Category Archives: research

Scat sniffer dogs help tell the story of endangered lizards

Dogs can be trained to find almost anything (people, drugs, weapons, poached ivory) but one York University researcher had them detect something a little unusual – the scat of endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizards.

The scat detection dogs helped biology PhD student Alex Filazzola discover not only scat, but the importance of shrubs in preserving lizard populations in the face of climate change.

“The loss of these lizards would likely have a cascade effect on other species,” said Filazzola, the study lead.

The research team geo-tagged 700 Ephedra californica shrubs in a 32.3-hectare area of the Panoche Hills Management Area in San Joaquin Valley, California. They then took two scat detection dogs from Working Dogs for Conservation on the hunt for lizard scat in 2013 and 2014.

In 2014, there was a drought during which time lizard scat was found more frequently under shrubs, especially those with dense canopy cover, than out in the open. The shrubs proved instrumental in providing critical micro-environments for the blunt-nosed leopard lizards, in particular, shady places to regulate their body temperature in extreme heat, as well as refuge from predators. The lizards use rodent burrows, most often found under shrubs, to escape predators.

“As the climate warms and lizards find it more difficult to regulate their body temperatures in the heat, these findings could help preserve them not only in California, but globally,” said Filazzola of York U’s Faculty of Science. “It demonstrates how much animals rely on plants for survival that goes beyond that of simply eating them. Positive plant-animal interactions could further support animal populations that are already threatened.”

The research, “Non-trophic interactions in deserts: Facilitation, interference, and an endangered lizard species,” was published in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology.

Once abundant in the San Joaquin Valley, agriculture and industrialization has reduced the lizards’ range by close to 85 per cent. Predictions of increased drought in the area put the lizards at a high risk of being wiped out. The study also pointed out that management techniques used over the past 50 years have done little to change the endangered status of the lizards.

“Planting shrubs, such as the Ephedra californica, could prove critical in managing and preserving endangered species in high-stress or arid ecosystems, such as a desert,” said Filazzola. “Continuing to remove these shrubs to install solar panels, however, further endangers this species.”

In addition, the study found that invasive grasses in the desert were not beneficial. They interfered with the lizards’ ability to move around and limited available habitat by reducing the variety of rodent species which create burrows. The invasive grasses also competed for space with shrubs and caused diminished shrub growth. Managing invasive plant species is therefore crucial in these ecosystems.

The research was funded by the Central Coast Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and York University.

Source: York University media release

New hope for diagnosis of Chiari-malformation in toy dog breeds

Continuing to build on their specialist work in this area, researchers in collaboration with neurologists at Fitzpatrick Referrals and Helsinki University and a geneticist at the University of Montreal, have developed two separate studies, published the journal PLOS ONE last month, to learn more about these painful conditions affecting toy dogs.

Study one focused on how the Chiari malformation and Syringomyelia disorder affects the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed which is predisposed to the condition.

ckc-spaniels

Chiari malformation is the premature fusion of bones in the skull, which alters the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, resulting in a collection of fluid pockets within the spinal cord. These fluid pockets are commonly known as Syringomyelia and over time can cause irreversible damage to a dog’s spinal cord.

Using a novel MRI mapping technique, which can standardise images for different size dogs, researchers were able to examine a section of the dog’s skull, brain and vertebrae in greater detail and highlight via a movie clip how such disorders develop in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Examining the footage from the MRI movie clip, researchers were able to observe the compression of a dog’s brain caused by the premature fusion of bones in the skull. Such fusions also occur at the front of the head causing a dog’s face to become flatter, creating the often desirable doll like features common in this breed.

Study two examined characteristics that increased the risk of Syringomyelia in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chihuahua and the Affenpinscher dog breeds. Using a similar technique to study one, the study found that skull and neck conformation that increased the risk for Syringomyelia associated with Chiari-like malformation were subtly different between breeds.

Researchers found that Syringomyelia-affected Chihuahua’s tended to have a smaller angle between the base of the skull and the first and second neck vertebrae, whereas the Affenpinshers had a smaller distance between the first and second vertebrae. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels had reduced space between the joint on the skull base and the first cervical vertebrae. All breeds had a reduced hind skull which altered the angulation of the skull base with neighbouring bones in affected dogs and observed in the movie clips.

