Monthly Archives: July 2013

A Virtual Pack, to Study Canine Minds

In 1995, Brian Hare began to wonder what his dog Oreo was thinking.       

At the time, he was a sophomore at Emory University, where he was studying animal psychology with Michael Tomasello. Dr. Tomasello was comparing the social intelligence of humans and other animals.

Humans, it was known at the time, are exquisitely sensitive to signals from other humans. We use that information to solve problems that we might struggle to figure out on our own.
Dr. Tomasello discovered that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, typically fail to notice much of this social information. Pointing to the location of a hidden banana will usually not help a chimp find the banana, for example. Perhaps the pointing test revealed something important about how the human mind evolved.
But Mr. Hare had his doubts. “I think my dog can do that,” he declared.
To persuade his mentor, he videotaped Oreo chasing after tennis balls. And indeed, when he pointed left or right, off the dog would run, in the indicated direction, to find a ball.
He then followed up with a full-blown experiment, using food hidden under cups in his garage; Oreo consistently picked out the right cup after Mr. Hare pointed to it, and other dogs (including some who had never seen Mr. Hare) did well too.
After he got his doctorate in biological anthropology from Harvard, Dr. Hare and his colleagues finally published their results: Dogs could indeed pass the pointing test, while wolves, their wild relatives, could not.
Dr. Hare, now an associate professor at Duke, has continued to probe the canine mind, but his research has been constrained by the number of dogs he can study. Now he hopes to expand his research geometrically — with the help of dog owners around the world. He is the chief scientific officer of a new company called Dognition, which produces a Web site where people can test their dog’s cognition, learn about their pets and, Dr. Hare hopes, supply him and his colleagues with scientific data on tens of thousands of dogs.
“Because it’s big data, we can ask questions that nobody could have a chance to look at,” he said.
From his previous research, Dr. Hare has argued that dogs evolved their extraordinary social intelligence once their ancestors began lingering around early human settlements. As he and his wife, Vanessa Woods, explain in their new book, “The Genius of Dogs,” natural selection favored the dogs that did a better job of figuring out the intentions of humans.
While this evolution gave dogs one cognitive gift, it didn’t make them more intelligent in general. “If you compare them to wolves as individuals, they look like idiots,” Dr. Hare said. “But if you then show them having a human solve the problem, they’re geniuses.”
To explore dog cognition further, he set up the Duke Canine Cognition Center in 2009. He and his colleagues built a network of 1,000 dog owners willing to bring in their pets for tests.
Dr. Hare began to investigate new questions about dogs with this willing pack of animals. With a grant from the Office of Naval Research, for example, he is looking at ways to identify dogs for jobs like bomb detection.
“They spend two years trying to get these dogs ready to go, and then most programs lose 7 out of 10,” he said. “Maybe they can’t take the commands, or maybe they can’t take the perspective of the humans.”
He is trying to find the “cognitive style” of the successful service dogs. To do so, he and his colleagues have developed a battery of 30 tests that altogether take four hours to administer. They have tested 200 dogs and are searching for hallmarks that set the service dogs apart.
He helped form Dognition, he said, partly because of interest from dog trainers who asked him if they could test their own dogs’ cognitive style.
The tests are now available online: For a fee, dog owners get video instructions for how to carry them out. (Besides the pointing test, they include a test in which the owner yawns and then watches to see if the dog does too — a potential sign that dog and owner are strongly bonded.) The company then analyzes how a given dog compares with others in its database for qualities like empathy and memory.
Not every expert is convinced, however, that such seemingly objective judgments can be gleaned from research that is still in its early stages.
“To me, part of being a dog scientist is acknowledging up front how little we know about their cognition,” said Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition expert at Barnard College. “I’d like to see a company which tries to strengthen relationships between dogs and people by getting people excited about the fact that science has just begun to investigate the dog mind, and our current understanding is minimal. It would be honest to admit how mysterious this other mind really is.”     
Dr. Hare agrees that dog owners should not look at the tests as a canine equivalent of the SATs. “What we’re desperately trying to stay away from is, ‘Your dog is a 99, and your dog is 20, and 99 is better than 20,’ ” he said. “Maybe one cognitive style is better in one context than another.”
Adam Miklosi, a dog cognition expert at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest and a scientific adviser to Dognition, says the tests should not be prescriptive. “It’s not like a phone number you call to get your washing machine fixed,” he said. “It’s a fun thing to do.”
Dr. Hare says his main goal is to build a database that will shed light on longstanding questions about behavior, breeding and genetics — for example, whether the cognitive styles of various breeds can be linked to their genes. (Dr. Miklosi cautions, however, that the data that comes from people playing games with their dogs in their living room won’t be as carefully controlled as the experiments scientists run in their labs.)
One hypothesis has already emerged from Dognition’s users, Dr. Hare said. A surprising link turned up between empathy in dogs and deception. The dogs that are most bonded to their owners turn out to be most likely to observe their owner in order to steal food. “I would not have thought to test for that relationship at Duke, but with Dognition we can see it,” said Dr. Hare.
As the science of dog cognition comes into better focus, Dr. Hare hopes that scientists can use Dognition to deliver their insights to dog trainers. Science-based dog training would take into account what dogs are good at, what they’re bad at and the biases that influence their minds.
By CARL ZIMMER   The New York Times

