Tag Archives: pets

People underestimate how much anxiety household sounds can produce for dogs

There are more sounds that can make your dog anxious in your home than you assumed, a new paper reports.

Image credits Susanne Pälmer.

Research at the University of California, Davis, has examined the potential of common household noises to make dogs anxious. Although it’s common knowledge that sudden, loud noises — fireworks or thunderstorms, for example — can easily trigger anxiety in man’s best friend, the results point to a much wider range of sounds our dogs might become frightened by.

But an arguably more important finding is that most owners can’t reliably pick up on the hallmark signs that their dog is anxious.

Misunderstandings

“We know that there are a lot of dogs that have noise sensitivities, but we underestimate their fearfulness to noise we consider normal because many dog owners can’t read body language,” said lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to the findings, even common noises such as a microwave, a vacuum cleaner during operation, or the battery warning of a smoke detector can trigger a dog’s anxiety. As a rule of thumb, high-frequency intermittent noises are more likely to make your dog anxious than continuous, low-frequency ones.

Some of the most common signs of a dog’s anxiety include cringing, trembling, or retreating. These are the ones most people can reliably pick up on, quite understandably so, as they mimic our own anxiety responses. But other behaviors can be more subtle and easily missed. These include panting, the turning of the head away, or a stiffening of the body. Other signs are a turning back of their ears or lowering of the head below their shoulders.

Gigg says it’s important for dog owners to learn about the anxiety-related behavior that dogs exhibit so that they can better understand and help their pets.

The data for this study was collected as part of a survey of 386 dog owners about their animals’ responses to a range of household sounds. The authors also examined the dogs’ behaviors and the reactions of their owners. This revealed that people both underestimate the anxiousness of their dogs, with a majority of those appearing in the videos actually responding with amusement to their displays of anxiety.

“There is a mismatch between owners’ perceptions of the fearfulness and the amount of fearful behavior actually present. Some react with amusement rather than concern,” Grigg said. “We hope this study gets people to think about the sources of sound that might be causing their dog stress, so they can take steps to minimize their dog’s exposure to it.”

Since dogs can perceive sounds from a broader spectrum than humans, it is possible that something which seems innocuous to us is quite painful to their ears — very loud or high-pitched sounds being some examples. Grigg says that any steps taken to prevent such noises, for example changing the batteries in your smoke detectors more often, can help improve your dog’s quality of life tremendously.

“Dogs use body language much more than vocalizing and we need to be aware of that,” said Grigg. “We feed them, house them, love them and we have a caretaker obligation to respond better to their anxiety.”

The paper “Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners’ Interpretations of Their Dogs’ Behaviors” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Pets offer better emotional support to grieving people than humans

Credit: Pixabay.

Research shows that social support is highly important to help grieving individuals cope with their loss. Yet social support can take on many forms. A new study, whose results may surprise some, found that pets, rather than human support, offer the most satisfactory support when grieving.

These findings could be even more relevant in these pandemic times when most people were more isolated than they have ever been during their lifetimes. More than 600,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19, with each leaving, on average, nine people grieving. This means that more than five million people are currently battling grief on account of the pandemic alone.

“Social support seems to help some bereaved people, particularly those with traumatic grief, that is, the violent or sudden death of a close loved one or the death of a child, cope with psychological distress, while its absence may exacerbate poor physical and psychological outcomes. Yet, a breakdown in social relationships after a loss is not uncommon, and loneliness- particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic- may exaggerate that effect for grievers, increasing the risk for poor outcomes,” Joanne Cacciatore, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, said in a statement.

The biology of grief

There’s quite a sizable body of evidence that suggests grief can significantly affect the health of the bereaved. So much so that it may even kill the bereaved, in some cases.

Studies on bereaved spouses show they have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, infection, cancer, and chronic diseases like diabetes. In the first three months, bereaved parents and spouses are nearly two times more likely to die than those not bereaved. Grief has also been found to aggravate physical pain, increase blood pressure and blood clots, and exacerbate appetite loss, perhaps because grief is known to make people find less pleasure in food.

A 2018 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests these effects may be due to inflammation in the body. The authors from Rice University found the inflammation levels of widows and widowers in the top one-third of the elevated grief group was 53.4% higher than the bottom one-third.

Social support is crucial for those grieving a loss. And a dog or cat may be your best friend after all

For their new study, Cacciatore and colleagues at Arizona State University surveyed 372 adults who had experienced traumatic grief. Among many other things, the survey also included questions about the participants’ perception of the social support they received immediately following their loss, as well as many months after.

When asked about their overall satisfaction with the social support received following a loved one’s death, 35.7% rated their experience as excellent or good, 26.5% said they received adequate support, and 37.9% rated their support as poor or very poor.

But the most intriguing finding was that 89% of the 248 participants who had pets said they were extremely or mostly satisfied with the support received. Animals were ranked the highest among all forms of social support — higher than friends, family, community members, therapists and counselors, and faith leaders.

When it came to institutional human-to-human support, mortuary staff were ranked as the most effective form of support (65% approval rating), whereas law enforcement and hospital social workers were rated as the least effective in providing support to the grieving at 37% and 35%, respectively.

Examples of effective support included “acts of emotional caring”, such as an empathetic phone call or text message. In the open-ended part of the survey, some of the participants described satisfactory emotional support as:

“Telling me that my grief is valid, that my feelings are real. Basically just allowing me to be,” or “Just letting me mention his name without awkward silence or changing the subject.”

Conversely, examples of unsupportive acts included feeling abandoned by loved ones, feeling as if their grief was being rushed, and not feeling listened to.

The researchers summarize their findings concluding that instrumental and appraisal support were the most effective at relieving bereavement.

“Instrumental support was effective when expressed through helping with meals, childcare, housekeeping, and written notes and gifts. One important aspect of instrumental support deserving of attention may be the classic mistake of saying, “. . .call if you need anything,” without any follow-up. Participants appreciated others actively reaching out to them to offer practical aid. Appraisal support meant connecting with like others through grief support groups, in-person and online, and on social media. Time spent with others, both online and in-person, who share a common tragedy of loss was reported as supportive in these data,” they wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

Pets seem to have benefited from the pandemic overall, and cats may have benefited the most

The lockdown seems to have made cats more loving as pets, a new study unexpectedly reports.

Image via Pixabay.

Being locked inside definitely did a number on many people’s mental health and general well-being. As we’re going back to our more regular ways, researchers are hard at work examining how this experience impacted all of us. And some of them are also looking at how it impacted our pets.

One such study from the Universities of York and Lincoln in the UK investigated the changes people perceived in their companion’s welfare and behavior during the lockdown. It further looked at any association between these changes and variations in the daily life, behavior, and reported mental health of the owners. From all species of pets involved in this study, cats seemed to have become more affectionate than the rest, judging by the percentage of owners who reported this change in their pet. Cats also seemed to exhibit more positive changes in welfare and behavior than dogs.

Feline fine

“While it has long been recognized that pets can enrich the lives of humans, the welfare of a companion animal is strongly influenced by the behavior of their owners, as well as their physical and social environment,” said Professor Daniel Mills, animal behavioral specialist at the University of Lincoln and corresponding author of the paper.

“During lockdown changes experienced by our pets may have included having owners around for more of the day due to furlough or working from home, alterations to their daily routine and limited access to animal-related services, such as training classes or veterinary care.”

The survey included over 5,000 reports from UK pet owners regarding the mental health of the animal, the quality of the bond between them and the owner, and any apparent changes in the pet’s welfare and behavior. The data was collected during the 2020 lockdown. Over two-thirds (67.3%) of them reported seeing such changes during the first phase of the lockdown, and the team statistically grouped these reports into separate positive and negative welfare scales.

