June 23, 2021
by dave

Can the mysterious Chinese wildcat tell us anything about cat domestication?

The Chinese mountain cat. (Credit: ???????  - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31346955)

The Chinese mountain cat. (Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31346955)

Unlike the ongoing mystery of where and when dogs arose, the history of cats is a less convoluted affair. Most scholars agree–based on both archaeological and genetic evidence–that domestic cats likely arose in the Middle East some 10,000 years ago.

Still, there have been hints that the cat story may not be as simple as it seems. In 2016, scientists reported evidence of a possible second domestication of cats–one that took place thousands of years later in China. Unlike the first cats, which descend from the African wildcat, these Asian kitties appear to have evolved from the leopard cat. Whatever happened, they didn’t last long; there’s no trace of them in today’s housecats. But the study did raise the intriguing possibility that cats may have been independently domesticated in Asia, as some argue happened with dogs.

New research appears to put that notion to rest. The largest genetic analysis of Chinese cats–including domestic cats, the Asiatic wildcat, and the mysterious Chinese mountain cat–finds that all domestic cats in the country are genetically indistinguishable from those elsewhere in the world. The researchers did find some Chinese mountain cat DNA in domestic cats, but that’s likely because the two have begun to interbreed as more and humans (and their cats) have shown up in the Tibetan Plateau–the realm of the Chinese mountain cat.

If the new study does have anything to say about domestic cats it’s that they may pose a threat to local wildcats. If domestic cat DNA begins to show up in the DNA of the Chinese mountain cat–an animal already considered vulnerable because of its low numbers and threats from humans–it could corrupt the genome of this unique creature, eventually scrubbing it from existence. A similar situation played out with the Scottish wildcat, which some now consider “functionally extinct” due to interbreeding with domestic cats.

Efforts are underway to save the Chinse mountain cats. But it remains to be seen if these felines will stand the test of time.

March 18, 2021
by dave

Scientific mystery? Puppies to the rescue!

(Credit: Golden Trvs Gol twister, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Credit: Golden Trvs Gol twister, via Wikimedia Commons)

Point at an object, and, chances are, your dog will look at it. This seemingly simple ability–critical to our relationship with our canine companions–eludes most animals, including our closest relatives, chimpanzees. But it’s been hard to tell whether this skill is genetically hard-wired, or if dogs simply pick it up by hanging around us.

Scientists have now found a way to address the mystery–and it’s adorable. A team lead by Evan MacLean at the University of Arizona has borrowed nearly 400 Labrador and golden retriever puppies to show that the ability to understand finger pointing is indeed genetic. Working with the pups wasn’t easy, as MacLean told me: “It’s a balance between extraordinarily cute and rewarding moments, and frustration that leaves you at the brink of insanity. There is nothing that will not be chewed or peed on, including all of your research equipment, your clothes, and your body.”

But the researchers powered through, and the pups provided important answers. The team is now doing more sophisticated genetic analysis to determine exactly which genes may be responsible. In the meantime, be sure to check out the story for some adorable puppy pics, and a video as well.

March 1, 2021
by dave

People have been lovingly burying their pets for nearly 2,000 years

A cat wearing a bronze collar found in the Berenice pet cemetery. (Credit: M. Osypinska)

A cat wearing a bronze collar found in the Berenice pet cemetery. (Credit: M. Osypinska)

Ancient pet cemeteries are rare. Archaeologists do find dog and cat burials, sometimes dating back 10,000 years or more. But these creatures are typically interred alone, or with people, in one-offs–not in a dedicated burial ground. Researchers have also unearthed dozens of cat mummies and hundreds of dogs in single locations, but these appear to have been ritualistic burials; the animals were sacrificed or being honored for some sort of spiritual reason.

