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Do Humans Have an Inborn Understanding of Dogs?

By Dr Becker

According to a recent study conducted at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, our human ability to understand dogs probably peaks at around 10 years of age.

By age 10, children seem to develop a natural talent for decoding dog barks.

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, involved children aged 6, 8 and 10 years, and adults who listened to different types of recorded dog barks.

The barks were separated into three general categories:

  • Barking while the dogs were alone
  • Barking at the approach of a stranger
  • Barking while at play

Study participants had to match the barks to three types of human facial expressions, including fearful/lonely, angry and playful.

All of the kids and adults had no trouble picking out angry barks. But of the three groups of children, only the 10 year-olds were able to correctly distinguish the other types of barks. Their ability to understand each type of bark was about the same as that of the adult listeners.

According to study authors Pe?ter Pongra?cz and Csaba Molnár:

“This shows that the ability of understanding basic inner states of dogs on the basis of acoustic signals is present in humans from a very young age. These results are in sharp contrast with other reports in the literature which showed that young children tend to misinterpret canine visual signals.”

Jennifer Viegas of Discovery News thinks the study supports the theory of a universal animal language – a primitive method of communicating basic emotions that may unite virtually all mammals.

Matching Barks to Emotions

A few years ago, study author Pongracz and colleagues took a look at how well people were able to distinguish five different canine emotional states based on the barks of a Mudi, which is a Hungarian herding dog. The five states were aggressiveness, despair, fear, happiness and playfulness.

The researchers concluded changes in tone, pitch, and elapsed time between barks determined how study participants categorized the emotional states behind the barks.

High-pitched barks with longer intervals between barks were perceived as less aggressive than faster, lower-pitched barks.

According to Pongra?cz:

“This relationship could have formed the basis of an evolutionary ritualization process whereby low pitched vocalizations tended to signal aggression because larger animals are more likely to win contests…and high pitched vocalizations became predictors of submission or friendly intent.”

Study participants also associated certain barks with the emotions of despair, happiness and playfulness. This seems to indicate humans and canines might have the ability to communicate at a higher level than the universal mammal language.

Scientists think so many years of domestication have enhanced dogs’ ability to communicate with us, and not only through barks, but also through visual cues like changes in expression.

Our Special Bond with Dogs

The idea that humans have an innate ability to understand dog barks should probably come as no surprise.

After all, wolves and dogs have figured prominently in the lives of men, women and children since the Stone Age.

These same study authors also recently tested the ability of people who were born blind to understand the meaning of dog barks. They wanted to use people without sight because they have no visual memory of barking dogs to interfere with what they hear.

It was concluded the blind can also pick up on the general mood or inner state of dogs based on their barks, which certainly supports the theory that humans are born with the ability to some extent.

When you think about it, this makes all kinds of sense.

Animals in the wild listen for the sounds of other animals as a matter of survival – usually for purposes of eluding predators and other dangerous interlopers, or catching prey.

Humans are animals, after all – and we haven’t always lived safely tucked away from other animals.

What about Cat-to-Human Communication?

According to researcher Nicholas Nicastro of Cornell University, our feline companions also appear to have evolved in terms of their ability to communicate with us.

But according to Nicastro, the goal of kitties is to manipulate their humans! “Though they lack language, cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want — basically food, shelter and a little human affection,” said Nicastro.

I think most of us who are owned by cats can agree communicating with a feline member of the household is a whole different ballgame from exchanging information with the family dog!

Dr. Dennis Turner of the University of Zurich and a leading expert on the feline-human bond, describes the results of his research this way:

“What we found was the more the owner complies with the cats wishes to interact, the more the cat complies with the owners wishes, at other times. They go up together, or they go down together. If the person doesn’t comply with the cat’s wish to interact then the cat doesn’t comply with the person’s wishes. It’s a fantastic give and take partnership. It’s a true social relationship between owners and cats.”


