04/6/14

Sunny with a chance of squirrels


Bella sittingWhat is going on in that furry little head of yours? I was standing on the porch one day last fall watching Bella, our terrier-cross dog, and latest addition to the Chadwick pack. She was watching Diego, our ginger tom cat who was watching something in the trees. Bella stared, then turned to look where Diego was looking. Together they stared at something I couldn’t see, but which captivated them to the point of obsession.

Heads moved in unison as they stared, fixated. Tails twitched in syncopation.  I looked, unable to see what fascinated them. Suddenly they gave up, again in unison, and looked elsewhere.

Humans are often just befuddled observers of this stuff. Most of my thoughts about pets these days begin with the phrase “What the hell…?” I ask myself over and over what is in that furry head. Pick a furry head – we have four cats and two dogs (our max was once three dogs, seven cats and 23 ferrets, so this is a small pack… most of whom were abandoned or rescue animals, by the way, and they all had a good life within our walls).

Bella at fireplaceThought I understood dogs fairly well, I did. Thought I had had enough experience with all sorts of breeds and varieties. After all, I studied animal behaviour for years;read dozens of books on dogs and their inner selves. Spoke at length to breeders, animal behaviourists, dog trainers and owners.

But as much as you think you know, a lot of it is guesswork. Or just anecdotal experience that doesn’t apply to other dogs. There are days when I think dog behaviour is a pseudoscience like astrology or phrenology: just hot air and codswallop.

Bella reminds me daily that there are new horizons of dogdom I have yet to comprehend. She’s a delight, but sometimes as crazy as a bag full of bloggers.

It’s been nine months since we got her and we’re still learning her ways. When winter arrived, we learned much to our surprise that she likes snow. loves it, in fact, and will happily charge into drifts that almost swallow her.

She also likes to eat snow. A lot. Can hardly walk 10 metres without her snapping up some snow to crunch on. Crazy dog, for a dog that loves the heat so much she sits in front of the fireplace when it’s on. Not the roll-in-the-snow every few metres that Sophie likes, but loves to run and play in it anyway.

And she tries to climb trees when she sees a squirrel in one. I’d never seen a dog trying to climb up a tree before, but she just doesn’t get it that it isn’t happening.
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12/28/13

Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions


Joke...Action News, an ABC affiliate, ran a late-year story with the headline “Psychics interpret pets’ thoughts.” No, it’s not April Fools’ Day: this was December 26. Yet the reporter treated it seriously; just like it was a real story; actual news, rather than a steaming heap of superstitious dung. That reporters for any media outlet treat would such codswallop as “news” calls into question their ability, their competence and their education.

Lorrie The Pet Psychic has been tuning into the thoughts of animals for 18 years, appearing on Oprah after she helped locate a local dog who was blown away by a storm and then found alive.
“I feel very honored, you know, because I get to give animals a voice. Especially with the older pets that are getting ready to cross over and their owners get to say goodbye,” said Lorrie.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Lorrie’s ludicrous statements, or weep at the gullibility of people who have used her “services” for 18 years.

“Cross over”? You mean die. Kick the bucket. Shuffle off this mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Pet ghosts talking to former masters? Sheesh… if dead pets could talk, why don’t these “:psychics” get messages from dead raccoons, or other roadkill? The mouse that died in the trap? the bird caught by your cat? Wouldn’t the afterlife ether just crackle with that noise?

Psychics and so-called clairvoyants feed on people’s fear of mortality; they create a culture of alternate realities and other worlds populated with dead people (and pets – or is it all animals?) in order to suck the money from your wallet when they pretend to be in contact with people who “cross over.” Now, it seems, they can contact pets, too, living and dead.

“I think he likes his hair a little longer,” said Psychic Eve. “He prefers it that way. He feels more, I don’t know, macho more desirable.”

That’s what another self-described “psychic” told the credulous reporter, who dutifully wrote it down and printed it. Come on – a dog being “macho” over its hair? What journalism school taught you to be so naive?

To add insult to intellectual injury, the reporter then lists contact information so the simple-minded readers can call these “psychics” and give them their money.

