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Archive for January, 2012

BODY HORRORS

Dogs are dirty, dirty animals. I know because I’ve had several, which currently includes a mud-loving, cockroach-catching, drooly mess of a boxer who enjoys nothing more than sleeping her way over every soft surface in my house. The fact that dogs also transmit diseases, and an incredible variety of them at that, does not help matters! Parasites, viruses, bacterial and fungal infections! To their owners! To me, maybe you, maybe your friends! Your relationship with your pet is, in short, a lot richer than you could ever imagine. In light of this, I have a real doozy of a story about the relationship between pet dogs and a miserable little parasite set in the barren desert of northwest Kenya.

First, the parasite. Echinococcus granulosus is the causative agent of hydatid disease, a real nasty piece of work that usually plagues dogs and the ruminants they herd or hunt. Hydatid…

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“Byrd Dogs”

From  National Geographic (January 2012):

Puppies pull a play sledge for the amusement of supply officer George Black during Richard E. Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition. They were the offspring of the 94 dogs originally brought along for transport on the journey—and would soon be the youngest residents of a part of the camp called Dog Town. “Oh Lord, all the perfumes in France couldn’t have rid Dog Town of its gamy aroma,” wrote Byrd in a book about his travels, Exploring With Byrd. (This photograph ran in his August 1930 account of the 1928-30 Antarctic trip for National Geographic.) “The air in the tunnels was thick enough not only to be cut with a knife; spiced with a dash of garlic from the bulbs that hung over Noville’s door, it could have been served as pemmican.”

—Margaret G. Zackowitz

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Too many dog rescue organizations have too many selective criteria and too many rules to be effective animal adoption organizations.

The demand for domestic dogs continues to grow.

Even in the light of the recession and “slow recovery,” more people want dogs than ever before.

And because more people really want dogs, the people who are offering them can afford to be more selective.

Now, it’s well-known that it can be difficult to get a high quality dog off a breeder. Breeders want to have some control over their lines, and they also do care about the long-term welfare of their puppies.

But really, I don’t know of any breeder of any kind of purebred dog who is quite like the dog foster and rescue crowd.

One can throw fits about how breeders demand that all puppies they sell be spayed or neutered, but breeders, although they probably won’t admit it, understand that they have to market their puppies in some way. That’s really what dog shows and trials and tests are about. They do show the dog meets some objective standard– even if we can quibble about the standard. But it’s still a very good marketing tool.

Many dog rescue people have never heard of that word marketing in relation to domestic dogs, and if you suggest it, get ready to have your head bitten off.

That’s because dog rescuers are rescuers. And that in itself is an entirely different mentality.

Now, not all dog rescuers are like this, and if you aren’t like this, I’m not writing about you.

But some dog rescuers are just nutty about the requirements they have for potential adopters.

Emily Yoffe of Slate Magazine writes about these bizarre criteria that rescuers set up in an article called “No Pet for You.” 

In the article, Joffe describes her attempt to get a second rescue dog, but these attempts were only thwarted by the absolute nuttiness of the criteria that various rescue organizations create to keep “wrong people” from getting their animals:

When my family decided to get a second rescue dog, I felt it was my job to prove to the groups we contacted that I wasn’t a vivisectionist. Fed up, we decided to buy a puppy and found a lovely breeder, and our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lily, has made us all ecstatic.

After I wrote this, I expected to be skinned alive by animal lovers. Instead, dozens of people posted comments about their own humiliation and rejection at the hands of these gatekeepers.

And gatekeepers they are.

Because here is a sampling of the responses Yoffe received on her initial piece:

Katie wrote that she wanted to adopt a retired racing greyhound but was told she was not eligible unless she already had an adopted greyhound. Julie got a no from a cat rescue because she was over 60 years old, even though her daughter promised to take in the cat if something happened to Julie. Jen Doe said her boyfriend’s family lives on fenced farm property with sheep, but they weren’t allowed to adopt a border collie—whose raison d’être is herding sheep—because the group insisted it never be allowed off-leash. [A border collie that is never allowed off-leash is going to be a barmy thing that no one could possibly want!] Philip was rejected because he said he allowed the dog he had to sleep wherever it liked; the right answer was to have a designated sleeping area. Molly, who has rescued Great Danes for more than 30 years, was refused by a Great Dane group because of “concern about my kitchen floor.”

