Category Archives: research

Who should Fido fear? Depends on relationship

As states around the country move to stiffen punishments for animal cruelty, Michigan State University researchers have found a correlation between the types of animal abuse committed and the perpetrator’s relationship to an animal and its owner.

For example, animal-neglect crimes (i.e. withholding food and water) tend to be perpetrated by the animal’s owner. On the other hand, with crimes that involve kicking or stabbing, the suspect is usually an owner’s family member or intimate partner, said Laura Reese, professor of urban and regional planning.

Laura Reese and Odie

Study leader Laura Reese and her dog, Odie Photo by Laura Reese

Reese and Cassie Richard, an MSU master’s of public policy student who now works for the Oregon Commission for the Blind, studied more than 300 animal cruelty police reports in Detroit between 2007 and 2015. They categorized abuse into eight types including dog fighting, shooting, poisoning, stabbing and neglect. The researchers coded the list of motivations for cruelty as listed by the perpetrators, who were then matched with the Detroit police crime feed to examine their other patterns of crime.

The researchers also found:

  • It’s usually owners – rather than anyone else – who engage their dogs in dog fighting as a form of abuse, often for the money. But owners are also less likely to commit more active forms of cruelty, possibly because of their role as guardians.
  • Most stabbings involve family members while poisonings are typically committed by neighbors.
  • Motivations differ. For intimate partners of pet owners, frustration with a relationship is often the cause of violence, whereas for neighbors, annoyance with an animal is often the impetus for cruelty.

“This isn’t just an animal problem – it’s a human problem,” Reese said. “For example, people who shoot other humans are more likely to shoot animals. At the same time, dog fighting is a public safety problem and dogs running loose biting people due to neglect is a public health problem. So, addressing human problems will help animal problems and vice versa, and we need to encourage public officials to think that way.”

However, most policymakers don’t, she said. Animal cruelty prevention needs to be a coordinated effort between law enforcement, public agencies and nonprofits. And because forms of animal cruelty vary, public policies and public health solutions should vary.

For example, dog fighting is related to gambling, drugs and weapon offenses. Thus, crackdowns on those issues would address that form of cruelty. Meanwhile, low-cost veterinary services and enforcement of existing ordinances, such as licensing requirements and leash laws, would target owner neglect.

“Simple education and informing people about proper nutrition, spaying and neutering could be done in schools,” Reese said. “Folks often want to do the right thing, but they may not have the resources. At the same time, cruelty is also tied up with domestic violence, which raises a separate and more complex set of concerns. That’s why we need our legislators and local officials to understand the complexities of animal cruelty and make solutions a priority.”

The study is published in the journal Anthrozoös.

The journal article can be read here:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2019.1550282)

Source:  Michigan State University media release

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Both dogs and wolves cooperate with humans

A recent study conducted by behavioural researchers at Vetmeduni Vienna shows that dogs and wolves both work equally well with humans, albeit in different ways. The allegedly unequal brothers are thus much more similar than often assumed.

Human social life would be unthinkable without cooperation. The frequency and complexity with which humans cooperate with each other are extraordinary, if not unique. To better understand the evolution of this outstanding human skill, researchers have proposed dogs (Canis familiaris) as a good model of human cooperation.

Wolves cooperate with humans

Wolves cooperate with humans, but they take the lead. Credit: Friederike Range/Vetmeduni Vienna

The wolf inside dogs makes the difference

A recent study by Vetmeduni Vienna, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that the ability to work with people lies not so much within dogs themselves but in the “wolf within the dog” – that is to say, in very specific behavioural characteristics that dogs share with wolves. The study tested the extent to which dogs and grey wolves collaborate with humans in order to solve certain tasks. The findings show that both dogs and wolves cooperate intensively with humans and are equally successful, although the animals attain their goals in different ways.

Wolves show more initiative

Especially in one point the two closely related animals show significantly different forms of behaviour. In their cooperation with human partners, dogs follow the behaviour of the humans while wolves lead the interaction: they are more independent. Study director Friederike Range from the Konrad Lorenz Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna says, “The detailed analysis of the cooperative interactions revealed interesting differences between wolves and dogs. It shows that, while wolves tend to initiate behaviour and take the lead, dogs are more likely to wait and see what the human partner does and follow that behaviour.”

