Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.
[What We Are Reading]
May 16 2017
There was a very interesting piece in a recent Washington Post advice column by Carolyn Hax. With a headline of “My girlfriend is crazy (maybe literally?) about her dog”, you can probably guess where this one is headed. A 32-year-old guy writes about the girlfriend he loves and hopes to marry but is complaining about the attention she is paying to her beloved 10-year-old dog who has an incurable kidney disease. But instead of having her dog put down, she is, as he writes:
“… spending insane amounts of money every month on “supportive care” (specialty vets – yes there is such a thing, meds, supplies, etc.) and plans to keep him alive as long as his “quality of life” is good.” She is even “she has to give him fluids under the skin every day, cook him special food and so on.”
And according to him, he thinks her level of care is misapplied, because, as he believes, he can’t help “but think of all of the worthwhile things she could be doing with that money rather than throwing it away on her dog, who as I said, is going to die anyway.”
And he then asks the advice columnist if girlfriend Amy has her priorities “screwed up” or if he is being insensitive.
Carolyn’s response was spot-on, leading off with “You’re going to die anyway. Should anyone cook you special food? Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”
She then explains that the same argument for putting this level of care into a dog can also apply to discussions surrounding human health care. Why have palliative treatments or hospice care, if in fact someone is about to die? These are ethical questions that can apply to both species. She then explains that the compassionate relationship many people have with their dogs is based on the responsibility to provide care for them, in all phases of their lives. Some people, like Amy, take that responsibility and commitment very seriously.
And she explains that Amy “has her priorities, you have yours. A crucial area of compatibility is in respect for each other’s priorities where they differ. If you can’t, then you and Amy can’t.”
She wisely continues in analyzing his rather binary position—he had suggested that perhaps Amy was loving the dog more than she loves him:
“Instead of looking at it as a place to be right or wrong, try looking at the possibilities for acceptance. Is there room in your relationship for both of you to be right in your own ways?"
Love certainly is not a zero-sum game, in fact, many experts believe that opening your heart to loving animals can make us more accepting to loving and being loved by others. We don’t have a limited supply of “love” and expressing compassion and care just expands our ability to love and to be empathic. I do hope that Amy’s boyfriend took this wonderful advice to heart.
What advice would you have added? Have you experienced something similar yourself where a friend, lover or family member thought you were too over-the-moon for your dog?
April 11 2017
For the past couple of decades researchers have been looking at the role that pets, especially dogs, have to play in rates of allergies in children. Many have found that, what is being termed the hygiene hypothesis, is indeed correct, meaning that a little dirt early in life helps to stave allergic diseases, including obesity.
A new study by Anita Kozyrskyj a pediatric epidemiologist of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, found further evidence of this dog-human linkage and how this lessens the development of everything from obesity to asthma.
Starting in 2013 she wondered if she could pinpoint what and how this might be happening. Her team collected fecal samples from 4-month-old infants in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) pilot study. Of the 24 respondent infants, 15 lived in house with at least a dog or cat.
What they found was that within the households with pets, the children had a higher diversity of microbes in their guts. Microbes, as we now know, can be a good thing for our gut microbiome and immune systems actually develop alongside our gut’s “germs.” Meaning that if babies grow in a more “sterile” pet-free environment, they would be more unprepared to “fight” germs as they grow up.
Kozyrskyj noted, "The abundance of these two bacteria (Firmicutes microbes) were increased twofold when there was a pet in the house," and added that the pet exposure was shown to affect the gut microbiome indirectly—from dog to mother to unborn baby—during pregnancy as well as during the first three months of the baby's life.
Also interestingly, this study suggested that the presence of pets in the house reduced the likelihood of the transmission of vaginal GBS (group B Strep) during birth, which causes pneumonia in newborns and is prevented by giving mothers antibiotics during delivery.
Kozyrskyj’s study confirms and expands on the work that many other researchers have shown that some “dirt” can be beneficial and help to ward off disease. Including one, conducted at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland in 2012, that concentrated on infants during their first year, and investigated the effect of contact with dogs on the “frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections.” Information about the length of time a dog spent indoors was also gathered, and turned out to be one of the key indicators.
