Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jack the cat found, falcon force, and more animal news

The big news of the day is that Jack the cat, misplaced in JFK airport a couple of months ago, has been found, according to a report on VetStreet. He'll soon be winging his way home to California--and we'll hope he isn't mislaid again along the way.

You've no doubt heard of Border Collies being hired to drive geese and other birds off airport runways. Now NATO has recruited a few good falcons to prevent birds from fouling up jet engines, according to a story in the November issue of Wired. The falcons and their handlers, employees of Falcon Environmental Services, patrol airports from before sunrise to after sunset, on a search and, if necessary, destroy mission for geese and gulls, which often get sucked into jet engines and can potentially damage or even down an aircraft. Outfitted with microtransmitters so they can be tracked, the raptors are released to run off the troublemaking fowl. Usually they come back at day's end, lured by food if necessary. But at least one, swept up high and far by a thermal column, is now a self-employed predator.

As we enter the season of thanksgiving and gift-giving, especially in this economic downturn, it's good to know that there are organizations like Pets of the Homeless, which helps to provide food and veterinary care for pets belonging to people who live on the streets. A story by Eleanor Gilman in the October 2011 AARP Bulletin says that 10 percent of the nation's 3.5 million homeless people have at least one pet. Pets of the Homeless was founded by Genevieve Frederick after she realized that a pet may be the only companion a street person has. The website lists a number of ways people can help, from distributing food to starting a reading contest in schools.

If you write about pets and want to bone up in your field or claw your way to the top of the pet writer heap, make plans now to attend the 2011 Cat Writers Association conference in White Plains, New York, November 18 and 19. You don't have to write about cats to attend; the sessions are geared to writers of all stripes, tabby or brindle. Among the offerings are a presentation by incoming AVMA president Douglas Aspros, DVM, on the latest in pet health care; writing for children, with agent Ann Tobias and editor/writer Thea Feldman; writing nonfiction book proposals, presented by literary agent Rita Rosenkranz; how to break into new genres; tips on improving and maintaining your website; editor and agent panels; and more. That's just on Friday! There's more on Saturday. I'll be there. Find out more here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Breed spotlight: the Afghan Hound

Afghans are the most glamourous of the sighthounds. They have long, beautiful coats and a somewhat standoffish attitude--at least until they come to accept you as family. Then they show their silly side.

I'm not going to say a lot about Afghans here because the Afghan Hound Club of America website does a pretty good job of telling people about the breed. I'm not wild about the design, but it's reasonably easy to navigate. If you're new to the breed, start with the Questions and Answers section, which describes the breed's personality and what Afghans are like to live with. In response to the question Are they good with kids? it gives exactly the right answer: some are and some aren't.

There's a good section on coat care, which is essential for this breed. Skip the Personality Plus heading unless you just want to see some funny cartoons featuring an Afghan. There's a rescue page with information on adopting an Afghan and good tips on ways to make sure that dogs don't get lost or need to be rehomed.

The disappointing section was the one on health (listed as Animal Health). It gives generic advice on health and veterinary care--"Good health will show through Afghan Hound's attitude, sparkling eyes and in his coat." It mentions that the AHCA is a member of the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC), but it doesn't discuss any health problems to which Afghans might be prone. It does point out that CHIC numbers do not imply normal test results and do not certify animals for breeding purposes, which is a plus. To earn a CHIC number, Afghans must have hip, eye and thyroid clearances.

What I liked best was the Newcomer page. For anyone who's interested in buying an Afghan puppy or adopting an adult Afghan, this is the place to go to get answers from real people. Contact information is listed for people who are willing to answer questions about the breed. That's a great resource. There's also a breeder referral page.

The AHCA doesn't have the very best website, and I'd love to see it beef up the health section, but for the most part it offers solid information.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Weekend reading: a mystery for dog lovers and a powerful piece on puppy mills

A rainy day and a slow work week allowed me to catch up on my reading for pleasure on Wednesday. I picked up First Degree, by David Rosenfelt, which has been sitting in the "to read" pile for at least a couple of months now. Jerry had already read it and gave it thumbs up--and it featured a dog lover--so I was eager to get started.

New Jersey lawyer Andy Carpenter has come into a large inheritance so he can pick and choose among the cases that come his way. (We should all be so lucky.) Nothing of interest has presented itself, so he and his Golden Retriever, Tara, are at a dog park, where Andy is preening among a group of women who are gushing over him because he adopted Tara from a shelter, where she was on "death row." Unfortunately for Andy's ego, his girlfriend, Laurie, shows up and announces that her nemesis, a corrupt police officer, has been murdered.

An arrest is made and Andy is manipulated into defending the accused killer, much to Laurie's annoyance. Then new evidence comes along, and the stakes become much higher.

Tara and the other dog in the book, Cash (rescued from the streets by one of Andy's former clients (who has also come into millions), don't talk and don't help to solve the mystery--although they do find a damning piece of evidence--but their pasts contribute to a decision at the end that will have no-kill advocates smiling.