What Are Allergies?

Just like people, dogs can show allergic symptoms when their immune systems begin to recognize certain everyday substances—or allergens— as dangerous. Even though these allergens are common in most environments and harmless to most animals, a dog with allergies will have an extreme reaction to them. Allergens can be problematic when inhaled, ingested or contact a dog’s skin. As his body tries to rid itself of these substances, a variety of skin, digestive and respiratory symptoms may appear.

What Are the General Symptoms of Allergies in Dogs?

  • Itchy, red, moist or scabbed skin
  • Increased scratching
  • Itchy, runny eyes
  • Itchy back or base of tail (most commonly flea allergy)
  • Itchy ears and ear infections
  • Sneezing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Snoring caused by an inflamed throat
  • Paw chewing/swollen paws
  • Constant licking

What Substances Can Dogs Be Allergic To?

A few common allergens include:
  • Tree, grass and weed pollens
  • Mold spores
  • Dust and house dust mites
  • Dander
  • Feathers
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Food ingredients (e.g. beef, chicken, pork, corn, wheat or soy)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Fleas and flea-control products (The bite of a single flea can trigger intense itchiness for two to three weeks!)
  • Perfumes
  • Cleaning products
  • Fabrics
  • Insecticidal shampoo
  • Rubber and plastic materials

Kylie and Cricket Fund helps Coconut

Thanks again to everyone for your support at the Paws and Claws 5K. Because of our generous clients, we are able to continue to help many animals in need. So far, with the help of your donations, we have purchased nearly $1,000 worth of food for local animal shelters! We have also ordered indestructible Kongs for the many dogs that live at the local Frederick Maryland shelters that are waiting for their forever home. We will be updating you as these orders come in and are delivered directly to animals who need them most.
In addition to the food and toys that were donated, we have also decided to sponsor a homeless kitty in need of medical care. We would like you to meet Coconut.
Coconut is a 6 year old female spayed kitty that is currently available for adoption and living at Frederick County Animal Control (FCAC). While Coconut is a very sweet and affectionate girl, she has not yet been adopted, possibly due to some medical concerns. That is where Kingsbrook Animal Hospital and the donations made to the Kylie and Cricket Fund helped! Because of your donations, KAH was able to address those concerns so that she has a better chance at finding her new home. When we first met Coconut, she had severe dental disease and a heart murmur. Through the Kylie and Cricket Fund, KAH was able to perform blood work and radiographs on Coconut.  After assessing her anesthetic risk, she then received a dental exam and cleaning. While reviewing full mouth dental x-rays, Dr. Davis confirmed that her teeth cleaned up nicely and no extractions were necessary!
Coconut is now all set to move into her forever home!  She is a sweet, beautiful girl who enjoys friendly people, playing with her toy mouse, and taking long naps on the couch. Please contact Frederick County Animal Control for more information regarding her adoption. Thanks again to all those who donated to the Kylie and Cricket Fund which allowed us to help Coconut and other animals in need.



