JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Are Our Pets a 'Luxury?'
Mexico to roll out pet food tax in January

Starting January 1st, Mexicans will face a 16 percent sales tax on pet food. Previously commercial animal diets were not taxed, along with fresh human foods. Now the Mexican government is desperate to raise money and has declared pet food a luxury item (food for horses and other livestock animals will be excluded from the tax). Protesters have been rallying outside of the Finance Ministry, but the tax is unlikely to be overturned.

Pet food sales average $2.2 billion a year in Mexico, meaning the government stands to profit tremendously from the new tax. Mexico is the world's 10th biggest pet food market, with the U.S. in the top spot, spending more than $20 million annually to feed our dogs and cats.   

It's estimated that half of Mexico's pet families use commercial foods, while the rest make their own, typically a mixture of chicken, rice, and tortillas. The new tax will hit low income households the hardest and may cause more people to rely on table scraps for pet food, or even abandon their animals altogether. Some fear that the tax will also create a reluctance to adopt animals, putting an even greater strain on shelters who will already be feeling the financial effects of the food tax.  

I understand that the government has to raise money somehow (proposals for taxes on real estate sales and private school tuition were not passed), but I wouldn't consider pet food a luxury item. I could see taxes on the purchase of a pet (versus adopting) or even professional grooming (a tax proposed years ago in Chicago), since they're not essential.

What's your take on the luxury pet food tax?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Christmas Gift of Spaying
Georgia woman offers to spay all of the Macon's female dogs

Earlier this month, dog lover and pet foster parent Kerry Hatcher Fickling was inspired by what seemed like a particularly overwhelming week of strays and abandoned litters in Macon, Georgia. Kerry regularly donates time and money to local rescue groups, but this time she wanted to do something that would really get to the root cause of the city's overpopulation problem. So she posted a "Christmas gift for Macon" on Facebook, offering to pay for any female dog to be spayed.  Kerry is even willing to pick up the dogs in the morning, bring them to the vet, and return the pups in the evening after their surgery.

So far she's paid for almost 50 spay procedures and has been fielding hundreds of calls from other interested people.

Kerry is hoping to eventually reach a goal of 2,000 spayed dogs. Even at the discounted rate of $55 offered by the Gordon Animal Clinic, 2,000 dogs will run her a $110,000 tab. Kerry credits her real estate business and healthy savings with being able to fund this initiative.

In order to achieve her goal, Kerry is planning to start canvasing neighborhoods to reach people who don't have computer access and don't know about her spay offer. Kerry also realizes that part of her mission is now education. Making a difference can be as simple as letting people know that dogs don't need to have a litter or two to have enriched lives, a common misconception around Macon.

Perhaps this will inspire others to think about starting similar programs in other cities. Most people wouldn't be able to afford 2,000 spay procedures, but multiple people sponsoring one $55 operation each could be a possibility. It could be the start of a great holiday tradition! 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Are Sniffing Dogs Reliable?
Lawsuit questions the abilities of drug and bomb pups
A new lawsuit is questioning the abilities of drug and bomb sniffing dogs. The claim against Nevada's Metropolitan Police Department says that dogs were trained to respond to handler cues instead of freely searching for drugs. If the accusations are true, this would be a huge constitutional violation of the right to a lawful search.  

The lawsuit also accuses the Department of animal abuse and racketeering, so they're obviously a potentially troubled group. However, the claims related to the working dogs could impact the use of drug and bomb sniffing pups, and the legal latitude that they are given. To date there are no mandatory training standards and little research that backs up their skill level.

In 2010, the University of California Davis tested the reliability of drug and bomb sniffing dogs by putting them in a clean room, without drugs or explosives.  To pass successfully, they needed to go through the room and detect nothing.  The 18 subjects tested had a 85 percent failure rate, which the researchers believed was because the dogs are so heavily influenced by their handlers.

We know the canine nose holds extraordinary ability. There have been studies showing a high success rate detecting cancer and countless stories of explosive detecting dogs saving soldiers' lives overseas. I have no doubt that dogs have the ability to detect drugs and bombs if trained and handled correctly, but there must be a standard of training and testing for both dogs and handlers.

In the sport of K9 Nosework, dogs go through a course to detect scents or, equally importantly, not detect anything if the course is clean (the handler does not know if there is a scent on the course, and if there is one, where the scent is located). It seems like a no brainer to have a more complex version of that test for all law enforcement dogs.  Certainly you can never duplicate real life, and there is always room for canine error, but training and testing standards would be a good baseline.

