Archive for September, 2008

“Just Like a Real Dog”

Today’s New York Times reports:

IN the 1930’s, when the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget quizzed children to find out if they could tell the difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, he concluded that they defined life by figuring out which objects could move by themselves, without an outside push or pull.

In the last 20 years or so, that particular theory of Piaget’s has been almost completely overturned by research showing that young children are not fooled by things like garage doors that move by remote control. That is, children can tell the difference between animals and machines even if the machines appear to move by themselves.

Now children are encountering a new category of objects, things that seem to possess intentions, preferences and others characteristics previously reserved for living beings.

In an age where robotics and virtual reality create increasingly believable simulations of living beings – do we risk raising a generation of children who find it difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy – and who have a vastly different idea than we do of what it means to be alive?

Dr. Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her research assistant Andrea Audley are conducting ground-breaking research on our evolving relationships with nonbiological objects.  According to the Times:

In a research project still in its early stages, Professor Turkle and Ms. Audley have visited after-school centers in the Boston area to watch the ways children 5 to 10 years old play with Furbies. They have also sent Furbies home with children and asked the children and their parents to keep diaries of the interactions.

Again and Again, Ms. Audley said, the researchers have asked the children: ”Is it alive? Is it like a real pet? Does it know you?”

”Strikingly,” Ms. Audley said, ”often the answer they settled on was, ‘It’s not alive in a human or animal kind of way, but in a Furby kind of way.’ ”

Watching children assign personality and emotion to toys is nothing new for children, but this category of ”sort of alive” breaks new ground. It is showing up more and more as a first generation of children plays with interactive toys that need attention and nurturing.

Is developing a new concept of what it means to “be alive” an adaptive response to a world where technology plays a greater role in our lives every day — or will this new, nebulous boundary between animals and robots, the worlds of the living and the pseudo-living, change the way we view living things in a new – and potentially maladaptive way?

Empathy plays a key role in how we understand and interact with other living beings.  When we talk about empathy, we generally refer to it in one of two ways: 

The first is the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to “read” and respond correctly to social signals and situations.

The second refers to the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotional state.  Colloquially – to walk a mile in their shoes.

How will our society’s experience and understanding of empathy change when that someone we are empathizing with is alive in “a Furby kind of way?”  When it doesn’t really  need to be fed, housetrained, or exercised, doesn’t age — and doesn’t die (or who, if he does “die”, can be replaced with a near exact copy).

Too many of us have already fallen for the twin allures of immediate gratification and entitlement.  It’s not enough to just want to have it all anymore, we’re entitled  to have it all – and not to have to wait for it.  The problem is – feeling like you’re entitled to immediate gratification has a tendency to reduce or eliminate your sense of empathy.  After all… caring takes time.  And effort.

A friend forwarded me a post today with this “puppies for sale” ad:

Have you ever wanted a dog but stopped yourself from getting one because:

* * * 1. *You’re allergic to their fur?
* * * 2. *You don’t have the energy or space for a big dog?
* * * 3. *Yappy dogs annoy you?
* * * 4. *You travel too much?
* * * 5. *You don’t have time to train a dog?
* * * 6. *You’re a cat lover?

* * * *Well I think I’ve got the solution for you! I have 6 beautiful puppies looking for a home!  And they’re perfect for you because:
* * * 1. *They don’t shed!
* * * 2. *Fully grown they weigh between 6 and 10 lbs!
* * * 3. *They don’t bark!
* * * 4. *They fit in any size doggy travel bag and are wonderful travel companions!
* * * 5. *They are very quick learners!
* * * 6. *They’re way better than a cat!

* * * *Claim yours today! They will be available to take home on ______. They are Shitzapoo’s, and they will be all caught up on shots and meds by the time they can go home with you. I own both of their parents and can assure you that the puppies are being well taken care of, and obviously come from a good home. ****

I don’t even know where to begin a critique of this ad.  There are so much ignorance on display here – the mind boggles.  So, apparenly, now even people who:

x x x   Don’t like dogs
x x x   Are too lazy to train a dog
x x x   Are too lazy to groom a dog or clean their house and -
x x x   Are more interested in a fashion accessory than a relationship…

Should  have dogs too. 

Yikes. Maybe the idea of pet robots isn’t so bad after all.  In a time when so many people appear to have already  lost their senses of empathy and mindfulness – the danger of growing up confused about what life is and is not may be balanced by one great big positive benefit – that careless and uncaring people can go out and buy companions who aren’t capable of suffering… 

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Given the potentially culture-changes effects they could have on us – the interesting question becomes – how will robotic companions change us.  Again from the Times:

Professor Turkle said. ”The new objects sidestep arguments about what is inherent in the machines and play instead on what they evoke in us.”