So a new find of nearly 600 cats and dogs buried in southwestern Egypt in what appears to be a bona-fide pet cemetery is exceptional. The animals were interred in single graves over the course of about a hundred years–from the mid 1st century to the mid 2nd century CE–and they were not sacrificed nor mummified. Instead, they appear to have been lovingly buried, often with collars or other jewelry, and protected by textiles or pieces of pottery. Many also appear to have survived sometimes serious injuries and disease, implying that people at this site–known as Berenice–may have cared for them much like we care for our pets today.

That’s especially remarkable, because this is a period of human history when pets are typically seen as working animals. And the residents of Berenice–merchants, slaves, and soldiers–would seem to have had little time for pet keeping, especially in this rough, isolated region. Did they love their cats and dogs because they hunted mice or guarded their homes? Or did they have a deeper, non-utilitarian connection with them, like many of us do today? With more research, such questions may not be lost to the sands of time.

January 26, 2021
by dave

Dog domestication gets a new time and place

Photo by PIXNIO

Photo by PIXNIO

Given our deep and enduring relationship with dogs, it’s remarkable that scientists still don’t know where our canine pals came from, or when they arose. Researchers have speculated that dogs evolved everywhere from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, and that they may even have been domesticated more than once.

Now scientists are proposing a new time and place: Northeast Siberia, around 23,000 years ago. The work is based on mitochondrial DNA recovered from ancient dogs, which the researchers then compared to DNA from ancient humans. Where the patterns matched, the team was able to reconstruct the history of dogs all the way–possibly–to the beginning.

The study resolves several mysteries around doggy origins. Not only does it give a putative time and place, it also helps explain why dogs seem to appear in Europe and the Americas around the same time–15,000 years ago–which has led some to propose multiple domestications. The idea is that a group of people known as the Ancient North Siberians domesticated dogs and then traded them to people traveling both east and west. These animals would have been invaluable as hunters, guardians, and–perhaps most importantly–sled dogs, helping people travel vast distances and carry heavy kills back to camp.

The study also addresses another big canine conundrum: How dogs were domesticated in the first place. The prevailing idea has been that gray wolves inched closer and closer to human campsites to scavenge food, with the least timid ones evolving—over hundreds or thousands of years—into the gentle pups we know today. But the scenario doesn’t work if humans are traveling so far and wide that they’re always encountering different populations of wolves. It just so happens that the Ancient North Siberians were stuck in northeastern Siberia for thousands of years, because the harsh climate of the last Ice Age prevented them from traveling too far east or west. That may have given these humans time to turn the wolf into the dog–or for wolves to turn themselves into dogs, as many believe that dogs self-domesticated.

This isn’t likely to be the last word on where dogs came from. But for now, it’s an intriguing piece of the puzzle.

December 24, 2020
by dave

Should you vaccinate your pets for COVID-19? Here’s what the latest science says

(Credit: Photo by  Bicanski on Pixnio)

(Credit: Photo by Bicanski on Pixnio)

One of the few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that I’ve been able to write a lot more about dogs and cats than I usually do.

I’ve been trying to keep pet owners updated on what the latest science says about the impact of the coronavirus on pets.

Now, with human vaccines in the spotlight, cat and dog parents might be asking themselves if they need to worry about a vaccine for Fluffy and Fido. The short answer is “no”. Pets–as scientists have long said–seem to play little role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and they don’t seem to suffer serious symptoms either.

But if a pet vaccine was needed, how quickly could it be developed? And what would it look like? I answer these and other questions in my latest story for Science.

November 9, 2020
by dave

What gravestones tell us about our changing relationship with cats and dogs

A pet gravestone from Hyde Park (wording below). Credit: Eric Tourigny taken with permission of The Royal Parks

A pet gravestone from Hyde Park (wording below). Credit: Eric Tourigny taken with permission of The Royal Parks

In 1885, an elderly Scottish woman decided to bury her cat, Tom, in a nearby cemetery. Though the decision might not seem controversial to us, it caused a riot in Edinburg.

The woman, hoping for a “decent burial” for Tom, had an undertaker create a casket for the cat and employed a gravedigger to dig the grave. The funeral itself was largely attended.

