The point of all this

I was on the phone with my mom yesterday, and she asked what I was doing next week. “Going to a large shelter in [big Southern city,]” I say.

“I’m not sure what the point of all this is,” says my mom with her PhD, who had been so enthusiastic when I told her that I was planning to do a PhD in the genetics of dog behavior after I finished my internship. “But you have known what you’re doing before, so I guess you do this time too.”

“Do you want me to try to explain it?” I ask, and she allows that this would be acceptable.

So I try to explain why I’m doing a year of clinical work in shelters if I am so interested in dog brains. The thing is that I have always been interested in both research (and teaching and writing peer-reviewed papers and being hidden in the ivory tower) and in being in a shelter or in the field and getting my hands dirty and making a tangible difference. I do want to figure out the mechanisms behind pathological fearfulness in dogs, and what makes domesticated animals like dogs different from wild animals like wolves. But I also want to keep connected to the world of the animals who are actually suffering from shyness, both so I can get new ideas about what needs studied, and so that I can try to apply some of what I learn.

I have always felt that my two interests, in fearfulness in dogs and in clinical shelter behavior, are closely intertwined. But the institutions I’ve learned from don’t seem to see it that way. Four years of clinical work for a DVM degree (in which we were told again and again that more veterinarians are needed in research, but in which we had no classes about research topics). One year of a research Masters. One year of a clinical internship. Next, several more years of research. My internship mentors worry that I am too interested in research and not enough in clinical work. My PhD mentor worries that I am too interested in clinical work and not enough in research. When do I get to do both at once?

After I’m done with schooling, maybe. I’ve learned a lot about how shelters work in my internship, and maybe even more importantly, I’ve seen some possible career paths in consulting for me. Part time work, called in on a temporary basis to work for large animal welfare groups dealing with issues such as enrichment in temporary shelters after large seizures of hundreds of animals, or behavioral evaluations of large numbers of seized fighting dogs. The other parts of my time spent teaching? Doing some research? It’s way too soon to try to figure out the details, but at least I have ideas of where to look to put together my perfect patchwork of jobs. And hopefully with my internship under my belt I will have the street cred to say that I know how shelters work and what their common problems are.

Maybe I should have just said that there are lots of broken dog brains in shelters, and left it at that!

Making replacement nipples

Kittens like to nurse on things. It is best to nurse on mom, but orphaned kittens will nurse on other things. A favorite option for many orphans is the belly and genitals of their siblings. This can be physically traumatic for the recipient. One solution to the problem is to separate the kittens, but a lonely kitten is a stressed and pathetic creature (and stress leaves them more susceptible to disease). Another solution is to offer something better to nurse on!

Today I got mad when a newly arrived kitten was nursing on his littermate, and as I had a little free time, I decided to make an offering for him. Materials: nipples for kitten bottles; some soft fleece; needle and thread; rice; a plastic bag; a binder clip. I sewed the nipples into the fleece, sewed the edges of the fleece together to make a fleece bag, warmed up the plastic bag full of rice in the microwave, and put the warm rice into the fleece bag. I secured it closed with the binder clip.

I predict the kitten will hate it, because cats always hate things that you put a lot of work into.

The fake mom, in production

The fake mom, in place, being ignored by kittens

Keeping score of kittens

Last week I worked in a kitten nursery — a small building off of a larger shelter, full of underage kittens (mostly orphans, some with moms). Although this shelter has literally hundreds of kittens out in foster care, kitten season in the South is so intense that they have this separate building just as a nursery, with its own staff and volunteers (and for these two weeks, its own vet! With consultations from the main shelter vet, of course).

Cats seem to take the approach to reproduction that you should make as many babies as possible, and if not all of them make it, that’s life. Outdoor, unowned kittens have about a 75% mortality rate. Cats are mostly very good moms, but kittens are just so little and fragile. After a few days of kitten deaths I became almost manic. I would not lose more kittens! I started keeping score, me versus kitten death.

