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Tag: new scientist

Time to eat the authors?

time-to-eat-the-dogNew Zealand professors Brenda and Robert Vale say the title of their book was partly tongue-in-cheek, partly shock tactic.

“Time to Eat the Dog?: A Real Guide to Sustainable Living” — and we’re thankful they at least used a question mark — doesn’t actually propose pet owners eat their dogs and cats, but it does suggest switching to pets like chickens and rabbits, which then can be eaten.

Of course, if their fate is to be eaten, they wouldn’t be pets. They’d be livestock. But the Vales, both New Zealand professors of architecture and non-dogs owners (as maybe you’d guess), don’t seem to see the distinction.

By eating our pets, the Vales say, we’d reduce their carbon footprint.

And dogs and cats, granted, make some pretty big ones — according to the Vales, the amount of land and energy it takes to make one dog’s food for a year makes for twice the carbon footprint of a Toyota Land Cruiser driven 6,213 miles a year.

A cat’s carbon footprint, meanwhile, is  “slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf.

New Scientist magazine, in an editorial, stopped short of backing the authors’ suggestion – that we should recycle our pets by eating them or turning them into pet food at the end of their lives – but it did call for reducing the impact of pets on the environment, and for the pet food industry to be more environmentally responsible.

“In a world of scarce resources, can we justify keeping pets that consume more than some people?” the editorial asks. “… Giving up our pets in the name of sustainability may seem like a sacrifice too far, but if we are going to continue to keep animals purely for our enjoyment then we have to face uncomfortable choices.

“At the moment, pet-food manufacturers thrive by selling us the idea that only the best will do for our beloved animals, but once owners become more aware, what they demand from the industry is likely to change,” the editorial notes. “The first manufacturer to offer a green, eco-friendly pet food could be onto a winner. Sustainable lifestyles require sacrifices, and even cats and dogs can be made to do their bit.”

Oxytocin is a many splendored thing

Who needs children when a puppy can provide a similar emotional experience?

New Scientist magazine recently asked that question in an article about a Japanese study that showed relating to dogs causes a surge of the same hormones triggered by nurturing an infant, romantic love and close friendship.

Oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle chemical” and the “love drug,” has been found to relieve stress, combat depression, breed trust in humans and generally make life more worth living. When two humans bond, their oxytocin levels increase.

Miho Nagasawa and Takefumi Kikusui, biologists at Azuba University in Japan, suspected social contact between two different species might boost oxytocin levels, as well.

“Miho and I are big dog lovers and feel something changed in our bodies when gazed [upon] by our dogs,” Kikusui says.

They recruited 55 dog owners and their pets for a videotaped laboratory play session. Owners provided a urine sample to measure oxytocin levels. They were then divided into two groups — one that played with their dog for half an hour, one that sat in the same room but were told to completely avoid their dogs’ gazes.

Then everybody’s urine was tested again. Participants that spent a long time making eye contact were determined to have experienced increases in their oxytocin levels of more than 20%. Those who avoided their pooches’ gaze saw their oxytocin levels drop slightly.

Among those playing with their dogs, the longer they made eye contact, the higher the increase was in their levels of the hormone.

A flood of the cuddle chemical could explain why playing with dogs can lift moods and even improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, Kikusui says. Possibly, the scientists say, oxytocin even played a part in the domestication of dogs from wolves, about 15,000 years ago.

“Maybe during the evolutionary process, humans and dogs came to share the same social cues”, such as eye contact and hand gestures, Kikusui says. “This is why dogs can adapt to human society.”

The inner workings of a cold slimy nose

Many a dog owner has wondered what’s going on in their pooch’s head — but even more fascinating may be what’s going on in his nose.

A team of Pennsylvania State University researchers, led by Brent Craven, say that the layer of mucus in a dog’s nose helps it pick up and sort scents as they travel to receptors.

Or, as New Scientist magazine put it, “Dogs extraordinary ability to sniff out anything from cocaine to cancer turns out to owe much to the gunk inside their nose.”

Dogs have many more nerve cells in their nasal cavities — and a complex network of snot-coated tubes that also “pre-sorts” smells, which may make it easier for the brain to identify them.

Craven and his colleagues used MRI images of a dog’s nasal airways to develop computer models of how air travels thorugh them. The researchers observed that different molecules were picked up by nerve cells at different points along the nasal passages.

Dogs: They’ve grown accustomed to our ways

Ten thousand years of dog evolution have led not just to more intelligent dogs, but to dogs with more empathy and more finely honed senses of right and wrong, a series of new studies indicate.

Because of the way owners have selected smarter and more empathic pets, dogs now appear to have a limited “theory of mind” –  the capacity that enables one to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others, New Scientist reported yesterday.

And what has traditionally been dismissed as anthropomorphism — attributing human traits and feelings to animals — may not be that at all. Instead, dogs, as their communications with humans evolves, may actually be taking on those traits and becoming more like humans.

Whether that’s a good thing is open to argument.

At the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, a few weeks ago scientists outlined several experiments showing how dogs, through thousands of years of interacting with humans, are reflecting feelings and thought processes once thought strictly human, the Telegraph of London reported yesterday.

Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, thinks dogs have developed a moral compass. Rough play between dogs, he says, rarely escalates into full-blown fighting, indicating that dogs don’t just abide by a set of unspoken rules. but that they expect others to do the same.

Dogs may have a sense of justice, Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, reported. Her experiments, in which one pooch was given a treat and another denied it, shows they may have something akin to a sense of fairness.

“Dogs show some aversion to inequity,” she says. “I prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might.”

In research at Kyoto University, Akiko Takaoka played dogs recordings of unfamiliar voices – both male and female – with each voice followed by a photo of a human face on a screen. If the gender of the face did not match that of the voice, the dogs stared longer, a sign that the image did not match their expectations.

Meanwhile, Dr Juliane Kaminski at the University of Cambridge has examined how dogs can use human gestures such as pointing and gazing to find hidden food or toys. “Domestication seems to have shaped dogs in a way which enables them to use these gestures from as early as six weeks,” she said.

The full New Scientist article is available with a subscription.