Ode to the Rat

 

rats behind bars
photo by Mel issa  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

My 7th grader’s science teacher is letting her opt out of dissecting a rat, as a conscientious objector. She says the rats were murdered just so her fellow students could slice them open for a peek inside, and that is NOT okay with her. My husband, a doctor who places great value in the tactile experience of dissection to plumb the mysteries of anatomy and physiology, says opting out is NOT okay with HIM.

I, too, dissected stuff in my day, without much compunction–even though I’m a card-carrying bleeding heart who won’t even kill a stink bug. (I euthanize them in the freezer). As I encourage my daughter to participate, in spite of her objections, so she can learn from the experience, I start asking myself: What did I learn by eviscerating a frog, fish, and fetal pig? I did find value in it, a sense of discovery. But perhaps there is a dark underbelly of dissection that I haven’t thoroughly probed.

sleeping rats
photo by timpike10 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

I trust animals that become dissection specimens have been euthanized according to humane standards. And frankly, euthanasia is a much gentler death than many humans experience, or than wild animals suffer in the jaws of a predator or after prolonged starvation or disease. But what of the lives of these animals before euthanasia and dissection? Were they treated humanely by people who cared about their welfare and understood their needs? Is this even knowable? Would I want to know? That is, perhaps, a topic for another day.

My daughter can be melodramatic, but her feelings are genuine. Her concern is valid, though unexamined. Her teacher is empathetic and won’t force the issue. I remain conflicted. I value a science education and respect the teacher’s choice to provide a hands-on zoological deep dive. But my heart bleeds when animals suffer, and surely the life of a lab rat before it becomes a dissection specimen cannot be devoid of suffering? Still, the rat my daughter will (or, according to her, will NOT) dissect has already lived and died; if she doesn’t make good use of it now, doesn’t that add insult to injury? Has the rat died in vain, only to be wasted?

rat stretching for treat
photo by Ian Crowther  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

I encourage my daughter to research the lives of lab rats, so her feelings can be guided by facts, heart and mind in sync. I share a coping strategy of my own: when I witness an animal suffering, I try to symbolically offset it with an act of kindness toward another animal–a pet, a shelter animal, a wild critter, whatever. Maybe she can counterbalance her rat dissection by donating to a rescue organization, putting up a bird feeder, playing an extra-long ball game with our dog, or some other gesture that feels right to her.

Whether my daughter comes down on the side of dissecting or objecting, I’ve decided to use this space to cleanse my conscience about the whole thing by honoring the rat. How are rats special and worthy of awe? Let me count the ways:

1. Rats laugh when you tickle them.

laughing rat cartoon
By Jeff Drew on www.inlander.com

So you’ve never heard a rat dissolve into a fit of giggles? That’s because the sound they make is supersonic–exceeding the highest frequency human ears can perceive. In 1996, when neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and his team used a bat monitor to listen in on rats playing, they picked up a 50 kHz twittering noise. Panksepp had been searching for a vocalization associated with play to use as a quantitative metric in his research, and there it was. As he reflected on the emotional significance of the sounds, it dawned on him that, given the context, maybe the rats were laughing.

jaak panksepp
Jaak Panksepp on www.discovermagazine.com

Crazy? Plenty of his colleagues thought so. But further studies replicated Panksepp’s findings and substantiated his hunch. Consistently, rats expressed these chirping sounds only in fun situations, like play with other rats and tickling by humans. How do we know they think tickling is fun? Rats who love tickling chase after hands to solicit more tickles. Some rats valued tickling even more than treats as a training reward. Scientists have even purposefully bred a strain of tickle-loving rats for further research.

Are_We_Smart_Enough_coverNaturally there was plenty of skepticism about Panksepp’s theory. I say naturally, because humans habitually seek–and defend–distinctions between ourselves and animals, loath to credit beasts with those qualities and capacities upon which we base our superiority. For much more on this, read Frans de Waal’s spellbinding book Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

So we object to sharing a trait like laughter with a lowly rodent. But think about it. If rats make a distinctive utterance in the same circumstances that make humans laugh–and we know this sound represents pleasure because rats keep wanting more of it–then you can call it whatever you want, but it’s hard to prove it’s not laughter.

