testers were able to identify the canine food. Eight participants believed the liverwurst was the dog food, and four picked Spam as the culprit. Two people identified the pork liver pate as dog food, and one identified the duck liver mousse as dog food.

Given what’s gone on with dog food in recent years, the test results aren’t really that surprising. In the last few years, organic dog food made with human-grade free range meat and fresh vegetables has jumped in popularity, and some dog food companies have humans taste test them. There are lots of dog foods on the market that are probably better for you than some of the stuff on the human food shelves. Paul Newman himself took a big bite of his dog food on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2006 to demonstrate its wholesome goodness.

The far weirder part of this story is what the wine industry is doing running dog food tests.

“We have this idea in our head that dog food won’t taste good and that we would be able to identify it, but it turns out that is not the case,” said Robin Goldstein, a co-author of the study.

Goldstein said the tasting demonstrated that “context plays a huge role in taste and value judgment,” even though researchers warned the participants that one of the five foods they were going to taste was dog food.

Which is a fancy way of saying, with proper packaging and marketing, and if you charge way too much for it, a product will sell no matter how crappy it really is.

The authors of the report conclude that: “Although human beings do not enjoy eating dog food, they are also not able to distinguish its flavor profile from other meat-based products that are intended for human consumption.” Even though most couldn’t identify it, 72 percent of those in the study rated the dog food the worst-tasting of the five.

The study didn’t look at what wine goes best with dog food, but I would recommend a nice merlot with canned, and perhaps a sauvignon blanc with kibble.

Chihuahuas in the limelight

If you’re a Chihuahua these days, you take the good with the bad. They’re the topic of a soon-to-be-released major movie, devoted to their churlish, tenacious and persnickety ways. But they’ve also taken some raps in recent studies.

First came this one — designating Chihuahua’s second only to dachsunds on a list of the most aggressive dog breeds. The study rated the aggression level of 33 breeds and concluded smaller breeds might be more genetically predisposed towards aggressive behavior.

Now, a study by Esure, a British pet insurer, has ranked them second again — this time to Great Danes — in terms of destructiveness.

According to the survey, Chihuahuas destroy $1,376 dollars worth of stuff during their lifetimes, compared to $1,420 dollars for Great Danes.

Bulldogs, dachshunds and beagles also made the top 10, with pugs, saint bernards and pointers among the least ruinous, according to an article about the study.

The survey of more than 3,000 UK dog owners found the items most often damaged were soft furnishings and electrical goods – used as makeshift chew toys – and vases and lights, knocked over by wagging tails.

Most of the damage was done during puppyhood, according to the study, which concluded a dog’s size had little bearing on its wrecking ability.

So, take note — and take a pointer, Weimaraner, or Rottweiler – all you apartment owners, hotels managers and others who set an arbitrary weight limit on the dogs you allow. Size, at least in this particular area, doesn’t matter.

And take note, too, all those who might fall into the trap of rashly getting a Chihuahua when the movie propels the breed into even more of a fad. Make sure you’re willing to invest the time. And money. Chihuahua’s are also atop another list, as the most expensive breed of dog to maintain.

How much is a dog’s life worth?

A Wall Street Journal columnist posed that question recently after hearing from a “sizable” pack of angry readers who took him to task for lamenting how much of his paycheck was being gobbled up by medical care for his dogs.

Neal Templin, author of the Journal’s “Cheapskate” column, focused on his beagle in the original column, and recent vet visits that set him back more than $1,000 each — one of which was to treat his dog for injuries received after he escaped from home and was hit by a car.

“Your dog-owning incompetence is matched only by your lack of journalistic and personal integrity in not taking responsibility for … allowing the dog to escape in the first place,” one reader wrote Templin. “If your dog liked you he probably wouldn’t escape or howl.”

Templin noted that dogs are becoming family — not just backyard denizens.

“When I grew up in the 1960s, you took your dog to the vet for shots or perhaps to have a broken leg set. But if a dog got really sick, it died.

“It’s different today. Vets do aggressive cancer surgery and hip replacements. They pump dogs full of expensive drugs for various maladies. In short, dogs get many of the same procedures we humans get. But it’s not cheap, and if it’s anything like human medicine, it’s going to get more expensive as vets take increasingly sophisticated and heroic measures to keep dogs alive.”

So the answer to the question Templin poses in his aptly-named column depends not on the dog, but on the human that owns it — and on that human’s priorities. 

“There are many who think burning 18 grand to keep a dog around for six or 12 extra months is madness,” a Massachusettshe man wrote. “Sometimes I think so, too. But my wife died from lymphoma two years ago, and I have no children. What am I going to do, buy a bigger television set?”