‘Diabetes Dogs’ Can Alert Owners To Sugar Levels

People with diabetes may have a new way to indicate their blood sugar level is too high or too low, by turning to our trusty canine friends, after researchers have found that dogs can help with hypoglycemia monitoring.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, is the first of its kind to analyze whether trained dogs can accurately and consistently serve as an “early-warning system” to monitor blood sugar levels for their owners and notify them when the levels are too high or low.

For the research, 17 dogs were trained by Medical Detection Dogs – a UK charity that works with researchers and universities – to warn their owners when their blood sugar levels were “out of target range.”

Researchers then collected data from the owners to analyze whether the dogs were accurately able to respond to their owners’ hypoglycemic levels, and also whether the owners experienced better blood sugar control and wider benefits.

The results show that all 17 owners reported positive outcomes, including:

  • Fewer paramedic calls
  • Fewer unconscious episodes
  • Improved independence.

Additionally, the owners’ data showed that the dogs notified them with “significant accuracy” during times of both low and high blood sugar.

Dr. Nicola Rooney says:

“Despite considerable resources having been invested in developing electronic systems to facilitate tightened glycemic control, current equipment has numerous limitations.”

“These findings are important as they show the value of trained dogs and demonstrate that ‘glycemia alert dogs’ placed with clients living with diabetes, afford significant improvements to owner well-being, including increased glycemic control, client independence and quality-of-life, and potentially could reduce the costs of long-term health care.”

Sniffing out blood sugar

The study authors note that although dogs respond to their owners’ high or low blood sugar levels, they cannot be entirely sure how they do this. They cite odor cues as the most likely explanation, saying:

“It is likely that dogs detect changes in the chemical composition of their owners’ sweat, or breath (including products of ketosis), using their acute sense of smell.”

They say their study confirms that trained detection dogs perform above the chance level, which is the level that would be expected if random choices were made.

Dr. Nicola Rooney adds:

“Some of the owners also describe [that] their dogs respond even before their blood sugars are low, but as they start to drop, so it is possible that the dogs are even more effective than this study suggests.”

She says that further research is needed in order to determine how the dogs “carry out this amazing task.”

Why Do Labrador Retrievers Love Food So Much?

 Labrador retrievers love food, say their owners, and they are often more obese than dogs of other breeds. Now, new research published in Cell Metabolism says there may be a biological reason for this.
[labradors and food motivation]
A genetic modification appears to increase a Labrador’s interest in food.

In developed countries, obesity affects 34-59 percent of dogs, reducing their lifespan and ushering in a range of health issues also seen in human obesity.

Rises in canine obesity, like human obesity, have been put down to reduced exercise and easy access to high-calorie food.

At the same time, even dog owners who control their pets’ diet and exercise find that some breeds easily gain weight, suggesting that genetic factors are at play.

Genetic factors are often at work when a trait is more common in one breed than in others.

With this in mind, a team led by Eleanor Raffan, a veterinary surgeon, and geneticist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, set out to investigate.

Raffan, who had previously studied obesity in humans, started by looking at a group of 15 obese and 18 lean Labrador retrievers.

The team examined three genes known to relate to obesity and weight in humans. A growing body of evidence suggests that biological reasons may underlie weight variations.

Inability to switch off hunger leads to obesity

The results uncovered a modification in a gene called POMC. Most of the obese dogs had a scrambled section of DNA at the end of this gene.

The scientists believe that because of this modification, Labrador, and flat coat retrievers – which are related to Labrador retrievers – are unable to produce two substances usually involved in turning off hunger after a meal: the neuropeptides beta-MSH and beta-endorphin.

Fast facts about canine obesity

According to Stephen O’Rahilly, a senior author on the study, a very small number of people with obesity also lack a similar part of the POMC gene as the dogs.

The mutation appears to be specific to Labradors and flat coat retrievers and correlates with an increased tendency toward food-motivated behavior.

Next, the team looked at 310 Labrador retrievers, and they discovered that a number of behaviors correlated with the POMC deletion.

