Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Trophy Wall

A while ago I acquired a rather nice Victorian era embossed print of an unfortunate rabbit. With the addition of my inflatable deer head this is starting to develop into my 'trophy wall'.

I have a bit of a fascination with fakes and kitch in general. I am awaiting with interest the delivery of my Sega Toys Dream Cat. I am under no illusion that it will be like a real cat, but it looked cute and I have poor impulse control sometimes when it comes to online shopping.

Friday, August 27, 2010

California Drivers Handbook 2011 says: No Dogs in Hot Cars

When I sat for my driver's license in the U.S. I only got one question wrong, something about the restrictions relating to drivers under the age of... 16, 18?  I guess I didn't pay much attention to that section because it didn't apply to me.  But I should have known better.  Learning the road code is not just about obeying the law, it is about knowing the law and help the community be safe.

A good case in point is the change that will appear in next year's copy of the California Drivers Handbook requiring drivers to be aware of the law against leaving a dog in the care during warm weather.  This is important information, not just for the safety of your own pets, but as a reminder to keep an eye out for pets left in dangerous conditions and to report these to the appropriate authorities (if in doubt, the police).

See also:
No dogs in hot cars: California puts warning in driver manual

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Of Rats and Women

I received my PhD for studies into the how rat caging affects the rats' welfare. Every single rat used in my four and a half year course of study was female. The main reason for this was that one animal facility supplied both the biology and psychology departments. When I visited this facility in the basement of a neighboring building I was told there were almost always 'excess' female rats. The reason being that most of the researchers in the biology department wanted only male rats. I immediately decided to use female rats to avoid further exacerbating the unnecessary breeding of litters from which only the males were wanted. Over the following months and year I heard the same question over and over:

Why did you use only female rats?

Initially out of naive sincerity, and later out of perverse dogmatism, I gave the same answer. I used them because they were there, and because they had a longer happier life being in my experiment rather then being culled as excess animals. Besides, almost all of the respected studies on the effects of environmental enrichment on rats used single-sex groups. All of them used males. If it is not a flaw in a study to use only male rats it cannot be a flaw to use female rats, using female rats replicates these findings with the other sex, and using female rats serves the goal of the 3Rs--that the use of animal in the laboratory should, whenever possible, be refined, reduced and replaced.

This explanation was usually met with mild consternation, silence and bemused acceptance. But each new reviewer would repeat it again. I must have delivered this explanation about thirty times. In fact I delivered long after I realised that I was just perpetuating an error, and they were just letting me. Research that is not sex-specific (for example on testicular cancer, or pregnancy) should not be carried out on single sex groups. The old justification that using single sex-groups reduces 'error variation' is bunk.

Sex is not random and it is not error, it is in fact a fundamental quality of most species. Any study that uses only one sex should not, no matter how obvious it seems, extrapolated to the species as a whole. Not because males and females are radically different in every way, but because it creates a subtle but dangerously skewed science in which the male is normal, and the female is aberrant. It tailors our ideas of biological truth, our understanding of sickness and our approach to healing, primarily to the service of the male. And if a few more animals are needed to account for sex-based variation... well, I bet many fewer animals will ultimately be needed due to the improved validity of the outcome of the study.

I was reminded of all this by Chelsea Wald and Corinna Wu who wrote an article in Science magazine called Of Mice and Women: the Bias in Animal Models . They point out that, to this day, the vast majority of research us conducted on male animals, ultimately undermining the effectiveness of medical treatment on women--and also I suspect leading to the unnecessary death of female animals not needed for the breeding population of the animal colony. In retrospect I still think I made the right choice in taking those 'excess' female rats--but I should have had a word with those biologists.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vet Phobia and Blood Donation

Today I was thinking about those pets that develop a real fear of going to the vet. What brought it to mind was that I finally cowboyed up and signed up to donate blood. I believe in donating blood, it is simple and it is life-saving.  I also know that only around 5% of people do it.  Why so few?  Well, I have a theory about that. I have donated blood twice before, both times at high school.  Both times were painful.  The first time I fainted.  the second time I had a livid 6 inch long bruise and pain in my arm for a week.  Despite the best intentions, I wasn't in a hurry to do it again.

