Interspecies Love

I love my dog. Really. But I ask a lot of him for his species. We unfairly expect dogs to understand our intentions when our method of communicating is so different from theirs. I ask that he accept my adoring eye contact. I often hug him. I cuddle him as if he is a baby. These are not things that dogs, in general, as a species, appreciate. I talk to him like he can understand language; nuanced and particular. We show our teeth when we are happy, the exact opposite of what they do.

For a dog eye contact can be threatening. Between dogs, direct staring can be an invitation to fight. So look away from a dog that is feeling uncomfortable in your presence. Dogs prefer to greet one another side on, and sniff out each other’s rear ends. A dog that barges, head first into another’s space, is asking for trouble. Rude begets rude.

A wagging tail has been taught to children to signal a happy dog. But really a wagging tail is merely an invitation to engage. You need to assess the type of wag. The only truly safe wag is the windmill, whole bum wag; the one where the dog might be attempting to hula hoop, if he knew what such a thing was. The stiff tip wag of the upright tail can mean a fight is on its way. Beware the dog that approaches, ears forward, with the tail erect, like it has been stiffened by wire.

A teddy bear face invites the human to grasp the dog by the cheeks and bring it in close. Kiss it even. Our dog has grown up with our very forward advances. He has been well-socialised to endure the human embrace. What concessions does he make to his own comfort to accommodate our need to smother?

But children don’t often see such teddy bear-faced dogs as from another species. To them they are just like us, but fur-coated and made for canoodling. No one has taught them to stand back and see if the dog comes to them. Instead they rush up, arms flapping, squealing like prey and heading for the face. They fling arms around shoulders and over heads. Pat pat pat. No wonder so many are bitten. It is surprising that more are not. Just as we teach children at school the dangers of strangers and how to cross the road, perhaps we need to instruct on how to approach, or rather how not to approach, a species we have so surrounded ourselves with. I suspect that there is more likelihood of danger from a tethered dog than the chance of abduction from a stranger and yet we seem to let our children go on blissfully unaware of how to safely greet and engage with dogs. Instead we expect our canines to know our intentions are innocent and just submit to our embrace. We have unfairly asked so much of them….

A Youtube clip of a cat and Boston terrier – interspecies love

NYC Dogs

In classic New Yorker style, correspondent Burkhard Bilger, reports on the canine units in Manhattan keeping the city safe from terrorists. It is a great article; lengthy and detailed, giving the background of the rise of the detection dog.

The article quotes some of the great trainers working today such as Karen Pryor and Ken Ramirez who have taken the basics of operant conditioning, discovered by BJ Skinner in the 1940s, and spread it through aquariums and zoos and are now seeing its use trickle down into dog training.

“Thirty years ago, if a lion needed a flu shot, it had to be tranquillised. These days, it will walk up to its trainer and proffer its paw. “I could give you examples all day,” Ken Ramirez, the vice president of animal training at the Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago, told me. “We have sharks that will swim from tank to tank, and a beluga whale that will present its belly for an ultrasound. Our sea otters hold their eyes open to get drops, and I have a diabetic baboon submit to regular insulin injections.” Not long ago, when a camel broke its jaw at the nearby Brookefield Zoo, it walked up to a table and laid its head on a lead plate for an X-ray. “It makes managing animals so much easier,” Ramirez said. “They do things as part of a game you’ve taught them.”

And I guess this is the message that good dog trainers are now trying to get across to the public at large. “Like so much in the dog world, the change mirrors a trend in child rearing – and provokes the same heated debate.(“The only thing two dog trainers can agree about is that the third dog trainer is wrong,”)

Guide dog training in the US has also switched to positive reinforcement with great results. In the past about 50% of dogs completed training and went on to become working Guide dogs and now it is closer to 75%.

In the training of detection dogs the dogs used to start out living with regular families, as do Guide dogs, but despite this some dogs still had phobias in some surroundings, e.g. scared of slippery floors. Now the Canine Detection Research Institute sends its puppies to prisons in Georgia and Florida to begin their lives under the care of inmates. Not only does this pairing help the prisoners but it also results in adult dogs more accustomed to noise, crowds, stairs, slippery floors, grates etc. The less fearful a dog is of new things the better. They have found 80% of the prison raised dogs will go on and complete the program and become successful detection dogs. General dog owners can benefit from this news; expose your new puppy to many varied surroundings as it grows up to teach it not to be fearful in later life. Socialisation is everything.

