pets

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Pets As ‘Social Lubricant,’ Helping Kids With Autism Develop Assertiveness

(Onesharp/Flickr via Compfight)

(Onesharp/Flickr via Compfight)

If you’ve never considered your dog or cat part of your social network, maybe it’s time to start.

A new study from the University of Missouri-Columbia finds that pets of any kind in the home may help autistic children develop crucial social skills.

Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the M-U College of Veterinary Medicine, found that pets serve as a “social lubricant,” making kids more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, responding to other people’s questions or asking for more information.

While researchers have already found that dogs provide great assistance to children with autism, Carlisle explains that her study looks at the possible benefit of all types of pets. These pets also help the greater public interact with autistic kids in social settings. “When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public,” adds Carlisle, “other kids stop and engage. Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.” Continue reading

After A Death, Should We Get A Dog? Brain Study Signals ‘Yes’

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

Let’s be clear: I need a dog like a hole in the head.

I’m a recently widowed working mother with a small house, no trust fund and two extremely active young daughters: if it’s Thursday, it must be rock-climbing, piano and Taekwondo before track practice across town. You get the picture.

Still, lately I’ve been thinking the unthinkable: a Maltipoo, Goldendoodle or some other ridiculously named, hypoallergenic, low-maintenance (does that exist?), cute-as hell puppy for my daughters — and for me — to love.

I know full well this is a risky prospect. “There is no rational reason to get a dog,” says my Basset Hound-owner friend. “They are work, expense and add to the list of beings in your home who have needs to be attended to. It is sort of like deciding to have a kid — no rational reason to do that either but big pay off on love, general hilarity and a constant reminder of the joy in everyday small things.” Or, as another friend put it: “What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

“What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

– A dog-loving friend

It’s that truly profound, but tricky to pinpoint, human-pet bond that drives Lori Palley’s research. She’s assistant director of veterinary services at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Comparative Medicine and has recently become fascinated by why people’s relationships with their dogs can be so very significant.

Her latest research, published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, involved scanning the brains of mothers while they were looking at images of their own children and their dogs. Surprise: similar areas of the brain were activated — regions involved in emotion and reward — whether it was the kids or dogs on view.

It was a small study using fMRI: only 14 mothers (dog owners) who had at least one young child. And in case you jump to some conclusion about moms loving their dogs as much as, or more than, their kids, wait: the research also found that in other areas of the brain involved in attachment and bonding, the mother’s brains were more activated when viewing their children.

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. Source: PLOS ONE: "Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. (Source: PLOS ONE: “Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study”)

Continue reading

Not Kitten Around: Cat Vaccine May Someday Treat Allergies In Humans

Belal Khan/Flickr

Belal Khan/Flickr

By Nicole Tay
CommonHealth Intern

I love cats.

Unfortunately, feline biology doesn’t quite agree with my own. So, while I would love nothing more than to snuggle up to an adorable furball of histamines, my itchy eyes and swelling throat protest. Like me, an estimated 10 percent of the population is allergic to cats — more specifically, allergic to the fel d 1 protein found in a cat’s saliva and sweat. This protein accounts for about 95 percent of all allergic symptoms in cat-sensitive humans.

The normal function of fel d 1 remains unknown, however, in humans. It can trigger an allergic (itchiness, sneezing, hives, etc.) or even asthmatic immune response. Through the cat’s regular self-grooming, the protein spreads all over the animal’s fur, which in turn ends up, well, everywhere.

But researchers at the Swiss company HypoPet, in partnership with U.K.-based Benchmark, may someday offer relief for us allergy-prone cat lovers. In a recent news release, Benchmark announced the development of a new cat vaccine which targets and neutralizes the fel d 1 protein. Continue reading

Pet Study: Cute, Furry And (Possibly) A Catalyst For Better Adolescent Behavior

Pets, if you haven’t already noticed, are no longer simply pets. They are political (ban the puppy mills!); they are personal therapists; they are leading blog protagonists (see: My House Rabbit) and for some, they are prized surrogate children.

Now, it turns out, pets may have yet another dimension: they might contribute to more positive adolescent behavior (and you thought that was impossible). Indeed, a new study led by Tufts researchers finds that young adults caring for animals may develop deeper social connections and other positive traits such as empathy.

Here’s more from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts news release:

girlanddogs

Young adults who care for an animal may have stronger social relationships and connection to their communities, according to a paper published online in Applied Developmental Science.

While there is mounting evidence of the effects of animals on children in therapeutic settings, not much is known about if and how everyday interactions with animals can impact positive youth development more broadly.

“Our findings suggest that it may not be whether an animal is present in an individual’s life that is most significant but rather the quality of that relationship,” said the paper’s author, Megan Mueller, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and research assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “The young adults in the study who had strong attachment to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships.”

Mueller surveyed more than 500 participants, aged 18-26 and predominately female, about their attitudes and interaction with animals. Those responses were indexed against responses the same participants had given on a range of questions that measure positive youth development characteristics such as competence, caring, confidence, connection, and character, as well as feelings of depression, as part of a national longitudinal study, the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, which was led by Tufts Professor of Child Development Richard Lerner, Ph.D., and funded by the National 4-H Council.

Young adults who cared for animals reported engaging in more “contribution” activities, such as providing service to their community, helping friends or family and demonstrating leadership, than those who did not. The more actively they participated in the pet’s care, the higher the contribution scores. The study also found that high levels of attachment to an animal in late adolescence and young adulthood were positively associated with feeling connected with other people, having empathy and feeling confident. Continue reading

Fat Cats And Other Obese Pets

New data shows that 50% of U.S. cats and dogs are overweight

It turns out that the obesity epidemic is trickling down to our pets: more than 50% of U.S. dogs and cats are overweight,, according to new data reported in The Wall Street Journal today.

For 12-year-old Buffy of Calabash, N.C., the trouble began with too much steak (and chicken and ice cream) at dinnertime. In nearby Ocean Isle Beach, six-year-old Hershey harbors a fondness for beef and cheese snacks. And 14-year-old Fridge of Longwood, Fla., gets cranky if his bowl isn’t full.

The problem, according to reporter Wendy Bounds, is that owners, many who think chubby pets are kind of cute, don’t know when to cut back on the treats and don’t get their pets enough exercise. The upshot, she writes, is a nation of pets potentially hobbled by chronic diseases including, “diabetes, arthritis, kidney failure, high blood pressure and cancer. Research also suggests that pets fed less over their lifetime can live significantly longer.”

But identifying the problem is often harder than treating it. Consider Buffy:

Charles Dolcimascolo, owner of the 12-year-old cocker spaniel Buffy, routinely fed his dog table scraps until she ballooned to 42 pounds, double normal weight for the breed. “You couldn’t tell if she was a dog or a pig because she’s beige,” Mr. Dolcimascolo, 72, says. “She’d get depressed if I didn’t feed her.”

Luckily, a burgeoning fat-pet industry is coming to the rescue.

Now, new efforts are afoot to stem what many vets believe is the single most preventable health crisis facing the country’s 171 million-plus dog and cat pets. They include software for doctors to track a pet’s “Body Condition Score,” a blood test that could quickly determine animals’ body-fat percentage, Weight Watchers-type pet diet plans and doggie treadmills.