Owning a Dog Is Linked to Reduced Heart Risk

The nation’s largest cardiovascular health organization has a new message for Americans: Owning a dog may protect you from heart disease.

The unusual message was contained in a scientific statement published on Thursday by the American Heart Association, which convened a panel of experts to review years of data on the cardiovascular benefits of owning a pet. The group concluded that owning a dog, in particular, was “probably associated” with a reduced risk of heart disease.

People who own dogs certainly have more reason to get outside and take walks, and studies show that most owners form such close bonds with their pets that being in their presence blunts the owners’ reactions to stress and lowers their heart rate, said Dr. Glenn N. Levine, the head of the committee that wrote the statement.

But most of the evidence is observational, which makes it impossible to rule out the prospect that people who are healthier and more active in the first place are simply more likely to bring a dog or cat into their home.

“We didn’t want to make this too strong of a statement,” said Dr. Levine, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine. “But there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”
Nationwide, Americans keep roughly 70 million dogs and 74 million cats as pets.

The heart association publishes about three scientific statements each month, typically on more technical matters, but the group was prompted to take a stance on the pet issue by the growing number of news reports and medical studies linking pet ownership to better health.

Dr. Levine noted that the more traditional methods of risk reduction for heart disease had proven effective, and that now was a good time to investigate alternative approaches. “We felt this was something that had reached the point where it would be reasonable to formally investigate,” he said.
Dr. Richard Krasuski, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, viewed the new statement as an indictment of societal attitudes toward exercise.

“Very few people are meeting their exercise goals,” he said. “In an ideal society, where people are actually listening to physician recommendations, you wouldn’t need pets to drag people outside.”
The new report reviewed dozens of studies, and over all it seemed clear that pet owners, especially those with dogs, the focus of most of the studies, were in better health than people without pets.
“Several studies showed that dogs decreased the body’s reaction to stress, with a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline-like hormone release when a pet is present as opposed to when a pet is not present,” Dr. Levine said.

Pet owners also tended to report greater amounts of physical activity, and modestly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Some research showed that people who had pets of any kind were also more likely to survive heart attacks.

In one of the only randomized controlled studies included in the report, 48 stressed stockbrokers with hypertension were put on medication that lowered their blood pressure, and then researchers divided them into groups. Those in one group were told to adopt a dog or cat. Six months later, the researchers found that when the stockbrokers who had adopted pets were around their new companions, they were markedly calmer in the face of stressful events than the stockbrokers without pets.

But nearly all of the other studies included in the report were correlational, meaning they could not prove cause and effect. And the research also strongly suggested that among dog owners, there was a sharp contrast between those who walked their dogs themselves and those who did not.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that pet owners are just as likely to be overweight as people without pets. One large study involving thousands of people found that 17 percent of those who walked their dogs were obese, compared with 28 percent of dog owners who did not walk their dogs and 22 percent of those without pets.

Dr. Levine said that he and his colleagues were not recommending that people adopt pets for any reason other than to give them a good home.

“If someone adopts a pet, but still sits on the couch and smokes and eats whatever they want and doesn’t control their blood pressure,” he said, “that’s not a prudent strategy to decrease their cardiovascular risk.”

By ANAHAD O’CONNOR The New York Times

How to Determine What’s Special About a “Specialized” Dog Food

Never trust the front of that dog food label! As always, it’s the ingredients list and Guaranteed Analysis (GA) that tell you what’s special about a food.

A special, perfect food for every dog? That’s what the pet food industry would like you to believe; that’s the direction taken by most of the large pet food makers – foods for tall dogs, small dogs, fat dogs, old dogs . . . you get the picture. The tactic must work, because all the biggest companies do it, and they wouldn’t make so many foods if they weren’t selling well.

Dog owners should be aware, though, that there are actually only two types of products that provide legally defined “complete and balanced nutrition” for dogs. These are “adult maintenance” products formulated for adult dogs, and “growth and reproduction” (also known as “all life stages”) products formulated to meet the increased nutritional requirements of pregnant and nursing females and puppies.

