Is the Mars acquisition of VCA cause for concern?
An explosive, must-read article in Bloomberg Business Week looks at what happens when big business monopolizes the pet health business and how this corporatization might not be in the best interests for our dogs.
Ever wonder why many veterinarians do not heed the 2003 American Animal Hospital Association’s recommendation for core vaccines to be administered every three years? Instead a number of vets still prescribe annual vaccinations—with boosters for distemper, parvovirus and adenovirus. According to the Bloomberg article the immunologist, Ronald Schultz, from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, was one of those researchers who recommended this three-year protocol in the 1970s. He recalls that the AAHA Canine Vaccination Task Force, facing a revolt from vets about the decrease in their future vaccine incomes, struck a compromise at three years instead of the once-in-a-lifetime approach that he and others recommended. But yet you can find that annual vaccines are still being recommended by the 1,000 Banfield Vet Clinics in this country. Another surprising fact is that pet vaccines seem to be the only vaccines where one size, seemingly, fits all—the doses are the same regardless of weight or size of the animal, so the same 1 milliliter is given to a Chihuahua or an Irish Wolfhound—very little research has ever justified that approach. Bloomberg points to an example from Banfield's software program "Pet Ware," used to instruct the veterinarians in diagnosing and prescription advice:
“the book shows a checklist of therapies for a dog with atopic dermatitis, or itchy skin. Doctors are encouraged to recommend a biopsy, analgesics, topical medications, antibiotics, a therapeutic dietary supplement, an allergy diet, and a flea control package. They’re required to recommend antihistamines, shampoos, serum allergy testing, lab work, a skin diagnostic package, and anti-inflammatories. It’s a treatment course that might run $900 for symptoms that, in a best-case scenario, indicate something as prosaic as fleas. The manual reminds doctors: You cannot change items that were initially marked Required. They must remain required.
No wonder the pet health industry is booming and going through a period of rapid consolidations, Banfield, located in many PetSmart stores, was purchased in 2007 by Mars, the candymaker and pet food giant (the largest in the world with over $17 billion in sales from brands like Pedigree, Cesar, Eukanuba, Iams, Natura brands, Royal Canin, Sheba, Nutro). Then in 2015 the Mars Petcare portfolio of vet clinics grew when they acquired BluePearl Veterinary Services, with an additional 55 locations.
Mars, seemingly, facing a slowdown in consumer purchases of prepared/package foods and sugary products, is acquiring even more veterinarian companies and it was announced that their newest acquistion that they are paying $7.7 billion is VCA, Inc., the veterinary and doggie day-care business based in Los Angeles. VCA owns 750 hospitals and employs 3000 vets and 23,000 people, and had a 2015 revenue of $2.1 billion. The Los Angeles Times noted that “VCA has used acquisitions to combine hospitals, diagnostic labs and veterinarians into its network. In 2014, the company even acquired a dog day-care chain called Camp Bow Wow.”
And similar to Banfield’s approach, the Times notes that “VCA has been criticized at times by some customers for requiring tests that can be costly, but VCA maintains that it’s against its policy to sell unnecessary tests or treatments.” But 41 percent of VCA’s operating profits comes from their company’s Antech Diagnostics that also does bloodwork and other tests for more than half of the country’s hospitals, including their own of course. As Bloomberg reported, Tom Fuller, VCA’s chief financial officer, puts it this way when he speaks to investors: “Diagnostics is what grows the industry.” And the company’s business strategy has been “to leverage our existing customer base by increasing the number and intensity of the services received during each visit” (as found in their annual financial reports by Bloomberg reporting.)
Pushing tests unto clients is “good” for business, if not always for their clients’ pets,
"according to Wendy Beers, a veterinarian who resigned in 2014 from a VCA hospital in Albany, Calif. 'Every month they would print out things to say how many packages you sold, how many procedures you did,' she says. 'And if they came out and said, ‘This month we want everyone to do 20 heartworm tests,’ and you only did eight, well, next month you have to do better. I don’t feel when they’re lecturing us that their chief interest is to make sure animals get the best care.'”
According to Ken Shea, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, who says that with Mars’ expanding presence in animal hospitals, the company will have an opportunity to use the facilities to sell even more of its pet foods. Is this troubling news for pet parents? A recent class action suit brought on behalf of consumers by a San Francisco law firm thickens the plot further when you consider that this suit contends that pet food manufacturers (including Mars) and retailers (such as PetSmart) are using "prescriptions" to justify overcharging consumers for food that contains no restricted ingredients. Neither the FDA nor any other government agency mandates such prescriptions.
Bloomberg clearly makes the case why all these things, like over vaccinations, unnecessary testing, false prescriptions for pet food matters is that veterinary medicine is largely unregulated. And one of the reasons why businesses like Mars find the pet industry a good investment strategy is that
“...pet owners pay cash: Vets don’t deal with insurers haggling for better prices or questioning whether that vaccine or ultrasound or blood panel is really necessary. (A small percentage of pet owners carry insurance, but they pay vets upfront, like anyone else, and then take on their insurers for reimbursement.) What’s more, when veterinarians make fatal mistakes, they face no real financial consequences. The law hasn’t changed to reflect the attitudes of the average pet owner; courts still treat pets as property. Damages paid to owners whose pets have been killed or injured are so low that a typical medical malpractice insurance policy for a veterinarian costs less than $20 a month. Damages are so low, in fact, that few pet owners can find a lawyer willing to take even the most egregious case of veterinary malpractice.”
So, yes, it should matter, and as always, it is good to understand what you are up against, what to expect if you use any of these services, to double check before you agree to over vaccinations, or receive a “prescription” for pet food, you are after all the only advocate your dog has and the better informed you are, the better decisions you will make. Nancy Kay, DVM, author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, added that she “feels truly disheartened for my profession” about this expansion of Mars’ vet monopoly. Be sure to read the Bloomberg story and get the word out.
