JoAnna Lou

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Walking 180 Miles for Puppy Love
An Austrailian man searches for two months on foot for his lost pup
There are many stories about loyal dogs, but an elderly Australian man searching for his pup reminded me that what makes the human-canine bond so special is the love on both sides of the relationship.     Back in March, Brian Railton's Kelpie-Border Collie mix, Benji, ran away from home after being spooked by a storm. Since then Brian, 70 years old and battling Parkinson's disease, walked over 180 miles looking for Benji. Brian hung posters, searched the neighborhood, and made a daily trek from his home to the local shelter to check for the lost pup.   After more than two months had passed, Brian's family was just about to give up when they got the call that Benji had been found. The dog had been going to a nearby nursing home looking for food when he was spotted. When Brian and Benji were reunited, they celebrated with ice cream at McDonalds.   Brian's journey may sound like a lot, particularly at age 70, but it turns out Benji has been keeping Brian in good health. The pair regularly walks up to eight miles a day to relieve Brian's shaking from Parkinson's Disease. Benji also waits at the bus stop for Brian when he runs errands.     Brian and Benji have been together since the pup was eight weeks old and you can tell they've developed a deep bond. Here's to many more years together!  
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Calculating Your Dog's Age
The seven to one ratio is a thing of the past

For the longest time, it was thought that seven human years was roughly equivalent to one dog year. The ratio becomes problematic when you think about pups that live to 18 years of age or older, since no human is known to have lived beyond 122.

Dog people know that, just as there is great variation between breeds, there is a wide spectrum of typical life expectancy. Body size is generally correlated with life span in mammals (so, for example, a larger mammal, like an elephant, will have a longer life expectancy than a smaller mammal, such as a mouse). But what's interesting is that the opposite holds true for dogs--even though small dogs reach maturity faster than big dogs.

Basically this means small dogs age more quickly than big dogs in the first couple of years, but slower once they hit adulthood. So at two human years, a small dog is older than a big dog, but younger at five years.

According to Kate Creevy, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Georgia, there aren't any other species that have the same degree of size diversity within a single species as dogs do. This could be the key to the ageing phenomenon. Kate believes that if we genetically engineered a cow weighing 20 pounds at adulthood and another weighing 2,000 pounds, the same thing could happen.

But why does size matter? One of Kate's colleagues, Daniel Promislow, a professor of genetics, believes that the aging phenomenon is linked to cancer. Large dogs have a 50% chance of dying of cancer while small dogs only have a 10% chance.

No one seems to know where the seven dog years to one human year equation came about. It first appeared in math text books in the 1960's asking children to calculate a dog's age using the 7:1 ratio.

If you did factor the varying rates of ageing and differing life expediencies, a more accurate estimate across all breeds would be six dog years to one human year. So the seven years wasn't far off.

However, scientists have come up with a more accurate way to calculate your dog's age, which takes size and breed into consideration:

Years Per Human Year - For the First Two Years:

  • Small dogs: 12.5 years
  • Medium dogs: 10.5 years
  • Large dogs: 9 years

Years Per Human Year - For Three + Years

Small: Dachshund (Miniature) 4.32, Border Terrier 4.47, Lhasa Apso 4.49, Shih Tzu 4.78, Whippet Medium 5.30, Chihuahua 4.87, West Highland White Terrier 4.96, Beagle 5.20, Miniature Schnauzer 5.46, Spaniel (Cocker) 5.55, Cavalier King Charles 5.77, Pug 5.95, French Bulldog 7.65

Medium: Spaniel 5.46, Retriever (Labrador) 5.74, Golden Retriever 5.74, Staffordshire Bull Terrier 5.33, Bulldog 13.42

Large: German Shepherd 7.84, Boxer 8.90

You can see how the ratio varies significantly after the first two years. According to this model, a Bulldog will age an average of 13 years per human year whereas a Miniature Dachshund only ages about four years.

Unfortunately they only calculated the 3+ year ratio for a handful of dog breeds, but this means that my 1-year old Border Collie, Scuttle, is about 10.5 in human years!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Oklahoma Tornado Lost Pet Database
Official web site created to reunite pets with their families

Coming out of yesterday's tornadoes in Oklahoma, there are both tragic animal stories, like the estimated 75 to 100 horses killed at Orr Family Farm, and there are also tales of hope, like the dog rescued from rubble and reunited with her "mom" during a television interview.  

It seems like natural disasters are becoming all too common lately. The good thing is that people are becoming more organized and better prepared to face these emergency situations.  