And this isn't just about the dogs. The U.S. Supreme Court gives police "probable cause" to search your vehicle if a police dog detects drugs, whereas officers without a dog need "a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime" for the same search or the evidence can be thrown out in court. Because of this, some have called the pups a "search warrant on a leash." Having a sniffing dog provides a lot of power that can potentially be abused.

After the Nevada Highway Patrol created its K9 program in 2008, the dogs helped troopers seize more than $5.3 million in cash and over 1,000 pounds of marijuana in the first three years. But the lawsuit cites numerous abuses, such as stopping people out of jurisdiction, profiling Hispanic motorists, and poking holes in FedEx boxes so dogs could better sniff for drugs inside.

Having concrete standards and protocols seem like a clear solution to many of the problems, but the idea faces a lot of backlash. Lawrence Myers, an Auburn University professor who has studied police dogs for 30 years, says that his research on the effectiveness of drug-sniffing dogs has been shunned by most in the industry. Many K9 handlers don't speak out because they are afraid of being blacklisted.  

Perhaps the outcome of this lawsuit will spark the standards in training and testing that is necessary to restore faith in these dogs' abilities.


Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tornado Dog Adopted Too Soon
A lost pup found a new home before his family could find him
Imagine coming home to find your home destroyed by a tornado and your beloved dog missing. That is the reality that the Robinson family went through in Mellott, Indiana last month. Except when they finally found their pup Rosco, he had been adopted by a new family who refused to give him back.

After the twister, Rosco ended up at the Clinton County Humane Society, about 45 miles from home. The Robinsons' neighbor posted the 3-year old Boxer's photo online, but by the time a shelter volunteer recognized Rosco's photo on Facebook, the pup had been adopted.

Clinton County Humane Society director, Jim Tate, contacted the Robinsons to explain that Rosco was fine, but had found a new home after the shelter's five day waiting period. According to Jim, once an adoption takes place, the shelter has no authority to return the animal to the original family.

Shelter officials did serve as mediators to try and get both parties to reach an agreement, but the new family bonded with Rosco and did not want to return him. The Robinsons ended up hiring a lawyer, but fortunately the adoptive family caved into media and social pressure and returned Rosco.

"I could have dealt with my house being gone 100 percent," says Rosco's mom, Kyla Robinson, "but having a family member be gone when we got back was the hardest." The Robinsons are thrilled to have Rosco home.

I can't imagine being in this situation, but am glad that Rosco is back home with the Robinsons. I do hope they've learned that leaving Rosco tied outside while they're not home isn't a good idea. This story also highlights the importance of microchipping your pet, a small step that will go a long way in an emergency.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Man and Guide Dog Fall in NYC Subway
Their story uncovers the many challenges of having a service dog

UPDATE: Orlando will be staying with Cecil! Andrew Piera, a New Jersey businessman and dog lover, volunteered to pay for all of Orlando's expenses for the rest of his life. I've also heard that Orlando's puppy raiser is willing to adopt the Labrador if having two dogs in Orlando's apartment doesn't work out.

Cecil, who is still recovering at St. Luke's Hospital, urges those moved by his story to give directly to Guiding Dogs for the Blind, the organization that paired him with Orlando. "There are other people out there with disabilities and they need dogs, do if you can find it in your heart, you can send a donation to Guiding Eyes."


Yesterday Cecil Williams and his guide dog, Orlando, fell onto a New York City subway track just as a train was pulling into the station. The 61-year old man was on his way to a dentist appointment when he fainted on the platform. Orlando tried to hold Cecil back, but they both ended up going over onto the track.  

Fellow passengers alerted the oncoming train, but the conductor couldn't immediately stop. Fortunately a transit worker instructed Cecil to lie down in the trough between the rails and miraculously both Cecil and Orlando survived even though they ended up under the train. Orlando stood by Cecil through the entire ordeal, even when both of their lives were in danger.

Cecil has been blind since 1995 and Orlando is his second guide dog. The Labrador will be 11 on January 5th and will be retiring soon. Cecil has said that he will be unable to keep Orlando once he retires because his health insurance will not cover the cost of a non-working dog. His story has brought up two interesting issues relating to service dogs--financing guide dog care and rehoming pups when they retire.

