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!
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 Canine, they 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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?