The results were eye-opening. Children with dogs at home were healthier overall, had fewer infectious respiratory problems, fewer ear infections and were less likely to require antibiotics. Researchers considered these results supportive of the theory that children who live with dogs during their early years have better resistance throughout childhood. They also found that the effect was greater if the dog spent fewer than six hours inside, possibly because the longer dogs are outdoors, the more dirt they bring inside with them. The more dirt, the more “bacterial diversity.” This diversity is thought to have a protective influence by helping the child’s immune system to mature — that is, respond more effectively to infectious agents.
Then a 2013 study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that living with dogs may prevent children from developing asthma. Mice fed a solution containing dust from homes with dogs developed a resistance to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a childhood airway infectious agent. RSV, which is common in infants, is linked to a higher risk of childhood asthma. According to Dr. Susan Lynch of the study team, “Exposing the gastrointestinal tract to pet dust and other microbes early in life prepares it to respond appropriately to a variety of invaders. But since our modern lifestyles involve living in immaculate houses, our immune systems often overreact instead.” Early childhood is a critical period for developing protection against allergies and asthma, and exposure to pets can help.
The idea that our microorganisms may to some extent be collectively beneficial is intriguing. People and dogs have been exchanging microbes for at least 30,000 years, since the first little cave girl kissed the first proto-dog puppy smack on the muzzle. That’s a long history of sharing. It’s possible that our microorganisms are at least symbiotic, and perhaps even played a role in the dramatic domestication of the dog.
As was reported in Nature: Researchers suspect that our long association with canines means that human and dog microbiomes may have developed in tandem. The microbiome of a baby growing up without a dog (and of a puppy growing up without a human) is, in a sense, incomplete. “All of the people alive today probably had ancestors who lived in tribes that hunted with dogs,” says Jack Gilbert, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago in Illinois.”
Since 2013, Canadian researcher, Kozyrskyj has expanded her pilot study from 24 to 746 infants, around half of whom were living in households with pets. Her team then compared the babies' microbial communities.
The results were basically the same, microbial life flourished in the infants living with pets. And not only that but the “team was now able to show that babies from families with pets (70% of which were dogs) had higher levels of two types of Firmicutes microbes — Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, which have been associated with a lower risk of allergic disease and leanness, respectively.
“Pet exposure can reduce allergic disease and obesity” later in life, added Hein Min Tun, a veterinarian and microbial epidemiologist and a member of Kozyrskyj’s research team.
And while it might be too soon to predict how this finding will play out in the future, they don’t rule out the concept of a “dog in a pill” as a preventive tool for allergies and obesity. Or, as we much rather see, “dog as the pill.”
April 3 2017
Seems like our two species, human and canine, have gotten really good at reading each other’s faces. Which shouldn’t be a surprise— after all, we’ve spent a long time together, anywhere from 15,000 to more than 100,000 years, so we have a lot of practice in mastering this important social indicator.
Researchers have looked at how dogs distinguish between our positive and negative expressions, and a recent study also investigated how well we’re able to get a read from dog faces. In the current human-looking-at-dog investigation, participants (some dog people, some not) were asked to evaluate dogs’ emotional states based on their facial expressions. Options ranged from sadness, fear, disgust and anger/aggression to happiness and surprise; participants were also asked to rate the degree to which these emotions were expressed. Results showed that humans, even those who were the least empathic, were pretty good at this (the more empathic observers got the highest grades). We seem to be naturals at it. As Charles Darwin observed, our facial expressions are similar to those of dogs, so if we can understand human frowns and smiles, we can similarly deduce how our closest nonhuman companions are feeling.
