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Tag: research

Researchers say the hyper-friendliness of dogs results from gene mutation

Researchers say they have pinpointed a gene mutation that explains why dogs are so hyper-friendly — one they believe could have played a role in their domestication.

The scientists say they have isolated two genes, variations in which lead to the hyper-friendliness and tail-wagging sociability that most dogs exhibit.

When I read the headlines I had two reactions. First, I didn’t want to believe that the love dogs display resulted from something as stark sounding as a “mutation.” Second, I decided I wanted those genes, and those mutations, inside me — and all humans.

Imagine how much better a place the world would be if we all got so excited we nearly peed when we greeted each other, covered the faces of friends and strangers with licks, and had that unconditional love and loyalty that dogs possess.

Interestingly, though, similar variations in those same genes are already inside a small number of us. The genes at issue — GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 — are the same ones that have been associated with a human disease called Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS), which causes developmental disabilities and many other health issues.

The condition is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability, unusual facial features, cardiovascular problems and other health issues. But it also can often lead to affected individuals having highly outgoing, engaging personalities and extreme interest in other people.

Having written about people with developmental disabilities for eight years as a reporter, I met more than a few people like that — in institutions, group homes, and living with their families. They’d come up and hug a complete stranger. They’d follow me around, paying attention to everything I did and said. They seemed to indiscriminately love everybody. They were hard to say goodbye to.

I didn’t know it was a result of their Williams-Beuren syndrome, or that there even was a Williams-Beuren syndrome (this was the 1980’s), just that they possessed an innocence and trust uncommon in our species. I can’t remember if, at the time, I saw that behavior as “dog-like.”

But some researchers did.

vonholdtBridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary geneticist at Princeton University, and Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University, met three years ago and started talking about dogs.

In an earlier study, vonHoldt had identified a gene that’s mutated more often in dogs than wolves — one that possibly led to their domestication.

Together, Udell and vonHoldt decided to examine the social behavior of a group of dogs and a group of wolves and then analyze their DNA in the region that included the genes in question.

The study they co-authored, using a combination of genetic sequencing and behavioral tests, pinpointed a couple genetic differences that seem to track with friendliness.

Using 16 dogs and eight captive, socialized wolves, they were able to establish that the dogs showed a greater variation, or mutation, of those genes. Animals with these mutations appeared to pay more attention to the humans than those without, the researchers said.

“We find that hyper-sociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves,” the study concluded.

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The findings, in addition to providing new insights into the human disorder, could explain a large part of what led wolves to become domesticated, and how dogs evolved to become man’s best friend.

To learn more about the study, check out these reports from the
Los Angeles Times, Science and Princeton University.

(Photos: At top, Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead co-author, cuddles with her Old English Sheepdog, Marla, by Chris Fascenelli, Princeton University Office of Communications; at bottom, Lauren Brubaker, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors, interacts with a gray wolf, by Monty Sloan, via Princeton University Office of Communications)

Two charged in PETA’s continuing protest of Texas A&M muscular dystrophy research

Two PETA protesters were forcibly removed from the University of Texas Board of Regents meeting Wednesday after demanding the board stop funding research at Texas A&M that breeds dogs with muscular dystrophy to create puppies with the disease for use in experiments to find a cure.

PETA has long been campaigning to bring an end to the long-running research project — a cause whose supporters include comedian Bill Maher, and former A&M quarterback Ryan Tannenhill, both of whom have characterized the research as cruel.

The leader of the research, Joe Kornegay, has defended the project by saying it seeks to find a cure for the debilitating disease in both humans and dogs, and that — doomed as they might be to a life of suffering — dogs brought into the world for use in the experiments are treated well.

He says they breed dogs with the disease because they can’t otherwise find enough canine participants who are already afflicted.

On Wednesday, in PETA’s latest protest, two shouting, sign-carrying members of the organization were removed from the meeting and charged with hindering proceedings by disorderly conduct.

A second protest, with fewer than a dozen participants, was staged along the Capital of Texas Highway, near the hotel where the regents were meeting, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

“We’re asking them to stop funding Texas A&M while these labs continue,” said Matt Bruce, an organizer for PETA.

PETA says the dogs spend their short lives in cages and struggle to swallow and walk as the disease progresses. They are also subjected to being placed in a mechanical device that stretches, and often tears, their muscles, PETA says.

PETA says the experiments have failed to produce a single effective treatment for human muscular dystrophy in 35 years and don’t justify the misery the dogs are put through.

