Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Links post

Dog stuff
Local food/food safety stuff
  • Faeces and flies “found” at US egg farms tied to illness (BBC News): “Officials say chickens’ contact with animal faeces and wildlife are among the main causes of concern as they investigate the source of the salmonella outbreak.” I really hope this story is not spun into “chickens are healthier in cages where they can't come in contact with wildlife.” Infectious disease is a problem when animals live in too-close quarters. Well-managed farms can balance allowing chickens room to move around with disease management. I assert that I am safer eating eggs from backyard chickens (plenty of room to move around, plenty of grass to clean their feet off on, where one sick hen is not going to make all her neighbors sick, because they are not crammed together), even if those chickens interact with wild birds, than eating eggs from factory farms. I don’t have scientific evidence to support this because the studies have not been done (and are hard to do — there are a host of different factors between those two environments to control for).
  • ButcherShop (Sugar Mountain Farm): Creative solutions to the lack of slaughter facilities in the Northeast: “We are building our own USDA/State inspected on-farm slaughterhouse and butcher shop... Since banks have not been lending we are bootstrapping the construction from our own cash and selling CSA Pre-Buys where customers get free processing in exchange for buying early.” Lack of local slaughter facilities for small farms is the major impediment to an increase in the number of farmers producing humanely-raised meat in the Northeast. Read more about shortage of slaughterhouses, particularly in the Northeast.
Meta-science stuff
  • How to make a difference – Responsible vaccine advocacy (Science-Based Medicine): Nice article about how to approach the problem of spreading your viewpoint, recognizing that repeating facts over and over is probably not very effective.
  • Good example of a tag cloud for blogs. This is the interface I really want to see on a larger scale.
  • Online science blogregator
  • Peer Review and the Internet (Science-Based Medicine): “Imagine an alternate process by which an article is published online, either on an open site or a secure site that only experts have access to. Then dozens or hundreds of experts can comment on the paper, providing feedback directly to the authors in addition to the editors, who can also respond to the commenters. The result would be more of a dynamic conversation than you get with the current review process. But most importantly, in my opinion, is that you would get a broader range of opinions, and a far greater chance to detect error or bias. An editor or editors can oversee the process, and once it has played itself out the final version of the paper can be published to the public, and become part of the official literature.” Sounds great. One question I have: how do you know when “it has played itself out”?
  • Asking “Who’s a journalist?” is so 2007 (Global Vue): Proposes a list of questions we should be working on now. (It’s nice when posts don’t just explain why a question is a bad one, but constructively offer alternative questions that we should be asking.)
  • Supplementary Information: should I stay or should I go? (Martin Fenner): Nice collection of the blog posts about supplemental information and the implications of the Journal of Neuroscience's recent decision to stop accepting it. Fenner comments “This is a perfect example for why we need better systems to track blog posts relating to an article.“ I concur.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Comparative medicine: what is a wallaby?

[ETA: this post was included in Grand Rounds Vol. 6 No. 49 — a conference in a tropical island resort. There are lots of great posts of a medical nature there.]

Last night my ex-roommate, now an intern, called me to say that she had a wallaby as a patient. I was enthused. “Wallaby! It is like a baby kangaroo! Is it really cute? You are so lucky. So what’s wrong with it?” It came in to the hospital with diarrhea, apparently, and feels pretty crappy.

This morning I have a lecture on cow diarrhea, and I thought, I wonder what’s wrong with that wallaby? I wonder if this morning’s lecture will give me any idea? Then I thought: What’s a wallaby?

There’s a popular t-shirt among vet students that says “Real doctors treat more than one species.” We learn about the common ones in vet school: dogs, cats, cows, horses. But we are (at least theoretically) responsible for any animal species except for one. What if something you’ve never seen before comes in the door? How do you start to approach that problem?

In our first year nutrition class, we learned how to deal with a related problem: feeding zoo animals. What do you feed a rhinoceros? Well, the lecturer said, what’s a rhinoceros? They are hind gut fermenters, like horses. So if you don’t have any idea what to feed it, feed it like you’d feed a horse. What’s a giraffe? It’s a cow (a foregut fermenter). What’s a tiger? (You can probably manage that one on your own.) You’re not going to do a perfect job of constructing a diet if this is all the information you have, but in a pinch, it can be a good start.

