Pet Advice & Ideas

May Your Holiday Season be Golden

According to one recent study, upwards of 60% of pet parents buy their pet kids a Christmas stocking. My response is … ONLY 60%? Granted, I fall a little further on the extreme end of the pet-enthusiast spectrum. I don’t just do stockings … we wrap gifts, don holiday sweaters and even keep a goodly supply of festive cookies!

My beloved Golden, Brody, started joining in the holiday merriment as a pup. His first Christmas was 2009, as a bouncy little five-month-old filled with joy at this strange new festivity. The candy-cane shaped chew treats were icing on top of the holiday cake.

My dog gets super excited on Christmas morning. (The cat not so much, but that doesn’t deter me from trying.) He senses the excitement as the kids start tiptoeing around starting at 5 am, poking boxes and whispering their prognostications about what might be hidden inside each festive package. Brody plays along, sniffing at each gift in turn and standing patiently under his own stocking until it’s his turn to discover his holiday goodies.

He isn’t as excited about his ornament as I would like him to be, but hey, we can’t win them all. Maybe if they made scented decorations he’d be more appreciative.

Your dog’s enthusiasm may vary, of course. My dog Kekoa, who blessed our house until her passing in 2012, was not nearly as excited about donning holiday garb. She was quick to figure out that not tolerating costumes meant she got to skip straight to the treats. That’s what you call a “smart cookie”.

As we enter the 2016 holiday season, I’m reminded of how much he has changed since Brody’s first puppy Christmas back in 2009. He’s a little slower, short one ear we had to amputate, and grey around the muzzle. He’s like the Ghost of Christmas Present from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol … an amiable chap who lives in the moment, which seems to pass by in the blink of an eye.

Dogs are an ever-present reminder to stop and enjoy every moment, because you don’t get it again once it’s gone. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to enjoy many more Christmases together. Taking my cues from him, I’m trying not to worry too much about the future, but rather just taking in the precious moments and enjoying his lovable presence in the here and now.

So this year, instead of being sad about that little bit of grey already creeping into his coat, I’m remembering to be grateful for all the joy he has brought us over the years, thankful for him simply being who he is, and appreciative of the varied comforts our four-footed companions bring to the holiday season.

What are your favorite canine holiday memories? Share your story in the comments section below! Or, submit your very own holiday pet pics to our secure Dropbox account.

Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season! 

Dr V Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

The Complexity of Canine Memory

Have you ever sat staring deeply into your dog’s eyes, wondering “I wonder what you’re thinking?” Sure, they give us clues here and there, but as whole, the workings of your dog’s mind remains a mystery.

But there’s mounting evidence that we may have underestimated their mental capacities. I know when I was going through school and we would use words describing the emotions the pets seemed to feeling - love, anxiety, fear - we were often shut down with a stern, “Don’t anthropomorphize!” It was assumed that only humans were capable of such human-like emotions.

As we’ve studied more the amazing bonds that exist between humans and dogs, we’ve gotten better insight into the inner workings of their doggie brains. And while it’s true that we can’t say with 100% certainty what a dog thinks and feels (because you’d actually need to be able to talk to a dog in order for him to tell you that), I can tell you that the more we learn about their inner workings, the gap between people and dogs is narrowing. Each new study offers amazing insight into how smart, individual, and yes – emotional – they really are.

One of the most common tropes we hear about dogs is, “They live in the moment,” which assumes they don’t spend too much time thinking about the past. But all of us who share our lives with dogs have seen them react to something in a way that indicates they sure do remember things, thank you very much! As a veterinarian, “white coat syndrome”, the fearful reaction of a dog to a veterinarian in a white lab coat, is so well-documented that many of us just stopped wearing the jackets entirely.

And now science is finally showing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that dogs remember much more than we previously thought possible.

A recent study of 17 dogs in Current Biology explored the idea of episodic memory in dogs. They began by training the dogs to “Do as I do”, i.e., to imitate their trainer’s behavior. In this case, the dogs were aware they were receiving a cue, a signal to say “pay attention to what I’m doing.”

Then the researchers repeated the experiment, but without giving the “Do as I do” cue beforehand. Regardless of what the person was doing, the dog was instructed to lie down. Afterwards, trainers gave the dogs the command to repeat what they had just observed. This forced the dogs to recall what they had observed using episodic memory. This form of memory centers around the ability to recall a specific event from the past, but you didn’t know you were supposed to remember it at the time it happened. Despite showing signs of surprise, the dogs were able to recall what they had seen and imitate the person’s actions.

By demonstrating this ability to mimic, the study designers showed that dogs are watching and storing what they see all around them. Like people, they appear to be dumping all of that input into a short term memory bank, and if the information isn’t needed, it gets tossed out. Much the same way I can tell you what I had for dinner last night but not last month, a dog’s brain is quite capable of assessing memories and storing those considered pertinent for survival. As a social species whose evolution is closely tied to ours, it makes sense that they actually think in many of the same ways.

So, the next time you do something embarrassing around your pup, don’t be so quick to think they won’t remember it. At least we know for certain they won’t be spilling our secrets via speech, right?

Dr. Jane Bicks, DVM

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.

Pet Kids Totally Acing This Halloween Thing

Pet Costumes

Earlier this week, we asked our readers to submit photos of their dogs and cats celebrating Halloween. So many of you responded and now we’re happy to share some of the spooky fun with you!

Adorned in a flattering ensemble, Kinzie is rocking a look she calls ‘Candy Corn Witch’.

Kinzie the candy corn Witch

No Halloween would be complete without a great pumpkin, and they don’t come any cuter or sweeter than Pumpkin Vasquez.

Pumpkin Vasquez

Oliver being totally chill and owning his role as Scary Biker Dude.

Ollie Biker

By far, our most highbrow submission goes to the classically inclined Ludwig 'von Big Boy' Beethoven.

Elise Big Boy

Granny Zelda was caught wearing her unmentionables, saying, “I can’t talk now, my stories are on."

Granny Zelda

Stella’s costume definitely raised some eyebrows.

Stella Groucho

Is it a bird? A plane? Nope, it’s Copper doing an excellent imitation of Superman! Looks like this Kal-El is hangry.

Copper Superman

Well, Hello Kitty! We’d trade all of our Beanie Babies for a few minutes holding Buttercup.

Ty Hello Kitty

Even though he’s not from Baskervilles, this hound is definitely on the case. Now we just need to find him a suitable Watson!

Wilford Sherlock

Simple, but always spooky, Wendell looks particularly ethereal in his ghostly garb.

Wendell Ghost

Slow and steady wins the race, says Luna, pulling off her turtle costume with aplomb.

Luna Turtle

It’s barely November, but Coffee is already gearing up for Christmas!

Coffee Reindeer

For all of you who sent evidence of just how awesome your companion animals are, we thank you from the bottom of our candy hearts! And to all of the dogs and cats who participated, we hope your bags were full of yummy, healthy treats!

Just because Halloween is over, it doesn’t mean that your companion animals don’t deserve high quality treats all year ‘round! Be sure to check our big selection of dog treats and our gourmet cat treats.

Keep in mind that we’re always interested when your pet kids do something cute, sweet or funny. Email your awesome pet photos to blogfun@lifesabundance.com.

Show Off Your Pet Kids' Costumes

Fonzi Dog

Dressing up for Halloween isn't just for humans anymore! If your dog or cat is donning a costume this year, we want you to share the adorable photographic evidence. Email your costume pics to blogfun@lifesabundance.com. Staff favorites will be posted the first week of November, so tell your four-footers to say "CHEESE!"

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.