News: Guest Posts
Endocrine-disrupting chemical raises red flags
A study by researchers at the University of Missouri finds that eating canned dog food may increase a pet’s exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA).
While the study was short-term, the results were “very revealing,” says investigator Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. Fourteen healthy pets were switched from their usual diet of kibble to canned food. Could a two-week menu change raise the dogs’ BPA levels?
It did, three-fold, and that could really be an issue for dogs that eat the same diet every day.
Over 300 studies have linked BPA to health problems from reproductive disorders to cancer, and now research is shedding light on how people and animals are exposed to the plastic-hardening chemical. While the FDA has reviewed the studies, they still consider BPA “safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”
By measuring BPA’s escape from packaging, scientists are narrowing the focus. One study settled the debate over whether BPA—banned in baby bottles but used in many other items—seeps from metal can linings and taints human foods. (It does).
And in August, a long-term study in the UK found a sharp decline in canine fertility associated with exposure to other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The researchers considered food packaging a possible source, finding the chemicals in a range of dry and wet foods.
Some plastic dog toys have also been found to leach the chemical. A study at Texas Tech by environmental toxicologists Phil Smith and Kimberly Wooten found that BPA and phthalates leached from plastic bumpers into dishes filled with artificial dog saliva.
Wooten, who wasn’t involved in the present study, says that while it isn’t clear if dog health is being harmed long-term, “it’s still important information to have since there’s so little data on canine exposure to these types of chemicals.” She knows of no other studies that have looked at the effects of a specific BPA source on the concentrations in the blood.
“I’d say a 3-fold increase suggests that for dogs that eat canned food, their diet is the most important contributor to their total BPA levels.”
The current study highlights another concern; with the pet food industry being held by about five companies, it seems commercial foods aren’t as diverse as packaging suggests. Of the two (unnamed) brands in the study, one was declared “BPA-free” by the manufacturer.
So, skip the can and spare your dog? It turned out, the dogs already had a small amount of BPA circulating in their blood, shown by initial baseline samples. The researchers then analyzed both the cans and the food for BPA. They also checked for any disturbances in gut bacteria and metabolic changes.
Although one of the diets was presumed to be BPA-free, feeding either brand for two weeks resulted in a three-fold increase of BPA levels in the animals. At the same time, the dogs showed gut microbiome and metabolic changes, with potential health consequences. Increased BPA may also reduce one bacterium known to metabolize BPA and related environmental chemicals, according to the study.
Bagged kibble might also contain BPA, since the dogs had some BPA in their blood before the study, possibly from their dry diets.
“This is the point that it is not clear,” Rosenfeld says. “It could be that the food already contains BPA. However, we saw minimal levels when the dogs were on kibble.” In some cases, very low amounts can lead to equally if not greater harmful effects as high doses, she says. The greatest concerns may be at the low and high doses.
“The doses we found in the dogs after being on canned food though were comparable to what has been linked to health problems in humans and rodents,” a list that includes diabetes and obesity, among others.
If the dogs continued to eat the canned food, would BPA keep building up in their bodies?
“We did not see what would happen if we took the dogs off the canned food or kept them on it longer,” Rosenfeld says. “These are definite follow-up studies.” Ideally, based on the results of this one, she says they would pursue long term studies to test BPA concentrations after long term feeding of canned food, examining the dogs for metabolic disorders—such as obesity and diabetes—and neurological ones, using MRI and behavioral testing.
In a previous rodent study, they did find that the longer mice were on a diet containing BPA, even though it was being metabolized, it would start accumulating in their system so that greater amounts would persist over time, she says.
In humans and primates, BPA is excreted through urine. “It is not clear how it is cleared in dogs.”
While BPA affects the reproductive system, Rosenfeld says they did not find any gender differences in this initial study—“but we would need to test more dogs to confirm.”
The main concern about the gut microbiome changes is that they have been linked with various diseases, including neurological, metabolic, immunological, gastrointestinal, and possibly even cancer, she says. “Thus, by affecting the gut microbiome, BPA could induce such secondary effects.”
Unfortunately, a supposedly safe substitute for BPA, BPS, didn’t fulfill its goal. Rosenfeld says that in rodents and fish, BPS has already been shown to lead to similar health concerns as BPA. Their study didn’t test BPS in the cans. “It is not clear if some dog foods are using this substitute,” she says.
“By feeding fresh food, dry food, and minimizing canned food, it will reduce exposure to BPA and BPS.”
News: Guest Posts
The more I read about how dogs have been very helpful for answering all sorts of questions in the field of conservation biology, the more interested I got in learning more about this exciting and growing field. Thus, I was extremely happy that Pete Coppolillio, the Executive Director of Working Dogs for Conservation, was able to take the time to answer a few questions about just what these amazing beings—the dogs and the humans—do. Their banner reads: We train the world's best conservation detection dogs & put them to work protecting wildlife and wild places. We do it to save the world. They do it for the love of a ball.
They also note:
Our work with canine programs in Africa prevents poaching and reduces illegal trafficking in ivory and rhino horn.
Partnerships with 50 conservation groups have taken us to
Thousands of high-energy dogs are stuck
How and why did you get interested in this project?
I was doing “traditional” or what you might call mainstream conservation, and we wanted to use dogs to learn about African wild dogs, because at that time, handling them was not allowed in Tanzania. As I continued working, I kept running into species that were either too difficult to capture, or situations where we were unwilling to capture them because it was too dangerous or too expensive. After being in the field a few times with dogs I got very enthusiastic about the possibilities they offer, and started pestering the founders of the organization with questions like, “Have you ever thought about using dogs to track or stop aquatic invasive species?” or, “What about disease? You think they could tell the scats of a diseased animal from a healthy one?” All those questions and a little bit of enthusiasm earned me a spot on the Board of Directors, and then when the organization got big enough to have someone direct traffic and chase money full-time, so I said I would love to be the Executive Director… and here I am. The photo above is of Ngaio Richards and Lily taking a break from Cross River Gorilla surveys to meet with school children in Cameroon.