Studying rat chuckles might sound frivolous, but investigating rat behavior during positive and negative emotional states can be applied to the wider scope of mental health and mood disorders in humans. And if a rat has to endure scientific experiments that may include aversive experiences, it’s heartening to think laughter could also be part of this life.

2. Rats empathize, cooperate, and share.

Rats will break their friends out of jail. In a study published in Science magazine in 2011, Inbal Bartal and his colleagues encased a rat in a clear plastic box, stashed a piece of chocolate (a favorite rat treat) in another, and then turned one of the trapped rat’s pals loose to see what he would do. The free rat quickly solved how to unlatch the boxes–no surprise given rats’ dexterity and shrewdness. But instead of leaving the other rat locked away while hogging all the chocolate, he first emancipated his friend and then shared the treat with him. And loads of other rats went on to do the same. This clever video from How Stuff Works includes a snippet of this experiment.

In another study, rats in separate enclosures took turns giving each other food. In the first phase, Rat #1 could serve Rat #2 either bits of banana (rat candy) or scraps of carrot (a decidedly meh food). In phase two, Rat #2 could dole out cereal to his partner at whatever rate and on whatever schedule he chose. Rats who had dined on banana were quick to supply their server with plenty of cereal. Those who just got crummy old carrots gave less cereal to their stingy partner, and took their sweet time doing it. Rats recognized who had been good to them, calculated how good, remembered it, and reciprocated proportionally–kind of like people do.

3. Rats can learn and perform eye-poppingly awesome tricks.

We hear a lot about lab rats learning to run mazes or press levers, so we know they can master some simple chores. But if you want a sense of how much is going on in their little pea brains, check out this video by sixteen year old rat lover Abby Roesner. She’s trained her pets to do some stunning stunts, including dunking a miniature basketball, fetching her a Kleenex when she sneezes, and pulling money out of her wallet!

4. Rats can detect landmines and sniff out tuberculosis.

In one of the most gripping (to me, anyway) TED Talks of all time, Bart Weetjens showcases his “Hero Rats”, which he trains to locate buried landmines in Mozambique, Angola and Indochina. Why use rats? Because they have a superpower: an ultrasensitive nose. Rats have more DNA devoted to the sense of smell than all other mammals except African elephants. Weetjens’ rats learn to recognize the scent signature of mines, scratch at the ground when they find it, and return to their trainer for a nibble of banana. They’re also trained to wear a harness and walk on a leash.

hero rat
on www.globalgiving.org

Once they’ve attained proficiency, the rats undergo a certification test. Those that pass become accredited detection animals, just like bomb sniffing dogs but–as Weetjens points out–they’re 80% cheaper to train and maintain. Plus, because rats are so lightweight, they don’t trigger land mines to detonate. Once a rat identifies a mine, a de-mining team is called in to disarm it. More than 50,000 explosives have already been deactivated with assistance from Hero Rats.

Weetjens’ rats are also helping diagnose tuberculosis (TB) in human patients. The standard diagnostic method recognized by the WHO (World Health Organization) is to examine sputum (gunk coughed up from the lungs) under a microscope for the presence of TB. Visual inspection at best picks up only 60% of actual cases, though, so many sick people miss out on early treatment. But the nose knows; rats seeking the faint tar-like odor TB patients exude rarely come up with a false negative.

Plus they’re faster by far. It takes a rat just two hundredths of a second to sniff out TB. What would take a full day with microscopy, a rat can process in seven minutes; given a day, a rat can test 6,000 samples. In Tanzania Weetjens’ HeroRATS have already screened nearly 300,000 sputum samples and correctly diagnosed more than 7,000 patients whose TB was missed by microscopy.

So. Rats. Wow. Do you have a rat story? A deep admiration for rats in general, or one rat in particular? Have you ever dissected a rat, or refused to, on moral grounds–or any other grounds for that matter? Let me know!

