Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.
News: Guest Posts
January 22 2014
At her intake at a shelter in April 2012, Bean was a pup with a familiar profile: a Pit Bull whose family could no longer care for her. But it wasn’t long before someone at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley in Milpitas, California did notice something unusual about her.
It was her lack of “boing,” says staff member Finnegan Dowling. “No Pit Bull puppy should be that mellow.”
Bean also had a stiff walk. When she was excited, she hopped like a bunny. They took her for x-rays, but even sedation didn’t relax her joints enough to get pictures, Dowling says, and the vet referred her to UC Davis for an MRI scan.
There, Dr. Karen Vernau, chief of the Neurology and Neurosurgery Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, discovered that her hip joints were improperly formed. Bean’s determined spirit wasn’t lost on Vernau, but her chances of adoption seemed slim.
The five month old pup was suffering from muscular dystrophy, a progressive and currently incurable disease that would affect many parts of her body.
According to notes in Bean’s file at the Humane Society, she was scheduled for a procedure at Davis on May 25. By the 29th, she was diagnosed with myopathy, a neurological condition. But somewhere in between those dates, Dowling says, Dr. Vernau’s relationship with her patient “went from obligation to affection.”
Vernau and her family decided to adopt Bean. As the vet told a reporter, “We didn’t intend to go down this path with her, but she just sucked us in.”
This happy ending was only the beginning of Bean’s harrowing medical story.
Gradually, things got worse. Surgery to correct her hips was followed by relief—then new problems. A massive hernia called for another surgery. Her swallowing improved, but the muscles in her esophagus were failing and there were bouts of vomiting so intense she would sometimes choke and pass out. Bean grew thinner as she struggled with aspiration (food getting into her respiratory tract when eating), which caused pneumonia.
Her vets sought help from colleagues in human medicine, a multidisciplinary approach the university encourages through its “One Health Initiative.” They included Dr. Stan Marks, a gastrointestinal specialist, and Dr. Peter Belafsky, an expert in human swallowing and airway disorders, and others.
With help from the biomedical engineering department, Bean had been fitted with a feeding tube that allowed her to eat several times per day. It worked beautifully, according to Dr. Marks.
But it didn’t stop the vomiting.
Since the vomiting put her life at risk, Belafsky concluded that they would have to stop it by removing her larynx.
Belafsky, who performed the second documented human larynx transplant, knew how profoundly such problems affect a person’s quality of life. And it was clearly true for Bean.
Her surgery, which lasted more than three hours, was the first ever canine laryngectomy. The procedure is typically used to treat human cancer. According to Belafsky, the separation of her breathing and swallowing tubes will prevent food from getting into her lungs when she eats or vomits.
The lessons learned in Bean’s treatment will impact human care, and vice versa, Belafsky said in a press conference after the surgery. Belafsky hopes she will inspire human patients who have also lost their voice and now breathe through a hole in their neck. She may just get a guest membership in the “Lost Cords Club” for people who have had a laryngectomy.
After all, Bean is only two years old, but has slept out more than 100 rounds of anesthesia and undergone eight surgeries and countless other procedures. Her “can’t do list” is long. Can’t bark, breathe or swallow normally. Forget gobbling down a treat, and she can’t swim without drowning due to the tracheostomy tube.
But the list of things she once endured, the choking and pneumonia, has been tossed.
Now when she accompanies Vernau to the hospital, she serves as ambassador and teacher, allowing students to experience canine tube feeding.
At home, Bean is learning new ways to enjoy life, which still holds plenty of the good old stuff – balls to chew, cushy beds, and a loving family that includes two other dogs.
Watch this video about Bean's surgery and recovery.
Dog's Life: Humane
Insurance companies’ breed-restriction lists take a bite out of housing options
August 27 2013
The term “foreclosure dogs,” which came into the lexicon sometime around 2007, is all too familiar to animal shelter and rescue workers. Canine victims of the housing collapse, many of these economic orphans face the added burden of being, say, a Chow Chow — or just looking like one. Why does that matter? Two words: breed restrictions. At least a dozen breeds and their mixes are commonly found on insurance companies’ “prohibited” lists, which affect those who rent as well as homeowners. How many dogs might have dodged the shelter had their foreclosed owners found rental housing that allowed them to keep their companion animals with them?
According to Adam Goldfarb, director of HSUS’s Pets at Risk program, so many pets are losing homes that it’s impossible to track specific breeds or breed mixes. However, other statistics don’t bode well for those on the restricted lists. The long-running mortgage meltdown has resulted in more than 4 million foreclosures as of 2009, and no clear end is in sight. Factor that against a 2009–2010 survey by the American Pet Products Association, which shows that 39 percent of U.S. households include at least one dog, with a national average of nearly two per household. And when it comes to size, seven of the 10 most popular breeds weigh more than 25 pounds, according to the American Kennel Club, and that’s not counting the mixed progeny of popular breeds, which, when restrictions exist, are also prohibited.
“It’s more of a problem for renters than for homeowners,” Goldfarb observes. “It’s harder for renters since they don’t control the insurance used by the rental property,” much of which is run by large companies with business- wide policies in place that they’re unlikely to change. Take, for example, Parkwood Rentals in Pierce County, Wash., which handles all types of rental housing, from single-family homes to apartments and townhouses. On its prohibited list are more than 14 breeds and their mixes.
“We did not compile this list,” says Katie Howard, associate broker with Parkwood Property Management, Inc. “This is the list of breed restrictions recommended by the insurance industry that we have adopted as part of our pet policy. If there is a question of breed, veterinarian certification may be required, along with pictures, references and a possible pet interview.”
Will the pet interview or a training certificate help if a potential renter’s dog is on the list or has a relative that is? Not according to Howard. “Unfortunately, we are not able to make exceptions to the breed restrictions.”
An explanation of the rationale behind the restrictions comes from a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, who — in 2005, when a Washington state bill prohibiting insurance companies from banning breeds failed to pass — defended her company’s position by saying “We’re in the business of evaluating risk, and based on what we know, those dogs [on the list] pose a higher risk.” Two states — Michigan and Pennsylvania — restrict breed profiling by insurance companies.
In the U.S., breed bans began in the 1980s after a string of serious attacks, many said to involve Pit Bull–type dogs. In 1984, Tijeras, N.M., was the first to enact a ban, which targeted Pit Bulls. As other regions followed suit, the insurance industry took note. Goldfarb isn’t sure when the practice began in housing, but says that in his opinion, it has definitely increased in the last five years. Over time, at least 75 breeds — from Dalmatians to Karelian Bear Dogs — have made the lists, which vary by region and company. To make it even more confusing, breeds allowed in one place or by one insurer may be restricted in others, or by other companies.
