July 8, 2019
by dave
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Cats and dogs remain king of the pets, new stats reveal

Image by teeveesee from Pixabay

Image by teeveesee from Pixabay

In my book, Citizen Canine, I detail how cats and dogs rose from wild animals to the most valued creatures on earth. Some new stats are backing up that lofty status, thanks to an informative article in The Economist. Here are some of the biggest takeaways:

  •  The richer a country, the more people have pets. According to Carlos Romano, the head of Nestlé’s pet-food operations in Latin America, pet keeping begins when household incomes exceed about $5,000 a year. “Dog-food sales in Mexico have grown by 25% in real terms since 2013,” according to the story. Part and parcel with this: Wealthy people are more likely to describe pets as “beloved members of the family”.
  • 95% of American pet owners consider their animals part of the family—up from 88% in 2007, according to a 2015 a Harris poll. What’s more, more than two-thirds of Americans allow pets to sleep on their beds, “and almost half have bought them birthday presents”.
  • In many Asian countries, pets are transforming from food to friends. “In 2017 the Korean president, Moon Jae-in, acquired a dog from a shelter,” according to the article. “Earlier this year the mayor of Seoul vowed to close all dog butchers. Chinese animal-lovers hound the dog-meat festival held each year in the province of Guangxi.”
  • And when we say “pets”, we increasingly mean just cats and dogs. “Sales of dog and cat food are rising in Britain. Rabbit, rodent, fish and bird food are all in decline,” according to The Economist. ”Euromonitor expects the number of pet cats worldwide to grow by 22% between 2018 and 2024, compared with 18% for dogs. Cats are better suited to apartment living than dogs, so they are more at home in the densely populated, fast-growing cities of Asia.”

It’s a pet’s life indeed!

June 18, 2019
by dave
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Two new studies shed light on our early relationship with dogs

Image by Somraya from Pixabay

Image by Somraya from Pixabay

Much of dog domestication is still shrouded in mystery. We don’t know where dogs first evolved, for example, or even when this happened.

So we’ve filled these blank pages with a lot of speculation. Early dogs must have been working animals, because why else would nomadic humans–living from hunt to hunt–have brought them into their fold? And we must have first been attracted to dogs because their faces–with their big eyes and rounded foreheads–reminded us of our own infants. Now, a couple of new studies are lending credence to these ideas.

In the first, researchers debunk a popular hypothesis about ancient dog spines. Archaeologists have discovered numerous ancient dogs with spondylosis deformans, a condition in which extra bone grows on the spine. Because cattle and sled dogs also sport this disease, scientists have long assumed that it buttresses the idea that ancient dogs worked for us, pulling sleds and other heavy loads as we traveled across vast plains. But the new study finds that most older dogs–even those that have never carried a pack in their life–have the condition, and that it’s present in wolves as well. Instead, spondylosis deformans seems to be a marker that early dogs reached old age. And this in turn suggests that they had someone taking care of them, namely humans.

The second study also concerns the early days of dogs, as well as something familiar to most dog owners: puppy dog eyes. These big, sad eyes seem to remind us of the expressive faces of babies, cajoling us into giving our canine pals a hug–or their favorite treat. The study finds that the facial muscles that make this expression possible are mostly absent from wolves, suggesting they’re something dogs evolved over the course of their time with us. And since our ancestors probably had the same emotional response to this expression that we do, the researchers say humans likely had a heavy hand in helping this trait evolve.

There’s still much we don’t know about the early days of dogs. And there may be some things we may never know, like how exactly the wolf became the dog. But with every new study, the picture becomes just a little bit clearer.

May 13, 2019
by dave
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How smart are cats? Researchers are finally finding out

amelia and jasper

Cats get a bad rap. Many people think they’re dumb because they don’t do tricks like dogs, or that they don’t like people because they seem so independent. Cats themselves haven’t made it easy to overturn these stereotypes, at least from a scientific perspective. As I wrote in Slate a few years ago, cats hate being in a laboratory, and many of the researchers who have tried to study them have given up. “I can assure you that it’s easier to work with fish than cats,” Christian Agrillo, a comparative psychologist at the University of Padova in Italy who has studied counting in a variety of animals, told me a few years ago. “It’s incredible.”

But things are finally starting to change. In the past five years, a number of labs around the globe have begun studying the “social intelligence” of cats, that is how they evolved to communicate and bond with us. And they’re finding that cats rival dogs in many tests of social smarts. But cats still aren’t easy to work with, and it remains to be seen whether scientists will unlock the secrets of the feline mind in the same way they’ve done for dogs.

You can read all about this in my latest feature for Science, including some experiments you can try with you own cat at home. Enjoy!