Fellow Bark writer and guide dog user, Beth Finke (who actually blogged years ago about her fear of navigating the subways), explains that although seeing eye dog schools cover the cost of the dog and training, the recipient is responsible for the the cost of ongoing care, such as food and veterinary bills. Health insurance doesn't cover these expenses, so Cecil may be referring to his social security disability, a fixed income which will not support two guide dogs.

Beth notes that "some people who'd like a guide dog opt to use a white cane instead because they know that they don't have the money to keep the dog fed and healthy."

After writing about the funding guide dog organizations require to provide trained dogs free of charge, I didn't realize that many people are still unable to afford one because of the ongoing care costs.

Steve Kuusisto, who also has a guide dog, says that in addition to financial limitations, not being able to keep Orlando may also have to do with Cecil's lifestyle. "For instance, if Cecil lives alone, leaving the retired guide dog alone while he goes out with the new one isn't so easy." I've also been told that since seeing eye dogs are generally raised alone, they may have trouble adjusting to living with a second dog, especially since they are used to working exclusively with their person.

Steve notes that guide dog schools have amazing resources for placing retired dogs with new families. However, it's not easy to give up an animal you have a very special relationship with.  

When I first read about Cecil and Orlando, I couldn't believe that the two would be separated due to the Labrador's retirement. But this is the norm for service dogs and I can see how financial and lifestyle considerations would prevent people from keeping their past pups. However, it's heartbreaking to think about being separated from any one of my dogs, let alone one I relied on for my freedom.

If you're interested in helping Cecil, an indiegogo online fundraiser has been started to allow him to keep Orlando. The fund has already raised over $50,000.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Saves Man from Hit and Run
8-year old Husky-Beagle mix limps to find help
Just before Thanksgiving, John Miles was out walking his 8-year old Husky-Beagle mix Lucy in the streets of Boston when they were both hit by a speeding car. John blacked out from the trauma, which included two broken legs, a broken arm, and 15 facial fractures. Lucy was also hurt, but managed to limp to a nearby dentist's office and bark for help. The pup then made her way back and stayed by John's side until rescuers arrived. Lucy braced herself against John's body and refused to budge, even as he was lifted into the ambulance.

John was not carrying his wallet, so first responders used Lucy's identification tags to get in contact with his family (an important reminder that we should always carry identification, even if we're just going outside for a quick walk around the block!).

Both John and Lucy will be in surgery this week for their injuries. In the meantime, Lucy has been staying with John's family while he's in the hospital. According to John's daughter, Caitlan, Lucy has been crying for John to come home. Thanks to Lucy's heoric act, the two will be reunited soon and on the mend!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Saved from Shark Infested Waters
Deputy LeAna Cudzilo is honored for her selfless rescue

Deputy LeAna Cudzilo was recently awarded Deputy of the Month by the Manatee County Sheriff's Department in Florida for saving a runaway pup from shark infested waters.

Back in August, a Coonhound mix named Fern was startled by the new invisible electric fence installed in her yard. The surprise shock caused her to run through the "barrier" and fall off of a nearby boat dock. The scared pup ended up in the ocean late at night, howling for help.

Fortunately Deputy LeAna arrived on the scene and quickly took control of the rescue. She asked the dog's family to get in a boat and help her get Fern back to shore. However, Fern was scared of the boat's motor, making it difficult to pull her to safety. LeAna also noticed people shark fishing on the pier, meaning the situation was worse than she originally thought. By now Fern was also starting to struggle to stay afloat as exhaustion set in. LeAna knew she had to take action fast.  Ignoring the threat of sharks and fishing hooks in the dark ocean, LeAna removed her belt and vest and jumped into the 25 feet deep water and guided Fern back to safety.

According to Sheriff Brad Steube, the Department decided to honor LeAna for going beyond the call of duty and averting the tragic loss of a pet.

With so many negative incidents involving law enforcement and dogs recently, it's always great to hear a positive story. I'm also glad that Fern was reunited with her family and hope they will reconsider the invisible fence.

There are many reasons I don't like electric fences--the electric shock itself, the possibility of trapping pets in an area that other dangerous animals can enter, the fact that some dogs can run through the shock, etc. Fern's plight highlights how easily the product's flaws can end up in a tragic situation.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
N.Y.'s First Matrimonial Pet Custody Case
A judge to decide the fate of a pup caught up in a divorce

Shannon Louise Travis and Trisha Bridget Murray are getting a divorce, but there's only one thing they really care about--their Dachshund, Joey. The former couple is about to go to court over who gets to keep the 2-year old pup--New York's first matrimonial pet custody case.

