Tag Archives: animals

Social history of medicine — August 2014

history-of veterinary-medicine

The August issue of Social History of Medicine contains eight original articles:

  • Late 19th/early 20th century food adulteration in an increasingly industrialized and globalized world and the search for safety standards
  • The shift in cancer education in the 1950s, no longer downplaying post-operative recovery
  • The 20th century shift in British veterinary medicine towards small animals (dogs, cats), as the need to attend to horses declined (open access)
  • How complaints about the quality of London drinking water in the 18th century reflected the new popularity of bathing for health and social attitudes towards bathers from the lower classes
  • A re-evaluation of the prevalence of venereal disease at the time of the World War I (open access)
  • How quacks preyed on people with hearing loss in mid-19th century Britain
  • How the 1975 TV play, ‘Through the Night,’ portraying what it was like to experience breast cancer treatment, registered with medical professionals and activists who complained of ‘the machinery of authoritarian care’ (open access)
  • Did Axel Holst and Theodor Frølich actually develop an animal model of experimental research?

There are also a large number of book reviews, including:

  • Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine by Roger Cooter with Claudia Stein
  • Emotions and Health, 1200–1700 by Elena Carrera (ed.)
  • The Age of Stress: Science and the Search for Stability by Mark Jackson
  • Before Bioethics: A History of American Medical Ethics from the Colonial Period to the Bioethics Revolution by Robert Baker

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Going extinct

Red-eyed tree frogs
Red-eyed tree frogs
Animal species are going extinct at a rate thousands of times faster than was the case before there were humans. And this is a conservative estimate.

At least half the tortoises and turtles, a third of the amphibians, a quarter of the mammals, and an eighth of the birds on this planet face a risk of extinction in the near future. What’s worse, these numbers apply only to the small fraction of known species whose conservation status has actually been assessed. The overall picture is likely to be much worse.

This from a review of the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. The reviewer is columnist and author Verlyn Klinkenborg (The Rural Life).

It’s not just climate change. It’s our way of life.

It’s not just climate change that accounts for the increased rate of species extinction. (emphasis added in the following quotations)

The general tendency of our species—a tendency that seems to be intensifying all the time—is to decrease biological diversity on this planet. We do so by destroying habitats, overconsuming natural resources, and spreading invasive species, willingly or not. It’s tempting to say that this is the cost of consciousness. We like to imagine that cultural diversity is an adequate substitute for biological diversity—for ourselves, if not for other species. It isn’t.

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Cosmetic surgery for your pet

Frequently asked questions about Neuticles, testicular implants for dogs, cats, horses, or “any pet which is neutered.” The logic: “Would he know if his foot was cut off?”

Why Neuticles?

Why not? The 207 year-old traditional form of altering used on family pets includes the permanent removal of the pet’s testicles. Many caring pet owners hesitate or even to [sic] refuse to neuter their pets because of this. Neuticles eliminates ‘neuter-hesitant’ concerns – as a ‘Neuticled’ pet looks exactly the same after surgery. With Neuticles its [sic] like nothing ever changed!

What’s the difference between NeuticlesOriginal, NeuticlesNatural and NeuticlesUltraPlus and NeuticlesUltraPLUS with Epididymis?

NeuticlesOriginals are crafted from FDA medically approved polypropylene homopolymere which is nonporous and rigid in firmness. NeuticlesNatural are solid silicone – not gel filled or saline filled but a solid rubber-like material that replicates the pet’s testicle in firmness once implanted. Neuticles UltraPLUS is the latest in solid silicone technology and feels almost like its’ [sic] liquid filled – but is still solid silicone. In addition, the UltraPLUS features a special ‘textured exterior’ which eliminates the risk of scar tissue development. Neuticles UltraPLUS with Epididymis restores pets to anatomical preciseness. It is for pet owners who wish to have their previously neutered, monorchid or cryptorchid pets restored to anatomical preciseness.

Neuticals to replace testicles in neutered dogs Read more


Taking natural foods too far

Pet ratsThe description of Rentokil’s Rodine Rat & Mouse poison includes the following assurance: “Contains natural whole wheat.” Doesn’t this take the sales appeal of healthy ingredients just a bit too far?

Not being in the market for rat poison myself, I came across this information in the Feedback section of New Scientist. The editors raise a few interesting points:

[W]hat [are] the mice and rats … expected to make of this. Will the mummy and daddy rodents take the poison home and say to their children, “Eat up, it’s good for you. It’s made from whole wheat”?