Overall, the reports suggested that owners who had poorer mental health scores pre-lockdown saw fewer negative changes after the quarantine, but pets with poorer mental health by the same time saw the most reported changes, both positive and negative, in animal welfare and behavior. The team’s hypothesis is that these individuals were more likely to offer more attention to their pets following the lockdown, which means more engagement with their animals. In turn, this can help foster some changes in the pet’s welfare and behavior, but likely also increases the likelihood of owners observing and reporting changes.

Still, roughly one third of cats and dogs seem not to have been affected by the first lockdown. Roughly 40% of individuals in other species seem to have been unaffected on average, the team adds, and many individual animals seem to enjoy better welfare after the fact. Between 10–15% of all owners explained that their animal appeared more energetic and playful. Between 20-30% said their pet seems more relaxed.

In aggregate, for every owner who reported overall negative changes in their pet’s welfare and behavior, at least three owners reported seeing improvements.

“Our findings extend previous insights into the perceived welfare and behavior changes on a very limited range of species to a much wider range of companion animal species,” Professor Mills said. “Owner mental health status has a clear effect on companion animal welfare and behavior, and is clearly something we need to consider when we seek to do what is best for the animals we care for.”

Personally, I take the findings as a sign that a) my cat really does love me and spending time with me does her good, and I can’t but be happy. But it’s also a reminder of just how many meaningful things we miss in life when we’re busy chasing only money, careers, and success. Time is one of the, if not the, most precious resources we have to spend in life. Maybe, sometimes, something major needs to come around and remind us that it’s better spent, perhaps, not in the office, but with the ones we love. Be they furry and pawed or not.

The paper “The Perceived Impact of The First UK COVID-19 Lockdown on Companion Animal Welfare and Behaviour: A Mixed-Method Study of Associations with Owner Mental Health” has been published in the journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

We’re using flea treatments on our pets and it’s polluting rivers and streams

A highly toxic insecticide used on cats and dogs to kill fleas is poisoning rivers and streams across the United States and the United Kingdom, according to two recent studies. The pollution is directly affecting water insects and the fish and birds that depend on them, the researchers warned.

Image Credit: Flickr / Bencakaskill

Both studies focused on fipronil, a pesticide commonly used as an anti-flea substance for petsin many parts of the world. It has several properties that make it an attractive pest control agent (including high toxicity towards invertebrates and water solubility) — but those same properties also make it a nasty pollutant.

Despite being banned for agricultural use, fipronil is still commonly used in pets to treat fleas and ticks. In the UK alone, there are 66 licensed veterinary products that contain fipronil, including spot-on solutions, topical sprays, and collars impregnated with the active ingredient. Some require prescription and others don’t.

Researchers in the UK found fipronil in 99% of samples from 20 rivers and the average level of one particularly toxic breakdown product of the pesticide was 38 times above the safety limit. There are about 10 million dogs and 11 million cats in the UK, with an estimated 80% receiving flea treatments.

“Fipronil is one of the most commonly used flea products and recent studies have shown it degrades to compounds that are more toxic to most insects than fipronil itself,” Rosemary Perkins at the University of Sussex, who led the study, told The Guardian. “Our results are extremely concerning.”

This isn’t the first time researchers have sounded the alarm on this type of pollution. A study in 2017 by the conservation group Buglife had already warned over high levels of insecticides in rivers but didn’t include fipronil. Aquatic insects are highly vulnerable to such substances. Previous studies shown chronic waterway pollution led to sharp drops in insect numbers and falls in bird numbers.

With that in mind, Perkins and her team decided to review 4,000 analyses on samples in 20 English rivers. They found fipronil in 99% of the samples as well as a highly toxic breakdown product called fipronil sulfone in 97% of them. Average concentrations were 5 and 38 times higher than their chronic toxicity limits, respectively.

“I couldn’t quite believe the pesticides were so prevalent. Our rivers are routinely and chronically contaminated with these chemicals,” Dave Goulson, part of the study, told The Guardian. “The problem is these chemicals are so potent, even at tiny concentrations. We would expect them to be having significant impacts on insect life in rivers.”

Similar results were found in a recent study in the US. Researchers from Colorado State University. Researchers learned that fipronil and other related compounds were more toxic to stream communities than previous research had suggested, especially in the relatively urbanized Southeast region.

The insecticide is likely affecting stream insects and impairing aquatic ecosystems across the country. To make matters even worse, fipronil degrades into new compounds, some of which the study found to be more toxic than fipronil itself.

The researchers also found delayed or altered timing of when these insects emerged from streams, and the effects of this can cascade across the entire food chain.

“The emerging insects serve as an important food source,” Janet Miller, the lead researcher of the study, said in a statement. “When we see changes, including a drop in emergence rates or delayed emergence, it’s worrisome. The effects can reverberate beyond the banks of the stream.”

Miller said fipronil compounds were detected at unsafe concentrations in 16% of streams sampled across the U.S. and were most prevalent in streams of the Southeast region of the country. Scientists found fipronil compounds much less widespread in other regions, suggesting use patterns of the insecticide differ across the country.

The study in the UK was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment and the study in the US was published in the journal Science Advances.

Cats are a bit more susceptible to the coronavirus than dogs are, but you shouldn’t be afraid of your pets

A recent study from China found that cats can be susceptible to the virus, but people shouldn’t really worry about contracting the virus from pets.

There have been some isolated reports of dogs and cats contracting the novel coronavirus. According to recent evidence, cats seem more susceptible to the virus than dogs, but there is no reason for concern for pet owners, researchers say.

“This is a human disease,” said Jeanette O’Quin, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at Ohio State University. “It’s being transferred from person to person. That is our greatest risk.”

Existing science

A recent study reported that after the outbreak in Wuhan, 14% of the cats in the area had antibodies for the virus (though antibody tests are far less reliable at this point than diagnostic tests). The Bronx Zoo even announced that a 4-year-old Malayan tiger named Nadia tested positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a recent survey examined 17 dogs and eight cats taken from households where a human had become sick with COVID-19 or had come in close contact with a confirmed patient. In that group, two dogs tested positive, though one was deemed to be “a weak” positive, and may have been a false positive. None of the cats were positive at the most recent testing.

A much larger study was cited by Jane Sykes, a professor of small animal medicine at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The study analyzed 4000 samples taken from dogs, cats, and horses, none of which showed any evidence of the new coronavirus.

So what does all of this mean?

Both cats and dogs can, in theory, contract the virus — but these are isolated cases. Cats seem more susceptible to dogs, but if a cat gets the virus, it likely gets it from a human. In other words, you’re more likely to give the virus to your cat than the other way around.

There have been no cases of pets passing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to humans. It is highly unlikely for this to happen, though not technically impossible

If you want to be especially careful, you can take measures to limit contact between your pet and other animals. For instance, if you’re self-quarantining, you can also quarantine your cat inside.

An important time to bond with your pets

This is a very stressful situation for everyone, and while it’s not impossible for people to contract the virus from pets — it should be the least of your concerns.

If anything, we can get a lot of comfort and emotional support from pets, which is extremely important right now. Enjoy your pets, love them, and draw comfort from them. It’s the best time to do so.

“There’s a lot of stress in the world and the human-animal bond is so important,” Sykes said. “We should be enjoying our pets, rather than being fearful of them.”

Can pets and livestock get infected with the new coronavirus?

Credit: Pixabay.