Mortality has traditionally defined the human condition, Professor Turkle said. ”A shared sense of mortality has been the basis for feeling a commonality with other human beings,” she said, ”a sense of going through the same life cycle, a sense of the preciousness of time and life, of its fragility.

When we live with beings who don’t go through the same cycles of birth, life and death that we do; who can be conveniently turned off or put into storage when we don’t have time for them; and who can be repaired or replaced when they malfunction – will we also lose some part of our sense of the beauty and fragility of real lives?

September 18, 2008 at 7:23 pm 1 comment

Remembering Prunella

Prunella was a goat.  I don’t know how old she was or where she was born.  I only met her once and know of her mostly through the stories my friend Audrey told me about her.

Prunella spent the first two years of her life living and working in a research laboratory at the University of Minnesota.  We don’t know what kind of research she participated in.  We just know that after the study was over, Pru was scheduled for euthanasia.

One of the students who worked on the study – and knew Prunella – was a friend of Audrey’s.  When Pru was scheduled to be ‘released’ from the program she contacted Audrey, who she knew had a farm with pastures and a barn, and begged her to take the goat in.  Audrey’s not a goat person, but she can be a sucker for a sad story – especially when it involves an innocent furry creature, so she agreed to take Prunella.

That was almost ten years ago.  Audrey and I joked about Prunella a lot – we agreed that we wanted to volunteer for whatever study it was that she had participated in…  You see, that darned goat was the absolute picture of health.  She never got sick.  She never had problems with infections or parasite infestations.  She was a super goat.

Mostly, Prunella was a pet.  She was an Alpine doe and I suppose Audrey could have bred her and used her as a milk goat, but she didn’t.  She just tamed her and fed her and cared for her.  They were friends.

An Alpine goat.  Not Prunella.

An Alpine goat. Not Prunella.

Until Sunday.

Sunday afternoon Audrey was doing chores around her place when she heard the hens in her barn raise up a great and terrified ruckus.  They were obviously panicked.  Really panicked.  So she sped out to the barn to see what the problem was. 

Clustered in a tight flock in the corner of their coop, the hens appeared to be terrified, but unhurt.  As she checked on them she heard odd, raspy sounds coming from Prunella’s stall.  She assumed that what she heard was the sound of a terrified goat, and went into the stall to visit Pru and calm her down.

As she entered the stall, she was horrified to see that two dogs were in the stall and Prunella was lying on her side in a corner, obvoiusly in distress.  The dogs, a border collie and a rottweiler mix, were snarling and their faces were bloodied.  Audrey – who can be incredibly intimidating when she wants to be – chased them out of the stall – with nothing more than her voice and presence.

Once they were gone, she went to check Prunella – and found that her trachea had been badly torn.  It was a wound she could not survive.

Filled with righteous indignation, she leaped into her van and drove up the road to the house where she knew the dogs lived.  Their owners were just piling into a car, dressed up for some outing, when she arrived.  Smart woman, she parked her van diagonally across the drive to block them in, then told them that their dogs had fatally injured her goat. 

The female owner leaped right into denial.  She whined that it couldn’t have been their dogs – they’re always chained up in the yard.  A pointed look toward two trees surrounded by hard-packed earth and empty chains said all that needed to be said about that.  So Audrey told the male owner that he needed to take ownership of the problem and come to put her goat out of its misery – NOW.

Quietly, he got his gun and did as he was told.

Then they all piled into the car and went off to their party.  Leaving their dogs to roam free through a neighborhood filled with poultry, sheep, calves, pets — and children.  No tears. No apology. No offer to bury or replace the goat.

No responsibility.

Sadly, it will be dogs who pay the price for this bit of ignorance and stupidity. Their owner will likely let them run at large until a neighborhood vigilante shoots them or the county sheriff picks them up and gets rid of them for him.  Then he’ll find a couple more dogs who are ‘free to a good home’ and chain them up outside his house until they die or go mad.  Or kill something.

A dog doesn’t need a home in the country.  It needs a home that cares. 

   The Goat And I

-Robert W. Service

Each sunny day upon my way
         A goat I pass;
He has a beard of silver grey,
         A bell of brass.
And all the while I am in sight
         He seems to muse,
And stares at me with all his might
         And chews and chews.

Upon the hill so thymy sweet
         With joy of Spring,
He hails me with a tiny bleat
         Of welcoming.
Though half the globe is drenched with blood
         And cities flare,
Contentedly he chews the cud
         And does not care.

Oh gentle friend, I know not what
         Your age may be,
But of my years I’d give the lot
         Yet left to me,
To chew a thistle and not choke,
         But bright of eye
Gaze at the old world-weary bloke
         Who hobbles by.

