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JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do Animals Have Empathy?
Study finds that rats look out for their friends

Rats have a bad reputation, but they actually make wonderful pets. I had two before my living situation allowed me to welcome dogs into my family. They were clean and actually quite personable. Reggie and Angie quickly learned their names and would run to the side of the cage when I came into the room. I always thought of them as being very dog-like.

A recent study not only confirmed that rats are smart, but found that they may have empathy for their friends.

Researchers at the University of Chicago placed a free-roaming rat in an enclosure with a caged rat. Once the free rats realized that they could release the trapped rat, they opened the cage every day, even if they were immediately separated (proving the rats were empathetic and not only freeing the trapped rats for companionship).

In the final set-up, the researchers placed rats into an enclosure with two cages—one with another rat and the other with chocolate. They found that the free rats were just as likely to free the caged rats as they were to access the chocolate. Even more unbelievable, the rats almost always shared the treats with the freed rats.

Interestingly when females figured out how to open the cage, they would immediately open it every day. Male rats would occasionally take a day off.

It’s pretty cool that there’s research showing that animals aren’t always just looking out for themselves. I would love to see a similar study done with dogs. When I was checking out the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard University, the researchers mentioned that they had a canine empathy study in the works and there are other scientists who have tackled the subject.

I do think dogs are capably of empathy, even though I’ve never seen it in my own pups. I’ve heard stories of therapy dogs that “take on” the stress symptoms of the patients they visit and pups who won’t leave someone’s side when they’re depressed.

Have you seen your pups express empathy?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do Dogs Make Us Better People?
The ways my pets have inspired me to try new things

When I wrote about the ways my dogs have helped me connect with other pet lovers, it made me think about how many experiences in my life that I have my pets to thank for.

The first time I drove a car by myself was to go to a pet first aid class at a local community college. The first time I used a power tool was to attach jump cup strips to my agility jumps. And the first time I finished an official race, I had Nemo to thank for running every step of the way with me. Sense a trend?

My dogs have inspired me to learn new things and embark on adventures that enrich our lives together. Studies have shown that dog lovers are more active than the average person, but I think that our relationship with our pups extends beyond increased physical activity. My dogs give me unconditional love and I want to be the best person I can be for them.

Does your dog inspire you to learn new skills or test the limits of your abilities?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Are Dogs a Dating Detriment?
Survey finds that pets could hurt a person’s dating prospects

In New York City, there are more than eight million people concentrated in 300 square miles, so you’d think it would be easy to meet potential dates. But with everyone in the typical New York hurry, it’s hard to make a genuine connection with new people.

My dogs are the one thing I’ve found that gets people to stop and talk. When I lived in Manhattan, I met new people at the dog run and while jogging with Nemo in Central Park. Dogs make a good excuse to strike up a conversation. And, maybe because all of my friends are pet lovers, every woman I know gives extra bonus points to a man with a dog. 

So I was surprised to see that a survey conducted by the UK Craigslist found that dogs were the pet most likely to hurt your dating prospects. They found that 23 percent of people would be less likely to date someone with a dog. That percentage dropped to 21 percent for cat lovers and 11 percent for hamster or guinea pig lovers, so I think this might have to do with how “intrusive” the pet is in a person’s life.

I take offense to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster’s statement that “single folks who want to own a pet, but deter the fewest potential dates, should opt for a hamster or guinea pig.” Pets are a part of our family, not an accessory to attract dates. Plus, the survey results still show that 77 percent of people would not back out of a date with a dog lover, so I wouldn't exactly call it a detriment. 

Sure I may have to run home and walk my dogs before I go out at night or limit my vacations to pay for vet bills, but I don’t care if my dogs hurt my prospects. I’ve been on a date with a guy who couldn’t understand why I would want a second dog and a guy who thought it was silly that I ran in the agility ring. As you can imagine, there were no second dates. So much about dating is filled with uncertainty, but if a guy doesn’t love my dogs, I know for sure we’re not compatible!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canines in the Christmas Crèche
A dog is added to a NYC nativity this year

My pets are my family, so I can't imagine Christmas without them. They have stockings hung up on the fireplace, ornaments on the tree and presents waiting for them on Christmas morning. The way we include dogs in our traditions is a reflection of the important role they play in our life.