Differences in behaviour due to domestication

Based on the results of the study, the researchers propose that in the course of domestication dogs were selected for breeding because of their higher submissive tendencies (deferential behaviour hypothesis). According to this hypothesis, this helped minimize conflicts over resources and ensured the safe coexistence and cooperation in which humans lead and dogs follow.

Teamwork counts for wolves

Forming the background to the study are certain fundamental considerations in the field of behavioural science. As humans and dogs have been exposed to similar environmental pressures, this could conceivably represent a case of convergent evolution. Some research suggests that dogs acquired specific predispositions for cooperative interactions during the domestication process due to reduced aggression and increased tolerance. Against this background, better cooperation with humans would be expected in dogs than in wolves. However, wolves are a highly cooperative species, working together to raise the young, hunt and defend their territory.

Early socialization with humans is crucial

The research team led by Friederike Range therefore hypothesized that dogs did not develop any new traits during domestication, but rather that the collaborative skills of their common ancestors – wolves – form the basis for the evolution of dog-human cooperation (canine cooperation hypothesis). In contrast to the hypotheses of other scientists, the researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna therefore did not assume that dogs will outperform wolves when cooperating with humans. As Friederike Range says, “Based on the canine cooperation hypothesis, we expected that wolves would cooperate with humans as well as dogs if early and intensive socialization is given.” The present study fully confirms this assumption.

For the experiment portion of the study, 15 grey wolves (11 males, 4 females, age: 2 to 8 years) and 12 mixed-breed dogs (7 males, 5 females, age: 2 to 7 years) were tested at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria, where animals are socialized with people very early on and have close ties to them. The results of the experiment show that dogs and wolves, when socialized with humans and kept under similar conditions, work similarly successfully with humans, albeit in very different ways, which explains why dogs make the better pet.

The article “Wolves lead and dogs follow, but they both cooperate with humans” by Friederike Range, Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Corinna Kratz and Zsófia Virányi was published in Scientific Reports.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna media release

Chemical pollutants in the home

New research by scientists at the University of Nottingham suggests that environmental contaminants found in the home and diet have the same adverse effects on male fertility in both humans and in domestic dogs.

Chemicals in homes

Chemicals commonly found in homes, at concentrations relevant to environmental exposure, have the same damaging effect on sperm from both man and dog. Credit: © Tatyana Gladskih / Fotolia

There has been increasing concern over declining human male fertility in recent decades with studies showing a 50% global reduction in sperm quality in the past 80 years. A previous study by the Nottingham experts showed that sperm quality in domestic dogs has also sharply declined, raising the question of whether modern day chemicals in the home environment could be at least partly to blame.

In a new paper published in Scientific Reports, the Nottingham team set out to test the effects of two specific man-made chemicals namely the common plasticizer DEHP, widely abundant in the home (e.g. carpets, flooring, upholstery, clothes, wires, toys) and the persistent industrial chemical polychlorinated biphenyl 153, which although banned globally, remains widely detectable in the environment including food.

The researchers carried out identical experiments in both species using samples of sperm from donor men and stud dogs living in the same region of the UK. The results show that the chemicals, at concentrations relevant to environmental exposure, have the same damaging effect on sperm from both man and dog.

Leading the work, Associate Professor and Reader in Reproductive Biology at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, Richard Lea, said: “This new study supports our theory that the domestic dog is indeed a ‘sentinel’ or mirror for human male reproductive decline and our findings suggest that man-made chemicals that have been widely used in the home and working environment may be responsible for the fall in sperm quality reported in both man and dog that share the same environment.”

“Our previous study in dogs showed that the chemical pollutants found in the sperm of adult dogs, and in some pet foods, had a detrimental effect on sperm function at the concentrations previously found in the male reproductive tract. This new study is the first to test the effect of two known environmental contaminants, DEHP and PCB153, on both dog and human sperm in vitro, in the same concentrations as found in vivo.

Rebecca Sumner, who carried out the experimental work as part of her PhD, said “In both cases and in both subjects, the effect was reduced sperm motility and increased fragmentation of DNA.

Dr Sumner added: “We know that when human sperm motility is poor, DNA fragmentation is increased and that human male infertility is linked to increased levels of DNA damage in sperm. We now believe this is the same in pet dogs because they live in the same domestic environment and are exposed to the same household contaminants. This means that dogs may be an effective model for future research into the effects of pollutants on declining fertility, particularly because external influences such as diet are more easily controlled than in humans.”