Alas! though bards make verse sublime,
         And lines to quote,
It takes a fool like me to rhyme
         About a goat.

September 16, 2008 at 3:08 am 2 comments

Tenacity

Ya gotta love beagles

September 15, 2008 at 9:03 pm 1 comment

It’s COOL to Know Your Food

Over the last year we’ve worked harder to fill our larders with locally grown, locally raised – preferably organic foods.  During this little journey I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at how difficult it was to find out where the food I was buying came from. Country of origin labeling, or COOL, is a federally mandated program that will require most retailers to include information about where our foods came from on labels. 

Political foot-dragging meant that the program was 6 years in the making, but as of September 30, 2008 U.S. consumer will know just where their food originates.  Sort of…

From Scientific American:

The measure – backed by farmers eager to compete with foreign producers and food safety advocates – requires meat, poultry and produce to contain labels listing their country of origin.

… Notable exceptions to the requirement include products sold in butcher shops and fish markets — as well as in restaurants where disease outbreaks often originate, the Sacramento Bee wrote in a recent preview of the law.

and…

What’s more, packers don’t have to be specific about where the meat consumers are buying came from, the Des Moines Register noted in a recent piece. Instead, they can list all the countries they bought from during a given period. “So in the store, ground beef could be labeled like this: ‘Product of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and/or Uruguay,'” the Register explained.

Hmmmm, does this mean that that bulk package of bargain bin burger will now come with a label that includes more unintelligible information than Dr. Bronner’s Soap?

According to yesterday’s Chicago Tribune:

Food safety groups have hailed COOL as a necessary step toward broader consumer education and buying choices. But now they complain that the Department of Agriculture has defined it as narrowly as possible.

For example, they say, the agency has defined a host of foods as “processed,” such as mixed frozen vegetables, which exempts them from the new law.

“When they finalized this rule, they bent over backward to make as few things be covered as possible,” said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union. “There are giant, giant loopholes in the law.”

One Mack-truck-sized loophole is the law’s definition of “processed.”  Again from the Trib:

“It’s considered processed if it’s combined with one other ingredient,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit consumer rights organization. “We think they’re being incredibly broad.”

O-Kay.  So, if I break down and buy that pre-marinated pork loin, does the marinade constitute processing and make the product exempt from labeling?  If the packing plant adds salt and pepper (or artificial coloring) to my steak – is it now an exempt, processed product?  I suspect I know the answer to this, and I expect that the number of products I’m willing to buy from the grocery store will decrease significantly soon. 

The issue becomes even more convoluted when one deals with imported meat:

Another controversy involves imported livestock. Under COOL, meat derived from cattle imported into the U.S. for immediate slaughter can bear a label that states it’s a product of its origin country and the United States, even though the animal was raised entirely outside the U.S.

So some parts of COOL are not so cool.  Still, the law seems to represent a step in the right direction, especially for those of us who want to know where our food comes from.  And according to a poll by Consumer Reports – 92% of Americans fall into that category.

Now if they’d just expand the program to include ALL human and pet foods….

September 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm 1 comment

Assess-A-Hands and Toddler Dolls

I watched a recent episode of DogTown last night.  One of the scenes in the show featured staff doing a temperament test on a dog with a bite history.  The dog was shown reacting well to several different handling exercises including restraint and looming. 

After the dog passed the handling exercises it was “tested” (and I use the term very loosely here – a more apt term might be “tortured”) by having a large, bizarre looking toddler doll forced on it.  The doll was presented to the dog by rocking it back and forth so that it moved like a miniature version of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man – AND NOT AT ALL LIKE A REAL HUMAN BEING.  The doll was pushed toward the dog face first – a posture that most dogs will interpret as a threatening approach when confronted by an alien being. Understandably – the dog reacted to the “utterly freakish thing looks like a baby but isn’t a baby and came at me head on in a stiff, jerky, threatening manner” apparation by drawing back and growling.

After being freaked out by the evil Stay-Puft toddler, a bowl of food was put in front of the dog.  The testers waited until the dog was busy eating the food, then began to poke annoyingly at its face with a fake hand on a stick.  He reacted – in a COMPLETELY understandable way – by growling.

This constituted failing the test.

Now in their defense — and unlike most other shelters that use these tests, the staff at Best Friends used the results they got to decide what additional training the dog would get – not to decide whether or not to euthanize it. 

But I’m confused.  Maybe I’m just utterly stoopid — but this kind of testing makes no sense to me whatsoever.  As my friend Heather posted in her blog yesterday – dogs absolutely know the difference between real people and bizarre-looking monsters.  And – quite understandably – they don’t tend to react to monsters the same way they do to real human beings. 