For more details:

http://www.radiolab.org/story/91589-is-laughter-just-a-human-thing/

http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/20-things-rats

http://www.wired.com/2013/09/tickling-rats-for-science/

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/334/6061/1427

http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/11/2/20140959

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150224-rats-helping-social-behavior-science-animals-cooperation/

https://www.apopo.org/en/

Mange: Ugly Duckling Stories

Most of us have heard of mange, but we don’t necessarily know what it is, and we may never have actually laid eyes on it. I’d never seen it till I worked at an inner city animal shelter, where dogs with mange were regular guests. In the worst cases, dogs were almost hairless, their naked skin red as a sunburn, raw and angry, crusty and scaly, scabby and oozy. They looked forlorn, forsaken, and if I’m honest, pretty gross.

IMG_0046
Tommy, a three month old stray with severe Demodex mange.

And every time I met one, I fell deeply in love. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a sad story.

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Maybelle, another mangy puppy, nearly bald.
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Tommy, wrapped in my sweatshirt, napping under my desk.

How did these dogs get this way? And could such sad stories end well? (Spoiler alert: Yes–they’ll live happily ever after.)

Ick! What IS mange?

Mange is a nasty skin infection whose tell-tale sign is fur loss. The culprit is a microscopic, parasitic mite–a rotten little stinker with eight legs (yep, an arachnid, like a spider) that takes up residence in hair follicles. There are two main types of mange in dogs. Sarcoptic mange is caused by Sarcoptes scabei, the same species we can thank for scabies in people. Demodex mange comes from an infestation of Demodex canis mites.  This is the kind we saw routinely at my shelter, so that’s what we’ll look at.

Most dogs have a modest-sized colony of Demodex mites hanging out in their skin, just minding their own business. A strong immune system keeps the mite population under control, fending off mange. When it’s weakened, though–e.g. by malnutrition–mite numbers can balloon, and mange takes hold. Our shelter dogs with mange were usually pretty skinny, which could explain their susceptibility. There are also genetic factors that can make dogs more vulnerable to mange.

IMG_1533
Hungry Maybelle, feasting on hot dogs.

(Side note: You don’t even want to know what mites are living on you, but there are plenty. Same deal, though; as long as you’re healthy, you’ll probably never hear from them.)

eyelash mite
http://www.psmicrographs.co.uk/blog/2012/09/default.aspx

OK, I couldn’t resist. This is Demodex folliculorum, the near spittin’ image of Demodex canis. But guess where this beast from hell lives? In your EYELASHES! Well, maybe not in yours. But probably.

Baths and more baths

Mange is diagnosed by scraping the skin with a scalpel, smearing whatever you come up with onto a slide, and checking it out under a microscope. Once you know you’re dealing with Demodex, it’s time to start a laborious series of medicated baths, spaced two weeks apart. Curing mange takes time, usually three months of active treatment at a minimum, and up to seven months for severe or resistant cases. “Cured” means a full year of negative skin scrapes after the final treatment.

So it’s no walk in the park, for the dog or the dog’s people. But visible improvement is fast and steady, and full recovery is the norm. And demodectic mange can’t be passed to other dogs, other animals, or people. So don’t delay–kiss a mangy dog today!

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Happy endings for mangy mutts

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Tommy spent a few months living with an awesome foster mom, plumped up and grew back all his hair, and got adopted.
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Maybelle got adopted within a week of arriving at the shelter. Who could resist that face?

For more information, check out PetMD, WebMD. To adopt a wonderful dog, with or without mange, visit the Washington Humane Society.

 

Crows Bring Bling-Bling!

Admittedly, I’m departing a bit from my pets theme. Though I’m sure there are people out there who have pet crows, what prompted me to go down this road was a BBC article about suburban crows who, although wild, have a cozy connection with humans. I shared this on Animals Underfoot’s Facebook Page (which I’ve been too shy to promote and therefore no one knows about it yet, as evidenced by its paltry number of Likes). I’m reposting it here without much commentary, but I’m gearing up to write some stuff on crows in the next few days. Till then, visit the FB page, or click on the link in the embedded FB post below, or go directly to BBC.com to read this whimsical tale of a little girl who has a curious barter system going with some crows she feeds in her Seattle, Washington backyard.

