November 9, 2020
by dave
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

April 2, 2020
by dave
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The latest on pets and coronavirus

Credit: By Keith Kissel - http://flickr.com/photos/74419347@N00/107382056This file has been extracted from another file: June odd-eyed-cat.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18523021

Credit: By Keith Kissel – http://flickr.com/photos/74419347@N00/107382056This file has been extracted from another file: June odd-eyed-cat.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18523021

Ever since I wrote a Q&A on pets and coronavirus a few weeks ago, I’ve gotten a lot of emails (and some tweets) from concerned pet owners. They want to know whether their pets can get the new virus, SARS-CoV-2, and whether there’s any chance they can pass it on to humans.

The short answer is: it’s very unlikely. There is currently no scientific evidence that pets can pass COVID-19 to people, and very little evidence that cats and dogs can become infected with the coronavirus.

Here’s what we know so far: Two dogs (both in Hong Kong) and one cat (in Belgium) have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. All lived–or had close contact–with covid-positive humans, so experts suspect they got the virus from people. And this week, researchers showed that cats could become infected with SARS-CoV-2 and pass it on to other cats–but the research was done in artificial laboratory conditions, and experts are skeptical it would translate to the real world.

Given that there are hundreds of millions of cats and dogs in the world, there is no evidence so far that human-to-pet transmission is a widespread problem. And there is zero evidence that pets can transmit the virus to people. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies say the same.

At the same time, veterinarians want more information. Several labs have developed tests that could determine if a dog or a cat was infected, but none are in widespread use because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended against it. Experts also say that–given the scale of the human problem and the lack of evidence on the pet side–the focus of testing right now should be on people.

All of this could change if more evidence comes out that pets can become infected or transmit the virus. But, for now, “It’s really important that people don’t panic,” as the CDC told me. And DON’T ABANDON YOUR PETS. In these scary and isolating times, they need you–and you need them–more than ever.

March 12, 2020
by dave
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Cats, dogs, and coronavirus

Credit: Schmidti333 / Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Schmidti333 / Wikimedia Commons

The new coronavirus outbreak is now a pandemic. But many questions remain about how the virus spreads and the best way to combat it. Pet owners have questions too. Can we pass the new coronavirus to our cats and dogs? Can pets serve as a reservoir of the virus and pass it back to us? Should we quarantine our pets too?

Yesterday, I chatted with with Shelley Rankin, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia, about these and other pressing queries.  You can find the full interview here, including advice on what we should be doing right now to protect our pets.

If you have any experiences or advice, please share them in the comments!

January 10, 2020
by dave
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Will future archaeologists find our cats and dogs?

Ancient burial of woman and dog. (Credit: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China)

Ancient burial of woman and dog. (Credit: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China)

Dogs and cats are the most popular pets in the world. There are more than 200 million of them in the U.S. alone, and hundreds of millions more across the globe. And, as I write in my book, Citizen Caninethey are the most valued animals on Earth. We spend more money on them and are more emotionally invested in them than any other animal. We haven’t just welcomed them into our hearts and homes–we’ve made them fellow members of our society.

Our relationship with cats and dogs is so strong, in fact, that it’s likely to show up in the archaeological record. That’s one of the take-homes of a new study published in Anthropocene. Millions of years from now, researchers argue, it will be clear to future archaeologists–or perhaps visiting aliens–that we valued dogs and cats over all other animals. As we reported in a Q&A at Science with the study authors:

What do you think future archaeologists will make of our relationship with cats and dogs, based on what they see in the fossil record?

Karen Koy: Of all the animals, dogs and cats are more likely to be buried in a manner similar to people. There are pet cemeteries that are set up similar to human memorial parks. So if anything like that is stumbled upon, that’s going to say something different than a pit that people threw a bunch of pigs into randomly. I think it’s going to be obvious that we felt differently about dogs and cats versus pigs and cows and chickens.

Roy Plotnick: Will they think we worshipped them? I have no idea. Religious explanations seem to be a stock answer, but hopefully future researchers are more sophisticated than that.

August 8, 2019
by dave
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Should you take your cats on vacation? We did!

Jezebel chills out at the beach house

Jezebel chills out at the beach house

We’ve done about everything someone can do for their cats. We’ve pampered them. We’ve given them the best veterinary care money can buy. We even take them on walks. But we’ve never taken them on vacation–until now.

Our cats, Jasper and Jezebel, are 14 years old. And although they’re well-traveled–we’ve been taking them on a 1.5-hour trip to my in-laws in Delaware ever since they were kittens–we’ve never brought them on vacation. I figured they would hate it, or at the very least be stressed out by being in a strange new place.

But we were pleasantly surprised this summer, when not only were were able to take Jasper and Jezebel on a beach vacation, but that they actually enjoyed it. You can read all about our adventures in my latest story for The Washington Post.

And please let me know in the comments if you’ve had your own experience vacationing with your cat!

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!