Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sept 26 = Black-Footed Ferret Day


Vera is winning Instagram

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cherchez the Ingredients?

"Paleo to Go: Caveman Crunch" has fine natural, gluten free credentials.  It lists only three unprocessed ingredients.  Specifically: almonds, cashews and coconut.

But wait a minute.  How does an product with a sum total of three ingredients also very clearly also contain raisins, pumpkins seeds and sunflower seeds?

And as far as I could taste, no coconut.

It's a mystery.

The "vicious" horse issue

Powerhouse Museum Collection / Foter
It first sight it may simply seem bizarre, the parents of an injured by trying to have a court determine that horses are innately vicious. From their point of view, it would allow them to make the farm pay for the child's medical treatment.  Because while the speicifc horse is not known to be aggressive, if all horses are vicious he would still be negligent and allowign the child near the horse.

This situation echoes the ruling by some courts that bit bull-type dogs are innately vicious (must be assumed to be vicious regardless of their personal history).  This ruling also stems from a suit to cover the costs of medical treatment of a child.  A suit not against the owners of the dog but the landlord that allowed their owners to become his tenants.

While I am sympathetic with parents needs help dealing with a serious injury and the resulting costs, this is not the way to deal with it.  "Vicious" rulings lead to the deaths of animals, draconian rules that punish responsible and irresponsible owners alike, and cutting choildren off from animals.

marystachowiak / Foter / CC BY-SA
If horses are deemed vicious there will be no insurance for people who use them a therapy animals, recreation animals or indeed pets.  People who benefit from horses will lose those benefits, horses will be homeless and often end up euthanized or in inappropriate housing.  And if all horses were innately vicious would we not all know about it?  Wouldn't the responsibility to keep kids away from them fall at least as much on the parents as the horse owner?

When will the US system of "justice" realize that not every harm has a corresponding blame?  When will there be a system to provide healthcare based on need not ability to pay (thus requiring people to sue their way out of crippling debt)?  How many ridiculous court cases will it take for reform to come?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Decorating for Dogs

There is an app called CVSimulator which will filter your pictures to show various kinds of color-blindness.  If you select 'P' for protanopia you get an approximation of how dogs see colors.

Here are the colors I recently chose for decorating my apartment:

And here is how they might look to the dogs:

So, basically I choose to focus on the two colors, red and green, that humans and dogs see completely differently.  Oops.

For more about color vision in dogs visit my post "In Case You Were Wondering: Here's How Colors Look to "Color-Blind" Dogs"

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reiki for Rats

Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious / Foter / CC BY-SA
My jumping off point for this post was Orac’s post about Reiki for rats (and to some extent this related post at Dr Aust's blog). The study in question is:

ResearchBlogging.orgReiki Improves Heart Rate Homeostasis in Laboratory Rats. Ann Linda Baldwin, Christina Wagers, Gary E. Schwartz. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. May 1, 2008, 14(4): 417-422. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.0753

But I am going to immediately jump back to a slightly earlier study in the same vein by the same first author, which is:

ResearchBlogging.orgPersonal Interaction with a Reiki Practitioner Decreases Noise-Induced Microvascular Damage in an Animal Model. Ann L. Baldwin, Gary E. Schwartz. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. January 1, 2006, 12(1): 15-22. doi:10.1089/acm.2006.12.15

I recently went to a talk on alternative medicine for pets where the speaker asked any skeptics in the room to raise their hand. Like any self-respecting scientist I am pretty skeptical about things so I (and only I) raised my hand. The speaker then illuminated for us all that some skeptics are simply debunkers, which made me feel very welcome indeed. But I will say that I am not a debunker, what I am is a great fan of parsimony and a person with an immense and abiding respect for rats. Not, I hasten to add, respecting rats as if they were little people, but because they are rats--and rats are some of the most successful, adaptable and sensitive animals on the planet.

So my skeptic node starts to twitch when I read that rats are employed in study to avoid "complications with attitude that are encountered when using human subjects". Because rats have a lot of attitude, and they have a lot of opinions about people. Rats coming straight out of rodent supply companies like the ones in the Reiki study tend to stereotype people as predators, but are touchingly quick to change their minds and treat humans as friends. They distinguish between people easily and a rat I have gentled (over a few days) will make an amicable ultrasound 'tick tick' call when I hold it, but be silent when held by a stranger. However they can also form rapid and lasting enmities for some people for reasons I couldn't always work out--I had one rat that would run a maze happily for one handler, but refuse to move for another. So while rats undoubtedly neither know about, nor have opinions about, Reiki--it is utterly inevitable that they will notice and have opinions about every person whose presence they detect. (Or as Orac wrote: "Of course, rats react to the presence of humans, and if the reiki masters were sufficiently soothing to the rats, that could have had an effect.")

