September 22, 2016
by dave
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Did ancient dogs really help us hunt?

Ancient Roman hunting scene (Credit: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Roman hunting scene (Credit: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most common assumptions about early dogs is that they were our hunting companions. Soon after they were domesticated–or perhaps the very reason they were domesticated in the first place–dogs helped us survive by tracking down and attacking everything from deer to woolly mammoths. There is very little evidence to support this assumption, however. Once people began making art that depicted hunting dogs (such as the Roman mosaic above) and writing about these activities, we knew for sure that dogs helped us hunt. But everything before that? Pure supposition.

That may be starting to change, thanks to a new study published last week about the Jomon hunter-gatherers of ancient Japan. The Jomon, who lived from about 16,000 to 2500 years ago, had dogs for this entire time–but they only revered these animals (burying them with the same pomp and circumstance they typically reserved for each other) for a fraction of this period. Significantly, this reverence coincided with a changing world that brought small game like deer and wild boar, which the dogs would have been ideally suited to hunt down. What’s more, the buried dogs appear to have hunting injuries, like broken teeth and bones. Thus, the study provides some of the first compelling evidence that ancient dogs were indeed our hunting companions.

So is this the smoking gun? Not quite. But more studies like this may help solidify the case that one of the primary roles of early dogs was to help us hunt, and thereby survive.

September 6, 2016
by dave
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Who let the cats out?

Jasper in the great outdoors (Credit: David Grimm)

Jasper in the great outdoors (Credit: David Grimm)

Last week, I contributed an essay to an article in the Washington Post on whether cats should be allowed outdoors. Given the controversial subject nature, I was surprised to see that all of the experts the Post contacted agreed with me: Cats, if at all possible, should have access to the outdoors. Below, is my essay in full (which was abridged in the Post version). To my readers, I want to make one thing clear: Even though I let my own cats out, I fully understand the reasons for keeping cats indoors, and it is not my intent to shame or disparage those who do so. I am merely offering my perspective on the matter. I should also note that I supervise my cats when I let them out, both for their own protection and for the protection of wildlife.

What do you do with your own cats and why? Please let me know in the comments!

When my wife and I first snapped a harness on our cat Jasper in 2005, we didn’t quite realize the ethical quandary we were getting ourselves into. We had just adopted him and his sister Jezebel from a shelter, and we felt they should have access to the great outdoors, even though we lived in Baltimore City. So we did what any crazy cat owners would do: We bought two harnesses made for tiny dogs and strapped them on our kittens.

Jasper and Jezebel didn’t take kindly to their “outfits”, as we called them. As soon as we put them on, the cats froze, then fell on their sides, as though they had been hit by a stun gun. It took a week—and lots of treats—just to get them to stand upright. Walking them was even harder: Cats, as you might expect, don’t take to a leash like dogs. You can’t follow or lead them; you just need to let them do their thing and hope for the best. Sometimes they’ll take a few steps, and you can actually pretend you’re on a walk. But more often they’ll stand next to a tree for ten minutes to chatter at a bird, or slip under a car or through a fence, forcing you to perform some pretty extreme yoga to get them back. I’m not sure if other people found our cat walks amusing or insane, but someone stopped us almost every day to chat or take a picture. If nothing else, it was a great way to meet our neighbors.

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August 12, 2016
by dave
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Clinical trials in cats and dogs could help people too

Frankie the dachshund participates in a melanoma clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia

Frankie the dachshund participates in a melanoma clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (Credit: David Grimm)

We all know about clinical trials in people. Faced with a complicated health issue or desperate for a new type of therapy, some of us will enroll in an experimental study at a hospital or university. It turns out that dogs and cats have their own clinical trials. For the past decade, veterinarians and scientists have conducted hundreds of studies on pets in order to develop new therapies, not just for people, but for dogs and cats themselves.

In my latest story for Science, I explore the growing field of pet clinical trials. Dogs and cats live in the same world we do–and they get many of the same diseases–so they may be a better model than lab rodents for developing new blockbuster drugs for society. But there are also challenges in working with pets, and some question whether such trials will ever really benefit human health. At the very least though, they’re likely to help an important member of our families: our companion animals.

June 2, 2016
by dave
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Was the domestication of cats and dogs inevitable?

It’s one of the greatest mysteries of domestication: Where exactly did dogs come from? As unbelievable as it may seem, scientists still aren’t sure what part of the world ancient wolves took those first tentative steps on the path to becoming man’s oldest friend.

Last year, I wrote about a huge new effort to solve the mystery of canine domestication once and for all. Now, it appears that this effort is starting to pay dividends. In an article I wrote this week for Science, researchers are reporting that the two most popular theories of where dogs originated–Asia and Europe–may both be correct. Dogs, it seems, may have evolved in Asia more than 14,000 years ago, and then a subset of these animals migrated west (likely with people), where they met dogs that had already evolved in Europe, perhaps longer than 16,000 years ago.

