Friday, January 14, 2011

Links post

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Would you cut off your dog’s leg?

Yesterday we had a lecture on osteosarcoma, a cancer of the bone. Osteosarcoma is not a good cancer, guys. It is liable to occur in younger dogs, it is extremely painful, and no matter what you do, it is almost certainly going to come back.

But there are things you can do to reduce or remove your dog’s pain, and to get more time with him (as much as a few years, sometimes). Because this tumor is so painful and aggressive, you really want to cut it out. But that is awfully hard to do as it usually appears in the long bones of the leg. So the surgical answer is almost always amputation of the limb. Alternatively, you could just do a course of chemotherapy to knock it back for a while, and deal with the pain using analgesics.

Who would want to cut off their dog’s leg? Chemo + painkillers is the obvious answer, right? And yet it is not. Chemo is much less effective than surgery, so you will have less time with your dog if you choose this option. And oral painkillers just don’t seem to help very much with this tumor, so your dog’s quality of life is likely to be pretty poor during that remaining time.

Amputation is actually a pretty good option. It just removes all the pain. And dogs do great with three legs. Dr. Glace said, with his typical deadpan delivery, “Some people say it’s like they don’t know they have lost a leg. That’s stupid. Dogs aren’t that dumb. They know they’ve lost a leg.” But they don’t care about it the way we do. They relearn to walk and then they do fine. Three legs is still one more than most of you have. I have seen three-legged dogs (“tripods”) in a flat-out run. No problems.

Dr. Glace says he won’t amputate a leg from one of the truly giant-size breeds (Great Pyrenees, Saint Bernard, Newfoundland), but noted that he amputated a leg from a mastiff (those are very big dogs!) a few months ago and the dog did extremely well. To test if the dog would manage successfully on only three legs, he employed the high tech test of picking up one leg and making the dog walk around the room on the remaining ones. Success.

The biggest problem, Dr. Glace says, is that owners really don’t want to amputate their dog’s leg. There is something viscerally upsetting about it. It’s one of those situations where your instincts might lead you wrong, leaving your dog with less time to live and more pain. Personally, I can report that I saw a tripod running an agility course, and she did just fine, even over the jumps. I direct you to this blog post about Serena, an agility tripod. Go tripods!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Everything I touch is missing a uterus, or, What is a freemartin?

Bovine procedures lab today and yesterday! (Why do they schedule these outdoor labs for the middle of the winter? Thank god for my insulated coveralls, three shirts + sweatshirt, and leggings.)

Bovine procedures lab involves actually doing lots of procedures on year-old Holstein heifers. These heifers (young cows who have not yet calved) are owned by an area farmer and lent to my school for a year or so, during which time the farmer pays for their upkeep and we get to do procedures on them. There are lots of rules about how many procedures can be done on an individual cow per day, to make sure they don’t have to put up with lots of invasive procedures (but even so my group frequently took breaks to let our heifer rest). The procedures included things like insertion of IV catheters, insertion of a stomach tube, haltering, tying up a leg, and so on. I do feel a little uncomfortable about the animal use in this lab, but I recognize the practical difficulties of spreading the procedures out over more cows. Also, I figure that once I am an all-powerful school administrator, I can find a creative solution to the problem.

These are super friendly heifers! I was surprised. One of them followed us around and solicited neck rubs. They are still pretty small, weighing in at around 700 lbs (which nevertheless felt like a lot when ours stepped on my foot).

Scratch my neck, bitches!

Late in the second day we got ready to do our vaginal exam. LPK lubed up the speculum but good and started to work it in. No go. It just wouldn’t go very deep. We called over Dr. Cole, who tried it himself, failed, said hmmm, put on a long glove (up to the shoulder), lubed it up, and did a rectal palpation. You do a rectal palpation as another method of evaluating the reproductive organs; you want to feel the cervix, uterus, and ovaries. This can tell you what stage of her cycle the cow is in (did she ovulate? is she perhaps even knocked up?). He took his arm out, looked at me, and said, “Give it a shot and tell me what you feel.”

Ah, my first bovine rectal palpation. On with the super long glove and lube. Brrr — you have to take off your insulated coverall top to do this and roll up your sleeves so your arm is bare to the shoulder; luckily it is warm inside the cow.

