Scientists Investigate Autism Spectrum Disorder in Dogs

A recent article posted on the Slate website asks an intriguing question:  Do dogs get autism?  Is it possible that dogs and other animals could have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) just like people?  Scientists say that an analysis of certain canine behaviors could point to a diagnosis of autism in dogs.

While there is no simple test to definitively diagnose autism, researchers study two important factors when looking at autism in humans:  sociability and repetitive, intense behaviors called “stereotypies.”  Stereotypies in dogs can include things like tail-chasing, chewing, and flank-licking.

The article points to a study of the behavior of Bull Terriers, which found that roughly half of 300 dogs studied exhibited autistic-type behaviors.  Spinning/tail chasing was the most predominant behavior, but other compulsive behaviors were also observed.  A majority of the tail chasers were male and tended to exhibit other types of fixations.  The researchers realized that both the dogs’ gender and behaviors had strong parallels to autism in humans.

Seeking more scientific evidence to back up their observations, the researchers also tested a group of Bull Terriers for two types of blood chemicals, which are found at elevated levels in humans with autism.  The dogs also had high levels of these same chemicals.  The findings were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

What’s the next step to definitively determine the existence of autism in dogs?  Work is currently underway to find specific areas of the canine genome that would point to a genetic basis for canine autism.  The article notes that famed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who is herself autistic, says that there are parallels between “animal genius” and “autistic genius”—interesting food for thought for owners of exceptional pets!

 

If You Find Baby Wildlife: Important Tips

It’s very common to find baby wildlife this time of year.  While you may want to spring into action and “rescue” baby squirrels, rabbits, birds, etc. when you don’t see their mom around, wildlife experts will tell you that well-meaning “rescuers” are actually “kidnappers”—taking babies away when their mother is alive and well.

The best advice from the experts is wait and observe…as this neat infographic from Colorado’s Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center explains:

Here in California, the San Diego Humane Society’s Project Wildlife program has great information on its website about what to do if you find wild critters in your neighborhood that look like they might need rescuing, whether they’re babies, injured, or just made their way into your home.

As a general rule, when you see babies without mom nearby, don’t assume that they are orphans in need of rescuing.  Keep an eye on them if you are not 100% sure that mom is really gone.

Defenders of Wildlife has these great common-sense tips to keep in mind if you find wild babies in your yard:

  • Keep your distance if you want to take a photo, or better yet, skip the photo session!
  • Keep your cats and dogs inside to make sure that the babies stay safe. It’s also a good idea to make sure that children stay away from the babies.
  • It’s OK to place a baby bird back in its nest. If you don’t see the nest you can place it in a small container in the likely tree.  It’s a myth that the mom will reject the baby bird if you touch it.
  • Avoid pruning trees and shrubs during nesting season.
  • Sick or injured babies should only be cared for by specially-trained wildlife rehabilitators.

 

Thyroid Disease in Cats Linked to Chemical Found in Our Homes

One of the more perplexing feline health issues seen by veterinarians is the growing epidemic of hyperthyroidism (overproduction of thyroid hormone) seen in cats in the past few decades…a condition rarely seen by vets as recently as the early 1970s.  A new article in the New York Times sheds some light on this veterinary mystery…and may cause cat owners to take a second look at the presence of a common chemical in our homes.

Hyperthyroidism in cats (also called feline wasting disease) causes serious symptoms like weight loss (combined with increased appetite), restlessness, poor coat quality, rapid heartrate, and increased thirst.  This had been a rare condition in cats, but over the past few decades, cats have been developing thyroid tumors, causing the thyroid gland to secrete large amounts of thyroid hormone into the body.

According to the article, several veterinarians began taking a closer look at feline patients with this wasting disease, starting in the late 70s and early 80s, and discovered that many of the cats had thyroid tumors and high levels of thyroid hormones.  These feline thyroid problems were rare until the late 70s.  The condition continued to grow and spread throughout the U.S. and to other countries into the 1990s.  Today, 10% of older cats will get hyperthyroidism.

An epidemiological study of cats with hyperthyroidism found some common risk factors that proved to be very important clues:  spending most of their time indoors, sleeping on carpets and our bedding materials, eating certain kinds of foods, and living in a home with a gas fireplace.  Researchers have narrowed their focus to one culprit:  a chemical substance that is commonly used as a flame retardant, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

Starting in the 1970s, this chemical was added to everyday household materials like carpeting, furniture upholstery, and even electronics.  Tiny particles of this substance migrate from the household item into the air…and bodies of our pets.  Cats seem to be especially sensitive to the fact that the structure of PBDEs mimic thyroid hormones and affect bodily functions.

This chemical has largely been removed from the manufacture of household items, although many people still have things containing it in their homes, and it also takes a very long time to degrade.  Feline behavior like sleeping on furniture and, more importantly, grooming, makes cats especially vulnerable to ingesting PBDEs.

As veterinarians continued to look into feline hyperthyroidism and PBDEs, they also found that there are high levels of PBDEs in certain canned cat foods, particularly fish-flavored food.  Cats exposed to high levels of PBDEs in their home environment are at increased risk of developing hyperthyroidism as they age.

The article notes that cats and other pets can often be seen as the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to discovering how toxic substances in our environment can harm all living creatures, including us humans.  Pets that spend most of their time indoors, exposed to all of the toxins in the home environment, are especially good at telling us when something is wrong.  Testing reveals that virtually all humans have some PBDEs in the body.  Humans are also experiencing more cases of thyroid disease and thyroid cancer.

Want to learn more?  There is a Canary Database that actively tracks environment-related diseases in animals that may also affect humans.

 

Lost German Shepherd Returns Home After 4 Years

A German Shepherd named Molly vanished from her home in North Carolina 4 years ago.  Her owners tried to find her but they were unsuccessful and assumed Molly was gone forever.  Then a dog who looked an awful lot like Molly showed up at their doorstep 4 years later.

She put her head in her owner’s lap but he still couldn’t quite believe it was her.  They took the dog to get scanned for a microchip they had placed in Molly 9 years ago.  Sure enough, it really was Molly!  It’s still a mystery where Molly has been for the past 4 years, but that doesn’t matter much to her grateful owners now that they have her back after assuming she was lost forever.

Watch the heartwarming news video about Molly HERE.