All posts by dr. vogelsang

Top Five Amazing Cat Facts

Russian Blue cat

I used to think I was a dog person, which lasted right up until I adopted a cat. While I’m still a huge dog fan, I no longer believe you have to prefer one over the other. There’s a reason cats are the most popular pet kids in North America!

Yes, cats are nothing like dogs: they are enigmatic, independent, sometimes aloof and always entertaining. Their completely unique natures are, in my opinion, their most endearing feature. It should come as no surprise that in addition to their one-of-a-kind personalities, they also have some pretty exceptional physical features and roles to play in our society. As a veterinarian, writer and cat enthusiast, it pleases me to no end to learn more about these fabulous furballs. Here are just five of my favorite unique cat facts!

1. Cats can use their mouth to smell

Have you ever seen your cat take a big sniff, then pull their mouth back in what looks like a sneer? That’s called the flehmen response, and it’s one of the wonderful, weird things that makes cats so unique. Cats have a special organ called the vomeronasal organ wedged up between the hard palate and the nasal septum. The vomeronasal organ is used to analyze pheromones, which is an important means of communication in the feline world. If you’ve ever gotten a good whiff of cat urine, you may make the same face … but unlike us, cats are actually gaining extra information from that stimulus.

2. Cats are well adapted to high-heat environments

Have you ever seen a cat pant? Hopefully not, because they aren’t supposed to. We all know that dogs use panting to dissipate heat, while humans sweat. Aside from a negligible number of sweat glands in the paws, cats do neither! Evolved from desert-dwelling creatures, cats have extremely efficient kidneys that can concentrate urine to a very high degree, meaning they can survive longer than other mammals with less water without becoming dehydrated. I watch my dark-coated cat Penelope seek out blocks of sunlight all the time … like many cats, she thinks “The hotter, the better!” Meanwhile my dog is laying on the coldest spot of floor he can find.

Striped Cat

3. You can’t top a cat’s night vision

Cats are unusual in that they have both predator and prey adaptations. One of their most unique features is their slit pupil, which allows the pupil to contract more quickly than the circular pupils of dogs and humans. This means they adjust more quickly to changes in ambient light. They also have the largest eyes of any mammal relative to their size! They have several other adaptations meant to ensure they can see well at night, including more rods in the back of their retina as well as a tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer of tissue that gives their eyes that eerie green glow.

4. Cats could have changed the course of history

In the Middle Ages, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing off an estimated 25% of the continent. The causative agent of bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, was found to be carried by fleas who moved about the countryside on rodents. During the Spanish Inquisition, cats were condemned as evil and killed by the thousands. This cat depopulation allowed the rodent population to explode, extending the effects of the plague. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if only cats had been spared and out hunting the plague carriers.

5. Hissing is a unique feline vocalization

Have you ever heard a happy cat hiss? Probably not. Though not all cats hiss, those that do are invariably upset or frightened. Experts believe hissing may actually have evolved as a mimicry of a snake hiss, a way to warn someone that whatever they are doing, the cat is not at all happy about it. If you have a cat who hisses, consider yourself lucky! It’s a clear warning to stop whatever is upsetting them before they escalate to the next level, something usually involving claws or teeth.

Four-Legged Heroes: Dogs in the Military

Dogs in the military

I’ve always wanted to attend the annual New Year’s Day Rose Bowl parade, but when I finally got to attend it wasn’t even the floats that wowed me the most … it was the dogs.

That year, I had the pleasure of meeting several service members who were riding on a float supporting the US Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, which made its debut in 2013. It was there that I met Sgt. 1st Class Charles "Chuck" Shuck and his dog Gabe, who had just received the American Humane Association Hero Award for his work in Iraq.

Both Gabe and Sergeant Shuck challenged my preconceived notions about working dogs in the military. Gabe wasn’t a stern, antisocial dog but a sweet yellow Labrador, trained for explosives detection after being rescued from a shelter in Texas. He participated in 170 combat patrols and racked up 26 “finds”, saving potentially hundreds of lives! After his retirement in 2009, he was adopted by Shuck.

You might imagine the relationship between handler and dog to be all business, but when Shuck and Gabe looked at each other, I saw the same adoration and love all dog parents know and recognize. Dogs in the military have important jobs to do but also serve as vital emotional support for many soldiers. I also learned that veteran dog handlers haunted by having to leave dogs behind in Vietnam are responsible for the current stance on canines in the United States military, which is this: dogs are to be treated with the same regard as any other soldier. They are not treated as commodities, but are accorded respect and reverence for their work and sacrifice. When they are injured, the medics are sent in just like they would be for a wounded person.