The findings are preliminary, but if they turn out to be true, they would go a long way in resolving a debate that has roiled the canine origins community for years. But what I find most fascinating is that work comes on the heels of study published in January that suggested that cats too were domesticated twice. We tend to think of domestication–especially early domestication–as a fluke event that was so improbable that it only happened once for each species in early human history. But these new studies suggest that perhaps these domestication events weren’t such a fluke after all.

Perhaps the rise of mankind was destined to give rise to certain domesticated animals. Hunter-gatherers needed a hunting companion that could also protect their campsite at night–and perhaps help them out-compete their Neandertal neighbors–and the dog was born. Early farmers needed a hunter to take care of their rodent problem–and a companion that could pretty much take care of itself–and the cat was born.

Sure, this is all probably a bit simplistic. Evolution, and domestication in particular, tends to be a lot more messy than we’d like to believe. But I do like the idea that we were somehow destined to end up with cats and dogs. Who knows? Maybe dogs and cats were domesticated lots of times, and just one or two of those times stuck. But we kept trying–and they kept trying–because some way, some how, we always knew that we’d be better off with them.

May 23, 2016
by dave
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When animals were put on trial

Scene of the crime: The French town of Autun. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The rats had come to Autun. Two centuries after their brethren invaded Bordeaux, spreading the Black Death that would eventually kill millions of Europeans, the rodents descended on a medieval town 350 miles to the northwest. Autun had been built on the ruins of a Roman city; its surrounding wall and churches bore the stones of the ancient empire, and the sharp spire of its cathedral pierced the sky, towering for miles over rolling countryside. Unlike their predecessors, the rats hadn’t come to spread disease—they’d come to destroy crops. As they multiplied in the barley fields, the townsfolk became increasingly anxious. The rodents were on the verge of causing a famine. All attempts to exterminate them failed. So in 1522, residents turned to the only option they had left: They put the rats on trial. They took their case to the town magistrate, who relayed it to the bishop’s vicar, who ordered the animals to appear in court. The vicar also appointed one of France’s rising legal stars to defend them, a Burgandy-born jurist named Bartholomew Chassenée.

Chassenée was no fool. He knew he was fighting an uphill battle. The power of the Church was supreme, and the voracious rodents didn’t exactly make sympathetic defendants. So he did his best to delay and derail the trial. He argued, for example, that the rats were too spread out to have heard the summons. In response, the vicar asked every church in every parish harboring the animals to publicize the trial. When the rodents still didn’t show, Chassenée claimed that their journey to Autun was too dangerous: not only would they have to travel vast distances to reach the town, they’d need to avoid the watchful eyes and sharp claws of their mortal enemy, the cat. Surely the vicar was aware, he said, that defendants could refuse to appear at trial if they feared for their own safety. When that didn’t work, Chassenée appealed to the court’s sense of humanity: It wasn’t fair to punish all rats for the crimes of a few. “What can be more unjust than these general proscriptions,” he asked, “which destroy indiscriminately those whom tender years or infirmity render equally incapable of offending?” The vicar, whether moved by Chassenée’s words or simply exhausted by his objections, adjourned the proceedings indefinitely.

Autun’s trial of the rats was not a one-off historical curiosity. Europeans had been taking animals to court for centuries. The earliest case dates back to 824, when an ecclesiastical judge excommunicated a group of moles in Italy’s Aosta Valley. Centuries of trials followed. In 1314, a French court sentenced a bull to hang for goring a man with his horn. In 1575, the Parisian parliament sent a donkey to the stake for having sexual relations with a man. And in 1864, a Slovenian pig was tried and executed for biting the ears off a one-year-old infant. In hundreds, perhaps thousands, of proceedings throughout the continent, animals were treated just like human defendants. The courts appointed them lawyers, heard testimony from witnesses, and considered the possibility of pardon or parole. Even the punishments were surprisingly human—though that usually wasn’t a good thing. Some creatures were drawn and quartered. Others were stoned to death. And still others were tied to the rack, their cries a form of confession. Due process for animals was so highly valued that when a hangman in Germany took matters into his own hands before the trial of a sow had commenced, he was permanently banished from his village.

What was the point of these trials?

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April 2, 2016
by dave
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David featured in CBC doc on veterinary expenses

Last year, I was interviewed for a documentary on the rising cost of veterinary care, and the challenges this is causing for both owners and veterinarians. As many of you know, this is a topic I deal with extensively in my book. We spent more than $15 billion dollars on vet care for our animal companions in the U.S. alone in 2015, handing over our credit cards for everything from routine exams to open heart surgery. It’s great that we live in an age where we can provide almost human-like medicine to our cats and dogs, but how much is too much to spend? Should people go broke trying to save their pets? And what sort of ethical dilemmas does this create for both owners and veterinarians?

The documentary–a CBC program called Pets, Vets and Debts–delves into some of these issues, and I’m excited to be a part of it. You can see a promo for the doc above, and read more about it at the link in the previous sentence. Unfortunately, you need to reside in Canada to watch the program over the web. I hope they will make it available to the rest of the world soon!

