Trigger for Bone Cancer Identified
Scientists have possibly found the protein behind osteosarcoma.
UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine intern Kathleen Tsimbas checks on Yurtie, a canine cancer patient, in the UW Veterinary Care oncology ward.

With so many dogs I know affected by cancer, I'm always excited to learn about new breakthroughs in the search for a cure. The latest research out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine is an important one, as they may have identified the biological mechanism that gives some cancer cells the ability to form tumors in dogs.

Scientists at the school were interested in why only some cells generate tumors. What they found was a connection between the increased expression of a particular gene in tumor cells and canine bone cancer.

The study looked at cell lines generated from dogs with osteosarcoma, a common bone cancer that also affects people. After removing tumors from the canine participants, the cells were grown in a lab and transplanted into mice. The researchers then looked to see which lines developed tumors and which did not, and the differences between them.

The scientists identified several hundred genes that expressed differently between the tumor-forming and nontumor-forming cell lines. One protein in particular, called frizzled-6, was present at levels eight times higher in cells that formed tumors. Proteins and RNA, like frizzled-6, are responsible for many vital cellular functions, like receiving information and activating pathways that regulate growth. When these pathways go awry, they may contribute to the development of tumors.

Though a preliminary association has been made, it's not clear what role frizzled-6 plays. It's possible that the frizzled-6 expression may be inhibiting a signaling pathway that contributes to the formation of tumor-initiating cells.

Next the researchers want to better understand the findings. Does frizzled-6 serve as a marker of a more aggressive disease? Will identifying the protein improve the accuracy of prognoses? The veterinary school plans to continue the study in order to answer these questions, in addition to expanding the research to human cancer patients. They'd like to confirm that frizzled-6 is truly what gives these cells the ability to form new tumors, or if it's possible that it's part of a combination of multiple genes that lead to tumor formation.

If they can prove that frizzled-6 is behind the tumor-forming cells, the protein may provide oncologists with another target for therapy which would improve outcomes for cancer patients, both canine and human.

Pit Bull Service Dogs
Organizations specialize in helping people and reversing stigma.

Pit Bull lovers are constantly battling the breed's negative reputation. It can be heartbreaking to see someone cross the street to avoid your pup or usher their kids away at the park, but it happens every day to bully breeds. Every friendly, well socialized Pit Bull is an advocate for the breed, but it can be slow to shift mainstream perception.

Two organizations are on a mission to change that stigma by recruiting rescue Pit Bulls to help people. The Animal Farm Foundation's Assistance Dog Training Program in New York trains shelter Pit Bulls to push wheelchairs or help people regain their mobility and avoid falls. It's believed to be the only American training school that exclusively trains shelter Pit Bulls to be service dogs.

Another group in Chicago, Pits for Patriots, trains rescued Pit Bulls as comfort, therapy, and support dogs for veterans, police officers, and firefighters. The organization's co-founder, Kelly Yearwood, says that veterans and first responders identify with bully breeds because they've both seen a lot of trauma.

For former Marine, Joe Bonfiglio, his Pit Bull service dog, Zen, has been a life saver. Joe was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Afghanistan and struggled to get his life back to normal. Now he can hang out with friends, shop at the mall, and has even started to take classes at a local college.

Not everyone agrees that Pit Bulls should be trained as service dogs, but if the right evaluation and training protocols are in place, it seems like a win-win. Pit Bulls make up the overwhelming majority of my local animal shelter, so this is a great way to give them a loving home and a purpose.

Reading Human Emotions
Study shows that dogs can discriminate between our expressions.

I don't think that we need a study to know our pups can tell when we're happy or sad, but it's still fun to see formal research explore our dogs' abilities and inner thinking. With all of the canine cognition labs cropping up at colleges around the world, there's been a lot of research showing that dogs can read human emotions. However a new study coming out of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna claims to represent the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions in another species.

In this study, the researchers set up an experiment that they believed could only be solved by applying knowledge of human emotional expressions to unfamiliar pictures. The dogs were trained to discriminate between images of the same person making either a happy or angry face. In each case, the canine participants were only shown the upper or lower half of the face. After training on 15 picture pairs, the dogs' abilities were tested in four situations where they were shown (1) new faces (but the same half as in the training), (2) the other half of the faces used in training, (3) the other half of the new faces, and (4) the left half of the faces used in the training.

They found that the dogs were able to select the correct facial expression more often than would be expected by random chance in every case. Not only could the dogs learn to identify facial expressions, but they were able to transfer their learnings to people they'd never seen before.

Interestingly the researchers also discovered that it was harder to get the dogs to associate a reward with an angry face, suggesting that prior experience had taught them to stay away from a person that looks mad. From my own experience, dogs learn this very quickly!

Next, the scientists hope to study how dogs express emotions and how those emotions are influenced by people.

Surprise Canine Visit at the Hospital
Iowa pup treks to Mercy Medical Center in search of her mom.