Not all the Labradors that had the DNA variation were obese, and some were obese without having the variation.

Overall, however, dogs with the deleted gene weighed on average around 4.5 pounds more than dogs without the deletion.

A survey of owners also suggested that dogs with the deleted gene were more motivated by food, as seen in more frequent begging for food, greater attentiveness at mealtimes, and a greater tendency to scavenge for scraps.

Further sampling from the U.K. and the Unites States indicates that around 23 percent of Labrador retrievers do not have the POMC gene.

Among 38 other breeds, the deletion was only present in flat coat retrievers. The effect on their weight and behavior was similar.

Raffan calls this “a hardwired biological reason” for the dogs’ food-obsession, although the team observed many dogs in the study that were obsessed with food but did not have the mutation.

Gene missing in 76 percent of assistance dogs

Labs that are chosen as assistance dogs are also more likely to have this variation, offering a potential explanation as to why these breeds appear to be more trainable with food rewards.

The cohort included 81 assistance Labrador retrievers, and 76 percent of them had the deletion. This surprised the researchers, who speculate that the Labrador’s interest in food could be what makes them more suitable for assistance-dog training, as these tend to involve food rewards.

Confirmation of this could come by looking at puppies and finding out whether those with the mutation are more likely to qualify as an assistance dog.

What does this study imply for owners of Labrador retrievers?

“The behavior of dogs carrying this mutation is different. You can keep a dog with this mutation slim, but you have to be a lot more on-the-ball. You have to be more rigorous about portion control, and you have to be more resistant to your dog giving you the big brown eyes.

If you keep a really food-motivated Labrador slim, you should give yourself a pat on the back, because it’s much harder for you than it is for someone with a less food-motivated dog.”

Eleanor Raffan

The study, which is the first to describe a gene associated with canine obesity, may be a step toward possible treatments for people with obesity.

Previous rodent studies of POMC mutations have been hindered, because, in mice and rats, the gene is quite different from that in humans.

O’Rahilly comments: “Further research in these obese Labradors may not only help the well-being of companion animals but also carry important lessons for human health.”

Animal-Assisted Therapy: Is It Undervalued As An Alternative Treatment?

“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Friendship retains its traditional values and securities in one’s relationship with one’s pet. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle or what have you, one can rely on the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.”

If you are an animal lover, you will fully relate to this quote from American child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson. And it seems the majority of us are. As of 2012, 62% of American households included at least one pet.

There is no doubt that humans have a strong bond with animals, and it is this bond that led to the introduction of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), or pet therapy – the idea that animals can help humans cope with or recover from certain medical conditions.

In fact, it was Dr. Levinson who first came up with the idea of AAT in the 1960s, after finding that he was better able to reach a withdrawn 9-year-old boy every time his dog – called Jingles – was in the room with him. With Jingles present – who Dr. Levinson deemed his “co-therapist” – he found he was able to gain the trust of the boy, something that past therapists had failed to do.

In 1961, Dr. Levinson presented the idea of AAT to the American Psychological Association (APA). At the time, the theory was met with cynicism. But a survey conducted by Dr. Levinson 10 years later found that of 319 psychologists, 16% used companion animals in their therapy sessions, indicating that people were warming to the idea of AAT.

Today, AAT is more popular than ever. A 2011 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Health Center for Health Statistics revealed that almost 60% of hospice care providers that provide complementary and alternative therapies offer pet therapy to patients.

What is AAT?

AAT is an intervention that uses animal interaction to aid recovery from health problems or to help people cope with certain medical conditions.

The therapy is believed to have an array of benefits, including personal and social development, increased self-esteem, improved mental health, better social skills and increased empathy and nurturing skills.

Dog and young girl
AAT is believed to assist personal and social development, increase self-esteem, improve mental health, boost social skills and increase empathy and nurturing skills.