Don’t Make THIS Mistake When Scheduling Your Dog’s Neutering Procedure…

A very legitimate concern, pet overpopulation, has been the primary driving force behind 30 years of national and local spay/neuter campaigns.

When it comes to deciding at what age a companion animal should be sterilized, the standard for most spay/neuter campaigns has been sooner rather than later. This is especially true in the case of adoptable abandoned and rescued pets that wind up in shelters and foster care.

Recently, however, some animal health care experts have begun to question whether early sterilization is a good idea for every pet.

Dr. Alice Villalobos, a well-known pioneer in the field of cancer care for companion animals, asks the question:

“But what if large-scale studies found that early neutering jeopardizes the health of our pets?”

“What if we found enough epidemiological evidence that early neutering of pet dogs may open them to orthopedic, behavioral, immunologic and oncologic issues?”

Back in 1977, Dr. Villalobos founded a rescue organization called the Peter Zippi Fund for Animals, which has to date rescued and re-homed nearly 12,000 pets. Her organization was one of thousands that looked at the tragic situation in U.S. shelters and determined early spay/neuter was the best way to lessen the suffering and ultimate euthanasia of so many feral and abandoned animals.

As a veterinary oncologist and founder of the pet hospice program Pawspice, Dr. Villalobos concedes, “It is earth shattering to consider that some of the cancers we have been battling may have been enhanced by early neutering instead of the reverse.”

Dr Becker’s Comments

t’s unfortunately true that a growing body of research is pointing to early sterilization as the common denominator for development of several debilitating and life-threatening canine diseases.

On one hand, we certainly want to know what’s causing our precious canine companions to develop disease. On the other hand, it’s troubling to learn a procedure we’ve historically viewed as life-saving and of value to the pet community as a whole, has likely played a role in harming the health of some of the very animals we set out to protect.

The same amount of evidence has not been compiled for early spay/neuter of cats, but it’s not clear how well the subject is being studied for kitties. Funding for research into feline health issues falls well below dollars allocated for their canine counterparts.

Cardiac Tumors

A Veterinary Medical Database search of the years 1982 to 1995 revealed that in dogs with tumors of the heart, the relative risk for spayed females was over four times that of intact females.

For the most common type of cardiac tumor, hemangiosarcoma (HAS), spayed females had a greater than five times risk vs. their intact counterparts. Neutered male dogs had a slightly higher risk than intact males.

The study concluded that, “… neutering appeared to increase the risk of cardiac tumor in both sexes. Intact females were least likely to develop a cardiac tumor, whereas spayed females were most likely to develop a tumor. Twelve breeds had greater than average risk of developing a cardiac tumor, whereas 17 had lower risk.”

Bone Cancer

In a study of Rottweilers published in 2002, it was established the risk for bone sarcoma was significantly influenced by the age at which the dogs were sterilized.

For both male and female Rotties spayed or neutered before one year of age, there was a one in four lifetime risk for bone cancer, and the sterilized animals were significantly more likely to develop the disease than intact dogs of the same breed.

In another study using the Veterinary Medical Database for the period 1980 through 1994, it was concluded the risk for bone cancer in large breed, purebred dogs increased twofold for those dogs that were also sterilized.

Prostate Cancer

It’s commonly believed that neutering a male dog will prevent prostatic carcinoma (PC) – cancer of the prostate gland.

But worthy of note is that according to one study conducted at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, “…castration at any age showed no sparing effect on the risk of development of PC in the dog.”

This was a small study of just 43 animals, however. And researchers conceded the development of prostate cancer in dogs may not be exclusively related to the hormones produced by the testicles. Preliminary work indicates non-testicular androgens exert a significant influence on the canine prostate.

Abnormal Bone Growth and Development

Studies done in the 1990’s concluded dogs spayed or neutered under one year of age grew significantly taller than non-sterilized dogs or those not spayed/neutered until after puberty. And the earlier the spay/neuter procedure, the taller the dog.