If you want to know what sort of justification “pet psychics” give to their clients before denuding them of their finances, on How Stuff Works, you can get pages full of their gibberish:

According to most pet psychics, you communicate with your pets telepathically all the time, without even knowing it. Your cat hides and your dog gets ready to play because of signals you send with your mind, not because of your actions… According to pet psychics, electromagnetic energy surrounds and penetrates everything in the universe, much like the force in “Star Wars.” This energy is part of the radio spectrum, but scientists haven’t figured out how to detect it. Pet psychics can use energy to contact animals, no matter how far away the animals are or whether they are still living.

Enough to make your brain hurt, isn’t it? The real message, though, is buried in the article:

For a fee, they then relay telepathic messages to and from pets. The pets don’t even have to be present — often, psychics use photographs or descriptions to make contact.

There’s the hook in the worm: a fee. Of course they charge a fee because they make their living fleecing the gullible.

I have a tough time telling my black cats apart some days even when they’re sitting side by side. Who would be dim enough yet willing to pay someone to “telepathically” converse with a photograph of a black cat?

Here’s what my dog would say if a “pet psychic” could communicate with it:

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

And I learned that without shelling out money to a “psychic!”
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07/29/13

The Terrier Trials


Bella 1Dogs. I love dogs. I’d have a dozen of them, if I could. But dogs are as different in personality as we are. Not all dogs are a good fit with other dogs, or even with people. Or with cats. And I love cats as much, if not more, than dogs. Still, I tend to have more issues with dog owners than with their dogs.*

That little mutt curled up on my leg is Bella, our newest rescue dog. She’s a 2-year-old Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix, which apparently is a recognized mix according to this dog breed site. Given the range of shapes, colours and sizes in the photos there, I think “mutt” is still a more apt description.

Jack Russells are members of the terrier family. That’s short for terrorist, I’m sure. According to Wikipedia,

Jack Russells tend to be extremely intelligent, athletic, fearless, and vocal dogs. It is not uncommon for these dogs to become moody or destructive if not properly stimulated and exercised, as they have a tendency to bore easily and will often create their own fun when left alone to entertain themselves.
Their high energy and drive make these dogs ideally suited to a number of different dog sports such as flyball or agility. Obedience classes are also recommended to potential owners, as Jack Russells can be stubborn at times and aggressive towards other animals and humans if not properly socialized. Despite their small size, these dogs are not recommended for the condominium or apartment dweller unless the owner is ready to take on the daunting task of providing the dog with the necessary amount of exercise and stimulation. They have a tremendous amount of energy for their size, a fact which can sometimes lead to trouble involving larger animals. They may seem never to tire and will still be energetic after their owner has called it a day. While socialised members of the breed are friendly towards children, they will not tolerate abuse even if it is unintentional.

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05/26/13

Pets and Policies: Why Dog Parks Matter


Dogs at PlayBack in April, 2011, I wrote a post about municipal policies towards pets, now in the blog archives. I noted then that…

A recent survey done by Colin Siren of Ipsos Reid estimated there are 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. The survey also shows that 35% of Canadian households have a dog, while 38% have a cat, which is consistent with other surveys conducted in the developed nations. Based on a figure of 9,500 households* we should have around 3,040 households with dogs and 3,610 with cats.

Well, the numbers have grown. We have (according to the 2011 census), 10,695 households. Round that up to 11,000 (because the census was done part-way through the year and we’ve had 18 months of construction since).

That suggests 3,850 households have one or more dogs, and 4,180 have one or more cats. Based on the average of 1.7 dogs per household, that means more than 6,500 dogs live in Collingwood. And, based on 2.2 cats average, more than 9,000 cats.

Are these stats still reliable? I believe so. They are similar to other surveys conducted in the US and the UK. They match what the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association found. A recent survey by the Humane Society of the United States suggests a slightly higher figure for dog ownership: 39% of households, but lower for cats (33%).

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03/2/13

To sleep, perchance to dream


Simon's CatAye, there’s the rub. To sleep in, one weekend morning, when there are no pressures for meetings, work, deadlines. To roll away from the soft light that filters through the blinds and enjoy that delicious moment of closing your eyes and drifting back into a dream. Covers pulled up, the street quiet outside the widow, the furnace gently wheezing its warm air into the room; nothing is better in the world.

But of course, there are others with different ideas. The real masters of the house brook no laziness, have no interest in our needs, in how much wine we drank the night before, how late we stayed up reading, how tough and demanding the week was. They have their schedule and we are slaves to it.

