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,

(Credit: By Donald Trung Quoc Don (Ch? Hán: ???) – Wikimedia Commons.(Want to use this image?) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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.

April 2, 2020
by dave

The latest on pets and coronavirus

Credit: By Keith Kissel - file has been extracted from another file: June odd-eyed-cat.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

Credit: By Keith Kissel – file has been extracted from another file: June odd-eyed-cat.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!