Nancy Franck had been in recovery post-surgery at Mercy Medical Center when she got the surprise of her hospital stay. When Nancy left home in Cedar Rapid, Iowa, she had to leave behind her beloved Schnauzers, Sissy and Barney. About two weeks into her hospital stay, Nancy's husband, Dale, noticed that Sissy was missing. He frantically searched for the 11 year old dog everywhere, but couldn't find her. About four hours later he got a call from hospital security with Sissy.

A surveillance camera in the hospital lobby caught the determined pup entering through automatic doors and wandering around. Sissy ended up being successful in her mission to see Nancy. When Dale's daughter came to pick her up, the hospital allowed Sissy to have a surprise visit.

Although the Francks only live 20 blocks from Mercy Medical Center, but the've never walked there before with Sissy. However, Nancy and Sissy have always had a special bond, with Sissy “choosing” Nancy when they firtst met eleven years ago. The then eight week old puppy came right up to Nancy, pawed at her leg, and then fell asleep on her shoulder.

Over a decade later, I can't think of a better way to be cheered up at the hospital!

Dog Cafes
Is a canine version of the popular cat cafe on the way?

There's been a lot of talk recently about cat cafes popping up in cities like New York and San Francisco. The feline establishments have long been in a fixture in Tokyo, giving tiny apartment dwellers their pet fix. While Japan now has cafes that feature all sorts of animals from owls to goats, the concept is just starting to trickle over to America. I'm guessing we'll never see a goat cafe in the States, but a canine version may be on the way.

Two recent Indiegogo fundraising campaigns have been trying to raise money to open dog cafes that will showcase adoptable pups in New York and Los Angeles. These cafes aim to reinvent the way we connect with homeless pets. Besides coming up with the funding, the main challenge is working within health codes. To work within the rules, both ventures plan to create two adjacent, but separate businesses where you could order food in one location and take the treats to enjoy in the space with the dogs.

Living in New York City, I have a lot of friends who love dogs, but can't have one because of their apartment rules or long work hours. A dog cafe would be a great way for people to get their pet fix and meet fellow animal lovers. Meanwhile the dogs can meet potential adopters and get socialized.

The Los Angeles Indiegogo project didn't meet their financing goal in time, but the New York one is still soliciting donations through February 21. However, if the dog cafes don't pan out, there are still other ways to satisfy your pet fix, like volunteering at your local animal shelter.

Would you visit a dog cafe?

Canine Attentiveness is Innate
Researchers study wolves to prove the origin of the human-dog relationship.

Many studies have show that dogs can understand human gestures, while chimpanzees cannot. This initially came as a surprise to scientists because of our genetic ties to primates. It was thought that canines developed this ability through domestication, however a series of new studies suggest that this capability may be more innate.

Behavioral scientists from Austria's Messerli Research Institute and the Wolf Science Center hypothesize that the dynamic between wolves and their pack mates could've provided the basis for today's human-dog relationship. Because of this, they believe that selection for social attentiveness and tolerance was not necessary during canine domestication.  

To test their hypothesis the researchers have been working on a series of experiments to examine social attentiveness and tolerance of wolves and dogs within their packs and toward humans. To compare what could be attributed to evolutionary changes rather than individual experiences, the researchers compared dogs and wolves that had been raised in an identical way and socialized with humans to a similar extent.

The first study tested the ability of the dogs and wolves to pay attention to human actions. In the experiment, the subjects observed a familiar human either hide a food reward or pretend to hide one. There was also a control round where the food was hidden before they entered the test area (and would have to detect by smell). Both the dogs and wolves were equally good at differentiating whether or not the person actually hid food or not. Interestingly dogs outperformed the wolves in both test and control conditions, suggesting that they relied on their nose more than the wolves to find the hidden food.

Another experiment looked at the wolves' ability to follow gaze. The researchers set up scenarios to see if wolves would follow the eyes of people and pack members, both looking into distant space and around barriers. They found that the subjects followed human gaze just as readily as their fellow wolves, implying high social attention and willingness to accept people as social partners who might provide important information.

So far the researchers' work has shown that wolves pay as much attention to people as dogs do, supporting the hypothesis that the human-canine bond was not necessarily selected for through domestication. The behavioral scientists plan on continuing their experiments to further their theory. It's certainly interesting to see that the understanding we have with our dogs could be in their DNA!

Poisonous Water
Dogs die after drinking water from California's Lake Chabot.

When I hike with my dogs, I always bring enough water for them to drink, but they often end up taking a few sips from streams along the way. Generally I don't think too much about where the pups are quenching their thirst (aside from keeping them out of very murky puddles), however a recent report of dogs dying from toxic algae is making me much more aware of trail side water.

In the last two months, three dogs have died after drinking water from Northern California's Lake Chabot, located in a popular park. The lake has had a dangerous algae bloom since September, which is harmful to humans and animals. These blooms normally happen in late summer, but unseasonably warm temperatures and drought conditions have caused algae to proliferate well into the winter months.

Park and municipal officials have urged an urgent warning for people to keep dogs away from the water, and have posted additional signs along the lake trails.

I have a portable water filter that I use for longer backpacking trips, but it's important to know that these devices will not make algae bloom affected water safe to drink. Use your judgement and keep an eye out for water sources your dog may try to drink from.