Watch a video here; NYC police dogs

Poor Poodles

A poodle faces its owner, squinting. She sprays its hairdo which stands a foot-tall upon its head – stiff like whipped meringue. How must the hound feel about the assault of fumes when it owns such a clever and distinguishing nose? For a creature whose world is made up of all it smells it must be an anathema. No wonder others are barking at it, with its pompom bracelets and its heavily cushioned hips. Some say the poodle clip has its origins in shedding water from the coat, as well as keeping the joints and chest warm while out retrieving water fowl, but one wonders how much river water these poodles see. Likely the only water is luke warm in a tub from a soft shower rose in a tiled bathroom.

Then the highly coiffured poodles with their continental clips take to the ring to prance around with proud owners. A man in a grey suit strides out, as exuberant and purposeful as the poodle he leads. He is intent on his poodle’s movements, taking his eyes off where he is going, watching his dog, and so catches his foot on a protruding wheel of a table. He tumbles head over heel, dragging his dog down with him. Like a sponge ball the poodle rolls and bounces, a powder-puff of white. On his feet as quickly as he was down, the man continues on around the ring and at the end of the display scoops the large dog into his arms and carries it, like a cradled child, to a table to be examined. He runs his hands over it, like a man reading braille.

Rats in the Roof

Actually they are in the cramped ceiling space of our lean-to back kitchen and at night we hear them squabbling and scampering.  The pitter patter of their tiny feet makes Jasper and I look up from our books and wince painfully at one another. Neither of us can bear the sound of their scampering little feet. Like the rats in Beatrix Potter’s Roly Poly pudding they have set up home. Sometimes I even think of them in waist coats. Put up more poison, I suggest to Graham. God knows what became of the last square of killer bait that was thrown between the tin and the wooden ceiling. It did not dent their numbers. The unforgettable taint of decomposing rodent did not follow. How welcome the whiff might have been. Just more rustling. Still as dusk comes on their scurrying begins. For surely they have a hostage up there. Like the kitten that Anna Marie and Samuel Whiskers succeeded in capturing, I imagine them with some small morsel, rolling it this way and that across the ceiling boards. My shoulders hunch and I feel the hairs on my neck rise as yet another race goes on above my head.

It is a childhood fear, stemming from the chook house. Opening the lid to the grain bin and reaching in to scoop a tin-full of grain to feed the chooks, I feel the feet on me. Then a flash as something, unseen, but witnessed, zooms up my arm and is gone. I cannot say I saw it even. But it was a rodent. From in the wheat bin it came. Raced up the escape route that was my eight year old skinny brown arm and away. I screamed, girlishly, shrillishly. I jumped in the air.

The dog is no deterrent, not raising his nose even to sniff the air. A cat would do better. At night waiting. Quick to pounce. The dog is too well fed, too full of slumber. The rats too watchful. From where do they come? We are near the port, of course, and then there are the figs and olives in yards. Perhaps as the summer rolls on (after all I can hear cicadas) and the ceiling space becomes an unbearable oven, they will move away. Take their tiny feet, their rolling pin, and go.

My September 11th 2011


September 11 ten years ago we were watching Omega Man, a Charlton Heston film, when Graham’s brother rang and told us to switch on the telly. We saw the North tower burning after a plane had crashed into it and then proceeded to watch as the second plane hit and then the towers collapsed, falling straight down like they were made of paper. I was pregnant and spent the next two days watching the television and crying, disbelieving the scale of the tragedy.

In 2011, September 11 is a Sunday; one of my regular work days at the vet clinic. I have a routine caesarian to do on a French Bulldog called Blondie. This is her fourth litter. Last week another bitch owned by the same breeder had three pups by caesarian, but all the puppies died without explanation. I don’t want the same thing to happen on my watch. The caesarian goes smoothly and six puppies are born. One, we discover has a cleft palate, so it is not allowed to survive. The other five are fine. Frenchies are not good breathers and I take many precautions to ensure a smooth anaesthetic recovery. She is kept intubated until she is fully alert and able to hold her head upright. Then we extubate. The pups have their first feed off her and we send them all home. Her mucous membrane colour is paler than I would like but I reassure myself that the surgery was dry when I closed up her abdomen and she is, perhaps paler, only because she had an ovariohysterectomy as well. But two hours later she is back in the clinic after two episodes of collapse at home.

