We are taught to be polite and open-minded about things that might seem extremely different or even “disgusting,” but in the animal world, disgust can provide significant advantages. Researchers are discovering that many social animals have a “disgust” reaction to adverse situations regarding food, negative environmental stimuli, and behaviors that helps them avoid disease. When you think about it, it makes sense: typically associated with aversion towards potentially harmful or contaminated substances, disgust serves as a protective mechanism to avoid ingestion of toxic or spoiled food.
It’s important to note that while animals can display behaviors similar to disgust, they may not experience the emotion in the same way humans do. The subjective experience of disgust, with its accompanying complex cognitive and emotional components, is difficult to measure or fully understand in animals.
By studying these reactions, researchers gain insights into the cognitive abilities and adaptive functions of different animals, as well as the evolutionary origins and ecological significance of disgust-related behaviors in the animal kingdom.
The hygiene hypothesis, even if you don’t know it by name, is probably a familiar concept. The idea is that the rise in allergies observed in wealthy countries is tied to a decline in rural living, and lack of childhood exposure to various animals, infections, and allergens. This doesn’t mean children should be outside all day playing with cow pies, of course. Hygiene is important and protects us from numerous maladies. However, the idea that there is a downside to being exposed to a less diverse collection of microbes as we develop is appealing, and many researchers feel there is merit to it.
Researchers took data from 100,000 pregnancies between 2011-2014, and compared the food allergy rates of kids born into households with pets compared to those that were not. As you might expect, kids in houses that had dogs and/or cats showed less sensitivity to foods like eggs, milk, nuts, soybeans, and wheat. But don’t get smug, pet owners! As is so often the case, it’s not so simple as “keep a pet and reduce your child’s odds of suffering from a food allergy.” Dogs and cats aren’t the only animals kept as pets in Japan. Terrapins are also a common household pet, but children with terrapins showed no different rate of allergies than kids raised without pets. Further, keeping hamsters seemed to increase the rate of nut allergies for kids. Given how terrifying nut allergies can be, such findings could give expectant parents pause when it comes to raising their kids alongside hamsters!
Fortunately for the hamster’s reputation, these findings are still in the early stages, unclear in many cases, and easily confounded. But nevertheless, as an organization that supports pet ownership as well as rigorous science, it is exciting to see the hygiene hypothesis pursued with real data (even if the final outcome isn’t as pro-pet as we’d hoped)!
An exciting new program was unveiled two weeks ago at the Rose City Classic dog show in Portland, Oregon: the testing and grading of respiratory function in brachycephalic dogs. This was launched by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), in conjunction with the Bulldog, French Bull Dog, and Pug Dog Clubs of America, as well as the AKC itself.
If you are subscribed to this blog, you probably already know what a brachycephalic breed of dog is and the health concerns and controversies that swirl around them. What you may not know – what too many people, frankly, don’t know – is that reputable breeders and their breed clubs have been hard at work to address and breed away from health issues associated with shortened snouts when present, and to, ahem, clear the air regarding some of the exaggerations surrounding brachycephalic breeds. This test, the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme (RFGS), provides the public and prospective dog owners with objective proof of that work, and ideally, opens the door for constructive conversations on health testing and issues with purpose-bred animals.
For dogs and their breeders, the RFGS objectively measures and grades brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS) using a dog’s rest state and its breathing after exercise. This gives breeders valuable information on their dog’s overall health, provides guidelines for which dogs they should breed, and as a bonus, serves as a reference that sets themselves and their breeding programs apart. While it is true many top breeders were already focused on this issue, this tool offers them the opportunity, through a veterinary assessment, to certify that their dogs have normal respiratory function.
Over time, this can’t help but contribute to the advancement of good health in well-bred brachycephalic dogs both in reality as well as in public consciousness, which would be fantastic. To quote Eddie Dziuk, OFA’s chief operating officer, “There’s no reason a Pug shouldn’t be able to run around and breathe easily.” A majority already can, and with programs like this and smart choices by breeders, even more will be!
We are all probably aware of avian influenza, at least to the extent that it exists and makes birds sick. But there’s a lot more to it than that. There are several strains of the virus, and more importantly, it is split into two groups: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). LPAI, as you may have already guessed, is not as lethal and has a wide range of outcomes: infected birds may suffer from zero clinical signs of the virus, they may sicken enough to die from it, or fall somewhere in between on the spectrum. Despite the fact many birds recover from it, it is still a problem as well as worrisome, since two of the strains are known to mutate into highly pathogenic forms. HPAI, the group threatening farmer’s flocks right now, spreads more rapidly and is far more deadly – especially to domestic poultry.