If you're planning on hiking in a park, check the area's web site before you leave to be aware of any warnings. Algae blooms are often foamy, scummy, or slimy looking with an offensive odor. They can be a variety of colors, such as blue-green, brownish red, pea green, or white. Not all blooms are toxic, but you can't tell just by looking at it (a toxin test is required). Generally it's best to direct your dog to clear, flowing water sources.

What precautions do you take for thirsty pups on the go?

Therapy Dogs and Cancer Patients
Study documents the benefits of pet therapy at a NYC hospital.

When I visited hospital patients as part of a therapy dog program, it was obvious that my Sheltie, Nemo, brought joy to what could be a depressing environment. But still most people view animal-assisted therapy as a "nice to have," not something that could have a significant effect on a patient's health.

That may all change with a new study at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City. The collaboration between the hospital, therapy dog organization The Good Dog Foundation, animal health company Zoetis, and the Pfizer Foundation, is aiming to quantify the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy.

The research is the first that documents the benefits of pet therapy in adult cancer patients, and is by far the most rigorous study in this area. Dr. Stewart B. Fleishman, Founding Director of Cancer Supportive Services at Mount Sinai, says that this is a definitive study that uses the same scientific standards to examine the merits of animal-assisted therapy as they use for the cancer treatment itself. While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the positive effects, having hard data will help therapy dogs secure future funding and support.

In the six week study, 37 patients received daily 15-20 minute assisted animal visits (AAV). The patients were at the hospital with aggressive cancers in the head and neck, and were receiving a combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy in advance of surgery. The patients were assessed at the beginning of the study (as a baseline), at the mid-point, and at the end. They measured satisfaction with the AAVs, ability to withstand treatment, lingering effect of AAV after treatment, and perception of social support. 

The researchers found that the patients showed an increase in social well-being over the course of the study, even after they underwent marked declines in both physical and functional well-being. After controlling for the reduction in physical well-being, they also found statistically significant increases in emotional well-being as well. Some patients even said that they would have stopped their treatments before completion if it weren't for the regular therapy dog visits.

Most hospital patients are lucky if they see one therapy dog during their hospital stay, let alone the daily visits. But hopefully this study will help make the case for adding regular animal assisted therapy to more comprehensive treatment plans. 

The ARK at JFK
NYC airport is adding a terminal for traveling creatures.
A pet relief area at JFK International Airport.

Earlier this week I was at JFK International Airport and took a peek at one of the pet relief areas. It's a small, but well maintained, area for dogs to take a potty break before catching their flight. Many airports now have these relief spots, thanks in part to accommodating service dogs.

However, animals traveling in and out of the New York City airport will soon have a brand new terminal just for them. Construction has started on a 178,000-square-foot building, dubbed The ARK at JFK, which will feature an overnight pet resort, a 24-hour animal hospital, an aviary, and a climate controlled arrivals area, complete with horse stalls and 14.5 acre grounds.

It's projected that 70,000 animals will go through the ARK each year, including companion pets, zoo animals, livestock, and race horses. The terminal, which is scheduled to open next year, will be the first USDA-approved, 24-hour, privately owned airport quarantine operation. Architecture firms specializing in equine and livestock design are collaborating with Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to design the state-of-the-art facility.

The ARK is primarily for animals in cargo, and won't have much impact on the average person flying with their pet, but it will be nice to have the boarding facility and animal hospital on premise. This facility also shows how airports are starting to cater to the growing number of traveling animals. I'd love to see elements of the design incorporated into other airports and into areas specifically for the average consumer.

What pet-friendly feature would you like to see incorporated into your local airport?

Dogs Shed Light on Migration Patterns
Scientists use canine remains to learn more about humans.

We've benefited in many ways from our relationship with dogs. Studying canines has led to everything from new medical advancements to behavioral insights. Now scientists are using dogs to understand human migration patterns around the world.

According to University of Illinois biologist Kelsey Witt, canines were one of the earliest organisms to have migrated with humans to every continent. This special relationship makes them a valuable research tool.

The school recently embarked on the largest genetic analysis to date of ancient dogs in the Americas, shedding light on both canine and human history. In the study, researchers compared DNA from ancient canine remains to those from previous collections. The findings suggested that dogs may have arrived in the Americas thousands of years after the first wave of people came from Asia (the period also coincides with the earliest known dog burial in the Americas). Based on the canine DNA, researchers also hypothesize that the first two major human migrations came from two different source populations.

In the study, scientists focused specifically on DNA from the cell mitochondria. Since it's inherited maternally, it shows an unbroken line of ancestry, as opposed to looking at chromosomes which can exchange genes between the maternal and paternal pair. This has allowed them to uncover breeding patterns, genetic diversity, and roles (ancient dogs were used for a wide range of jobs—hunting assistants, herders, haulers, companions, and even food).

While it may seem counterproductive to use dogs to study our migration patterns, scientists don't always have access to human remains since genetic analysis is destructive (understandably people don't want their loved ones' remains touched). This is why they often use ancient dog remains for their research. The scientists hope to continue their work and learn even more about patterns of human migration into the New World.