Patients with chronic heart failure, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia are just some groups who benefit from AAT.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study from Ohio State University, which found that equine therapy – AAT involving interaction with horses – improved symptoms for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Study co-author Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State, said of the findings:

“We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can – absolutely. The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”

Individuals with physical disabilities may also benefit from AAT. Equine therapy, which can also involve horse riding, has been shown to improve patients’ strength, flexibility, and balance.

AAT is not just limited to interaction with cats, dogs, and horses; it can include everything from hedgehogs, rabbits, and skunks, to snakes and even spiders. Critterish Allsorts – an AAT practice based in the UK – use a tarantula called Fluffy as a therapy for individuals with autism.

In the past, concerns have been raised regarding the safety and sanitation of AAT, particularly if such therapy is conducted in hospitals. However, rules are put in place to ensure animals are well trained, clean and vaccinated. To date, the CDC have received no reports of infection through AAT.

How does AAT work?

In general, the benefits of AAT stem from the interaction with animals. Some forms of AAT, such as equine therapy, involve caring for animals on a regular basis. For example, equine therapy may require individuals to feed, groom and bathe horses once or twice a week.

Speaking of how equine therapy helps Alzheimer’s patients, Dabelko-Schoeny told Medical News Today:

“The exposure to the animals may result in higher levels of engagement and fewer problematic behaviors, which may make caring for the person with the disease easier.

In addition, AAT ‘opens the world up’ for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. It is not uncommon for persons with dementia to have their world shrink down to just addressing basic human needs, and having relationships with animals can provide them with stimulation and something to think about and talk about with others.”

Other forms of AAT may include an animal being brought to a care facility for patient interaction. For example, Pet Partners– a non-profit organization in the US that provides AAT – has a volunteer who brings a cat to a rehabilitation center to work with an occupational therapist and a child who has problems with movement. The occupational therapist asks the child to handle the cat’s collar, or open a tin of treats and feed the cat – activities that help improve the child’s motor skills.

“Animal-assisted activities can provide much-needed motivation, education or recreation to enhance a person’s quality of life,” Mary Craig, CEO of the Pet Partners board and a veterinarian.

Should there be more focus on the use of AAT?

But Craig notes an important point:

“It’s easy for our volunteers involved in animal assisted activities to see and understand the benefits to animal-assisted activities. But the magic that happens in these interactions is difficult to quantify and ‘prove.’ The benefits realized are often unique to the individuals involved in the personal exchanges.”

Because of this, many experts in the AAT field believe the therapy is undervalued and that there should be more research conducted to expose its benefits.

“There is a growing body of research, but much of it is still qualitative, not quantitative,” Chris Patella, of Animal Assisted Therapy Services – a US organization that specializes in equine and canine therapy – told us.

“We need hard numeric data to convince insurance companies and legislatures that AAT should be covered like any other medical intervention.”

In addition, Patella said he believed that doctors should be recommending AAT as an alternative treatment for patients with both physical and mental health conditions.

“However,” he added, “doctors are rooted in Western medicine that promotes medication. They, too, are looking for the solid research that proves AAT is a viable intervention. Research is the key.”

Could AAT replace drug treatment?

This brings us to the question of whether AAT could replace or reduce the use of drug treatment for certain health conditions.

A 2009 study from Loyola University in Chicago, IL, found that adults who used AAT – in the form of canine therapy – while recovering from total joint-replacement surgery required 50% less pain medication.

Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, is one health professional who feels very strongly about the health benefits of pets, to the extent that he notes the name of a patient’s pet when he takes their medical history.

“A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits,” he says. “I can’t always explain it myself, but for years now I’ve seen how instances of having a pet are like an effective drug. It really does help people.”

But Dabelko-Schoeny told us that when it comes to certain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, AAT is unlikely to replace the use of medication – though it may be useful accompaniment:

“The question is, do we have sufficient evidence to warrant financial reimbursement for such services? Will animal-assisted therapy lead to longer life or reduced emergency department visits and rehospitalizations? Probably not. But animal assisted therapy may increase patients’ quality of life.”