This year at St. Patrick's Cathedral, a dog figure will make an appearance in the Christmas crèche, thanks to Monsignor Robert Ritchie. Two of Ritchie's previous parishes included dogs in the crèches and after visiting two churches in Rome that had dogs, he decided St. Patrick's had to add one to their nativity scene.

Ritchie has always been a dog lover and the inspiration for the canine addition comes from his Labrador, Lexington. Fifteen years ago, Ritchie was mourning the loss of his dog when his best friend dragged him to a pet store. Ritchie swore he wouldn't get another dog, but ended up falling in love with a Labrador puppy who he named Lexington, the street the store was on. Today, Lexington is a loyal companion and beloved member of St. Patrick's congregation.

Lexington officially welcomed his crèche figure by licking it on the nose. Lexington II, as the figure is called, was carved at the same studio in Italy where the other nativity figures were created.

Of course, I'm not crazy that Lexington is from a pet store, but I loved this story about being inspired by our dogs and including them in our most important traditions.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
N.C. Breed Discrimination Reversed
Dog lovers rally against making certain breeds “unadoptable”

The Internet has been buzzing about a proposal limiting the adoption of certain breeds in North Carolina’s Cumberland County Animal Control. In October, the Animal Control Board decided to recommend that certain breeds, such as Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Chow Chows and American Staffordshire Terriers, be considered “unadoptable.” The plan was to work with rescue groups from around the country to place the dogs elsewhere and avoid euthanasia.

Dog lovers rallied to convince the Board to change its decision, flooding the inbox of Animal Control Director, Dr. John Lauby, with more than 18,000 e-mails against the proposal.  

Last night, the Board decided to retract the plan and look into ways the county can more carefully vet potential adopters instead.

I’m really glad to hear that Cumberland County will be focusing their efforts on identifying responsible adopters instead of discriminating based on breed. For an area without breed-specific legislation, it’s disconcerting to see it crop up “unofficially” through limits on adoption.

However, the reversal just goes to show what animal lovers can do when we come together for a common cause. There is clear support against breed discrimination. Hopefully, other communities considering similar proposals or legislation will take note!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Saving the Japanese Tsunami Dogs
Rescue groups rally to help those left behind

It's been almost nine months since a tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant forced thousands of people from their homes in Japan. The photos of residents evacuating with their dogs was heartbreaking, although the number of of pet-friendly evacuation shelters was impressive.

Today, access is restricted to the evacuation zone, but I was shocked to learn how many animals are still there. Most non-Japanese media outlets left the area long ago, but animal lovers have been using the Internet to spread the word.

Animal rescue groups have risked arrest and radiation exposure to sneak into the evacuation zone and help the pets left behind. Volunteers take in as many dogs and cats as they can, and put out food for the animals they can't take with them.

People have been petitioning the Japanese government to assist with the animal rescue efforts, or at least allow volunteers to officially enter the evacuation zone. Earlier this week, the government announced it will allow approved groups to rescue more than 1,000 pets. No concrete criteria or plans have been set, but rescue groups are hopeful that this is a big step in the right direction.

For more information on the rescue efforts, a friend of mine created the Japanese Earthquake Animal Info page on Facebook to share links and brief translations of Japanese news related to animal rescue activities.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Holiday Gifting Trends
The average gift budget for pets is $46

Every year, it seems more and more pet retailers are joining in on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday bandwagon. In my area, several pet stores opened as early as 7 a.m. on Black Friday. 

Not brave enough to face the crowds, I took advantage of many online deals for treats and paw-safe ice melter. Doctors Foster and Smith even planned a live, streaming webcast of sales and giveaways on both shopping holidays. No doubt pet gifting has become a big business!