Yoffe then describes the story of how a friend of hers was forced to go to Bernese mountain dog breeder after a bad experience with a rescue organization:

My friend M., who looked into getting a family dog when her children were 6 and 9, had a similarly vexing experience. After she and her husband decided rescue was the right thing to do, they looked online and found a mutt named Rusty. Rusty’s rescue group was having an adoption day and the family made the long drive to see him. Adopters were told not to mingle with the animals, but that specific dogs would be brought to them. While Rusty was otherwise engaged, M. asked if they could look at some of the other dogs but almost all were declared not suitable for children. As the family waited, the children sat on the ground and started writing in the dirt with sticks. A volunteer came over, alarmed. He reprimanded them, saying that if a dog sees a stick in a person’s hand it will expect that stick to be thrown, and it’s not fair to frustrate a dog.

Eventually, Rusty was brought over. He was a little hyper but everyone agreed he was fine. M. told the rescue group they wanted him, and when the family returned home they started buying dog supplies. But a call from the group aborted their plans. “We had a report about inappropriate behavior by your children,” M. was told, which meant they would not be allowed to adopt. M. and her husband were astounded and the children were crushed. “We still really wanted a dog, so we did the wrong thing and went to a breeder,” M. says. They bought a Bernese Mountain Dog who basks in constant attention from M. and her husband, who both work at home. “He loves his life,” she says. “Too bad for Rusty.”

Yoffe thinks that a lot of this control-freakishness over adopters of rescued dogs comes from a general aversion to human and what humans tend to do to animals.

Let’s posit that many people who are drawn to humane work don’t have a particularly positive view of humanity. This natural aversion is exacerbated by years of helping abandoned, abused, and neglected animals, which means seeing the worst people do to innocent creatures. Unfortunately, a subset of these people who dislike people have become like admissions officers at selective colleges, rejecting applicants who don’t fit an ideal template.

Of course, that’s certainly the case.

But another part of it is the puffed up ego.  There is a certain mentality that many rescuers have– it’s the messiah complex. I’m saving this dog from a terrible situation, and only someone who has exactly my values can have it.

It’s exactly the same mentality one see on those shows about animal hoarders. How many of those people firmly believe that only they can provide the animals with the homes they need?

It’s really the same mentality– just a softer version of it.

And sometimes not so soft. Yoffe writes about a woman who rescues parrots and other caged birds, who has dozens of birds in her home that she has rescued. She refuses to adopt any out, even though she’s a member of a rescue organization.

The whole process is driving more and more people to go to breeders.

Anyone who gets to this question on one group’s application—“Do you plan to tie or chain the dog out at anytime?”—should know the answer is “never.” (I agree that dogs shouldn’t be chained outside). And you should know that the answer to this inquiry—“Have you ever had a cat declawed? Will you be declawing your new cat?”—is, “I would rip out my own fingernails with a pliers before declawing a cat.”

But other questions are conundrums. If you think having a dog would be great for your kids, or that your personal reproductive plans are not the business of strangers, then consider how to answer this question from a Labrador rescue group: “Are you considering having children within 10 years?” And who knows what number is disqualifying when answering this one: “How many steps are there to reach your front door?”