To find out more about animal assisted therapy, please visit Pet Partners, Animal Assisted Therapy Services or Critterish Allsorts if in the UK.

How A Dog’s IQ Could Offer Clues To Dementia

Just like people, some dogs take longer to learn new tricks than others. But new research suggests that this should not come as a surprise; a dog’s intelligence is structurally comparable to that of humans and can be measured in a similar way.
[An intelligent dog]
The researchers say dogs’ IQ could aid a better understanding of the link between health and intelligence in humans, as well as help us learn more about dementia.

Given that dogs experience some key features of dementia, the study authors say understanding the cognitive abilities of “man’s best friend” may help us understand what causes the disease in humans.

Dr. Rosalind Arden, a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Intelligence.

For their study, the researchers created a prototype IQ test, which they used to assess the intelligence of 68 working border collies.

The test assessed the dogs’ navigational skills, monitoring the length of time it took for them to retrieve some food that was hidden behind various barriers. It also assessed whether they could differentiate between different food quantities and monitored their ability to follow a human hand gesture, which involved a person pointing toward an object.

It took just under 1 hour to test each dog, which the researchers say is how long it normally takes a person to complete an IQ test.

Dogs could aid understanding of intelligence and health

The researchers explain that when IQ is tested in humans, performance tends to be similar across a variety of cognitive tasks; individuals who perform well in one task often do well in others.

This same pattern was identified among the dogs. The team found that the dogs that performed well on one test performed well on the other tests. Additionally, they found that dogs that completed the tests more quickly tended to perform them more accurately.

Dr. Arden says the results indicate problem-solving abilities vary from dog to dog, just as they do in humans. She notes that this is a significant finding because, generally, humans who are more intelligent tend to be healthier and live longer.

“So if, as our research suggests, dog intelligence is structured similarly to ours, studying a species that doesn’t smoke, drink, use recreational drugs and does not have large differences in education and income, may help us understand this link between intelligence and health better,” adds Dr. Arden.

And the health implications of these findings may reach even further. Dr. Arden says:

“Dogs are one of the few animals that reproduce many of the key features of dementia, so understanding their cognitive abilities could be valuable in helping us to understand the causes of this disorder in humans and possibly test treatments for it.”

While the research is in its early stages, the team says they hope to create a faster, more accurate IQ test for dogs.

“Such a test could rapidly improve our understanding of the connection between dog intelligence, health, even lifespan, and be the foundation of ‘dognitive epidemiology,'” says study co-author Dr. Mark Adams, of the UK’s the University of Edinburgh.

“Dogs are excellent for this kind of work because they are willing to participate and seem to enjoy taking part.”

Therapy Dogs Have Calming Effect On Children Having Cancer Treatment

There are many stories of the positive effect that therapy dogs can have on children with cancer and their families. But until now, there has been little hard scientific evidence to back them up.
young girl with dog
The study suggests therapy dogs can have a calming effect on young cancer patients.

A new trial presents some of the first solid data to support anecdotal reports of the positive impact dog therapy programs can have on children with cancer and their families.

The preliminary findings are to be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition in Washington, DC, on Sunday, October 25th.

Around 1 in 285 children in the US will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20. Survival rates for kids with cancer have improved dramatically in past decades. The number who die within 5 years of diagnosis has declined by more than 50% from 1975-1977 to 2007-2010.

However, this improvement has not been matched by evidence of what can be done to improve quality of life for these young patients and their families.

Therapy dogs are an example of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), where animals form part of the treatment of human patients. The aim is to improve the patient’s social, emotional or mental functioning and well-being.

Many hospitals now have therapy dogs that visit patients and their families, and the new trial takes place at five such hospitals in the US.

‘The therapy dog may have a calming effect on the patient’

The new study is part of the Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) research project run by the American Humane Association and funded by Zoetis – an independent global animal health company, formerly part of Pfizer.

The project is looking at the effects of AAT on the child, the family and also the therapy dog.