But that’s also where the problems started. Apparently objecting to the burial of an animal like a human, a crowd amassed and denounced the proceedings.  The crowd destroyed the coffin, dug up the cat, and forced the woman to flee from her home.

By the end of the century, however, pet burials had become common, as large pet cemeteries like Hyde Park in London and the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery & Crematory interred hundreds to tens of thousands of dogs, cats, and other animals.

Now, one intrepid scientist has walked the grounds of four of the UK’s largest pet graveyards, taking detailed notes on every gravestone he could. What he’s found won’t surprise anyone who follows this blog: Over the past hundred years, owners have begun to view their pets more like members of the family. As the years went on, pet gravestones were more likely to include the family’s last name, refer to the owner as a parent, and even suggest that the family would meet the pet again in heaven. Here’s one from Hyde Park:

Here Lies My Darling Pixie

Mommy’s Little Angel

Dearly loved and

Missed by his Serena and all who knew him

11.11.1970 – 3. 11. 1976

The changes aren’t surprising, given what I’ve written about our changing relationship with cats and dogs in Citizen Canine. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries–as pet cemeteries were becoming more common–dogs (and eventually cats) began to live indoors in large numbers, thanks to the advent of flea shampoo and kitty litter. Families also grew smaller and more prosperous around this time, giving them more time to dote on their animal companions. And pet food, toys, and medicine became more sophisticated, in some cases rivaling those available to humans. All served to transform dogs and cats from mere companions to bona-fide members of the family.  And now, we’re seeing that evolving relationship play out in pet gravestones.

As for poor Tom, his owner would be heartened to learn that, more than 130 years later, burying a pet in a human graveyard had also ceased being verboten. In 2016, New York made it legal for pets to be buried with their owners in human cemeteries. “Four-legged friends are family for many New Yorkers,” the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said at the time. “Who are we to stand in the way if someone’s final wish includes spending eternity with them.”

September 30, 2020
by dave

Meet the world’s first literal copy cat

Ebisu lived in Japan with her owner, Fumi Higaki. (Credit: Fumi Higaki)

Ebisu lived in Japan with her owner, Fumi Higaki. (Credit: Fumi Higaki)

Studies on the feline mind are few and far between (here’s why), so  I always get excited when a new one comes out. And this new one is a lot of fun: an experiment that shows that cats can imitate people.

The find was reported earlier this month in Animal Cognition, and I wrote about it last week for Science. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal: An owner trained her cat–Ebisu–to repeat her actions (using the “Do as I do” paradigm that has been successful with dogs), and then tested whether the feline could imitate two new behaviors: touching a cardboard box with her paw and rubbing her face against the box when her owner did the same.

The vast majority of the time, the cat copied her owner’s actions. Even though it’s only a one-cat study (what scientists call an “N of 1″), it suggests that not only do cats have the ability to imitate people (a rare find so far in the animal kingdom), but that they can “map” their owner’s body parts onto their own.

I’ve already received a few emails from readers telling me about their own cats doing the same. Got your own story? Drop me a line!

September 3, 2020
by dave

The latest on coronavirus and your pets

coronavirus-4959669_1920(Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay)

Way back in March–which feels like a lifetime ago–I wrote my first article for Science about COVID-19 and pets. As with humans at the time, experts knew very little about how susceptible pets were, what their symptoms were, and how likely they were to transfer the virus to humans.

Flash forward nearly six months and there’s a lot we still don’t know. But a slew of new studies is starting to provide some answers. In my latest story for Science,  I detail everything we currently know about the new coronavirus and our cats and dogs. Should you get your pet tested? How much of a risk do pets pose to us, and vice versa? And what safety precautions should you be taking with you pets? Here’s what the experts are saying.

April 24, 2020
by dave

What can ancient poop tell us about our relationship with dogs?

(Credit: By Donald Trung Quoc Don (Ch? Hán: ???) - Wikimedia Commons.(Want to use this image?) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75874833)

(Credit: By Donald Trung Quoc Don (Ch? Hán: ???) – Wikimedia Commons.(Want to use this image?) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75874833)

I always enjoy writing about cats and dogs, but I had an especially good time covering this story on ancient dog poop for Science last week.

Here’s the gist: A team of molecular archaeologists (cool job!) had spent six years collecting ancient human feces (recovered from archaeological sites) around the world, in hopes of figuring out how the diet of our species has changed over time. (Such changes are reflected in our microbiome–the vast populations of bacteria that inhabit our guts–and they show up in our poop.). But when they began analyzing their specimens, the data didn’t seem human.

So they created an artificial intelligence program to help them sort human poop from other types of poop. The upshot: A remarkable number of their samples weren’t from people–they were from dogs. In one especially surprising case, feces recovered from a 17th-century chamber pot had been made by a canine. How it got in there, no one knows.

So why is so much dog poop showing up in places where we would expect to find human poop? One obvious answer is that dogs have lived in close quarters with us for thousands of years, even if we haven’t shared our beds with them until recently. Another explanation: Dogs, unlike humans, are more likely to poop out in the open, where a quick dry from the sun might help preserve it.  So a lot more dog poop may be being preserved than human poop.

Whatever the reason, an analysis of these ancient canine feces could reveal important shifts in the human-dog relationship over time. The wolf ancestor of dogs subsisted on a purely carnivorous diet. And early dogs would have too. But as we settled down and began cultivating different types of food (and feeding these scraps to our dogs), our canine companions would have begun to become more omnivorous. First their diet would have changed. Then their microbiome would have changed. And finally, their genes would have changed to adapt to this diet. (We already know that dogs have evolved multiple copies of the gene for amylase, a protein that breaks down starch.)

All of these changes should be reflected in ancient dog feces, allowing us to trace some of the most important timepoints in dog history–all thanks to a bunch of ancient poop.

April 8, 2020
by dave

Could cats have stopped the Great Plague?

cat-and-mouse-from-bl-harley-3244-f-49v-e79efaAs we all deal with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, I’ve been reminded of another plague: The Black Death, the most devastating pandemic the world has ever seen. By some estimates, as much as half of Europe’s population perished, and more than 100 million people died across the globe.

As I write in my book, Citizen Canine, some scholars believe that cats could have prevented the plague. That is, if Medieval Europeans hadn’t nearly wiped them out.

The hysteria appears to have begun in 1233 AD when Pope Gregory IX vowed to stamp out what he viewed as the growing threat of paganism in Europe.  As I write in my book:

In his Vox in Rama of 1233, the Pope warns German bishops about an evil in their midst. He describes the initiation ceremony of a cult that meets in caverns beneath homes. The followers light candles and chant. Eventually, he claims, “a black cat… with an upright tail descends backwards down a statue, which is usually at the meeting. The postulant first kisses the cat’s rear, then [so does] the master of the sect, and then the other individuals who are worthy of honor and perfect… Then they face the cat in turn… and say, ‘We know the master… and we obey to you.’” … Finally, a strange creature appears. “His upper body shines with rays brighter than the sun, the lower part is hairy like a cat.”

Gregory IX authorized the use of any and all force to rid Europe of these witches. “No vengeance against them is too harsh,” he wrote. The fate of the cat was sealed. Now seen as an incarnation of Satan, Europeans slaughtered them by the thousands. People stoned them, drowned them, and burned them at the stake.

In Classical Cats, historian Donald Engels estimates that by 1700 tens of millions of the animals had been massacred throughout Europe. In some villages it was impossible to find a cat, and black ones were virtually unheard of. Felines are master hunters, and without enough cats around, Europe’s rodent population exploded. Plague-carrying black rats swarmed the continent and grew to unprecedented size.

So could cats have stopped black rats, and the spread of what came to be known as “The Black Death”? We may never know. But I’m still grateful to have my two little demons at home.