In far too many shelters today, good dogs get killed by bad testing.  Their ability to tell the difference between a cheap manikin and a real person is being underestimated in a fatally unfortunate way.  Dogs die because human beings can’t – or won’t admit that they can tell the difference between a real hand and a plastic one on a stick.

Audie bites a hand - but NOT the one that feeds him.

Audie chews on a hand - but NOT the one that feeds him.

Before you fly off the handle and dare me to use my own hands to test potentially aggressive dogs let me point out that: a) I do regularly handle aggressive dogs; and b) I believe that there are better ways to test a dog’s willingness to bite in resource guarding than poking a shelter-stressed dog in the face with a stick. 

Most people don’t realize this, but space is a valuable resource to dogs.  Like other social animals, dogs use space, or yielding, as a way to express rank and claim ownership of resources.  When one dog seeks to claim a resource from another, he will often place his body between that dog and the resource – usually facing the other dog as he does so.  This movement/posture is doglish for “back off buddy, this is MINE!”

Using this kind of body language yourself with a resource guarding dog – asking him to yield the space around the valued resource to you – will usually elicit an aggressive response from him.  If you do this kind of exercise with the dog safely back-tied so that he can’t reach you – in my opinion – it’s safer than poking him in the face with a stick while he’s eating.  And because you’re gauging the dog’s reaction to a real human – not a bizarrely frightening artificial one – asking him to yield constitutes a much fairer test.

Before you rush out and start using this “method” to test dogs, I strongly suggest that you read this excellent article by Dick Russell on yielding and incorporate it successfully into your own training program for several months before trying it on a strange dog with a questionable disposition.  Yielding is a powerful tool for communication with and between dogs.  It’s an important part of my training program.  But trying to force an aggressive dog to yield can (and likely will) get you bitten if you’re inexperienced and if you don’t take the right kinds of precautions.

In the interest of balance I’ll add that I saw one thing on the DogTown episode that I really liked. The dogs at the facility were often filmed while they interacted at liberty in large groups.  Most shelters keep dogs in kennels and runs where they are either entirely sequestered from each other or occasionally allowed to interact in a limited way with just one or two other dogs.  Keeping them separated from each other not only adds to the sense of loneliness and isolation dogs experience in a shelter, it also cuts them off from those who are, in many ways, in the best position to help them.  The ‘people’ who know best how to teach dogs to be sane – are other dogs.  Dogs teaching dogs how to be dogs is very good therapy. They make sense to each other. 

There’s a small shelter a few hours north of us.  I’ve had the pleasure to meet four dogs adopted from that shelter in the last three yars.  All four of them are great dogs.  Social, agreeable – quietly comfortable in their own furry skins.  This shelter keeps their dogs in a couple of large, communal runs for much of the day.  I suspect that these communal runs is part of the reason that so many of the dogs that come out of that shelter manage to do so with their psyches intact.

Testing and evaluating shelter dogs is a difficult and often heart-breaking job.  No test is fool-proof, but most agree that some kind of testing is necessary to limit risks to the people who adopt shelter dogs. Its a dangerous, dirty – largely thankless task and I’ll admit I don’t have all the answers on how to best accomplish the job.

Hat tip to Linda Kaim who provided these links to a couple of very good articles on how to evaluate an assessment program.  If you work in a shelter / rescue environment or have an interest in doing so.  I strongly recommend you read both articles. There’s excellent information and advice in both of them.

September 13, 2008 at 10:31 pm 6 comments

Homemade Laundry Soap Recipe

Here it is – the long overdue and much anticipated recipe for homemade laundry soap.

I got this recipe from my friend Audrey.  She’s been making and using it for years.  You can make either powdered or liquid soap with the recipe.  We’ve done both, but tend to prefer the powder as it’s easier to make and store and seems to work as well as the liquid in my large, front-load washer.  Note that this detergent will not create suds.  This makes it very good for new, high-efficiency washing machines – but it may look really odd to you if you have a top load machine and peek in while the load is running.

Ingredients

1/3 bar Strong Soap (see below)

1/2 Cup washing soda

1/2 Cup borax

Optional – essential oil for fragrance

Equipment

Grater or food processor

3 gallon stockpot (for liquid soap)

5 gallon bucket (for liquid soap)

Stove (for liquid soap)

Stick blender (optional for liquid soap)

Air-tight container (for powder soap or extra powder to make more liquid)

Empty detergent bottle (for liquid soap) look for one with a no-spill, self-measuring lid

Directions

Note that this recipe is easily multiplied.  It’s a lot easier to make a triple batch of powder than a single one.  If you’re making liquid soap, you can keep the extra powder in an air tight container until you need it.  That way you don’t need to store gallons of liquid at once.  For both recipes you’ll need to grate the soap.  I use a Cuisinart food processor and the fine grating attachment.  I cut the bar in thirds and feed it into the food processor.  It makes short work of the job.

