Thursday, January 21, 2010

Links post

  • Animal Minds: Radiolab podcast about animal cognition. Radiolab is my current favorite podcast. It’s so well-produced, demonstrating podcasting as an art form and not just some guy yelling at a microphone (not that I don’t very much enjoy it when Wil Wheaton does that).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The father of stress

In order to gain some context about the study of stress, I’ve been reading The Stress of Life, by Hans Selye. His story is a nice example of how the scientific process sometimes succeeds in ways it isn’t really expected to.

As a newly-minted researcher in the 1930s, Selye was studying reproductive hormones by injecting rats with extracts from rat ovaries and placentas. He was hoping to discover a new sex hormone. At one point, he thought he’d found one: a particular extract caused the rats’ adrenal cortices (the outer part of the adrenal glands) to enlarge, their lymphatic structures (part of the immune system, clubhouses for white blood cells) to shrink, and stomach ulcers to form, in a reproducible triad of reactions. He writes, “You may well imagine my happiness! At the age of 28, I already seemed to be on the track of a new hormone.”

As Selye continued to test his new hormone, however, he found that extracts from the pituitary gland caused the same reaction. (Maybe the pituitary makes this new hormone as well?) But he also noticed that the less pure his extracts were, the greater this triad of reactions was. If the reactions were happening because of a new hormone he had isolated, less pure extracts should cause smaller reactions, not greater ones. So Selye injected the rats with formalin, to see how they responded to something toxic that was definitely not a new sex hormone. And the same triad of reactions showed up, even more dramatically.

Young Selye was crushed. “I do not think I had ever been more profoundly disappointed! Suddenly all my dreams of discovering a new hormone were shattered. All the time and all the materials that went into this long study were wasted.” He sulked for days, unable to focus his energy on his work.

As Selye marshalled himself to return to work, he began to realize that, in fact, he had isolated a general reaction to damage to the body. Any damage will have some consquences specific to the type of damage (trauma, infection, ongoing difficult social situations), but Selye realized that he was now able to describe the general consequences that are associated with all damage. In fact, he enthused, “I could find no noxious agent that did not produce the syndrome.” He was re-energized and hugely enthusiastic about this new direction of research.

Unfortunately, Selye’s mentors and co-workers thought he was crazy. A respected friend called his new direction “the pharmacology of dirt.” However, one mentor, who happened to be a Nobel laureate, did support Selye. Without that one supporter, he might have given up, and it might have been many more years before we were able to start to talk about the health effects of stress. Or perhaps the enthusiasm (or lack of perspective) of youth would have carried him through. Who knows.

Selye first published about his new “damage syndrome” in 1936, and a few years later borrowed the term “stress” from physics as a more concise name. He insists that despite common usage today, “stress” is caused by a “stressor” (a neologism of Selye’s making), so if you are being precise, you should say that you have “stress produced by interpersonal relationships,” not “interpersonal stress.” Being a reasonable sort of guy, however, he allows as to how we are all going to say things imprecisely from time to time, and he’s okay with that. He shares the lovely story of his lecture on stress to the professors of the Collège de France, in French, at the end of which the professors earnestly argued about how to translate “stress” into French (dommage? aggression? tension? détress?), at the end of which it was agreed that a new French word must be coined; that the term must be masculine (he didn’t quite understand why); and so henceforth he might refer to his syndrome as le stress.

Towards the end of his book, Selye reflects on why he felt compelled to write about stress for the layperson:

Here, I have ventured into pure philosophy: a very dangerous thing for a medical scientist to do, and a thing for which I shall no doubt be severely rebuked by some of my more reserved and reticent colleagues! But, you see, it is part of my philosophy that I must express myself, so I cannot help it. It was indeed very stressful to spend all my adult life in the laboratory, working on stress; it was perhaps even more stressful to express my thoughts in the form of this book and of the many lectures I gave about its substance. But well do I know that not to express all this would have deprived me of much eustress and caused me much more distress.
It’s a charming book and I’m glad I took the time to read it, even though I’m unlikely to be able to cite very much of it in any papers that I write, due to its age.