The novel coronavirus that is sweeping through the world is thought to originate from bats. This is quite typical — most viruses that affect humans have crossed species, often using intermediate species along the way. This begs the question: could this new strain jump from humans to other animals, such as our pets and livestock?

According to Scott Kenney, Associate Professor at the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at Ohio State University, there is little to no research about a potential crossover of the novel coronavirus from humans to other species.

“Viruses are constantly sampling and evolving, trying to find other hosts,” said Kenney in a statement.

There are reports of both cats and dogs testing positive for COVID-19.  However, we have found no evidence so far that they can transmit the disease to other animals or humans.

Bats: the viral reservoir of coronaviruses

Credit: Pixabay.

Scientists who have sequenced and analyzed the genome of SARS-CoV-2 — the novel coronavirus that first surfaced in December 2019 in Wuhan, China — have confirmed that the virus is natural (i.e. not modified in some biolab), originating in bats.

Nothing about this information was surprising to scientists. Coronaviruses are zoonotic viral agents, meaning they all pass from one animal to the next.

The deadly Ebola and rabies viruses, as well as two other types of coronavirus — those that caused SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — also originated in bats.

There are four coronaviruses that cause common colds in humans — they are known as HCoV-229E, HCoV-NL63, HCoV-OC43, and HCoV-HKU1 — and they all seem to have zoonotic origins.

Bats are sort of natural viral laboratories due to their unique immune system. The only flying mammal has a very high body temperature and high levels of interferon, which signal the activation of antiviral molecules. Scientists believe that the bodies of bats are in a constant state of “fever”, leading to a suppression of their immune system, allowing them to tolerate more viruses.

When a virus infects a host, it can produce billions of copies of itself. Some of these copies contain genetic errors (mutations), most of which are weeded out by natural selection. But some of these mutations are helpful, allowing the virus to spread to more hosts, and are passed down to subsequent generations. When these mutations alter surface proteins allowing the virus to detect and bind to cell receptors belonging to a different species, the virus can officially cross territory into a new species.

However, the novel coronavirus didn’t jump straight from animals to humans. A study published last week in the journal Nature suggests that the endangered pangolin — a scaly anteater and the most illegally traded animal in the world — is the most likely intermediate host of the coronavirus between the coronavirus, bats, and humans.

According to the study, the genetic sequences of the novel coronavirus strain found in pangolins is 85.5% to 92% similar to the one currently infecting people in over 185 countries. SARS moved from bats to civets to humans, while MERS was transferred from bats to camels, before infecting humans.

From humans back to animals

Pangolins are believed to be the intermediate animals that allowed the coronavirus to jump from bats to humans. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If coronaviruses can jump from animals to humans, can they jump from humans to other animals, such as our pets or even livestock? Reverse zoonoses are possible, indeed.

In 2009, a 9-year-old chimpanzee at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago died of respiratory disease caused by human metapneumovirus. This virus is responsible for approximately 10% of all respiratory tract infections in humans. All seven members of a troop of chimpanzees at the zoo were infected with the virus, but only one became ill.

Elsewhere, at a wildlife sanctuary in Congo, 6 bonobos died after they caught influenza transmitted from humans.

Perhaps the most telling example of reverse zoonosis involves pigs. Many influenza viruses have crossed from humans to pigs causing serious outbreaks.

More recently, in 2009, the H1N1 subtype caused the previous pandemic, infecting millions of people and killing between 151,700 and 575,400 people, 80% of whom were under 65. This pandemic has remained in the public’s consciousness as the ‘swine flu’ because it originated in pigs, which acted as a mixing vessel of genetic segments originating from avian, swine and human strains.

The pigs had it much worse, though. According to a study performed by scientists in the US, at least 49 pandemic H1N1 transmission events from humans to pigs followed the 2009 pandemic — and that is an underestimation.

Swine are very susceptible to contracting viruses from humans. There’s no evidence yet that they can get infected with the new coronavirus, though. Credit: Pixabay.

What about coronaviruses? Again pigs are the prime targets because they share a similar protein with humans that the SARS virus targets. For instance, in 2013, the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (a member of the coronavirus family) killed millions of pigs in the United States and China, most of which were young. This virus continues to sporadically appear, much to the frustration of farmers.

“I’m not sure anyone really knows why,” Kenney said. “Outside of bats, pigs and humans seem to be infected by the largest numbers of different coronaviruses.”

There’s no mention in the scientific literature yet of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 jumping species again, but if it were to happen, the likeliest farm animal to catch it would be pigs. That’s why Kenney advises great caution such that farmers don’t infect their livestock.

“Any time you’re around an animal, you should use good hygiene. There are many illnesses besides coronaviruses in animals that can be passed to humans, and vice versa.

What about pets?

There is no reliable evidence that humans and pets like cats or dogs can infect each other with the novel coronavirus (unless you have a pet pangolin, which you definitely shouldn’t!).

There is one study in China that reported two dogs testing positive for COVID-19. However, the canines didn’t show any symptoms of the disease and the Chinese researchers don’t believe that the dogs transmitted the virus to other people or animals. These were ‘weak-positive’ tests that suggest dogs are poor hosts for the novel coronavirus.

Chinese authorities didn’t take any chances though. TIME reported that all animals living in the homes of people tested positive for COVID-19 were killed as a precaution.

More recently, the Belgian government’s public health department announced that a domestic cat had been infected with COVID-19. According to Dr. Daniel Desmech, a researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Liège, humans and cats share a similar protein on the surfaces of respiratory cells that lets the SARS-CoV-2 virus get inside.

However, Van Gucht stressed that human-to-pet transmission is not a significant path of viral spread. 

During the SARS outbreak (caused by a close cousin of the novel coronavirus) in 2003, eight cats and one dog tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong. But no animal was found to transmit the disease to other animals or humans.

Bottom line: while there is evidence that pets can get infected, there is no evidence to suggest that they can transmit the disease — they might be dead-end viral hosts.

However, pets haven’t been tested for COVID-19 nearly as much as humans. That might have to change in order to form a more accurate picture of both the odds of infection and transmission between humans and various animals.

What precautions should pet owners take?

While a pet might get sick with COVID-19, there’s no evidence to suggest that the infected pet can, in turn, infect other humans. So, there is no need to panic.

Even so, it’s advisable that people who suspect that they have COVID-19 keep a distance from their pets. Perhaps, they can ask someone else to take care of them for some time until they are sure they’re not infected or recover from the illness.

If you are a confirmed case of COVID-19 and live with pets at home, it might be wise to contact your veterinarian for best practices. Some animals might need quarantining, either at home or in a hospital.

Cat allergies could soon be over thanks to a new vaccine

Allergies can often stand in the way of being a pet lover, with three in 10 people estimated to have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. Cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies, but now a team of scientists in Switzerland might have found a solution.

Credit: Flickr

The Swiss-based company HypoPet announced it is working on a vaccine that could target a “major” feline allergen – Fel d 1 – to which nearly 10 percent of the Western population is allergic, according to results from a study on the vaccine.

“Fel d 1, a cat protein secreted into saliva and tears and found on the pelt, is the principal allergen to which cat allergy sufferers react. It is known that decreasing exposure of allergic humans to Fel d 1 has a significant benefit on symptoms and health,” the company said.

Among these benefits are reducing the risk of childhood asthma for kids, as well as a reduction in the number of cats abandoned every year. Basically, it’s a win-win for both cats and their owners.

The vaccine is called HypoCat and, unlike other immunotherapies, works by “immunizing cats against their own major allergen, Fel d 1,” the researchers said. In other words, the cat would be administered the vaccine instead of their allergic owner.

According to the research, the vaccine was “well-tolerated without any overt toxicity”. Researchers collected the data from four separate studies that involved a total of 54 cats.