Now open in L.A.: PetSpace, an adoption center that’s much, much more

All humane societies and SPCA’s see education as a large part of their mission, but few if any have taken that to the heights of PetSpace, a newly opened center in Los Angeles that is finding new homes for dogs and increasing our understanding of them at the same time.

Over a dozen dogs and cats were adopted during Saturday’s opening of PetSpace, the brainchild of Wallis Annenberg, the CEO and president of the Annenberg Foundation.

But, as the Los Angles Times reported over the weekend, PetSpace is about much more than rehoming dogs.

It’s part interactive science center, part children’s playground, part pet paradise, part research institute and part adoption center.

On top of facilitating adoptions, PetSpace will offer educational programming for the general public on how to care for pets, all while conducting its own scientific research focused on the human-animal bond.

To that end, it has established a Leadership Institute with 16 research fellows — experts in different academic fields — who will write a white paper on the science behind the human-animal bond.

“This whole notion of the human-animal bond goes so much deeper than how you choose a pet,” said Eric Strauss, a biology professor at Loyola Marymount University and the research paper’s lead author.

“We’re bonded emotionally through our pets. But we’re also bonded ecologically, medically and economically. I think that’s the real genesis of a new science here.”

Located in Silicon Beach in Playa Vista, the 30,000-square-foot facility houses more than 80 dogs, cats and rabbits from the Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care and Control shelters.

It has a staff of 30, assisted by more than 100 volunteers and will be open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with free admission.

Its creators see it as a destination in itself, a fun place that will inform and delight adults and children (and maybe make them even happier yet if they end up taking home a dog or cat).

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During Saturday’s opening, a large mechanical dog barked and wagged his tongue while perched on the second floor. On the ground level, visitors read animal adoption stories displayed on panels and explored an interactive touch screen wall announcing upcoming events.

The center, in addition to periodic seminars, will have a Sunday reading program where children can sit down with a book and an animal.

Meanwhile, in the various play areas, visitors snuggled with cats and dogs, while others met with dogs in their “suites.” Outside each is an interactive digital screen with information about the pets up for adoption.

The center will be making an intense effort to match the right dog to the right owner.

“What’s your lifestyle like? What time commitment do you have? We’ll have a pretty extensive conversation,” said J.J. Rawlinson, the center’s animal care manager and veterinarian. “We really take time to get to know the animals.”

The adoption fee is $80.

PetSpace has partnered with organizations across the city to develop its programming, which will also include higher education workshops on human-animal relationships.

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It will also provide medical resources, including aqua therapy, that are generally not available in shelters.

Part of the center’s mission will be to educate the public about spaying, neutering, grooming and other aspects of caring for a pet.

Wallis Annenberg is a billionaire philanthropist who has long made pets one of her pet projects.

“In my life, animals have been a profound gift — not just dear companions, but teachers and healers, showing how to live and love fully and in the moment. That’s why the opening of Annenberg PetSpace is so thrilling for me,” said Annenberg, the Annenberg Foundation’s chair and CEO.

The family foundation was founded by Walter H. Annenberg, whose company published, among others, TV Guide, Seventeen magazine and my old alma mater, the Philadelphia Inquirer. It also operated radio and TV stations nationwide. Annenberg died in 2002.

Wallis Annenberg, his daughter, described PetSpace as “a world-class space in which to study the joys and mysteries of life in all its forms. It will be an innovative and interactive place for families to engage with animals and animal lovers of all kinds.”

“And it will be a chance for me to pass on the kind of awe and affection and insight animals have provided me for all my years,” she told the San Diego News Daily.

The Annenberg team worked with Los Angeles area animal welfare organizations, including Los Angeles Animal Services, the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, spcaLA and the Humane Association of California to design the center.

(Photos and video from the PetSpace website)

Do we really need Dog Fart Awareness Day?

DFAD_HHS_2Dog Fart Awareness Day came and went over the weekend — and I wasn’t even aware of it!

Nor was I aware that such a day has apparently existed for at least three years.

My tendency is to question whether it is “a real thing” — sorry, but a Facebook page alone is not ample proof of that — and yet People magazine has written about it, and so have some dog writers I actually respect.

The recent People article was basically an interview with a veterinarian, and said nothing about the special day’s origins — or who was behind it. (Though the veterinarian did share that, in his experience, bulldogs fart more than any other breed.)

It’s hard to find any serious discussion, or background information on Dog Fart Awareness Day, also called Dog Farting Awareness Day. Just about everything you call up on the Internet seems to have been written more for the pun opportunities than to provide information.

You’d assume such a day would have some veterinary group behind it, telling us that, if our dogs are farting excessively, we should bring them in at once for an expensive battery of tests.