What are the benefits for conservation?
There are so many really significant ways that dogs can push conservation forward. One of the earliest benefits we saw, and one of the most obvious, is simply how sensitive and effective they are at finding rare species. Some nice work was done in the northeastern US and they demonstrated that, at very low densities—in that case just one individual animal in particular a landscape—dogs were 39 times more efficient detecting that animal than camera traps or hair snares.
We have also demonstrated that dogs can do things that simply weren’t possible before. For example, they can detect the microscopic larvae of zebra and quagga mussels. No matter how hard we look visually, we can't see them so that's a game changer for stopping the spread of those two invasive species, which cost us billions and billions of dollars every year. Another surprising benefit of having the dogs working on stopping invasive species was how quickly they work. It can take a human inspector over an hour to do a thorough job looking for mussels hitchhiking on a boat from contaminated waters, but a dog can inspect that same boat in about three and a half minutes. That's a big deal because many states’ check stations are voluntary, and if there's more than one or two boats in line people will simply keep driving by, or the officers themselves will wave them on so that they don't delay them. The photo above is Alice Whitelaw, during Diesel's training in Montana. Diesel now works with the Alberta Ministry of Environment to keep exotic zebra and quagga mussels out of Alberta's lakes and streams.
Source: With permission of Pete Coppolillio
The final thing I'll mention is our dogs’ impacts for anti-poaching and anti-trafficking. In some areas, Africa has lost around 60 percent of its elephants in the last 10 years. Our dogs not only make it virtually impossible to smuggle significant quantities ivory in a vehicle or container, but they can also intervene and prevent elephants from being killed in the first place. One of our dogs, Ruger, who is a lab shepherd mix rescued from the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, detected and his handlers seized 13 guns in his first two months in the field. On the face of it, that's an enormous impact, but when you take into consideration that a single gun is often shared by seven, eight, or even more than 10 different poachers, Ruger becomes a one dog force for conservation in Zambia.
Are there any downsides?
I think one of the most important things we've learned—and that's the collective “we” of the organization and the whole conservation detection dog field—is that there are times and places where dogs are the best option, and there are others where the traditional methods still make a lot more sense. Collecting scat and detecting species non-invasively is really valuable and important, but it's very difficult to get mortality data, and by that I mean to figure out what's killing a species, without being able to follow individual animals, and that generally means having to capture and collar them. It's also a little bit uncomfortable when we consider that these dogs are in the middle of very serious and high-level law enforcement. Unfortunately, the people who traffic wildlife are also the same nasty characters who traffic in narcotics, guns and even humans, so this work is not without risks to the people who do it and the dogs to help them. Africa in particular, is also a hard place to be a dog. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, can be really serious for dogs and we have had to figure out ways to protect them from it.
What do you say to people who feel that you're using dogs against their will? Do you think this is so?
When I watch a working dog in the field, I wish that for just a few seconds I could lose myself in my work or my passions as completely as a dog does. I think anybody who sees that happen recognizes that these are very lucky dogs who truly love what they're doing. The days of coercive and dominance-based “training” are really over for serious dog trainers. Positive or reward based training is simply much more effective, and of course it's more ethical, so I can say without a doubt that all of our dogs not only want to work; they love to work. Our dogs also live with their handlers. That’s preferable from a technical standpoint because they really know each other well, so the handler can see when a dog struggles or is even just having a bad day, but it’s also nice because the dogs and handlers are partners for their whole lives, not just for their work.
Are there any other organizations that are doing similar work?
Yes, a little over 20 years, ago Megan Parker, one of our founders, started a collaboration with a woman named Barb Davenport, who is the lead trainer for the Washington Department of Corrections, and Sam Wasser, who is a conservation biologist at the University of Washington. Meg and three other women who are all biologists started our organization, Working Dogs for Conservation, and Sam and Barb have started their own organizations as well, and these three are the oldest and most established organizations in the country and the world. We have each grown to occupy slightly different niches now, but we all do similar work. Nowadays, there are lots of conservation detection dogs working in this country, and Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly in Asia and Africa. In 10 years time I believe that every university, every state wildlife agency, and just about anyone doing serious wildlife work will have or use dog teams. They will be as common as camera traps and radio collars for wildlife research, management, and conservation.
Why do you think it took so long for people to recognize how dogs can help us along and not suffer by doing it?
It's a great question. We've spent decades trying to figure out what wild carnivores are doing, as they run around the landscape leaving little messages for each other in the form of scat, or urine, or scrapes, and it took us until the mid 90s to look down at our own dogs and realize they could read the messages themselves, and even more importantly, they’re keen to tell us about it. It's hard to imagine, given that we've lived with these guys for 30 or 40,000 years, but maybe that's why we've taken them for granted.
What have other conservation biologists said about your project?
People love to see what dogs can do, and when we talk with biologists or land or wildlife managers the conversation almost always leads to new ideas and new ways that dogs can help. It's great fun. Dogs are also a great tool for outreach because people love to see what they can do. We often work on projects where biologists have been studying or working to protect an animal for years or sometimes even decades, and they laugh because the first time a dog comes to help them do their work, the press is there, and they want to hear about the project. This is also a pretty good job to have when you go to cocktail parties. A friend of mine recently introduced me as her friend “the environmental conversationalist”, which isn't far from the truth these days, I suppose.
What projects are planned for the future?