Hypo Pet examined the test subjects for any adverse side effects and did not observe any. The vaccine is promising because scientists haven’t identified any reason for cats to produce the protein, leading them to believe it’s an evolutionary leftover.

It will likely be years before Hypo Pet is available on the market, though. The study is the first step in a long process that will include human trials and approval from both European and U.S. drug agencies. The company has begun the ramp-up to a larger production, but no timeline has been set.

“We are pressing ahead with registration studies and discussions with European and U.S regulators with the hope of bringing this much-needed product to the market,” Jennings added.

Cow pats.

Why do pets like pats?

Why do we, too, like pats for that matter?

Pig.

Think it’ll turn into a handsome prince?
Image credits Juda / Pixabay.

If you happen to have your own little, warm ball of fur back home, you know how much they love to be pet. But why do they like it, exactly? And do we humans like it, too? Let’s find out.

Skin-deep

Dogs love belly rubs. Cats break into a purr when you scratch that one special place between their ears. Hugs give us comfort and pleasure. If you hit your hand on something, a quick rub will reduce the pain.

All of these are fundamented on the sense of touch and show what a massive role it plays on our emotional state. While not all touches are pleasurable, all mammals seem to agree that a longer, slighter stroking motion feels good.

This particular type of motion stimulates a set of neurons known as MRGPRB4+, reported this study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2007. The authors worked with genetically-engineered mice, whose MRGPRB4+ neurons were modified to light up when activated (optogenetics). Pet-like stroking patterns of touch — and only this pattern of touch — at temperatures around that of human skin activated the neurons, the team found, inducing a pleasant sensation in the animal.

These neurons are connected to hair follicles in the skin and are relatively widely-spaced. Their layout is what makes them only respond to long stroking motions, and not more localized ones like pinching or poking.

Orange cat pet.

Image credits Linnaea Mallette.

We also have these neurons built into the follicles of hair-covered portions of our skin. This suggests that MRGPRB4+ neurons respond to touch on the skin itself, not to motions transmitted through strands of hair. This is also supported by the fact that an individual can experience a pleasant sensation from petting, hugging, or stroking even after experiencing hair loss or shaving; if the MRGPRB4+ neurons were tied to hair strands, instead of follicles, this wouldn’t have been the case.

“The researchers suspect similar sensory neurons with comparable properties exist in humans and most furry mammals,” explained David Anderson, one of the study’s co-authors.

“Since the sensation is connected to hair follicles, animals with many of them, such as cats and dogs, likely feel waves of pleasure when being petted. The neurons that detect stroking are probably wired into higher brain circuits that produce a reward or pleasure.”

To validate these findings, the team further modified some mice so that the same neurons could be activated biochemically, via a drug injection. When given the choice between two chambers, a control one where nothing happened and one where the drug-induced touch sensation occurred, the mice opted for the latter. This implied that the animals actually found the sensations caused by MRGPRB4+ neuron activation to be pleasurable. The mice also showed fewer signs of stress after receiving their chemical pat.

So, to recap, furry, hairy animals (i.e. mammals) enjoy the sensation of being pet. It is mediated by neurons connected to hair follicles in the skin and only caused by deliberate, slow, gentle, and relatively long strokes on the skin or fur. But we’re still missing a why — why did mammals evolve to experience pleasure from these patterns of touch?

Making buddies

Grooming.

“So how are you how’s the kids?”
Image credits Anthony / Pixabay.

For mammals, especially social ones, touch is a great way to make friends and strengthen bonds. Our wild cousins groom each other to remove harmful parasites from their fur since they can’t do it by themselves. But past research has shown that they engage in this behavior far more than than necessary from a purely hygienic standpoint. So, while grooming might have a very practical, even critical purpose, primates also seem to simply get a kick out of it and do it for fun or to socialize. It’s how they hang out.

Us humans aren’t typically big on public displays of grooming, but we also employ touch socially. Hugs, handshakes, a tap on the shoulder, they’re small gestures that can go a long way in strengthening familial or social bonds.

The mammal enjoyment of pats probably started out as a practical ritual — for example, as grooming — and our physiology later evolved to encourage the activity with positive sensations. Such behavior likely represented an evolutionary advantage as it promotes health, hygiene, bonding, and trust among the group, thereby increasing the survival chances of all its members. Alternatively, it is possible that this enjoyment of pats helps baby mammals keep warm by balling up together with their parents and siblings, thus conferring a selective advantage at a young age.

Regardless of why it happens, the end result is extremely effective at promoting bonding, social interaction, and good moods. Activation of the MRGPRB4+ neurons releases endorphins and oxytocin into the brain (these help with pain relief, relaxation, and bonding) and may lead to temporarily-reduced cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. This chemical cocktail puts us, or our pets, at ease, nips aggression in the bud, and induces a state of pleasure.

In your brain

One paper published in NeuroImage in 2016 looked into the patterns of “brain activation during 40min of pleasant touch” — which sounds quite enjoyable. The authors worked with 25 participants who “were stroked for 40min with a soft brush while they were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging [fMRI], and rated the perceived pleasantness of the brush stroking.”

What they found was that stroking heavily activates neurons in the somatosensory cortex initially, although this dwindles in intensity over time — likely due to stimulus habituation. Stimulus habituation is the thing that makes you less sensitive to a particular smell after being exposed to it for a while, why you eventually stop feeling the chair under you or the smartphone in your right pocket.

At the same time, activity levels in the orbitofrontal gyrus (OFC, also known as the orbitofrontal cortex) and the putamen increase, stabilizing at about 20-minute mark. Certain structures of the insular cortex (the posterior insula) also see greater activity during this time. The team believes this increase in cerebral activity comes down to the subjective pleasure each participant was feeling — pleasure is how your brain rewards you for doing something.

The workings of the orbitofrontal cortex have been linked to depression in humans. In particular, reports one study published in Brain in 2016, subjects with depression showed weaker neural connections between the medial (middle) OFC and the hippocampus, which is associated with memory. They also showed stronger neural connections between the lateral OFC and other areas of the brain. The study worked with 421 patients with major depressive disorder and 488 control subjects.

The study’s authors explain that the medial OFC activates when processing or ‘administering’ rewards in the form of pleasure. It’s not yet understood exactly what those weaker connections mean, but it does suggest that people with depression may find it more difficult to access and recall happy or positive memories. At the same time, the lateral OFC — which enjoys stronger connections with other brain areas — is involved in processing or administering the non-rewards: science-speak for ‘punishments’.

To tie it all into a neat little bow, one paper published in Current Biology last year reported that the “lateral OFC is a promising new stimulation target for treatment of mood disorders” such as depression. The team worked with 25 subjects, using electrodes to stimulate various areas of their brains while monitoring and recording their (self-reported) mood via a daily questionnaire.

Patting, stroking, massages — they activate the neurons in the OFC, which is exactly what the team achieved using their direct stimulation techniques. A literal gentle touch, then, may be just what you need when you’re struggling with depression.

And hey, if nobody’s around to pet you, grab a brush, clear out 20 minutes of your schedule, and go hack your OFC.

Dog and owner.

FDA says seriously, stop stealing your pets’ opioids

Veterinarians, beware — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants you to keep an eye out for owners taking opioids prescribed to their pets.

Dog and owner.

Image via Pixabay.

The US opioid crisis has been frequently making headlines in recent years, and for good reason: mortality rates associated with opioid abuse are at an alarming high and continue to climb. The half-century-long War on Drugs, despite draining over a trillion dollars, doesn’t seem capable of curbing these deaths.