I could find no sign of that — and no explanation of why we need a Dog Fart Awareness Day. When they fart, and we are at home, don’t we quickly become pretty aware of it?

DFAD_LingerScanning legitimate news media, I found only a few references to it.

Twincities.com recently included it in a list of “officially” proclaimed days, but added, “not sure if this is a serious thing.”

Scientific American used the annual day as an opportunity to delve into dog fart research, producing a pretty fascinating article on its blog, Dog Spies.

Then again, the blog’s writer, Julie Hecht, was reporting about dog fart research even before the awareness day existed — proof that she is on top of things, or a little weird. Either way, her posts are always fascinating.

This one goes into some 2001 research at the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition in the UK where researchers, with help from a special dog fart jumpsuit and “odor judges,” measured the flatulence of dogs and assessed the odors on a 1 to 5 scale — 5 being “unbearable,” 1 being percussion without any noticeable odor.

The research was aimed at rendering dog farts less foul smelling, which is possible with dog farts (as it also is with humans).

Despite the day being mentioned in such a scholarly publication, I’m still suspicious of it.

Generally, such days have an organization behind them — one that has procured a proclamation for such a day in hopes of increasing awareness or sales, but DFAD, as it’s called, lists none.

National Hairball Day (April 28th) is recognized by the American Veterinary Association. National Dog Fighting Awareness Day (also April 8) is sponsored by the ASPCA. This is also National Dog Bite Prevention Week, sponsored by, among others, the U.S. Postal Service.

But National Dog Farting Awareness Day seems to have wafted in out of nowhere.

If “bogus” — and my suspicions lean that way — does DFAD take away from more serious issues, like dogfighting awareness, or, as some maintain, is it a good thing even if it is all in jest, because it allows dog lovers to share and celebrate their dogs, and create their own memes.

(Memes and farts have a few things in common by the way. They can erupt spontaneously, grab everyone’s attention and then quickly dissipate. You’re never sure who was behind them, and the perpetrators — whoever they were — probably feel better after expressing themselves.)

It’s important to keep in mind anyone can go online and get a national day of pretty much anything proclaimed, like at this website.

These informal national days are not to be confused with official ones — those proclaimed by Congress and our president, such as a National Missing Children’s Day, or National America Recycles Day.

Dog farts and hairballs are not among issues Congress considers pressing, but luckily entrepreneurs are there to fill the void, and give your cause the attention you feel it deserves — a day of it’s own. And maybe someday your day will show up in an esteemed publication like Scientific American, or People, or ohmidog!, thus adding credence to the belief your day is a real thing.

I don’t believe there is an officially sponsored, organizationally-backed Dog Fart Awareness Day. And I don’t think we need one.

As for the one that seems to exist, for purposes that seem limited to giving us a chuckle, I’m hoping it doesn’t linger too much longer.

(Photos: From the Dog Farting Awareness Facebook page)

Pawprint in the mud leads to discovery that New Guinea highland wild dogs still exist

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After nearly half a century of fearing that the New Guinea highland wild dog had gone extinct in its remote and inhospitable habitat, high in the mountains of New Guinea, a pawprint in the mud has led researchers to confirm the existence of at least 15 of them.

Photographs taken with camera traps and DNA analyses of biological samples confirm the dogs — considered the most ancient breed on earth — are living along New Guinea’s remote central mountain spine.

“The discovery and confirmation of the highland wild dog for the first time in over half a century is not only exciting, but an incredible opportunity for science,” says the group behind the discovery, the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation (NGHWDF).

hihgland1An expedition by the foundation last year led to the discovery of the population — after a member of the group noticed a pawprint in the mud.

New Guinea highland wild dogs were only known from two unconfirmed photographs in recent years — one taken in 2005, and the other in 2012.

They had not been documented with certainty in their native range in over half a century, and experts feared that what was left of the ancient dogs had dwindled to extinction.

Last year, a NGHWDF expedition led by zoologist James K. McIntyre, was joined by local researchers from the University of Papua, who were also seeking the the elusive dogs.

A muddy paw print spotted in September 2016 finally gave them what they were looking for — recent signs that the wild canids still wandered the dense forests of the New Guinea highlands.

The footprint was one McIntyre had left, with his bare feet, while going up the mountain. On the group’s way down the mountain, he noticed it had been joined by a paw print.

Bait was laid. Camera traps were set. And the cameras captured more than 140 images of Highland Wild Dog.

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DNA analysis of fecal fecal samples confirmed that the breed is related to Australian dingos and New Guinea singing dogs – the captive-bred variants of the New Guinea highland wild dog.