Measures of blood pressure, pulse rates and anxiety levels are collected before and after a weekly visit from the therapy dog. During the visits, the children pet or talk to their therapy dog, brush its coat, look at photos of the dog, watch it perform tricks and obey commands and learn about dog breeds.

Preliminary results show that blood pressure readings in the groups receiving AAT interventions remained more stable across all sessions than in the control group that did not receive AAT, notes lead researcher Dr. Amy McCullough, national director of humane research and therapy for the American Humane Association.

The researchers also found a higher degree of variability in heart rate in the control group patients than in the patients who received AAT interventions. Dr. McCullough says:

“These findings suggest that the dog may have a calming effect on the patient.”

The following video describes the purpose and history of the CCC project and gives some examples of therapy dogs and the patients who can benefit from them:

Therapy dogs also had calming effect on the parents

So far, the trial has enrolled 68 children diagnosed with cancer of ages ranging from 3-17 years. Thirty-nine of the children are in the treatment group and 29 are in the control group. The researchers expect to enroll around the same number again before the study ends in 2016.

The preliminary findings also suggest that the therapy dogs have a calming effect on the parents of the young patients.

Parents of children in the control group reported fluctuating anxiety levels with peaks and troughs, while parents in the treatment group showed more stable anxiety levels and even a slight decline as they approached the end of their involvement in the study.

Overall, the children in both groups saw a fall in anxiety over the course of their involvement in the study.

The researchers are also investigating the effect of the intervention on the dogs, looking at their temperament and behavior during the visits. Dr. McCullough concludes:

“This study will be a milestone in understanding of the benefits of the vital bond shared between people and animals.”

She says she and her colleagues hope the results will increase the use of therapy dogs and enhance their training and practice, as well as improve outcomes for children and families facing the challenges of childhood cancer.

The new study follows another that Medical News Today reported earlier this year by researchers at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, who found hard evidence that therapy dogs improve the emotional well-being of adult cancer patients undergoing complex treatments. Some of the cancer patients at the New York hospital said they would have stopped their treatment before completion had it not been for the presence of the certified therapy dog and volunteer handler.

Children With Pets Have Less Stress

A pet dog may protect your child from childhood anxiety, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[dog and girl]
Dogs follow human communication cues.

Childhood mental illness and obesity are significant public health concerns in the US. Since they start in childhood, preventive and early intervention approaches are needed.

Pet dogs have been linked with health benefits for adults, as promoted by the US Public Health Service (USPHS).

In Australia and the UK, dog ownership has been linked with increased physical activity among children aged 5-12 years and healthier body mass index (BMI) in those aged 5-6 years, due to walking and active play.

Such data is lacking in the US, so more evidence is needed to support pet ownership as a health strategy.

How can pets help mental health?

Pets can stimulate conversation, creating an ice-breaking effect that alleviates social anxiety. Dogs also tend to follow human communicative cues, which could help in emotional development.

Children aged 7-8 years have previously ranked pets higher than humans as providers of comfort and self-esteem, and as confidants.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) with dogs reduces anxiety and arousal, alleviates separation anxiety and enhances attachment in children, thereby improving mental health and reducing developmental disorders.

Promoting children’s behavioral and emotional competence can help prevent mental, emotional and behavioral disorders during adulthood.

If exposure to pet dogs during childhood can help achieve these goals, positive child­-­dog interactions could prevent potential problems from developing during adolescence or later life.

However, there is little evidence for primary care providers to use when counseling parents regarding the benefits of pet dogs for young children.

Can a dog help improve BMI and anxiety?

In the current study, researchers from Bassett Medical Center in New York investigated the hypothesis that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children.

The study looked at 643 children aged 4-10 years, with an average age of 6.7 years, over an 18-month period in a pediatric primary care setting. Of these, 45% were female, 56% were privately insured and 58% had pet dogs in the home.

Before an annual visit, parents completed a health risk screener online, focusing on child BMI, physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet ownership.

Confounders included the fact that pet-owning families may differ from those without pets, for example in socioeconomic environment, a known social determinant of health; family income has been significantly associated with adolescent mental health, so the researchers adjusted for this factor.