Since last February, more than 58 million birds have been culled due to the virus, 40 million of them egg-laying chickens. These numbers are despite improvements in monitoring and biosecurity protocols since the last major outbreak in 2015. And unfortunately, preventing and limiting outbreaks could become even more difficult as time progresses, since HPAI appears more and more prevalent in wild birds. Unlike chickens, numerous wild birds carry HPAI without showing serious signs of illness… and they migrate all throughout the world.
Commercial and backyard farmers, the USDA, researchers, and others are all working to find ways of protecting the animals we care for from this terrible illness, but it has been a painfully difficult path, and sadly, there is no obvious quick fix on the horizon.
Saying “The Devil made me do it” is a well-known and lighthearted – but ultimately meaningless – way of exploiting theology to avoid accountability for our actions. But saying “The protozoans made me do it,” even if it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily, actually has some scientific backing. There is a growing body of evidence that parasites play a large role in influencing animal behaviors… and one of the best known, Toxoplasma gondii, lives in the bellies of North America’s second-most beloved pet: the common housecat.
Many animal lovers already know about the effect of toxoplasmosis on rodents. In a nutshell, cats are the only host T. gondii can reproduce inside of… and wouldn’t you know it: toxoplasmosis-infected rats don’t show the same aversion to cat urine, making these rodents (and the parasites they are carrying) more likely to find their way into a cat’s stomach. This is a convenient coincidence (except for the rat)!
But such convenient coincidences may be just the tip of the iceberg. Newer research in the wild shows T. gondii-infected chimps and hyena cubs attracted to the urine of large, predatory cats. And infected humans display differences in behavior, too. While the odds of us being eaten by a cat are quite small, people suffering from toxoplasmosis engage in notably more risk-taking behaviors, and demonstrate less fear of failure when compared to the general population. Past experiences, our environment, genes, and social expectations are well-known factors that shape behavior, but as we’re learning with parasites like T. gondii, there may be numerous lesser-known – but significant – factors at play, as well!
For such an anodyne-sounding term, the word “bycatch” can be quite the grenade. It is generally associated with commercial fishing, and, at its most basic level, refers to any species of animal you didn’t intend to catch while fishing. Crabs, the wrong species of fish, and – perhaps most famously – dolphins all come to mind as examples of bycatch. However, while the term is accurate, albeit vague, “bycatch” is also viewed as an enraging, industry-manufactured euphemism by animal rights activists and some of the more vociferous critics of commercial fishing. To them, it is a term that “sugarcoats the indefensible” – waste, suffering, ecological devastation (you know the drill). OK, that’s predictably over-the-top, but we’ll concede that bycatch sits among industry buzzwords like “harvest” or “free-range,” that, even when well-intentioned, have the potential to raise at least as many questions as they answer.
Off the coast of Alaska, where pollock are caught (pollock are the white groundfish that often end up in fish fillet sandwiches), there is a long history of salmon bycatch. This is bad news, as there are indigenous people who depend on salmon for food, and some of the Pacific salmon species are endangered. However, the nets used by Alaskan pollock fishers now use salmon excluders, which allow salmon to escape from pollock nets.
A more colorful solution comes from Oregon, where it was recently discovered that an ecologically vital smelt, the eulachon, will follow LED lights (especially green ones) placed on the bottom of a shrimp net, keeping them from being inadvertently scooped up. Interestingly, nobody is quite sure why eulachons follow the lights – but follow they do, and that is the important thing.
For seabirds, the oft-forgotten victims of bycatch, streamers (called tori lines or, more aptly, bird-scaring lines) have been equipped on many boats, flapping threateningly over fishing lines, and more importantly, over the tantalizing bait that birds sometimes attack and get hooked on. When used properly, these lines have been hugely successful.
And finally, for our beloved cetaceans, instead of visual cues, a device called a banana pinger (surprise! – it looks much like a mechanical banana) is now being attached to fishing nets, emitting obnoxious high-frequency pings when submerged. The good news so far: dolphins and porpoises are not fans of it! There has been some fear that hungry porpoises, clever as they are, would become habituated to the noise, and begin exploring the delicious interiors of fishing nets once again, but so far, there is little evidence of that happening.
While none of these innovations are perfect, they make a difference and are chasing an important ideal… and more are finding their way into the field (and the water) every day.
Ask the average Jane or Joe about dog breeding, and their most distant point of reference probably goes back 17 years to the mockumentary film Best in Show. If they have a friend or relative who breeds dogs, add another 20 years on to that total. And if they’re history buffs, they might be able to go back to the late Victorian era.