But that’s nutrition. Can you take the same approach in medicine? The medical problems that we see in different kinds of animals seem to mostly be affected by two things: the animal’s basic anatomy, and how we use the animal. Pets (dogs, horses) have congenital problems (hip dysplasia); they have problems associated with old age (heart disease, kidney disease, cancer); they have trauma (hit by car, athletic injuries). Animals with complicated guts (horses, cows) have gut diseases (colic in horses, all sorts of things in cows). Horses have problems with their legs and feet. Food animals have more herd health issues, associated with management problems (poor husbandry) or infections (lots of animals living in close quarters).

So when a general practitioner encounters an animal like a wallaby, one place to start is to ask: What is a wallaby? This one was a pet, so I might put it into the same framework as a dog, expecting diseases of old age rather than diseases of poor herd management.

Of course, this is only a rough place to start. Even the species we know well have very different medical issues. For example, cats have notoriously ineffective livers when it comes to processing medications; acetominophen can kill a cat. That’s an important species difference to know. A general practitioner really should not be seeing something like a wallaby; an animal like that should go to an exotics practitioner. (This one was presumably a patient of the exotics department, but the ER department was keeping an eye on it over the weekend.) But even the exotics practitioner is going to be lacking a lot of information, and may need to engage in some informed guesswork.

The species differences that we have to learn in school make veterinary education a somewhat overwhelming process. But on the flip side, veterinarians have the opportunity to see medicine from a very different perspective from human doctors. Treat multiple species? Veterinarians treat multiple phyla.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Veterinary fact of the day: placing an esophagostomy tube

Yesterday we learned the theory of how to place an esophagostomy tube. We saw a video of a tube placement on a cadaver dog, but haven’t actually gotten hands-on experience in this area yet. (We may all get to do so before we graduate, though.)

What’s an esophagostomy tube? It’s a feeding tube that goes in through an incision in the animal’s neck, into the esophagus. It is used for animals that will not or cannot eat normally, but can keep food down. So you might use it in an animal with bad facial fractures which cannot move its jaw; you would not use it in an animal which had uncontrolled vomiting (all the food would come right back up).

How do you place it? Put the animal under general anesthesia. Put some forceps into the animal's mouth, into the esophagus. Make an incision in the animal’s neck, right over the esophagus. Poke the foreceps through the esophagus and out the hole in the neck. (Dr. Libbe said at this point: “This part seems kind of scary at first, but it does work!”) The forceps are strong enough to poke through the esophagus and make a hole, but not strong enough to poke through the skin and muscle, which is why you make the incision.

Take the feeding tube and thread it in through the hole in the neck, grab it with the forceps, and pull in out the animal’s mouth. Now you have a tube from outside of the mouth to outside of the neck — not so useful! So turn the mouth-end of the tube around and thread it back down the esophagus in a little loop. When it passes the incision you’ve made, it will lie a little further down the esophagus, and now it is in place: you have a tube passing from outside the neck to inside the esophagus. Suture the tube in place, and you are all done.

What I did yesterday: Two hours of zoo medicine lecture (reptiles). Lunch! (I exercised outside; it was a lovely day. I also did my ethics reading.) Two hours of small animal medicine and surgery lecture (nutritional support). Two hours of ethics lecture/discussion (euthanasia). Home!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A day in the life: ethics from large and small animal vets

I had trouble choosing just one anecdote to relay from today’s lectures, so I’m going with two, and calling this “a day in the life” (of a third year vet student) rather than “veterinary fact of the day.”

Our large animal medicine and surgery lectures this morning were on oral and GI diseases in cows. Dr. Big (not his real name) started the GI lecture with an overview of the situation in which today’s dairy cow finds herself. He pointed out that ruminants made an interesting gamble a long time ago, relying on bacteria in their huge stomachs to convert their food into energy. Then man started selectively breeding them, and today’s dairy cow looks very different than she did even fifty years ago. A cow today might produce 150 lbs of milk a day during her peak lactation. “I bet half of you don’t even weigh that much,” he said. He went on to opine that almost every disease which we will be learning about during our five hours of GI lecture (not all of that was today!) is man made. “Put the cow on a pasture and she’ll live for 20 years with no problems. Put her in a dairy herd and ask for 150 lbs/day, and her mean life expectancy is 5 years.” (I found it interesting that he equated being on pasture with not producing milk. Every week at my local farmer’s market, I purchase yogurt made from milk from grass-fed dairy cows, out on pasture right here in Massachusetts.) He went on to suggest that we should all read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which he felt was a very interesting book, “though I don’t think Pollan got it entirely right.”