Professor Gary England, Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science and Professor of Comparative Veterinary Reproduction said:“Since environmental pollutants largely reflect a Western way of life such as the effects of industry, the chemicals present in the environment are likely to depend on the location.  An important area of future study is to determine how the region in which we live may affect sperm quality in both man and dog.”

The full research paper, ‘Independent and combined effects of diethylhexyl phthalate and polychlorinated biphenyl 153 on sperm quality in the human and dog’  is available here.

Source:  University of Nottingham media release

Good dog? Bad dog? Your dog’s personality can change

MSU dogs in park

When dog-parents spend extra time scratching their dogs’ bellies, take their dogs out for long walks and games of fetch, or even when they feel constant frustration over their dogs’ naughty chewing habits, they are gradually shaping their pets’ personalities. Dogs, like people, have moods and personality traits that shape how they react in certain situations. New findings from Michigan State University went where few researchers have gone before to reveal that, also like humans, dogs’ personalities likely change over time.

“When humans go through big changes in life, their personality traits can change. We found that this also happens with dogs – and to a surprisingly large degree,” said William Chopik, professor of psychology and lead author. “We expected the dogs’ personalities to be fairly stable because they don’t have wild lifestyle changes humans do, but they actually change a lot. We uncovered similarities to their owners, the optimal time for training and even a time in their lives that they can get more aggressive toward other animals.”

Additionally, Chopik found that dogs’ personalities can predict many important life outcomes. For example, canines’ personalities will influence how close they feel to their owners, biting behavior and even chronic illness.

The research, published in Journal of Research in Personality, is one of the first – and is the largest – studies of its kind to examine changes in dogs’ personalities. Chopik surveyed owners of more than 1,600 dogs, including 50 different breeds. Dogs ranged from just a few weeks old to 15 years, and were split closely between male and female. The extensive survey had owners evaluate their dog’s personalities and answered questions about the dog’s behavioral history. The owners also answered a survey about their own personalities.

“We found correlations in three main areas: age and personality, in human-to-dog personality similarities and in the influence a dog’s personality has on the quality of its relationship with its owner,” Chopik said. “Older dogs are much harder to train; we found that the ‘sweet spot’ for teaching a dog obedience is around the age of six, when it outgrows its excitable puppy stage but before its too set in its ways.”

One trait that rarely changes in age with dogs, Chopik said, was fear and anxiety.

Honing in on the saying, “dogs resemble their owners,” Chopik’s research showed dogs and owners share specific personality traits. Extroverted humans rated their dogs as more excitable and active, while owners high in negative emotions rated their dogs as more fearful, active and less responsive to training. Owners who rated themselves as agreeable rated their dogs as less fearful and less aggressive to people and animals.

The owners who felt happiest about their relationships with their dogs reported active and excitable dogs, as well as dogs who were most responsive to training. Aggression and anxiety didn’t matter as much in having a happy relationship, Chopik said.

“There are a lot of things we can do with dogs – like obedience classes and training – that we can’t do with people,” he said. “Exposure to obedience classes was associated with more positive personality traits across the dog’s lifespan. This gives us exciting opportunities to examine why personality changes in all sorts of animals.”

Chopik’s findings prove how much power humans have over influencing a dog’s personality. He explained that many of the reasons a dog’s personality changes are a result of the “nature versus nurture” theory associated with humans’ personalities.

Next, Chopik will examine how the environment owners provide their dogs might change the dogs’ behavior.

“Say you adopt a dog from a shelter. Some traits are likely tied to biology and resistant to change, but you then put it in a new environment where it’s loved, walked and entertained often. The dog then might become a little more relaxed and sociable,” Chopik said. “Now that we know dogs’ personalities can change, next we want to make strong connection to understand why dogs act – and change – the way they do.”

Link to the journal article here.

Source:  Michigan State University

Do Bigger Brains Equal Smarter Dogs?

Bigger dogs, with larger brains, perform better on certain measures of intelligence than their smaller canine counterparts, according to a new study led by the University of Arizona.

bigger vs smaller

Bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups. Credit: © alexzizu / Fotolia

Larger-brained dogs outperform smaller dogs on measures of executive functions – a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling and coordinating other cognitive abilities and behaviors. In particular, bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups, according to the study published in the journal Animal Cognition.

