You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dogs, but do you know some of the other animals that have contributed to scientific knowledge?
Alex the African Grey, whose name was formed from the words “avian learning experience”, had a vocabulary of over 100 words, could identify 50 different objects, and was able to distinguish multiple colors and shapes and understand the concepts “bigger”, “smaller”, “same” and “different”. He showed that you don’t have to have a big primate brain to demonstrate cognitive and communicative abilities, including answering – and asking – questions. Alex passed away in 2005, but Griffin, another African Grey, continues to teach us about intelligence in birds and humans.
The cave paintings at Lascaux in France reflect Paleolithic human use of images to tell a story. But we might not know them if a dog named Robot, exploring with his owner Marcel Ravidat, hadn’t disappeared down a shaft that opened into a cave whose walls are covered in stunning depictions of animals, including horses and large wild cats. Archaeologists have gleaned new insights into the technological and artistic skills of Paleolithic humans as well as new insights into hunting practices and tools and the changing environment of the time.
Chaser was a border collie with a big vocabulary, thanks to owner John W. Pilley, a retired psychology professor, who taught him to identify and retrieve more than 1,000 toys by name. She recognized words such as “house”, “tree” and “ball”, and she could use her skills to understand and respond to sentences containing multiple grammatical elements. An example of her intelligence was the ability to deduce the name of a new object by excluding objects with names she already knew.
Bionic cat Oscar earned his scientific bona fides in 2010, when he became the first feline to receive prosthetic legs attached directly to his ankles after his hind legs were severed in an accident with a combine harvester . The technique, called a transcutaneous intraosseous amputation prosthesis, is now used in humans and works by fusing flesh and metal together, sealing in dirt and bacteria. Other animals have also benefited from the prosthetic technology.
Mr. Green Genes, born in 2008, was the first fluorescent cat in the United States. Some cats have been genetically engineered to glow green – not to serve as night lights, but to aid in research to prevent HIV in humans and FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) in cats. In 2011, five kittens engineered to glow received a gene that could make them resistant to FIV. The fluorescent green color results from a separate gene that has been added to indicate whether the anti-FIV gene has been incorporated into the genome. The genetic modification does not harm cats and could one day help cats with FIV and humans with HIV.
CC, which stands for CopyCat or Carbon Copy, was the first feline clone, created in 2001 from Rainbow, a domestic short-haired calico, and carried to term by an unnamed tabby. CC herself was a tabby, white domestic shorthair, not a carbon copy of Rainbow at all, thanks to the inactivation of the X chromosome, which normally and randomly occurs in female cats. The random nature of X inactivation meant that CC grew without any cells specifying the color of the orange coat. In 2006, CC gave birth to four naturally born kittens, three of whom survived. She lived to be 18 and died in 2020.
Snuppy, the first canine clone, was developed from a single cell taken from the ear of Tai, an adult Afghan hound. He was born in 2005 at Seoul National University in South Korea, hence his name. Snuppy lived to be 10, dying of cancer. Tai, her cell donor, lived to be 12 and also died of cancer. Snuppy “spawned” four more clones, and three survived to puppyhood. Their health and longevity are studied in comparison with those of Snuppy and Tai.
Beware of the dangers of plastic bags
Q: My dog got his head stuck in a bag of crisps, and if we hadn’t noticed it soon, he could have suffocated. Can you warn people about this please?
A: Absolutely. It’s such an important reminder as we head into warmer weather and spring and summer BBQ season. And, of course, most of us keep bags of chips and other snacks in our homes all year round. For advice, I turned to my colleague Jason Nicholas, DVM, at preventvevet.com, as I know he regularly sees sad stories like this.
Plastic snack bags filled with chips, pretzels, and other treats (or even empty bags) can pose serious risks to curious or hungry pets. They don’t have hands, so their method of exploration is to stick their heads inside to get those tasty, salty crumbs. And if they can’t get their heads out, pets can suffocate in just minutes if loved ones are out of the room or unaware of their predicament, he says. Make sure all family members, including children, are aware of the risks and do not leave bags lying around, empty or not.
The best thing to do with empty snack bags — especially if your dog has a habit of rummaging through trash cans — is to open them up from the bottom, then rip the side of the bag open so you’re left with a flat sheet. Make a habit of doing this with every bag: pet food bags, pet treat bags, potato chip bags, cereal box liners. This is a great preventative measure not only for pets, but it can also protect wildlife and stray animals that might get into your trash.
You can find more safety tips at preventpetsuffocation.com/pet-suffocation and at preventpetsuffocation.com. — Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a question about pets? Send it to [email protected] or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Maine shelter finds jobs for cats
— Is your office recruiting? If you are in Waterville, Maine, the local animal shelter may be able to help you. Because every workplace needs an office cat, right? The Humane Society Waterville Area has a “hiring” program suitable for all businesses looking for cats, from warehouses to day cares to nursing homes and more. Cats are paid with food, water, and shelter, and businesses benefit from having a furry stress reliever and mouse deterrent. For more information, go to hswa.org or contact your local shelter to start a similar program.
— A bird’s posture can say a lot about how it feels. Here are some clues: A crouched bird, head down, wants a nice scratch on the head or neck. But the same bird that is crouched, head down, eyes shining, is not so happy. The message: “Make my day! Spare yourself a bite and step back until he’s more relaxed. A bird that is crouched with its head down, with a relaxed body and raised or fluttering wings, is craving your attention, in a way that comes here. The raised body and head, both relaxed, signal a friendly bird, especially if it is heading towards you.
— Many Victorian artists made their living painting the prized dogs and pets of the aristocracy. One of the best known was Sir Edwin Landseer, whose work is still highly sought after by dog-loving art collectors today. Landseer’s Newfoundland dog portraits were so popular that the black-and-white variety is named after him; they are known as the Newfoundland Landseer. Landseer also originated the idea that St. Bernards carried small barrels of brandy suspended from their collars to revive lost travellers. This image came purely from Landseer’s imagination, but after painting it, people with St. Bernards began attaching kegs to their dogs’ collars. — Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker