JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Toxic Christmas Ornaments
A homemade salt dough ornament causes neurological damage.
When I was a kid, each Christmas we would make homemade ornaments made of salt dough. We'd use cookie cutters to create star and tree shapes, paint them red and green, and bake them in the oven to harden. It's a simple craft that remains popular with families today.

But it turns out that these ornaments are potentially dangerous, a lesson that a Pennsylvania family learned the hard way. Earlier this month the Pospisil family's dog, Lexi, snuck downstairs before everyone was awake and ate one of the salt dough ornaments on the Christmas tree. The couple had made them earlier in the season with their daughter, Alice.

The two year old pup was okay at first, but later started shaking uncontrollably and foaming at the mouth. The Pospisils immediately brought Lexi to the veterinarian, but it was too late. The high salt content of the ornament caused irreversible neurological damage and raised Lexi's body temperature to a dangerous 107 degrees. The poor pup had to be euthanized.

Heartbroken, the Pospisils took to Facebook to share their story and warn others about the danger of salt dough ornaments. So far their post has been shared over 80,000 times.

Some of my salt dough ornaments are well over 20 years old and are quite sentimental. Fortunately, we keep our Christmas tree behind an exercise pen, safe from the dogs and cat. However, I did move the salt dough ornaments to spots high up on the tree just in case. And for future crafts, I plan on switching to a clay recipe without salt.

Do you have salt dough ornaments on your tree?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Comforting Stressed Passengers
United Airlines employs comfort dogs during the hectic holiday travel.
The holidays are one of the most stressful times to travel, especially if you're going by air. However, if you were traveling through one of United Airlines' hub airports this week, you may have found a furry friend ready to make your day a little brighter.

For the last three years, United Airlines has been providing comfort dogs during peak travel times through their United Paws program. The pups have been so popular that they expanded this year's holiday program to seven airports. Over the last three days, comfort dogs have been greeting passengers at the boarding gates in the Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, and Washington/Dulles airports.

According to veterinarian Dr. Walter Woolf, petting a dog releases oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding and affection. It decreases stress levels, helps us breathe easier, and lowers our blood pressure. This probably comes as no surprise to animal lovers!

United works with comfort dog organizations in each community to provide the pups. About 60 dogs cycled through the United terminal in Denver International Airport alone this week, provided by Denver Pet Partners. To make the experience even more interactive, when travelers posted their photos on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedPaws, the airline donated one dollar for each picture to the local comfort dogs' organization.

What a cool program!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Drinking Techniques
Dogs lap water in a precise way to maximize intake.
I wouldn't use the word efficient to describe the way my dogs drink. It's always a noisy and messy process, with liquid splashing outside of the bowl. But researchers at Virginia Tech College of Engineering have discovered that the technique is far from random. They found that dogs drink in a way that maximizes the amount of water per lap.

Dogs lap water because they have incomplete cheeks and can't create the suction we use to drink liquids. This means that they have to use their tongues to raise water upwards. But they aren't the only animals that need to do this. Cats also have incomplete cheeks, but are much neater when they drink.

To explore this mystery, the researchers used photography and laboratory simulations with 19 dogs. They showed that the pups plunge their tongues into the water and curl them down towards their lower jaws. Then they quickly retract them, forming a column of water up towards their mouths, while creating a ladle with their tongue. The dog bites down at precisely the right moment to swallow, then immediately repeats the process.

In comparison, cats lightly touch the surface of the water without fully immersing it. The messiness of the dogs' style comes from the backward curl of the tongue, which increases the size of the water column, enabling dogs to drink more per lap than with a straight tongue.

While measuring tongue motion, recording water volumes, and observing lapping techniques, the researchers ended up creating a physical model of the tongue's interaction with the air-fluid interface, giving the team a tangible way to explore the method, and finally ending the mystery of why dogs are such messy drinkers.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Illegally Insulting the Royal Dog
A Thai man could face 37 years in prison for a sarcastic comment about the king's beloved pup.
Earlier this week, Thanakorn Siripaiboon was charged in Thai military court for making a sarcastic internet post about the king's dog. His social media comments, which also include insults about the king and allegations of military corruption, could earn him 37 years in prison.

The royal pup in question is Tongdaeng, or Copper, who is somewhat of a celebrity in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej rescued Tongdaeng from an alley and later wrote a best-selling book about her. Thai news media use the polite word "khun" to refer to Tongdaeng, which roughly translates to ma'am.

From a cultural perspective, it's certainly interesting to see the king's pet receive similar protection as the humans in the family. The law technically applies to anyone who specifically defames the king, the queen, the heir apparent or the regent. However, the rule has gotten somewhat out of hand lately.

According to Thanakorn's lawyer, Anon Numpa, the boundaries of what has been considered lèse-majesté (royal insults) has expanded drastically. Last year Thai military seized power in a coup and has since cracked down on challenges to its power, detaining journalists, academics, politicians and students for “attitude adjustment” sessions at military camps.

The list of people who have been investigated include a prominent scholar accused of insulting a king who died 400 years ago and an American ambassador who gave a speech to foreign correspondents praising the current king, but criticizing the lengthy prison sentences from lèse-majesté charges.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of these cases, and the implication for social media and other avenues of speech and communication in Thailand. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
First Dogs Born by In Vitro
Cornell hopes the 'test tube' pups will lead to advances in protecting endangered species and eliminating genetic diseases.

A litter of adorable puppies born at Cornell University this year represent not only a scientific achievement, but hope for protecting endangered species and eliminating genetic diseases. These pups were the first to be brought into this world by in vitro fertilization.

As part of the study, researchers transferred nineteen embryos to the host female dog, who later gave birth to seven healthy puppies, two from a Beagle mother and a Cocker Spaniel father, and five from two Beagle couples. For successful in vitro fertilization, researchers must fertilize a mature egg with a sperm in a lab, to produce an embryo. Then they have to return the embryo to a host female at the right time in her reproductive cycle, which only occurs once or twice a year.

The researchers encountered numerous challenges along the way, such as getting the timing right for collecting the mature eggs, simulating what the female tract does naturally to prepare sperm for fertilization, and properly freezing the embryos. They eventually achieved success with fertilization rates of 80 to 90 percent.

According to Cornell professor, Alex Travis, scientists have been trying to do in vitro fertilization in a dog since the mid-1970s, but all attempts have been unsuccessful. They hope that this study will lead to advances in conserving the genetics of endangered species, using in vitro to introduce certain genes back into the gene pool of captive populations, and even preserving rare breeds of show and working dogs. 

The researchers also hope that one day in vitro, combined with with new genome editing techniques, could allow them to remove genetic diseases and traits from embryos, eliminating heritable diseases. Dogs share more than 350 similar genetic disorders and traits with humans, almost twice the number as any other species, so it makes the work in this area doubly compelling.

It will be interesting to see what developments come from this work, and the ethical implications. While in vitro is used by zoos and conservation organizations to increase birth rates in captive animals, it's not exactly clear how it can be used to conserve the genetics of endangered species in their natural habitat. It sounds great that this technique could be used to preserve rare dog breeds, but it also has the potential to be abused. This also raises a larger ethical question of how the "host dog" is chosen and used. If a breeder repeatedly uses in vitro, could certain dogs become perpetual surrogates, similar to female breeding pups in puppy mills?

I'm happy to see that Cornell achieved this breakthrough, several decades in the making, but I hope that the dog world treads carefully as it navagtes how this technique is used.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
First Statewide Animal Abuser Registry
Tennessee's online database goes live on January 1st.
Over the past few years, several states have tried unsuccessfully to pass bills creating a registry for animal abusers. These states include Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. While this type of database has been established on the local level, such as the one New York City suburb Suffolk County put in place back in 2010, there are none on the state level.

That will all change on January 1st when Tennessee's online database goes live. Earlier this year, the Animal Abuser Registration Act was signed by Governor Bill Haslam and tasks the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation with posting a list of individuals convicted of aggravated animal cruelty, felony animal fighting, bestiality, and cruelty to animals. The database will be accessible to the public and will help breeders and animal shelters vet potential buyers and adopters.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Darren Jernigan, says that Tennessee was able to pass the legislation because it was limited in scope and didn't put any financial burden on taxpayers. For instance, the unsuccessful bill in New York also required all convicted animal abusers to undergo psychiatric evaluation and banned the person from ever owning a pet again.