“The jury is out on why, necessarily, brain size might relate to cognition,” said lead study author Daniel Horschler, a UA anthropology doctoral student and member of the UA’s Arizona Canine Cognition Center. “We think of it as probably a proxy for something else going on, whether it’s the number of neurons that matters or differences in connectivity between neurons. Nobody’s really sure yet, but we’re interested in figuring out what those deeper things are.”

Canine brain size does not seem to be associated with all types of intelligence, however. Horschler found that brain size didn’t predict a dog’s performance on tests of social intelligence, which was measured by testing each dog’s ability to follow human pointing gestures. It also wasn’t associated with a dog’s inferential and physical reasoning ability.

The study’s findings mirror what scientists have previously found to be true in primates – that brain size is associated with executive functioning, but not other types of intelligence.

“Previous studies have been composed mostly or entirely of primates, so we weren’t sure whether the result was an artifact of unique aspects of primate brain evolution,” Horschler said. “We think dogs are a really great test case for this because there’s huge variation in brain size, to a degree you don’t see in pretty much any other terrestrial mammals. You have chihuahuas versus Great Danes and everything in between.”

Horschler’s study is based on data from more than 7,000 purebred domestic dogs from 74 different breeds. Brain size was estimated based on breed standards.

The data came from the citizen science website Dognition.com, which offers instructions for dog owners to test their canines’ cognitive abilities through a variety of game-based activities. The users then submit their data to the site, where it can be accessed by researchers.

Short-term memory was tested by dog owners hiding a treat, in view of their dog, under one of two overturned plastic cups. Owners then waited 60, 90, 120 or 150 seconds before releasing their dog to get the treat. Smaller dogs had more difficulty remembering where the treat was hidden.

To test self-control, owners placed a treat in front of their seated dog and then forbade the dog from taking it. Owners then either watched the dog, covered their own eyes or turned away from the dog. Larger-breed dogs typically waited longer to snag the forbidden treat.

Horschler and his colleagues controlled for whether or not the dogs had been trained. They found that larger-brained breeds had better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, regardless of the extent of training the dogs had received.

In the future, Horschler said he’d like to do comparative studies of cognitive abilities in different breed varieties, such as the miniature poodle and much larger standard poodle, which are essentially the same except for their size.

“I’m really interested in how cognition evolves and how that arises biologically,” Horschler said. “We’re coming to understand that brain size is in some way related to cognition, whether it’s because of brain size specifically or whether it’s a proxy for something else.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

Medical detection dogs help diabetes patients regulate insulin levels

New research by the University of Bristol in collaboration with Medical Detection Dogs has found that the best trained alert dogs have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of people living with Type 1 diabetes.

As reported in PLOS One, on average trained dogs alerted their owners to 83 per cent of hypoglycaemic episodes in over 4,000 hypo- and hyper-glycaemic episodes that were examined. A hypoglycaemic episode is where blood sugar drops dangerously low and if left untreated, can lead to unconsciousness or even death.

medical alert assistance dog

Claire Pesterfield holding her dog Magic’s paw. He’s a medical alert assistant dog and has been trained to detect a minute shift in Claire’s blood sugar levels. She thinks he’s alerted and potentially saved her life 4,500 times in the five years they’ve been together. Photo by Trevor Martin

The findings confirm that alert dogs can help Type 1 patients regulate their blood sugars in a non-invasive way and avoid the risks of hypoglycaemic episodes and hyperglycaemia.

Lead author Dr Nicola Rooney from the Bristol Veterinary School, said: “We already know from previous studies that patients’ quality of life is vastly improved by having a medical detection dog. However, to date, evidence has come from small scale studies. Our study provides the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia.”

In this study, researchers from Bristol, assessed the reliability of 27 trained glycaemia alert dogs, whose owners provided six to 12 weeks continual worth of blood records detailing every time the dog was alerted.

Medical Detection Dogs train pet dogs to respond to respond to the odour of human disease and help owners live with life-threatening diseases. Familiar with their owners, dogs are conditioned to respond with alerting behaviours when their owners’ blood sugar levels fall outside a target range.

Encouraged by the alerting behaviour of their pet dog, if such out-of-range (OOR) episodes occur, the patient can take appropriate action, usually by administering insulin or eating to retain the right glucose levels.