Over-prescription of opioid medication, caused by misleading advice offered by pharmaceutical companies, has taken most of the blame for the crisis. Government health services responded by issuing a five-point strategy for ‘front line’ members of the medical community, providing support for addiction treatment, advising alternatives to opioids, and promoting research partnerships.

However, the FDA fears it left the back door unwatched. Despite their efforts to mediate legal access to opioid medication, overdose-induced tragedy still takes place; the agency believes that pet prescriptions may be part of the reason why.

Pet addiction

An online statement published last week by the FDA draws attention to a rarely considered access point for illicit opioid medications. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb reminded veterinarians that some pet owners are taking the opioids prescribed for their companions.

“One such important care group is veterinarians who may prescribe them to manage pain in animals,” he says. “That’s why we have developed a new resource containing information and recommendations specifically for veterinarians who stock and administer opioids.”

Gottlieb admits that veterinarians have been left out in the cold on this one. Very little effort has been made to inform them of the risks posed by prescriptions for pets. He also recognizes the role opioids and associated pain medications play in treating both animal and human patients — so they won’t be going anywhere soon.

“But just like the opioid medications used in humans, these drugs have potentially serious risks, not just for the animal patients, but also because of their potential to lead to addiction, abuse and overdose in humans who may divert them for their own use,” Gottlieb adds.

The FDA’s new resource, titled The Opioid Epidemic: What Veterinarians Need to Know, reminds practitioners to follow state and federal regulations when prescribing opioid medication, seek alternatives where possible, educate pet owners, and be vigilant of signs of abuse.

While this is the largest single measure the FDA has taken to combat opioid abuse sourced from veterinarians, it’s not the first such measure in the US. Last year, Maine and Colorado passed legislation requiring veterinarians to check the prescription history of a pet’s owner before prescribing opioids for the animal. Alaska, Connecticut, and Virginia instead chose to set strict prescription limits.

The FDA further hopes that their resource will help put the worries of vets at ease. Speaking to the Washington Post on the topic last year, Kevin Lazarcheff, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, said that he’s a “veterinarian, not a physician,” so he “shouldn’t have access to a human’s medical history.” The new recommendations don’t require the vets to dig into an owner’s medical history.

“We know that licensed veterinarians share our concerns and are committed to doing their part to ensure the appropriate use of prescription opioids,” says Gottlieb.

“We hope the resources we’re providing today, coupled with the existing guidelines from AVMA, will assist the veterinary medical community about steps they can take when prescription opioids are part of their care plan for their animal patients.”

cats-vocalization

Pet translator might enable humans to communicate with animals

Scientists are experimenting with artificial intelligence in order to decode and interpret animal vocalizations such as barks, growls or howls into a language which humans can understand.

cats-vocalization

‘Human, it is feeding time’. Credit: Pixabay.

Con Slobodchikoff, a professor at Northern Arizona University, has studied the behavior of prairie dogs for more than 30 years. He and colleagues found that prairie dogs, which are not actually dogs at all, but North American rodents, use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.

According to Slobodchikoff, the rodents use “words” for different species of predator and can describe the color of clothes on a human, or the coats of coyotes or dogs. The researcher, who founded a company called “Zoolingua”, seems convinced that other animals use similarly decipherable language. Through Zoolingua, Slobodchikoff hopes to soon release a cat and dog translation device.

“So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone,” Slobodchikoff told The Guardian.

Prairie dogs are always on the lookout for danger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prairie dogs are always on the lookout for danger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prairie dogs are highly social creatures which congregate in underground burrows called villages. When a predator is close to a village — usually, a coyote or hawk — the first prairie dog to spot it will call out to warn neighbors. It’s an adorable — or very annoying — ‘chee chee chee chee’ tune called in a high, squeaky voice.

Slobodchikoff’s studies suggest that the prairie dogs use different calls for, say, a coyote or a hawk. What’s more, the prairie dogs seem to respond to each type of call with specific behaviors.

The secret language of animals

Over the years, the researchers have recorded hundreds of hours of prairie dog calls using microphones hidden beside bushes and burrows. Back in the lab, a sophisticated artificial intelligence analyzed each recording by looking at how different frequencies and overtones stack on top of one another. This is how the team ultimately learned that the calls can be clustered into different groups with each cluster having its own signature set of frequencies and tones. In other words, it looks like prairie dogs employ specific ‘language’ of some sort. For instance, they don’t just call out “danger”, they specifically seem to communicate that there’s a “human” or “hawk” or a “coyote”, terms for which they have certain calls. The language seems so sophisticated that rodents can even differentiate between coyotes and domesticated dogs.

Two prairie dogs sitting near a burrow in Wind Cave National Park. Credit: National Park Service.

Two prairie dogs sitting near a burrow in Wind Cave National Park. Credit: National Park Service.

One experiment was particularly impressive. Slobodchikoff noticed that the animals’ calls for humans exhibited significant variation, which made him wonder whether or not the little rodents were actually describing predators, not just differentiating them, communicating something about the particular human or coyote. So the researchers asked four human volunteers to walk through a prairie dog village wearing the same clothes except for their shirts. Each volunteer had to walk inside the village four times, each time wearing a different shirt: blue, yellow, green, and gray. The researchers were amazed to learn how the calls could be grouped based on the color of the volunteer’s shirt. What’s more, the calls also clustered based on various characteristics such as the height of the human.

“Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’ ” says Slobodchikoff.

Prairie dogs also seem capable of differentiating between some abstract shapes. In another experiment, researchers erected two wooden towers, each placed to the side of a prairie dog village. Over a wire strung between the two towers, the team slid across cardboard cutouts of circles, squares, and triangles. The prairie dogs could tell the difference between a triangle and circle but they didn’t seem to mention anything different between a square and a circle.

canine-dogs

‘Let’s have fun!’ Credit: Pixabay.

Slobodchikoff says that he’s hung around prairie dogs so long that he doesn’t need a computer to translate the rodents’ calls — he can tell the difference between certain calls by ear. The scientist is actually confident that in the near future, possibly no later than ten years from now, a device will be able to translate some of the messages animals like your pet dog or cat convey.

Not everyone is convinced this is possible, though. Juliane Kaminski, a psychologist from Portsmouth University, says that we can’t actually describe canine forms of communication as language in the strict scientific sense. She does concede, however, that there are signals that dogs give off that we can interpret to learn how pets are feeling. For instance, a right-sided tail wag is positive while a wag to the left not so positive. Dogs are also known to give out different yaps and yowls during play, aggression or when they’ve missed their owner who’s been away.

The prospect of learning what’s on the minds of our pets is certainly appealing, nevertheless. Who here wouldn’t want to hear what Fido or Mr. Mittens really thinks about us and all our weird antics? Perhaps, some things are better left unbarked.

cat pet

Why some people love animals while others couldn’t care less

cat pet

Credit: Pixabay.

The recent popularity of “designer” dogs, cats, micro-pigs and other pets may seem to suggest that pet keeping is no more than a fad. Indeed, it is often assumed that pets are a Western affectation, a weird relic of the working animals kept by communities of the past.

About half of the households in Britain alone include some kind of pet; roughly 10m of those are dogs while cats make up another 10m. Pets cost time and money, and nowadays bring little in the way of material benefits. But during the 2008 financial crisis, spending on pets remained almost unaffected, which suggests that for most owners pets are not a luxury but an integral and deeply loved part of the family.

Some people are into pets, however, while others simply aren’t interested. Why is this the case? It is highly probable that our desire for the company of animals actually goes back tens of thousands of years and has played an important part in our evolution. If so, then genetics might help explain why a love of animals is something some people just don’t get.