Sophie wants to be walked and fed. She nuzzles the covers, pushing at them with her nose, insistent. I reach out a hand, get a half-hearted pat, hoping it will appease her, then pull my arm back in. No, not sufficient. Her nose pokes under the covers, wet and cold on the flesh of my arm.

Abby, the little black cat, who spends the night curled into the crook of my knees, is on a dresser, standing on her back legs, frantically pawing at herself in the mirror. The irksome pat-pat-pat of her tiny pads like an annoying drum solo in the otherwise quiet room.

Diego, the orange tom, managed to walk into the bedroom with a thumping gait when at all other times he is as silent and lithe as a tiger on the hunt. He jumps onto the bed like a sack of cement, and begins howling. He walks on and over sleeping bodies, ignoring our ineffective shrugs to move him off.

Up onto the bedside cabinets he travels, flicking pens, glasses and bookmarks onto the floor with a callous swipe of his large paws. Clink and clatter on the floor as they fall. When that fails to get attention, he returns, hunches over the sleeper, and boldly taps my face with a paw – its claws not quite retracted.

Sensing a change, perhaps in that rhythmic shift in our breathing from sleep to awake, the other two cats come into the bedroom. Tippy chases a toy mouse around, sounding remarkably like a stampeding herd of wildebeest.

Cleo paws at a lower dresser drawer, one she can open if she works at it, and starts dragging socks onto the floor so she can create a nest space to rest in. This attracts the others and there’s a brief scuffle. She and Diego exchange slapping blows of irritation. They sound like prizefighters slapping a speed bag. A few hisses like a steam train starting its journey, then they part to return to their primary goal of getting us up.

Sophie paces restlessly, the click of her toenails as loud as a tapdancer’s cleats. She moves from my side to Susan’s, then back.

A toy finds its way to the top of the stairs, and is launched down them, crashing and banging until it hits the floor below, somehow transformed from a tiny plush mouse into a grandfather clock as it tumbles. A cat races loudly after, in pursuit.

Diego walks across the headboard, balancing on the wood, miaowing loudly like an army drill sergeant waking his troops. Sometimes a foot slips and stumps down heavily on a pillow, beside a weary head. Or on it. Back and forth, back and forth.

Whatever possessed us to invite so many animals into our home? Slaves to punishment, I suppose.

I open an eye. 6:44. I watch the clock until the little digital readout says 6:45, knowing that any more time in bed is impossible. “Tea?” murmurs a sleepy Susan.

“Yes,” I agree, and throw off the covers and sit up. Sophie dances happily. The cats skitter out of the room and are almost downstairs by the time I’ve got to my feet. Behind me, Susan slips on a bathrobe to joins me in the morning feeding ritual.

Perhaps I can grab a nap – a catnap? – later in the day and enjoy that sweet bliss of sleep for a few more minutes.

 

02/12/13

Or maybe doomsday just postponed…


A story in Science Daily today talks about the effect that antibiotics used in animals has had on humans. Or rather, on antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are dangerous to humans.

The increasing production and use of antibiotics, about half of which is used in animal production, is mirrored by the growing number of antibiotic resistance genes, or ARGs, effectively reducing antibiotics’ ability to fend off diseases — in animals and humans.

Now this is hardly news. Concerns over unchecked use of antibiotics in farm animals have been raised for decades. The antibiotics have been working their way through the system and back into the environment where they came back to haunt us. As noted in this story,

Waters polluted by the ordure of pigs, poultry, or cattle represent a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes, both known and potentially novel. These resistance genes can be spread among different bacterial species by bacteriophage, bacteria-infecting viruses, according to a paper in the October Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
“We found great quantities of bacteriophages carrying different antibiotic resistance genes in waters with fecal pollution from pigs, cattle, and poultry,” says Maite Muniesa of the University of Barcelona, Spain, an author on the study. “We demonstrated that the genes carried by the phages were able to generate resistance to a given antibiotic when introduced into other bacteria in laboratory conditions,” says Muniesa.

The Animal Health Institute assures us antibiotics are necessary to keep us safe:

Because antibiotic resistance is a public health concern, several layers of protection have been put in place to ensure that animal antibiotics do not affect public health.