Research published in 2000 in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism may explain why dogs sterilized before puberty are inclined to grow abnormally:

At puberty, estrogen promotes skeletal maturation and the gradual, progressive closure of the epiphyseal growth plate, possibly as a consequence of both estrogen-induced vascular and osteoblastic invasion and the termination of chondrogenesis.

In addition, during puberty and into the third decade, estrogen has an anabolic effect on the osteoblast and an apoptotic effect on the osteoclast, increasing bone mineral acquisition in axial and appendicular bone.

It appears the removal of estrogen-producing organs in immature dogs, female and male, can cause growth plates to remain open. These animals continue to grow and wind up with abnormal growth patterns and bone structure. This results in irregular body proportions.

According to Chris Zink, DVM:

“For example, if the femur has achieved its genetically determined normal length at 8 months when a dog gets spayed or neutered, but the tibia, which normally stops growing at 12 to 14 months of age continues to grow, then an abnormal angle may develop at the stifle. In addition, with the extra growth, the lower leg below the stifle likely becomes heavier (because it is longer), and may cause increased stresses on the cranial cruciate ligament.”

Higher Rate of ACL Ruptures

A study conducted at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center on canine anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries concluded that spayed and neutered dogs had a significantly higher incidence of ACL rupture than their intact counterparts. And while large breed dogs had more ACL injuries, sterilized dogs of all breeds and sizes had increased rupture rates.

Hip Dysplasia

In a retrospective cohort study conducted at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, results showed that both male and female dogs sterilized at an early age were more prone to hip dysplasia.

Other Early-Age Spay/Neuter Health Concerns

Early gonad removal is commonly associated with urinary incontinence in female dogs and has been linked to increased incidence of urethral sphincter incontinence in males.

Spayed and neutered Golden Retrievers are more likely to develop hypothyroidism.

A cohort study of shelter dogs conducted by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University concluded that infectious diseases were more common in dogs that were sterilized at less than 24 weeks of age.

The AKC’s Canine Health Foundation issued a report pointing to a higher incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines in sterilized dogs.

Among the reports and studies pointing to health concerns associated with early spaying and neutering, you can also find mention of increased incidence of behavioral problems including:

  • Noise phobias
  • Fearful behavior
  • Aggression
  • Undesirable sexual behaviors

Risks versus Benefits of Early Sterilization

Every important decision in life comes with risks as well as benefits.

As responsible animal guardians, I believe we owe it to our pets to make the best health choices we can for them.

As responsible members of society, we owe it to our communities to proactively protect our intact pets from unplanned breeding at all costs. We must hold ourselves to the highest standard of reproductive control over the intact animals we are responsible for.

Clearly, there are health benefits to be derived from waiting until after puberty to spay or neuter your dog.

However, there are also significant risks associated with owning an intact, maturing pet.

  • How seriously you take your responsibility as a pet owner is the biggest determining factor in how risky it is to leave your dog intact until he or she matures. If you are responsible enough to absolutely guarantee your unsterilized pet will not have the opportunity to mate, I would encourage you to wait until your pet is past puberty to spay or neuter.
  • If you are unable to absolutely guarantee you can prevent your dog from mating and adding to the shameful, tragic problem of pet overpopulation, then I strongly encourage you to get your animal sterilized as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Please note: I’m not advocating pet owners keep their dogs intact indefinitely (see below). I’m also not suggesting that shelters and rescues stop sterilizing young animals before re-homing them. Shelter organizations can’t determine how responsible adoptive pet owners will be. In this situation, the risk of leaving adoptable animals intact is simply unacceptable. Shelters and rescues must immediately spay/neuter pets coming into their care.

If you’ve adopted or rescued a dog sterilized at an early age, I encourage you to talk with your holistic veterinarian about any concerns you have for your pet’s future well-being, and what steps you can take now to optimize her health throughout her life.

There is no one perfect answer to the spay/neuter question that fits every pet, and each situation should be handled individually.