The health question

In recent times, much attention has been devoted to the notion that keeping a dog (or possibly a cat) can benefit the owner’s health in multiple ways – reducing the risk of heart disease, combating loneliness, and alleviating depression and the symptoms of depression and dementia.

As I explore in my new book, there are two problems with these claims. First, there are a similar number of studies that suggest that pets have no or even a slight negative impact on health. Second, pet owners don’t live any longer than those who have never entertained the idea of having an animal about the house, which they should if the claims were true. And even if they were real, these supposed health benefits only apply to today’s stressed urbanites, not their hunter-gatherer ancestors, so they cannot be considered as the reason that we began keeping pets in the first place.

The urge to bring animals into our homes is so widespread that it’s tempting to think of it as a universal feature of human nature, but not all societies have a tradition of pet-keeping. Even in the West there are plenty of people who feel no particular affinity for animals, whether pets or no.

The pet-keeping habit often runs in families: this was once ascribed to children coming to imitate their parents’ lifestyles when they leave home, but recent research has suggested that it also has a genetic basis. Some people, whatever their upbringing, seem predisposed to seek out the company of animals, others less so.

So the genes that promote pet-keeping may be unique to humans, but they are not universal, suggesting that in the past some societies or individuals – but not all – thrived due to an instinctive rapport with animals.

Pet DNA

pig livestock

Credit: Pixabay.

The DNA of today’s domesticated animals reveals that each species separated from its wild counterpart between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, in the late Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. Yes, this was also when we started breeding livestock. But it is not easy to see how this could have been achieved if those first dogs, cats, cattle and pigs were treated as mere commodities.

If this were so, the technologies available would have been inadequate to prevent unwanted interbreeding of domestic and wild stock, which in the early stages would have had ready access to one another, endlessly diluting the genes for “tameness” and thus slowing further domestication to a crawl – or even reversing it. Also, periods of famine would also have encouraged the slaughter of the breeding stock, locally wiping out the “tame” genes entirely.

But if at least some of these early domestic animals had been treated as pets, physical containment within human habitations would have prevented wild males from having their way with domesticated females; special social status, as afforded to some extant hunter-gatherer pets, would have inhibited their consumption as food. Kept isolated in these ways, the new semi-domesticated animals would have been able to evolve away from their ancestors’ wild ways, and become the pliable beasts we know today.

The very same genes which today predispose some people to take on their first cat or dog would have spread among those early farmers. Groups which included people with empathy for animals and an understanding of animal husbandry would have flourished at the expense of those without, who would have had to continue to rely on hunting to obtain meat. Why doesn’t everyone feel the same way? Probably because at some point in history the alternative strategies of stealing domestic animals or enslaving their human carers became viable.

There’s a final twist to this story: recent studies have shown that affection for pets goes hand-in-hand with concern for the natural world. It seems that people can be roughly divided into those that feel little affinity for animals or the environment, and those who are predisposed to delight in both, adopting pet-keeping as one of the few available outlets in today’s urbanised society.

The ConversationAs such, pets may help us to reconnect with the world of nature from which we evolved.

By John Bradshaw, Visiting Fellow in Anthrozoology, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It’s not just humans — 1 in 3 US pets are also overweight

A new worrying report found that over a third of all US pets are too plump.

Exercise can do wonders for plump pets, doctors recommend.

The study analyzed data from 2.5 million dogs and 500,000 cats in the United States, taken from 975 veterinary hospitals run by Banfield, a chain that operates in 42 states. According to a standard veterinary check, a third of them weighed more than they should. It’s worth noting that Banfield’s numbers are actually lower than other commonly cited figures from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). According to APOP, over half of all American pets could lose some weight.

This is a trend that’s getting more and more prevalent with every passing year. Banfield says it tracked a 158 percent increase in overweight dogs over the past 10 years, and an even more impressive 169 percent increase in cats. It’s not exactly clear why this is happening, though there are several reasonable causes that contribute.

For starters, now more than ever, pets are being considered part of the family, and as a result, they’re being spoiled. Treats, extra food, scraps — dogs especially enjoy a lot of special treatment. The idea of a normal pet body is also switching. Many pet owners don’t understand that their pet is overweight, which is why they don’t worry and don’t do anything about it. The genetic effects of breeding might also be at play. Just last year, researchers identified a variation in a gene in Labrador retrievers which causes them to often overeat. A similar gene might be present in many other breeds, though this hasn’t yet been established. Breeds might actually be causing numerous long-term problems, as this video (not related to the report) illustrates.

There’s also widespread confusion among owners regarding food. What food should you give your pet? Different doctors recommend different things, the advertising for products is all the same, so what do you do? There’s no universal solution, different animals might require different nutritional inputs, but this might be a problem of quantity rather than quality.

The solution, as is the case with humans, is simple in essence but difficult to apply: diet and exercise. Sure, feeding your pet healthy food is essential, and your vet would surely be able to recommend one of many existing solutions, but too much of anything will make animals overweight. For dogs, there’s a simple way to do that: walk them more. You’ll reap the benefits alongside your dog, and you’ll both be healthier. Apartment cats can also benefit from exercise. Laser pointers, toys, or simple hands-on play can make a big difference. Even just ten minutes every day can have long-term positive impacts, researchers say. To add a bit of motivation, this will also save you money in the long run — healthy pets require less medication and fewer medical procedures, which often cost a lot of money. But the main motivation, of course, should be the well-being of your furry friends.

Researchers highlighted another interesting aspect, for which they have no explanation yet. They were expecting a correlation between human and pet obesity rates, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, in some cases, there was a strong inverse correlation. Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi — which have some of the nation’s highest rates of human obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all rank in the bottom five states for pet obesity.

These are the states with the most overweight dogs:

  1. Minnesota
  2. Nebraska
  3. Michigan
  4. Idaho
  5. Nevada
  6. New Mexico
  7. Washington
  8. Utah
  9. Indiana
  10. Oregon

These are the states with the most overweight cats:

  1. Minnesota
  2. Nebraska
  3. Iowa
  4. Idaho
  5. Delaware
  6. Michigan
  7. Nevada
  8. Kansas
  9. Utah
  10. New Mexico

 

Children can become closer to pets than to siblings, study finds

Children may feel closer to their pets than to siblings, a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests.

Image credits Unsplash / Pixabay.

Researchers have found out more and more about how pets influence child development lately. A new paper from the University of Cambridge now adds to that growing body of literature showing that children gain more satisfaction from relationships with pets than those with brothers and sisters. The close quality of this bond, as well as the availability of companionship and disclosure could have a positive effect on children’s social skills and emotional health.

The paper comes as part of a larger study conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and led by Prof Claire Hughes from the Center of Family Research. The team surveyed 12 year old children from 77 different families with more than one child who owned one or more pets of any type on the quality of their relationships.

”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says lead author and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry Matt Cassels.

“We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

The children reported strong ties to their siblings (no surprises there), but they reported their relationships with pets were just as strong. Dog families also reported lower overall levels of conflict and greater owner satisfaction compared to other kinds of pets.

One other surprising finding was that pets were rated on the same level of disclosure as siblings. Cassels believes this comes down to the fact that while pets can’t understand or respond to us, “they are completely non-judgmental.” Their inability to hold dialogue might even help in this respect, he adds.

The study also found that while boys and girls reported to be equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more getting more disclosure, companionship, and conflict out of the relationship compared to boys. It goes against the grain of previous research, Cassels adds, which usually found that boys form stronger ties to pets. Girls, their results suggest, “may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.”

Overall, the paper adds further evidence to the case of pets shaping children for the better and improving human quality of life.