February 17, 2019
by dave
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Are Happy Lab Animals Better for Science? A Yale Law School Discussion

Earlier this month, I was honored to be hosted by the Yale Law School to discuss my 2018 feature story, Are Happy Lab Animals Better for Science? The basic question: Does enriching the lives of mice, rabbits, and other lab animals–with toys, companions, and more stimulating environments–not only improve their welfare, but improve the research itself? Some argue that the more we treat lab animals like people, the more likely we are to develop therapies that actually work on people. But others worry about the cost and utility of such an approach.

For the discussion, I was joined by some of the top thinkers in this field, including Yale University Professor of Comparative Medicine Caroline Zeiss, Purdue University Professor of Animal Welfare Brianna Gaskill, and Oregon Health & Science University Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Garet Lahvis. We had a great conversation, and had some great questions from the audience.

Here’s the video from the event:

Are Happy Lab Animals Better for Science? from Yale Law School on Vimeo.

December 5, 2018
by dave
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So you’re ready to start walking your cat…

Me and Jasper, circa 2005.

Me and Jasper, circa 2005.

Today, I published an op-ed in the New York Times about the need to let our cats outdoors. Cats “have not evolved to slumber in living our living rooms,” I write. “Today’s indoor cat is a tiger robbed of his dominion, a Lamborghini left idling in the garage.” (Here’s me on Cheddar TV talking more about it.)

Yet taking your cat outdoors is a risk for your cat and for wildlife as well. My compromise: Let’s walk our cats like we walk our dogs. Not on leashes, necessarily, (though I’ve certainly done that), but in a responsible way that protects both them and the world around them. As I write, “We don’t let our dogs wander unsupervised or destroy whatever they want. We should exercise the same responsibility with our cats.”

If you’re ready to give it a try, here’s what you’ll need:

A collar/harness: When you bring a cat outside, there’s always the small chance he’s going to get lost. Your cat should at least have a microchip and a collar or harness that contains a name tag and phone number. We’ve been using harnesses with Jasper and Jezebel for the entire thirteen years we’ve been walking them, because we used to walk them on leashes, and it’s much easier to control a cat with a leash attached to a harness than to a collar. A harness also allows you to add other accoutrements like a tracker and a light (more on those below). They sell walking harnesses for cats, though we still use harnesses made for small dogs. We use this type of Lupine harness for Jasper and Jezebel.

A leash: Chances are you won’t be walking your cat on a leash. Cats don’t walk like dogs, and if yours decides to dive into a bush or slink under a car, you’re going to end up twisting yourself into a pretzel to unhook him. Still, I try to have a leash on hand–we use an older version of this Flexi model–in case I want to bring one of our cats home without picking them up, or if I’m trying to find a safe way to extricate one of them from a catfight. For some reason, Jasper goes on autopilot as soon as I connect his leash, and almost immediately starts making his way home. (Jezebel needs a bit more convincing.) If your cat is uncooperative with the leash, don’t drag him. I find that a few soft yanks typically gets them going in the right direction.

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July 6, 2018
by dave
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America’s lost dogs and the origins of our canine companions

A 10,000 dog found at the Koster site in western Illinois. (photo by Del Baston, courtesy Center for American Archeology)

A 10,000 dog found at the Koster site in western Illinois. (photo by Del Baston, courtesy Center for American Archeology)

Dogs remain one of the biggest mysteries of domestication. Despite decades of research, we still don’t know where they came from–or even when they arose. But a couple of new studies are shedding light on when our relationship with dogs may have begun, and why it started.

The first concerns a handful of graves in western Illinois. In the 1960s and 70s, archaeologists excavated two sites here–Koster and Sitwell II–which were home to hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. The researchers discovered the remains of five dogs curled up in shallow pits. Dating of the bones–reported last week in bioRxiv–reveals that they are about 10,000 years old.  That makes these the oldest solo dog burials in the world–and the canines the oldest dogs known in the Americas.

We don’t know what these ancient people used these dogs for, but the fact that the animals were buried alone, and that the bones showed no sign of butchering, indicates these humans had a close relationship with their canines. It’s likely they used them to hunt deer and other small game in a nearby forest; they may also have used them to guard their campsites and pull supplies. They may even have relied on them for warmth and companionship.

Given that dogs arose at least 16,000 years ago, the Koster and Sitwell II dogs were hardly among the first dogs people interacted with. But they may have shared ancestry with the world’s first dogs.

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April 16, 2018
by dave
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The challenges of covering animal research

Lab animal research is one of the most contentious topics in science. A recent Gallup poll found that 44% of Americans find animal testing “morally wrong”, compared to just 26% in 2001. Animal rights groups are constantly launching campaigns against researchers who use animals, especially dogs, cats, and primates. And  even scientists themselves are divided on the topic, with a 2011 poll of biomedical researchers revealing that 33 percent have ethical concerns about the work.

All of this makes animal research tricky to cover for journalists.  What level of detail should reporters go into when describing animal studies? What responsibility do journalists have to consider the safety of scientists? And what constitutes a balanced story on animal research?