Gabe

After meeting Gabe and several other distinguished canine veterans, I wanted to learn more about the eventual landing place for the memorial: The US Military Working Dog School, located at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. While researching the training facility known more affectionately as “Dog School”, I also learned some other amazing facts about dogs in the military:

  1. Dogs have served with US soldiers in every major conflict since the Civil War.
  2. The school trains dogs to work for all branches of the military as well as for the TSA.
  3.  Worldwide, about 1,400 dogs are working in service of the United States Military at any given time.
  4. The most commonly utilized breeds are German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Sporting breeds such as Labradors are more frequently utilized as needs for explosive detection have increased.
  5. Congressional Bill HR-5313, signed into law in 2000, recognizes the value of canine life by allowing retired military dogs to be adopted into loving homes.

A month after I met Gabe, he sadly passed away from liver cancer. I sent Sergeant Shuck the photo we took at the parade along with my condolences. It was an honor to meet such an incredible team, a handler who grew into a dog parent and loved his hero dog with all his heart. They represent the best of what dogs and people can accomplish while working together.

Dr V Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

The Amazing, Intuitive Empathy of Dogs

When I was 12 years old, fully in the throes of junior high angst, I had a difficult time telling others about painful events. Being called hurtful names by other kids. The time my backpack was stolen and thrown over a fence. About the bullies who teased me. I didn’t want to tell my parents because I didn’t think they would be able to change anything, and I worried that it would end up just making them sad. So … I told my dog.

At the time, I thought I was kind of a weirdo for confiding in my dog. But as I grew older and devoted my life to working with animals and people, I found to my delight that dogs are some of the world’s best counselors. They give veterans with PTSD the strength to venture outside. They help shy children work on their speaking skills. They sit in courtrooms while victims testify about terrifying events. They lie quietly next to people in hospitals who simply need a soft head to pat. They are sometimes as effective as medications in controlling anxiety.

I’ve often heard it said that dogs can sense when someone they love needs extra support, but until I witnessed it firsthand, I had no idea just how powerful that connection could be. When my mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year and came to live with us, I was beyond petrified, as was the entire family. It was so hard to simply sit there and be present without bursting into tears, which would only upset Mom more.

My dog, on the other hand, had no hesitation about inserting himself in the middle of it all. Brody became an ever-present companion by her side, a steady escort that helped to keep her upright when her balance was off, a head on her lap while she tearfully signed her Hospice admission papers, and a gentle snorer at her side every night. When she peacefully passed with my father by her side, Brody was also there to see her off.

How can I possibly explain what burden he bore during that time? He was not just there for my Mom but also for me, the kids and especially my dad. With my mother gone, Brody immediately transferred his watchful attention to him in a way that he never had before. Together, they went on long thoughtful walks during that period. There is no possible explanation other than the fact that Brody knew exactly what we needed from him.

Dogs see us at our worst and, unlike many people in our lives, are unafraid to be right there in the thick of things without judgment or discomfort. They are such a gift to us! I feel so fortunate to be able to give back and help their lives be long and wonderful in return.

Have you ever had a dog who went above and beyond the call of duty in a time of pain or need?

Tell us your remarkable story of canine comforting in the comments section below. And be sure to share this post with your friends on Twitter and Facebook.

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned From My Puppy

I never cease to be surprised at how much I learn from my dogs. Even after living and working with them for years, there’s always something new to learn about them or yourself. The first few months of my dog Brody’s life as a puppy were some of the most joyous weeks of my life. Even at two months of age, he seemed to have it all figured out. Maybe it’s a dog thing.

So, in no particular order, here are all the life lessons I learned from my puppy Brody!

A good solid wink is an essential people skill to master.

If you’re breaking the rules, better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Nap often and with great gusto.

When in doubt, just try looking chagrined.

Truly, no problem is insurmountable.

Did I mention it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission? Especially when it’s ice cream.

You’re never too young - or too old - to be a hero!

No matter your age, be sure to celebrate all of life’s milestones!

What lessons has your dog taught you? Please share your story in the comments section below!

 

Dr V Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

The Many Health Benefits of Living with Dogs

While all dog lovers intuitively know we are happier and healthier with a dog or two (or three) in our lives, scientists around the world have been working to prove that this isn’t just a feeling but a fact. Dogs really do make us healthier!