Less stress for children with dogs

No difference was found between children with and without a pet dog regarding BMI, screen time or physical activity.

But among the 58% of children with a dog in the home, 12% tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21% of children who did not have a pet dog.

A strength of the study is that it was carried out in a real-world setting and was based on children in preventive care, a far larger and more inclusive group than in previous studies, which focused on children with mental and developmental disorders.

Parental reporting could be a limitation, although statistics have shown high concordance between actual mental health issues and what parents say.

The researchers suggest:

“Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.”

Sharing A Bed With Your Pet Could Help You Sleep

Do you allow your pet to snuggle up with you in bed? If not, you might want to reconsider; new research finds that, for most people, the presence of a pet in the bedroom could benefit sleep.
[A dog sleeping on its owners bed]
Letting your four-legged companion sleep on the bed could help you sleep, according to new research.

Lead author Dr. Lois Krahn, of Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine in Scottsdale, AZ, and colleagues publish their findings in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

It goes without saying that the US is a nation of animal lovers; almost 65% of American households own a pet, the most common companions being dogs and cats.

There have been numerous studies hailing the benefits of pet ownership. A recent study, for example, found that children with pet dogs experience less stress.

But according to Dr. Krahn and colleagues, there is limited quality research on how the presence of a pet in the bedroom may impact an owner’s sleep.

Pets in the bedroom may offer sense of security, relaxation

To address this research gap, the team surveyed 150 patients at the Center for Sleep Medicine, of whom 74 reported owning at least one pet – mostly dogs and cats.

The researchers gathered various information, including whether they allowed their pet to sleep in the bedroom and on the bed, and whether their pet is disruptive to their sleep.

Around 56% of pet owners reported allowing their pets to sleep in the bedroom or the bed.

Disruptive behaviors – including wandering, whimpering and snoring – were reported by 20% of owners who allowed their pet to sleep close by.

However, 41% of owners said their pets were not disruptive, with some – particularly individuals who were single – saying their presence even helped them sleep by providing security, companionship or relaxation.

One woman described her two small dogs as “bed warmers,” while another woman described her cat as “soothing” when it slept on her bed. A single 64-year-old woman said she felt more content when her dog slept under the covers by her feet.

“The value of these experiences, although poorly understood, cannot be dismissed because sleep is dependent on a state of physical and mental relaxation,” say the authors.

These findings may help doctors counsel patients with sleep problems, according to the researchers:

“Health care professionals working with patients with sleep concerns should inquire about the home sleep environment, and companion animals specifically, to help them find solutions and optimize their sleep.”

The authors note some limitations to their study. For example, they did not gather data assessing whether individuals being treated for sleep disorders – such as sleep apnea – find a pet sleeping nearby beneficial or more disruptive.

Additionally, the team notes there may have been some response bias from pet owners. “Respondents appeared eager to disclose whether they owned a companion animal and where it slept but seemed more reluctant to reveal any undesirable consequences,” they explain. “This response bias may have resulted in these data underreporting the frequency of disrupted sleep.”

Still, the researchers conclude further research investigating how having pets in the bedroom impacts a person’s sleep is warranted.

Tibetan Mastiffs Acquired High-Altitude Variants From Tibet Gray Wolf

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – By interbreeding with local gray wolves, Tibetan Mastiffs acquired gene variants that provided them with adaptations to a highland environment.

Tibetan Mastiffs adapted quickly to high altitudes over a short amount of time. They have, for instance, thicker coats and lower hemoglobin levels than low-altitude dogs. But how these adaptations arose has been unclear.

To trace their origin, researchers from the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences compared the genomes of Tibetan Mastiffs to those from highland and lowland dogs and wolves. As they reported yesterday in Molecular Biology and Evolution, the researchers found that though Tibetan Mastiffs were more closely related to Chinese dogs, they harbored genomic hotspots under strong positive selection that include the EPAS1 and HBB loci that appeared to come from the Tibet gray wolf.

