March 1, 2021
by dave
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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
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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
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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
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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!