Luck and coincidence are major characters in this book. Two multimillion-dollar windfalls? An employee who just happens to have a connection who can and will provide the answers they need? But it's still a fun read, and when it comes to dogs, Andy's--and Rosenfelt's--hearts are clearly in the right place.

I was about to post this just as soon as I wrote the headline when I ran across Lucy Postin's response to a Pet Age editorial that advocated puppy sales in pet stores. It's well worth a read, and I hope you'll share it far and wide.

In other news, the New York Times reports that Pet Airways and PetJets make flying safer for brachycephalic pets, who are banned from many airlines. Read the story here.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Breed spotlight: learning about the Affenpinscher

I write a lot about breeds: profiles for magazines and websites, books, and peripheral pieces on finding a breeder or choosing a puppy. For a while now, I've been wanting to pull together information on breeds not as a one-stop resource--that would take forever--but as a guide to where to find information about the breed and how to evaluate it. I'm going to start alphabetically with AKC breeds, although it's pretty likely that rare breeds and cats will make their way in sooner rather than later. So, let's check out the Affenpinscher.

He's nicknamed the monkey-face dog because of his bright, inquisitive expression and shaggy coat, especially around the face. Or because he hung out with organ grinders who couldn't afford actual monkeys. Take your pick. His coat comes in black, gray, silver, red, black and tan, or belge, a mixture of black, brown and (sometimes) white with red. Even though he's classified as a Toy breed, he has a terrierlike personality, not surprising since he descends from small dogs used as ratters on farms or in stables, shops and homes. This dog is active, smart and an independent thinker. One of his nicknames is mustachio'd little devil, an apt moniker. You can just see him twirling his mustache as he plots his next mischievous move. He weighs 8 to 10 pounds and sometimes up to 20 pounds, but in his head he thinks he's much bigger.

When I'm researching breeds, interviews with breeders are a primary source of information, but I also turn to the breed club website. A rare few are top-notch, but many could use some help with organization, and they are often lacking in the type of information that is really useful to the potential buyer or new owner. I look to see how easy it is to find a description of the breed's personality, whether health problems are discussed, and how easy it is to find a list of breeders and a link to information about rescue.

The Affenpinscher Club of America website has tabs on the left for information about the breed and the club, but it doesn't appear to be in any kind of order, other than starting with club and breed history. The Breeder Referral section has good information on choosing a breeder, links to a list of ACA-affiliated breeders, and a link to the criteria breeders must meet to be on that list. All of that is a big plus.

The section on the Affen personality isn't bad. It refers to them as a "big dog in a small body" and warns of their willingness to take on big dogs. Most of it is very positive, which is fine, but I would like to see a more balanced picture that includes the breed's drawbacks--and all breeds have them. What is the Affen like to train? How easily is he housetrained? That's often a problem in Toy breeds. Does he bark a lot? What does he think about living with other pets? Kids? None of that is covered. Training is discussed in the sections on Obedience and Agility, but not everyone would think to look there for that type of information. A good FAQ would cover all of this information in one place.

The Puppy's First Year tab is promising, but while it has some good advice, it is mostly generic information about vet visits, crate training, going to puppy kindergarten class, and socialization. How old should an Affen puppy be before going to his new home, and how quickly do Affen puppies mature? How much do they eat? How much and what type of exercise/play do they need? That type of breed-specific information is nowhere to be found. Of course, you can get that information from breeders, but it's nice to have an idea upfront if you are deciding whether this is the breed for you.

Health is not among any of the headings, but if you were to click on Breeder's Guidelines, you would find that Affenpinschers should be tested for hip dysplasia, luxating patellas, eye problems and Legg-Calve-Perthes disease before being bred. In her book Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds, author D. Caroline Coile says that Affens don't have any major health concerns and that minor health concerns are patellar luxation and corneal ulcers. Their typical life span is 12 to 14 years. That would be great information for buyers and owners to be able to find on the ACA website, as would be information about other problems that occasionally affect the breed, such as patent ductus arteriosus (a congenital heart condition), open fontanel (a soft spot on the head) and respiratory difficulties.

While the Affen Personality section says they need a minimum amount of grooming, the Grooming the Affen page tells another story. It gives excellent, highly detailed instructions on how to brush, comb and trim the dog, which, without regular grooming, will pick up all kinds of debris in his shaggy coat and develop mats or tangles that can be painful and difficult to remove. It's one of the most useful sections on the ACA website.

As is often the case, the very best, most useful information about the breed is on the webpage for Affenpinscher Rescue. Here is where you will learn that Affens aren't especially fond of children, are liable to bite if provoked, are difficult to housetrain, and much more. There's no doubt that the Affen is charming, but he can be a handful to live with. The rescue page also discusses health concerns in much more detail than the ACA website. Even if you are planning to get a puppy of any breed, I always recommend that you find a breed's rescue group site and read it thoroughly. It's how you find out why people give the dogs up and what can be difficult about living with them.