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study.

“The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

The full paper “One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings” has been published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

Pets should be considered a main source of support for people with long-term mental health conditions

Image credits: Andy McLemore.

Most pet owners realize just how therapeutic our animal friends can be, but scientific evidence still remains scarce for this. Now, a new study published in BioMed Central claims that pets can play a key role in the lives of people with mental conditions.

“This study aimed to explore the role of pets in the support and management activities in the personal networks of people with long-term mental health problems,” the study begins.

Most pet owners would consider their pet to be one of their closest friends, and this becomes even more evident in people suffering from mental conditions. When social relationships become much harder to maintain, and patients often report feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness –  this is exactly where pets can make a difference. They provide a form of encouragement for activity, a distraction from symptoms and can greatly ease the sense of loneliness. According to the study, this happens in almost all cases, and pets are of enhanced salience where relationships with other friends or family were limited or difficult.

The study recruited 53 participants, 25 of which had a pet in their social network. Out of these 25, 60% placed their pet in the central most important circle. For these people, pets played not only a very important, but also a unique role, impossible to cover by anyone else. For instance, one patient read:

“So with my pets I suppose although my Mum and Dad are very significant figures they’ve also got their own lives and lots of other things going on so I’m only one aspect of that life and I feel that the pets I suppose they depend on me and also I have daily contact with them and they also give me a sense of wellbeing which I don’t get from any [one else] because most of these interactions with my Mum, Dad, [friend], are all by telephone rather than physical contact and that’s the big difference is the empathetic physical presence.”

Patients also reported the various and nuanced interactions they have with pets, but also reported that pets also help them interact with other people.

“That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven’t got much in my life, but he’s quite good, yeah,” another patient added.

In a very small minority of cases, pets were considered a burden rather than an aid – one patient stated his intent to travel, and said caring for his pets, in this case, is problematic – but overall, pets provided much-needed support in a unique way.

“Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems, and this has implications for the planning and delivery of mental health services, researchers continue,” researchers conclude.

People are dumping goldfish into an Australian river and they’re growing huge — by destroying the ecosystem

They’re cute and don’t need too much taking-care-of as pets, but once released into the wild goldfish can wreak havoc on ecosystems — oh, and they grow huge. A team of Australian researchers reported finding wild goldfish that weigh up to 1.9 kg (4 pounds) in the Vasse River.

Surprise, I’m back.
Image credits Jacy Ippolito / Flickr

Goldfish (Carassius auratus) were introduced in southwest Austraila’s Vasse River more than a decade ago, and over the past 12 years, there’s been a huge surge in their numbers. Far from being a natural event, the team says that the most likely cause of the invasion is pet owners. We brought them there, and now we need to understand exactly how the fish are impacting the environment. And it’s not looking good, as a team from Murdoch University, Perth, reports.

“Perhaps they were kids’ pets where the family have been moving house and their parents, not wanting to take the aquarium, have dumped them in the local wetlands,” lead researcher Stephen Beatty from Murdoch University in Perth, said for ABC News.

“Unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand that wetlands connect up to river systems and introduced fish, once they get in there, can do a lot of damage to native freshwater fish and the aquatic habitat.”

The team tagged and followed 15 wild goldfish near Busselton, in the Vasse River, over 12 months. They found that the fish move much farther than previously believed, swimming all the way to a wetland system to spawn throughout the year.

“Our research discovered the fish displayed a significant seasonal shift in habitats during breeding season, with one fish moving over 230 kilometres during the year,” said Beatty.

But they’re just goldfish, right? Those little things that swim around in the aquarium, nibbling at a fake seaweed if they’re particularly adventurous. What’s so wrong with having them in a river? Well for starters, they’re the goldfish of your nightmares — they grow as large as available resources will allow them.

Weighing in at 2 kg, you could call it resource-full.

“Available resources” here meaning other sea creatures as goldfish are carnivorous, putting a huge strain on native species. Not only that, but the way they go about feeding is particularly damaging to the ecosystem.

“They cruise along the bottom stirring up the substrate with their feeding strategy, this can re-suspend nutrients into the water column which exacerbates things like algal blooms,” said Beatty. “They can also disrupt aquatic plants and eat other fish’s eggs.”

The team also suspects that goldfish have introduced at least one new disease to the river already, and are directly responsible for a decline in the number of native fish.

The main thing to take away from this is: don’t dump your goldfish in the local waterways! This isn’t a problem only in Australia. Last year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials reported that a lake in Boulder County, U.S., was infested with around 3,000 koi carps, who spawned there after an owner dumped just a few fish in a waterway nearby. Lake Tahoe in California has similarly been infested. Canadian authorities also put out a plea last year to stop pet owners from dumping their goldfish, saying that the species is now taking over many lakes and ponds, and pushing out native species.

Koi carps, another invasive species dumped by owners, can grow to 8kg and up to one metre in length in the Vasse River.

But Beatty’s team findings could help us develop strategies to try and stop the goldfishes’ spread on the Vasse River, even remove them altogether. And the data from Australia could be used to do so in all those other places that are going through the same problem.

But in the meantime, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t dump your goldfish into the wild. Having a pet is a responsibility that you can’t shrug from just because it’s not convenient — if you do, that cute little goldfish will grow into an environmental 4-pound nightmare.

The full paper, “First evidence of spawning migration by goldfish (Carassius auratus); implications for control of a globally invasive species” has been published in the journal Ecology of Freshwater Fish.

NOAA photographs golden retrievers swimming back home from their mating run

NOAA has released a photograph of this year’s golden retriever migration. The animals are returning to shore after their mating run, where a new generation of puppies will be born.

Every year, golden retrievers swim to the Atlantic waters in which they were born to mingle, play and mate. The Great Golden Retriever Spawn has come to an end however, and thousands upon thousands of the animals are now making their way back home.

Image credits: Imgur user goldenretrievers.

NOAA captured this image earlier today off the east coast, a few miles away from the Outer Banks.

“They land here every year, and are a major tourist attraction,” said Avon pub owner Bailey Crown. “We’re all stocked up on treats and tennis balls to welcome them.”

The animals are expected to reach the peninsula later today, where locals and dog lovers all over the country are eagerly awaiting to pet the animals and call them “good boys” after their long journey.

 

A reddit user's cat has taken box sitting to a whole new level. Credit: Rissaka

Why cats love boxes so much

Cats can be odd — they sleep for up to 20 hours a day and get scared by cucumbers, but they also get very enthusiastic and are great playmates. Apart from catnip, there’s nothing a cat loves more than boxes. Any box will do, actually: big, small, tall, short… the cat will take it, no questions asked. So, what’s up with that?

A reddit user's cat has taken box sitting to a whole new level. Credit: Rissaka

A reddit user’s cat has taken box sitting to a whole new level. Credit: Rissaka

I know you came here looking for a scientific explanation to this age-long question, but I’m sorry to tell you that the jury is still out. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re clueless: animal behaviorists and psychologists have some pretty interesting and sensible explanations they’ve shared with us.

For one, if we’ve learned anything from the myriad of studies on cats is this: they enjoy closed spaces. They’re practically the opposite of claustrophobic, and derive comfort and well-being from being as crammed in as possible.