But high school is over twenty years ago now and the AVMA had a blood drive right in the convenience of the building.  So I went in.  The procedure was simple and really quite inconsequential and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again.  The room was calm, the staff relaxed and competent, and I got a snack at the end for being 'good'.  I also has a nice confirmation that my iron levels and blood pressure are well in the healthy range. In retrospect the blood drives at high school were noisy, rushed, crowded and the nurse dug for my vein like she thought I was hiding it somewhere inside my humerus.  How many people, I wonder, had similar experiences with high school or college blood drives, with similar results?  I also suspect that on the first occasion (when I fainted) the scale was rigged to over-estimate kids weights and get more over the donation threshold.

Early experiences are important, no matter what species you are.  Emotional impressions can last for decades and have a negative effect on behavior.  And that is why there are more and more programs to give pets positive experiences on their early vet visits.  Health checks, puppy and kitten socialisation classes in clinics, and making a good first impression--calm, careful, competent--is always a good idea. More, quicker, cheaper can be counter-productive even with the best of attentions.  Doing too much in too much of a hurry might have short term benefits--but lead to lower, poorer levels of care over the client's entire lifetime.  Whether it is a vet-shy dog, alienated pet owner, or just a needle wimp like me....

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Will the collar become obsolete?

In many way the dog collar is a matter of custom.  If you consider its uses they are generally: 1) to secure the dog during walks and 2) to identify the dog's owner and to identify the dog's vaccination and registration status and 3) fashion.

There really is no absolute need for 'walking' purposes for the collar to be attached to the dog, rather than to the leash.  In fact many people now use alternative leash attachment devices like a halter or body harness that are attached only when required.  There may well be other times when it is useful for your dog to have a "handle" but are they pressing enough to need to attach something to the dog permanently? Historically a lot of dogs here contained by tether, but I would hope that is pretty uncommon for companion animals and once again the collar could be used only as required when the dog is tethered for an event (camping, picnic etc).

The sticking point is, of course, the tags and contact info.  Currently analogue methods like little metal discs are the state of the art.  But there is no real reason why microchip, and microchip readers could not become almost ubiquitous. The chip could connect to a database updated by your veterinarian with vaccination records.  Readers could be built into devices like cell phones.  As a back up the record number could also be almost painlessly tattooed on the dog's ear.  A person with that number could get all the information they need to contact the owner or deal with a dog bite situation.

It may seem weird to suggest a somewhat invasive procedure over a collar, but it is a matter of a few second, versus a dogs entire life--which is really more of a bother to them? It seems possible to me that one day a collar on a dog will seem as archaic as a nose ring on a pig or hobbles on a horse.  More and more, instead of modifying the animal to fit the environment we are modifying the environment to suit the animal.  And the pet animal dress code might just relax as a result.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Vet Jokes: The Dead Duck

This is a vet joke doing the rounds at the moment.  I have no idea of the origin:

A woman brought a very limp duck into a veterinary surgeon. As she laid her pet on the table, the vet pulled out his stethoscope and listened to the bird's chest.

After a moment or two, the vet shook his head and sadly said, "I'm sorry, your duck, Cuddles, has passed away."

The distressed woman wailed, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I am sure. Your duck is dead," replied the vet.

"How can you be so sure?" she protested. "I mean you haven't done any testing on him or anything. He might just be in a coma or something."

The vet rolled his eyes, turned around and left the room. He returned a few minutes later with a black Labrador Retriever. As the duck's owner looked on in amazement, the dog stood on his hind legs, put his front paws on the examination table and sniffed the duck from top to bottom. He then looked up at the vet with sad eyes and shook his head.

The vet patted the dog on the head and took it out of the room. A few minutes later he returned with a cat. The cat jumped on the table and also delicately sniffed the bird from head to foot. The cat sat back on its haunches, shook its head, meowed softly and strolled out of the room.

The vet looked at the woman and said, "I'm sorry, but as I said, this is most definitely, 100% certifiably, a dead duck."

The vet turned to his computer terminal, hit a few keys and produced a bill, which he handed to the woman.

The duck's owner, still in shock, took the bill. "$150!" she cried, "$150 just to tell me my duck is dead!"

The vet shrugged, "I'm sorry. If you had just taken my word for it, the bill would have been $20, but with the Lab Report and the Cat Scan, it's now $150."