Liquid Soap

If you’re going to make liquid soap you’ll need 6 cups of water and a large (3 gallon) stock pot.  Put the water in the pot and put it on the stove on medium heat.  Add the grated soap and stir until it dissolves.  Then add the washing soda and borax and stir over heat until they are dissolved.  If the mix is not dissolving well, carefully use a stick or hand blender to mix it up.  Increase heat and bring pot to a boil.  Boil for 15 minutes.  The liquid should have about the texture of honey.

Take the pot off the heat.   Mix it well with a hand blender.  Once the soap is dissolved and well mixed, add enough hot water to make two gallons.  Add water a quart or so at a time and mix well before adding more to keep the mixture smooth.  Add a teaspoon or two of essential oil if desired.  A lighter oil (less viscous) with no color is best.  We like lemon and cedar,

I use about 1/2 cup per load in my large, front load washer.  Make sure the lid on the bottle fits very tight, as it’s best to shake the bottle before using it.

Dry / Powdered Soap

For dry soap, just grate the bar soap and add it to the borax and soda.  Stir well, then add essential oil if you want and mix again.  About 1-2 Tbsp per load (depending on how dirty the clothes are) works for me.

This soap will not work well if you have very hard water.  Adding extra borax to the recipe may help in this case.

A Note Regarding Bar Soaps

Regarding soaps.  The most commonly available strong (lye) soap is Fels Naphtha.  Fels is a lye and animal fat based soap.  It used to contain Stoddard Solvent (or mineral spirits) which made it more effective at removing oily stains.  Fels was an old time remedy for poison ivy.  If the name or the idea that it used to contain solvents bothers you, you can substitute Octagon Soap or Zote.  Fels Naphtha and Octagon are available at our local grocery and hardware stores.  You’ll find Zote at a tienda.

Don’t use facial soap.  It usually has added oils you don’t want and isn’t an aggressive enough cleaner for laundry. 

Or if you are incredibly motivated — and handy (like Audrey is) you can make you own bar soap from lye and rendered lard.

September 11, 2008 at 6:01 pm 5 comments

Practicing

Young Audie is a very conscientious dog.  A thinker.  Things matter to him.

As we continue with his education this attitude of mindfulness becomes more apparent.  I can often tell when he reaches a new stage in understanding a concept because he will begin to practice (or rehearse) it on his own.

In practicing he repeats an action I’ve taught him on his own.  He’ll often practice an action a few times in a row, then go lie down to process what he’s taught himself.  The calm, mindful demeanor he expresses as he practices is utterly different from the bounding exuberance he is prone to much of the rest of the time.

Here are a few recent examples of his practicing:

  • I’ve been working to teach Audie to pick up his and Zip’s metal food bowls and bring them to me at meal times.  They’re somewhat heavy and oddly shaped which makes them more difficult to pick up than most (though not all) of the items I’ve had him fetch to me.  If he picks a bowl up in what seems like the simplest way – by gripping the rim closest to him in his mouth – the bowl is not only difficult to balance in his mouth, it also obstructs his view as he tries to walk with it. So, I’ve been coaching him to work against his first instinct and pick the bowl up by gripping the rim of the bowl at the point where it is farthest from him.  About a week after we started to do this I noticed that Zip’s bowl (the smaller of the two) seemed to be randomly moving around the house.  I didn’t initially see him pick her bowl up and carry it, but it would *miraculously* appear in a new place three or four times a day. About four days after Zips’ bowl begin its journey, Audie’s bowl started to wander as well.  The morning after he had apparently started to carry his bowl around on his own, he made the leap.  When I looked down at him and asked “Would you like your breakfast?” he grinned, ran across the room and very carefully picked up Zip’s bowl – correctly, by the far side of the rim – and brought it to me.  I took it from him and told him “Find the other one,” and he turned around and picked up his own bowl – correctly again.

    Audie holds his bowl the 'wrong' way. It was difficult to get him to hold it this way now that he knows the right way to do it!

    This is still not a simple chore for him and he still practices it a few times a day.  I’ve caught him at it recently and it’s fascinating to watch how he experiments with the task.  He’ll often still sometimes take the bowl by the near side – then stops with a “hmmm, this isn’t right” look on his face – sets it down, tries again and then visibly goes “Aha!”

    My smart boy holds his bowl the right way.