  1. Fewer allergies
    That old wives tale that being around animals is more likely to make you sick is just that … a misconception. In fact, children raised around animals are 33% less likely to have allergies to those animals than those who are raised in a more sterile environment. Just like the “hygiene hypothesis” surmising that early exposure to germs makes us better at fighting them, being around allergens while our bodies are still growing helps the body recognize these particles as being A-OK.
  2. Trimmer waist
    Pet parents are less likely to suffer from obesity compared to the general population, particularly if you are the person in the household responsible for walking the dog. It makes sense: maybe you can talk yourself out of an early a.m. stroll, but it’s harder to justify skipping the walk when your dog is giving you those big, excited eyes!

  3. Lower rates of eczema
    Eczema, a painful and itchy skin condition, is a common plague in children and thought to have an allergic component. Children raised with dogs have demonstrably lower levels of eczema compared to the pet-less, which is great news for those of us who love dogs AND kids, and couldn’t imagine going without either!
  4. Cancer detection
    A dog’s sense of smell is somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than our own. Think about that the next time your spray perfume in their presence! One of the unintended benefits of this is that many dogs seem to pick up on very subtle olfactory indicators of disease. Dogs have shown repeatable, reliable skill in finding lung, bladder, breast, colon, and ovarian cancers in people … some of whom passed more commonly accepted screening tests! If your dog shows a sudden and insatiable interest in a certain body part, don’t ignore it … your pup may be trying to save your life!
  5. Noticing low blood sugar
    More than one out of every three dogs living with diabetics can detect low blood sugar, according to researchers. With no prior training, some of these dogs have on their own alerted their owners to something being off, providing people a critical lead time in intervening before their blood sugar levels lead to serious symptoms.

How Dogs and People Evolved Together

People live with and love many kinds of animals, but there’s just something special about our relationship with our dogs. We all get the sense that they need us the same way that we need them. Humans and canines, bonded together by some strange and immutable force. It’s almost as if we evolved for each other!

And there’s evidence to support that actually, we did. Here are some fascinating facts that scientists have discovered about the ancient, intertwined bond between humankind and canines…

1. Dogs first split off the wolf genome about 32,000 years ago.
Recently, scientists collected DNA from gray wolves as well as various dog breeds from across the globe. By comparing these samples against the DNA taken from an ancient dog skull uncovered in a Siberian mountain range, Chinese researchers determined that modern dogs split off from the wolf genome approximately 32,000 years ago … the earliest evidence ever discovered!

2. Dogs may have helped us beat Neanderthals in the evolution game.
While Neanderthals existed nearly 250,000 years ago, we Homo sapiens are a little newer on the scene: about 40,000 years ago or so. While no one is entirely sure why they became extinct whereas we flourished, some anthropologists surmise that domesticating dogs played a key role in allowing us to hunt more efficiently and therefore survive.

3. Their affable personality ensured their survival.
While wolves are naturally reserved and skittish around humans, dogs easily accept people as fellow pack members. From an evolutionary standpoint, the wolves who were comfortable enough approaching humans to beg off scraps possibly marked the first step in the domestication process. Which just goes to prove that dogs can’t help their genial nature!

4. Their body chemistry adapted closer to what we eat.
Right around the same time that human society moved from a hunting-based to a farming-based lifestyle, we started to further develop our aptitude for digesting starches. So did dogs. A 2013 study from the journal Nature found ten genes responsible for starch digestion that are not present in the carnivorous wolf species. Like us, dogs are true omnivores.

5. Modern dogs are more alike than they are different.
It’s hard to believe that hulking Great Danes and dainty teacup poodles are representatives of the same species, but they are! Their extensive physical variations are the result of selective breeding programs, which have only really been in vogue for less than 200 years. Without humans manipulating the breeding process, the huge disparities we know today would not exist.

A Family Guide to Coping With Pet Loss

As a veterinarian, a person regularly tasked with the sacred duty of helping beloved family members pass over the Rainbow Bridge, you might think that I had lots of training in vet school about how to help people during such a challenging time. To be honest, I didn’t. Almost none, in fact, which is a shame.

Oftentimes, the death of a pet is the first major loss experienced by a person, especially children. We know now that for many people, the pain and grief of losing a pet is as profound as the death of a person, yet people are often expected to carry on the next day as if nothing has happened. Openly discussing grief makes others uncomfortable, mostly because they don’t know what to say. More...

Canine Communication & Kid Safety

Zach & Brody

The first time he came to our house, my son’s friend Joey announced he hated dogs.

Given that we have a dog - and a cute one at that, a goofy Golden who loves any and all people - this is a bit of a problem. Joey was nonetheless fearful, so I had my dog in the yard for a bit. When I asked Joey why he hates dogs, he said it was because every dog he had ever met, starting with his own min pin when he was younger, bit him. More...