Newsletter August 2018
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August 2018

Everything You Need to Know About Pet Allergies

(contributed by freelance writer Jane Wadsworth)

There’s no worse feeling than bringing a new pet home and discovering that you or a family member may be allergic. Pet allergies are relatively common, with an estimated 10% of adults experiencing some sort of reaction to household animals, particularly cats. However, just because you’re sneezing around your pet doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to head back to the adoption shelter.


What Causes a Pet Allergy?

Contrary to common belief, most pet allergies aren’t caused by hair or shedding. Reactions are most often the result of dander, flakes of dead skin, saliva or urine. The most common symptoms of a pet allergy include coughing and wheezing, excessive sneezing, dry, red or itchy eyes, a stuffy nose, or skin rashes or hives.

Pet allergies, like other allergies, are the result of an overactive immune system. When you inhale or ingest particles such as dander, your body treats them as it would a dangerous pathogen. It launches a full-scale immune response, leading to congestion and inflammation similar to what you’d feel if you had a cold.


Is My Sneezing Really an Allergy?

Just because you start sneezing around the time you bring a new pet home doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re allergic. Many people tend to adopt new pets in the spring, especially at the height of kitten season. This also happens to be the time that most plants release their pollen, causing widespread hay fever. Don’t blame your cat for that! Additionally, if you have a dog, you may experience a reaction from mold spores growing in your dog’s coat due to infrequent bathing. This can be fixed easily without giving up your pup!

Ultimately, the only way to confirm if you have a pet allergy is to see a specialist. Doctors can perform a skin or blood test to detect allergen-specific antigens such as IgE that might indicate a pet allergy. Just remember that allergy tests aren’t always conclusive and may require a follow-up.


Dealing with Pet Allergies

If you do find that you have a pet allergy, you don’t necessarily have to get rid of your furry friend. Antihistamines and decongestants can help to block the effects of allergies without tacking on too many side effects. You can also be diligent about cleaning and vacuuming to prevent dander buildup and install a quality air filter to prevent negative effects. Though the first sneeze after a new pet comes home might cause you to worry, by taking the appropriate steps, you can determine the best course of action for both you and your new four-legged friend.

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Do you ever feel like your dog knows exactly what you’re thinking? It could be because…she does! Recent studies have shown that dogs can understand and interpret facial expressions to know how their human owners are feeling, and they respond differently depending on their owners’ moods. 

By living in close contact with humans, dogs have developed skills that allow them to better interact and communicate with people. For example, there is evidence that dogs can pick up on emotional cues in a person’s face, voice, posture, and even body odor.

In a recent study, researchers presented dogs with pictures of human faces while the dogs were eating. The faces each displayed one of the six basic human emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, or being neutral.

The dogs showed greater response and greater cardiac activity when they were shown photographs that expressed emotions such as anger, fear and happiness. When shown these high energy emotions, the dogs’ heart rates increased and they took longer to resume eating than when they were shown the other emotions.

Additionally, when the dogs saw the emotions of fear, anger and happiness, they generally turned their heads to the left. When they saw surprise, however, the dogs turned their heads to the right. Scientists believe they did the opposite because they saw surprise as a non-threatening, relaxed expression.

This research supports many other studies that have been done on dogs and other mammals. It shows that the right side of the brain plays a more important role in regulating the sympathetic outflow to the heart. This is fundamental for the control of the fight or flight behavioral response.

Ultimately, this research continues to reveal how connected dogs are with people, by revealing the different parts of their brain that they use to process human emotions. As our lifelong companions and daily partners, dogs are deeply connected to their owners’ psychological states.

This is likely why dogs seem to comfort their owners when they are sad or distressed. In one study, dogs were more likely to approach a crying person than someone who was humming or talking, and they usually responded to crying with submissive behaviors.

 

This video shows an example of a dog comforting a crying baby.

Although scientists have not confirmed that dogs feel empathy or truly understand human pain, they do respond to sadness with more than just curiosity. One study looked to see how dogs would react to their owners crying versus humming. While 15 of 18 tested dogs approached their owners during crying fits, only 6 approached during humming. This suggests that the emotional nature of the sound, and not mere curiosity, brought the dogs over.

Scientists believe this study suggests the dogs were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs. This indicates the dogs were displaying empathetic-like comfort-offering behavior. However, it is also possible that dogs learn to approach crying people because their owners give them affection when they do.

In the end, regardless of the reason, the comfort of a dog is irreplaceable and makes a difference in the lives of dog owners everywhere.

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Are You Smarter Than a Parrot?

Alex the parrot broke new ground for his species by learning to identify 50 different objects, distinguishing colors, shapes, and even abstract concepts. Though parrots were previously believed not to be intelligent, his trainer wrote that he was on par with dolphins and primates. As it turns out, his trainer was absolutely right. 

Today, parrots are known for their intelligence and ability to mimic human language. And research shows that their intellect and brain functioning are extremely similar to that of primates, including humans.