These will tend to be strong feelings, specific to the person, and they will tend to change rapidly over time. This is why when a battery of tests is done on rats, the open field fear test is always done first. Because if you do it after running, for example, a three day maze test by the end of it the rats will be much more relaxed and have come to like you or at least get used to you, or at least associate your presence with food rewards, and so they just won't be very afraid any more. But I digress.

The initial Reiki study used four groups of 4 rats over a three week period
1) undisturbed rats
2) rats exposed to 15 minutes of 90bd noise daily
3) Reiki, then noise
4) sham Reiki, then noise.

I would note that the sham condition is described thusly: "The student imitated the physical movements of the Reiki practitioner" ... "The sham Reiki practitioners were asked not to think about the rats, whereas the Reiki practitioners focussed their full attention on the pair of rats to which they were sending Reiki". Thus the sham condition controlled mainly for the general positioning of an adult human being. Oh and interestingly the Reiki practitioners filled out a questionnaire that showed they was far more mentally and emotionally positive than the students were. (well, you know how undergraduates are).

Is this "a sham Reiki group [that] provided an excellent control"? It would say it is an adequate control only if all that rats react to is the presence of an adult human and their approximate posture. However this simply isn't the case. Take, for example, the 'maze bright' effect. Rats run through a maze by a handler who has been told their rats were bred to be ‘maze bright’ out-performed genetically identical animals whose handler was told their rats were ‘maze dull’ (Rosenthal & Lawson,1964)--even though all handlers followed a standardised protocol and aspired to collect scientifically valid data. This and a great many other studies show that rats and many other animals respond to our interest, emotional responses and expectations. This can be seen in anything from the caretaker effect (rats bias their position in a maze or other equipment to stay near a familiar handler, animals are more likely to die immediately after a change of caretaker) to the Clever Hans effect (animals can seem to perform complex arithmetic just by stopping their response when the handler unconscious relaxes at the correct answer). This type of effect is hardly unknown to science and is one of the key reasons behind double blind study design--yes, even with studies using rats.

You might object that most of these effects involve people who have touched and handled the animals. And yes, there is as far as I know a paucity of data relating to the effects of simple presence and movement in the animal's proximity. However I think the same principle applies due to the importance of the 'flight zone' in prey species. In my own experience with rats they respond very strongly to the way people move and smell, and to a lesser extent how they look. For example they seem to notice eye contact and they react poorly to jerky movements compared to smooth movements. In fact novice handler often have trouble imitating good caretaking movements at first which involve not the speed or breadth of how you move, so much as the manner. Temple Grandin gives some very good talks on this issue. But again, I digress.

Thus, is Reiki the only--or even the most plausible--explanation of the effects of the proximity of attentive humans prior to or during a stressful effect. I would say no. I would say the social buffering effects of sympathetic human presence is sufficient explanation. And in fact an appropriate control might just have been an matched age and temperament human who really likes rats but is confirmed to be a complete muggle with no Reiki powers. Or the Reiki practitioner focusing on the rats but with their powers 'off'. Or indeed as the researcher's mention: "Reiki given remotely, so that the practitioner does not have to enter the room." (Or whatever would work best for the putative way Reiki works. I admit to being very familiar indeed with how rats work but admitted fairly ignorant of Reiki but if it can be given remotely then that would be a nifty solution).

Which it is all the more confusing that the 2008 paper not only keeps the practitioners in the room, but also dispenses with a simultaneous design (albeit one without direct counterbalancing for position) for a sequential design where all animals experience first real and then sham Reiki over a much short time scale. Again I must agree with Orac, with this second study "Most importantly, though, there's no way of telling whether this is a period effect, or not." For example, the main thing happening with a commercial source rats in a quiet room is habituation--habituation both to the effect of noise and the effect of human presence could in itself cause the Reiki condition to be more effective.

I also note that in the second paper it appears that Reiki is not just given prior to noise exposure, but during--and not for the whole period but for half of it. Was this intended to be a within session control? Data related to this does not seem to be presented and I think perhaps it should have been? In fact on the whole I am not entirely clear in reference to which data heart rate is deemed to have decreased. It seems to me that with three subjects and eight experimental sessions each only 45 minutes long, we might just be shown the data.

Back in the old (behaviorist) days I think this would have been seen as a replicated case study design with potentially confounding time trends--thus visual analysis would be a must. A graph, that is, with hearty rate etc plotted over time and dotted vertical lines to see when Reiki or Sham reiki is being applied.