In an earlier study,* researchers wanted to see how dogs perceived both human and canine emotional states. Photos were paired with auditory cues: dog faces/dog vocalizations, unfamiliar human faces/audio in Portuguese (to prevent dogs from recognizing specific words). In this test, dogs scored 67 percent, meaning that they looked longer at facial expressions that matched the audio cues. The researchers concluded that dogs can discriminate “between positive and negative emotions from both humans and dogs,” and therefore demonstrated that these adaptive benefits enabled them “to evaluate the social intentions motivation of others.” An intriguing first take on another example of interspecies communication and further evidence of our very long term relationship with dogs.
Lots of us talk to our dogs as we do to children, pitching our voices higher and speaking more slowly. Some only speak this way to puppies, others do it with adult dogs as well. But do tone and cadence make a difference to a dog? A group of researchers asked this question, and the results of their study showed that puppies do indeed respond better to the higher pitched, “Who’s my baby” approach by becoming more attentive and responsive. Adult dogs didn’t seem to have a preference. (I know, though, that my dogs just like to hear me talk to them, no matter how I do it.)
This brings up another recent study, in which researchers in the UK explored the effects a variety of sounds had on canine behavior in a shelter. As a control, they used regular kennel sounds, to which they compared the effects of classical, pop, psychoacoustically designed canine music and an audiobook. Not surprisingly, they found that pop music provoked the highest rate of barking. But it wasn’t classical or specially designed canine music that calmed dogs down the most. First place went to the audiobook—dogs spent more time resting and less time displaying vigilant behaviors, such as repetitive pacing. The researchers concluded that their findings show a strong potential for auditory enrichment that can improve the welfare of shelter dogs.
*Albuquerque, Natalia, et al. Dogs recognize dog and human emotions. Biology Letters 12:1. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0883
Dog's Life: Humane
March 27 2017
Bark has long admired Amy Sutherland’s commitment to animals, as well as her smart and engaging writing style. In her new book, Rescuing Penny Jane, both are on display as she tackles the issue of homeless—or, as she says, human-less—dogs, and gives readers an insider’s view of the many challenges shelters face and how they respond to them. Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska recently caught up with Sutherland for a quick one-on-one.
Bark: What advice would you give people who want to volunteer at a shelter or foster a dog?
Amy Sutherland: I have found volunteering and fostering each to be enormously rewarding, but I’ve also found that you need to have (or develop) a thick skin. As a foster, it can be wrenching to send a dog to another home, even though that was your goal. And as a volunteer, some of the dogs’ stories or conditions can be heartbreaking. If you volunteer in a shelter that euthanizes dogs for medical, behavioral or other reasons, you will also have to contend with that. The dogs—helping them—keep me going.
I’d also suggest exploring various shelters and rescues, private nonprofits and municipals in your area to find one that makes the most sense for you. Some might be more flexible about how often you need to volunteer, for example. Keep in mind that municipal shelters often are the most in need of volunteers.
One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes (Harper)
March 27 2017
In Amy Sutherland’s thoroughly researched and engaging Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes (Harper), the author delves into what life is like for dogs and the people who care for them in shelters throughout the country. She does an excellent job covering the myriad issues connected with this topical and critical subject. From the chapters such as “Great Migration”— southern dogs transported to new homes up north, in lieu of local shelter dogs—to “Keeping Dogs Home,” which explores shelters’ strategies for dissuading owners from surrendering dogs, Sutherland seems to cover most of the salient issues.
Years of volunteering at shelters in Maine and with Boston’s Animal Rescue League gave her a front-row seat on the subject. Good journalist that she is, she broadened her information base by traveling around the U.S. and interviewing leading experts, animal behaviorists and dedicated activists in the shelter and rescue world, probing for their best ideas and strategies.
Sutherland introduces us to a few of the notable dogs she met along the way; their case studies provide invaluable insights into the importance, and the challenges, of finding new homes for dogs like them. She has also fostered a number of dogs, and adopted two, seriously under-socialized, Penny Jane and shelter-stressed Walter Joe. We learn how she and her husband worked to integrate these dogs, with their very individual personalities, into their lives.