February 29, 2016
by dave
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Cats: So nice, we may have domesticated them twice

Illustration of Javan leopard cat from Richard Lydekker's "A hand-book to the Carnivora", 1896

Illustration of Javan leopard cat from Richard Lydekker’s “A hand-book to the Carnivora”, 1896. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2013, I wrote about the idea that the rise of the housecat was inevitable. A study had just come out indicating that cats were domesticated in China 5,000 years ago. If true, this would have represented a second domestication events for cats, since we already knew they had first been domesticated in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. And because both events purportedly involved farmers taming local felines and seemed to have occurred twice in such different places and such different conditions, I argued that the rise of farming was destined to give rise to the cat.

But there was one caveat: Back in 2013, researchers weren’t sure what type of cat they had found in the ancient Chinese villages. Did the feline bones dug up from the site (which showed signs that the animals ate human food and were well cared for, hence the idea they were tame or domesticated) belong to Near Eastern wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), the ancestors of today’s house cat and the first cats to be domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East? Or were they a different species of feline, perhaps one of the small local wildcats such as the Central Asian wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata) or the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)? If the former, the cats likely came to Chinese farming villages via ancient trade routes and were already domesticated. If the latter, Chinese villagers may have embarked on a completely separate domestication of the cat from a local species.

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January 11, 2016
by dave
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FBI changes its approach to animal cruelty: What you need to know

466px-US-FBI-ShadedSeal.svg

For the first time, the FBI will track animal cruelty the same way it tracks other crimes like homicides. The move is the latest example of the evolving status of animals—especially cats and dogs—in our society. But what prompted the FBI’s decision, and how does it change law enforcement’s approach to animal abuse? Here’s everything you need to know:

What was the FBI’s previous approach to animal cruelty?

Animal cruelty is a felony in all 50 states. (South Dakota, the last holdout, strengthened its laws in 2014.) Penalties can be up to $125,000 in fines and 10 years in prison. Yet until now, the FBI didn’t keep specific tabs on these crimes, lumping them into a catch-all category of “other”. Because of this, the agency didn’t have good stats on how dogfighting, for example, varied from state to state, or how often animal cruelty was associated with other crimes like gun violence or domestic abuse. The FBI also couldn’t track the overall question of whether animal abuse was on the rise or decline in the U.S., according to The Washington Post.

What meets the FBI’s definition of “animal cruelty”?

The FBI, according to the Post, defines cruelty to animals as: “Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment.” The agency has created four categories of animal abuse: Neglect (which could include starvation, leaving an animal chained up or in the cold, or perhaps even not providing necessary medical care), intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (ex. dog fighting), and bestiality.

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December 8, 2015
by dave
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Why don’t our pets live longer?

(Credit: huntingdesigns / flickr)

(Credit: huntingdesigns / flickr)

One of the biggest mysteries of biology is why some animals live longer than others. Of course, we care about our own lifespans, but increasingly scientists (and others) have begun to wonder about the lifespans of our pets. Why do cats and dogs only live a dozen or so years? Why do small dogs live longer than big ones? And is there anything we can do to help our pets live longer?

These questions are the subject of a feature story I have just written for Science, “A dog that lives 300 years? Solving the mysteries of aging in our pets”. Cats and dogs are revealing surprising new insights into how all animals–even human beings–age. Could our pets one day live 300 years? I hope you’ll check out the story to find out.

Also, take a look at this cool video, produced by the digital media team at Science

November 24, 2015
by dave
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New Orleans loses one of its greatest animal champions

IMG_1006One of my favorite reporting trips for my book, Citizen Canine, was my visit to New Orleans in early September of 2012. It was the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and I had come to the city to learn about how the storm had fundamentally changed the way our society views cats and dogs. Nearly half of the people who stayed behind during the disaster stayed because they refused to leave their pets, and in the aftermath of the storm Congress passed a law that impelled rescue agencies to save pets as well as their owners during natural disasters. Katrina helped turned dogs and cats into something more like people in the eyes of the law.

One of my main reasons for coming to New Orleans was to meet a woman named Charlotte Bass Lilly. Nearly everyone I spoke to before heading out told me I had to talk to her, and after spending a few minutes with her I could see why. Charlotte had lived in the city for decades, working for various animal rescue organizations. But when Katrina hit, she took her passion for animals to a whole new level. She stayed behind, wading into toxic waters to rescue cats and dogs, breaking into abandoned homes to save starving pets, and setting up hundreds of feeding stations in the months after the storm to care for the orphans of Katrina. She saved more than 500 pets on her own, and in the aftermath of the disaster, she became the leader of Animal Rescue New Orleans, a no-kill shelter that has adopted out more than 8,000 dogs and cats to date. I chronicled her story in my book and in a recent piece I wrote for BuzzFeed for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

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