Though not all insurance companies profile — Farmers and State Farm are among those that don’t — those that do base their restrictions on actuarial and claims data, dog-bite reports, and state or local breed-specific laws. According to an article found on Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal & Historical Web Center (animallaw.info), the use of actuarial data has been blocked by courts in some situations. For example, when actuaries found correlations between poor minority neighborhoods and increased risk for homeowners’ claims, they stopped issuing policies in those neighborhoods, a practice known as “redlining.” In the same article, the writer states that breed discrimination is a different kettle of fish from redlining, because insurers “have been unable to demonstrate an actuarial justification for discriminating based on breed.”
In the 1990s, reports of dog attacks increased. Breed bans boomed, lawyers found a new specialty and insurance underwriters scrambled to adjust their policies. But those who actually worked with dogs scratched their heads.
“It didn’t jibe with my experience,” says Janis Bradley, formerly an instructor at the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers. Bradley, who had worked with dogs for years without incident, also talked to other trainers — “I didn’t know anyone who had been seriously bitten by a dog.” Her curiosity piqued, Bradley decided to find out what was actually going on, and started looking for facts related to this contentious subject.
In 2001, soon after she began her research, another sensational story gripped San Francisco and the nation: the mauling death of Diane Whipple by two Presa Canarios kept by Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. Though the case hinged on owner negligence rather than the breed’s aggression, the dogs were huge and the details were terrifying, and it became a touchstone for breed-ban advocates; terms Bradley calls “fear words” made headlines. Of the many factors that lead to breed bans, she thinks reporting bias is the most influential. How — and how often — information is relayed, along with a focus on certain breeds, can distort the issue in people’s minds. Her research convinced her that perception is everything; the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true. No breed has been proven more likely than another to bite, Bradley says, but a log she keeps of Google hits and key phrases related to bites and breeds turns up an unsurprising fact: Pit Bull and Rottweiler are the most common search terms.
The study “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998” (J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000; 217: 836–40) is often cited as support for restricting these two breeds. This study, which was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), tried to link breeds with fatal bites to assess policy implications. “It has done tremendous damage [but] there is no putting the genie back in the bottle,” Bradley says of the report, which she feels continues to be misused today. The biggest problem, she says, was its focus on fatalities, “an extraordinarily rare event.”
In contrast to the study’s narrow approach, Bradley gathered all the research then available, pulling together numbers showing that the likelihood of being killed by a dog is about one in 18 million. Or that roughly 3.9 million of the annual 4.7 million reported bites require no medical attention. (Most bite victims are children, according to the CDC.)
Ironically, the authors of the study had hoped to prevent the discrimination they feared was taking root at the time, says co-author Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division. “The folks involved in the study had concerns that people were considering breed bans,” she recalls. Golab goes on to note that they also had concerns about the study itself, among them, that the breeds involved in fatal attacks change over time. The study didn’t address breed popularity, a factor that could cause breeds to appear more often in bite statistics simply because there are so many of them. Another concern was that the study authors were looking at fatalities rather than bites, which are impossible to track. This meant they were unable to definitively assess any specific breed’s inclination to bite.
Reliance on media accounts and questionable breed identification were also areas of concern. The ability to tell a bear from a deer may be a useful human survival tool, but newer studies show it hasn’t helped when it comes to breeds; people often can’t tell a Foxhound from a Doberman. Eyewitness reports were — and still are — “pretty spotty,” Golab says; in one instance, “a Boxer was identified as a Pit Bull–type dog.” Often, identification occurred after the dog had been euthanized, making it even more speculative.
Though the final report did not conclude that any breeds are more likely than others to bite, it did call out Pit Bull–types and Rottweilers as being involved in more than half of the fatal attacks. Golab and her colleagues warned against using the flawed data to enact bans; the alternative to breed laws, they wrote in the report, “is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior.” At that point, the CDC abandoned its efforts to link breeds and aggression, acknowledging that it’s impossible to track the numbers.
Golab says that breed discrimination existed before the study, and has gradually become more prevalent over the years. “It certainly doesn’t help adoption rates when owners are penalized for choosing a dog of a particular breed, whether the penalty is a higher insurance rate or a flat-out refusal to insure. [Restricted breeds] can easily end up on the least-desirable list for adoption.” Or, if owners can’t obtain affordable — or any — insurance because of the breed they own, they often relinquish the dog; euthanasia is a common result. Foreclosure only adds to the problem, as people struggle to find alternative housing that will allow them to bring pets with them at all, let alone a dog of a “blacklisted” breed.
Bradley, whose research provided her with material for her first book, Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous, continues to track CDC bite statistics. The number of dog bites has held steady over 15 years, she says. Even so, she doubts such information will change people’s minds if they are already convinced there’s a dog-bite epidemic, or that certain breeds are more likely to bite.
“We are innately credulous if we don’t have prior knowledge of something,” she says. “The default response is to believe what we are told,” or have heard repeated time and again. Bradley feels that breed discrimination, like other forms of bias, won’t end without large societal changes.
As the recession wears on, pet policies will continue to restrict housing options for people and pets in crisis. In addition to planning ahead for a move, Goldfarb suggests homeowners do the legwork to find an insurance company that doesn’t profile, and renters look for an individual homeowner or smaller company, which may be open to changing their policy or making an exception. They are both ways “to encourage breed-neutral policies.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
The downside of rawhide
June 28 2013
“I never buy at Wal-Mart, I only buy organic and nothing from China, ever!”
This is how Danielle Devereux, whose German Shepherd Sammy is a ravenous consumer of snacks, describes her treat-buying strategy. Sammy prefers his rawhide toys soaked in warm chicken broth first. “As you can guess, he’s a little bit spoiled.”
In Devereux’s remarks, I hear echoes of my own long search for the right dog chew toys. From the time my Shepherd was a wee pup, we combed the pet aisles looking for enticing substitutes for couch and chair leg. She quickly sniffed out her favorite section among the knuckle and femur bones: the bins where the rawhide is cached.
Promoted as an “all natural” treat, rawhide does keep dogs entertained, perhaps even more so in its many basted, twisted, even brightly colored mutations. It’s the equivalent of that gummy-worm-fortified cereal made with real oats that children howl for all the way down the breakfast aisle. Those looking to improve on the bone are like the clever marketers who expertly tune a child’s whining pitch. Your dog would like to convince you that rawhide is primal therapy for his carnivorous soul!
But if rawhide manufacturers were held to the same standards as drug makers, they’d be forced to add an equally long list of warnings to their labels: May cause stomach torsion, choking, vomiting, diarrhea, salmonella poisoning and exposure to various chemical residues.
The closer you look at the rawhide gravy train—its tentacles in China, typically, at one point or another—the more you may want to wean your dog off this dubious by-product.
The Dose Makes the Poison
“The most potent compounds for stimulating the taste buds in dogs, and presumably wolves, are amino acids that taste sweet to humans”—so goes the discussion of canid diet in Wolves, edited by David Mech and Luigi Boitani. Judging by an explosion of patents for flavored rawhide, which include “tastes” such as bubble-gum and hickory, chew-chefs have apparently done their research. However, in creating treats dogs will chomp for hours, they’ve also produced potentially more toxic products. The more dogs lick, chew and swallow the material, the greater their exposure to any contaminants it contains.