But that doesn't mean Tennessee's bill breezed through. The legislation was tweaked for three years before bipartisan consensus could be reached. For now the registry only includes individuals convicted of felonies, but Rep. Jernigan hopes that one day it will also include those convicted of animal abuse-related misdemeanors as well.

Convicted animal abusers' information will remain on the registry for two years following a first offense and five years following a second offense. It will take awhile for names to start appearing on the list since it won't contain retroactive information. Only individuals convicted of crimes after January 1, 2016 will appear on the list.

I hope that other states will follow Tennessee's lead and put similar registries in place. In addition to helping shelters and breeders, it also sends a strong message that the government takes animal abuse seriously. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Parking in NYC
The Dog Parker lets people run errands with their pets.
In New York City, I often see dogs tied to lampposts or parking meters while their human counterparts run in a store to buy milk or pick up laundry. Even though these trips are usually quick, it's not safe to leave pets outside like that. They could be stolen, eat something toxic, or escape, among other possible scenarios.    Now there's finally an alternative to leaving your dog at home, although it does comes with its challenges. Brooklyn resident Chelsea Brownridge decided to create a solution to the city petlover's dilemma, a dog house called the Dog Parker. Chelsea was inspired to create the Dog Parker after she had to leave her pup Winston at home while she and her friends took a long walk to Prospect Park. Unfortunately he couldn't join them because the group planned to stop for breakfast along the way. Chelsea was determined to find a way for dogs like Winston to wait safely outside of the restaurant while the humans ate.   The first two units are being tested in front of a retail store and coffee shop in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.  The Dog Parker is insulated to avoid temperature swings, while a solar powered fan provides air circulation. Users can track the inside temperature through the Dog Parker app. On days when the inside temperature goes below 32 degrees or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the units will be shut down and unavailable for use.    Users have to show proof of vaccination when they apply for the membership card that provides access to the Dog Parkers. Members are then charged 20 cents a minute ($12 per hour). There is a three hour limit per 12 hour time period to avoid anyone leaving their dog in a unit too long. If anyone leaves their pet beyond the maximum stay, a Dog Parker employee will pick up the dog and bring them to a boarding facility.   Although the units are cleaned every other day (or more often on an as-needed basis), I could see cleanliness or the spread of germs to be a potential challenge. In a busy neighborhood, countless pets could have contact with a Dog Parker in any given weekend.    But my concerns are more on the usage of the units, which is largely up to members. For running quickly into a store or two, the Dog Parker does fill a niche in an urban area where most people walk to do their shopping. But for longer outings, like eating at a restaurant, it's probably best to keep your dog at home. The maximum stay, three hours, seems like a long time to keep your pet in a box on the sidewalk.   Dog Parker recognizes that not all pets will do well in their units, but the responsibility is on members to make the right judgement call. I also hope that users will see the importance of gradually introducing the Dog Parker to their pets. It can be scary to be left in an unfamiliar place, with people, and potentially their pups, walking by and peering in.   Chelsea plans to have 100 Dog Parkers across Brooklyn by next spring, and eventually wants to expand throughout New York City and to other areas of the country.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A Fitting Memorial in Wyoming
Retired military dog is honored with a rare public funeral.
Army ranger Matthew Bessler and his Belgian Malinois, Major Mike, shared a special bond after working together in an elite Special Operations group. After two tours in Iraq, they both came home in 2010 with symptoms of PTSD. When Mike was retired and promoted to major, Matthew filed for adoption and later trained Mike to be his service dog. And so began their new life back in the civilian world, where they relied on each other for support.

Mike and Matthew worked through their PTSD together for years, until October, when Mike was shot to death by a bicyclist who accused the dog of attacking him. That day Matthew lost his best friend and service dog. Mike was his "other half" and Matthew would often say that they would die together. If one went, the other would go soon after. Matthew believed that he couldn't live without his beloved pup.

Soon after Mike's death, Matthew's friends began raising money to cover the costs of a funeral and enlisted the help of a local reverend. Earlier this month, their dream came to fruition, with about 100 people attending the services, a huge turnout for the small, rural town of Powell, Wyoming.

At the memorial service, five projectors showed photographs of Mike and Matthew, along with videos of their training together from 2007. Matthew wore his full Army dress uniform and green beret, holding Mike's brown leather leash. He made a speech, highlighting 11 words that described Mike, "loyal, compassionate, hero, attentive, courageous, intelligent, personable, brave, dedicated, resilient, ball."