Hans Selye, M.D. The Stress of Life, revised edition. McGraw-Hill, 1978.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Building positive online environments

A while back, rrp (after the flood) posted “burning up the thread, online political discourse,” in which she argued that “a snappy, cogent, or brutal put-down of a troll” is often rewarded by readers, whereas thoughtful, well-reasoned posts are more often ignored. Recently, Coyote Crossing responded, in “Online fires,” with thoughts about how hard it is to keep to writing such well-reasoned posts and how useful it has been to receive positive feedback on them from users.

As rrp says, writing thoughtfully and reasoning out all of one’s arguments is time consuming and challenging. Why should someone take the time and effort to do it if they aren’t rewarded? Why shouldn’t people default to writing flames, if that means that they’ll receive more positive responses?

In dog training, in order for a behavior that you like to start appearing more regularly, it should be rewarded. (When the dog sits quietly, he gets a treat.) However, if the reward is delivered too late, it isn’t linked to the wanted behavior, and the dog doesn’t learn the lesson we want him to learn. (If I start hunting for the treat bag when the dog sits, and he has stood up by the time I actually deliver the treat, I have reinforced standing, not sitting.)

It’s the same for us internet dwellers. We need our rewards to come pretty promptly. We can wait an hour for a response post that says “good job putting that idiot in his place! You really showed him!” That reward might reinforce our recent behavior of sending nasty mail in response to someone we disagreed with. We are less likely to wait a year and be able to look back on all of our posts to a list and tell ourselves, “I did a good job this year of posting only polite and useful things and restraining from making people feel bad about themselves.” That was more societally useful behavior than a rude post, but the reward is too little and too late to encourage us to do more of the same in the future.

Coyote Crossing suggests that, in fact, he has started receiving rewards for his more thoughtful posts this year, and that that’s been helpful to him. That’s good news. Is it extensible? I’m dubious that we can all just choose to reward people more for their thoughtful posts, and refrain from rewarding people for their snarky posts (no matter how much we agree with them), but if we can, it would go a long way to improving the emotional environment of the internet. I love the idea that eventually we could all develop an online community in which thoughtfulness was valued more than cutting rhetoric.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Spring semester springs

This semester I have (almost) no classes. My one class is Journal Club, which mostly involves listening to other people present journal articles. One week in March I will have to present an article myself, which will involve a frenzied burst of activity, and then again a return to just research.

Just research! I am looking forward to it, although to be honest, last semester’s classes (biostatistics and bioethics) were surprisingly rewarding. The didactic part of this Master’s degree feels much more relevant and interesting to me than the majority of the didactic classes in the DVM coursework. That revelation is part of my increasing interest in pursuing a PhD in the future.

The distraction of classwork last semester caused a lot of dog videos to stack up, waiting to be analyzed. I was pulling in 2-3 videos of 20 minutes each per week; in theory, I would also analyze them every week, breaking each into 5 second bins in which I use a small web application which I wrote to note the dog’s location (front, middle, or back of the run), position (lying lateral, lying sternal, sitting, walking, etc), whether the dog is panting or not, whether the dog has moved at all in the last five seconds, etc. It is a somewhat tedious process, but on the up side, the good DVD player is in my bedroom, so I get to do the analysis in bed with my animals. I’m trying to analyze one or two videos a day for a while until the stack gets thinner. They take 1-2 hours to do, depending on how often the dog changes what it’s doing. The ideal video is of a dog lying still and not moving for 20 minutes. Two dogs have done that so far. I am fond of both of them.

Yesterday I scored two videos in the morning. The mid part of the day I spent reading about cortisol, for use in a summary paper about markers of stress. The summary papers provide useful background immediately, and should become part of my thesis paper this summer.

Then I went in to try to enroll dogs. I continue to work out the best timing strategy for this. There is a sweet spot somewhere around 5:30 pm. Too early, and I miss some dogs which haven’t yet filtered in unannounced. (It’s nice when dogs have appointments two days in advance, but sometimes people call to make surgery appointments and get scheduled for the next day, in which case the only way I have of discovering that dog is finding it in B Ward in the evening.) Too late, and the surgeons have all gone home, so I can’t find them to ask permission to use their patients. (I embarrassingly once said “awesome!” when told “Dr. Depardeau is still here even though it’s eight o’clock at night because his patient is bleeding out and he’s stuck in surgery.”)

Last night, I went in around 4 pm, and scouted. One dog looked like a great candidate. He was in the hospital for, I kid you not, a migrating foreign body in his foot. A tech and I discussed this as we stared at the anesthesia schedule for the next day: a migrating foreign body in his foot? His hospital record didn’t completely explain why they came up with this theory. I looked at the dog in B Ward, and indeed he had an open lesion on his foot, but he was mobile and alert and looked like a good candidiate. However, he had had imaging (radiographs and ultrasound) earlier in the afternoon, and had been sedated for that. It takes six hours for sedation to wear off to the point where I feel comfortable saying that it no longer affects their behavior, so I wouldn’t have been able to enroll him until 9 pm. That’s outside my window; enroll dogs at extremely different times of day and you risk seeing cortisol levels that differ because of cortisol’s diurnal cycle, not because of stress level differences. Oh, well.

I went to the gym for an hour, and came back around 5:30 in hopes that some new dog had shown up. No. I think the hospital is not quite back in full gear after the holidays, and also Mondays are typically slow. At this point I started looking more closely at the two smaller dogs that I had discarded before. I don’t like to use small dogs; they are put in cages, not runs, so I have to ask someone to move them into a run for my use. I also have a feeling (unscientifically) that small dogs react to stressful situations differently than large dogs do. But at this point I just wanted someone to enroll. One of the two turned out to be on meds which disqualified her. The other probably would have worked out — but his doctor had just gone home, so I couldn’t get permission to use him. (Surprising! People on a medicine rotation, as this resident was, are generally around much later than 5:45.) The lesson: if you think you might possibly want to use a dog, get the permission proactively. Don’t wait to see if someone better shows up later.

Then I went home and read more. I can’t quite get over the fact that I get to spend a year reading and writing. It’s great.

So that seems to be my routine for the early part of this semester. So far, so good. Soon I have to start doing things like doing the actual cortisol assay for the dogs I’ve enrolled, and build the results into a stress scale, but for now things are in a pretty solid rhythm.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Links post

Saturday, January 2, 2010

It’s not a puppy mill — but that doesn’t matter

My local paper recently ran a story about someone who bought a puppy from a pet store. The puppy became sick. The pet store won’t pay for the puppy’s medical expenses, though they will take the puppy back and offer a full refund. The article asks the questions: Is the store doing wrong? Should this operation be called a “puppy mill”?

Well, what is a puppy mill? Sort of like porn, it can be awfully hard to define. Wiktionary gives it a go with “a farm that breeds dogs for profit, often in squalid conditions.” There are some establishments that are clearly puppy mills: places which stack dogs on top of each other in piled cages and provide unarguably substandard medical care. Horror stories about dogs rescued from places like these abound on the internet.

The pet store in question here doesn’t breed its own dogs, so maybe we should be asking “is it supplied by puppy mills”? For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that all the breeders which supply this operation take good care of their animals. Let’s say that their dogs are fed appropriate amounts of nutritious dog food, are given sufficient space to move around (according to USDA standards, possibly even exceeding them), and receive regular veterinary care. Are they puppy mills?

According to that Wiktionary definition, yes: the dogs are bred for profit. A “mill” is a “place of business for making articles of manufacture.” There’s nothing ethically wrong with breeding dogs for profit (at least I’m not going to argue that there is), so why insist on the derogatory term “puppy mill” for an establishment that is breeding them in humane living conditions?

There’s nothing wrong with it in theory, but in practice it appears to be impossible to do all the things necessary in order to reliably produce healthy, well-adjusted purebred dogs and still make money off of the transaction. Purebreds should have genetic screening to make sure that the babies aren’t getting a double dose of some undesirable gene (like a predisposition to develop cancer — something that, by the way, isn’t very likely to appear in time to return the dog before the one year guarantee offered by this particular store expires). That can cost hundreds of dollars. Mom and dad should also have been given a chance to prove that they have good dispositions, by living in a home environment and interacting with children, men in uniform, strange dogs, cats, etc. And the puppies should be well socialized at a young age — before they are old enough to leave their mom; before they are old enough to go home. Socialization is an incredibly time-consuming process. At the very least, puppies should have some understanding of what it is like to live in a home, but they also should be exposed to all sorts of people, animals, and objects at that important formative time in their lives when their brains are developing and learning what is normal. (Gina Spadafori of PetConnection has a post about one day in the life of raising the puppies she bred.) Responsible breeders breed because they want to improve their breed, not because they want to make money. They actually lose money with each litter.

The HSUS has a pamphlet about how to identify a responsible breeder. Responsible breeders should encourage you to interact with the puppies’ parents, let you see where the dogs are raised, and breed puppies from only one or two breeds, so that they can understand each breed in depth. Moreover, they insist that you return the dog to them if you ever cannot keep the dog (for personal problems or because of health problems that the dog has). On the other hand, pet stores like the ones in this article act as brokers between breeders and customers, so the customer has no chance to meet the puppy’s parents, or see where it spent those important formative weeks. The rooms at this particular store where dogs are kept are “off-limits” to customers, according to the article. The customer cannot interact with the puppy’s breeder at all, to learn about the idiosyncracies of the breed, be they psychological (some breeds need extra socialization because they can become “protective” of their owners) or medical (what medical predispositions should the new owner be watching out for?).

The news article was written when a discontented customer accused the pet store of selling him a sick puppy. Would a responsible breeder be less likely to produce a sick puppy? As the owner of this pet store admits, “It's like a day care. There will be respiratory infections going around.” If you ship puppies from multiple locations to one place and keep them in large groups, they will expose each other to pathogens. The store appears to take precautions, but perhaps the best precaution of all would be to not mix dozens of puppies from various sources together in the first place.

Would a responsible breeder be more likely to pay for a sick puppy’s medical expenses? I think the store’s owner was right on when he said that he wasn’t comfortable paying the medical expenses for someone else’s dog — that he was willing to take the dog back and treat it, but not to pay for the treatment that someone else chose. Veterinary medical decisions can be difficult ones, and can incur hefty bills. This is one case in which I don’t think a puppy owner’s experience will differ much if the puppy comes from a store versus a responsible breeder. I do have to wonder how the relationship between the new owner and the breeder might differ, however. The ideal relationship is a friendly one, with the breeder offering advice and sympathy in a way that a store owner rarely can. Perhaps a puppy owner might not feel as angry at a breeder’s refusal to pay for veterinary expenses.

It’s easy for pet stores to argue that they are good businesses, that they have few complaints through the Better Business Bureau, that they adhere to USDA regulations, and that all their puppies come from loving homes. But the BBB operates in a world in which a well run business promptly replaces defective merchandise; most people are a lot less likely to ask to have a sick puppy exchanged for a healthy one than they are to ask for a replacement shoe when the first one ripped. The USDA regulates basic good husbandry practices, but it is not and should not be the place of the USDA to define good socialization practices for puppies. And no truly loving and responsible breeder would sell a puppy to a broker, losing the chance to check out any potential home and make sure it is appropriate. No matter how hard they try (and I do believe many of them try), pet stores cannot be appropriate venues for placing puppies. The kennel described in this story should not have particular measures taken against it, at least not given the information provided in the story; however, people should be educated that their chances of acquiring a healthy puppy are hugely greater when buying from a responsible breeder than from a store. Is it or isn’t it a puppy mill? It doesn’t matter. It’s not a good place to get a puppy.