Ari Schwartz, a business development manager from Tarrytown, N.Y., and his wife, Lisa, a medical student, ran up against these Jeopardy-like quizzes when they went looking for a shelter dog. After filling out a multi-page online application from a local group, they got a follow-up phone call from a representative who noted they hadn’t given the name of their veterinarian. That was because the couple didn’t have a dog, Lisa replied. In Joseph Heller-esque fashion, the rep said that in order to adopt, a referral from a veterinarian was necessary. The representative went on to note the group preferred that one owner be home full-time. They also didn’t like to give dogs to people who lived in apartments, like the Schwartzes. The couple was told to get a cat. “My wife is deadly allergic to cats,” Ari notes. So—surprise!—they decided to go to a breeder. They now have a Shiba Inu named Tofu. “We absolutely love him,” Ari says.

If an applicant manages to get approved, the adoption papers should be read carefully before signing. It turns out the contract often specifies the adopter is not the actual owner of the animal. Sure you’re responsible for the pet’s food, shelter, training, and veterinary care, but the organization might retain “superior title in said animal.” This means the group can drop in unannounced at any time for the rest of your pet’s life and seize Fluffy if it doesn’t like what it sees.

Many adoption agreements also have a provision mandating that if things don’t work out with the pet, you must return it to the group rather than find it another home. Let’s call this the Ellen DeGeneres clause. The comedian adopted a Brussels Griffon named Iggy that just couldn’t get along with her cats. DeGeneres gave it to her hairdresser, who has two daughters, then aged 11 and 12, and Iggy basked in the love fest. Then someone from the group called to check in with DeGeneres on how Iggy was doing. She told them about the new arrangement. Not only was DeGeneres in breach of contract, the group didn’t want Iggy living with any children under age 14. They confiscated the dog.

So dog rescue has become crazy land.

There are several people in the rescue community who think things have gotten totally out of hand:

There are people in the rescue community who are aware that zealotry is damaging their cause. (The ASPCA sided with DeGeneres in her dispute). After all, since fewer than 20 percent of new pets come from rescue groups, driving down that proportion is self-defeating. Jane Hoffman is the president of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, the organization that transports potential pets from animal control to private groups and provides training and other services. “You have two ends of the spectrum,” she says. “Pet stores will sell to anyone with the money. And then there are rescue group who won’t adopt to anyone. We need a happy medium.”

Hoffman, whose organization works to smooth out the adoption process, acknowledges that the attitude of a lot of rescue groups is to “try to screen out people.” She understands the psychology of these wary rescuers. These are people, she points out, who save animals from dreadful situations: wandering lost on the street, facing euthanasia in a kill shelter, being removed from a “skank” owner. “They put in a lot of time and effort and love this dog or cat back to health,” she says. “Some get a little overcautious and are so afraid to make the wrong choice. So they err on the side of rejecting what would be a perfectly good home.”

Even guinea pig rescue has some nuttiness:

My former Slate colleague Jack Shafer, now a Reuters columnist, is allergic to cats and dogs. But he and his wife, Nicole Arthur, have two young animal-loving daughters, so they settled on rodents. Nicole didn’t want to support the guinea pig breeding industry, so she applied to a guinea pig rescue. The girls spent hours looking at the group’s website and their 8-year-old fell in love with a guinea pig that was supposed to be at an adoption event. But when the family got there the guinea pig in question was absent because of illness. The girl wept, but her parents consoled her and said there were many wonderful guinea pigs that needed homes. After the event the family awaited word on when to get their pets. But the word that came was that the family was unfit, because it was clear to the rescuers that the pets were for the girls, and the group didn’t adopt animals for the sake of children. Shafer says, “My question is, what adult wants a guinea pig? Of course they’re for the children!”

So off the family went to the pet store and home they came with Nibbles and Snowflake. They eat lovingly chopped produce and contentedly sit on the girls’ laps. Shafer’s analysis of the guinea pig saviors is unfortunately true of many animal rescuers. “They are trying to do something good,” he says, “and they end up doing something bad.”

Now, that’s pretty bad.

I think virtually all rescuers are into rescue for the right reasons, but unfortunately, too many of them can’t leave their egos at the door.

The point of rescue organization is to find homes for animals.

It’s not to judge other people. It’s not self-aggrandizement.