It is to Sutherland’s great credit that she tends to this subject matter with the care and attention it merits, crafting a dour subject into an engrossing, and at times, entertaining read. Yes, a book about shelters and homeless dogs can be difficult, but it can also be life affirming and exhilarating.
If you’ve ever thought of volunteering at a shelter, fostering or adopting a shelter dog, this book may provide you with the impetus and inspiration to do it now. If you are already involved in the rescue or shelter community, you may encounter an alternative that could help in your work. Regardless, this is an invaluable book for all dog lovers. Shelters have changed a lot in the past 20 years, with many innovative approaches coming from that community. This book is Sutherland’s way of sharing what she learned, and it can help save precious lives.
A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria)
March 23 2017
A memoir by Patricia McConnell, one of the world’s leading certified applied animal behaviorists and a pro in working with aggressive and fearful dogs, is the second of the two new arrivals. The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria) is quite unlike her previous work. While her astute, hawk-eye attention to canine behavioral matters is found in abundance, we also learn more about the author herself.
The Education of Will runs on parallel tracks. On one track is her Border Collie, Will, who presents McConnell with a whole host of behavioral and health-related challenges. It is difficult to comprehend just how misaligned this little guy was, even as a very young pup.
As she tells us, when she decided it was time for another Border Collie, McConnell did all the right things: she went to a reputable breeder; she knew both parent dogs; and, since she’d had other working Border Collies, she definitely understood the breed. Despite this, she still wound up with a dog whose unpredictable, furious outbursts “shook her to her core.” (This is in itself a valuable lesson for those who might be skeptical about adopting a shelter dog because of the possibility of behavioral problems; as Will demonstrated, opting for a well-bred puppy is no guarantee you’ll avoid them.)
The book’s other track follows the human end of the leash. While working with Will, McConnell realized that she needed to come to terms with her own fears, and the ways earlier traumas had informed her behavior—that in order to heal her fearful, reactive dog, she had to heal herself as well.
What has always set McConnell apart from others in her field is her ability to point out the fascinating parallels between canine behaviors and our own, including the cognitive and emotional lives of both species. In this book, she dives even deeper into such comparisons. For me, her insights into her troubled Border Collie’s behavior (as well as that of other dogs she’s treated) are the book’s most compelling aspect.
McConnell offers the case of Aladdin as an example of how a dog’s aggression can be set off by triggers. Aladdin’s sunny disposition would change in an instant once she put on sunglasses. As she noted, “To Aladdin, I had morphed instantly from a relaxed, benevolent acquaintance into a … potentially dangerous one. Aladdin was just going to get me first, before I could get him.” This was a relatively straightforward case; once she discovered the trigger, she could devise a treatment plan. Will’s issues, unfortunately, were not that simple.
This book speak eloquently on the benefits of opening your heart to dogs, and reclaiming lives in the process.
March 6 2017
We heard about an intriguing (and alarming) Bloomberg story over the weekend on NPR’s Marketplace Money program. When asked about predictions for what the guests are “long or short" on, reporter Gillian White said that she was “long” on the financial sector behind “dog leasing.” She was reporting on a piece from Bloomberg about dubious loan scheme operations, such as leasing a dog. In the Bloomberg piece, “I’m Renting a Dog?” Patrick Clark reports about Wags Lending LLC, a California-based firm, that provides leasing options for people who want to buy expensive pet store dogs.
In one of the examples he cites a couple in San Diego purchased a Golden Retriever pup for $2,400, agreeing to pay for the dog with 34 monthly payments of $165.06, bringing the true cost to be $5,800. As White noted that this kind of “leasing operation, taps into the growing trend of consumers who want things but who don’t necessary want to own things.” Added to that is the wish for instant gratification and the fact that most people don’t take the time to read the fine print on things especially when making emotional purchases, like “buying” a dog. Simple fact, many people just want what they want when they want it. And because these leasing companies aren’t subject to the same kind of regulations as loans or even credit cards are, they are able to charge really high interest rates, which range from about 36 percent to 170 percent on an annualized basis! And if you renege of the payment schedule, they are repossess the dog, that's right, they can take the rental dog back. Bristlecone Holding LLC, the company behind this Wags Lending scheme, leases things like furniture, wedding dresses and hearing aids, and the list is growing—but it all started with the dogs. The mission statement from the aptly named, Dusty Wunderlich the CEO behind these companies notes that he is “living in a Postmodern culture while maintaining my old American West roots and Christian values.” Heavens, we need Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s attention on this one fast. Amazing that they can get away with this. Wunderlich also adds that, “We like niches where we’re dealing with emotional borrowers.” Such as those who are staring into the eyes of a pet shop puppy, obviously.