In the case of bubble-gum flavoring alone, the Material Safety Data Sheet reveals a toxic confection containing the carcinogen FD&C Red 40, along with preservatives like sodium benzoate. But tracking the effects of chemical exposure is nearly impossible when it’s a matter of slow, low-dose poisoning. The FDA’s veterinary branch, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, checks into pet food additives only after numerous complaints about a particular chemical.
While chews made from rawhide, bone or other animal parts are consumable, and are therefore considered “food” under FDA law, as long as the label contains no reference to nutritional value (such as “high protein”), the agency advises that manufacturers “may not have to follow the AAFCO pet food regulations.”
Producing rawhide begins with the splitting of an animal hide, usually from cattle. The top grain is generally tanned and made into leather products, while the inner portion, in its “raw” state, goes to the dogs. Removing the hair from hides often involves a highly toxic recipe: sodium sulphide liming. A standard practice is to procure rawhide in the “split lime state” as by-products from tanneries, facilities that top the list of U.S. Superfund sites. In the post-tannery stage, hides are washed and whitened using a solution of hydrogen peroxide. And that’s just one step.
Other poisonous residues that may show up in rawhide include arsenic and formaldehyde. Even dog skin is a possibility. An ongoing investigation of the fur trade by Humane Society International, an arm of the HSUS, resulted in this information, as listed on their website: “In a particularly grisly twist, the skins of brutally slaughtered dogs in Thailand are mixed with other bits of skin to produce rawhide chew toys for pet dogs. Manufacturers told investigators that these chew toys are regularly exported to and sold in U.S. stores.”
Back to the Factory (Farm)
There’s no knowing where it’s been, and where it begins is also unsettling. Rawhide is a by-product of the CAFO—or concentrated animal feeding operation, the bucolic term for today’s industrial farm.
“Nasty, brutish and short” is how Ken Midkiff, author of The Meat You Eat, describes the life of the animals who give up their hides. He’s no expert on rawhide, but Midkiff says he knows far more than he cares to about CAFOs, where thousands of “sentient beings,” crammed together inside huge metal buildings, “never see the light of day until the truck comes to pick them up for slaughter.”
“There’s also a major problem with various drugs,” he adds, citing a CAFO cocktail of antibiotics, arsenicals and hormones used to boost production.“While the claim is made that these don’t remain in the meat of hogs or beef, that claim has not been tested by any federal agency.”
Pattie Boden, owner of The Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., where organic toy enthusiasts shop, doesn’t carry rawhide. Instead, she stocks free-range chews, bully sticks, and organic raw bones, from shins to lamb necks. Her purchasing-protocol (and philosophy) is one owners might apply in their own search for healthful treats.
“I’m not going to be the most financially successful pet store,” Boden says, “but I feel confident in the products I select, and I can sleep at night.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
Choose toys with more than fun in mind
April 9 2013
They make the world go round. They make it bounce, roll and soar. They’re objects that inspire play, enrich training, ease boredom and curb problem behaviors. Toys, according to the experts (and every dog worth his molars), are a must-have.
Despite the constant media comments about how we pamper our pets, toys are no mere luxury. Experts say that dogs need them, and need more than one kind. That doesn’t mean more bells and whistles, just different types. Toys can take the edge off a bad day, like a stress ball you squeeze when you’re mad. Softer toys a dog can “baby” satisfy gentler instincts. Frisbees, balls and tugs are ways to share the fun, while squeaky playthings cry out for attack.
The question is, which toys? With a global pet economy, the options—and problems—keep growing. On the pet aisles, shoppers are greeted with all the persuasive power of an infomercial. Bright, funky objects, packaged to the nines, demand closer inspection—but not too close. The readable text is mostly advertising, not information. “The packaging for these products is incredible and totally deceiving,” says Pattie Boden, owner of the Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va. Boden, who is picky about sourcing safe, natural toys to stock her shelves, says that a 25-year career in advertising has made her a skeptic.
Unfortunately for dogs and owners, manufacturing of pet toys relies on the honor system; for less scrupulous companies, it’s trial by error. In some cases, even errors (discovered through consumer complaints) are ignored. Choose carelessly and our dogs may pay the hidden cost. Among the most familiar hazards are choking and stomach obstruction. Pieces as well as particles may be ingested, and since our pups use their mouths to play, toxic materials and coatings also pose a risk. Yet the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dog toys, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission only regulates pet toys that can be proven to put consumers (people, not dogs) at risk.
This reality hits hard when a beloved animal is injured at play. One such horror story became news after a dog’s tongue was trapped in a hole in a ball, requiring long and painful medical intervention and finally, amputation of the tongue. The owner was shocked to learn that this wasn’t the first such incident—other dogs had been harmed, even killed, by the same toy. The company, Four Paws, eventually recalled several of its toys, according to its website.
Denise Smalt, a trainer in upstate New York, issues a warning about the harmless- seeming tennis ball. Eight years ago, Smalt sold a Shepherd puppy to a couple. “Even though I tell all my puppy people, as well as all my obedience students, how dangerous tennis balls are for large breeds, they still let their Shepherd play with tennis balls because they had always let their dogs play with them, and had no problems. At two years old, the dog choked to death on a tennis ball in front of his owner. I use his story to help save others,” she says.
The concerns don’t end with injuries and choking hazards. While dyes, preservatives and chemical residue are nothing new, a string of toxic Chinese imports has sparked fresh worries. Tests conducted by ConsumerAffairs.com found a variety of mainstream toys tainted with toxic heavy metals, including cadmium, lead and chromium. From cancer agents to neurological poisons, these chemicals are released from affected toys when dogs lick and chew them, according to Dr. Ernest Lykissa, the toxicologist who assessed them. Another lead-laden plaything is made from latex—a material sometimes recommended in lieu of plastic, which may contain phthalates and BPA (hormone disruptors). Adding to the problem of contaminants is a dearth of toxicity data for dogs. What’s presumed safe for a 40-pound child may be deadly for a half-pint Chihuahua.
“Please don’t think because things are made in the U.S. that they are safe,” Ann Martin, author of Foods Pets Die For, an exposé of the pet food industry, advises. “The massive pet food recall is a good example. They did not bother testing any of the raw materials going into these foods; hence, numerous dogs and cats became ill or died.”
Still, the perception is that U.S.–made means safer. At an H.H. Backer pet trade show in Baltimore, Pattie Boden looked hard for new toys made in the U.S. She found just one. Ironically, the only certified organic toy she could find was made in China. But a few U.S. companies are indeed producing quality toys, and the shorter the production path, the better. Some companies use recycled materials (though that’s not synonymous with safer toys, it’s better for the planet). And a company focused on “earth-friendly” products is more likely to avoid problems with toxic materials.