I just get little hearts in my eyes when food animal vets talk like this. Cows should be on pasture! They get sick because of things we do! It is lovely to see people walking in the grey area between ignoring all welfare implications (“cows do just fine in open barns, they don’t need to be out on grass”) and ignoring the realities of the situation (“no one should ever drink milk because cows shouldn’t be raised the way they are”). Dr. Big thinks we can do better than we do, and he tries to make it happen, by teaching vet students and (I presume) by encouraging farmers to make changes where they can. Compare that to the lecture from the swine practitioner earlier this week, who felt that intensive farming of pigs was best for the pigs’ welfare.

From the other side of the fence, in anesthesia lecture we got a moment to think about the welfare of dogs. Dr. Bonne talked about managing brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs when they recover from anesthesia. When a dog is under general anesthesia, it has an endotracheal tube (“trach tube”) put down its throat to help it breathe. Most dogs need to have the trach tube removed before they are fully awake. Not brachycephalics. Dr. Bonne showed us a photo of a bulldog: “Look, there he is, wide awake with the tube in, breathing wonderfully. They will do that for an hour or so.” Brachycephalics often have tracheas the width of a tomcat’s, just 5.5 mm in diameter. It is not really enough for them to breathe. When they wake up with a trach tube in, it may be the first time in their lives in which they can breathe easily. Dr. Bonne expounded: “Can you imagine, they must spend so much energy every day, just to breathe. They are perfectly happy with the trach tube in. You should leave it in until the last minute, until they are almost ready to walk out the door. Nobody else tolerates the tube the way that these dogs do.” To my mind, she didn’t go quite far enough — she didn’t ever suggest that perhaps brachycephalics should be bred with a little more care to whether or not they can breathe. But I still appreciated the rant, as far as it went.

What I did today: Two hours of small animal medicine and surgery lecture. Two hours of large animal medicine and surgery lecture. Lunch! (A meeting.) Two hours of anesthesia lecture. Home!

Monday, August 23, 2010

A day in the life

My “fact of the day” today is just a series of reflections on what was quite a varied day. We started out with two hours of ethics lecture. Mmm, ethics, one of my favorite things. This was the first lecture in this class, and it was enjoyable (despite the fact that I had missed out on the notice that we were supposed to do the reading ahead of time — oops).

We talked about different kinds of ethics: contractarian, utilitarian, relational, rights-based, and respect for nature. The contractarian discussion was the most interesting to me. Do we have relationships with animals based on a contract? The obvious answer is no, because animals can’t understand the concept of a contract and can’t knowingly enter into one. But I argued in class that species can have what is almost like a contract. For example, when we domesticated dogs, we traded food and medical care for work. Is this really a contract? Well, I think it is interesting that we only domesticated some species. Some have proved to not be domesticatable. Does that mean that some species (not the individuals, of course) chose to enter into a contract with our species, and other species chose not to? Only in a very abstract sense, of course, but I like the idea. Some theories of how canid domestication happened suggest that dogs made the first move in the relationship, choosing to start living near us for the benefits of our waste food. Did we domesticate them, or did they wriggle their way in first?

Next we had an hour of large animal medicine and surgery lecture about diseases of pigs. The lecture was given by a swine vet who works closely with intensively-raised pigs — pigs in confinement housing, what has been called a factory farm. She was not interested in discussing the ethics of confinement housing; when she put up a slide with an image of a sow gestation crate (in which the sow does not have room to turn around), she stated preemptively that any discussion about gestation crates could take place after lecture. In other words, she did not feel lecture was an appropriate place for that discussion. Phew. I completely understand her fear that lecture could get derailed in a debate on pig confinement, but I would have at least appreciated a few sentences about why she thinks it’s okay — some moral context. As it was, the contrast to the previous lecture was pretty stark.

Then lunch (I practiced the names of surgical instruments) and then one more hour of ethics lecture, and two more hours of pig diseases lecture. What an oddly-scheduled day.

The post-prandial ethics lecture/discussion was really interesting. It was about the question of whether the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) should extend accreditation to a Mexican veterinary school, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The AVMA already accredits multiple foreign schools, so this is not at all without precedent. UNAM is by many reports an excellent school. So what’s the problem? Apparently, some veterinarians are afraid that accrediting UNAM will result in an influx of Mexican veterinarians to compete with American veterinarians, willing to work for lower salaries. The argument against that viewpoint is that we already have protections in place, requiring that foreigners be paid the same as American workers.

Should the AVMA just get out of accrediting non-American schools all together? The arguments against that are that global standards are good things; and that high standards abroad help keep us safe at home, because it is foreign veterinarians who stand between American animals and the introduction of animal diseases not yet seen on this continent, like the dreaded foot and mouth disease.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I am missing some arguments on this particular issue, because some of the people arguing against accreditation for UNAM are people I otherwise really respect, so I’ll keep my ears pricked and report back here if I learn more.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Links post

Veterinary fact of the day: chemodectomas

This is actually the veterinary fact of yesterday. During small animal medicine and surgery, a surgeon was discussing chemodectomas, tumors arising from chemoreceptors. A chemoreceptor is a cluster of cells which measures chemical changes in the body, such as oxygen level. The surgeon asserted that brachycephalic dogs (flat-faced dogs, like pugs and bulldogs) get chemodectomas more often than other types of dogs, possibly due to “chronic asphyxiation.” In other words, in his opinon (and that of other veterinarians), the fact that flat-faced dogs can’t really get enough air in through their tiny noses can actually result in cancer.

I’m not going to talk about the physiology behind how this would work, because we didn’t cover that in class. I will say that I think it is a failing of the veterinary profession as a whole to not discuss these kinds of issues more with people who are deciding what kind of dog to get. “That breed of dog is more likely to get this form of cancer” is a very different statement from “that breed of dog can’t get enough air into its system, which can cause all kinds of problems, including cancer. We should be encouraging breeders to breed a little more snout into these dogs so they can be healthy.”

What I did yesterday: Two hours of large animal medicine and surgery lecture. Two hours of small animal medicine and surgery lecture. Lunch! (Except I didn’t eat then, because I had a meeting. I ate during:) Two more hours of small animal medicine and surgery lecture. Suture practicing with friends! Gym! Home!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Veterinary fact of the day: fish medicine

Today we had a lecture on fish medicine. The veterinarian who gave the lecture told us that she went to vet school so that she could work with fish. It must have been frustrating to her to have only two hours total devoted to her species of choice. And here I get frustrated when I have to learn about pigs.

What should I share with you about fish? Turns out that if you want to draw blood from a fish, you are in trouble; phlebotomy is “not routine” in fish. You can do it with bigger fish (“bigger than a salmon,” she says, assuming we all know exactly how big that is) by drawing from the caudal vein (back near the tail). In smaller fish you have to draw from the heart, which is terminal. So if you have small but valuable fish, you keep an extra to sacrifice (a sentinel animal), for use in diagnosing problems that affect all or most of your animals.

Valuable fish? Sure, koi can get very valuable. Of course, fish farmers consider their stock to be valuable overall, even if individual animals are not. And laboratory research is done on fish, so you have herd health issues there, too.

Speaking of research on fish, the lecturer mentioned in passing that you can measure stress in fish by measuring the cortisol in the water. Then she left before I could ask for more information. Here is what went through my head: Cortisol in the water! They must pee it out. Wait, they don’t pee, I bet it comes out of their gills. I bet it is not cortisol, I bet it is cortisol metabolites. Amazing that they use cortisol just like us, not even a cousin like corticosterone. Why do people measure it, I wonder? Some sort of diagnostic reason — to tell if the fish is sick, maybe? Or is it used as part of stress research studies? How similar is the fish HPA to the mammalian HPA? Ah, if only I had time to wander Google Scholar, reading random papers, as I did a week ago.

What I did today
Up extra early. Gym! (It seems to prevent the stress headaches, which I imagine will go away when I readapt to the pace of vet school after a year away from it.) Suture practicing with classmates. Two hours of small animal medicine lecture (the last of the cardio unit). Lunch! (Tried to catch up on science blogs reading.) Two hours of anesthesia lecture. Two hours of zoo medicine lecture (fish medicine). Suture practicing with an ex-classmate who already knows it all. Home!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mechanics of virtual blogging networks

I’ve seen a few posts lately about the possibility of virtual blogging networks. Sorry if this has all been covered in more detail already by others; I am way behind on my blog reading right now. But I did want to post about how easy making a virtual network is. The hard part is just getting the people together to do it.

  • Everyone who wants to participate in the virtual network has their own blog wherever they want.
  • When someone posts something that they want added to the virtual network, they tag it with an agreed-upon tag (“virtual post,” say).
  • The person who sets up the network has an account on a blog aggregation site like Yahoo! Pipes. They aggregate all the blogs by tag. The exact way to do this will differ for each blogging platform For example, to aggregate all Dog Zombie posts (on Blogspot) tagged “veterinary fact of the day,” the URL http://dogzombie.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default/-/veterinary fact of the day would be added to the aggregator feed.
  • Profit! Oh, wait.
Easy. The only question is: do bloggers want to write for virtual networks, and do readers want to read posts aggregated in virtual networks?

Veterinary fact of the day: innocent murmurs

A two month old golden retriever puppy comes in for a check up, and the veterinarian auscults (listens to) her heart routinely. The vet hears a murmur, a II out of VI. Lower numbers mean quieter and less serious murmurs, so this one isn’t very loud. Does the veterinarian panic? No! Puppies often do have “innocent” murmurs, most of which go away with age. “Let’s wait and see” is an OK answer here (though not the right one in every case, of course).

Where do innocent murmurs come from? Puppies have less fat and muscle in their chest walls than adult dogs do, so very soft murmurs are easier to hear. They also have fewer red blood cells, which can make the motion of the blood through their hearts more turbulent, and that can also cause a murmur.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor of puppies yet. Please do not make any medical decisions based on these blog posts.

What I did today: Two hours of anesthesia lecture. Two hours of small animal medicine/surgery lecture. Lunch! (Goofed off and hung out with friends while I ate. Luxury.) Two hours of large animal medicine/surgery lecture. (Calf diarrhea!) Chased down friendly tech, got expired suture for practicing knots and suturing. Gym! Home! Lots of studying tonight, and what will hopefully be the for-reals-last thesis edits.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Veterinary fact of the day: premedication

Welcome to a new feature: the veterinary fact of the day. See the bottom of this post for more information.

Today’s veterinary fact is a brief overview of pre-medication, or premed. (This is different from a premed student.)

What’s pre-medication?
It sounds like a very general term! But in a veterinary hospital, you “premed” an animal before general anesthesia.

What’s in a premed?
Premeds are tailored to the particular animal, based on age, species/breed, temperament, pre-existing conditions, etc. Generally, a premed will include an analgesic, a sedative or tranquilizer, and sometimes an anticholinergic.

Why would you give an animal an anticholinergic in their premed? Also, what the hell is an anticholinergic?
An anticholinergic is a medication which competes with a specific kind of neurotransmitter, part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When your brain sends out messages to your body saying “time to relax, to rest and digest,” the anticholinergic blocks those messages. This makes the body do the opposite of rest and digest (increase heart rate, for example). Why would you give one of those when you are about to make the animal lose consciousness? It helps keep the heart going at the rate you want, even when the rest of the animal’s body is being artificially put into what you can think of as close to the “off” state. Also, it makes the patient make less saliva. Apparently that can be important in ruminants (cattle!). I can only imagine.

Why would you give an animal a tranquilizer or sedative in their premed?
Well, first, what is the difference between a tranquilizer and a sedative? They are really two parts to the same equation; a tranquilizer makes you feel calmer, and a sedative makes you act calmer. Why give them? To make things easier on the animal, who is in a scary situation. To make things easier on the anesthetist, who is handling an animal that might be scared.

Why would you give an animal an analgesic in their premed?
Why a pain reliever? They aren’t going to be feeling anything while they are under general anesthesia, but they will certainly be feeling something when they wake up, unless they have an analgesic on board. Also, putting in an intravenous catheter (for the general anesthesia) can be painful.

Why are you telling me all this?
I just went back to veterinary classes after a year of research. I don’t expect to have much time to blog in detail, but I figured a quick report daily (if possible; I expect to slip to every several days at least) from the trenches of the third year of vet school might be interesting. I will call it the “veterinary fact of the day.” This is the year in which we learn how to fix what’s broken. I would love feedback — let me know if I am covering things that are interesting, and if you have any requests.

What did you do today?
Two hours of Anesthesia and Analgesia lecture. Two hours of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery lecture. Lunch! (Food and statistics; I am still editing my thesis.) Two hours of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery lecture. Home!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Animal welfare and veterinary ethics

The American College of Animal Welfare has proposed a new animal welfare veterinary speciality. The creation of a new specialty happens when a new veterinary college is created. Admission to a veterinary college normally entails completion of veterinary school (obviously), then a few years in private practice or a one-year internship, then a multi-year residency in the specialty, including clinical practice and research, and finally a difficult board exam. There may be some other requirements for specific specialties. In this case, a proposed additional requirement is that the candidate sign a statement that they agree with the AVMA’s animal welfare principles.

Some veterinarians recently sent a letter to the AVMA protesting this requirement. This story has been reported on both by the Veterinary Information Network News Service (an unbiased report) and by Pet Connection (an opinon piece).

One item in the AVMA’s animal welfare principles that the veterinarians who sent the letter are taking exception to is:

The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath.

Should veterinarians be required to agree with the AVMA’s animal welfare principles before they are allowed to be certified as animal welfare specialists?

It is worth pointing out that the AVMA already requires all veterinarians to take an oath upon completion of veterinary school. Here it is:

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.
This oath may seem innocuous, but note that it frames a veterinarian’s primary responsibility as being “for the benefit of society,” not for the benefit of animals. This is very similar to what I see as the primary objection to the animal welfare principles being debated, which emphasize “the responsible use of animals for human purposes.” If you disagree with the latter, should you have sworn to the former? Or is it possible that a number of veterinarians are taking the Veterinarian’s Oath without really meaning it?

Personally, I actually prefer the phrasing in the animal welfare principles, which only require “the responsible use of animals for human purposes.” What is responsible use? It is presumably different for different people. In the VIN article, Dr. Gary Block (moderator of a veterinary ethics mailing list, past president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics, member of the leadership council of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, board certified internal medicine specialist) explains his view point:

For the most part, everyone would agree with the principles. But let’s say that I come to the conclusion that based on ethical, medical, physiologic and environmental grounds that invasive research on higher primates should never be done. Now I’ve just run afoul of the principles.

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Block and his positions on animal welfare, but in this case I think he’s wrong. I think it’s fine to interpret “responsible use” to mean “no use” in some cases. There are some things that cannot be done responsibly; genocide comes to mind. If Dr. Block chooses to believe that primate research cannot be done responsibly due to primates’ high requirements for enrichment, I don’t find that position to be irreconcilable with the AVMA’s animal welfare principles.

My view is that the AVMA has dragged its heels for too long when it comes to its views of animal welfare. The AVMA’s positions on animal welfare seem to me to all too often fail to reflect the views of the majority of American veterinarians. Creation of an animal welfare college would be a big step forward. If we stop to quibble about the details, it may never happen. These principles are broad and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It’s annoying to have to sign them, no question. But worth jeopardizing the creation of the new specialty? In my opinion, no.

Links post

  • ZooBorns has your canid puppy fix, with baby bush dogs, dingoes, and fennec foxes. The dingoes post has some interesting background on dingoes and explains how they are different from domestic dogs.
  • Hands Off My Bone! (The Thoughtful Animal): review of an article about whether dog growls have different meanings to dogs.
  • P ≠ NP and the future of peer review (Science in the Open): Science in the Open considers what the reaction of the mathematics community to a recent extremely high-profile paper means for peer review.
  • Native American Project HSVMA Stipend (The Vet Gazette): a vet student reports on her experience working on a Native American reservation, providing veterinary services, spay/neuter, and outreach to grade school students.
  • Science Bloggers: Diversifying the news (CMBR): review of a journal article about science bloggers versus political bloggers, and how they approach topics differently.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Report from the trenches of local politics: pit pull ordinance hearing

Last night I attended a city council meeting in Worcester, in which the public was allowed to speak about the proposed pit bull ordinance. As a reminder, this ordinance would require pit bull type dogs in the city of Worcester to be muzzled when in public, and would require owners to post a sign warning that a pit bull type dog was in residence. Last night’s meeting was ably reported by the Telegram and Gazette, the local paper. I’ll give my own report here, and I’ll say up front that I don’t support the ordinance, and my reporting is biased (for the unbiased version, see the T&G).

As a Grafton resident, I was not allowed to speak at this meeting. I attended because I was curious, and to show support from the nearby vet school for opponents of the ordinance. Four other vet students attended with me (and maybe others that I didn’t know about). The room filled to overflowing, and was standing room only by the time the meeting came to order.

The first speaker was a state representative, who said that he had served on committees for animal legislation. He felt strongly that this ordinance doesn’t go far enough, and that pit bull type dogs should in fact be banned. He believed that “punish the deed, not the breed” was not a good argument against breed specific legislation, citing anecdotal evidence of pit bull type dogs having injured people. (He did not explain why he felt that breed was a better predictor of a dangerous dog than irresponsible ownership, something that often frustrates me about proponents of breed-specific legislation, because it seems to be such an obvious question to me.) His speech was greeted with loud boos from the audience, causing Mayor O’Brien to have to ask for quiet and for people to behave respectfully.

A representative of the Worcester Animal Rescue League also spoke. She made her case well, I thought, covering the important points: we have no reason to believe this ordinance will be effective; accurate identification of pit bull type dogs is very difficult; this ordinance will make people think the problem is solved when it is not. She was a good public speaker, something not to take for granted when a busy urban shelter needs to find someone to present their case at a city council meeting.

One person spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying that he had seen pit bull type dogs owned by drug dealers. Again, I felt that his case was lacking in some logic — perhaps ownership by a drug dealer might be a better predictor of a dog’s temperament than its breed.

Then people from the floor started lining up to speak against the ordinance. Mayor O’Brien attempted to alternate pro versus con speakers, but no one else was offering to speak in favor of the ordinance. So for the next 45 minutes, we heard from people against it. One speaker was a veteran of two wars who has a pit bull type dog with a Canine Good Citizen title, who is training her dog to do therapy work (going to places like hospitals and nursing homes to visit sick or elderly people who want to spend time with a dog). She was an excellent speaker who made good, logical points, but also had good emotional appeal.

Other speakers appealed solely to emotion, but I think that’s as important as appealing to logic in a situation like this. One elderly gentleman explained in detail how sweet his neighbor’s pit bull type dog was and how it liked to lick his face. While speeches like this seemed useless to one of my vet school compatriots, who wanted logic, logic, logic, I’m guessing that the less scientifically-trained in the audience found that sort of appeal more effective in some ways.

The ordinance will be voted on at the next city council meeting, in early September. In the meantime, apparently some motions were brought after I left, to modify the text of the ordinance to target dangerous dogs regardless of breed. That sounds like a good change to me. I’m hopeful that the suggestions that were presented to the city council will cause them to think this ordinance through over the next month, and possibly even work with the Worcester Animal Rescue League to redesign the ordinance. Something does need to be done, but whatever is done needs to target dangerous dogs, not dogs of a particular breed.

[ETA: Unfortunately, the ordinance passed, 9-2. It takes effect April 1, 2011.]

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Links post

I’m catching up on science blogs reading after a few days off. I was awfully busy recovering from defending my thesis! I am now almost done with the MS part of my dual-degree program, though there will be some thesis edits to do. Then I settle in for the final two years of the DVM program.

Anyways, links!

  • The PepsiGate linkfest (A Blog Around the Clock): so comprehensive, he even linked to me.
  • Mesozoic Blogosphere (Chasmosaurus): David Orr considers the usefulness of topic-based networks. The comments suggest aggregators to achieve this goal.
  • “Dominance” mythologies, Suzanne Hetts (The Other End of the Leash): More on dominance theory in dog training from Patricia McConnell
  • Tick news? It ain’t good, Dr. Flea tells AVMA audience (Pet Connection)
  • Environmental enrichment is key to happy, healthy animals (Pet Connection): This seemed like a relevant link after The Thoughtful Animal’s recent post about behavioral differences in pigs in enriched environments.
  • On detecting stress endocrines in hamster poop (C6-H12-O6): need I say more?
  • Learning to speak dog (Dog Star Daily): the usefulness of understanding canine body language, and some good pointers
  • You are what you eat – how your diet defines you in trillions of ways (Not Exactly Rocket Science): Nice post about how populations of gut bacteria are influenced by diet in different life stages and in different cultures. “As we learn more about our bacterial partners, we might eventually find ways of influencing them to improve our health, just as breast milk appears to selectively nourish helpful species.” He suggests inoculating people with appropriate gut bacteria, which makes me a little sad. I’d rather see people change their eating habits. Anyone for some research on the effects of fresh whole foods on populations of gut bacteria?
  • Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine (Wired): What is it today with links to articles about fixing problems with injections? Actually, this is a really good article about Robert Sapolsky, who did ground-breaking work on the effects of chronic stress on health. Apparently Sapolsky is now working on a vaccine to counter the neural effects of chronic stress. I have to admit that I find that a little scary. It sounds like a great answer to the problem of a society full of highly-stressed people, but the stress response is so complex and affects so many parts of our metabolism that it just can’t work without horrible side effects, can it? (The article addresses some of the issues.)
  • Virginia Heffernan Is Our Target Audience (Uncertain Principles): For those who don’t know the background, Heffernan wrote a piece in the New York Times in which she criticized Scienceblogs.com for having some snarky people on it, and said as a result of its tone, she didn’t find it to be a good place to go to learn about science. Various science bloggers have opined that she’s dumb and no one should change what they are doing. Here, Uncertain Principles suggests perhaps science bloggers should be trying harder to speak to this particular audience. I’m not going to write a whole blog post about it, but I vote with UP and the others who’ve voiced this particular opinion. Who cares who’s right? The important thing is getting your message across, and it’s pretty clear that some members of the audience find a less snarky message to be easier to absorb.

Philosophy of the Dog Zombie blog

I got tagged by Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal to write “your blogging motivation, philosophy and experience in exactly 10 words.”

Blog rarely. Blog nicely. Blog clearly. Blog controversially. Blog dogs.

I’m not going to tag ten more blogs to follow up on this meme, but I am going to leave an open tag — if you’re a reader of this blog and want to participate in this meme, do it and comment here!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Links post

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What could poison ivy possibly have to do with the stress response?

Hyperactive immune system + big back yard + hard-to-find poison ivy + dog who likes to roll in plants in back yard + dog zombie who likes to let her dog sleep on her bed... It’s all bad, people. I’ve thought of various ways I could turn my bad fortune into blog material, but I don’t have the energy due to side effects from various medications (prednisone can upset your stomach; it can also make it hard to sleep, and overdosing on sleeping pills will apparently also upset your stomach), so I’m just going to distill out some facts, inspired by the joyful weekend I’ve had.

  • It isn’t the urushiol oil itself on the poison ivy which makes you itch; it is your immune system’s extreme response to it. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is an important distinction when the rash continues to spread for days (in my case, more than a week). Is the problem that you are being continually exposed? (Dog + yard — this was possible in my case.) Or is the problem that your immune system has become so overstimulated that it is simply continuing to make rashes here and there, whether or not there is any good reason to?
  • If the rash just continues to spread, it is worth trying to convince a doctor to give you prednisone. Prednisone is an artificial imitation of our very favorite hormone, cortisol. Because chronic stress suppresses the immune system, when we need to suppress the immune system we can do so by telling the body that it is under extreme amounts of stress. The doses of prednisone that are given in this case are really large compared to the amount of cortisol you might normally expect to see circulating around your blood system. This is why it is important to taper off your dose of prednisone. Your body notices that it is pumped brim-full of glucocorticoid substitute, and stops making cortisol itself. So if you stop taking prednisone suddenly, you could suffer from the effects of a sudden deficiency of glucocorticoids in your system. They are stress hormones, but we have a little bit of stress every day, and so they are actually vital for proper bodily functioning.
  • What are the side effects of so much stress hormone in your body likely to be? A lot of the background reading for my thesis involved the effects of endogenous (natural) glucocorticoids on health outcomes, and I did some side reading about the effects of artificial glucocorticoids. So, as you can imagine, I asked my doctor what side effects I might see. He allowed as how my immune system would be suppressed (that was the whole point, after all), and so if I had a fever or some such, I should let him know. For the next few days, I was hyperactive, almost manic, and had extreme difficulty sleeping. I wondered if this was just psychosomatic, due to my knowledge that I was full of stress hormones, and my personal obsession with them. I finally did some research online and discovered that no, these were side effects common to this medication, about which my doctor had failed to warn me. When you are very stressed, you need lots of energy (to run away from the predator which your body assumes is pursuing you). Therefore, your body elevates your blood sugar, mobilizing storage reserves if necessary. This may account for my jumpiness.
  • A side note about poison ivy and life with dogs... I know how reactive I am to the stuff, and I am very careful not to touch it. If I had seen any of it in my yard, I would have noticed it. When you live with dogs, it’s important to remember that they may get it on their fur. They may not show signs themselves, but will carry it into the house and give it to you as a present. I don’t actually know that this is what happened, but I suspect. Today I made a hand-made haz-mat suit and toured my yard, killing anything that had three leaflets, then washed everything I could think of, including my dog. Apparently Palmolive is a great way to cut urushiol oil. I also use Tecnu, which is marketed for the purpose, though I hate the smell of it. I was tempted to put this task off until my boyfriend was in town, as he is less reactive to poison ivy, but decided it was best to deal with it while I was still on high doses of prednisone, in case of a reaction.
If this post sounded slightly manic, thank the pred. I have about another week to taper down.