It’s to find a place for dogs that people might want.

And to do that, we have to accept that different people have different lifestyles.

Some people live way out in the sticks and don’t have to worry about leash laws.  Indeed, I think it almost borders on cruelty for anyone to keep a dog either confined to a yard or on a leash for its entire life– especially if it is from a large, active breed.

Now, I might quibble a bit with Yoffe’s desire to let her cats outside.

That’s not because of cat welfare, though. It’s because cats destroy native wildlife when they are let outside unsupervised.

Yoffe has raised an important issue– one that must be addressed if dog rescue is ever going to last.

If the dog rescuers won’t let people have access to their rescued animals, then they will go to breeders.

The demand is that high.

So if they actually want people to adopt animals, they need to find ways to make the process easier and far less selective.

Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels with the people with the soft hoarder mentality.

 

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Sussex spaniels are in deep trouble, but if you read propaganda from their breed clubs, they are long-lived and healthy. Sussex spaniel breeders would rather live in denial than take the steps to solve the breed's problems.

Breed clubs are notorious for inflating the average age of their breeds– especially if the breed is rare.

Most people know about the health problems in golden retrievers and boxers, so it’s really not useful to deny that these dogs have problems. In fact, it’s much more to the club’s benefit it takes health issues seriously.

Well, with rare breeds, one can sort of fudge it. Many people have bought into the notion that if a breed is less common, then it will have fewer health problems. That’s because that a breed club has more power when the dog is lower in popularity. More popular breeds have more people breeding them, and the power structure within those breeds is greatly decentralized. With rarer breeds, the club has much more power over what gets done. As a result, its very commonly stated that popularity is a curse for dog breeds, which results in all sorts of health problems. And there is some truth in it, but the corollary that comes from it is ultimately false– that rarer breeds are going to be more healthy because the breed club has more power over them.

It’s very easy to deny health problems with  certain dog breeds. Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever fanciers continue to deny that their breed is the shortest-lived of all retrievers, and that it has real issues with autoimmune disorders, which are likely the result of low genetic diversity within the breed. You can do that with tollers, but you cannot deny that golden retrievers have a very high incidence of cancer. People already know that golden retrievers have cancer issues.  You can’t deny it.

But you can if they are pretty rare. Most people who own pets from these rare breeds don’t talk to each other, and if one of their dogs dies, the problems really aren’t discussed widely.

So the breed clubs can get away with what are obvious lies.

Here’s a good example of a breed club lying about the longevity of a breed:

The Sussex Spaniel Association (of the UK) makes this claim on its website:

Generally the Sussex Spaniel is long lived to 14-16 years. The Health Survey of the Breed has been completed, and results are available to members from the secretary.

There is a breed health survey that the KC did on its own. The Survey had 42 deaths reported, which is a good enough sample from a breed that is both quite rare and quite inbred.

The results show that “generally” (which is such a weasel word), the breed’s median age at death was 11 years and 2 months, which is just slightly younger than the all-KC breed median of 11 years and 3 months. The most common cause of death was cancer.  And the dogs tended be diagnosed with inherited diseases at very young ages.

How is 11 years and two months 14-16 years?

It’s not.

The truth is this breed has been in trouble since before there was ever an institutionalized fancy or a closed registry system.

The breed we call the Sussex spaniel today is derived from a strain of liver spaniels that was found by Augustus Fuller in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries., who owned the estate called Rosehill Park in Sussex.  He’s usually referred to as just “Mr. Fuller.” The Fuller family made its fortune with Jamaican sugar plantations– meaning they were direct beneficiaries of the slave trade.

The Rosehill spaniels were heavily inbred, for at the time, it was accepted that inbreeding was the best way to establish a strain.  In the eighteenth century, English agriculturalists had managed to greatly increase the productivity of livestock through intense inbreeding. The notion of breeding “in and in” for “improvement” was at the heart of English animal breeding practices at the time, for these ideas had first been promulgated by an agriculturalist named Robert Bakewell, who saw improvements in the English longhorn, the Leicester longwool sheep, and the shire horse through such extreme inbreeding.