During past emergencies, it was common to see several web sites and Facebook pages pop up to reunite lost pets with their families. While they all had good intentions, information became scattered. This time, the Oklahoma Media Group teamed up with the Oklahoma City Animal Welfare Division, The Bella Foundation SPCA, and the Central Oklahoma Humane Society to create an official centralized database of lost and found pets for the cities of Oklahoma City and Moore.

People looking for their pets can post a notice in the Lost Pets section, while those who have found an animal (whether you're an individual or work for a veterinary hospital or shelter) can post in the Found Pets section. Anyone can look through both listings on the web site to make matches. Volunteers will also be assisting to connect people with their pets.

The organizations behind the web site are also offering foster care for people who are unable to care for the pets at the moment.

Help us spread the word about this site so more people can be reunited with their pets.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Colorado Becomes More Dog Friendly
New legislation honors shelter pets and requires cops to learn canine behavior

Earlier this week Governor John Hickenlooper signed two bills that show how much Colorado cares about their animals. One piece of legislation made shelter dogs and cats Colorado's official state pet and the other requires police officers to undergo dog behavior training. The governor's adopted pup, Sky, was in attendance for the occasion (I'd love it if Sky weren't wearing what appears to be a prong collar, but that's a whole other topic of discussion).

Colorado is the twelfth state to designate a state pet (their state animal is the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep), but the only one that did not give the honor to a purebred dog. The idea was proposed by students as a part of a project to teach them about the legislative process (very cool!). If you can believe it, the bill did not pass without controversy. Lobbyists for purebred dogs and pet stores opposed the state pet, and one person even testified that the bill discriminated against birds and reptiles.

The canine behavior training for police was created in response to high-profile cases of cops shooting dogs and is thought to be the first of it's kind across the country. Despite being introduced in what has been a combative legislative term, all 100 lawmakers in the Colorado Legislature supported the bill. One of the sponsors, Republican Sen. David Balmer, said, "This is a bipartisan day for dogs."

I think Colorado just went up in the rankings for most dog friendly state!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Moscow's Train Riding Dogs
Russian pups adapt to the changing times

Dogs are amazing at adapting alongside humans. It's thought that canines were domesticated after they learned to scavenge for food and became useful companions to people. Today dogs adjust to almost anything we throw their way. I see big pups happily living in tiny Manhattan apartments and herding breeds channeling their energy into activities with no sheep in sight, like agility and obedience.

Dogs in Moscow have impressively adapted to the city's changing culture. During commuting time it's not uncommon to see both two and four legged commuters on the trains--the humans headed to work and the canines in search of food. There are about 30,000 stray dogs wandering the streets of Moscow, many who started taking the train after the Soviet collapse in the 1990s. Scientists believe that this behavior started as people moved industry complexes, which homeless dogs used as shelters, out of the city and into the suburbs. The dogs moved but learned to ride the subway since the city has the best food scavenging opportunities.

Dogs used to be banned on Moscow's trains, but they quickly captured the hearts of riders. Now many commuters give up their seat for tired dogs and even build simple shelters to help the pups manage the cold winters.

The dogs have gotten pretty good at reading people and don't always have to scavenge or even beg for food. Dr. Andrei Poiarkov of the Moscow Ecology and Evolution Institute says that the pups know exactly what they're doing. Sometimes they'll creep up behind someone and bark, scaring a person into dropping their food. Othertimes they'll play to someone's soft side and rest their head on a child's knee.

Andrei says that the dogs often work together to get off at the correct stop, memorizing how long the train ride is.  Sometimes, just like humans, they fall asleep and get off at the wrong stop! The dogs also seem to ride the subway for fun, darting on the train at the last second and dodging the closing doors. These pups are really making the most of the trains in Moscow!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Behavioral Problems in Pet Store Pups
Comparing behavior of pet store and breeder dogs

Good dog breeders go through great lengths to ensure that their puppies are well socialized, introducing them to a variety of people, environments, and experiences. On the other end of the spectrum, puppy mill dogs, the source of most pet store animals, are raised in disgusting conditions and barely get any human attention, let alone anything close to proper socialization. It's not hard to imagine how many of these poor pups go on to develop behavioral problems later in life.

While most of the information we have about these differences is largely anecdotal, a new study has shown significant behavior trends related to where dogs were born and raised. A veterinarian from Best Friends Animal Society and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at 413 dogs from pet stores and 5657 dogs from breeders to look at differences in behavioral characteristics. All were purebred and were obtained as puppies at approximately the same age.