  • Feral mom is too scared to take care of her neonatal kittens. I give her a place to hide and some time to figure it out. I give her too long, and her three kittens die. Three points to kitten death.
  • A cat is brought in while in labor. It becomes clear that things are not proceeding, so we take her to surgery. Three kittens survive. I sit with them for two hours trying to get them to nurse. They do, a little bit, but their mom doesn’t recognize them as hers since she wasn’t awake when they came out. One dies. I foster the other two onto a receptive mom with her own four kittens and spend another hour making sure they learn to nurse on her and can defend their nipples from their week-older foster siblings. So far, they are still alive. Two points to the Dog Zombie, one point to kitten death.
  • Six kittens in a little cage feel funky for several days, just sitting around and not playing like normal little fiends. I give them fluids for several days but they don’t perk up. We start them on antibiotics that are good for GI disease, because they have diarrhea and deworming hasn’t helped. When a new cage opens up, I move three of them into it, so everyone will have more space. I coddle them with fluids and medication to make them not feel sick to their stomach. At the end of the week, two of them are playing and three of them are eating. Three points to the Dog Zombie. (The other three are holding steady. We’ll see.)
  • One kitten is a little lethargic and dehydrated one evening. I give her fluids, but I am not worried about her. The next morning she is found dead. I do a necropsy and find that she had pneumonia. This is weird, because she didn’t have an upper respiratory infection, so where did it come from? But her lungs were definitely funky. I panic and give her cagemate antibiotics that are good for pneumonia, since whatever happened to her, it happened so fast that I want to prevent it rather than wait and see. One point to the Dog Zombie?
  • One kitten fades fast and dies. (One point to kitten death.) His cage mate starts to fade the next day, lethargic and dehydrated. I necropsy her brother and find a bad infection in his GI tract. I start the living kitten on antibiotics that are good for GI infections and leave orders for lots of warming pads and fluids. She does not survive the night. A second point to kitten death.
Those are only some of the stories. I have learned all about antibiotics for head colds and stomach bugs, I tell you what. And I have learned that a roomful of kittens becomes much less cute after the first hour of dealing with it. But they will still make you manic trying desperately to save them all. You can’t save them all. But you also can’t stop trying.

Goodbye George

 8 May 2003 - 11 May 2013
George the Pug died today. I felt ridiculously sad to hear the news.

George featured in the first Pedigree Dogs Exposed - billed as "the sickest Pug in Britian"-  so he did well to get to 10. Ten years and three days to be exact.

George had just about every ailment it is possible for a pug to have, as you can see in the clip below. But my over-riding memory of him will always be that he was such a sweetie.

The picture above was taken about a year ago when we were working on the sequel to PDE.  I find it enormously touching.

George was sired by Crufts champion Patsgang Sir Eastonite who won Best of Breed at Crufts in 2004. Astonishingly, George himself qualified for Crufts.

George was owned and loved with a fierce passion by Joanne Morris and her partner Graham. Joanne says they will never have another Pug.

I emailed Joanne this evening:
Dear Joanne 
I have just heard from Kate that you said goodbye to George today. I am so very, very sorry. I know he will be so missed. 
Thank you for allowing his story to be told in Pedigree Dogs Exposed. His legacy will live on, I hope, through generations of healthier pugs. 
A big hug here from me, Jon and all at Passionate Productions. 
And back came this:
I told him as he was PTS that he will go down in history. It was a wonderful peaceful ending after he had gone downhill. He had dementia, had been having fits and then his breathing went as well as his sight. He was ten years and three days old and a miracle after all the crap bad breeding had thrown at him. 
"He went with a wag and a tiny bit of George left. I miss him but the pain is now mine. When he passed so quickly he looked so happy and peaceful. An end of an era. Never again. It's been a hard ten years. I do really appreciate you contacting me and allowing George to be part of such a life changing, ground-breaking documentary. I am proud of his part."
Bless you, Joanne, for being there for George.

He will be remembered.

Flatcoats - the outcross challenge

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a well-spoken chap called Nick who runs a shoot in Scotland. He was looking for a young Flatcoat x Labrador bitch to pursue a family tradition. His father before him used to having working Flattie/Lab crosses and said they were the best gundogs he'd ever had.

Nick contacted me because I run a rescue specialising in retriever crosses. But of course I rarely know the ancestry of the dogs and just because they may look the part doesn't mean they can do the job.

Most of our dogs have some collie in them; many have a strong retrieve instinct, but they often have a less-than-soft mouth. And despite the world and her mother always calling anything black and long-haired a Flat-coated Retriever cross, the truth is that most are not. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I haven't had a single Flatcoat cross through my rescue since I started it six years ago. We have had several golden retriever crosses (which are often black) but there are so few working goldies now - not the best breed if you want a dog to work.

Of course, you can occasionally find flattie x lab crosses advertised on Epupz and the like. But they are usually pet-bred. Who knows if they would work?

Nope, what Nick really needs is a dog bred specifically for his purpose. And the call was timely as I've been thinking a lot about exactly this cross.

Flatcoats have a problem - a big problem - with cancer.  Every line is affected by it and not a week goes by that I don't hear about another young Flatcoat dying of what has become the scourge of the breed.