The owner has had to slam her on the concrete to get her breathing, she tells me.

Blondie is indeed extremely pale and I conclude she must be bleeding internally. I reanaesthetise her and open her up, yet again. Her abdomen is full of uncoagulated blood. Her intestines swim in a soup of dark red. I soak up the blood with laparotomy sponges and search for the bleeding. I retie the uterine stump where I suspect the bleeding has come from and retie both ovarian pedicles despite all ligatures being still in place. We take a blood sample and measure her packed cell volume (PCV) to find it is 13, less than a third of what it should be. She has lost so much blood that she needs a transfusion.

The breeder is sent home to get another healthy dog to act as a donor and we collect a bag of blood from a drain pipe jugular vein in the robust Staffy cross. We run in some blood to Blondie and she has had about half a bag when I notice her puffy eyes. She looks like a dog which has been stung by a bee. She has oedematous eyelids. I think she is having a transfusion reaction. Her PCV has come up to 23. We stop the blood transfusion. I give her steroids and antihistamine to stop the allergic reaction, but her face still looks like it has gone ten rounds.

When she is awake enough to have her tube out we withdraw it slowly. She attempts to breath but makes only gurgled, choking sounds. It is a sound I dread. She throws her head back, arches her neck and collapses. She is not breathing, and is not going to. We need to reinsert the tube. But now her airway has disappeared into an oedematous swollen mess of mucosal membrane. She is apnoeic, her gums are blue and her pupils are dilating to black unresponsive pools. She is dying fast. The breeder beside me cranks open the jaws as I attempt to intubate her. Even with a laryngoscope I cannot see  the airway. There is no hole to tube. As I keep trying to find an airway I am thinking she will not survive this. I can see her black eyes like her soul has gone. I search with a finger down her gullet for an airway and miraculously get a tube down. She is hooked up to oxygen and a vet student is doing chest compressions. I give her adrenalin. I listen to her chest and remarkably she has a heart beat. She’s back, I tell the stunned staff and the two breeders.

Now we have a dog who is alive, but one which we cannot extubate. I make the decision to perform an tracheostomy. She will need a safe breathing passage until her airways have lost their swelling. From an endotracheal tube we fashion a tracheostomy tube and I look up the surgical text book on how it’s done. The tracheostomy is performed and on unattaching the gaseous anaesthetic the end of the ET tube comes away. I nearly lose the tracheostomy tube down the trachea. I manage to grab it with forceps before it disappears altogether and then secure it with superglue, from the vet student’s flat. Blondie is ready to be recovered for the third time.

I make the decision to take her home with me since it requires that someone spend the night by her side making sure the tube stays open and she keeps breathing. We have spent five hours saving her. Her respiration is fast but she has a better airway now than she does normally and so her oxygen saturation stays at a high level. In a basket with warmed wheat bags surrounding her, I take her home, driving without the radio, listening to her breathing.

At home, Murphy our Border terrier, is locked outside and the Frenchie is in the lounge room, the drip hanging from the lamp. On the TV is a documentary about 9/11 called Rebirth. I set up my bed on the couch, beside her. She has pain relief every three hours to keep her calm and settled. She survives the night. I am reminded of being a breast feeding mother. In the wee hours I switch on the light and check her vitals. She is responsive and sad looking. She cannot make a sound except for her breathing, fast and regular. I am reminded of being a vet student doing the shift at the university hospital. Padding downstairs in bare feet to the kennels to check on patients and give medication. I am desperate for her to survive for I feel I have put her in this predicament. I am the surgeon who started this whole cascade of disaster going and I must stop it.

By three in the morning she is looking more normal and her breathing isn’t as fast. I am beginning to think she will make it. She has a pinkish hue around her muzzle.