Works for sheep, cows, and horses. Must work for dogs.

Well, it didn’t.

A supposed rabies outbreak hit the Rosehill spaniels in the 1840’s.  There is some debate about whether this disorder actually was rabies or whether it affected the spaniels or the hounds. But at some point after the 1840’s, the original Rosehill strain disappeared. There were a few dogs at other estates, and it is from these dogs that the Sussex spaniel breed was developed. The two major strains that make up the Sussex spaniel were the Wolland strain, which was heavily inbred, and the other was the Newington strain, which had some liver English water spaniel crossed in.

Whatever destroyed them, it is possible that intense inbreeding may have made the Rosehill spaniels more susceptible to disease, for we know that inbreeding reduces MHC haplotype diversity and reduces the effectiveness of the immune system over the generations.  The remnants of the Rosehill strain were outcrossed to liver English water spaniels and to the old short-legged field spaniel.

However, the Sussex spaniel that came up in the new institutionalized fancy was kept mostly through inbreeding. Virtually every text I find on Sussex spaniels talks about how inbred they are– and several of these are nineteenth and early twentieth century texts.

This breed had periods of popularity in Britain as a sporting spaniel, but it almost always collapsed.

The dogs were often described as “delicate,” which is not at all what one would want in a gun dog.

Now, the breed may be capable of doing gun dog work, but that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether it is fit for it.

And if you actually look at the Sussex spaniel objectively, its structure actually drives much of its lowered popularity.

Sussex spaniels have a lot of health problems, not all of them the result of intense inbreeding.

Inbreeding has likely increased the incidence of severe heart problems in the breed, but inbreeding likely didn’t increase the likelihood of the dogs getting hip or elbow dysplasia (over 40 percent have hip dysplasia and at least 20 percent have elbow dysplasia) or suffering periods of paralysis from Intervertebral Disc Disease.

These are all derived from the dog’s structure, which is based upon a heavily-built dog with dwarfism. Dwarf dogs have relatively short legs and longer backs, and this puts stress on the spine. If a disc ruptures or bulges from these stresses, pressure is put on the spinal cord, and the dog is paralyzed. It’s usually temporary, but it can be permanent.

This means that Sussex spaniels have a very high likelihood of being put out of commission for weeks at a time– and a lot of these dogs are going to have both hip and elbow dysplasia.

These structural problems mean that very few people want them as gun dogs– and it’s been that way for a long time.

But that means that the population will stay very low, and very few people will be engaged in trying to breed these dogs, which means fewer and fewer dogs and more and more inbreeding.

Now, as if that weren’t bad enough. The breed very nearly died off during the Second World War, when British dog fanciers were not breeding dogs.

A woman named Joy Freer managed to re-establish the breed’s number from the five dogs that survived World War II, and she very proudly inbred from them.

So this breed has essentially been screwed since the middle to late nineteenth century.

It’s literally holding on by only a thread.

It has spent the decades since World War II circling the drain.  Its popularity continues to decline, and there is no evidence that this trend is changing.

But its breeders continue to make up facts about how long the breed lives.

If they actually were into saving the Sussex spaniel, they would change some of its conformation– and they would allow outcrossing with other spaniels.

Both of these are heresies in Sussex spaniels.

No one wants to admit that the conformation of the dog is destroying it from a functional perspective, and because it is largely structurally unsound, very few people actually want it.

Which just makes its problems that much worse.

I will get some negative comments on this post. I guarantee that most of them will come in the form of people with anecdotes about how good their Sussex spaniels are at hunting or how long one or two of their dogs lived.

Those are nice stories.

But those stories are not scientific data. If you can’t understand this, please do not comment on this blog post, for you simply don’t get what I’m talking about.

Anecdotal evidence is nice, but nothing can be generalized from it.