Despite breeders' best efforts - and they are in the main a health-conscious lot who are fiercely protective of their breed - I believe there is no way out of this within the breed. The Flatcoat gene pool is just too bloody small; too many lines blighted. I also believe that the issue here may be as much due to an immune system compromised by inbreeding as to specific mutated genes passing on a deadly inheritance. For previous posts on cancer in Flatcoats, see here and here and here.

And so I believe an outcross is needed and that a cross to the Labrador is the obvious choice.

Flatcoats were interbred with Labradors post World War II to boost numbers (and genetic diversity) when the breed almost went extinct. They share a common ancestry and a common working purpose.

Now many working Labrador folk find Flatcoats too, well, independent in the field - and the working Flatcoat folk diss Labradors as being too like automatons. But they aren't all that different. Not really.

There is no way that the Flatcoat or Labrador breed clubs will stomach such a cross, though - not officially.

So I'm going to put the cat among the pigeons and act as a matchmaker on behalf of Nick (and others I know who would be keenly interested in such a cross).

If you have a fully health-tested Flatcoat or Labrador with proven working ability that you would allow to be used in such an outcross - or if you would like to contribute your thoughts and/or wisdom to the idea outside of this blog, please contact me:

And if you're in the the US... see this.

Pekes then and now

Mary Evans Picture Library/THOMAS FALL
There's a good piece by judge and dog-show globetrotter Andrew Brace ("Air Miles Andy" as dubbed by the irreverent Gossip Hound) in this week's Dog World explaining the mechanics of how and why exaggerations occur in some show dogs. (See the whole article here.)

Brace focuses on the Pekingese, and features the above dog, Ch Caversham Ku Ku of Yam - a 1950's-vintage Peke.

"Although the study by Thomas Fall, who photographed so many of the great Pekingese of the past, is of Ku Ku sitting down it is clear to see that he did not carry an unduly profuse body coat (other full body photographs of him confirm this fact)," writes Brace. "His coat is obviously clean and well groomed but is presented in a very moderate fashion, rather than having the hair on his ears brushed up in an exaggerated way to emphasise width. 
"However it is the dog’s face that I feel is worthy of the most careful study, and bear in mind that this dog was born in 1952. Here we see a Pekingese head which complies perfectly with the requirements of the breed Standard yet in no way could be considered extreme. 
"A seminar could be given on this head alone. Look at the width yet shallowness of the face, the naturally flat topskull, the position of the correctly fringed ears and then examine the facial features. Here are eyes that are set well apart, large and expressive, with no suggestion of being bolting. The position of the eyes relative to the nose is exemplary, the nose and nostrils being sufficiently large. 
"The over-nose wrinkle is in no way exaggerated and sits perfectly on the nose while the muzzle is well padded, wide and in no way ‘lippy’. Most importantly the underjaw is wide, deep and strong, proving perfect lip-to-lip placement. I feel that so many of the Oriental breeds these days are lacking in chin and this is a vital ingredient when it comes to creating the essential arrogance of expression. All these individual features help to demonstrate the ‘openness’ of the face.
"I believe it is vitally important that breeders and exhibitors should occasionally browse through the old breed books and actually study the dogs of yesteryear. Doing so might give them a slightly different perspective on the dogs of today and pose some interesting questions." 
Indeed. But, actually, by the 1950s,  the show-ring had already wrought considerable shape-shifting on the Pekingese. And I don't agree with Mr Brace that the dog above has nares wide enough to guarantee the free-flow of air. (Feel free to click on the above pic to enlarge - I've paid for a hi-res version from the Mary Evans Picture Library so you can have a good look.)

Here's a 1899-style Peke from the famous Goodwood Kennel to compare - no nose wrinkle at all (because the muzzle is much longer), a bigger nose and wider nares. See other vintage pekes here.

Of course this dog wouldn't really be recognised as a Peke today. Now that doesn't mean that the dog has to be returned to this phenotype. It might be possible for today's breeders to find the right balance between type and health (not of course that it should ever be a tug-o-war between the two).

And I would agree with Mr Brace in saying that the breed has, in part, been hauled back from the appalling excess of 2003 Crufts winner Danny, who looked like this:

This is the 2013 Crufts BOB, btw... a real improvement.  Still w-a-a-y too much coat, though.

AKC - the voices from within

Whoa.... is Monica Barry an animal rights activist? Perhaps she, you know, gets jiggy-jiggy with the Humane Society's Wayne Pacelle? (This was the accusation by one desperate dog breeder re NBC anchor Natalie Moralis in an attempt to discredit the Today Show's item on the AKC last week.)

But no. A quick check reveals that Monica Barry is a Borzoi breeder and exhibitor of some repute.

And she wasn't the only one to offer an opinion on the AKC's Facebook page on the state of the modern show German Shepherd.

Be afraid, AKC.