Behavioral characteristics were measures using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), one of the most carefully validated questionnaires of its kind. It looks at a variety of canine behavior like trainability, excitability, sociability, fearfulness, and expressions of aggressiveness.

The results were not so good for pet store pups. Overall researchers found that dogs purchased from pet stores appeared to be less psychologically sound. On 12 out of 14 behavioral subscales, the pet store dogs showed significantly less desirable behaviors, and in no category did the pet store dogs have a better score.

The most striking findings were related to aggressive and fearful behavior. For example, intact pet store dogs were three times more likely to display aggressive behaviors towards people than intact dogs from breeders. In addition, pet store dogs were more likely to show aggressive behaviors towards other dogs, fearfulness, separation related problems, and touch sensitivity.

Pet store dogs were also more likely to exhibit other problem behaviors, such as running away, mounting, and going to the bathroom in the house.

The researchers hypothesize that these behavioral problems are due to the lack of socialization and human contact at puppy mills. It may seem obvious to anyone who is knowledgeable about canine development, but this study is important for creating greater awareness about socialization needs and the cruelty of puppy mills.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Should the AKC be Regulating Breeders?
The Today Show sparks a heated debate on the AKC's kennel inspections

The internet has been buzzing about the Today Show's segment on the American Kennel Club's negligent inspection of dog breeders. I've since seen the topic fiercely debated among my dog friends on Facebook and on mailing lists.  My Sheltie, Nemo, is from an amazing AKC registered breeder and we participate in AKC sanctioned sports like rally obedience and agility. In many regards, the AKC is doing a lot of good for dogs. They raise millions of dollars each year for canine health research and educational programs, their affiliated clubs run many of the breed rescue organizations referenced by the Today Show, and they promote relationship building activities like dog sports and the Canine Good Citizen test.

But since people think they can rely on the AKC "stamp of approval" for picking a breeder, their inadequate kennel inspection program is particularly troublesome. The AKC only has nine inspectors for the entire country, so it's inevitable that some breeders will fall through the cracks. And there have been reports of breeders who passed the AKC inspection, but were found by local law enforcement to be raising animals in deplorable conditions.  

Given that the AKC is in the business of profiting from puppy registrations, they're clearly not in the best position to objectively evaluate and regulate breeders, particularly large operations who are generating a lot of income for the AKC.  

This conflict of interest is also evident in the fact that the AKC has a history of opposing legislation that could potentially regulate puppy mills. I agree that a small kennel can have inhumane conditions and a large kennel can be well maintained, but in general someone with less animals will be able to devote more attention and resources.  

Besides the high cost of properly caring for dogs, it takes a lot of time to make sure puppies are well socialized. My breeder played sound tapes, took the puppies to experience different people and environments, and brought them along on trips to get them used to the car. This is hard work and would be almost impossible to do if you had multiple litters born at around the same time, which most large kennels do.

Dogs are members of our family, not a product you buy off of a shelf. You can't and shouldn't rely on a "stamp of approval." It's up to you to determine if a breeder is responsible.  Even if the AKC significantly improved their inspection program, I would still extensively do my research on any breeder before getting a puppy from them.

What do you think about the AKC's inspection program?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Looking at Sustainability and the Pet Food Industry
Is dog food having a negative impact on the earth?

Being "green" has become quite trendy in recent years and it seems like every industry is jumping on the bandwagon. For pets, I've seen biodegradable waste bags, organic toys, and beds made of recycled plastic bottles. But beyond the novelty products, some scientists believe that pet food is where we can make the biggest difference in terms of the impact we have on the earth.

When University of Illinois professor Kelly Swanson was approached by the Nutro company to look at sustainability in the pet food industry, he thought it would be a good opportunity to collaborate with their scientists on an interesting emerging topic (they define sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future).

"If you just change the diet a little," explains Kelly, "the financial and environmental costs associated with it are quite different."

Kelly says that people think that their dogs need high levels of meat protein and human-grade ingredients, leading to a direct competition with the human food system (one that will have to feed 9 billion people by 2050). He argues that dogs and cats require specific nutrients, not specific ingredients, which can be achieved using a wide variety of sources that does not rely on meat.  

For example, animal protein can be replaced by plant protein, which requires significantly less water and energy to produce. Producing soy based proteins, a common pet food ingredient, is estimated to be 6 to 20 times more efficient in terms of fossil fuel requirements than an animal protein.

