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!

 

“Whisker Fatigue” Could Be the Cause of Your Cat’s Finicky Eating

Cats are famous for being picky eaters, but the reason behind this may not be the brand of cat food you bought.  Many cats also like to fish pieces of food out of their bowls and eat them off the floor…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just playing with their food.  If your cat is exhibiting some odd eating behaviors, the culprit could be “whisker fatigue.”

Whisker fatigue is the term used by veterinary experts to describe the stress and discomfort your cat feels when his sensitive whiskers rub up against the sides of a food bowl.  A recent article about whisker fatigue in The New York Times sheds some light on this little-known issue.  Your cat’s whiskers are highly sensitive, like antennas, and pick up signals from the environment that can be as subtle as a light breeze.

What happens when your cat’s whiskers rub on her food bowl while eating?  Many experts describe it as a stressful feeling, sort of like sensory overload.  The solution is surprisingly simple.  Choose shallow food dishes instead of deep ones, and make sure your cat’s water bowl is as shallow as possible.

The article points out that you can use a flat dish you already have, or buy a bowl with shallow sides specifically designed for whisker fatigue.  One company mentioned in the article called Dr. Catsby makes a wide, shallow stainless-steel bowl with a non-skid bottom.  Stainless is also preferable to plastic or ceramic because it is less porous and inhibits the growth of bacteria (a primary cause of feline chin acne).

Just like dog bowls that are made for dogs of different sizes, and long or flat faces, your cat’s bowl should be whisker-friendly too!

 

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.

 

10 Questions to Ask Your New Veterinarian

Did you get a new pet and need to find a veterinarian? Or maybe you moved to a new town and have to look for a new vet. There are lots of reasons why we might be in the market for a new veterinary practice to take care of our companion animals. But whether you’re a first-time pet owner or have cared for animals all your life, there are a few key questions you should be asking any new vet. We’ve gathered the best advice from the experts on what to ask a prospective vet:

1.What services are available at the practice? This includes things like X-ray and ultrasound, lab work, and EKG.

2. How does the vet handle emergencies? Some will take your call outside of office hours, some won’t. If they don’t, what emergency clinics do they recommend?

3. What is their vaccination “policy” in terms of what they think is essential vs. optional, and will they accommodate your preferences?

4. Does the practice recommend that you get pet insurance?

5. Do they have specialists on staff if they are large, or a good referral network of specialists if they are small?

6. What is the average time it takes to get an appointment? A few hours or a few days?

7. Do they have overnight care? Is there a staff member on-site 24 hours a day? Many practices, especially small ones, will not have this.

8. Do they have separate waiting rooms, exam rooms, and kennel areas for dogs and cats to reduce your pet’s stress?

9. What are their prices for typical procedures like dentals, annual check-ups, spay/neuter, and vaccinations?

10. Do they have payment plans, flexible payment schedules, or any special discounts for multiple-pet clients?

 

Ohio State University’s Indoor Pet Initiative Advocates for Your Pet’s Well-Being

Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has a great program called the Indoor Pet Initiative, which was created to enhance the health and welfare of our companion animals so that our pets can enjoy optimal well-being and thrive in a safe indoor environment.

As a non-profit that assists pet owners with emergency veterinary care, we have seen many sad cases in which cats and dogs allowed to roam outdoors have experienced life-threatening injuries from incidents like being hit by a car or being attacked by another animal.

The Indoor Pet Initiative provides a ton of information for both veterinarians and pet owners to ensure that our dogs and cats live long, healthy, and happy lives. What kind of information? Cat owners can learn about how to enrich the environments of indoor cats, as well as gain a greater understanding of what makes our cats tick. You can learn about how to solve common behavioral problems and identify stressors in your cat’s environment. They also have great information on the importance of microchipping your cat. Cat information is also available in Spanish!

For dog owners, you can check the website for lots of information on how to care for your dog from puppyhood to old age, including environmental enrichment techniques. Whether you have questions about crate training your puppy, introducing your dog to a new baby, or understanding your dog’s cognitive changes as she ages, you’ll find answers here.

Remember, along with spay/neuter, keeping your pet safely indoors is one of the most important things you can do to reduce the number of homeless animals in your community and improve your own pet’s quality of life.