The species established itself on the island at least 6,000 years ago, either arriving with human migrants or migrating independently of humans.

The dogs most commonly have a golden coat, but can also be black, tan or cream colors. Their tails curl up over their backsides and their ears sit erect on their heads.

According to the NGHWDF, there are roughly 300 New Guinea singing dogs remaining in the world, living in zoos and private homes. They are known for their high-pitched howls, often carried out in chorus with one another.

A scientific paper on the discovery is expected to be released in the coming months.

(Photos: NGHWDF)

Nervous dog owners = nervous dogs

nervousdogs

Leave it to scientists to confirm what we already know, and to do so using words we don’t begin to understand.

Case in point: Nervous dogs often have nervous owners. This is not to say a nervous dog can’t have a cool as a cucumber (coolus cucumberus) owner. Nor is it to say some highly twitchy (humanus nervosa) folks can’t have calm dogs.

Only that, as anyone who visits a dog park knows, nervous owners tend to have nervous dog at the end of the leash.

The new study buttresses the concept that our dogs tend to take on our personalities, and that tension — while it may not actually “flow down the leash” — is picked up on by our dogs, and often reflected in their own behavior.

It looks at the chemistry behind that.

The study at the University of Vienna — published in the journal PLOS One “investigated dyadic psychobiological factors influencing intra-individual cortisol variability in response to different challenging situations by testing 132 owners and their dogs in a laboratory setting.”

You might understand that, or, you (like me) might not know spit — or that cortisol levels can be measured through it.

In the study, the researchers measured the levels of cortisol — and the variability of those levels — in the saliva of dogs and owners put through stressful situations.

In addition, they assessed the personality of both dog and human participants — ranging from highly sensitive and neurotic to secure and self confident.

“We calculated the individual coefficient of variance of cortisol (iCV = sd/mean*100) over the different test situations as a parameter representing individual variability of cortisol concentration,” the study’s authors wrote. “We hypothesized that high cortisol variability indicates efficient and adaptive coping and a balanced individual and dyadic social performance.”

For a more reader-friendly account of the study, check out Stanley Coren’s Psychology Today blog:

“You can think of people who are high in neuroticism as being sensitive and nervous while people who score low in neuroticism are secure and confident. In this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism had dogs with low variability in their cortisol. This suggests that dogs with highly neurotic owners are less able to deal with pressure and stress.”

“Conversely, dog owners who were more laid back and agreeable had calmer dogs. Those folks have greater variability in their cortisol response, suggesting that they are better able to cope with situations involving tension and strain.”

The study says the male dogs of female owners often have less variability in their cortisol responses and are often generally less sociable and less relaxed than male dogs belonging to male owners.

(That’s the study saying that females generally score higher on measures of anxiety and neuroticism — not me. I would be way too nervous to say that.)

“Owners behave differently because they are pessimistic or neurotic, and perhaps dogs read the emotions of their owners and think the world is more dangerous — so they are more reactive to it,” the study says. “It looks like people who are pessimistic have dogs which are worse at coping with stress than others.”

Of course, where a dog was before ending up with its owner can play a pretty big role, too.

I, for example, am the cool as a cucumber owner of a nervous dog. He came from a farm in Korea where he was being raised to become meat. That would tend to instill some nervousness in anyone.

Three months after being adopted by me, he still gets pretty nervous — around large groups, when hearing loud noises. I don’t know about his cortisol levels, but at these times he whimpers, sheds profusely — is there such a thing as projectile shedding? — and pees in inappropriate places, such as on my leg.

He is making great strides in every way, but Jinjja still needs to chill, and get less worked up by new situations.

Of all the factors that shape our dogs — genetics, environment, owners — time (and its cousin, patience) may be the most important ones of all.

So my game plan is to provide him with plenty of both, expose him to new settings and situations, and show him that not all the world is a dangerous place — all while being a mellow role model.

In other words, impossible as it might be, I’m going to have to become EVEN cooler.

Is America really running out of dogs?

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America is going to run out of dogs.

That, stunningly, was the conclusion of a Mississippi State University study funded by (and this is the important part) an organization that represents the American Kennel Club, the American Pet Product Association, PetSmart, breeders and other pet industry leaders.

The study disputes oft-cited figures from the leading animal welfare organizations, which estimate between 1.9 million and 2.5 million dogs are euthanized by shelters every year.

Instead, the study says, fewer than 780,000 unwanted dogs are being euthanized a year, many of them dangerous or damaged, and America will soon not to be able to meet the demand for dogs through shelter dogs alone.