As we explained in “Special Education” (in the May 2011 issue), only these two sets of “nutrient profiles” have been established as the basis for regulation of dog food in the U.S. There are no other dog food descriptions with legal mandates for certain nutrient levels.
We’ll say it another way: There are no legal nutritional guidelines or standards for foods that are identified by their makers as intended for senior dogs, weight loss, toy breeds, indoor dogs, Chihuahuas, or joint health. If they have a “complete and balanced” statement on the label, they meet the requirements for either adult dog maintenance or “growth and reproduction.”

Most of the giant pet food companies continually conduct research and tinker with their formulas, looking for anything that “performs” better in the dog. They want to be free to innovate and incorporate anything that gives their products a market advantage, including trendy food ingredients and higher (or lower) than average amounts of certain nutrients. No one in the industry wants another set of nutritional standards they’d have to meet for a certain type of food.

Devil Is In The Details
Now that you understand that there are absolutely no regulations or standards that ensure that a “senior” dog food has anything unique to offer senior dogs, or that a food for “indoor” dogs is in any way different from foods for outdoor dogs, you’re ready to look at these sorts of products with a justifiably cynical eye.

If you’re considering one of these specialized foods, try to determine what, exactly, are the features that are supposed to be unique to that product and so allegedly perfect for dogs like yours. In many cases, the differences in formulation between the “special” food and the plain old adult variety are negligible – but you won’t necessarily be able to ascertain that from the description of the product on the front of the bag, the company website, or the product’s literature.

As always, your best clues for a reasonable analysis of a dog food are found on its list of ingredients and guaranteed analysis (GA). By law, only the minimum amounts of protein and fat and the maximum amounts of fiber and moisture in the food are required to appear on the GA. However, when it comes to specialized foods (with attendant claims of special benefits) the makers should, in our opinion, include those nutrients on the GA.

For example, “joint health” foods generally contain glycosaminoglycan (GAG) supplements, such as glucosamine and/or chondroitin). If we were paying a premium for a product that contained a GAG supplement in a supposedly therapeutic or beneficial dose, we’d want to see the type of supplement used, and in what amount, guaranteed by its inclusion on the GA. (The GA is subject to testing and enforcement by state feed control officials.) And we’d be fairly suspect of a “joint health” product that did not have its “joint health” ingredients quantified on the GA. (We’ll discuss GAGs more in just a minute.)

The next thing we’d do is compare the ingredients list and GA of the “special” food with a regular, adult version of the food from the same company. If there are only minor differences between the ingredients of the two foods (say, the fifth and sixth ingredients are reversed), or only a small difference in the amount of fat or protein, you’re probably paying for marketing, not a genuinely novel food for your special dog.

Some pet food makers are fiddling with the physical form of the food to customize it for certain dogs. “Large bites” and “small bites” have been around for ages, but today some companies are going farther. For example, Royal Canin has a food intended for Golden Retrievers, with a kibble shape the company describes as “specifically designed to prevent gulping, help your dog to feel fuller more quickly, and reduce the amount of calories consumed.” Hmmm . . . if they say so . . .

GAGs for Joint Health
“Joint health” or “mobility” foods are now among the most popular types of “special” dog foods on the market. The ingredients that usually support that claim, as mentioned a moment ago, are glycosaminoglycan (GAG) supplements, although manufacturers will sometimes list other ingredients as contributing to joint health.

Glucosamine is usually derived from the shells of shellfish; the chondroitin used in dog food is usually sourced from poultry cartilage.

GAG supplements are often described as the building blocks of cartilage and joint fluid, and When given independently of the diet, the typical recommended therapeutic dose is about 500 mg glucosamine and 400 mg chondroitin per 25 pounds of the dog’s body weight per day. Dogs often require a therapeutic dose daily for as long as six to eight weeks before any improvement in mobility or a decrease in osteoarthritic pain is seen. If no improvement is seen after 12 weeks of a therapeutic dose of the supplement has been given to the dog daily, it probably will not help the dog to continue its use.