The idea behind Wags Lending came about in 2013, and as the Bloomberg article notes, when Wunderlich “recruited a former hedge fund salesman named Kyle Ferguson as co-founder and launched Wags Lending, thinking dog leases would mark just the first step in a vertically integrated pet-financing company that would eventually include food deliveries, chew-toy subscriptions, and veterinary loans. Then their point-of-sale lease financing became a hit, and they decided to double down on it.” So beware if you happen to stumble upon any of their other “too good to be true” plans! We are seeing more and more of these “point-of-sale” options in the pet sector, especially at vet offices.
So the lesson behind this is a simple one, first of all, do NOT ever ever buy dogs at pet stores, there are many reasons, besides shady lending schemes to not buy a pet shop dog, including that most of those dogs are supplied to pet stores come from puppy mills and buying such dogs only supports those horrible businesses. But even more importantly, there are many wonderful dogs at shelters or with rescue groups and every dog that is purchased at a pet store means another dog just might be euthanized to make room for another dog. That constant intake flow has to stop. Again, read the small print and know what you are getting yourself into before signing up for any of these leasing products. See the Bloomberg piece for the whole story.
February 20 2017
Any time Alexandra Horowitz releases a new book is cause for celebration here at Bark. We’ve been fans since her 2009 hit, Inside of a Dog, and have continued to follow her work as she uncovers new insights into our co-pilots’ internal lives and external behaviors.
In addition to teaching psychology, canine cognition and creative non-fiction at Barnard College, Columbia University, she also leads the college’s Dog Cognition Lab.
Her new book, Being a Dog, delves deeply into the primacy of dogs’ sense of smell, and we talk with her about what she found.
Bark: Has anyone studied why some dogs are better at smelling than others —is it genetic or is it drive?
Alexandra Horowitz: Everything I’ve seen points to drive being the major indicator of whether a dog will be good as a detection dog: drive to find the odor, to keep working when frustrated, to get to the reward (like a game with a tug toy) at the episode’s end.
This is not to say that breed is irrelevant: some breeds are naturally more driven to pursue an odor relentlessly, or are driven to do whatever it takes to get a game of toss with a tennis ball. And some dogs—like Bloodhounds and Beagles—have more olfactory cells in their noses and more equipment around their faces (long ears, drooly jowls) to help bring odors up the nose. They may smell odors at lower levels.
Curiously, though, the notion that certain breeds are inevitably better at detection work than others hasn’t been borne out. It’s tradition more than science.
B: I was once told by a woman who handles tracking Coon Hounds that dogs can show a preference for how they scent; talking about the same breed, she said some sniff the ground, while others prefer sniffing the air. Have you observed individual differences in the same breed in your research?
AH: Absolutely. Different dogs have different sniffing tactics; “on the air” or “on the ground” are the two ways dogs try to pursue a scent. Often, though, these are distinguished by task, not by dog—that is, if a dog is tracking a distant (old) scent, on the ground makes more sense; the odor is probably no longer in the air. But a dog trying to locate someone/something who has recently passed by will be air-scenting.
B: Can adult dogs can identify their littermates or their mother by smell?