But our concerns isn’t as great here as it is with one of our primary food suppliers: China. As Science Daily reports:

A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China — the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics — and many other countries don’t monitor the powerful medicine’s usage or impact on the environment.
On Chinese commercial pig farms, researchers found 149 unique ARGs, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than the control samples…

Pretty scary. Environment Canada has commented on how antibiotics and other drugs fed to animals get into the environment:

The primary contaminants associated with manure include nitrate and ammonia, coliform bacteria, phosphorus, endocrine disrupters and other animal pharmaceuticals. Both the land use and waste management practices commonly employed on farms throughout Canada have impaired the quality of water resources on a regional basis (Rudolph et al. 1998). In a recent survey of farm drinking wells in Ontario, approximately one well in three was found to contain at least one contaminant commonly associated with agricultural activities, including nitrate or bacteria…

The risk is that these antibiotic-resistant microbes spread easily and rapidly, sharing their AR genes with other microbes:

Daily exposure to antibiotics, such as those in animal feed, allows microbes carrying ARGs to thrive. In some cases, these antibiotic resistant genes become highly mobile, meaning they can be transferred to other bacteria that can cause illness in humans. This is a big concern because the infections they cause can’t be treated with antibiotics.
ARGs can reach the general population through food crops, drinking water and interactions with farm workers. Because of this undesirable cycle, ARGs pose a potential global risk to human health and should be classified as pollutants, said Tiedje, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist.

The genes concentrate in sewage treatment plants, which become reservoirs of them, says this story:

Water discharged into lakes and rivers from municipal sewage treatment plants may contain significant concentrations of the genes that make bacteria antibiotic-resistant. That’s the conclusion of a new study on a sewage treatment plant on Lake Superior in the Duluth, Minn., harbor that appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Timothy M. LaPara and colleagues explain that antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a major problem in medicine today — are abundant in the sewage that enters municipal wastewater treatment plants. Treatment is intended to kill the bacteria, and it removes many of the bacterial genes that cause antibiotic resistance. However, genes or bacteria may be released in effluent from the plant. In an effort to determine the importance of municipal sewage treatment plants as sources of antibiotic resistance genes, the scientists studied releases of those genes at the Duluth facility.

These genes can be transferred to humans and affect our health. A 2010 story in Science Daily noted one growing impact on human health:

Genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be transferred between humans and other animals, say researchers writing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Medical Microbiology. The findings will help health experts to assess how using antibiotics in food-producing animals can affect the treatment of common human infections.
Scientists from the Carol Yu Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong examined Escherichia coli bacteria responsible for causing human urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacteria in faecal samples from humans and food-producing animals. They found an identical gene for antibiotic resistance was present in all the samples in similar proportions and locations, suggesting that the gene is likely to be transferred between bacteria residing in different hosts.
The gene, called aacC2, encodes resistance to a commonly-used antibiotic gentamicin and was found in approximately 80% of human and animal samples. What is more, this gene was found on sections of DNA that are known to swap between different bacterial populations. Both these factors, combined with the identical gene sequences led the researchers to suggest that aacC2 can transfer between separate populations of bacteria that colonise different species.
E. coli is responsible for 75-95% of human urinary tract infections. Surveys in recent years have shown that antibiotic resistance in this bacterium is increasing, making infections increasingly difficult to treat.

This seems to be a bigger problem for women than for men, according to this 2010 story:

Chicken sold in supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets may place young women at risk of urinary tract infections (UTI), McGill researcher Amee Manges has discovered. Samples taken in the Montreal area between 2005 and 2007, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the University of Guelph, provide strong new evidence that E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria originating from these food sources can cause common urinary tract infections.

As Greatist notes in this piece, the use of antibiotics in livestock is increasing rapidly:

…the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might be relying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.

Pew research graphic

The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.

About 80% of all the antibiotics produced in the USA are being fed to animals.
The widespread antibiotic use isn’t just harming us. It’s harming our entire environment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are showing up in soil, according to this story:

A team of scientists in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are reporting disturbing evidence that soil microbes have become progressively more resistant to antibiotics over the last 60 years. Surprisingly, this trend continues despite apparent more stringent rules on use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, and improved sewage treatment technology that broadly improves water quality in surrounding environments.

There is a lot more to write and research here, but I’ll leave this here for now with this quote from a story in The Guardian last fall:

The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)… a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.

So doomsday may yet be waiting in the wings… or in the soil, the water, and on our dinner plates.