Later, at the funeral, the Powell Veterans Honor Guard celebrated Mike with a 21-gun salute, a bugle player performed Taps, and a member of the Guard presented Mike with an American flag.

According to the U.S. War Dog Association, it's not uncommon for individual military units to hold tributes for dogs lost in battle, but Major Mike's public funeral may be only the second of its kind in modern history. The other was for a dog that served in Iraq and was buried with military honors last year in Michigan. The Army doesn't provide retired military working dogs with the same burial honors as human soldiers and veterans, but Matthew hopes that Mike's funeral will change that.

Mike was buried next to the plot that Matthew has reserved for himself, so one day they will be able to rest side by side again. Until then, Matthew has received offers of replacement puppies and service dogs, as well as messages of support from around the world.


Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An Unlikely Patient on the Front Lines
Army surgeon Colonel Fredrick Lough reflects on treating a Czech war dog in Afghanistan.
Colonel Fredrick Lough has had a long career with the military, serving as a surgeon for the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1970 to 1987, and returning in 2007, at the age of 58, after seeing soldiers in harm's way in the Middle East. Colonel Lough was deployed twice to Afghanistan where he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Colonel Lough performed hundreds of surgeries while on the front lines, but there was one in particular that was a little different than the rest.

One day, after a mortar attack, a Czech soldier came onto base carrying a bleeding Belgian Malinois named Athos. The dog belonged to Sergeant Rostislav Bartončík and was trained to search for explosives. The attack left Athos with a huge open wound, a damaged urethra, and fragments of shrapnel.

Colonel Lough and another surgeon decided to take action. While they didn't have experience treating dogs, they figured that they knew how to control bleeding. The team stabilized Athos, cleaned the wound, and coordinated a transfusion with blood from another dog. After their work was done, Athos was taken by helicopter to larger base, and then to Germany to recover. Athos was later honored with a plaque, bone, and leather collar by the Czech government for his heroism.

Reflecting on that day, Colonel Lough says that the experience felt totally different from other surgeries. Having a dog on the operating table invoked a bit of home for everyone in the room and brought out a unique emotional response from all those involved.

Thanks to Colonel Lough and the rest of the team on base, Athos is doing well, albeit with a small limp. Their story shows that the human-canine bond can shine in the darkest and most dangerous places!

Watch Colonel Lough talk about Athos in this AARP video.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Surprising Cause of Death for Police Dogs
40 percent of law enforcement pups are killed from heat exhaustion.
Earlier this week, animal lovers around the world mourned Diesel, a seven year old Belgian Malinois who was killed in action in a Paris suburb. The brave dog lost his life when French police sent Diesel into an apartment following a showdown with suspected terrorists. Diesel's role in Wednesday's mission highlighted the important and dangerous role that dogs play in law enforcement.

In 2010, Jim Watson, director of the North American Police Work Dog Association estimated that there may be around 50,000 active police dogs in the United States. But that number may be higher now, given the growing need for trained pups to assist officers and sniff out bombs and drugs.

But as the number of police dogs increases, more pups are being killed each year. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP), there have been 26 police dog fatalities in 2015 so far, over 30 percent more compared to 2013. The most recent death was a dog named Hyco who was shot last month while chasing a group of suspected carjackers with the Anderson County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina.

But one leading cause of death has nothing to do with violence on the front lines, and easily preventable. Over 40 percent of the fatalities this year were due to heat exhaustion, usually from being left in a squad car on a hot day. In August, two dogs with the Baltimore City Detention Center died when the air conditioning failed in a police vehicle. And in May, an officer was suspended without pay after he inadvertently left two police dogs to overheat in his car.

Now many K9 unit vehicles are being outfitted with electronic systems that automatically regulate heat and humidity. Other systems can alert officers if the air conditioning fails so they can remotely open a door, allowing the dogs to escape.

Steve Weiss, a New York Police Department lieutenant who serves as ODMP's Director of Research, agrees that more widespread adoption of these systems would cut down on heat exhaustion deaths, but says that better laws protecting police dogs would help too. "Laws in many states involving the deaths of police animals are not very strict."

It's shocking that so many police dogs are dying from something so preventable. We have the ability to significantly cut down on these fatalities. Given how much these talented dogs give us, we owe it to them to put these protections in place for their safety.