Dr Clare Rusbridge, from the University of Surrey, said: “Toy dogs are increasingly popular and as such demand for these breeds is unprecedented. Due to selection for rounded head shapes with short muzzles we are seeing more and more dogs with the painful Chiari malformation and Syringomyelia disorder.”

“The innovative mapping technique used in this study has the potential to provide a diagnostic tool for vets, helping them to quickly identify dogs suffering from these painful disorders.”

Source:  University of Surrey media release

My other posts on toy breeds and the Chiari malformation include:

Study Shows How a Dog’s Diet Shapes Its Gut Microbiome

Studies of the gut microbiome have gone to the dogs — and pets around the world could benefit as a result.

In a  paper published in the journal mBio, researchers from Nestle Purina PetCare Company report that the ratio of proteins and carbohydrates in a canine’s daily diet have a significant influence on the balance of microbes in its gut. Among other findings, they observed that dogs fed a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet had decreases in the ratio of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes bacteria, as well as enriched microbial gene networks associated with weight loss in humans. The microbial responses were more pronounced in obese and overweight dogs than in dogs of a healthy weight.

microbiome-dog

The researchers say their study may help identify new microbiology-inspired strategies for managing pet obesity, which is  a growing problem. More than half of pet dogs in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the most recent annual survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. A comparison of that data with previous surveys suggests that obesity in dogs, as in people, is getting worse.

“We do believe dogs have become heavier over the last decade, and that it’s an epidemic,” says Johnny Li, a computational biologist at Nestle Purina, in St. Louis, Missouri, who led the new study. Li says he launched the study because only a handful of previous studies have explored the gut microbiome of canines, and the effect of diet on gut microbes hasn’t been well documented.

Studies on animals are lacking, but human studies have connected microbial imbalance in the gut to a variety of conditions, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, and liver and brain diseases.

Li and his team studied 32 Labrador Retrievers and 32 Beagles, with equal numbers of lean and overweight or obese dogs. During the first four weeks, all the dogs were fed the same baseline diet. During the second four weeks, half the dogs received a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet; the other half received a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet.

Fecal microbiome studies conducted after the first four weeks revealed few differences in the gut microbiomes of the dogs. Studies conducted after the second four weeks, after the dogs had eaten an experimental diet, showed dramatic changes in the microbiome. Dogs that ate a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet had higher abundances of Bacteroides uniformis and Clostridium butyricum.

In dogs that ate a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, the researchers observed a decrease in the ratio of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes bacteria. They also reported that abundances of Clostridium hiranonis, Clostridium perfringens, and Ruminococcus gnavus were more than double the abundances observed in the other experimental group.

Li says the effects of diet on the microbiome were more pronounced in obese and overweight dogs than in lean dogs. “That seems to suggest that obese dogs and overweight dogs are more susceptible to dietary intervention,” he says. A different diet for those animals may have a greater impact on the bacterial balance in their guts.

The study involved only two breeds, but Li says the findings are likely applicable to all dog breeds, “though we need more studies on other breeds in the future to be sure.”

Li says his team’s study provides a framework to explore the connection between diet and gut microbes in dogs. Although the findings are preliminary, he says he hopes to see the research eventually translate into real-world ways to modify pet food, perhaps through the strategic use of probiotics or prebiotics, and reduce the obesity epidemic.

View the paper Effects of the Dietary Protein and Carbohydrate Ratio on Gut Microbiomes in Dogs of Different Body Conditions

Source:  American Society of Microbiology press release

 

Building a dog wheelchair

During the fall semester, three College of Engineering students working as on-campus co-ops at New Mexico State University designed and built a wheelchair device to assist a dog who had his right hind leg amputated due to cancer.

“When I started to research mobility options to help Kita after his amputation to remove bone cancer, there were a lot of ideas online about using 3-D printers to create custom dog wheelchairs or walkers,” owner Michelle Lebsock said. “Even in his old age, Kita is the type of dog who absolutely loves walks, and although he healed well and adjusted to getting around on three legs, he would get tired very quickly and I could tell he really missed his long walks.”