In my opinion, what the statistics in both studies indicated, albeit only in a general way and if one assumes the potential confounds had no great effect, was this. Rats are stressed by noise. Rats in the presence of a disinterested undergrads waving their hands experience a reduction in stress which was in many cases statistically significant. Rats in the presence of presumably older, mentally happier people who were paying them close attention and moving their hands in a very well practiced soothing way experience an even greater reduction in stress. Rats left alone in a quiet room are the least stressed of all.

Am I a debunking? I would say not. Despite some methodological flaws which are, for some reason, more severe in the more recent paper than the earlier paper, I find the experimental outcome plausible. I think the quite significant effect of human presence, type of human presence, and attitude and behavior of animal handlers on animals such as laboratory rats is very rarely fully taken into account--it deserves a great deal more attention. Clever Hans is often taught to undergrads as a lesson in how to debunk, not a demonstration of the immense sensitivity of some animals to the attitudes and so behavior or people--which is the very reason why rats are not the ideal way to do away with the problems of human attitude. After all, most of us have some innate understand of at least the gross aspects of human attitude and how to control for it in a medical trial--very few people have the slightest notion about rat attitude and temperament. I would also argue if the point of a study is to demonstrate the effect of Reiki in particular, the effect of human presence in general needs to be much better understood and controlled.

Take home message: rats don't just know that we are there, they know if we care. In the absence of evidence to the contrary it is reasonable to assume they come to know this approximately the same we we do, using their normal senses.

The Enrichment Record Fall Webinar series

I will be acting as moderator for a series of webinars on research animal well-being produced by the Enrichment Record and sponsored by Charles River. Registration is $50 per webinar or $175 for the full series of four.

The first webinar is:
September 12, 2013 • 10AM EST 
Facts and Demonstrations: Exploring the Effects of Enrichment on Data Quality
Presenter: Penny Hawkins, BSc PhD, Deputy Head, Research Animals Department, RSPCA, UK


Getting ready for Halloween

Vera the Wonder Woman greyhound:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Velvet Antler

Dog with arthritis -- Craige Moore
Velvet antler and products made from it (glucosamine, chondroitin etc) are starting to appear a lot in products made for animals.  One application is to help dogs suffering from arthritis.  But there is one thing that I feel needs to be cleared up.

Many makers of antler product make claims about what it can be used to treat or prevent disorders, and even claim it is FDA approved.  This is not the case.  Velvet antler is approved only as a nutritional suppliment and in the United States claims that it can treat a disorder may not (legally) be made. Specifically the manufacturer may not claim the product is "a treatment, prevention or cure for a specific disease or condition." [link]

Users can of course develop their own understanding of how this product might help their dog.  But producers, in my opinion, should respect the law.  After all, if they ignore labelling laws what is to say they are meticulous about formulating their product and ensuring it is safe for your pets to consume?

For those interested in more of the details:

TheFDA have been petitioned as suggested by these statements:
"Recently, the ability for Velvet Antler to support and restore joint structure and function” (as a result of Osteo-arthritis) was substantiated by scientific evidence in compliance with the FDA regulations. Velvet Antler is a significant anti-inflammatory agent for the symptoms of Oste-arthritis and possibly other type of acute chronic inflammation as well." [Matejcek Elk & Deer Ranch]

"The use of velvet antler was scientifically supported in compliance with FDA regulations for its beneficial effects in treating arthritis." []

"Many of the nutrients found in velvet antler are important for arthritis sufferers. Glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, collagen, essential fatty acids, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, growth hormones, and growth factors are all vital for growth and maintenance of joints, tissues and synovial fluids. In 1999, velvet antler was scientifically substantiated by research and clinical studies in compliance with FDA regulations to prove that "velvet antler provides nutritional support for joint structure and function" in people suffering from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis." [MnEBA]

But the FDA did not accept that application and  has not endorsed therapeutic claims associated with this product or its constituent parts.  Therapeutic claims about these products may not be (legally) made in the United States.

"Yes, even the FDA says that the chondroitin sulfate and the collagen that velvet antler contains can help joint function." [Betty Kamen]

"Velvet antler has met the rigorous standards of structure/function claims, as required by the FDA, for arthritis symptoms" []

What the FDA has actually concluded:

"In summary, FDA has tentatively concluded that a relationship between glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate and a reduced risk of OA is not established." [link]

And that is all.  Saying this product prevents or treats any disorder is not legal.  Saying it is endorsed by the FDA in any way is flat out incorrect. The strongest statement that might be considered legal is that these products may "provide nutritional support for joint structure and function"

Elk in velvet antler
 And keep in mind that to make this product living tissue (the antler while still covered in skin, with blood and nervous supply) was amputated from a non-domesticated species of animal.  If you wish to use this product please consider seeking out a more humane source such as seafood byproducts.