I got in and felt around. Lots of poop! (You have to sort of shovel that out at first. Dr. Cole had gotten most of it but I cleared out a little more. It is not cool to mistake a handful of poop for an organ.) I felt a cervix, but it was awfully tiny. And... nothing else. No uterus, no ovaries. This didn’t necessarily mean a lot, since I don’t really know what I am doing, but when I reported my findings to Dr. Cole, he replied, “That’s exactly right. She’s a freemartin.”

What’s a freemartin? This is a fairly rare condition. It happens when there are twin calves, one male and one female. The female is genetically normal, but as she is awash in a sea of testosterone in utero, she develops abnormally, into an intersex animal. I don’t know if all freemartins develop exactly the same way, but this one was typical in her lack of uterus and ovaries. Her vagina was a short, blind sac, which is why we could not get the speculum in.

It is freakish, I tell you. My first spay dog had no uterus, and now my first bovine rectal palpation doesn’t either. What are the chances? Am I cursed?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Living with a shy dog

I adopted a shy dog two days ago. You can see how tense she is in my house in the first picture. I’m including a second picture to prove that she isn’t like that all the time! (Also: doesn’t she look just like a domesticated fox that was dipped in yellow paint?)


This is Jenny. Jenny spent her first ten months on the same property on which she was born. She got to live with other dogs and knows a lot about how to interact with them. However, she doesn’t know a whole lot about interacting with humans, and we are pretty scary to her. She also doesn’t have much experience with the world in general. She’s been with me for about two days now and is just getting to the point where she’s willing to eat while I am in the room.

When Jenny is really alarmed by something I do, she pees. This is known as submissive urination; she’s sending a social cue to say “I’m harmless; please don’t eat me!” I can mostly avoid doing things to her that are this scary, but sometimes I do have to put a leash on her to get her outside, and then she is liable to pee. I’m taking various management measures to preserve my furniture, but this afternoon Jenny started being interested in eating treats that I tossed her, so I saw the opportunity to engage in some counter-conditioning with her.

The problem

When I approach Jenny purposefully and pull out a leash, she is scared, and pees.

Conditioning a new emotional response

The goal is for Jenny to see the cue (my purposeful approach, leash in hand) and feel good about it instead of scared. The solution is to break the scary cue down into cues that are smaller and less scary, and help her work through each of those with the help of something positive (treats).

It’s not just one thing that tells Jenny that I am about to grope around for the clip on her harness and attach a leash. It is my approach; the way I look straight at her; the purposeful way I walk towards her; the display of the leash in my hand. Each of these things is really a separate cue, and each should be worked on individually.

Working with Jenny

Jenny was on the couch downstairs. I wanted to be able to walk down the stairs and approach her with the leash. First, I tried it without the leash. I walked down the stairs more slowly than usual, stopped farther from her than usual, and avoided eye contact. I tossed her a treat. She thought about it, then ate it.

I repeated exactly the same sequence of events. This time, she ate the treat  promptly, suggesting that she was comfortable with the sequence.

I tried it again, and this time walked a little bit closer to her. That was okay. I tried again, making eye contact and walking faster. This scared her; she wriggled away from me on the couch. I stopped and backed up, looked away, threw a treat. She waited for me to go upstairs before she ate it. I tried again, this time backing up to something that she had previously accepted — stopping a ways from the couch and not making eye contact. This was still successful (she ate the treat without appearing alarmed). Phew. I started progressing again, but more slowly.

Counter-conditioning is extremely simple, but it can be really hard to implement properly in practice. We tend to get impatient. Why do we have to take such small steps? Can’t we go faster? Unfortunately, if the protocol you’re trying isn’t working, the answer is almost always to break the sequence you’re conditioning into smaller events and add new challenges more slowly (or maybe give better rewards; I could explore different types of treats to see if there is something more exciting for Jenny). But that is really hard for most humans. That’s the challenge of counter-conditioning and why it is often best to do it with the help of an experienced trainer until you get the hang of it.

Hopefully I will be able to teach Jenny over the next few days that the leash isn’t scary. For tonight, I stopped while I was ahead and didn’t push things too far.