After realizing regular pet wheelchairs wouldn’t work for Kita, Lebsock contacted the Aggie Innovation Space for advice on do-it-yourself dog wheelchair instructions she had found online.

“I first spoke to Natalia, and instead of just offering advice she took on the project as her own,” Lebsock said. “The talented engineering students at the AIS including Natalia, Abdiel and Arturo worked all semester to create a functional and ergonomic device that was custom-built for Kita. Even though the idea of 3-D printing brought me to the lab, the final product used traditional materials, and the students worked tirelessly to make sure each piece was exactly right. Their work has made one little three-legged dog and his owner very happy.”

Kita dog with wheelchair and students who designed it

New Mexico State University College of Engineering students and Aggie Innovation Space mentors (from left to right) Natalia Perez, Abdiel Jimenez and Arturo Dominguez designed and developed a wheelchair for Kita and his owner Michelle Lebsock. Kita’s right hind leg was amputated due to cancer in spring 2016.

“The AIS team became very passionate about this project sharing ideas, collaborating to assess specific constraints and requirements, and evaluating ideas for build-out materials. Collectively, we were able to design a device that was cost effective, functional, comfortable, strong enough to support the weight of the dog, and ultimately, easy to use,” Jimenez said. “We selected specific materials and specific design features to meet the unique needs of Kita. Michelle was kind enough to give us feedback, which allowed us to further refine the design.”

Throughout the fall, Perez, Jimenez and Dominguez met with Kita and Lebsock many times to determine the correct height, comfort, and restraint requirements of the device. Ease of assembly and disassembly were also important factors the Aggie Innovators had to consider to ensure the device was portable and easy to use.

“We were excited to have met a functional level of comfort for Kita with our first design, as he realized he could move around freely,” Dominguez said. “From there, we studied and evaluated Kita’s movement in the device, which allowed us to adjust the design to make it more comfortable and functional. With each iteration, Kita became more and more comfortable. During our final test, Kita was able to run for the first time since surgery and was able to move much more naturally. We then spent a week enhancing a few aesthetic features and branded it NMSU, including a specialized 3-D printed name plate.”

Kita dog in special wheelchair

Arturo Dominguez, a New Mexico State University College of Engineering student, fits nearly 17-year-old Kita with a wheelchair that was designed and built in the Aggie Innovation Space.

Dominguez said the group faced many design challenges throughout the duration of this project.

“Some of our initial design considerations required us to adjust the height of the device while ensuring that we provided adequate support of the shoulders and hips so as to minimize weight on pressure points,” Dominguez said. “As we adjusted the saddle mechanism in the device, we had to be sure not to pinch or irritate the underbelly and other sensitive areas of the dog.”

Perez said the challenges and hours spent working on this project was worth it when she and her fellow Aggie Innovators saw Kita run freely in the device and saw the happiness expressed in Lebsock’s reaction.

“This project reminded us how engineers can enhance quality of life, and made us realize that our duty as engineers is not just for people and the environment but for our furry friends that make our lives happier,” Perez said.

Source:  New Mexico State University media release

Dog-directed speech is more effective with puppies

 A small team of researchers from the U.S., the U.K. and France has found that puppies are more receptive to dog-directed speech than are adult dogs.
In their paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers describe experiments they conducted recording human voices and playing them back to dogs, what they found, and what it might mean for human communications.
dog

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Most everyone has heard dog-directed speech, which is similar to speech patterns some use when talking to infants—the voice gets higher, the words come out slower and there is a sort of sing-song phrasing.  (i.e. baby talk) Some of the phrases are familiar as well, such as “Who’s a good boy?” In this new effort, the researchers looked into the use of dog-directed speech seeking to learn if there might be any modulating factors in its use.

The experiments consisted of asking 30 female human volunteers to look at pictures of dogs while reading a script consisting of typical dog-directed speech phrases into a microphone to make recordings. The recordings were then played to 10 puppies and 10 adult dogs at an animal shelter as the researchers watched and recorded their reactions.

The researchers report that the volunteers tended to raise their voices in ways similar to people speaking to human infants regardless of the age of the dog they were looking at, though it was noted that the voices were raised slightly higher for puppies than for adult dogs. They also report that at the animal shelter, the puppies responded very clearly to the voices coming from the speakers, acting as if they wanted to play. The adult dogs, on the other hand, after a quick investigation, ignored the recordings altogether.