Dr Rooney, Teaching Fellow in Animal Welfare and Behaviour, added: “Our research shows a dog’s effectiveness is affected by the individual dog and its connection with its human partner. Since the usage of such dogs is growing, it’s important that any dogs used for these purposes are professionally trained, matched and monitored by professional organisations like Medical Detection Dogs.  It’s also vital that research continues both to assess true efficacy and determine ways to optimise their performance.”

Dr Claire Guest, Chief Executive and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “The findings are fantastic news for all those who are living with Type 1 diabetes and other conditions. Medical detection dogs primarily serve patients looking for more effective and independent ways of managing their condition.

“Our dogs also serve the wider medical community by offering proactive solutions that are natural, non-invasive and have been shown to provide countless psychological benefits.

“As our natural companions, and with a highly refined sense of smell, why shouldn’t they be able to detect changes in our personal health?”

Paper:

How effective are trained dogs at alerting their owners to changes in blood glycaemic levels?: variations in performance of  glycaemia alert dogs by Nicola J Rooney, Claire M Guest, Lydia CM. Swanson, Steve V. Morant in PLOS One [open access]

Source:  University of Bristol media release

Bulldogs’ Screw Tails Linked to Human Genetic Disease

With their small size, stubby faces and wide-set eyes, bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers are among the most popular of domestic dog breeds. Now researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine have found the genetic basis for these dogs’ appearance, and linked it to a rare inherited syndrome in humans.

bulldog

Moxie, a 3-year-old French bulldog, took part in a study of the genetics of “screwtail” dog breeds (bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers). A common mutation in these dogs is similar to genetic changes in a rare human disease, Robinow syndrome. (Photo credit: Katy Robertson)

Bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers aren’t the only dogs with short, wide heads, but they do share another feature not found in other breeds: a short, kinked tail or “screwtail,” said Professor Danika Bannasch, Department of Population Health and Reproduction in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. These three breeds all lack the vertebrae that make up the tail bone, she said.

The researchers sequenced the whole genome — the entire DNA sequence — of 100 dogs, including 10 from screwtail breeds. All the participating dogs were privately owned pets seen at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, whose owners agreed to participate. Graduate students Tamer Mansour and Katherine Lucot, with C. Titus Brown, associate professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Genome Center, searched through the DNA sequences to find changes associated with screwtail breeds.

From more than 12 million individual differences they were able to identify one mutation, in a gene called DISHEVELLED 2 or DVL2. This variant was found in 100 percent of the bulldogs and French bulldogs sampled, and was very common in Boston terriers.

This kind of whole genome comparison is relatively new, Bannasch said.

“Normally, we would have first had to identify a region DNA and work from there,” she said. “We could look at breed-specific traits, but not as well as we can now.”

Professor Henry Ho at the UC Davis School of Medicine studies similar genes in humans. Mutations in the related DVL1 and DVL3 genes are known to cause Robinow syndrome, a rare inherited disorder in humans characterized by strikingly similar anatomical changes — a short, wide “babyface,” short limbs and spinal deformities. In addition, Robinow patients and the screwtail breeds also share other disease traits, such as cleft palate. In both humans and dogs, DVL genes are part of a signaling pathway called WNT involved in development of the skeleton and nervous system, among other things, said Peter Dickinson, professor of surgical and radiological sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine. By characterizing the screwtail DVL2 protein product, Sara Konopelski, a graduate student in the Ho lab, pinpointed a key biochemical step in the WNT pathway that is disrupted by the mutation. This finding further suggests that a common molecular defect is responsible for the distinct appearances of both Robinow patients and screwtail dog breeds.

The DVL2 screwtail mutation is so common in these breeds, and so closely tied to the breed appearance, that it would be difficult to remove it by breeding, Dickinson said. Other genes are known to contribute to short, wide “brachycephalic” heads in dogs, and there are likely multiple genes that contribute both to appearance and to chronic health problems in these breeds.

Understanding a common mutation in popular dog breeds may, however, give more insight into the rare Robinow syndrome in humans. Only a few hundred cases have been documented since the syndrome was identified in 1969.

“It’s a very rare human disease but very common in dogs, so that could be a model for the human syndrome,” Bannasch said.

Source:  UC Davis media release