This is an exciting time for us. We've grown a lot, and we've moved from being a service provider who sits back and waits for people to ask for our help, to a real driver in our field. We are now able to try new things, develop new methods, and work in places and focus on issues that we think are important for conservation and the health and wellbeing of wildlife. We're going to continue to grow in two important ways. First, we're shifting towards building capacity. That's just a fancy way of saying that we're going to teach others how to do this work, rather than try to do it all ourselves. We believe that conservation dogs need to stop the illicit wildlife trade by being as ubiquitous and effective as narcotic detection dogs. That's a huge, daunting undertaking. Think of all the borders, airports, post offices, shipping terminals, rail stations, and everywhere else that dogs would need to be. By creating model programs and sharing how we do the work we do, we hope to make it as risky to trade and wildlife as it is to traffic drugs.
The second, and maybe even more exciting, growth area for us is through innovation. Every new laboratory technique opens a door for us, by increasing what we can learn from scat. Just last year some of our collaborators made it possible to detect pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and heavy metals in mink and otter scats, so we’ve combined these techniques with dogs’ ability to find those scats, to create a new way to monitor the health of aquatic ecosystems. We also started another related program looking at the ways in which poisons, specifically rodenticides, move through terrestrial food webs. The results can be a little bit alarming, because we find contaminants and poisons in places we thought were pristine, but the information is invaluable in documenting the problem and figuring out how to prevent it.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?
No matter how much I do this work, I continue to be amazed at how effective the dogs are, and how tirelessly and enthusiastically they do their work. We really are only limited by the crazy things we can dream up and ask the dogs to do. As more people know about us and see the possibilities that dogs offer, they support our work, either financially, through donations and grants, or by collaborating with or hiring us to try new things and expand the possibilities. It's really amazing how many different issues or problems are limited by what we can detect, so it's great fun and really gratifying to have a bunch of partners who run around with the world’s best chemical sensors on the front of their faces!
Many thanks, Pete. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. This is fascinating work and I look forward to learning more about your future projects and successes. I imagine there are a lot of dogs who would love working with you. You can contact Working Dogs for Conservation here.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
News: Guest Posts
Woman wisely rejects man who reveals his true colors
Karishma Walia, a woman in New Delhi, has rejected a marriage proposal from a man her mother thought would be a good match because of his finances and his looks. However, the man objected to the fact that she has a dog, and conversations about this issue allowed her to see that he was not the man for her. The man seemed to be surprised by her rejection. He assumed that they could work something out even though he didn’t want a dog, and told Karishma that his mother doesn’t like dogs, either.
It is certainly possible for many couples to overcome serious differences. Even if only one person is a dog lover, substantial compromise on both sides can allow a relationship to flourish. What’s just as alarming in this exchange as the man’s contempt for the dog is the disdainful way he treated Karishma. He belittled her love of dogs, assumed that she would change in order to have the privilege of marrying him, and then became angry and insulting to her, suggesting that she marry the dog.
After she rejected his proposal, he said that while he didn’t used to dislike dogs, he does now. He went on to say that he was still not able to digest the fact that her dog is the top priority in her life and that it’s good to have pets but when they get in the way of your life, it’s good not to have them. Not everyone is a dog person and that’s fine, but contempt for animals and a failure to understand that they matter to others are evidence of a serious character flaw. The way people regard and treat animals can be a warning sign of unacceptable behavior towards people.
This man’s tone throughout was rude and condescending. He clearly expected to have his way, and was quite put out when that did not happen. I pity the woman who does eventually marry this man, with his controlling attitude and lack of respect or manners. Karishma did more than avoid a marriage with someone incompatible. She likely escaped a man who would have disrespected her and made her unhappy even if his attitude towards the dog had not been the deal breaker for her.
Karishma’s dog was an asset in helping her see that marrying this man would be a mistake. It’s easy to admire this woman and her priorities. She has plenty of self-respect, and clearly loves her dog.
Dog's Life: Humane
Nationwide spay/neuter project adds to Bhutan’s canine Gross National Happiness.
Walk along the terraced rice fields of Pana, hike the switchbacks to the 17th-century Cheri Monastery in Thimphu or explore the back alleys of Paro and you see the same thing: dogs. In Bhutan, they are everywhere. Some nap soundly during the day, conked out on median strips and sidewalks and in the centers of traffic roundabouts, oblivious to the people and vehicles swirling around them. Others seem to have busy schedules, heading up to the monastery for the morning, then cruising back down to meet friends in the parking lot and head off on afternoon adventures. Near temples and tourist sites, they follow visitors in hopes of handouts, or seek shade under parked cars.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice something unusual: most of them—in fact, about 75,000 of the country’s estimated 100,000 dogs—have a triangular notch in their left ear. This distinctive mark identifies the dog as having been spayed or neutered as well as vaccinated against rabies. It also represents a huge milestone in the world of animal welfare.
Straddling the Himalayas, tiny Bhutan is perched between China to the north and India to the south. It may be best known for its Gross National Happiness index, in which Buddhist cultural and spiritual values are applied to socioeconomic development. The fact that these Buddhist values extend to all sentient beings is one reason Bhutan is now seven years into the world’s first—and arguably, most successful—nationwide spay-and-neuter effort, the reverberations of which are almost certain to be felt well outside its borders.
In partnership with Humane Society International (HSI), Bhutan has now sterilized about 75 percent of its total estimated canine population, hitting the critical tipping point at which most animal welfare experts believe a population stabilizes (meaning that growth stops and overall numbers decline). Maintaining that percentage will require about 3,200 sterilizations per year. The Bhutanese team, which now consists of highly experienced vets, vet techs, administrators and dogcatchers, intends to do that and more—to reach between 10,000 and 12,000 dogs per year and achieve its dream of both reducing the dog population and improving its overall health.
“Because the Bhutanese government was so welcoming and so supportive, we had a huge opportunity to tackle [canine population management] on a scale that was really unprecedented,” says Kelly O’Meara, director of HSI’s companion animals and engagement department. “Now we have this goldstandard model for a program covering an entire nation that we can use as an example for other governments who are looking for a real solution to their dog overpopulation problems.”
