Tag Archives: Books & essays

“All at once” – on transformative moments and sight

Corky entered my life like a sloppy clown. I was in a straight backed chair in a sunlit room and they told me to call and damned if she didn’t run full steam into my arms.

She was the clown who leaps into the seats and sits on someone’s grandfather.

She placed her front paws on my shoulders and washed my face and then, as if she knew the job would require comedy, she nibbled my nose but ever so gently like a horse who checks his owner’s hand for a peppermint.

Lovely essay by Stephen Kuusisto on Planet of the Blind


More contemplation of the olfactory instrument.

Nice piece in New Scientist, on more work by Alexandra Horowitz:

Crittervision: What a dog’s nose knows

To imagine the scent-based world of a dog, says Horowitz, look around and imagine that everything you see has its own individual scent. And not just each object – different parts of the same object may hold different types of information. Horowitz gives the example of a rose: each petal might have a different scent, telling the dog it has been visited by different insects that left telltale traces of pollen from other flowers. Besides picking up on the individual scent of humans that had touched the flower, it could even guess when they may have passed by.

Nice piece on animals and regret

I’ve heard a lot of people say that to ascribe the capacity for regret to animals is anthropomorphizing. My response is always you clearly haven’t spent much time with animals. What animals do goes way, way beyond human projections, and they have, among other things, a fully developed language for acknowledging wrongdoing and considering missed opportunities.

It’s our human words, and our ways of talking about it, that get factually sketchy – but also funny.

Here’s a nice piece in the NYT that has both the humility to look at what they actually do, and the humor to spin it through our human culture (without forgetting that they have cultures of their own):

In That Tucked Tail, Real Pangs of Regret?

Yet as new reports keep appearing — moping coyotes, rueful monkeys, tigers that cover their eyes in remorse, chimpanzees that second-guess their choices — the more I wonder if animals do indulge in a little paw-wringing.

Your dog may not share Hamlet’s dithering melancholia, but he might have something in common with Woody Allen.


Dogs Decoded

Great NOVA program on the science behind human relationship with dogs, the genetics of domestication, and the many ways in which dogs improve human lives.

Watch online:

Dogs Decoded

Glucosamine: going the way of echinacea (and with just as many hanging on to their belief – in spite of all evidence)

I’ve seen several pieces in the last year or so questioning the efficacy of glucosamine for arthritis treatment: the research is clear that it provides no benefit in humans, and a recent spate of study is increasing the likelihood that it’s not much use in dogs, either.

Which, understandably, can make some people who love pooches suffering from arthritis anxious and upset: NSAIDS have their own associated worries (though some of those fears may be inflated), and there aren’t any other good options.

Gilly’s gradually diminishing joint-capacities completely freak me out: I want him to be pain free and I also want him to live a long life (with happy kidneys and a functional liver) that isn’t compromised or shortened by medication side effects.

The main reason it freaks me out is because it’s visible sign of his mortality, and damn it, I don’t like that.

When a couple of different vets recommended glucosamine as being worth a try in spite of uncertainty about whether it works, I gave him solid 3 month trials on several incarnations of the stuff, from the most basic pills to the fanciest and most expensive chewies: none of them made any appreciable difference, so we stopped, which also made no appreciable difference, except to my wallet (which was hurting more than his joints by then). I’m glad we tried it, because now I won’t doubt that I left something of possible help undone.

What does seem to make some real difference is keeping him slim, muscled, good and fit but with less and less indulgence in high impact sports like ball and stick-throwing, and making sure he’s generally healthy — all that and having nice, clear, dry days.

All but that last thing I can help him to maintain.

And none of these things will make him immortal, or immune to aging. Damn it.

Skeptvet has an interesting post up about the placebo effect and why we sometimes remain committed to things that don’t work, even when the most ethical and loving thing is to let it go and do what does:

Cognitive Dissonance In Action: Glucosamine No Matter What!

From around the ‘sphere:

First, two great reads on our relationships with domesticated critters from The Thoughtful Animal:

On bonding and recognition:  Biological Evidence That Dog is Man’s Best Friend

...famous site at Ein Mallaha (Eynan, in Hebrew), in Northern Israel where an elderly human and a 4-5 month old puppy were buried together, 10- to 12-thousand years ago.

On dogs, horses, and social cues: A horse is a horse, of course of course

Don’t miss the links out in the first paragraph – good stuff.

We’ve spent a lot of time here at The Thoughtful Animal thinking about how domestication has allowed dogs to occupy a unique niche in the social lives of humans. They readily understand human communication cues such as eye-gaze and finger-pointing, and capitalize on the infant-caregiver attachment system to have their own needs met. There are several explanations for the emergence of these abilities in dogs:
(1) domestic dogs inherited these abilities from their wolf ancestors;
(2) dogs learn social communication cues by associative learning, simply by sharing physical and social space with humans; and
(3) through the process of domestication, the ability to read human social-communicative cues has emerged due to selection pressures and convergent evolution.

There is pretty solid evidence that dogs far outperform wolves in these tasks, so for now we can safely place that explanation to the side. There is evidence that various species, following intense experience with humans, display improved abilities in reading human social cues, including apes, dolphins, seals, ravens, and parrots. However, in dogs this skill emerges incredibly early in development (before there’s been the same sort of intense enculturation that other species require), and does not appear to change significantly with age (remember the thing about finding developmental signatures?) That domestication appears to be the best explanation for the emergence of these abilities in dogs suggests that other domesticated species may show similar skills.