Or are the humans who use the poison supposed to feel good about killing small animals using healthy organic ingredients?

Perhaps what’s happened is that the word “natural” – so thoroughly overused and misused for products on supermarket shelves — is now so completely devoid of meaning that we don’t even notice it anymore. Read more


An Edgar Allan Poe moment

Cute kitten on keyboardI’ve been doing some home repairs lately that involve knocking out part of a wall. This has been going on for days, and it’s quite noisy. I don’t really mind the noise, but my two cats dislike the whole process mightily. When the repairman arrives, they try to make themselves invisible by hiding in new and obscure places. The littler cat, FuFu, is noticeably less brave than her brother. (She’s named after Fu Manchu’s mustache: She’s completely black, but had a prominent white whisker as a kitten.)

The other day, I couldn’t find FuFu after the repairman left. I went out and did errands. Came back. Still no FuFu. I walked around the house calling and whistling. The cats dislike whistling, and they usually come running to investigate the sound.

Finally I heard a faint meow. I tracked it down to the area where the repairman had been working. It was coming from behind the wall. Read more


Overuse of antibiotics: A remote study (part 2)

conolophus-pallidus-iguana-galapagosThe controversy about the overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock (see the last post) is background for an interesting scientific study that took place in the Galapagos. It looked at the spread of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria among animals that were totally removed from antibiotics.

Would antibiotic resistance become widespread in the absence of antibiotics?

The immediate motivation for the research was two contradictory studies. In a wooded area of northwest England, researchers had found that wildlife developed antibiotic resistance even though they had not been exposed to antibiotics. This would argue against the idea that antibiotic use in animals should be restricted, since it suggests that antibiotic resistance would develop anyway.

Another study, however, found that wildlife in a remote area of Finland had an almost complete absence of antibiotic resistance. This would argue that resistance could be reduced by restricting antibiotics.

So which was it? How could you design an experiment that controlled possibly confounding factors, such as climate, animal interaction, and human interference?

Coprophagial iguanas

The researchers chose to study a species of iguanas (Conolophus pallidus) on an isolated island (Santa Fe) in the Galapagos . Unlike the English countryside, the island was uninhabited by humans, though tourists made daytime excursions to a restricted area. It offered an example of what life was like in a pre-antibiotic era. This tropical island, which was near the equator, was also unlike the remote area of Finland, where winters were long and cold, the population density of animals was low, and there was limited interaction among animal species.

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Overuse of antibiotics: Follow the money (part 1)

sleeping-pigUnlike climate change, where there’s a large contingent of denialists who spread doubt about the scientific evidence, no one denies that antibiotic resistance is a problem. There is controversy, however, on the question of just how much the widespread use of antibiotics contributes to the problem.

The mechanism is not in dispute: If you expose bacteria to antibiotics, they will mutate to become resistant. But “overuse” of antibiotics is not the only thing that creates antibiotic resistance. Is there irrefutable scientific evidence that the overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock, for example, is harmful to human health? It’s not easy to prove direct cause and effect. If you feed a pig a steady diet of antibiotics, can you irrefutably prove that this results in the illness or death of someone who later eats that pig?

Follow the money

The speed with which we address the increasingly urgent problem of antibiotic resistance will depend on financial interests, not just scientific evidence or common sense. Just as with climate change, we can follow the money to identify the opponents. Who has a financial interest in convincing the public — and in turn politicians — that the overuse of antibiotics is not a problem?

It’s not the medical profession, which understands that overprescribing antibiotics contributes to the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria. The financial interests of doctors are a little complex here. Unfortunately, because the public is not well educated about the subject, doctors find they need to satisfy the demands of their patients by offering prescriptions. Otherwise patients would simply take their business elsewhere. It takes time for doctors to educate their patients, and today’s doctors are very short of time. This is not sufficient grounds, however, to say that doctors have a financial incentive to overprescribe. Although doctors practicing today have no personal memory of the pre-antibiotic era, they are certainly among the first to appreciate that practicing medicine would become a nightmare without antibiotics.

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Does astrology make predictions about climate change?

Polar Bear on Melting Iceberg in the Svalbard IslandsThe South Dakota state legislature recently passed a resolution urging public schools to teach global warming as merely one of many scientific theories, definitely not a proven fact. The resolution cited a number of significant, interrelated dynamics affecting “world weather,” including “climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological” factors.

It’s a good thing they pointed out that at least some of these dynamics are speculative, since there’s not much evidence lately that astrology affects the weather.