The Affen isn't especially common, so finding a breeder who has puppies or at least is planning a litter can take some time. The ACA breeder referral list has a total of nine for the whole country. Communicate with as many of them as possible via phone or email, meet them at dog shows if possible, or visit their kennel and meet their dogs if you happen to live nearby one of them. This is a funny little dog with a lot of great qualities, but just because he's small and cute doesn't mean he will be easy to live with in all circumstances.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Sick bird? Late at night? These tips may help save his life

Birds, like most animals, are pros at hiding illness. By the time you realize they're sick, it can be right on the edge of too late. Even worse is when it occurs after regular veterinary hours. Who's going to take a bird to a veterinary ER?

You are, if you want your bird to have a better chance of surviving until his avian vet can see him. What are the signs that your bird might be sick? Subtle clues are fluffed feathers, inactivity, talking or vocalizing less than usual, or sitting on the bottom of the cage. If your bird is shivering, sniffling, seems off balance, or is having trouble breathing, he needs help. Fast. 

Emergency clinics may say that they don't specialize in birds, but even if they are reluctant to care for your bird, there are two things you can ask them to do that will help, says bird doc Scott Weldy of Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital in Lake Forest, California:

"The two things you can never screw up on a bird is you can give him oxygen and and a quiet place, and you can give him subcutaneous fluids. Those two things never hurt them, and even if they don't give them aggressively enough, it still helps. They don't have to feed them, they don't have to give them antibiotics, they don't have to pull blood, but if the bird is so sick that he needs to be seen by a veterinarian, putting him in a place with some oxygen, a quiet covered cage, birds will just shut down and sit there and survive. They'll do a whole lot better there than they will at home with the people pacing and worrying about them."

You can also ask the hospital to contact your bird's regular veterinarian at home. There's a good chance that the ER clinic will have his or her contact information.

"In our area, all of the emergency clinics can call any one of us, and you can have them call us," Weldy says. "They have our home numbers."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

New DNA blood test for Cavaliers

It's not the blood test I was hoping for, but it's not bad. Two conditions that can affect Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are episodic falling syndrome and curly coat/dry eye syndrome. A test developed at the Animal Health Trust in the United Kingdom will identify carriers of both conditions.

Neither condition is common in the breed, but EFS, which typically begins during puppyhood, can be distressing to owners and dogs, and the curly coat/dry eye condition is painful and untreatable, which means most dogs diagnosed with it are euthanized, according to Cavalier breeder Stephanie Abraham, in her breed column for the AKC Gazette.

Does that mean that dogs identified as carriers should never be bred? Not necessarily, according to my interview with Tufts geneticist and veterinarian Jerold Bell. He says the ability to identify undesirable genes in particular dogs is good news, but it can be misused, leading to unwarranted culling and restriction of a breed's gene pool by reducing the incidence of one disease and increasing the incidence of another by repeated use of males known to be clear of the gene that causes the first condition.

That creates bottlenecks and decreases diversity by eliminating all carriers of a gene from the breeding pool instead of breeding and replacing them.

"When entire lines of dogs are eliminated to attempt to control a genetic disease, the gene pool shifts in different directions due to the increased influence of other dogs and family lines. This is not a rare situation in dog breeding, as only a small percentage of dogs in each generation are ever used for breeding to create the next generation. Depending on the genetic background difference between the population and the breeding dogs, gene pools continually shift and gene frequencies change."

Rather than eliminating carriers from breeding programs, Bell recommends breeding testable carriers to normal-testing mates and then replacing them with normal-testing offspring.

"As each breeder tests and replaces carrier animals with normal-testing animals, the problem for the breed as a whole diminishes."

The more serious concern in Cavaliers, of course, is the more complexly inherited and so far untestable diseases: mitral valve disease (aka chronic valvular disease) and syringomyelia. Not every Cavalier with MVD or syringo is affected to the same degree and only phenotypic tests (auscultation or MRI) are currently available to identify affected dogs, but knowing the affected or normal status of a breeding dog's full siblings can help breeders perform relative risk analysis. Dogs whose siblings are normal and whose parents' siblings are normal have the best chance of carrying a low genetic load for this type of polygenic condition.

Open health registries such as the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and the Canine Health Information Center are the only ways that breeders are going to be able to find that type of information and use it effectively. Breeders who don't or won't list test results in open health registries should be shunned. In this case, it's fair to say that they are guilty--of having dogs that are affected or carriers--until proven innocent.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Real men rock little dogs

So, I took that Labor Day holiday a little too seriously and it turned into Labor, um, Week. A week of not laboring, that is. I did get caught up on some of my important reading, like the September issue of Los Angeles magazine with LA's best breakfast places on the cover, and what do you know--it turned out to be dog-related. On page 74, Ann Herold has a piece about "real men" embracing their inner purse dog. Mickey Rourke has a Chihuahua and former stuntman Keith Vallot proudly takes his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel everywhere. (Great choice, by the way!) Anyone who knows a Chihuahua, Yorkie, Pekingese or Shih Tzu knows that these dogs have outsize personalities, and it's not surprising that most men who are smart enough to give them a chance quickly fall under their spell. Read the rest here.