The researchers were not able to explain why the humans spoke in dog-directed speech or why the puppies responded to it while the adult dogs did not, but suggest that humans likely respond to puppies in much the same way they respond to babies—and babies have been shown to respond more to baby-directed speech. As for why the older dogs were not interested, it might have been the case that they were simply older and wiser—they could see very clearly there was no human present speaking to them, so they chose to ignore whatever was being said.

(DoggyMom’s comment:  Smart dogs!)

Source:  Phys.org

Full journal reference:

  1. Tobey Ben-Aderet, Mario Gallego-Abenza, David Reby, Nicolas Mathevon. Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017; 284 (1846): 20162429 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2429

Pets offer valuable support for owners with mental health problems

The body of research studying the value of pets in supporting mental health continues to grow.  A research team based at the University of Manchester published its results before Christmas, a study that involved 54 participants.

Said Helen Brooks, the lead researcher,

The people we spoke to through the course of this study felt their pet played a range of positive roles such as helping them to manage stigma associated with their mental health by providing acceptance without judgement

This YouTube video explains the research:

Pets save UK National Health Service

Pets account for millions of pounds worth of economic activity in the UK and may reduce National Health Service (NHS) costs by nearly two and a half billion pounds, according to a new report. companion-animal-economics

Drawing on multiple sources, and written by internationally respected animal welfare and business experts, Companion Animal Economics comprehensively documents the economic impact of pets in the UK – the first time such an assessment has been made for nearly 40 years. The study directly examines available evidence on the direct and indirect benefits and costs of companion animals to society, including their influence on human mental and physical health, illness prevention and well-being.

Published by CABI, Companion Animal Economics was developed by Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln UK, and Dr Sandra McCune, Human-Animal Interaction expert at Mars Petcare’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition. Mars Petcare UK provided sponsorship towards the cost of producing the report. Other authors include Dr Sophie Hall from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, Professor Ted Fuller and Luke Dolling from the Lincoln International Business School, and Katie Bristow-Wade of Dogs for Good.

“Vets are well aware how important companion animals are to their owners, but it is important that they appreciate the impact that they can have on the physical, mental and social health of both individuals and society more widely,” says Professor Daniel Mills. “This book should help raise awareness of this and their economic importance in times of economic uncertainty.”

First major study since 1988
“Almost half of households in the UK share their homes with animals cared for as companions – a relationship we consider to be valuable and enriching,” says Dr McCune. ‘This important report provides a modern day update on the impact of companion animals on the UK economy and society, without reducing the discussion to a simplistic cost-benefits ratio. Critically, it aims to raise awareness of the need for research to evaluate the complex routes by which pets make an economic impact on UK society.”

Relatively little information on the economic impact of pets has been published since the 1988 seminal Council for Science and Society (CSS) report on Companion Animals in Society, which inspired Companion Animal Economics. Since then, trends in pet ownership, and associated industries, have changed a great deal. The report’s methodology sought to capture this new context, including issues like pet tourism, pet obesity, and expanding veterinary services, identifying clear gaps where further high-quality data and additional research are needed.

Costs as well as benefits
When evaluating the contribution of companion animals to the UK economy, both positive and negative aspects were considered. The cost of NHS treatment for bites and strikes from dogs is estimated at £3 million per year. At the same time, the report also estimates that pet ownership in the UK may reduce use of the UK health service by up to £2.45 billion per year. This conservative conclusion is drawn through examining healthcare savings through reduced number of doctor visits.

Given the scale of the potential impact, the report concludes that research into companion animals and their economic impact on society needs further investigation and should be supported by government. While UK data were used in the report, many of the points raised relate to other industrialised nations, demonstrating the global nature of this issue.

Book details & Link:
Companion Animal Economics. The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK.  S Hall, Research Fellow. University of Lincoln, UK, L Dolling, PhD student. University of Lincoln, UK, K Bristow, Dogs for Good, UK, T Fuller, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategic Foresight. University of Lincoln, UK, D Mills, University of Lincoln, UK

Source:  Waltham.com