Same goes for thermology, which admittedly sounds like it would have to do with heat. There’s a lot we can learn about temperature distribution from infrared images of the earth, but the term thermology is reserved for the medical diagnostic technique that analyzes infrared images of the human body.

Meanwhile, polar bears will suddenly starve to death

Meanwhile, BBC Earth News reports that polar bears will experience a dramatic “tipping point” due to climate change and suffer a sudden decline in population.

Based on what is known of polar bear physiology, behaviour and ecology, [research] predicts pregnancy rates will fall and fewer bears will survive fasting during longer ice-free seasons. …

Southern populations of polar bears fast in summer, forced ashore as the sea ice melts. As these ice-free seasons lengthen, fewer bears are expected to have enough fat and protein stores to survive the fast.

“…as the climate warms, we may not see any substantial effect on polar bear reproduction and survival for a while, up until some threshold is passed, at which point reproduction and survival will decline dramatically and very rapidly.”

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Pig dignity: Animal welfare in Europe

baby-pigsThe European Parliament, the governing body of the EU (European Union), met last week to consider (among many other things) a new animal welfare action plan. Last December animal welfare became a core value for the EU, right up there with opposing discrimination, promoting gender equality, and protecting human health and welfare. The new animal welfare treaty states that EU members “shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.” How civilized.

BBC News has a lengthy discussion of the implications of the treaty for animal experimentation. And here’s the complete Animal Welfare Action Plan, which was presented on April 19.

Seeking to capitalize on animal welfare sentiment during an election campaign, the UK’s Labour Party announced: “And we will maintain our proud record on improving animal welfare, including the ban on fox hunting.” How British.

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Estranged species

I find these drawings by Jason Whitman, with their accompanying statements, strangely moving. The words are so tender. The animals express their complaints and their wonder about living in a post-modern world.


Rabbit with skeleton by Jason Whitman

I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t think we should talk anymore. I’ve gotten to point where there is no point. I think everything is fine until you throw the past before me like some small animal braving a highway. Do I swerve? Do I close my eyes and hope for the better? Oh, man if I do hit it, please please let me go ahead and help cross to whatever is on the other side.

What were we even talking about? When all is said and done I’m left shaking and unable to make sense of what you just said. I just know someone has been hurt. I’m not so certain as to why.

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Courtroom dogs comfort children, calm adults

dogs-in-courthouseEllen O’Neill-Stephens is an attorney in Washington state. Her background includes prosecuting crimes against children – sexual assault, neglect, abuse and other serious crimes.

Back in 2003, her household included her son Sean, who has cerebral palsy, and Jeeter, a trained service dog and companion to Sean. There were days when Sean was with a caregiver, which left Jeeter alone at home. So she started bringing Jeeter with her to juvenile drug court.

One day a fellow prosecutor asked if Jeeter could help calm two young girls. They were scheduled to testify against their father in an emotionally charged sexual abuse case. “During cross-examination the kids and the defense attorney were stroking Jeeter,” recalls O’Neill-Stephens. “It was just people having a conversation around a dog, and it worked for everyone.” Jeeter made such a difference that the juvenile department decided to add a “full time” service dog to its staff. There are now four courthouse dogs in Washington state.

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Penguins as canaries

magellanic-penguinPenguins, like canaries in coal mines, are a leading indicator of climate change and other environmental hazards. Their frozen habitat is getting smaller. A warmer ocean means the migration patterns of fish have changed, so penguins are forced to travel much farther for food. The Magellanic penguins of South America now need to travel 25 miles farther than they did just a decade ago. Overfishing and oil pollution also contribute to the plight of penguins.

In honor of Thanksgiving – when we eat another bird – the Washington Post featured a story on a penguin rehabilitation center, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Most of SANCCOB’s rescue efforts focus on birds who suffer from oil spills.

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Collateral circulation and the cat concerto

collateral-circulationLike the appendix , collateral circulation is another part of our anatomy that was more useful to our ancestors. Collateral circulation refers to systems of veins and arteries that allow blood to continue flowing when the main pathway is blocked or damaged.

These extra vessels sometimes develop in response to a circulation blockage. But certain parts of the body – the elbows, knees, shoulders – are equipped with these redundant vessels right from the start.

We’re not born with collateral circulation in those really important places like the brain and the heart. Why would we have these surplus vessels in the elbows, but not in the places that keep us alive?
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Still useful after all these years: The gall bladder

gallbaldderThe gall bladder is another useful but expendable organ (see recent posts on the appendix and the spleen). Unlike losing your spleen, living without a gall bladder is not detrimental to your health, though it may be inconvenient at times.