Dogs in Bhutan aren’t typically owned, as we define it in the United States. But they aren’t really strays either. Although most households have dogs in the yard, these animals don’t go indoors, wear collars or chew on squeaky toys. Furthermore, Bhutan does not have dog breeders; the few purebreds in evidence likely come from India, Thailand or Nepal.
The majority are “community dogs,” meaning that they hang out in a specific locale—a city block, on the grounds of a hotel, at a temple or bus station—and the people who live and work in that area feed them, in accordance with Buddhist practices. The Junction Bookstore in the capital city of Thimphu, for instance, prominently displays a change jar on the counter to collect money to feed the eight dogs in its immediate area, all of whom have notched ears. Most community dogs are a healthy weight and reasonably well socialized, but that doesn’t mean they have easy lives. Among other things, almost no one takes responsibility for them if they’re injured or ill. (See the sidebar for an inspiring exception.)
Prior to 2009, Bhutan’s dog population was exploding. Overall economic development, including a proliferation of meat markets, had resulted in new sources of food scraps and garbage. Females were having multiple litters, and their puppies were wandering into traffic, with predictable results. The sight of so many dead puppies along the roadways upset both the locals and visitors flooding the country as a result of its push to expand tourism. Tourists were also complaining that they couldn’t sleep because of incessant nighttime barking; some tour groups and guides even suggested that their clients bring earplugs. (Unneutered male dogs bark and fight over females.)
Eager to appease the tourists and also to have cleaner streets in preparation for the 2008 coronation of a new king, the government began looking for ways to deal with its dog-population problem. As Buddhists, they rejected widespread killing in favor of impoundment, rounding up thousands of dogs and confining them to facilities in which they mingled freely. The result was dreadful; disease spread quickly, fights and injuries were rampant, and adult dogs routinely slaughtered newborn puppies.
HSI had cautioned against impounding, and about a year into the experiment, Rahul Sehgal, director of HSI Asia, did a status check with the government. He asked to tour the sites with government officials and religious leaders, all of whom were sickened by what they saw. “We knew that if they saw the conditions, it would have an impact,” says O’Meara.
Impounding isn’t just inhumane, it’s also ineffective. So is culling; killing dogs does not control the population in the long term. Both simply provide short-term relief from the symptoms “We really struggled,” recalls Sehgal. “But [then] we started recruiting and training local Bhutanese, people who could breathe easier, for one thing, speak the language and climb mountains. And it all began to take off.”
As part of the program, the Bhutanese government launched a massive public education campaign to explain the goals to its citizens. The national cable television network ran public service announcements about the importance of spay/neuter in decreasing sexually transmitted diseases and reducing injuries from dogfights. In television spots and in the local papers, officials described the meaning of the ear notch and announced that Tuesdays were “Love Your Dog Day.” Every Tuesday, people are encouraged to bring their dogs—however loosely that ownership is practiced—to the local clinic for free sterilization, health checks and vaccinations.
At the end of three years, the HSI/ Bhutan team had reached its goal of 50,000 sterilizations. The only problem was that the team’s field experiences had showed that initial estimates of the population size were way off— rather than 70,000 dogs, there were more like 100,000. With that in mind, both parties agreed to a Phase II extension from 2012 through 2014. Phase III followed and is set to end in 2018. Over the years, the makeup of the teams has shifted until it is now almost entirely Bhutanese; Sehgal provides oversight and can board a plane to Paro at a moment’s notice.
As Phase II began, the Bhutanese vet students were completing their educations in India and starting to join the national campaign. To hone their highvolume sterilization skills, they were all trained by HSI vets from India.
These techniques were on full display one Friday last May at a small clinic in Paro, where veterinarians Sangay Dorji and Bhakta Bdr Gurung made quick work of their 10 patients, who had been netted in the neighborhood that morning and soon thereafter, anesthetized and prepped for surgery, which included ear notching and cauterization. Post-surgery, vet techs placed the dogs on blankets in an outdoor recovery room. Each dog also received a rabies vaccination, ivermectin for parasites and skin problems, and a B complex injection. Once the dogs were back on their feet, the team returned them to the area in which they were originally caught.
Ten patients was actually a slow day. These roundups, which take place in every precinct of Bhutan every Friday, typically net 20 dogs, and Dorji has seen as many as 50 dogs come in a single day. He has performed 5,000 procedures since joining the program in 2013—he can spay a dog in less than 15 minutes and neuter one in less than 10. (Compare that to 45 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively, using a traditional method with a larger incision.) With a female patient on the operating table, he demonstrated a technique for keeping the stitches on the inside of the skin to reduce the likelihood of infection.
Dorji says that he and his team spend a lot of time out in the community, talking about animal health and spay/ neuter at schools, temples and hotels, sometimes even going door to door. They almost always have a receptive audience. “We’ll go to a temple and explain it to the monks, tell them it may take an entire day, but in the long term, it will be much better for everyone,” says Dorji. “Then all the monks work with us to bring us their dogs. Once people understand what we are doing and why it’s important, they always agree to help.”
That may be because animal welfare is already an integral part of Bhutanese culture. “As Buddhists, we believe that a dog could have been your parent in a former life, so we feed them and treat them with compassion,” says Dorji. “If anyone is seen abusing an animal, that person would be immediately challenged by other people.”
By now, most “owned” dogs in Bhutan are sporting notched ears. So, the remaining challenge is to target the dogs who have repeatedly evaded even the most expert dogcatchers. Dorji hopes to engage the community in that effort as well. He thinks that the people who regularly feed dogs in certain areas may have enough of a bond with them to be able to bring them in.