AH: In theory, this would be trivially easy for dogs. All dogs have their own “signature scents” (as do we, to dogs), so there would be no trouble distinguishing dogs of one’s litter from other dogs. Now, the question of whether an adult dog who has been separated for years from her littermates/family can recognize them is a different question: it’s more about memory than about perceptual ability. Memory is fallible in humans, and it is fallible in dogs. We forget. So it’s quite possible that, even having known one’s family by scent, it would be later forgotten. (But there is also good reason to believe that a trace would remain—that distant memory one cannot quite place.)
B: While you note in your new book that puppies at the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania aren’t formally trained until a certain age, they do receive some kind of training, right?
AH: Yes, they are being “trained” to some degree: I think Dr. Otto and the Penn Working Dog Center trainers would agree when I say they are being trained to be good general-purpose working dogs. As I describe in my book, I saw dogs being put through their paces in lots of different (what were to them) games: find the missing person, find the hidden scent. They are being exposed to unusual sounds and environments and getting acclimated to them. They are learning the skills of detecting something, working with someone, and loving it. And they do.
B: Do working dogs get nose fatigue— do they reach a point at which they can no longer reliably follow a scent? If so, what do the pros do to work around that?
AH: The phenomenon of the nose no longer noticing an odor—adaptation —happens to us within minutes. Walk into a coffee shop, take in its familiar odors and a few minutes later, you might smell … almost nothing. The receptor cells in the nose that noticed the odor simply stopped responding after continued exposure.
The cells in the dog’s nose work similarly, but any dog employed as a detection dog is doing something different. Because they continue to sniff different areas of the odor “scene,” their noses won’t turn off to the smell. Tracking dogs are also known to simply lift their noses from the ground once in a while and sniff the air, as though to clear their noses.
On the other hand, working dogs certainly get fatigued from too much stimulation and too much exertion. Handlers know their dogs and will read their dogs’ responses to know when they need a break.
B: In the book K9 Scent Training by Resi Gerritsen and Ruud Haak (leading specialists in identification, tracking and detection-dogs), I read that female dogs are better at smelling than males. Did this also come up in your research? Any idea if the same can be said for our species?
AH: Gerritsen and Haak are great resources on detection-dog training and skills. I suspect their assessment comes directly from their own and other trainers’ experience with dogs. I don’t doubt it, though I don’t believe that the question has been formally tested. Interestingly, women are often said to be “better smellers” than men, and research does bear this out (on average, of course).
B: I’m quite curious about the canine visual sense vis-à-vis their olfactory sense, especially for dogs of the sporting breed. When our Wirehaired Pointer is out in the field, she seems to rely primarily on her sense of smell; sometimes a rabbit’s been sitting just a few feet from her, but she doesn’t see it, or even seem to smell it. Is it “I can’t smell it so I don’t see it”?
AH: As with us, dogs’ senses work together. Only for dogs, olfaction takes priority. From that point of view, you can imagine how vision might aid smelling: if a dog detects an odor on the breeze, she can then look up and try to locate, with her eyes, the source of that odor (and then head toward it for closer sniffing!). When I watched the dogs at the Penn Working Dog Center do a “person search” for people hidden in large PVC barrels in a large field, the dogs used vision to guide them while smelling: first, they followed their eyes to head toward the barrels, then followed their noses to identify which one held a person.
A dog who is sniffing in the grass to a hidden ball (or rabbit) that is perfectly “visible” to someone else nearby is simply using olfaction first. By sniffing in the whole area around the hidden object, she creates an on-the-fl y map of where the object is; the closer she gets, the stronger the odor is. Sometimes, dogs rely on that much longer than we would expect before bringing fuller attention to what they see to aid their search.
B: I’m trying to train one of my dogs, Charlie, to find the poop of his housemate Kit while we’re out in the park; he’s actually pretty good at it. I started doing this after I noticed that he likes to pee on her fresh poop, and only on hers. How would you recommend I boost his proficiency level? And why the peeing on it?