I recently spoke on this topic at a session I co-organized at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco. You can view a video of the entire session above.

January 9, 2018
by dave
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How to stop talking—and writing—like a scientist

From left: David Jiang, Tony Liu, Kellen Bean, Professor Tom Near, David Grimm, Chunyang Ding, and Sonia Wang

From left: David Jiang, Tony Liu, Kellen Bean, Professor Tom Near, David Grimm, Chunyang Ding, and Sonia Wang

One of the most stressful and important times in a scientist’s career isn’t always awaiting the results of a new experiment—it’s a call from a journalist. Should you agree to the interview? What should you say? And how can you possibly distill months—or years—of research into a few minutes on the phone?

And for journalists just starting out as science writers, the challenges are equally great. How do you write about a scientist’s work so that average readers can understand it, while still being accurate?

In September, I was honored to give a Poynter talk at Yale University on these very topics. The presentation was culled from my years of experience as a journalist at Science Magazine and my role as a professor of science communication at Johns Hopkins University. But it also drew from my own time as a scientist, earning a PhD at the very university I was speaking at. I hope the following tips will be useful for scientists and science writers—not just for news stories, but for grants, cover letters, and even conversations at parties.

First, take (or make) that phone call

In a world where scientific facts are disputed, mangled, and politicized, it’s important that scientists and journalists talk to each other. Scientists, you owe it to the public to explain the importance of your research, especially if it’s supported by tax dollars. And journalists, you owe it to your readers to communicate this research clearly and accurately. So how do you do this?

Speak simply and clearly

This may seem like obvious advice, but even when given it, scientists tend to fall back on the way they’re used to talking. They say “olfaction” instead of “smell”. They write that an object “experienced difficulty maintaining a vertical orientation” instead of “it fell down”. And they generally use words and phrases that sound like they came from a textbook—not a human being. Journalists fall into these traps too, especially if they trained as a scientist.

The solution? Envision a friend or relative with an interest in science, but no scientific background. I like to think of my grandmother. She’s interested in new discoveries, but it’s been decades since she learned any science in school. How would I explain a complex scientific concept to her without losing her in jargon and academic speak? If I can communicate clearly and effectively to her, I can communicate with anyone.

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November 20, 2017
by dave
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Ancient rock art provides window into early human-dog relationship

Dog art found in Shuwaymis, Saudi Arabia may date back more than 8,000 years. (Credit: M.Guagnin et al., Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017)

Dog art found in Shuwaymis, Saudi Arabia may date back more than 8,000 years. (Credit: M.Guagnin et al., Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017)

Humans domesticated dogs somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. But although today’s dogs are family members, service animals, and war vets, we know little about man’s early relationship with canines. Now a new finding is providing a window into these bygone days.

Researchers have discovered images of dogs carved into rocks in the Saudi Arabian desert. An analysis suggests that the art may date back more than 8,000 years, which would make these the oldest depictions of dogs in the archaeological record. All of the canines are medium-sized and resemble the Canaan dog—a breed built for the desert—suggesting that humans may have bred these animals for the climate. All also appear to be hunting dogs, taking down ibex and gazelle, and even facing off against wild donkeys. And, perhaps most significantly, many seem to be tethered to the waists of human hunters by leashes.

All of this suggests that these early desert dogs were important hunting companions for humans who lived in this arid region thousands of years ago. They may have been so important, in fact—able to take down or corral animals too fast or too strong for humans—that people may not have been able to survive in this place without the aid of canines. And the leashes suggest that hunters may not have only used these dogs, but found a way to train them. (The leashes are also the oldest depicted on record, perhaps by 3,000 years or more.)

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September 3, 2017
by dave
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Pet rescue during Hurricane Harvey learns lessons from Katrina

A soldier with the Texas Army National Guard rescues a family's pet during Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)(A Texas Army National Guard soldier rescues a family’s pet during Hurricane Harvey. Credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating natural disasters to strike the United States. But it was also a transformative moment in our relationship with cats and dogs. For the first time, society as a whole recognized how important these animals were to us–and that we would do anything to save them. Now those lessons are being applied in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

I’ve written extensively about pet rescue efforts during Katrina. Approximately 250,000 animals were left behind–in some cases, because people thought they would be able to quickly return to their homes, in others because rescuers and human shelters wouldn’t take cats and dogs, so families were forced to abandon them. But not everyone left their animals–almost half of the people who stayed behind during the storm and its aftermath stayed because of their pets. And many of them died.

In 2006, the federal government passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people. Since then, more than 30 states have adopted their own versions of the act, which have been implemented in everything from tornadoes to wildfires. This includes Texas, which requires state officials to help draft plans “for the humane evacuation, transport and temporary sheltering of service animals and household pets in a disaster.”

And now Harvey has seen that plan put into action.

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