Now it appears these ancient Arctic dwellers did something even more remarkable: They may have been among the first humans to breed dogs for a particular purpose. An analysis of canine bones from Zhokhov suggests the dogs there were bred to pull sleds, making this the first evidence—by thousands of years—for dog breeding in the archaeological record.
As these findings indicate, the length and depth of the human-dog bond is truly astounding.
From the perspectives of science, animal welfare, and human health alone it is very much worth reading. Animal science is an invaluable discipline that improves and saves countless human and animal lives, as illustrated clearly here. But there are several other facets to this story we found interesting as well, and it is worth approaching this article with those in mind:
Scientists and pet owners working together. This is stated plainly in the article itself, but think for a moment about the level of trust and cooperation required to carry out the research. How impressive is that? It also raises an important question: do we still have that level of trust today, and if not, what can we do to regain it?
It is hard not to cringe when you read about a house with more than 100 cats, regardless of the condition the cats are being kept in. Yet, these crowded conditions are what led to the isolation and treatment of HIV in humans. This is the kind of historical tidbit that really forces you to hold more than one thought in your head at a time.
The hostility faced by these scientists, who were approaching this issue with a then-controversial belief that viruses could cause cancer, is astounding. Ridicule, denial, rejection. It really speaks to the human condition: beware challenging established and comforting beliefs. Thank goodness these scientists were not deterred. It is simply amazing what just a few years can do for our understanding of disease and treatments.
And speaking of pushing on bravely: note how they were not sure at the time whether FeLV was transmissible to humans or not (today, people are more concerned about Toxoplasma gondii); it’s no big deal today, but it took some guts to do their research. It can be frustrating seeing lazy portrayals of scientists in popular media, especially scientists who work with animals. Finding examples of socially awkward, aloof or perhaps even sadistic scientists on your television screen is easy (and this is completely ignoring the “mad scientist” archetype), while right here in real life, we have scientists like these who are passionate about finding answers that save lives!
Finally, tying up both our “cooperation” and “understanding” threads — the huge contribution of veterinarians and animal shelters who joined the battle against FeLV, changing protocols, testing and vaccinating, ultimately saving the lives of millions of cats. These are the kind of things we can accomplish when we all work together.
Registration is now OPEN to anyone, anywhere! Visit the link below to sign-up for the Homes for Animal Heroes Virtual 5K and become a Fundraiser as a Team Captain, join an existing team, or make a donation!
Virtually every treatment, cure, vaccine, diagnostic and surgical procedure available today has been made possible through research involving animals. If you have ever taken cold or allergy medicine, used an asthma inhaler, had an x-ray, been treated for cancer, received insulin, taken antibiotics (just to name a few), YOU have directly benefited from research involving animals.
Homes for Animal Heroes (HAH) is a national network that works with the research community to rehome former research dogs into their forever homes, and share the TRUTH about biomedical research! We need your support in order to expand the HAH network and rehome animal heroes in every US state!
Of the nearly 650 elephants analyzed, Schiffman’s team found that only about 5% died from cancer. That’s an incredible statistic, considering the cancer mortality rate in humans ranges from 11% to 25%.
This is some fascinating stuff, and what you might not know is the role the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation (CET) is playing in this exciting research. Check this out:
Instrumental to this research is elephant DNA, and Dr. Schiffman needed a diverse gene pool to effectively study to species. Because the CEC has the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, the Feld Family felt compelled to help support this research. The incredible bond the staff has with these majestic animals, and the hands-on care provided at the Center for Elephant Conservation, allows the experts at the CEC to easily provide the blood samples Dr. Schiffman needs to further his research.
Dr. Dennis Schmitt, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Chair of Veterinary Services and Director of Research, and Dr. Wendy Kiso, Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation Research and Conservation Scientist, and other scientific collaborators on their team, have identified a key genetic link, called P53, that helps to protect both Asian and African elephants from developing cancer. The P53 gene’s job is to make sure that none of the cells in the body develop cancer. By studying the DNA in blood from elephants and the DNA in blood from patients with cancer, the team discovered that elephants have 40 copies of this P53 gene that attacks cancer while a healthy person has two copies.
Very cool findings! As humans work to preserve these majestic animals, will they in turn provide us with important keys in the battle against cancer? That would be certainly be poetic.
Oh — and by the way, Dr. Wendy Kiso will be presenting on the challenges and opportunities in saving the Asian Elephant at this year’s NAIA conference, in case you haven’t signed up already!