So until someone shows me a study with at least 40 dogs in it that shows Sussex spaniels live to be 14 to 16 years old on average, I am going to call the Sussex Spaniel Association’s claim a lie.

It is a lie.

It may be a delusion, but delusions are the lies which the liar refuses to admit are untrue.

Which makes them much more dangerous.

The Sussex spaniel is a very good example of a breed that has been ruined the dual forces of extreme conformation and extremely low genetic diversity.

The dog may have had a future had it been bred for greater structural soundness and with some concern for its genetic diversity.

But unless someone begins an outcross program in the breed, it is doomed.

The extinction will be slow, but it will come.

It’s been a long time coming.

***

“It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

–George Costanza

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Inbreeding is bad for dogs.

Do I need to say this again?

It’s bad for dogs.

The only people who think it is good don’t know what they are talking about– or they have been so severely indoctrinated into the dog culture that they can’t see it.

Yes. Indoctrinated.

In virtually all of these dog registry and competition systems, there is a strong desire to produce a high level of homozygosity in either behavior or conformation. You win more consistently if you have more homozygosity in your lines. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking shih-tzus or trial border collies. The tendency is to breed tightly and to breed to the dogs that win.

No one sits back and thinks about what this does to the dog populations in the long-term, because no one is really in it for the long term.  You’re in it to win it.

This means that dogs will continue to lose genes over time.  At the very same time, it will be these breeders who are forcing them down these tight genetic bottlenecks who will say they are improving the dogs.

They might be improving in one sense, but in another, they are impoverishing their animals with each successive generation.

The least obvious way in which they are impoverishing their dogs has to do with the immune system. You can’t see immune systems or the genes associated with them, but by golly, you can lose immune system genes.

The genes associated with the immune system are called the Major Histocompatibility Complex, which are called the dog leukocyte antigen (DLA) system. These genes are very easily lost when one is inbreeding or very tightly line breeding.

Now, in most domestic dog populations, breeders are operating within a closed registry system. These closed registries rarely allow new blood in, and if they do, it will most often be from dogs that derive from the same founding population– so it’s not really a new infusion of genes at all.

Then, you have another nice problem within closed registry systems. They demand that people breed only from the best dogs within that system. So certain winning stud dogs wind up siring a huge proportion of the puppies in each generation. Over time, many of these dogs wind up with very similar paternal ancestors, which means it’s very hard to produce dogs within the breed that are not highly inbred.

So you essentially have a system set up for the destruction of the domestic dog as an organism. Over time, the immune system will continue to weaken, coefficients of inbreeding will continue to increase, and the health and reproductive ability of the dogs will continue to fail.

Do we seriously want dogs to end up here?

Do we think all of these breeds are so unique that we can never allow a gene flow to exist between them?

If we think all of these things are true, then we have to accept the obvious consequence– the total collapse of many breeds.

And this analysis doesn’t even account for the tendency for deleterious and lethal recessives to be inherited in a homozygous fashion as a result of inbreeding.

If we are to be honest about saving dogs,  we need to tell these people who promote this toilet science of blood purity and who sanctify consanguinity that they are very wrong– and what they are doing is ultimately dangerous.

I don’t care if some breeder or some half-assed geneticist says it’s okay.

It’s not okay.

It’s going to destroy dogs.

Someone might get good results from a very tight breeding.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about population genetics and population genetics over time.

If everyone is doing that sort of breeding over a long period of time within a closed registry system, it is guaranteed to fail.

Massively fail.

But the institutionalized fancy and its token prostitute scientists continue to promote inbreeding and make apologies for its use that are so twisting of the actual science of dog biology that one wonders if these people might be closet creation scientists.

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Great documentary. 

The wolves of Ellesmere have not been widely persecuted, so they have very little fear of people. They also exist without garbage dumps, so their full natural behavior can be observed.

 

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The family values candidate

A man who claims to defend “traditional marriage” from the gays is also the same man who asked his second wife to have an open marriage.

Wow.

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