I take her back to the vet clinic and we measure her blood pressure and her PCV. It has risen to 28 and her blood pressure is 80.  Not bad, considering. Today we will take out the tracheostomy and hopefully she will breathe on her own. We reanaesthetise her and place two stay sutures on either side of the cut tracheal rings so that we can easily locate this hole again if she fails to breathe unaided. We place an ET tube through her mouth and then we switch her off the anaesthetic. Finally she is awake enough to have the tube out and she breathes. She doesn’t gag or gurgle or choke. She breathes. She looks concerned, confused. She breathes. We breathe.

She spends the day in the clinic looking doped out and tired. She goes home about 4pm, more than twenty four hours after her dramas began. The bitch whose pups all died the week before has fostered her puppies so she will not be required to nurse them. Blondie can spend her time recouping.

I have the remainder of the day to work but cannot stop thinking about her.

Blondie in my lounge room after surviving the night


Pippin – Case History

It was the first time in a long time that he had been able to stroke the cat, without fear – for it was dead.

Pippin had a short life of three years. She had always been a little strange. At first wary of strangers. She had been a “rescue” from the RSPCA cats’ home and right from the get go seemed a little on edge. When her first owner moved away and could not take her with him she was handed on to his friends, a young twenty something couple who had never had a pet before. Like lots of novice pet owners they thought it might be a good way to practice being parents before having children. At first she seemed like a regular cat, just a bit shy. But how nice it was to have another species to coexist with. It made them feel whole. Wholesome.

They were confident she would adjust to them and become a normal, loving cat. With the previous owner she had slept on the bed, but the young couple kept her out of their bedroom. At night she wandered the hallway yowling.

Getting up one night to get a glass of water the young woman was attacked around the legs by the cat. She swatted the cat away. Not my finest hour, she later told me, as if she were to blame for all that followed.

Then one evening the cat was sitting by the back screen door and something caused the door to bang a little on its hinges. Next moment the cat flew back at the woman, ears flattened, claws out, fur electrified and attacked her, scratching and biting. It was a vicious event and the next day the woman took the cat to the vet clinic to see if there was a medical reason for the attack. For why else would Pippin throw herself at her, enraged; she loved her already.

Nothing wrong could be found with the cat. With the vet the cat was fine, smoochy even. I was not the vet.

They took the cat home but something had shifted. They had begun to fear Pippin. And there were other emotions too – a soup of dread, suspicion and regret – all became the young woman’s bedfellows as she became intent on solving her cat’s behaviour problem.

She was a torty cat with orange eyes and wonderful soft medium long fur. She was a patchwork of ginger, black and white. The kind of fur you want to run your fingers through – for isn’t this the essence of pet love? In the vet world torties are known for their high reactivity to a procedure. Tortishells need quick and careful handling or else they need a lot of sedative. They scratch and bite and sometimes are hell to deal with. But this is when they are aroused by fear and having something done to them they don’t like- like having an intravenous injection. To their owners they are just regular cats and as affectionate as any other. Their owners rarely see their “bad” side.

But when an owner says their tortie is aggressive, you believe them and reach for the padded gloves.

No one wants to be bitten by a cat. Their teeth are very sharp and like a needle they inoculate bacteria under the skin. A cat bite can give a nasty infection, swollen and painful.

Pippin began to prowl the house. Stealth mode. The young couple feared surprising her as an attack might follow. They wanted her to see there was nothing to be afraid of outside so they took her into the yard  on a leash but she had never been an outdoor cat and was clearly scared of what lay beyond the screen door. She just wanted to be inside. The young woman tried a few more times but Pippin didn’t seem to want a bar of it. And perhaps it was making her worse.

Then one night she attacked again and the owners could see no reason or instigator for it. She simply flew at the young man and attacked him around the arms, biting through his clothing.

They brought her to see me. The young man pushed up his sleeves to reveal the criss cross scratches over his arms. Like bus window graffiti.

On the vet table she sat in her cat box, eyes widely dilated, peering. A paw came out through the bars and swiped at the air. She didn’t seem too fearful, more eager to get out of the cage. After talking for a while I opened the cat cage and out she came. She was like a hyperactive child; buzzing around the room, intent on exploring everything. She was quickly up on the shelves and benches but not in a panicked way, more in an adventurous, curious way. Wired felt like the best word to describe her.