Kunzang Choki, who runs the dogfriendly Junction Bookstore, agrees. She and her coworkers have set up crates for the local dogs to sleep in outside the storefront, and dogs are welcome to lounge inside and partake of an occasional belly rub—not to mention regular meals, courtesy of the change jar. “We’re a small country,” says Choki. “If everyone took the initiative to take care of the dogs in their own area, we could solve this problem.”
For anyone worried that this effort is going to deprive Bhutanese of canine companions in the future, never fear. Even an effort as comprehensive as this one isn’t going to catch and neuter every dog in the country. “It will never happen that there won’t be dogs in Bhutan,” says Sehgal. “As long as there is garbage and an ecosystem to support them, there will be dogs, no matter how many we spay and neuter.”
Jamie Vaughan fell in love with Bhutan on a visit in 2005 and decided she wanted to live there. A native of Virginia, Vaughan had been working for the local water district in Colorado, but figured she could take advantage of Bhutan’s incentives for attracting foreign investment to open a hotel. She just didn’t realize that her “hotel” would have long-term guests and that those guests would be animals.
But, these days, as founder and head of the Maya Foundation, which runs Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue & Sanctuary in Paro, she takes care of about 240 dogs, 25 cats, 14 horses and mules, 45 goats, 19 pigs, 18 cows, two mice and a pigeon.
“In the U.S., we just aren’t exposed to this kind of suffering. I started seeing dogs on the streets who had been hit by cars or injured in a fight or had horrific skin conditions, and I couldn’t leave them, so I brought them home,” she explains. “And then one dog turned into seven, which turned into 50, which turned into 100, and then I stopped counting.”
An ardent animal lover with no previous experience in animal welfare,Vaughan taught herself basic first aid, such as cleaning and bandaging wounds. She’s trying to secure Bhutan’s first-ever X-ray machine for animals, and works closely with Animal Ortho Care in Virginia, which makes prosthetic legs for her dogs and equines. She even helps build the new pens and enclosures that are constantly being added.
In a country with no animal shelters (as there is no culture of adoption) and no long-term-care facilities, Barnyard Bhutan serves a critical need. Vaughan collaborates closely with the government vet hospital in Paro, taking over nursing duties for animals who have been seriously injured or have had surgery at the hospital and keeping them at her sanctuary as long as needed—even if that’s for life.
Though she tries to return as many rehabilitated dogs as possible to the sites where they were originally found, that often isn’t possible. Dogs with permanent disabilities—such as amputations or brain damage from distemper or head traumas—can’t fend for themselves on the streets. One of her star residents, a dog who looks like the Himalayan cousin of a Bernese Mountain dog, was found at the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery by a filmmaker/tourist named Tim Gorski, who brought him to Bhutan Barnyard. The dog, named Tim in honor of his rescuer, is now the picture of health, with a glorious fur coat. Returning Tim to Tiger’s Nest would require him to exercise skills that he’s likely to have lost during his many months of rehab—namely, establishing himself in the existing pack—and Vaughan doesn’t want to risk it.
For more information about the Maya Foundation’s Barnyard Bhutan Program, or to arrange a visit to meet Tim, find the group on Facebook.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Frans de Waal presents a fascinating history of the study of animal behavior and cognition. De Waal, who says his love of animals dates to his childhood, is a worldrenowned primatologist and ethologist and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. We asked him to shift gears and give us his take on the canine mind.
Bark: Konrad Lorenz (co-founder of your field) wrote Man Meets Dog in 1954. And while it is still one of the best, if slightly flawed, books on canine behavior, why did it take so long for ethologists, and other researchers, to to study dog behavior?
Frans de Waal: Dogs were (and are) considered imperfect subjects of study because they are “unnatural.” Many ethologists, including Lorenz, feel that natural behavior under naturalistic conditions is what we should focus on, and the dog is a product of artificial breeding. Lorenz liked all animals, however, and so couldn’t resist describing his dog stories, and we should all be grateful.
Clearly, the dog is a mammal with many typical mammalian tendencies, so now scientists are finally seeing that the fact that they are domesticated also has advantages. For example, they are eager to work with us, they are generally not dangerous, they are smart, they have empathy. Lots of great things can be done with them. And they are easier to work with than other large mammals, such as apes and dolphins.
Bk: Can you give an example of how other species, including dogs, demonstrate empathy?
FdW: American psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler sought to determine at what age children begin to comfort family members who sobbed or cried “ouch.” It turns out that children do so at one year of age. In the same study, Zahn-Waxler accidentally discovered that household dogs react similarly. Appearing as upset as the children by the distress-faking family members, the dogs hovered over them, putting their heads in their laps with what looked like great concern. This work has recently been repeated in different studies, more focused on the dogs themselves, and it is clear that these animals show empathic concern for humans.
The ancestor of the dog, the wolf, probably behaves the same. If “man is wolf to man,” as Thomas Hobbes liked to say, we should take this in the best possible way, including a tendency to comfort the whimpering and help the needy. This insight, of course, would undermine much of political philosophy based on Hobbes’ dog-eat-dog view of nature.
Bk: Do you think human bias has played a part in some of the canine cognitive studies?
FdW: At first, dogs were rated as more intelligent than even apes and wolves because they followed the direction of human pointing (at a bucket with food), whereas apes and wolves ignored human directions. Then it was found that wolves raised in a human home will act more like dogs, following human pointing, suggesting that the earlier failures with wolves were probably due to lack of bonding and attention. The same probably applies to the apes. Now, dogs are seen not just as smart but rather, as finely in tune with the species that bred them.
They have a special bond with us, as also reflected in the oxytocin studies, which show that human-dog contact increases this “cuddle” hormone in both. The dog is perhaps the only animal that performs at its peak when tested by humans, whereas many other animals are not so into us, hence need to be tested in different ways. This is yet more proof that cognitive testing of animals always needs to take into account what kind of animal we are dealing with: we need to find the most species-appropriate way.