AH: “Find poop!” Great game. And lots of dogs would be pretty good at it. Since Charlie started doing this behavior on his own, clearly little shaping was needed. The only task is pairing it with a request (like “find poop”) and making him aware that what he’s doing—which to him is “following that interesting smell”—is something that’s also valuable to you, so he’ll do it whenever you ask. If he’s not doing it reliably, then he doesn’t see its value to you. Better rewards! More reliable rewards! (But you and every good behavior reader know that.) And, taking a cue from working-dog handlers, you could pair an “alert” behavior—sitting, barking and so forth—so that he tells you when he’s found it.
What I learned from Sam Wasser, who trains dogs to find wildlife scat, is that what’s often difficult in training in the field (and you’re always “in the field”!) is to know yourself if the dog has alerted on the right scat. Once they are confident of their dogs’ alert, and don’t accept partial alerts, handlers can reward only for the correct scat.
As for his peeing on the poo, that’s a question I don’t think science has directly tackled. But we know that marking isn’t territorial in dogs; it seems to be information-leaving. It could be that a nice pile of stinky poo is a good place to leave your own mark.
B: Besides enrolling our dogs in nosework classes, what do you recommend that we do to tap into their world of smell and enrich their lives?
AH: Let them smell. If you live with a dog, start thinking about what the world is like from an olfactory point of view. Let them smell you (you are your scent, to your dog), let them smell each other (that’s how they find out who it is), and let them smell the world. Take walks for smelling (not just for peeing, or for exercise). The pleasure that comes from watching a dog snuffling down a path, nose to the ground and nose in the air, guided by nothing more than the filaments of odors that come his way, is to me unmatched.
Is the Mars acquisition of VCA cause for concern?
January 12 2017
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.
Have we gone too far with this Halloween dog costume thing?
October 26 2016
I hate to admit it but I’m a Scrooge when it comes to dressing dogs up in Halloween costumes. I know that some dogs look irresistibly cute but few, in my eyes, really seem to enjoy it as much as we humans do. Especially when the costumes are too elaborate, that seems to be happening more and more. So I was relieved when I read New York Magazine’s blog “The Cut” and how they too frowned at this extravaganza that, at this time of year, is on display at dog runs around the city. Foremost among them is the ever popular event at the Tompkins Square dog run. That particular one we have covered in the past with contributing editor, Lee Harrington (author of the popular Rex and the City), even serving as one of the judges. I guess it is just that people might just be going overboard and not paying enough attention to how their dogs are taking it on it, or trying to squirm out of restrictive costumes. As The Cut pointed out, that a few years ago Alexandra Horowitz had this observation about costuming a dog in the New Yorker:
“To a dog, a costume, fitting tight around the dog’s midriff and back, might well reproduce that ancestral feeling [of being scolded by a more powerful dog]. So the principal experience of wearing a costume would not be the experience of festivity; rather, the costume produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking is nearby. This interpretation is borne out by many dogs’ behavior when getting dressed in a costume: they may freeze in place as if they are being “dominated”— and soon try to dislodge the garments by shaking, pawing, or rolling in something so foul that it necessitates immediate disrobing.”
Or Patricia McConnell, the leading dog behaviorist and former Bark columnist, commented on this topic last year that
“I can’t think of anything that better exemplifies our changing perception of the social role of dogs as the current splurge in dressing them up for Halloween.”
She then went on to say that:
“But what about the family Labrador dressed up like Batman? Or the Persian house cat dressed up as a mouse? Are they having as much fun as their owners? I suspect that many are not.”
Karen London, our behavior columnist, also agrees and she urges “caution when considering costumes for dogs. Most dogs hate costumes. They easily become stressed and uncomfortable when wearing clothing, especially anything on the head or around the body.”
Simple, soft costumes, like this one, work best. But heavy, stiff and hard ones like this one, should be avoided.
There are so many better ways to share the joys of our relationship than imposing the necessity to “perform” for us on our dogs, then dress them up as a superhero, pope, or a presidential candidate. Just think of much more they would like it if you just took them on a nice long walk in the woods letting them sniff around, letting them follow their noses and embracing them for being “just” dogs.
So what do you think? Do you or have you ever dressed your dog up for Halloween? How did your dog like it?
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