According to an AP-Petside.com survey, just over half of pet lovers will be buying gifts for their pets this holiday season, with a higher percentage of those under the age of 50 shopping for their furry friends.

Not surprisingly, 68 percent of pets will receive toys and 45 percent will receive food or treats. 

The poll reported that people are planning on spending an average of $46 on their pets. Most people I know, myself included, spend about $10 to $20 on each of their pets at the holidays. But I think this is because we buy our pets “gifts” all year long!

Like the survey respondents, I usually buy my crew a few new toys and treats for Christmas. Every year, I also have a larger ticket item under the tree, but it’s usually something I had been planning on buying anyway, regardless of the holiday. Last year, it was a Nina Ottosson brainteaser game and this year it’ll be new winter coats.

What are you planning on giving your pups this year?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Problems with Imported Chicken Treats
Illness is on the rise due to products such as chicken jerky

It seems like every month there’s a new pet food product that gets recalled. According to the FDA, the number of dogs getting sick from imported chicken flavored treats has been on the rise. The FDA ran extensive tests, but can’t identify the specific contaminant, nor can they attribute the rash of illness to a specific brand.

Symptoms have included decreased appetite and activity, vomiting, diarrhea, increased water consumption and urination, and even kidney failure and Fanconi syndrome, a condition associated with low glucose.

I gave up buying most commercial dog treats a long time ago. It’s much cheaper to make your own, plus you can control all of the ingredients. For anyone who is hesitant to make dog food, treats is a good place to start. It doesn’t have to be complicated or gourmet.

For training I usually cook steak or chicken and cut it into small pieces. If you don’t have a lot of time, you can even use the microwave. When I’m in a rush and need something really yummy, I’ll stick a hot dog in the microwave and have something ready in just a few seconds. Not the healthiest treat, but a lot better than a lot of commercial treats! Every now and then I’ll also take out the baking supplies and make regular dog biscuits.

Do you make your own dog treats?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Recognizing the Signs of Bloat [Video]
See what the symptoms look like in real life

Everyone with a large, deep chested dog is always worried about bloat (any breed can get bloat, but this demographic is disproportionally affected). Bloat is particularly scary because of how fast the condition becomes serious.

When bloat occurs, the dog’s stomach fills with air, fluid and/or food. The enlarged stomach puts pressure on other organs and can cause difficulty breathing and even damage to vital organs.

According to the ASPCA, even with immediate treatment, approximately 25 to 40 percent of dogs die from this condition. But certainly the odds are much better the sooner the dog can get emergency treatment.

I'm familiar with the signs of bloat, but the video below helped me learn what the symptoms look like in real life.

Roscoe, the dog in the clip, was adopted from Akita Rescue Mid-Atlantic Coast. The video was taken when he first got to his new home. No one present had ever seen bloat before. As soon as they realized Roscoe was sick, they rushed him to the emergency vet where he received life-saving treatment.

Thanks to this video, I feel much more confident that I could identify the symptoms of bloat.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Herding Elephants in Thailand
A shelter dog finds a job at Elephantstay sanctuary

With my Sheltie and a Border Collie you can probably tell that I love herding breeds. It’s so much fun to see these dogs organize sheep or cattle in a way that will never be matched by human or machine. For all the fellow working dog lovers, I had to share the story of Buddy, a cattle dog who manages quite the herd.

Buddy has the job of keeping 100 elephants in line at the Elephantstay sanctuary, a rehabilitation and breeding center in Thailand. The story is even more amazing because Buddy was rescued from a shelter to do this job.

Working at Elephantstay isn’t always serious. Buddy has a playful relationship with the elephants. The sanctuary residents have been known to take him by the leash, tickle him with their trunks and blow air on his back.

Recently, Buddy was faced with a unique challenge when floods forced the elephants to leave the sanctuary. For weeks, Buddy had to keep the elephants together on the streets of Thailand, a testament to his dedication.

To learn more about Elephantstay or to donate to the cause, visit their website.  The flood destroyed the farm where they grow the elephants’ food and it will take over a year to resume production.

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