  • We’ve also been working more on off leash heeling skills.  Since my dogs spend most of their lives with me and off leash – heeling is one of the last “standard” obedience skills I teach them.  Because my own dogs have a strong foundation in other skills (recall, send out, stationary commands, directionals, yielding) before we begin to work on the heel, we do most of our heeling work off leash right from the start.  I start out working my dogs on short bits of off leash heeling with lots of turns and stops.  The initial goals are to teach them to stay on my left side and to pay close attention to where I am going.  My kitchen has had a central island surrounded on 3 1/2 sides by counters.  It was a perfect place to practice beginning heeling skills as the narrow aisle between the counter and island restricts his ability to move out of correct position to, mostly, forward and backward errors.  We started out working on short bits of heeling there, then as his skills improved moved inside the training building.  There I set up traffic cones to create a smaller working area inside the 50×50 training room and we worked on random weaving patterns.  From there, we moved on to working in amongst the seveal large hardwood trees in my front yard. As we moved from one training environment to another, I kept the patterns much the same.  And I used the same body language to coach him.After I while he started to sometimes come and sit at my left on his own.  He’ll usually do this either when I am standing still in a place where we’ve working on heeling – or when he wants my attention.  And he adopts a rather formal posture as he does it.  Without giving him a verbal command, I’ll crook my left arm, lead with my left leg and move forward.  He looks up at me with a huge grin and heels along with me.  He does this voluntary heeling in a very cheerful and animated way.  Like a it’s dance, or a game.

It’s fascinating to watch this young dog learn and grow. I’ve learned to watch for these periods of practice and use them to establish the rhythms of our work together.  If he seems to be having difficulty with a task, we keep working on it – but don’t add a new layer of complexity to the task until after he masters it in his own practice.

September 11, 2008 at 1:06 am 5 comments

Children as “Indicator Species”?

Apparently I was caught up in an odd fit of presentiment when I wrote that post three weeks ago about pets as indicator species for the domestic environment.  This week, as reported widely on the web, the results of a study published by the Environmental Working Group revealed that young children have three times the blood levels of fire-retardant chemicals as their mothers.  Linda Birnbaum, PhD, a senior toxicologist with the EPA was quoted in an article on WebMD as saying:

The gap between mothers and their children was a surprise finding. Because of typically similar diet and exposures in the same household, “we would have expected similar levels,” says Anila Jacob, MD, MPH, a senior scientist at EWG. “What we found was, kids on average had three times the levels of toxic retardants polluting their blood compared to their moms.”

The chemicals are hormone-disrupting and potentially hazardous, especially to young brain development, Jacob and her colleagues say. But a spokesman for the flame retardant industry countered that the levels of chemicals, known as PBDEs or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, found in the study are quite low, in the parts per billion range.

I can not help but question Dr. Jacob’s understanding of the word “exposure.”  According to the EPA, an exposure assessment is defined as: “Identifying the pathways by which toxicants may reach individuals, estimating how much of a chemical an individual is likely to be exposed to, and estimating the number likely to be exposed.”  In most human adult populations exposure pathways like direct ingestion of dusts, particles and coatings are negligible.  But in toddler and pet populations – creatures who spend much of the day crawling around on all fours and putting things into their mouths – these represent major exposure pathways.

It is even more ironic that EWG missed this parallel to pets’ and childrens’ potential exposure pathways when one considers that the levels of PBDEs found in children who participated in the study were comparable to those “found harmful in laboratory animals:”

There is no established standard for safe blood levels, according to Jacob and Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at EWG and a co-author of the report. “These findings raise concern about the effect of PBDEs on children’s brain development,” Lunder says. “These levels are uncomfortably close to doses found harmful in laboratory animals.”

Although there are no human studies, Jacob and Lunder point to studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others finding that PBDEs can be especially toxic to the developing brains of animals, with even a single dose of PBDEs causing ill effects.

What levels of PBDEs in blood or tissues DO cause “ill effects” – no one knows.  According to WebMD:

The EPA has set a “reference dose” for Deca, she says, which states that a daily oral dose of 7 micrograms per kilogram of body weight is believed to be without appreciable effects. But translating that to “safe” blood levels is not easy, she says, because the oral dose is different than what is stored in the body.

So now you ask, just exactly what are PBDEs? Well – generally speaking – PBDEs are a class of relatively large, artificially created molecules consisting of 209 possible congeners that contain 1-10 bromine atoms each. There are three common commercial mixtures of PBDE: Pentabromodiphenyl Ether (PeBDE or penta), Octabromodiphenyl Ether (OBDE or octa) and Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DBDE or deca). 