New research at the University of Alberta has determined that birds and primates use a similar neural circuit, suggesting convergent evolution between them, and providing further insight into human intelligence.

The pontine nuclei plays a major role in primate intelligence by transferring information between the cortex and the cerebellum. This allows for higher-order processing and more sophisticated behavior. Humans and primates have larger pontine nuclei than most other animals.


Although birds have very small pontine nuclei, they have a similar structure called the medial spiriform nucleus, which fulfills a similar function. It is located in a different part of the brain than the pontine nuclei, but it does the same thing, circulating information between the cortex and the cerebellum.

This communication between the cortex and the cerebellum is important for the planning and execution of sophisticated behaviors and the fact that birds have this connection reveals that their intelligence is similar to that of primates and humans in ways science previously did not know. 

In fact, parrots have a much larger medial spiriform nucleus than many other birds: up to two to five times larger than birds such as chickens. As a result, they are able to exhibit sophisticated behaviors such as tool use and self-awareness.

Researchers hope that this study will help uncover the way that similar processes occur in human brains and understand the way that our brains work. By studying the parrots more closely in the future, the scientists hope to understand what types of information go to the medial spiriform nucleus and why. 

It’s not surprising that parrots have this system in their brain because they have long been recognized as extremely intelligent animals. For example, parrots have shown social behavior, which requires the ability to identify individuals. Parrots are believed to be capable of recognizing their mates, siblings, and young.


Parrots have also made great strides in the ability to understand abstract concepts such as same versus different. Alex the parrot is a prime example of parrot intelligence, known for his ability to count, and identify shapes and colors. Other parrots have also been able to understand the concept of left versus right.

Many parrots such as Macaws have also been known to comprehend the concept of object permanence, which is viewed as a sign of intelligence. Object permanence is the understanding that an object continues to exist even if it cannot be seen. Studies have shown that Macaws will even go as far as to search for an item after it goes out of sight, and correctly find where it is hidden.

To many scientists the discovery of the medial spiriform nucleus in parrots is simply the missing piece explaining why they have such impressive intelligence and talent. As any bird-owner will know, parrots are complex and social creatures, capable of deep emotional bonds with birds as well as humans.

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Five Sounds Your Guinea Pig Makes (and What They Really Mean)

1.     Wheeking

The most well-known sound to any guinea pig owner is the high-pitched squeal or whistle that a guinea pig makes when she is excited, commonly known as wheeking. Most owners recognize this as the sound their guinea pig makes when they are anticipating a treat, or playtime with their human.

Some guinea pigs that are used to a normal feeding schedule will begin to wheek when they know it is time for them to be fed. Others will begin to wheek if you approach them with food, or call their name. If they are especially excited, guinea pigs will begin to move their ears while wheeking. Younger guinea pigs may also “popcorn” while wheeking, jumping up and down in anticipation. 

This video shows a baby guinea pig wheeking excitedly.

You may not know that wheeking is a sound that guinea pigs only make in captivity. After extensive research, scientists have concluded that guinea pigs never made wheeking sounds in the wild. It was only through domestication and care by humans that guinea pigs began making this adorable sound for their owners. 

2.     Purring

Although a guinea pig’s purr sounds different from a cat’s, the meaning is the same. Guinea pigs will purr when they are relaxed and content. This is often when they are being held or pet by their owners, or while they are laying down in a safe enclosure. Some guinea pigs also purr when they are eating their favorite treat. Guinea pig owners recognize this sound as a delightful affirmation that their guinea pig is feeling happy. 

3.     Rumble

Rumbling is similar to purring, but it has a vibrating effect and is often a lower pitch. Male guinea pigs use this sound when they are wooing a female and attempting to mate. Owners who only own a single guinea pig will likely not hear this sound. However, when a male and female guinea pig are together, it is quite common. While rumbling, the male may wiggle his hips and walk around the female. In response, the female may rumble back to signify that she is ready to mate.

4.     Teeth Chattering

Also known as hissing, guinea pigs chatter their teeth when they are angry or aggressive. They will often bar their teeth while they are making this sound, indicating that they are unhappy or irritated. When a guinea pig displays this behavior, they are warning you that they are uncomfortable with what you are doing.


This guinea pig is chattering its teeth in irritation.

Sometimes guinea pigs may chatter their teeth when they are first introduced to another guinea pig in order to warn the other pig not to interfere with their personal space. It is best to separate the two guinea pigs if they are chattering until they have calmed down.

5.     Chutting

Only certain guinea pigs will make a chutting sound. Other individuals will never make this sound during their whole lives. Like purring, chutting occurs when a guinea pig is happy and content. They may chut when they are enjoying playtime out of their cage, or while you are petting them.

While these are some of the most common sounds, there are many more sounds that guinea pigs make and it is important to recognize each of them in order to understand your guinea pig’s behavior and give them the best quality of life possible.

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