And here’s one on how dogs have an innate habit of imitating people:

…it may be very rare in the animal kingdom for one species to almost subconsciously imitate the behavior of a completely different species.

The dog-human bond may therefore have few, if any, parallels.

Which, of course, leads to things like this:

What to feed?

Here’s an article I recommend reading before buying in to raw food diets for your dog:

Raw Meat and Bone Diets for Dogs: It’s Enough to Make You BARF

Some of the most rewarding interactions we have with our pets involve food. Most dogs respond with gratifying enthusiasm to being fed, and this activity is an important part of the human-animal bond. Providing food is also part of the parent/child dynamic that in many ways characterizes our relationships with our pets. Giving food is an expression of affection and a symbol of our duty of care to our pets.

Because of these emotional resonances, pet owners are often very concerned about giving their pets the “right” food to maintain health and, if possible, to prevent or treat disease. This has allowed the development of a large, and profitable commercial pet food industry that aggressively markets diets with health-related claims.

…One of the most popular unscientific notions sold to pet owners these days is that of feeding diets based on raw meat, typified by the BARF diet. According to the a leading proponent of this idea, Dr. Ian Billinghurst, BARF stands for Bones and Raw Foods or Biologically Appropriate Foods (though I confess other interpretations have occurred to me). Raw diets are frequently recommended by veterinarians and other who practice homeopathy, “holistic” veterinary medicine, and other forms of CAM. This is not surprising since, as you will see, the arguments and types of reasoning used to promote the BARF concept are also commonly used to defend other forms of alternative veterinary medicine. Let’s take a look at the arguments some BARF proponents make for this diet.

The article then examines some of the arguments for raw food diets: that dogs are wolves, evolved to eat raw meat, can’t digest grains, that dog food is made of euthanized dogs, etc.. It then goes on to correct some pure misinformation and look at evidence-based facts about our canine companions and their digestion and health:

Now let’s have a look at the problems with this raw dog food marketing propaganda. To begin with, the concept of “evolutionary nutrition” ignores the simple fact that taxonomy and phylogeny are not destiny, nor do they reliably predict the specific details of a species’ biology, including its nutritional needs. Sure, dogs are in the order Carnivora, but so are giant pandas, which are almost exclusively herbivorous. Functionally, dogs are omnivores or facultative carnivores, not obligate carnivores, and they are well-suited to an omnivorous diet regardless of their taxonomic classification or ancestry.

It also looks at the very serious safety issues with BARF diets:

…The risks of raw meat based diets, however, are well-documented. Homemade diets and commercial BARF diets are often demonstrable unbalanced and have severe nutritional deficiencies or excesses.16-18 Dogs have been shown to acquire and shed parasitic organisms and potentially lethal infectious diseases associated with raw meat, including pathogenic strains of E. coli and Salmonella.25-27 Many other pathogens have been identified in raw diets or raw meat ingredients, and these represent a risk not only to the dogs fed these diets but to their owners, particularly children and people with compromised immune systems.29-30 The bones often included in such diets can cause fractured teeth and gastrointestinal diseases, including obstructed or perforated intestines, and the FDA recently warned pet owners against feeding bones to their canine companions.

Food for thought I thought I’d pass along to anyone facing the onslaught of marketing directed at animal owners. The proponents of the raw food diet are especially fanatical, so it’s worth thinking twice and getting medical opinions.

I do worry about the quality and safety of dry dog food, and make a point of buying Gilly good food from companies which guarantee high-quality ingredients and which have nearly universal approval from both vets and other pet owners.

My personal picks (and no, I’m not getting kickbacks from any of them for saying so): Canidae, Wellness, Artemis, or Eagle Pack brands – these are the ones I trust and Gilly likes. There are lots of good foods out there, though, many of which we haven’t tried.

Based on what I know at this point, I prefer the high quality dry food (with supplemental variety) to a wet food diet because it’s better for his teeth – a serious consideration these days because while animals used to die from other causes well before dental issues took them, they live so much longer now that the ones on Atkins-style diets are coming up with heart problems from gum disease, etc.. (More on this here.)

You can check recall lists at the FDA here, and there are tons of ‘rating’ sites out there to sift through if you like: there’s places like the Dog Food Analysis forum,  the widely-shared Rate Your Dog Food guide (not sure about the science behind this one, but it’s interesting), etc.

I also supplement Gilly’s dry food with (cooked) meat, vegetables, grains and fruit that I’m eating, because he likes and thrives on it. Oddly enough, the thing he chews more thoroughly than any other food, and with the most gleeful crunching and self-evident pleasure, is steamed green beans. Watching him eat a string bean is one of life’s great pleasures, in fact. Broccoli is also a hit, as are apples, figs, dates, rice, and many other foods I eat.

His all time favorite tastes of people food? Mac-n-cheese and blueberry pie, hands down. If they are side by side with a piece of steak, he’ll eat the pie first, then the mac-n-cheese, then the meat. Go figure.

Just as some people are fanatical about feeding only raw meat and bones, others will tell you your dog’s gonna DROP DEAD!!!! from a single piece of human food!!!!!!11111!!!!

There are human foods dogs can’t safely process, it’s true, and it’s essential to know something about common poisons.

With balanced nutrition day to day, a wide variety of treats in moderation, and with lots of exercise, Gilly’s digestion is fabulous and his figure dashing, his fur shiny and his spirits perky.

It’s working for us.

Your picks for a healthy dog diet?