Not that it currently does, or ever has.

The Pet Leadership Council funded the study, then hired additional analysts to “interpret” (read, spin) the results.

As a result, the message they are putting forth is not that progress is being made in reducing the numbers of unwanted animals that end up euthanized (the reality), but that America is going to run out of dogs (the new myth).

In a press release, the PLC says it is “welcoming” the study’s findings — as opposed to saying they paid for it — and that those findings show a need for more “responsibly bred” dogs.

“Mississippi State’s study will also have a significant impact on the national conversation about responsible pet ownership,” said Mike Bober, President of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council and consultant to the PLC. “Without this concrete data as a starting point, it has been all but impossible to discuss solutions because we couldn’t agree on the scope of the problem. This data also provides valuable information for those contemplating legislation that impacts the availability of dogs in their communities.”

Here are the far from solid numbers the study came up with.

American shelters are taking in 5.5 million dogs a year, about half of which end up euthanized. America, based on census figures, ownership patterns and the life-span of dogs, needs about 8.1 million dogs a year to maintain current levels of ownership.

With only 2.6 million dogs being adopted out of shelters each year and far fewer transferred or euthanized, “that means millions more must come from other sources.”

Meaning breeders. Meaning large scale puppy mills and store bought dogs and all those other things that helped lead to the dog overpopulation problem in the first place and are better off gone.

“It’s a total myth for anybody to say or think that every American who wants a dog can go to a shelter and find one,” said Mark Cushing of the Animal Policy Group, the lobbying firm that “crunched the numbers.”

“Increasingly the ones we are euthanizing are very sick or dangerous,” he added.

So shelter dogs are going to run out, they’d like to have you believe, except maybe for the dangerous and sick ones you wouldn’t want in the first place.

That’s not only balderdash, it’s the kind of fear tactics that have become so common in the world of politics and persuasion — somehow even more loathsome when applied to the world of homeless dogs.

The study seems to assume that shelters are the only source of homeless dogs, when in fact rescue groups, formal and informal, have become an increasingly popular option and are finding homes for more and more dogs. Nor does it seem to address the number of non-professionally bred dogs being born, despite more spaying and neutering. Nor does it address the hundreds of millions of unwanted dogs in other countries in need of homes.

The Pet Leadership Council commissioned the study as a follow-up to a survey it previously commissioned on dog ownership rates and where people get their dogs. A lobbying group that advises the council then used the study to extrapolate that Americans wanted more than 8 million dogs in 2016 and will want more than 9.2 million by 2036, the Washington Post reported.

The study suggests that euthanasia estimates by the Humane Society of the United States and the No Kill Advocacy Center, both of which say about 2.5 million animals are killed in shelters each year, may be based in large part on animals other than dogs.

The research was funded by the Pet Leadership Council, which represents organizations including the American Kennel Club and the American Pet Products Association; PetSmart and other large retail stores; and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which is the legislative and lobbying voice of the pet industry.

Mike Bober, the president and CEO of PIJAC, which regularly lobbies on behalf of commercial-scale dog breeders and pet stores at the legislative level, said the study shows dog breeding and retail sales must remain protected under state and federal laws.

“Adoption can’t be our only option when it comes to helping Americans find their ideal, lifelong companions,” Bober said. “Responsibly bred puppies are an essential part of the equation.”

The industry push comes at a time that “adopt, don’t shop” campaigns urging consumers to shun breeders and pet stores are showing some results.

According to the Humane Society, more than 200 localities have passed “puppy mill” laws in the past two years that sometimes make it illegal for pet stores to source dogs anywhere other than shelters and rescuers. A similar state-level law is under consideration in New Jersey.

Breeders and pet-store owners see such legislation as misguided, saying there are not enough dogs in U.S. shelters to fill annual consumer demand.

“Our concern was that so many very different estimates have been generated by a number of entities that have often led to conflicting conclusions,” said Bob Vetere, president and chief executive of the American Pet Products Association. “It is important to have a solid understanding of the facts before making decisions impacting the supply and availability of healthy dogs.”

The study’s findings were presented Tuesday at the North American Veterinary Community conference in Florida. While the Pet Leadership Council issued a press release about the study Wednesday, it has yet to be published in a scientific journal.

The study is based on a telephone survey of 413 shelters, out of an estimated 7,100 shelters nationwide.

Using data from the surveyed shelters, the researchers concluded that more than 5.5 million dogs enter shelters each year, about 2.6 million get adopted, and that fewer than 780,000 are euthanized. The remainder are returned to their owners, or transferred to other rescues or shelters, the study said.