“[I]ntrogression was the most plausible explanation for the two loci in the highland dogs, which enabled them to adapt to the hypoxia environment in a relatively short time period,” Shanghai’s Yixue Li and his colleagues wrote in their paper.

Using the Dog Genome SNP Database, the researchers amassed raw SNP data from 29 canids from seven populations, including the high-altitude Tibetan Mastiffs, Tibet grey wolves, and Qinghai grey wolves; the low-altitude Xinjiang grey wolves, Inner Mongolia grey wolves, and Yingjiang indigenous dogs; and, as an outgroup, the golden jackal. Through this, Li and his colleagues uncovered some 18 million SNPs and 5 million indels among the 29 canids.

The researchers conducted a principal components analysis of these SNPs that separated the golden jackal from the dogs and wolves and separated the dogs, highland wolves, and lowland wolves. Deeper analysis separated all four wolf populations but kept the dog populations as a single cluster. A neighbor-joining tree similarly first split the dogs and wolves, and then split those populations by whether they lived at high or low altitudes. Together, the researchers said, this indicates that Tibetan Mastiffs are more similar to dogs than to wolves.

Li and his colleagues also examined admixture among these populations. While a population structure analysis and the ABBA/BABA test were unable to uncover evidence of admixture between high-altitude dogs and wolves, when the researchers performed the ABBA/BABA test on smaller genomic segments they did find evidence of introgression between Tibetan Mastiffs and Tibet gray wolves at local regions.

A number of these regions, they noted, coincided with previously reported regions with signals of selective sweeps in Tibetan Mastiffs. One of these regions includes the EPAS1 gene, which has a role in hypoxic responses. The researchers noted reduced sequence divergence between Tibetan Mastiffs and Tibetan wolves across the EPAS1 locus, as compared to the genomic background, also indicating there was introgression.

The researchers dated the introgression event at some 24,000 years ago. That corresponds, they noted, with the arrival of people on the Tibetan plateau.

Likewise, a locus on chromosome 21 that covers the HBB gene cluster, which is also involved in hypoxia response, appeared to be introgressed from wolves as well.

Overall, Li and his colleagues said their findings indicate that the ancestors of Tibetan Mastiffs mixed with Tibetan wolves, although most wolf-origin DNA was lost in the dogs during breeding except for ones that provided advantages for the highland living.

“These results indicated that by secondary contact with wild relatives, the adaptive introgression may be an effective and rapid way for domestication animals to adapt to the new environment,” the authors wrote in their paper.

‘Puppy Dog Eyes’ Explained By Science

Scientists have uncovered a fascinating hormonal mechanism behind that heart-melting feeling familiar to dog lovers when they gaze into their dog’s famous “puppy dog eyes” stare.
bichon frise dog
The study found the oxytocin loop between dogs and owners to be comparable to that of a mother and their baby.

The “man’s best friend” tag attached to dogs has been confirmed in studies that show dogs have a more intimate understanding of certain areas of human nature compared with other animals.

For instance, while chimpanzees might be our closest genetic relative, it is only dogs who understand the concept of pointing – they will follow the direction of the point with their gaze rather than simply stare at the outstretched finger.

And while dogs’ closest relatives, wolves, interpret eye contact as a sign of hostility, dogs and humans are similarly reliant on eye contact for interaction, which also communicates understanding and affection.

Many studies have shown that the oxytocin hormone promotes maternal bonding, trust and altruism among humans. When a mother stares into her baby’s eyes, for instance, mom and baby enter into a kind of “feedback loop” of oxytocin elevation, where oxytocin levels in both parent and infant increase as they hold their gaze.

This loop is thought to be responsible for sealing the bond between mom and infant at a time when the baby is not capable of other forms of expression.

The animal behaviorists behind the new study, from Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, wondered if a similar mechanism might drive the affectionate relationship between dogs and owners.

To investigate, the researchers observed 30 dog owners – and some owners of pet wolves – interacting with their pet for a 30-minute period, and collected urine samples from the animals before and after this interaction period.