What makes a toy special to a dog may escape human logic, but knowing your dog can help you make wiser choices.
Do you have a Type-A chomper? Technically, dogs don’t chew toys, but rather, tear and shear them as they would prey, using their premolars and molars. These teeth are situated farther back in the mouth, and any toy that finds its way into this set of grinders is a potential victim—so look for appropriately sized toys your dog can’t work to the back of his jaws. Martin relies on her dog Kodi’s play style to choose his toys. The 160-pound Newfoundland is a power chewer who “eats rather than plays with toys. He has some very good squeaky toys he has not destroyed,” she says. Most of his playthings “are the heavy-duty rubber kind.” Kodi’s style, not his large size determines Martin’s toy selection; a small dog can be a power chewer just as a giant breed can be gentle on toys.
From hyper puppyhood to senior moments, knowing your dog also means selecting toys based on his life stage. A dog who’s teething doesn’t play like an old soul whose teeth are worn. A rambunctious adolescent craves different toys than a placid adult dog.
Before buying, use your senses. Strong chemical smells indicate residual chemicals. Brightly dyed fabrics may contain toxic ingredients and leach dye when wet. (Fabric dyes aren’t tested for consumption.) Avoid toys treated with fire retardants or stain guard, as they may contain formaldehyde and other chemicals. Study labels and visit manufacturers’ websites for additional information. Conscientious companies are transparent about their processes.
Safe fun: two words that often collide in a dog’s world, where mysterious edges and flimsy seams can make the most alluring objects. As long as the toy industry is an unsupervised playground, it’s up to loving owners to keep their eyes on the ball …and ring and squeaker.
Nina Ottosson Zoo Active
West Paw Design
News: Guest Posts
March 11 2013
He didn't run like a puppy; he flopped like a seal. His back hunched when he moved as if he was stalking stray sheep. Lucas was born with his front legs curved inward, hobbling his every step. In February, he arrived at Glen Highland Farm's Sweet Border Collie Rescue in Morris, New York, run by Lillie Goodrich and John Andersen. His new caretakers were smitten with him. But what good was their 175 - acre wooded, stream-filled sanctuary to a badly handicapped pup?
Worse, Lucas didn't seem to know he had any limitations. He tried to run and play as hard as any three month old pup; even though all of the bones in his elbows were displaced and separated, leaving him with no range of motion. His rescuers struggled to find solutions when veterinarians offered little hope. A canine cart? The “wheelchair” option led them to consider euthanasia. With his energy and powerful herding drive, Lucas might as well be imprisoned.
The traditional way of reconstructing limbs is to cut bone and utilize biomechanical devices, such as pins and screws, to hold the bone in place as it heals. In Lucas's case, a traditional approach could help, Dr. Hayashi says, but his deformity was so severe that “there is no ideal treatment.”
The chosen procedure would focus on stretching and adjusting the position of the muscles in order to reposition the bones. The method, which is inspired by a few veterinarians, including one from Cornell, doesn't replace other techniques, Dr. Hayashi says. “It's not very different from any other surgical procedures in principle,” he says. “It is a modification” of existing techniques used in other types of deformity. “Each case is different. Each deformity is different.”
Lucas's defect is “very rare,” the surgeon says. While the cause is unknown, genetics probably play a role.
In early March, Lucas underwent the operation at Cornell, where he is now in the first phase of physical therapy. Everything went well, but it's still too soon to gauge its success. “Lucas is still recovering and is fighting this tough battle, and he will probably need to go through more procedures,” Dr. Hayashi says.
His rescuers anxiously monitor his progress. “The process will be a slow one since he has never stood upright on his front legs and has no muscle development” for such movement, Lillie Goodrich says. “His attitude is terrific and he is truly loved by all the team in the hospital. This first two weeks is a vulnerable time when the therapy is critical. Then he returns to the farm for continued therapy up until age one.” The costs are extreme and caretaking is only half the job. His rescuers must also raise the funds for his recovery.
However, the future is looking a lot brighter for the once-unlucky puppy, who still has plenty of time to grow into his limbs. “His prognosis for a normal joint is poor,” Dr. Hayashi says. “His prognosis for a happy life is good.”
News: Guest Posts
Should food that has been genetically modified be labeled?
March 9 2013
Last November, California became the first state to put the issue on the ballot. Proposition 37, the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” called for such disclosure on the labels of some raw and processed foods sold in stores. It also prohibited them from being advertised as “natural.” And it didn’t give dog chow a free pass.
Although the measure targeted human consumers, the California Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law applies to both human and animal foods. So any pet food with a detectable level of genetically engineered content would also have to note on its label, “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
That would mean a lot of new label text in the dog food aisle. Over 90 percent of the nation’s soybeans and 85 percent of its corn is genetically modified, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These crops, modified to resist pests or withstand high doses of weed killer, are common in processed foods such as cereals and dog food.
But even with strong consumer support, the label law failed to pass. The organic industry and other advocates were outspent by biotech companies led by Monsanto—the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds—and the food industry, including Big Dog Food. Nestle, owner of Purina PetCare Company and Mars, the maker of Nutro and Pedigree dog food, donated funds to help defeat it.
The Pet Food Institute and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council argued that the label requirements would increase costs for farmers, manufacturers and consumers alike. Heated editorials appeared on Petfoodindustry.com.
“Putting scary sounding labels on pet food packaging will likely mislead consumers and impact their purchasing choices,” states a “No on 37” Campaign flyer.
In one ad by the campaign, a befuddled-looking man held up a slab of meat and a pet food canister. The line read, “So dog food would need a label but my steak wouldn’t?” The ad aimed at exemptions in the law that might confuse consumers; in this case, that processed beef dog food would be labeled but beef from animals fed genetically engineered crops wouldn’t.
Label supporters say that, given the prevalence of genetically modified ingredients and the scale of the industrial supply chain, a label that covers many of these foods is a good start (for example, dog food with beef which may contain bioengineered ingredients, such as vegetable oils).
Some dog owners already consider mainstream pet food, with its uniform nubs of dry kibble or wet mush, mere canine junk food; fast, convenient, and nutritionally questionable. But are those genetically modified morsels unhealthy in other ways?
The science is inconclusive. A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA altered by the insertion of genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. The traditional means—plant breeding—allows desired traits to be cultivated, or unwanted effects to be eliminated, over time. Gene-splicing also shortcuts the long process of adaptation and evolution that occurs between food and consumers,
The FDA has ruled that these foods are “substantially equivalent to conventionally produced foods,” and does not safety test them. Unless they contain a known allergen, there is only a voluntary consultation process with developers, who conduct their own testing. But scientists say that the potential for creating new allergens and toxicants in bioengineered foods is there. At the same time, corporate patent rights over seeds limit independent researchers’ ability to study them.
California’s failed initiative calls labels “a critical method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods.” Dog owners may agree. How would anyone know if genetically altered foods are triggering disease in dogs? Shouldn’t vets know what the pets they attend to are eating?
One thing is clear: it isn’t over. Several states are now working on proposals for their own label laws.
Editor's note: Starting in 2018 Whole Foods will be labeling GMO foods. And even Wal-Mart has been looking at labeling as well.
News: Guest Posts
Beagles being used by food industry
January 11 2013
What happens when a 15-year-old vegetarian learns that a controversial food additive, one that is patented as a flame retardant, is allowed to be added to her sports drink?
Sarah Kavanagh, of Hattiesburg, Miss., started a petition on change.org, asking the manufacturer to remove it. Brominated vegetable oil is allowed by the Food and Drug Administration as an additive “generally regarded as safe.” It has, however, been linked to health problems in some studies, so why put it in a sports drink, her petition argues?
Dog lovers, too, are posting petitions about practices involving food additives that make no sense to them—like testing such ingredients on animals. The requisite safety tests performed on BVO included animals; even dogs.
While rodents are the usual subjects in toxicity tests, dogs are also an important test tool for food additives such as olestra (of gastrointestinal fame); cyclamate (a banned sugar substitute); and countless other compounds, which are administered at high doses in studies.
Supporters of the practice view dogs as “whole, living systems” vital for testing the effects of additives in products sold to humans. Opponents see a cultural disconnect in using dogs to study products to be sold to…well, them.
Surveys show that nearly half of U.S. households have a dog. Another subset have Beagles; the most common laboratory breed. Yet the long-domesticated dog—subject of endless stories of devotion and cultural indulgence in the form of goods and services aimed at their comfort—is, in another context, a disposable species.
Petitioners say that dogs have limited protections in a research setting. Cages restrict their movement, puppies may be weaned early and caged individually, and procedures may hurt, particularly in vivo toxicity tests.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 “is the only Federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers.”
The Act was prompted by media reports on the theft of pets by dealers who sold them for research. Now most research dogs are “purpose bred,” but they can still be supplied by Class B dealers and legally sourced from shelters, auctions, and ads. As of June 2012, the Humane Society of the U.S. estimates that there were 3,303 USDA Class A breeders and Class B licensed brokers!
The animal welfare law is enforced “primarily through inspections of every licensed or registered facility in the country.” It regulates cage size, cleanliness, and food and water, but not the tests performed or their duration. The BVO feeding study spanned two years (in dog-years, how long is that, owners may wonder?)
Even when dogs emerge from a study in good health, there is still the “frequently asked question” of what happens when an experiment ends?
According to the website of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, “The majority of animals under study must be euthanized in order to obtain tissue for pathological evaluation and for use in in vitro tests.”
The association is a membership group of professionals from academia, government, and private industry that promotes “responsible laboratory animal care and use to benefit people and animals.”
In one petition on whitehouse.gov, the Dogington Post “internet newspaper” offers this appeal to the Obama administration: “Beagles aren’t reliable test subjects.”
In fact, many food additives such as BVO remain controversial long after tests in dogs were used to determine what a safe dose might be in human foods.
Like olestra, a substitute for fat. A 20-month olestra feeding study in dogs states that the objective “was to assess the potential chronic toxicity of olestra in a non-rodent species.” The study found that “olestra was not toxic when fed to dogs at up to 10 percent of the diet for 20 months.”
The dogs, 4-6 month old Beagles divided into groups of 10 for testing, were euthanized when it was over and the study was published in 1991. Yet olestra garners plenty of consumer complaints.
The sweetener Sucralose aka Splenda was also tested in Beagles. Sourcewatch.org describes one test that involved 32 Beagles caged for 52 weeks at the McNeil Specialty Products laboratories in New Jersey. At the end of the study they were anaesthetized and bled to death, which made the examination of organs easier.
An alternative to BVO in beverages, the Eastman product Sustane SAIB (sucrose acetate isobutyrate)—though not a source of consumer complaints—was tested in Beagles, too.
The list of additives is long, and some say, getting longer. Consumer interest in health keeps the food industry experimenting with flavors, plant extracts, supplements, stabilizers and more. As they strive to churn out the substitutes, animal petitioners hope to see new substitutes for dogs in their toxicity tests.
Also promoting humane alternatives is the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is pulling for a robot to the rescue. Like the promising “Tox21,” a collaboration of federal agencies to test chemicals—including food additives—with a machine, at blazing speed. The evolution of technology, they say, will minimize the use of animals.
News: Guest Posts
Study finds Hormone-disrupting Chemicals Leach from Some Plastic Toys
December 7 2012
The toy aisle is meant to be all about fun, but recalls, toxic imports and a dearth of regulations have left dog owners facing tough choices. Many toys are made of plastic and may contain chemicals that interfere with hormones.
A new study by researchers at the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University shows that BPA and phthalates, chemicals that disrupt hormones, “readily leach” from plastic or vinyl bumper toys used to train retrievers.
Philip Smith, a toxicologist and co-author of the as-yet unpublished study, uses plastic bumpers to train his Labrador Retrievers, Bindi, age 11, and Huck, age 5. He wondered if the bumpers might expose them to hazardous chemicals.
In fact, the compounds are hard to avoid. BPA, the building block of polycarbonate plastic, is found in most food and drink cans; phthalates are common in food packaging, personal care items and vinyl plastics.
“BPA and phthalates come from many, many sources” besides pet toys, Smith says. So a dog’s “cumulative exposure may be significant.”
The study, conducted by graduate student, Kim Wooten, is one of the first to examine these chemicals in pet toys. In children’s toys, some phthalates have been banned in the U.S. and the European Union. In July 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups.
Although their health effects in dogs are unknown, the hormones they interfere with regulate many biological functions.
Studies done mostly with rodents have linked BPA and phthalates to impaired development of reproductive organs, decreased fertility, diabetes and obesity, cancers, and behavioral and attention problems.
No, dogs are not mice. There are “species sensitivity differences” in regard to toxics, Smith says. For example, dogs are at greater risk than humans from eating chocolate. But while their sensitivity to synthetic chemicals may also differ, “we are unaware of specific reasons why they might respond in a significantly different manner.”
Available data suggests that the most vulnerable pets may be pregnant females “and perhaps young animals like puppies.”
According to a 2012 pet health report by Banfield Pet Hospital, some cancers and other diseases in dogs are increasing. “The rate of overweight and obese pets has reached epidemic levels in the U.S., affecting approximately one in five dogs and cats.”
The causes are unknown, but Smith says it’s possible that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including phthalates and BPA, play a role.
Certain aspects of canine cancer suggest that dogs are sensitive to them, he says. For instance, exposure to estrogens raises the risk for mammary cancers. For metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, researchers are finding that some hormone-disrupting chemicals appear to “affect metabolic endpoints, in addition to reproduction and behavior.”