Bk: In contrast to behaviorism’s reward/ punishment model, ethology views animals as “seeking, wanting and striving.” Why do you feel the latter is a more productive way to look at animals?
FdW: The behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner) totally overlooked natural animal tendencies. Trying to explain all behavior on the basis of reward and punishment, they could not explain why you can train a dog to fetch, but not a rabbit or a goat.
Predators are obsessed with small moving objects, which we see every day in our dogs as well as cats. Their interest sets up a learning situation where they are going to absorb many lessons about how to catch these moving objects, how to trick them, how to outsmart them. Dogs eagerly learn all of those things.
Reward and punishment are only small parts of the story; their natural hunting instinct is, in fact, the driver of the process. This is where behaviorism failed. It had some good ideas, many of them applicable to animal training, but its perspective was far too narrow as it lacked attention to natural tendencies and the evolution of behavior.
Bk: Why do you think Darwin used dogs to illustrate emotional continuity?
FdW: Darwin was a dog lover, and he knew that to get his message across about the continuity between human and animal emotions, the dog would be the easiest way to communicate. Darwin mostly worked on the expression of emotions (it’s hard to know what animals feel, but we can at least document how they signal various states, such as fear, submission, anger, affection). Of course, the dog is very expressive with its postures, facial expressions, tail-wagging, growling and so on. Darwin knew that most people could relate to all of this, and would have more trouble if he described other species that people have less exposure to.
Bk: In terms of an evolutionary advantage, how important is it for a species to have self-awareness, or theory of mind?
FdW: These capacities require large brains. In terms of recognizing oneself in the mirror or understanding what others know, the champion species are apes, dolphins, elephants and perhaps also the corvids (crow family). This doesn’t mean that dogs lack them. They probably have similar understanding, but not as fully expressed.
The more complex the societies of a species, the more demands there are on cognition, and perhaps canines do not need social understanding at the level of an ape or dolphin. I feel we need to judge animals on what they are good at and what they need to know to survive. In this regard, canines have lots of specialized skills, often related to their sense of smell, their pursuit of prey, their need for tight cooperation and so on. This is where we should test them out, and probably find remarkable skills.
Bk: Clearly, emotions are important to the understanding of behavior; how do they relate to and inform one another?
FdW: In my book, I left emotions out on purpose because I felt it would muddle things. But there can be no studies of cognition without attention to the emotions, and vice versa. The two go hand in hand. In our famous capuchin monkey experiment with the grape and the cucumber, for example, you can see not only that the monkeys judge what they get relative to what others get, but also their strong emotional response. You cannot study the one and ignore the other.
Wellness: Health Care
As the mom of two young children, I’m always checking the weather forecast. Jacket or sweater? Rain boots or sneakers? As a veterinarian with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), I rely on a different forecast, the Companion Animal Parasite Council findings published by my veterinary colleagues, which tracks the intensity of pet diseases from year to year. Here’s what to expect for the remainder of 2016.HEARTWORM DISEASE FORECAST: STORMY
Veterinarians anticipate a rise in heartworm disease because of the unusual weather pattern created by El Niño. The warmer temperatures and wetter conditions create an ideal breeding environment for mosquitoes. When an infected mosquito bites a dog, the larvae are injected into the dog’s skin. They migrate through the body, finding their way to the large blood vessels of the heart and lungs. There, they mature to the size of cooked spaghetti. These tangled masses of worms can cause heart failure, and even death, if not treated early.
Expect to see cases skyrocket in:
Heartworm disease is prevalent in the Lower Mississippi River region and this year it’s expected to spread to:
All dogs need to be protected from heartworms, even those who rarely venture outside. The one mosquito that flies through your open window and bites your dog just might be infected with heartworm larvae. Preventives are available in the form of pills, topical liquids and injections. All kill the larvae once they enter the bloodstream. The AAHA recommends year-round heartworm prevention.TICK-BORNE DISEASE FORECAST: PARTIALLY CLOUDY
An infected tick can spread a number of life-threatening diseases when it bites a dog. The most common are Lyme, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, and their prevalence varies by region. Some dogs with Lyme disease will run a high fever, experience painful joints and exhibit swollen lymph nodes. Others will present no signs at all. Untreated infections can lead to kidney failure and death.
In regions where Lyme has been living comfortably for years, the incidence is expected to rise. These regions include:
Recently, the disease has spread to:
These states may have a higher-than-average occurrence the rest of the year.
Historically, Lyme has thrived in New England, but, oddly enough, the incidence there is expected to fall below normal this year, perhaps because more owners are vaccinating their dogs.
If you live in an area where ticks are abundant, take precautions to keep your dogs safe. Your veterinarian will prescribe a tick preventive in the form of pills, topical liquids or collars. In areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, she may recommend vaccination.
Anaplasmosis causes disruptions in blood clotting, which results in bruising, internal bleeding and nosebleeds. Signs of Lyme disease also present in anaplasmosis.
Anaplasmosis shows moderate to high activity in:
Ehrlichiosis displays signs similar to both Lyme and anaplasmosis along with eye, liver and spleen infections. Above-normal incidence of ehrlichiosis is expected in:
Just like the human flu, canine influenza is spread by one infected dog sneezing or coughing on another. Two strains of canine influenza are present in the U.S. H3N8 has been here for years, but a vaccine has kept it at bay. A new Asian strain, H3N2, hit Chicago last spring, causing a local epidemic; dogs didn’t have a natural immunity to the strain and there was no vaccine. Since then, H3N2 has infected more than 1,000 dogs in more than 25 states. Fortunately, H3N2 vaccines were developed not long after the outbreak, which likely curbed the spread. It’s difficult to predict how the flu season will play out for the rest of the year. With so many dogs on the move with their owners, and not all of them protected by vaccines for the new strain, the disease could spread quickly. If you plan to travel with your dog, visit your veterinarian for a vaccine protocol.