For Responsible Pet Owners, Decisions About When to Spay or Neuter Should be Part of a Holistic Approach to Your Pet’s Health and Quality of Life

If you own an intact pet, I can offer a general guideline for timing a spay/neuter procedure.

Your dog should be old enough to be a balanced individual both physically and mentally. This balance isn’t achieved until a dog has reached at least one year of age. Although some breeds reach maturity faster than others, many giant breed dogs are still developing at two years of age.

Other considerations include your dog’s diet, level of exercise, behavioral habits, previous physical or emotional trauma, existing health concerns, and overall lifestyle.

If you own an intact animal and need to make a spay/neuter decision, I encourage you to first learn all you can about surgical sterilization options and the risks and benefits associated with the procedures.

Talk with reputable breeders and other experienced dog owners, and consult a holistic vet to understand what steps you can take to ensure the overall health and longevity of your pet.

Bartonellosis: An Emerging Disease You Should Know About (Cat Scratch Disease)

Bartonellosis, also known as the ‘cat scratch disease,’ is currently under study to better understand its potential to damage the health of both humans and animals.

Among the new findings about the Bartonella bacteria:

  • It can cause illness in people and dogs
  • In the last 20 years, over two dozen new strains of the pathogen have been identified
  • It is not a self-limiting disease, meaning it does not always run its course without medical intervention
  • The disease affects not only immunocompromised people, but also people with healthy immune systems

According to Dr. Edward Breitschwerdt, of North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine:

“Going from not knowing a genus of bacteria existed in the 90s to now realizing that cats, dogs, cows, deer, squirrels, voles, moles and kangaroos in Australia are all running around with their own Bartonella species in their blood changes the dynamics of the human-animal bond.

And it creates some caution that we didn’t have to worry about five years or 10 years ago when we didn’t know this information.”

Dr. Breitschwerdt wants veterinarians, their staffs, and others who regularly handle animals to increase their awareness of the health risks of Bartonella bacteria – especially since most physicians are unaware of the latest findings.

Bartonellosis can be as debilitating and difficult to diagnose as Lyme disease, and has in fact been misdiagnosed as Lyme disease by some physicians.

Until scientists began their most recent research on the Bartonella bacteria, it was assumed when the disease was identified in 1992 that it was transmitted primarily by the scratches and bites of cats contaminated with flea feces.

New research is uncovering a much broader array of both vectors (carriers) and hosts for the bacteria. In fact, no other infectious agent is transmitted by more vectors.

Bartonella Vectors and Hosts

Currently, the following insects are known to be capable of transmitting certain species of the Bartonella bacteria:

  • Cat fleas
  • Human body lice
  • Rodent fleas
  • Sand flies

It is suspected many other flea species can also be transmitters, as well as both the biting flies and wingless flies (known as ‘keds’) that feed on cattle, deer, elk and sheep.

It also appears likely ticks can transmit species of Bartonella, in particular the common Ixodes species of ticks.

A list of known hosts of Bartonella bacteria includes:

  • Pocket pets (rodents, rabbits)
  • Domesticated dogs and cats (including feral cats — one to two out of every three tested in North Carolina showed positive for the bacteria)
  • Deer, elk, sheep
  • Grey squirrels, flying squirrels, groundhogs
  • Cows (over 80 percent of beef cattle in North Carolina were discovered to have a species of Bartonella in their blood)
  • Kangaroos

Symptoms of Bartonellosis

Interestingly, many of the symptoms of the disease are the same for both people and dogs. Unfortunately, many Bartonellosis symptoms are also seen in a wide variety of more common and better understood diseases. This makes accurate diagnosis of Bartonellosis less likely.

The disease impacts microcirculation, causing neurological symptoms including:

  • Severe pain
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Palpitations
  • Acne on the upper face and forehead
  • Rashes
  • Folliculitis on the upper arms
  • Red stretch marks

The first dog Dr. Breitschwerdt (DVM at North Carolina State) tested that was positive for Bartonellosis was a three year-old Labrador retriever.