After hearing their tale of horror it was decided she had been spooked by something outside the house, perhaps another cat and had then redirected her aggression on to them. I explained that the redirected aggression was the most violent form, the most unpredictable and the most difficult to solve. We needed to suppress her anxiety and screen her from her outside fears. She needed a safe room, full of cat soothing pheromones, high escape places and lots of food. We would also put her on xanax and prozac for her anxiety. I offered euthanasia and they declined.

With a plan everyone felt better. Pippin went back in her box, lured by her favourite treat, Vegemite.

Pippin went to stay at a cattery while the young couple were on holiday and it was agreed that while she was in boarding the original owner would visit her. She was going well at the cattery – so well that the cattery owner was surprised that she even needed medication. Then the original owner visited. He was sitting in her large enclosure and had petted her, when she moved away to the far corner, turned and attacked him, front legs boxing with unsheathed claws. He had never seen anything like it. Either had the cattery owner. Afterwards she could not be approached by anyone and the cattery owner had to start medicating her in her food.

When the young couple returned they were devastated to hear about her attack on her original owner, but being in the cattery where life is very different from home, they excused her.

I saw her again and took some bloods. She was fine.

Life with Pippin became like living with a time bomb. No one was sure when she would explode. Rules for living with Pippin included; no sudden noises or touching, screen the large windows that view the yard as much as possible, lock her away from visitors and children, have blankets at the ready to throw on her if she attacks. Give her Vegemite. Plenty of it.

The female owner said that fifty percent of the time when she was being petted she would appear like she was going to turn on you. My advice was; don’t pet.

The young woman had a cold sore on her lip; no wonder, I thought. She was picking up more medication for Pippin. Her skin looked bad.

Then they said they had decided to let her go. By this they meant give her away to someone willing to take her on. But there was no one. It came as no surprise.

The young man brought her in in her familiar cat cage and she looked at me with her round orange eyes. He said his girlfriend was too distressed to be here. Pippin was a bit heavier than I remembered, perhaps from her meds and also all the food given to appease her.

I took her out the back and we administered a heavy sedative into the lumbar muscle.

I took her back into the consult room and explained it would be five minutes or so before she was sedated enough to be put to sleep without any restraint. She fought the sedation, it seemed. The dose did not knock her as much as I had expected and when I took her from her cage she still was a little alert. But he could at last stroke her and talk to her and not imagine she might turn on him. I administered the euthanasia solution and within seconds she was gone.

He stayed with her for a long time afterwards, just kneeling by the table, his face close to hers, as he patted her. Her eyes remained open and he peered at them. It would have been an act you would have been too fearful to do while she was alive. She never really knew the firm, yet calm, confident touch of people. Humans were always tentative and scared around her. How strange to feel such relief at her passing. Now you could breathe. Finally, as simply fur and non-seeing eyes, she was, at last, tame. Her sentient self had been so full of unpredictability  and so chaotically unhinged that it took her death for her to become their loving pet.




about sniffing from “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz

“Given our tendency to find so many smells disgusting, we should all celebrate that our olfactory system adapts to an odor in the environment: over time if we stay in one place, the intensity of every smell diminishes until we don’t notice it  at all. The first smell of coffee brewing in the morning: fantastic …and gone in a few minutes. The first smell of something rotting under the porch: nauseating… and gone in a few minutes. The sniffing method of dogs enables them to avoid habituation to the olfactory topography of the world: they are continually refreshing the scent in their nose, as though shifting their gaze to get another look.”

It has been estimated that a Beagle’s sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.

“We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar: a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water: two Olympic sized pools full.”

from “The Culture Clash” by Jean Donaldson

Top Ten things we Know about Real Dogs

1. It’s all chew toys to them (no concept of artifacts)

2. Amoral (no right vs wrong, only safe vs dangerous)

3. Self-interested ( no desire to please)

4. Lemon-brains (i.e. small and less convoluted brains that learn through operant and classical conditioning)

5. Predators (search,chase,bite,dissect and chew all strongly wired)

6. Highly social (bond strongly and don’t cope well with isolation)

7. Finite socialisation period (fight or flight when not socialised to some social stimulus category.

8. Opportunistic scavengers (if it’s edible and within reach eat it NOW)

9. Resolve conflicts through ritualised aggression (never write letters to editor, never sue)

10. Well developed olfactory system.