The box: a place of safety and security

Apparently, it's a feline thing. Credit: Fellowships of the Mind

Apparently, it’s a feline thing. Credit: Fellowships of the Mind

This is especially true for stressed cats, as recounted by Claudia Vinke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Vinke did a study in which shelter cats were studied for stress. The team provided hiding boxes for some of the cats that had recently arrived at the shelter while depriving others. The cats that had the boxes at their disposal had far less stress hormones in their blood. Later on, the boxed cats were more familiar with their environment, less panicked and more inclined to interact with humans. In this case, it seems boxes are a means for the felines to hide in to evade a stressful situation. The same can be said about wild cats as well, only they tend to choose trees or caves to retreat into, while house cats just have shoe boxes. The sample size of just 19 cats was small, but the paper concludes, “The hiding box appears to be an important enrichment for the cat to cope effectively with stressors in a new shelter environment the first weeks after arrival.” They hope to extend the work to longer-term studies and to consider cats housed collectively.

Shelters can be stressful environments for any animal, yet cats love boxes even when there’s nothing unfamiliar going on — just like in your safe and boring home. In this case, we can only say that cats prefer to linger in boxes or other small enclosures at home because they feel the safest and most comfortable this way, especially when dozing off.

cat-boxes4

It’s also worth noting that cats are poor at resolving conflicts. If they feel they want to “disappear” for whatever reason (don’t let this hurt your feelings), a cat will run to a box.

Cats might love boxes, as well as any other small enclosures, because they feel warmer inside. According to the National Research Council, the thermoneutral zone for a domestic cat is 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. This is about 20 degrees higher than the comfort zone of humans.

Whatever’s their reason for cardboard adoration, if you care for a feline help it out by always keeping an empty box around.

 

How pets make you hotter to the opposite sex

A University of Nevada team, led by anthropologist Peter Gray, tested several hypotheses about pets and contemporary courtship or dating rituals. Their study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Anthrozoös.

Image via huffpost

Evolutionary psychology holds that women are more inclined to allocate resources to child rearing, while men tend to spend more time and energy on mating. The team wanted to verify if these tenants hold their own in a real life setting — if for example, women are more responsive to the way their dates treat their pets and men inclined to use their pets to attract sexual partners. Gray and his colleagues predicted that dogs, generally thought to require more attention than cats, would provide more powerful ques to women who would unconsciously size-up their date’s parenting qualities.

In collaboration with the pet store chain PetSmart and Match.com, the researchers sent a 21 question on-line survey to 1,210 single pet owners, 60% of whom were women and 40% men. As far as pets go, some 72% of them were dog owners, and 42% reported to owning a cat.

The study found that:

  • 22% of the men — but only 6% of women — admitted they had used their pet to attract potential dates.
  • 35% percent of women and 26% of men said they had been more attracted to someone because they owned a pet.
  • Nearly half of the women and a quarter of the men said they judged dates based on how the person responded to their pet.
  • 76% of women and 60% of men evaluated dates based on whether their pets like the person.
  • 64% of women and 49% of men said they were more attracted to a person if they owned a rescue animal.
  • 75% of the women and 54% of the men said they would not date someone who did not like pets.

The results are supported by previous studies on pets and dating. In 2008, two French social psychologists had a young man named Antoine approach 240 randomly selected women and ask for their phone number to go on a date. Half the time, he would be alone, and half the time he would be walking a dog named Gwendu. And that little gray dog had a huge impact — only 10% of the women gave Antoine their phone number when he was alone, but three times as many were happy to do the same when he was accompanied by Gwendu.

A new take on dating

During the Better with Pets Summit, scientist Sandra Lyn argued that the millennial generation has a much different relationship with their pets than the baby boomers, and the results of the study suggest she is right: men in their 20s and 30s were more likely to use their pets as “date-bait” than older singles. Millennials also reported being particularly attracted to pet owners and more inclined to evaluate mates by how their dogs and cats reacted to the date. Millennials were also more likely to find pictures of pets posted on on-line dating profiles a turn-on.

All in all, the researchers’ hypotheses about sex differences in the use of pets as signals of mate quality were confirmed. Women were more discriminating than men on eight of the eleven questions related to the use of pets in evaluating dating partners. (There were no sex differences for the other three questions.) Dog owners were more likely than cat owners to use pets as indicators of a date’s attributes, paying closer attention to their pet’s reaction than cat owners, and more likely to say that the way a date treated their own pet mattered and to believe that person’s pet revealed a lot about their personality.

The scientists also asked what the sexiest pet is, and dogs win by a mile. If you want to meet girls, don’t get a rabbit, none of the ladies reported them as being a turn-on.

Your cat doesn’t see you as a source of security and safety

Animal behavior specialists at the University of Lincoln found that adult domestic cats do not view owners as the main provider of security and safety, the way dogs do, for example. The paper was published in the science journal PLOS ONE this week and comes to shed light on the mechanics of a feline-human relationship.

Image via meetgray

Researchers employed the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test, or SST, a method of measuring “secure attachment” — such as the bond between children and their parents when in unfamiliar environments — that has been used for years. However, the sample size was quite small in this study, with just 20 adult cats along with their owners taking part.

The furry testees were placed in strange environments, researchers choosing plain rooms. They were observed by themselves, with their owners and with strangers, and scored on their passive behavior, distress when their owner was absent and how they acted on contact.

The cats were more vocal when their owners left than when the strangers did, but “we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment,” co-author and veterinary behavioral medicine professor Daniel Mills said in a statement.

“This vocalization might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen,” Mills said. “In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent during our research.”

Mills also added that cats tend to be much more independent, autonomous creatures in strange situations than dogs, for whom owners “represent a specific safe haven.”

The study doesn’t conclude however that cats do not form close relationships with their owners, it’s just that they don’t seem to be based on a need for security and safety. Cats whose owners said were highly attached to them didn’t have different results from the rest of the sample, Mills said.

The authors cite several possible reasons for cat independence. They haven’t been domesticated for as long as dogs and weren’t bred with the express purpose of living in close proximity to people. Cats’ natural social structure isn’t characterized by the same close bonds as dogs have. Cats and their owners generally don’t interact as much or for as long as dogs do with their owners.

“These factors are likely to affect the nature of the relationship that typically forms between cat and owner, and make the formation of cat-human attachment unlikely,” the authors write. “Nonetheless, some may be capable of forming very strong attachments, but this would not seem to be the norm.”

Don’t smoke, it’s bad for your pet!

If you are a smoker you’ve definitely heard more arguments than you can count against keeping such a habit. However, you continued to smoke, no matter what scary studies did scientists come up with. But apparently, this is not a decision to affect only you: your canary, dog, cat or why not turtle, might be at risk because of you smoking. So, would you give up on it for your pet?
An anti-smoking campaign was started after Sharon Milberger at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit used an on-line survey to determine what it is that could make people give up their daily dose of tobacco. 3000 people responded, out of which 600 were smokers. About a third said that if second-hand smoking jeopardized their pet’s health, they would quit without second thoughts.
Apparently, pet owners seem to be quite worried about what happens to their furry or feathered flat-mates and they do have reasons for that.
Pets have their health put at risk if they inhale the smoke, eat cigarette buds or nicotine replacement gum or patches. From 1 to 5 cigarettes and 1 cigar can be enough to kill your pet if it happens to ingest it.
Cigarette smoke proves to have severe effects too:
Salivation
Diarrhea
Vomiting
Cardiac abnormalities
Respiratory difficulties and respiratory paralysis
Feline lymphoma in cats
Lung cancer in dogs
Nasal cancer in dogs
Breathing problems in dogs and asthmatic-like symptoms in cats

All these diseases should be enough to make someone think twice before lighting another cigarette while their dog is playing around the room. And, of course there are the effects this habit has on people, which are just as bad; however, a passive smoker may choose to get out of the room, while a pet does not have the same possibilities. So, could this campaign be the one to make you throw away your pack of smokes?
source: Tobacco Control