The dog had been on a year-long course of increasing doses of immunosuppressant drugs due to misdiagnosis of the disease. During that year, the lab went on to develop Bartonella-related seizures, arthritis, vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels), epistaxis (nose bleeds), and aortic and mitral valve endocarditis.

Similar situations have been documented with human patients at the Mayo Clinic and Duke University Medical Center. Misdiagnosis and subsequent treatment with immunosuppressant drugs resulted in development of Bartonellosis-related endocarditis. (Endocarditis is inflammation of the heart’s inner lining, usually also involving the heart valves.)

In fact, about 80 percent of people and the same percentage of dogs with Bartonellosis develop endocarditis selectively involving the aortic valve.

Dr. Breitschwerdt also suggests that doctors should check for Bartonellosis as a potential cause of unexplained nosebleeds in children.


Bartonella infection is proving extremely difficult to diagnose in many situations.

The bacteria is able to hide in endothelial tissues (tissues composed of the endothelial cells that line the entire circulatory system), thus the description of it as a ‘stealth’ pathogen. Dr. Wendy Walker’s story is just one of many harrowing tales of missed diagnoses and years of suffering with chronic, debilitating disease.

When the disease was discovered in 1992, only two species of bacteria were known. Today, 26 have been identified.

The usual tests to detect infection — including cultures, bacterial DNA tests, and antibody testing – don’t pick up every incidence of infection. Dr. Breitschwerdt’s laboratory has developed a special test which, when combined with other tests, is more effective at detecting the presence of different Bartonella bacteria species.


The current treatment protocol for both humans and dogs is a six-month course of antibiotics.

According to Dr. Bobak Robert Mozayeni, a physician and leading expert on Bartonella who practices in Rockville, MD, 95 percent of patients uniformly respond to treatment, without damage to kidneys or the liver according to results of monthly lab work he runs.

Dr. Moyazeni is uncertain about the potential for relapse: “In dogs, there is a 15 percent relapse rate even after six months of treatment, but we need to do formal studies to answer these questions (on the human side),” he says. “But because it’s so new, it’s hard to get anyone’s attention.”

What You Should Keep in Mind about This Emerging Disease

  • Currently veterinarians, their team members, other handlers and caretakers who are in regular intimate contact with animals, and people with frequent exposure to arthropods are the humans at greatest risk for acquiring a Bartonella infection. Dogs and cats are also at risk.
  • The science of Bartonellosis is so new most doctors aren’t aware of the threat, even for those patients who handle animals frequently. Very few physicians and veterinarians consider Bartonella as a possible cause of disease in people or pets.
  • A compromised or suppressed immune system isn’t necessary for infection to occur.
  • All routes of transmission have not been identified. A bite or scratch from an infected cat is the most widely recognized method of acquiring the bacteria, but there is also evidence of transmission of the type of Bartonella species carried by dogs, foxes and coyotes from an accidental needle stick.
  • Infection with one particular species of the Bartonella bacteria, B. koehlerae, is being diagnosed in people with competent immune systems. More research is needed to determine if this species of bacteria is a cause or a contributor in the development of arthritis, peripheral neuropathies or tachyarrhythmias in infected patients.
  • The list of conditions that can develop as the result of a Bartonella infection continues to grow.
  • The number one cause of blood-culture negative endocarditis in both humans and dogs is Bartonella bacteria.
  • Funding for Bartonella research is lacking. At the present time, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has only two funded research grants.
  • Veterinarians and veterinary workers must be made aware of the risks associated with Bartonella bacteria so that early diagnosis and advancements in treatment strategies will be realized.

Per Dr. Breitschwerdt:

“I think both the bacteria and the diseases that these bacteria cause are very much under-appreciated. During the past few years, I certainly have invested a fair amount of my life trying to convince people that there is a problem.

I also realize that it takes a lot of medically relevant information from a lot of laboratories and research centers before our medical infrastructure sits up and takes notice of a potentially important cause of chronic disease.”