For the toy study, the researchers tested orange and white bumpers from two unidentified makers, using artificial saliva to simulate a dog chewing a bumper. The amount of toxics released in a dog’s mouth couldn’t be determined due to the use of simulated saliva,
But what is a high exposure in dogs?
“We are not aware of any exposure guidelines pertaining to these particular chemicals and dogs,” Smith says.
They suspect the levels released from the bumpers would be very high, though, compared with children’s toys.
The study also examined BPA and phthalates from ordinary plastic pet toys sold in stores. The bumpers leached more, but the results suggest that the other toys might have released other hormonally-active chemicals.
Smith highlights the uncertainty that shoppers face, saying the bumpers might have been made from different materials, or perhaps the packaging limited the release of some chemicals before the experiment.
Or, the less affected toys may have involved “materials that are also used in the manufacture of children’s toys.”
“We’re not really sure, but intend to pursue the question further.”
Good thing for pet owners.
“Given the extent of plastics in the human-canine environment,” Smith says, avoiding the chemicals entirely may not be possible.
But not all plastics are the same. When it comes to leaching of chemicals “each type is very different.”
“That is why studies on individual products are important.” Pet owners need the information “to make thoughtful decisions.”
Some pet toy makers say they use BPA-free plastics.
But owners may wonder why it’s even a question. Why should they have to worry about chemicals in toys or migrating from cans, even into “organic” food, to add to their dog’s exposure?
At least—at last—it is being studied.
Smith’s team plans to continue studying the exposure of pets to chemicals. “We think there is a great deal to be learned about potential pet and human health impacts from chemicals in the environment,” he says.
And as they learn, Smith says they hope to yield the data needed “to inform decisions about how we manufacture pet products, which ones we buy, and what we allow our pets to chew.”
Wellness: Health Care
November 1 2012
Something was wrong with Whiskey, and it wasn’t lethargy, whining or refusal to eat that tipped off his owners. It was chew sticks, unchewed. For the 10-year-old Small Munsterlander, chewing was a lifelong obsession. It had been a good life, one spent running down San Francisco city sidewalks; playing in the parks; exploring neighborhood shops; and, of course, chasing toys on the beach.
Whiskey’s owners, Tom Swierk and Robin Addams, indulged his appetite for beef tendons and other treats. The dog they had acquired as a young pup still had “lots of sass,” as Swierk describes him, or he did until last Thanksgiving, when his owners realized he had lost interest in chewing, one of his favorite pastimes. The Small Munsterlander, a hunting breed that originated in Munster, Germany, has been bred for centuries to thrive on chasing and retrieving. True to his roots, Whiskey was a friendly, devoted dog with an intense streak that his owners channeled into play. When Whisky ignored his chew toys, Swierk thought it was a problem with a tooth, and took him to the vet.
It was cancer.
Oral cancer, both malignant and benign, is not uncommon in dogs. Unfortunately, Whiskey’s tumor wasn’t benign. The lesion on his lower left gum was malignant squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common oral malignancy in dogs. In humans, it accounts for 70 percent of all oral tumors.
The wrenching news came with a silver lining: the cancer hadn’t spread to other organs. “This type of malignant tumor metastasizes less than 10 percent of the time,” Swierk says. It is known for its aggressive growth, however, and the tumor had already invaded Whiskey’s jawbone. Nearby were lymph nodes, a ready target and a pathway for the cancer to spread.
What, then, could be done? The usual course of action was to amputate the affected bone, sometimes using chemotherapy and radiation. Another common treatment involved shaving the growth, Swierk says, but that would also mean subsequent periodic surgeries. With the diseased bone removed, Whiskey’s chances for a full recovery were good. A life without chewing, however, wasn’t so promising.
After amputation, the jaw is never quite the same. The teeth and bones gradually fall out of alignment, and the dog’s teeth can cause ulcerations in the hard palate. He could eat, but there would be no more chew toys. He could not play ball or tug of war.
As it turned out, there was another option. A team of vets at the University of California, Davis, had been working on a fix for pets who lost jawbone to disease or injury. It had only been used in five other dogs, but the results had been good. Their vet referred him to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, 73 miles east of San Francisco.
It was a done deal for Swierk and Addams, who were prepared to travel to New York, if that’s what it took to not only save their dog, but have him back whole, and to pay the $8,000 treatment cost. Whiskey was more than a pet to them — he was their companion.
“Whiskey is our world, plain and simple,” Swierk says.
Bone regeneration was seen as science fiction in 1948, when Dr. Marshall R. Urist, a UCLA orthopedic surgeon who pioneered the field, got started. Urist spent five decades at the bone research laboratory at UCLA, where he discovered how to use proteins to stimulate skeletal repair.
In 1971, he proposed the name “bone morphogenetic protein” (BMP) for the growth-promoting factors he used to prompt new bone growth in rabbits. The bone proteins act as signals to stem cells, which migrate to them and are converted into bone-forming cells. These cells then grow bone in the area where the BMP was placed.
Naturally occurring BMP is found within bone, but clinically useful amounts can’t be easily extracted from human donor bone and so must be genetically engineered in the lab.
At UC Davis, Whiskey was in the care of a team of vets who had been perfecting a new procedure to regrow damaged jawbone, work that drew on Urist’s research and other experimental and clinical treatments developed for humans. The team included Dr. Dan Huey, a biomedical engineer; Dr. Boaz Arzi, a veterinary surgeon; and Dr. Frank Verstraete, who heads the dentistry and oral surgery service at the veterinary teaching hospital. Their goal was to put biomedical approaches to bone replacement to use in veterinary practice. Once they had refined a technique that would work for dogs, they put out the word, and soon referrals from other vets were coming their way.
“It wasn’t an experimental study, just an innovative application of existing materials,” Verstraete says.
Over a two-year span, eight dogs have undergone the procedure, and to date, all are doing well, the vets say. Each dog spent three days at the teaching hospital for an exam, surgery and recovery, followed by three post-operative exams.
Whiskey, their sixth patient, had the largest lesion. There was no getting around it: he would lose much of his jaw. But with the help of a titanium plate, a sponge and some bone proteins donated by Pfizer, he would grow a new one in a matter of months.
The team’s first task was to decide how much bone to take in order to remove all of the cancer. That proved to be 2.5 inches, or about half of Whiskey’s lower left jawbone. Once the diseased bone was out, in went a titanium plate built by Dr. Arzi, which was screwed into place on the remaining bone.
But the titanium plate alone was not enough to hold the jaw together. The greatest risk was failure of the plate due to the large gap where the bone had been, Dr. Verstraete says. Over time, pressure on the plate would cause the surrounding bone to resorb.