During the interaction study – which typically involved the owners petting and talking to their animals – dogs and owners would frequently make eye contact, sometimes for up to several minutes. By contrast, the wolves rarely made eye contact with their owners.

Analyzing the urine samples, the team found that – among dogs and owners who spent a lot of time gazing at each other – the dogs experienced a 130% rise in oxytocin levels during interaction with their owners, with oxytocin rising a huge 300% among owners during this task.

However, no oxytocin increase was measured in dogs or owners who did not make a lot of eye contact, and there was no oxytocin increase for the wolves or their owners.

Additional oxytocin prompted increased response in female, but not male, dogs

The team then repeated the experiment, except this time the dogs were given an oxytocin nasal spray before interacting with their owners. The researchers report an interesting gendered divergence in response during this experiment, which resulted in female dogs spending 150% more time gazing into their owners’ eyes, prompting a 300% increase in oxytocin levels among their owners.

No effect from the nasal spray was measured among male dogs, however, or among dogs that were administered a placebo spray. The wolves did not receive the nasal spray. As study author, Takefumi Kikusui asserts, “It would be very, very dangerous to give a nasal spray to a wolf!”

Kikusui and colleagues consider the oxytocin reaction between dogs and owners to be comparable with that of a mother and their baby. Furthermore, the role oxytocin plays in female reproduction may account for the positive reaction among female dogs to the nasal spray.

The researchers hypothesize that the oxytocin loop would have driven dog domestication, with only the canines capable of bonding with humans receiving their care and protection, with humans simultaneously evolving the ability to form a maternal bonding feedback loop with another species.

Dogs Left Home Alone In Alarming Numbers, Get Distressed And Develop Behavioral Issues

Dogs are social animals and hate being left alone. Unfortunately, a UK report reveals that approximately 1.9 million dogs, a quarter of the country’s dog population, are just not getting the amount of companionship time they need. The PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), a UK charity, says a pet dog should not be left alone for more than four hours each day.

The charity found that a considerable number of dogs are being left home alone for very long periods on a daily basis, resulting in loneliness, distress, and boredom. There is a much greater risk that the pet will develop behavioral issues, such as separation anxiety and destructive behaviors.

Companionship and stimulation are vital for a dog’s mental health.

On a typical weekday, 23% of British dog owners leave their pet at home alone for at least five hours.

The PDSA revealed the following (UK dog owners):

  • 33% of dog owners aged 18 to 24 years leave their pet alone at home for at least five hours
  • 10% of those aged 55 or more leave their dogs at home for five hours or more
  • Not surprisingly, full-time employees tend to leave their dogs at home alone for the longest periods
  • 52% of people who have a pet dog think it should not be left alone for over 5 hours
  • 17% believe the maximum period should be six hours
  • 15% think no more than 8 hours
  • 4% think anything up to 10 hours is OK

The majority of dog owners are considerate towards their pet when making vacation plans:

  • 26% send the dog to a dog-sitter
  • 18% make arrangements at boarding kennels while they are away.
  • 25% take their pet with them on vacation
  • 16% leave the dog at home and arrange for family, friends or neighbors to feed them and take them for walks. The PDSA says this is “worrying”

The PDSA says taking a dog on vacation with you is fine if you stay within your borders. However, when going abroad there may be problems with travel stress and catching diseases.

The PDSA gives British dog owners a score of 49 out of 100 for companionship.

If you are thinking about having a pet and are away for many hours each day, perhaps a cat might be a better choice than a dog. Cats are naturally solitary animals as well as fantastic companions. However, they are not naturally prepared for living in households with other cats. They can learn to do so more successfully if they have their own food and water bowls and litter trays. Some cats may not mind sharing, but it is best to let them do so out of choice. Remember that cats usually enjoy eating and resting alone.

“The state of our pet nation – PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2011 (PDF)
When you get to the page, click on the link, you will need to fill in a form with your details to be able to download the document.