On the positive side, pet food manufacturers already make use of secondary products from the human food chain, ingredients that would otherwise be wasted.

Pet food is a $55 billion industry, so adopting sustainable practices could have a significant global impact. The effects will only increase as pet ownership continues to become more popular in Eastern Europe, areas of Latin America, and the China-Pacific region.

The ingredient issue isn't easily tackled by the average pet family, but you can help lower the impact of food production by simply not overfeeding your pups. This not only prevents obesity, but wastes less food.

The Future
Kelly is hoping to eventually develop a model that would estimate the environmental impact of pet foods and serve as a basis for increasing sustainability in the future.

This model could be used in response to those who believe we should not keep pets at all, like a controversial study published in 2009 that equated the environmental cost of keeping a mid-sized dog with driving an SUV 12,500 miles a year.

Eating less meat is one personal goal of mine for both health reasons and, as Kelly pointed out, because meat production is so taxing on the environment. However, there has been much information about the potential dangers of soy protein in canine diets, so I think there's still much research to do in this area. But Kelly's study is a good starting point in thinking about how we minimize environmental impact while making sure we have the healthiest diet for our dogs. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Modern Day Rat Catchers
NYC dogs search for rodents in their spare time

Walking around New York City, you see a wide range of dog breeds. While they all play the role of loyal companion, few get to partake in what they were originally bred to do. A group of urban terriers is changing that by taking advantage of the city's plentiful rodents to exercise their instincts.

Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (RATS), organized by New Jersey breeder Richard Reynolds, has been hunting for rodents every week in downtown Manhattan for over a decade.

The group congregates in a rat infested alley about an hour after sunset. The dogs include two Border Terriers, a wire-haired Dachshund, a Jack Russell Terrier/Australian Cattle Dog mix, a Patterdale Terrier, and a Feist.

The dogs often work together as a team. One will bark when they locate a rat, another leaps at the rodent, and another lunges to catch the prey as it tries to get away.

The pups are trained to kill the rat (usually by shaking) and bring it back to someone on the human side of the team. It's not unusual for the them to kill 13 rats in a half hour.

I would be worried about the dogs getting sick from the wild animals, but Richard says that no member of the team has ever fallen ill, after all this is what they were bred to do.

There are references to rat catchers working with terriers and ferrets as far back as 1851, but most people today rely on traps and poison.  Modern rat catching has become more of a hobby.

This year the American Kennel Club started recognizing titles from the sport of barn hunt, where dogs sniff around a course and indicate where they smell a rat concealed in a container.

I love to see new dog sports that take advantage of our pups' natural talents.  RATS and barn hunt provide another way to bond with our dogs while having fun... and in the case of RATS, removing a few more rodents from the streets of New York.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Sharing Microbes
Study looks at the microbial connection we have with our pets

New research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that we are more connected to our dogs than we think!

The study published earlier this month looked at microbes and the ways they're transferred between family members, both human and canine. Previous research suggests that microbe sharing is linked to living together, but studies have only looked at humans. Professor Rob Knight, the lead on the University of Colorado study, wanted to include dogs in his research. "Since so many people consider their pets truly a part of the family, it seemed appropriate to include them in a study involving family structure."

Professor Knight and his team sampled 159 people and 36 dogs in 60 families from their tongue, forehead, palms/paws, and fecal sample with the ultimate goal of working towards disease prevention and better treatments.

Interestingly (and not surprising to animal lovers) the team detected a strong link between people and their pets. The microbial connection appeared to be stronger between parents and family dogs than between parents and children. Also, people shared more skin bacteria with their spouse if they had a dog.

We have about 100 trillion microbes in and on our body, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For example, some scientists believe that children who grow up with a lack of exposure to bacteria and microorganisms may be more prone to getting sick. Many microbes have co-evolved with people to be beneficial.

Curious what microbes you and your dog are carrying? Professor Knight is also involved in the related American Gut project, a crowdfunded effort that allows people to learn more about their own microbes, as well as their dog's. The results from a kit will allow you to compare the microbes in your gut to thousands of other people.  Not only will you learn more about yourself and your family, the data will also be shared with scientists for research.

The microbes living in our body can be affected by diet and other lifestyle decisions, having a significant impact on overall health. Scientists hope to one day develop biomarkers that would predict gut health based on a spit sample, hand swab, or even by a plaque sample from your teeth.

I loved what Professor Knight said about including pets in any research related to family structure. Hopefully more scientists will take note!