Friday, August 13, 2010

No Cedar for Small Animals

Cedar bedding is often made from “red” cedar (including Juniperus virginiana and Thuja plicata). This product is sold in many pet stores as a general pet bedding, routinely showing small animals such as rodents on the packaging material. In some cases a small disclaimer might state that the product should not, in fact, be used with small animals. In my opinion this tiny warning, when present, is grossly inadequate.

Research very rarely gives ironclad evidence, but as I will discuss below the data on red cedar is more than adequate to convince most people that this bedding should not be used with small pet animals, and to raise serious concerns about using it as an animal bedding at all. When the composition of a wood bedding is in doubt it should be avoided, regardless of how it is packaged, labeled, promoted or sold by retailers. The main sources of concern about red cedar relate to respiratory irritation and toxic effects. While I am focusing on red cedar there are also less severe but valid concerns about other aromatic woods including white cedar and pine.

Sabine (1975) documented that mice had a lower barbiturate sleeping time, indicating that chemical in the cedar bedding were being metabolized as toxins in the liver. The activation of hepatic drug metabolizing enzymes has been extensively demonstrated ( see also: Vessel, 1967; Okano et al, 2009). And in some more vulnerable strains of mice, those on cedar bedding developed more liver and mammary tumors (Sabine, 1975).

In the course of another experiment Burkhart & Robinson (1978) noticed that when rats were born on cedar (Aromatic cedar products Inc., Gainesville, MO) they experienced 58% mortality and were 20% smaller at three weeks of age when compared to pups raised on corncob or aspen wood bedding. At this time all they knew was that: “[i]t appears that the pups were ingesting or inhaling a compound which was toxic to them.”

There is also a body of research showing that cedar bedding had no ill effect on mice under some circumstances (e.g. Vlahakis, 1977; Jacobs & Dieter, 1978; Becker et al, 2010). And Heston (1975) directly challenged Sabine’s assertion that cedar bedding explained inter-lab differences in tumor incidence. This suggests that certain products may be safe for some small animals, however it remains unclear exactly what the risk/protection factors are. For this reason I would continue to strongly advice that cedar bedding not be used for any small pets on the basis that it is difficult for domestic consumers to determine whether a specific bedding is dangerous and whether a specific pet animal is vulnerable to that type or level of toxin.

One factor may be whether the wood is “conditioned” (often by treating with steam) to reduce the levels of resins (Wirth, 1983; Okano et al, 2009). Carefresh bedding, specifically, has produce null results (Becker et al 2010) which may be due to the manufacturing of this product including having it "processed to remove potentially harmful aromatic hydrocarbons".

However it is often difficult for a domestic consumer to know for sure whether a product has been conditioned in this way, and whether the resulting product is safe. For a list of alterative beddings see “The Toxicity of Pine and Cedar Shaving” by Debbie Ducommun. And if you have limited options and find yourself needing to by wood bedding of unknown provenance, select hardwood products free of dust or strong ‘woody’ odors.

I would encourage you to raise these concerns with pet product supplier that you use, asking them not to stock cedar bedding which by its labeling or lack of warnings encourages use with small animals such as rodents.

Other Links:
Sick Rat
The Problem With Pine: A Discussion of Softwood Beddings

References (in progress):

Supporting the null hypothesis:
  • Becker, C.E, Mathur, C.F., Rehnberg, B.G. (2010). The effects of chronic exposure to common bedding materials on the metabolic rate and overall health of male CD-1 mice. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 13, 46-55. [Carefresh Cedar, Carefresh Pine]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dog Deaths in Hot Cars

You may notice a page on the blog called "Dog Deaths in Hot Cars".  I am using this to track media reports on this subject.  The number of deaths reported in the media for 2010 is currently 25.  If there are any I have missed please let me know.  The number of deaths that occur and are not reported on the internet is likely to be much higher.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Why is it that small hotels provide a lot of extras for free, but large luxurious hotels charge like a raging bull. 

Want to park a car?  $26.

Want to use the internet? 14.95, $18.95 for a high speed connection (per 24-hours). 

Want room service, a footnote mentions that the already high prices are inflated by a 21% service charge and a $3.50 delivery fee. 

Want to print out a boarding pass? $2.50 per minute plus $1 per page printed. 

The only extra I seem to get for free is a scent the room is drenched it, which I think I may be allergic to.