The gall bladder is located under the liver, on the right side of the body. It’s a small sac, about three inches long and 1 ½ inches wide when it’s full. It can hold a little under two ounces of bile (less than a quarter of a cup).

Bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder until it’s needed to digest fats. Fats need to be broken down (emulsified) before they can used by the body. When they’re not broken down, they pass right through the digestive track. That’s what can be inconvenient about not having a gall bladder. If you eat foods rich in fats, you may need to stay close to a restroom.
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Things that make you go "Oooohhhh!" Why we can’t resist babies

angelina-jolieMascara, eye-liner, and shadow can make the eyes stand out and look much larger than they actually are. Lipstick can make the lips look rounder and puffier. Why do we find this attractive? Properly applied, eye make-up and lipstick will emphasize facial features that make an adult look more like a baby. And we are irresistibly attracted to the faces of babies.

What is it about the way babies look that makes them so cute?

babyIn addition to those eyes that are extra large compared to the size of their heads, babies’ foreheads are large for their faces, and their heads are large relative to their bodies. They have soft, round, non-angular features. Their cheeks are large and puffy, with no visible cheekbones. Their little hands and fingers, and the joints on their stubby arms and legs, are soft and dimpled.

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Want your wallet returned? Include a baby pic

wallet-with-baby-picIf you want to increase the chances recovering a lost wallet, be sure to include baby photos.

Researchers set up an experiment in which 240 wallets were left on the streets of Edinburgh. Some of the wallets had photos, either a baby, a cute puppy, a family snapshot, or an elderly couple. One group of wallets contained a card indicating a recent charity donation. The last group was a control: No photos, no cards. None of the wallets contained money. All of the wallets contained a return address.

42% of the wallets were returned. Did the photos make a difference? Here are the results for the returned wallets:

  • Photo of infant – 88% return rate
  • Photo of puppy – 53% returned
  • Family snapshot – 48%
  • Elderly couple – 28%
  • Charity card – 20%
  • Control group – 15%

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How cats control their humans

cat-asking-for-foodNever underestimate a cat. Researchers in Britain have analyzed a special “meow” many cats use when they want something right now: Food, toys, an open door. It’s called a “solicitation purr” and combines a high-frequency cry within an otherwise pleasant purr. Insistent meowing might be ignored as annoying, but by embedding the high-frequency sound in a purr, cats can convey a subtle sense of urgency.

According to Dr. Karen McComb, the lead author of the study, “Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom.”

The experiment was difficult to design, since cats won’t exhibit this behavior on demand. Cat owners learned to record the sounds their cats made when asking for food. Normal purring in a non-solicitation context was also recorded. Test subjects, who listened to the recordings, included individuals who had never owned cats. When asked to evaluate what they heard, the ‘solicitation’ purrs were consistently identified as more urgent and less pleasant.

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Stoned wallabies make crop circles


Legally grown opium is used by pharmaceutical companies to make morphine and other pain killers. Fifty percent of that opium is supplied by Australia. According to a BBC News report, a problem has developed with “wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles. … Then they crash.” Other animals have also been spotted in the poppy fields “acting unusual.”

The story is followed by a number of cute and creative comments. For example:

I’ve lived in Tasmania for many years. Not only do wallabies congregate in poppy fields, but also on the local golf courses. They do this mainly at night and I can only assume they’re playing several rounds of golf while avoiding greens fees. You only need to be really worried when one of the stoned wallabies gets into a golf buggy.


What’s wrong with our food?

food-incA new movie, Food, Inc., will be in theaters starting June 12. The film documents how industrialized agriculture has changed the food we eat and explores the impact of this change on health, food safety, and the environment. In the movie’s trailer (see below), a woman eyeing vegetables in a grocery store says “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, well, we can get two hamburgers for the same price.” That about sums up the problem with the American diet, a problem directly related to a decrease in health (diabetes, heart disease) and an increase in weight (the so-called “obesity epidemic”).

Here’s the official description of the film:

In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, the perfect pork chop, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, even tomatoes that won’t go bad, but we also have new strains of E. coli–the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually. We are riddled with widespread obesity, particularly among children, and an epidemic level of diabetes among adults. … Food, Inc. reveals surprising–and often shocking truths–about what we eat, how it’s produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.

Kenner, the producer/director, and Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, started talking about a documentary of Fast Food six or seven years ago. By the time the film was funded, both Kenner and Schlosser were heavily influenced by the ideas of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food .

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