Why the heck do we use them?  Well, PBDEs are used as flame retardant additives in many common polymers, foams, plastics, upholstery, adhesives, sealants and coatings.  They are added to the materials treated, not chemically bonded with them. This makes them more susceptible being separated and lost from the materials they were added to. According to a report published in June 2006 by Environment Canada:

It has been estimated that approximately 90% or more of PeBDE produced globally is used in polyurethane foams in office and residential furniture, automotive upholstery, sound insulation and wood imitation products. OBDE produced globally is added to polymers (mainly acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), which are then used to produce computers and business cabinets, pipes and fittings, automotive parts and appliances (WHO 1994; European Communities 2003). DBDE is used as a flame retardant, to a large extent in high-impact polystyrene and other polymers, with broad use in computer and television cabinets and casings, general electrical/electronic components, cables and textile back coatings

Penta BDE and Octa BDE, were banned in Europe and their use has largely been discontinued in the U.S. because of their persistence, toxicity, and tendency to bioaccumulate. As a group, PBDEs have a low vapor pressure, low water solubility and a high octanol / water partition coefficient.  In common English this means that they have a tendency to remain as solid particles in the environment where they will preferentially bond to organic constituents. 

Deca PBDE is still used and produced in the US today.  Penta and Octa PBDEs, though no longer involved in most manufacture, are still present in older materials in nearly all modern homes. A further concern is the creation of potentially toxic breakdown products as these materials decay. Because they are rare and are not created in a controlled manner, little is known about these breakdown products. According to a July 22, 2008 web release from the American Chemical Society:

An EU ban on Deca BDE’s use began on July 1, and it has also been banned in some U.S. states. If the BDE-209 molecules that make up the majority of the Deca BDE formulation are conclusively shown to debrominate in the environment to produce the lighter-weight PBDE compounds, or congeners, associated with these discontinued formulations, the finding would increase pressure to end Deca BDE’s use in North America. Toxicology research has linked PBDEs to liver and thyroid toxicity and to learning, behavior, and memory problems.

and…

La Guardia … notes that both he and Stapleton have detected in environmental samples what he calls “oddball congeners,” such as BDE-179, BDE-184, and BDE-202, which contain seven or eight bromine atoms; these congeners are not found in any commercial mixture. In fact, Stapleton says that many studies now demonstrate significant formation of the so-called oddball congeners under environmentally relevant conditions.

How common are PBDEs (and their breakdown products) in the environment? A report published in June 2006 by Environment Canada reports that:

PBDE concentrations have increased exponentially in arctic biota over the past two decades and have been measured in Arctic air. This suggests efficient long-range atmospheric transport of PBDEs.

PBDEs have been detected in all environmental media as well as sewage sludge, and there is evidence that their levels in the North American environment are increasing.

Measured data indicate that tetra-, penta- and hexaBDE are highly bioaccumulative and satisfy the criteria for bioaccumulation in the CEPA 1999 regulations. Concentrations of PBDEs in herring gull eggs have increased exponentially between 1981 and 2000 at Lake Ontario, Huron and Michigan sampling sites. Concentrations of PBDEs (predominantly tetra- and penta BDE congeners) have also increased exponentially between 1981 and 2000 in Arctic male ringed seals. 

I can’t help but wonder what kind of PDBE concentrations we’d find if we tested house pets.  I suspect that since they appear to be subject to exposure pathways that are similar to our young children, that we’d see levels that were similar – if not higher – in their blood and tissues.

I hope that the increasing incidence of cancer seen in our pets isn’t a harbinger of what we can expect for our children. Given that many dog breeds suffer from significantly higher incidences of certain types of cancers than others; inbreeding, founder effects and related genetic problems are likely a factor; but our pets’ much higher exposure to the thousands (millions?) of trace additives found in modern household products may also be an important factor.

 How important a factor?  Well – until further research is done the answer, once again, is “We don’t know.”

September 7, 2008 at 5:54 pm 7 comments

Taking the Bite out of Bedbugs

From Wicked Local Marion:

Virtually eradicated 50 years ago in the United States, entomologists say the flat, oval, reddish-brown, wingless blood sucking parasite, known by its Latin name of cimex lectularious, has slowly made its way back into our everyday lives, much to our discomfort.

 Enter Michael Tache of Mattapoisett, an enterprising former international fish salesman, who latched onto the idea that there’s opportunity to be had in the opportunistic bugs. Tired of sitting behind a desk, in April of 2008 Tache traded in fish for dogs to start American K-9 Private Investigators Inc. to ferret out the yucky bugs for a price.

As I’ve written here before — I DETEST wingless, blood-sucking parasites.  Kudos to Tache for finding a creative way to search out those evil freeloading vermin.  We’d also like to commend him for the dogs he’s chosen to work with.  According to Tache’s website his working dogs, Tracer, a Beagle, and Ace, a Beagle-Husky mix were both rescued from Florida dog pounds:

“They go from doggie death row to bedbug investigator,” Michael Tache said.