Enter the scaffold: a stiff, sponge-like piece of material that was fitted into the space. It, too, was only part of the solution. The next step in building a new jaw would require Whiskey’s own stem cells, attracted to the bone proteins in which the scaffold had been soaked. Like a magnet, the bone proteins would draw stem cells from the dog’s surrounding bone and soft tissue to the scaffold, where they would attach and turn into bone cells, according to Dr. Huey. The new bone cells would eventually fill the entire void and integrate with native bone. On a molecular level, the new bone is the dog’s own, with a DNA makeup identical to other bones in his body.
There is no need to match the proteins to a particular dog, Verstraete says. “The BMP we use is synthetic, recombinant human (rhBMP-2). It doesn’t elicit any antibody response in experimental animals.”
Just as the vets borrowed from human medicine, their procedure for dogs will now find its way back into human medicine. Their success with the eight cases has given them material for a report on the work, which they plan to submit to a scientific journal.
What lies ahead for the promising surgery? The vets hope to be able to modify the technique for use with larger jawbone defects in animals. Also on the horizon: human arm and leg bones. There is more work to be done, however. “The technique that we used has not been done for weight-bearing bones yet,” Verstraete says.
Is the new method a cancer cure, or a quality-of-life issue?
“Both,” Verstraete says. “We only do the surgery for tumors that haven’t spread. Reconstruction greatly improves the quality of life compared to the previously used technique.”
Swierk knows there’s no guarantee that Whiskey will remain cancer-free. “The assumption is that it’s a cure, but the verdict is still out.” But based on Whiskey’s September checkup, it’s “so far, so good.”
Swierk says the bionic jaw is doing its job. “He eats all his yummies as he did before.” In addition to munching kibble, caulif lower and chew sticks, he’s back to chewing and chasing balls and toys. Swierk isn’t surprised that their dog has bounced back, or that the new technology was available right when he needed it. “We never doubted for one minute that Whiskey would succeed with this new cutting-edge surgery.” It’s all part of Whiskey’s good nature, Swierk says.
“He’s led a charmed life.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dogs help game wardens work
January 27 2012
When she’s excited, Iris wags her whole body. Even the nylon tunnel can’t contain her delight. The black Lab disappears into the tunnel, and her joy becomes sound: slap, slap, slap, tail on tube. You’d never know it’s dark in there. Rusty, a smiling yellow Lab, and Ruger, a German Shepherd whose smile is hidden by the large toy in his mouth, can’t wait for whatever comes next. That turns out to be the arrival of Falco and his owner, Jason Rogers.
It’s a sunny but cool morning in Upper Lake, Calif., gateway to Mendocino National Forest, where California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) K-9 program supervisor Lynette Shimek is hosting a monthly training session. Finding a mussel in a boat bilge takes practice, especially when daily work in the field has revolved around other tasks—say, deer poaching.
A warden’s work can be unpredictable. To keep the dogs on their toes, the group often switches locations, but Shimek’s rural property, complete with barn and fields, is the base camp. All around, mysterious props hint of hard work disguised as serious fun: tunnels, ramps and wooden pallets; jars, balls, tugs, pails and climbing rigs. “You want to first teach them that it’s fun,” Shimek says.
No need to tell the dogs they are here to save the planet. Let them enjoy the scents of nature, the breeze with its hints of bear and deer. Or was it elk? These dogs know the difference.
How It Works
“I think any dog can be taught anything,” Shimek says. “It’s a matter of communicating with them.” That’s no small task when it comes to scent detection. A dog’s brain is closely hitched to the 220 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses. Humans, on the other hand, have about 5 million receptors, and this can make it a challenge for a person to understand how strong a dog’s sense of smell actually is, and how to harness it.
Shimek explains it this way. “A person sheds 40,000 skin cells [groups of which are called rafts] per minute. On each raft are odors. Each is individual to the person, and everyone has different types of sweat glands that give different odors. Then, think of all the different things you put on your skin daily—shampoos, soaps, deodorants, creams. There are compounds within odors.” And the odors themselves have a life, influenced by wind speed, temperature, time of day and terrain.
Training doesn’t end with graduation. DFG’s certification standards require 16 hours of monthly maintenance training, and both agility and nose work are part of the practice session.
Hidden on Shimek’s property are animal scents encased in jars. For deer, hide material is often used, tucked into wooden pallets and a series of lockers. Odors travel, and working with lockers helps the dogs learn to pinpoint the source. More broadly, a search will entail what Shimek calls a “scent picture.” For example, one spent casing differs from 20 spent casings. A Seattle Police Department K-9 training document describes how a dog can decipher that hidden world. A person walking through an area, for example, leaves two types of evidence that make up the ground scent picture: airborne rafts and other debris that fall to the ground, and the disturbance of the earth from their steps. Each footfall alters the ground, prompting changes in soil chemistry and bacteria, which alerts the dog to a change from the surrounding area.
Once the dog locks onto a scent, he or she alerts the handler. In a passive alert, the dog remains quiet and indicates the find by sitting, standing or staring. An active alert, also called an aggressive alert, involves barking or scratching. If the odor is on ground, the dog lies down; if it’s somewhere above chest level, the dog sits. The dogs must discriminate among competing smells, and there are no rewards—treat, toy or a pat—for alerting on the wrong scent. “We don’t pay them for residual odors,” Shimek notes.
The teams also work on different kinds of footing to meet the challenges encountered in the field. Ramps and stairs teach them to be aware of their feet. People can see their feet and watch each step; dogs can’t. Obstacles—things the dogs go up, over, under and through—are also put to use. “Everything is in building blocks,” Shimek says. With tubes, for example, they start with straight ones and add culverts as the dog gains confidence. “When Iris goes in, we listen for the tail,” Shimek observes. Thump, thump, thump: she’s doing fine. As she exits, they watch her behavior. Smiling? Stressed?
Iris is also watching her handler, according to Shimek. “Dogs are masters of body language. They read the handler when the handler has no idea.” Her secret for turning out successful teams? Positive reinforcement, behavioral modification and building trust between handler and dog. She believes that when a dog fails to learn, it is always the handler’s fault. Even as the person is training the dog, “the dog is teaching the handler how they learn.”
DFG’s K-9 program has two types of trained dogs, both certified to detect specific odors. Dual-purpose teams locate people, apprehend suspects, and perform tracking or trailing duties. Detection teams focus on odors and evidence; illegally taken wildlife, invasive species, firearms, spent casings, and more. The dogs may be trained to track, but not contact suspects. Depending on their locations, teams are taught to detect bear, bear gallbladders, deer, fish, elk, abalone, waterfowl and squirrel. A minimum of five scents must be mastered to pass the academy.
An Urgent Problem
DFG’s K-9 program began in 2007. The agency estimates that one well-trained dog can save roughly 800 personnel hours per year. With 20 trained dogs on duty, they’re well on their way to meeting their 24-dog goal. Shimek’s current scent dog, a black Lab named Lance, certified with her in May, as did five other teams. Nearly 50 out of 58 counties in California have added K-9 support.