Shannon and Trisha's ordeal is becoming more common as pets shfit in our culture to being true members of the family. New York City Justice Matthew Cooper summed up the predicament saying, "People who love their dogs almost always love them forever. But with divorce rates at record highs, the same cannot always be said for those who marry."

According to Judge Cooper, New York lags behind other states in the legal standing of pets. In a city with canine concierges and dedicated pet taxis, it's surprising that this hasn't come up before (there have been non-divorce custody cases). But Joey will not be treated like property. In the hearing, Judge Cooper will be looking to see who was responsible for Joey's needs and will ask questions similar to those used in child custody cases.

Judge Cooper will have a difficult decision to make as the outcome of this case will certainly influence future pet custody cases. But it sounds like they have the right person for the job.

Judge Cooper said, "If judicial resources can be devoted to such matters as which party gets to use the Escalade as opposed to the Ferrari, or who gets to stay in the Hamptons house instead of the Aspen chalet, there is certainly room to give real consideration to a case involving a treasured pet." 

Judge Cooper is a dog lover himself and his 12-year old rescue, Peaches, gives him a special interest in making sure this case gets the attention it deserves.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Airlines Under Reporting Pet Incidents
United tries to cover up a dog with heat stroke

When Janet Sinclair moved from San Diego to Boston with her Greyhound, Sedona, and her cat, Alika, she chose United Airlines' PetSafe program because of their amenities and good track record. PetSafe advertises that four-legged passengers will receive personal handling in climate-controlled vehicles, a necessity for travel in July. Janet also paid extra for a comfort stop at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a layover almost killed her pets.

According to Janet, as she sat in her window seat looking out onto the tarmac, she saw a cargo employee kick Sedona's crate six times to shove it under the shade of the plane's wing. According to the National Weather Service, the high in Houston that day was 94 degrees and her pets were left outside, without the temperature-controlled vehicle that was promised. Urged by a fellow passenger, Janet began videoing the events on her cell phone.

By the time they got to Boston, Sedona was barely alive. The poor pup required three days in intensive care for heat stroke, a urinary tract infection, and liver problems.The vet believes that the medical conditions were due to hyperthermia suffered during the flight and not due to underlying disease. This is contrary to United Airlines' claim that Sedona had a pre-existing health condition, despite the fact that both of Janet's pets received a clean bill of health from their vet in San Diego prior to their departure.

United Airlines agreed to reimburse Janet's vet fees, but only if she remained silent and signed a nondisclosure agreement. Janet refused and has since been on a mission to spread the word about the ordeal through the Facebook page, United Airlines Almost Killed My Greyhound.

By law airlines must report when a pet is hurt, gets lost, or dies on a trip within 45 days of the incident. As of November, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has no record of Sedona's injuries.

When NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit looked into the case, they uncovered more than 300 pets that have died, been injured, or been lost in the care of airlines over the last year. This number is significantly less than what has been reported by the DOT.

This means that airlines are covering up incidents affecting our pets. Having used this data to identify the "safer" airlines, it's horrifying and unacceptable that the data is inaccurate. Under reporting will also affect future regulations if politicians can't see the full picture.

I think we owe it to all of the pets missing from the DOT statistics to spread the word and hopefully one day improve flight conditions for our pups. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
House of Rep. Debates Pets on Amtrak
Dogs gather in D.C. to support the Pets on Trains Act

Last week dozens of dogs joined politicians at Washington D.C.'s Union Station to support the Pets on Trains Act, which is currently being debated in the House of Representatives. The canine crew was joined by Rep. Steve Cohen's (D-Tenn.) French Bulldog, Lily, and Rep. Michael Grimm's (R-N.Y.) Yorkie, Sebastian.

Currently Amtrak only allows service animals on board. This limitation means that dogs must travel long distances by plane if their families aren't up for the road trip by car. Rep. Cohen has a personal investment in the Pets on Trains Act as Lily travels regularly with him between Tennessee and California, currently by plane.

The bi-partisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), would require Amtrak to submit a proposal for at least one "pet car" per passenger train, where dogs and cats could ride in kennels with the carry-on luggage, and a cargo option for larger pets. A companion bill, S.B. 1710, has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Given the risks of flying with dogs, particularly large pups who have to ride in cargo, I would love to see Amtrak become pet friendly. I'd also hope that for the big guys, train cargo would be safer than airline cargo. If you'd like to see the bill pass, now is the time to contact your representative to let them know you support the legislation.