Bedbugs were believed to have been largely eradicated in the U.S. until recently.  An increase in international travel combined with the bugs’ remarkable abilities to hide. As quoted in Wicked Local:

“They can fit in a crevice the size of a business card, they can hide behind baseboards, frames, mattresses, Tache said. “My dogs have actually could found bugs behind wall light switch plates, alarms clocks, and TVs.”

And reproduce:

“The female is highly reproductive,” he said. “She can lay two to three eggs per day, and up to 400 in a lifetime. Normally, they live around seven months, but they’ve proven they can go into deep hibernation and come back later.”

They’ve made a strong — and unfortunate — comeback. From Tache’s website:

Until recently, they also were a rarity among pest control professionals. Bed bug infestations were common in the United States before World War II. But with improvements in hygiene, and especially the widespread use of DDT during the 1940s and 1950s, the bugs all but vanished. The pests remained prevalent, though, in other regions of the world including Asia, Africa, Central/South America and Europe. In recent years, bed bugs have also made a comeback in Canada and the United States.

Oh man…. now I’ve got to go change my sheets and check MY bed.

September 5, 2008 at 9:13 pm 9 comments

Could Prions Cause “Mad Dog” Disease?

From Today’s Scientific American 60-Second Science Podcast an interesting — and rather chilling – report on prion diseases.

Prions are abnormally shaped proteins that spread disease by causing normal proteins to mis-fold into their abnormal shape.  Genetic material like DNA or RNA is not involved in the creation or spread of prions. Prion diseases affect the brains and central nervous systems of many mammals — including humans. And though we humans can catch mad cow disease from eating infected beef; prions were believed jump the species barrier only rarely.

As reported in SciAm:

A study published in the September 4th issue of the journal Cell investigates that issue. Scientists from Texas, Spain and Chile took normal hamster proteins and mixed them with misfolded mouse ones. And the mouse prions were able to change the hamster proteins into a new kind of prion that infected both healthy hamsters and mice. The test tube is obviously an unnatural situation, but it shows that prions can leap the species barrier without the aid of any other infectious agent. Scientists hope to learn more about how this process works so they can keep prions in their place-away from humans.

Back in the 90’s, thousands of cattle in Great Britain collapsed from a mysterious malady now known as mad cow disease. And at that time experts assured us that people couldn’t get the disease from eating beef.  The species barrier – “a kind of biological Hadrian’s wall” — would protect human carnivores from harm.

As reported in the New York Times back in June, 2003:

So much for scientific hubris. After young people began dying in 1996 from a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare malady thought to occur only in older people, the experts were forced to admit they were wrong.

The people had died because they ate meat from infected cows. A species barrier had crumbled.

Prion diseases, (e.g. BSE, FSE, scrapie and other spongioform encephalopathies) are poorly understood though they occur in most mammals. Scientists have known for some time that prion diseases can be spread when animals cannibalize each other (i.e. eat the remains of others of their own species).  Prion species are problematic for several reasons:

  • They often incubate for long periods of time before they cause detectable symptoms.
  • Symptoms of prion diseases can be highly variable, both between individual animals and between species.
  • Some prion diseases can be transmitted from one species to another – but others appear not to cross the species barrier.
  • Some animals may act as unaffected carriers of these diseases, transmitting them without being affected themselves.
  • Because of the long incubation time common in prion diseases, some species may pass them on before being affected themselves.
  • In some cases an intermediate species may act as a host to a subclinical form of a prion infection and then act to transport it between two other species.
  • Prions are astonishingly resistant to disinfectants. Bleach, ultraviolet radiation, heat and other common sterilizing agents have little or no effect on them.
  • Some evidence indicates that prions can be inherited – passed from parent to offspring before birth.

Research on species barriers and prion diseases is fraught with enigmas, dead-ends, contradictions and confusion.

One of the main jobs our cells carry out is folding up proteins, the workhorse molecules of our bodies. Each protein molecule can be folded in several different ways before it finds its final shape and function. Mistakes can occur during folding but mis-folded proteins are usually found and disposed of by enzymes.

Mis-folded prion proteins are resistant to discovery and/or disposal by enzymes (or stomach acid). The prions remain in the body and may cause damage – like the characteristic spongelike holes in brain cells found in BSE and CJD.

Humans can suffer from prion diseases.  Can dogs?

The answer so far has been “no”, but it seems more accurate now to say “we don’t know.”

No evidence of a canine prion disease has been discovered yet (though a feline version, FSE, exists) – but there is currently no way to test for these diseases in live animals. Brain and spinal cord biopsies are the only diagnostic tool currently available so it is possible that a canine prion disease may exist, but have detectable symptoms that are remarkably different from those seen in cows and humans. 

If this is the case, such a disease could be misdiagnosed for some period of time before it is discovered.

September 5, 2008 at 12:00 am 4 comments


Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

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