A shortage of wardens lends urgency to the K-9 program. In California, for example, there are 200 wardens for every 180,000 people, according to the HSUS. This is, they say, the lowest ratio “in any state or province in North America, and a number that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.” In the documentary Endangered Species: California Fish & Game Wardens, filmmakers James and Andrew Swan spotlight the result of that shortage: organized crime has become involved in poaching, and a wildlife black market that generates more than $100 million annually has been created.
Poachers—who hunt in the off-season; take more fish or game than allowed; or illegally sell abalone, sturgeon, bears and many other species—put enormous pressure on wildlife. So do pollution, habitat destruction and the insidious practice of introducing non-native fish like northern pike and white bass into California's lakes and rivers.
In April 2011, HSUS created the California Anti-Poaching Action Network. Their objective is to address the warden shortage by mobilizing groups of community-based volunteers to closely follow poaching cases in their counties and encourage prosecutors and judges to deal with poachers in a meaningful way.
Habitats Under Siege
Poaching is not the only problem, however. The West’s rich variety of environments creates endless opportunities for invasive plants and animals, “alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health,” as defined by the National Invasive Species Council. The U.S. Geological Survey is also concerned about the effects of these interlopers, pointing out that exotic species “have altered physical processes related to fire and hydrology in a manner favoring their further expansion.”
Quagga and zebra mussels, hitchhikers that travel from the Baltic Sea to the U.S. in ships’ ballasts, are the top two offenders on the list of threats posed by invasive species. These rapidly reproducing mussels clog water-delivery pipes and devastate waterways. “Our department is the only state agency in the nation that is training dogs to detect mussels,” Shimek says. That training began in 2008, when Shimek took stock of the looming threat. So far, the state’s boat-inspection program has yet to put the dogs to work in any systematic way, relying instead on human inspectors. Still, the dogs are getting ready for deployment. In fact, K-9 invasive-species detection is a whole new arm of conservation.
The Friendly Factor
From the standpoint of agencies whose employees carry firearms, dogs are also helpful when it comes to public perception. Dogs’ popularity was among the justifications offered by Colonel Dabney Watts for adding a K-9 program to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The idea had been kicked around over the years but never got going, and Watts believed he had solid evidence of its usefulness with everything from agency branding to reducing employee hours in the field. “We sent a survey to 18 states” with K-9 programs, he told colleagues in an April 2011 presentation, “and got 14 very positive responses.”
Today, 24 wildlife agencies in the U.S. have K-9 units, Watts said. Their time has come. “There will be other uses for these dogs, non-traditional ones,” in the future, he added.
The nation’s first wildlife K-9 program began in New York in 1978 with the Department of Environmental Conservation K-9 program, and soon caught on in other states. At first, additional police dogs were assigned to the wildlife beat; then in the 1980s, sporting breeds were introduced, which, according to Watts, “helped gain widespread public acceptance for the use of dogs by wildlife agencies.”
About 35 percent of the work is public relations, he estimates—one reason Virginia chose three Labs for its program. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which started its K-9 program in 2002, also uses even-tempered Labrador Retrievers.
In 2011, Idaho joined California and Kansas when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game added Pepper to its workforce. The Lab will help track poachers, assist in search and rescue, and promote conservation efforts by visiting schools and other groups. The program, which consists of only one team, is considered a trial. After five years, it will be evaluated to see how well it worked. If it succeeds, more Scent Detection K9 teams will be authorized for use throughout the state.
How do you train a fish and wildlife dog when you’re launching the first such program in the state? Like Virginia and Kansas, Idaho sent their dog and handler to Indiana, where the state’s Department of Natural Resources hosted a free training academy. Merely attending, however, is no guarantee of success. Of the three dogs Virginia sent, two flunked out in the first 10 days. Luckily, Kansas, with its well-seasoned K-9 program, brought backup dogs.
Come One, Come All
Though the work may be similar from state to state, there are also regional differences. Florida is rich in biodiversity—and wildlife crime—but not every state crawls with alligators. In southern California, dogs help conduct surveys of desert tortoises. One thing all wildlife agencies share is the desire for people-oriented dogs, fully socialized with humans and animals alike. Hence, most are companion dogs, pets of wardens who later join the K-9 team. For example, Ruger was Warden Bob Pera’s wife’s dog until the Shepherd decided he needed a job. “He started going to work with me every day,” Pera says.
When it comes to breed, the field is wide open. Mixed breeds are welcome and “pre-owned” dogs of every sort can find a job if they’ve got the knack. When DFG is planning to offer a detection academy, a request is put out to see who’s interested. Shimek then travels to interview candidates, and find out if they have a dog. Once they graduate from the six-week academy, the department purchases the warden’s dog for a dollar.
Several recent graduates were rescue dogs. They need not be spayed or neutered, though Shimek advocates sterilization. A series of tests is used to check for suitability for the work. “We want endurance and hunting drive,” she says, along with sociability and trainability. One test involves throwing a ball in a field or hiding balls in trees and seeing how long the dog will search for it. Highly focused canines do best.
As every trainer knows, shelters are filled with dogs with such intense drive; in fact, that drive is one of the reasons people abandon or relinquish their dogs.
Rusty and Jin are perfect examples. Rusty, a neutered male Lab mix who works in California’s El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, was once a shelter dog. When Warden Erick Elliot adopted him, he was uncontrollable. It’s hard to imagine that earlier dog in the energetic bounce of the happy animal with the toy in his mouth who circles Elliot, or fearlessly scales a set of metal stairs at Shimek’s canine playground. All he needed was someone to believe in and guide him. In the field, Rusty has located deer and bear carcasses, enabling Elliot to pinpoint exact kill sites.
When Shimek says, “It’s the dogs themselves who have taught me the most,” the first to come to mind is a female named Jin. “The worst dog I ever had the privilege of working with became one of the best detection dogs,” she says.
Jin had been through three homes in her first year of life, and wasn’t house trained. Plucked from a shelter by another warden, who brought her to Shimek, Jin taught Shimek valuable lessons. Such as: “dogs should never be punished for anything they do out of fear.” To rehabilitate her, Shimek had to essentially step back in time and begin working with her at the most basic level.
The first task was simply saving the emaciated creature. “When I got her, she was almost dead,” Shimek recalls. It took eight months to straighten out her digestive system. As gaunt as she was in 2008, Jin fought a leash (which she seemed to regard as a monster attached to her neck), jumped on everyone and barked constantly. One year and 15 pounds later, Jin passed her first detection test and now works in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, with a handler who adores her.
As forces like climate change and habitat loss reshape the nation's wildlands, the job of Fish and Game dogs will continue to evolve. Scientists are exploring ways to tap their talents to meet the challenge, because each dog, regardless of their particular abilities or the obstacles they've overcome to pass the academy, comes equipped with a valuable natural resource. That is, a nose for nature.
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