News: Guest Posts
Pups as a Work Perk
For dog lovers, being able to bring our pups to work is a huge perk. Most companies don't allow pets in the office, but that is slowly changing. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, seven percent of employers now allow pets to come to work—up from five percent five years ago.
Many companies see this as a way to help with retention and work-life balance at no extra cost. It's often people's favorite perk.
At North Carolina based Replacements Ltd, there are about 30 animals that join their 400 workers on a regular basis. Their policy is probably one of the most liberal—the office has even been visited by a duck, potbellied pig, and possum. Public Relations manager, Lisa Conklin, even hopes to bring in her horse, Azim, one day.
The pets have always been on their best behavior. Although on a number of occasions the human employees have broken the fine dining dishes that Replacements sells, no one can remember an animal ever being responsible for an incident before.
Bringing our pets to work is a fun perk, but it has tangible benefits as well.
In 2012, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Randolph Barker led research that measured levels of cortisol in workers' systems. His team found that people whose animals came to work saw a decrease in stress throughout the day, while those who didn't have a pet saw their cortisol increase. Randolph says that pet friendly companies typically report more coworker cooperation and interaction as well.
But there are some challenges with having a liberal pet policy. Not all animals like being in an office environment and it's up to the individual employee to make the best decision for their pet. There are also other considerations for organizations, such as allergies and finding a building that is pet friendly.
However, provided that a company can make it work logistically, the benefits seem immeasurable!
News: Guest Posts
9/11 SAR Dogs honored with commemorative statue
The service dogs that responded to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks have not been forgotten. However, monuments to their service are few compared to those devoted to two legged responders. On Wednesday August 17, New Jersey officials gathered at the Essex County Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial in West Orange to do their part to change that. They dedicated a new commemorative statue honoring the Search and Rescue Dogs of 9/11.
The four-foot tall bronze dog sits atop a 12-inch slab of granite, and weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. It was designed by Oregon artist, Jay Warren and paid for by corporate donations. The West Orange 9/11 Memorial opened in 2002, almost exactly one year after the attacks. The park overlooks Manhattan across the water. Citizens once gathered there, helplessly witnessing the chaos at Ground Zero.
In September 2001, countless heroes emerged from obscurity to aid their country in its time of need. Men and women of law enforcement and fire rescue courageously faced the devastation alongside everyday citizens. The new West Orange monument stands as a reminder that not all 9/11 heroes were human.
Roughly 350 Search and Rescue Dogs worked tirelessly in the tragic aftermath searching for survivors; and after, searching for human remains. Sifting through the jagged rubble and blinded by smoke and debris, the dogs battled exhaustion and emotional distress.
After hours of searching and finding no one alive, some handlers would ask for a volunteer to hide amidst the rubble to be “located”, helping to raise the dogs’ spirits. Even when the search mission became one of recovery instead of rescue, the dogs carried on diligently, providing what little peace they could for the families of the victims.
In a press release for the commemoration of the new statue, Newark Public Safety Director, Anthony Ambrose said:
"Search dogs covered 16 acres of land at Ground Zero covered with metal and debris, and went where humans could not go. This is a fitting way to remember how many families gained some sort of closure because of the work by dogs."
The presence of the dogs at the recovery sites had an even greater impact than many may realize. Dutch photographer, Charlotte Dumas is the author of the 2011 book, Retrieved featuring the stories and portraits of 9/11 canines. She interviewed Denise Corliss, handler of famous 9/11 FEMA Search Dog, Bretagne. Dumas recounted an emotional narrative from her time with Corliss to Daily Mail UK:
“She told me a touching story of one fireman who was there in the rubble, and how taken he was with Bretagne who comforted him as he sat down to catch his breath. Years later at a Remembrance Ceremony, the same fireman recognized Bretagne and her handler and they had a touching reunion. It developed that even though the dogs couldn't find people still alive, they could provide comfort for the brave firemen and rescue workers of the emergency services.”
Most Search and Rescue Dogs are trained by non-government organizations. Often their handlers are civilians as well. Many of the teams that responded to Ground Zero did so on a volunteer basis, simply because their country needed them. Now these pups are getting the recognition they deserve from the folks in Essex County, NJ.
To learn more about search and rescue dogs and the brave men and women who train them and act as their handlers, visit searchdogfoundation.org or disasterdog.org.
News: Guest Posts
A Maryland pup was saved after falling into a dry well.
Earlier this month, a Saint Bernard in Perryman, Maryland found herself in an unlikely predicament—stuck at the bottom of a 30-foot dry well. Her family noticed Mabel was missing when they went to refill a play pool for her in the backyard. After looking everywhere, they decided to reconsider checking their well, which seemed unlikely because of the heavy lid. Too scared to look themselves, a neighbor ended up bringing a flashlight to peer in. To everyone's surprise, there was Mabel staring back up at them.
It's not exactly easy to rescue a dog from a 30 foot well, but fortunately Mabel had some incredible people on her side. First a hazmat team checked the air quality in the well before giving Daniel Lemmon, a firefighter with the Harford County Technical Rescue Team, the go ahead to rappel down. From there he gave Mabel a treat and harnessed her up. Mabel was then lifted her out using a pulley system.
As Daniel says, "It's a whole team effort. Sometimes we forget all those parts, but without them it just doesn’t work."
Although it was a complicated rescue, Mabel made it as easy as possible. According to Daniel, Mabel was on her best behavior. "She was so cooperative the whole time, no issues at all, didn’t snap at me, didn’t bark. If there’s someone who’s the star of this, it’s really the dog."
As soon as Mabel was lifted to safety, she immediately began jumping around, too excited to even drink water. Everyone was in disbelief that she survived the fall without any injuries.
No one knows how long Mabel was stuck in the well, or how she even got in there in the first place. Perhaps she was looking for a place to escape the 100 degree heat that day. Only Mabel will know for sure!
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