When GAG supplements first began appearing in dog foods, the amounts used were very low – too low, in our opinion, to provide any real benefit to the dog (though maybe their presence on the label made the owner feel better). Today, they are present in widely varying amounts in canine “joint care” products (and some senior foods).

To illustrate this point, in the table above, we’ve listed the amounts of glucosamine and chondroitin in eight joint health or senior dog foods. Notice how the amount of the supplements included in the foods doesn’t necessarily correspond with the implied level of commitment to the special purpose of the food? Innova and Wellness both offer regular old senior foods with fairly high amounts of the GAG supplements – and with very low-key descriptions of their GAG content. Contrast these with Iams’ Veterinary Formula Joint/Canine food; in our opinion, the serious name and serious description of the GAGs’ purpose in the product don’t match the amounts included. In fact, Iams’ “veterinary” product contains not much more of the supplements than one of its adult foods.
We included the Purina ONE SmartBlend food just so that you could wonder along with us: How on earth does one translate parts per million into a standard dosage of milligrams per kilogram?
The levels of glucosamine and chondroitin seem to be a major factor in how Royal Canin individualizes its many products.

Probiotics & Prebiotics
Probiotic organisms are living beings that support the resident microflora of your dog’s gut. Many of the ones used to supplement canine (and human) diets are beneficial species of bacteria, including Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Probiotics are credited with enhancing digestion and absorption of nutrients, supporting detoxification and elimination processes, and helping to boost the dog’s immune system.
For greatest benefit, probiotics need to be delivered to the dog:
in high amounts
in live, active form
in a variety of species (not just one).

Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth of the beneficial bacterial species in the colon, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.

It’s become fairly common to see some sort of prebiotic in top-quality “natural/holistic” foods. Most common are fructooligosaccharides (FOS) – plant sugars that occur in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and cereals. They are produced commercially by partial hydrolysis of chicory inulin (an oligosaccharide found in chicory root), or from sucrose (sugar) using an enzymatic process. Only very small amounts of prebiotics are needed for a beneficial affect on the dog’s digestion. (Doses that are too high can cause gassiness.)

The amount or dosage of probiotics used is usually expressed in millions or billions of “colony forming units” or “CFUs.” For example, the label of the Innova Adult Large Bites food says it contains 90,000,000 CFU/lb “total microorganisms.” (The species of the beneficial bacteria used are not divulged.)

Prebiotics are stable substances; living, active probiotics are not. Heat kills them, rendering them inactive (that’s why they appear only in dry dog foods, not canned; the high heat of the canning process would kill them and render them useless). Most dog food companies that include beneficial bacteria in their products say that the probiotics are added to the food after it has cooked and cooled; and some say that live cultures were used in the food. However, none that we are aware of claim that the bacteria is still alive and active by the time it’s consumed by the dog.

Innova, for example, claims, “Innova products include live, active bacteria called probiotics . . .” We have no doubt the bacteria were alive when included in the food; probiotics are generally applied in the final step of food production. After the kibble has been cooked, cooled, and coated with a fat source, it’s dusted with the probiotic powder. But we doubt that the bacteria can survive the oxidative activity of the food as it ages and the temperatures that dry food is often subjected to.
Again, if we really wanted our dog to enjoy the benefits of a probiotic supplement, we’d look for a good supplement and administer it separately from our dog’s regular diet.

Herbs, Berries, and Fruits, Oh My
It’s gotten very popular in recent years for dog food makers to include a long list of whole, healthy foods on their products’ lists of ingredients. Please understand that while it makes a food sound delicious, the actual amount of the ingredients that appear 10th or 15th or 25th on a list of ingredients that ends up in your dog’s tummy is very low; we’d characterize it as so low as to be negligible.

The real purpose of many of these ingredients on a pet food label is to whet your appetite. Pet food industry publications sometimes describe this as “humanization” of the pet food. If you want your dog to experience the benefits of carrots, apples, blueberries, garlic powder, green tea extract, spinach, cottage cheese, and other terrific foods that generally appear low on lists of ingredients, feed them whole and fresh as a healthy adjunct to your dog’s commerical diet

The Whole Dog Journal