What the Dog Saw

P1060695

How do dogs see the world?

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverThat’s deep, if you’re talking about a dog’s point of view on life. (For one of the best books ever written on the canine umwelt, check out Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog.) But for our purposes, I’m talking in literal terms. What are dogs’ actual eyeballs taking in, specifically in terms of colors? Are they colorblind, like some say? Do they see in black and white? What about ultraviolet light?

Let’s look at a real-life case. In my dog training class last night, students taught their dogs to touch their nose to a Post-It note. You might wonder: Why ask a dog to put its nose on a piece of paper? Why a sticky piece of paper? What color is the paper?

To which I’d respond: If your dog can touch a target, like a Post-It, then he can learn to touch it wherever you hold it. If it’s sticky, you can attach it to something–a wall, say–and let go. Service dogs, for example, can be taught to flick light switches on and off using this method.

Oh, and the color of the paper? Yellow.

Does that seem random? Irrelevant? Consider this: Dogs’ eyes are equipped with cones (color receptors) for perceiving yellows and blues, but not reds. (This is typical of other non-human mammals.) I so don’t want to get into the anatomy, physiology and neurobiology of the visual system; I can barely comprehend it, much less explain it. Let’s stick with this: Dogs see red (and orange and pink), as shades of gray. And greens look pretty much like reds–as they do to the 8% of humans (mostly male) who are red-green colorblind.

from www.petadvisor.com
from http://www.petadvisor.com

The image above contrasts how humans see the visible spectrum with how it looks to dogs. See how the yellow stands out amidst the drabness?

510vi9+RcEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In her superb book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin describes cows who refused to walk up a ramp with a yellow rain slicker draped over the railing, and who avoided a building with a yellow ladder propped against it. She intuits that the cows were spooked by the high color contrast between the yellow objects and their surroundings. For “dichromatic” animals (those that see in two colors rather than three), color contrasts can be distracting or frightening. “Anything yellow will really pop out at them,” Grandin explains.

https://smilegotnessa.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/differences-between-a-dog-and-a-humans-visual-perception/
https://smilegotnessa.wordpress.com

I don’t use yellow sticky notes to distract or scare dogs; I just picked the easiest color for targeting because it “pops out”. Likewise, I always buy yellow tennis balls for my dog, because I assume they’re easier to track in the air and on the ground. Pet stores sell tons of red, pink, orange, and green dog toys, which look bright and cheery to us, but to a dog, their murky hues make them easy to lose against any greenish, reddish, brownish or grayish background.

Does a dog’s-eye view seem a little dreary compared to ours? Before we get too smug, let’s remember that dogs’ primary sense is smell, and scent must form an olfactory tapestry that’s vibrant beyond our imagination. Plus, dogs’ crappy color vision still has ours beat in one regard: They see UV.

Let’s review: Dogs have cones for yellows and blues. Humans have an additional type for reds. Plenty of birds and bugs have a fourth type of cone that is sensitive to ultraviolet light. Even without these cones, our retinas could receive some UV light if the lenses of our eyes weren’t specially designed to block it out. Scientists figured this shielding feature was shared by non-human mammals.

millipedes-blacklightGuess what? When two British scientists shone light through the eyeballs of a wide assortment of dead mammals, they discovered a lot of them–from hedgehogs to okapis to, yes, dogs–have lenses that let some UV light penetrate to the retina. That means things that glow for us under a black light look a bit glow-y to a dog in normal light, for example snow and pee. A snowman that’s been urine-marked by every pup on the block could be a lurid spectacle indeed. What else must look weird to them?

This discovery got a lot of media attention, but I haven’t seen much follow-up analyzing how dogs might use this secret sense. Have you? Till then, let’s just end with another question–

When has your dog had a weird reaction to something that looked normal to you? Or overlooked something you thought was plain as day? Do you think color perception might have something to do with it?