Feeding Miss Lilly, revised edition: Introduction

Imagine if going to the grocery store to shop for yourself and your family is just a matter of going to the human-food aisle and selecting from the range of different flavors of dry or canned food: beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, fish, and the now-inevitable vegetarian and vegan options.

(Come to think of it, I’ve stood behind people in the checkout line whose shopping carts were piled high with boxes and bags and cans of processed human-food, with no fresh food in their carts at all…)

Even if such foods were “nutritionally complete and balanced,” as is the absurd claim on most dry and canned pet-foods, what are the chances that you’d stay healthy for life on such a diet, processed to have a shelf life of years, and never eating any fresh foods whatsoever? Certainly, one can survive on such a diet; astronauts do. But thrive? No.

Then, what on earth makes us think our dogs and cats can?

The simple truth is that most can’t. I say “most” because you will come across animals who, despite such an unwholesome diet, seem to do OK. But in my experience, these individuals represent a triumph of good genes over bad diet. Or, as is more often the case, they just haven’t lived long enough yet. For the most part, it’s young dogs who still look good on these artificial diets. And when you take a closer look, these dogs are not without diet-related problems after all.

Old too early, gone too soon

In veterinary medicine, 7 or 8 years is commonly accepted as the age at which dogs are considered to be “seniors,” although it varies somewhat with breed, and mostly with size. The large and giant breeds generally have shorter lifespans, so they reach their senior years earlier than the smaller breeds. (And it seems to me that the “senior” threshold has been creeping downward over the years as big corporations have increasingly taken over the petfood and veterinary medical industries…)

For a species whose average lifespan should be 15 or 16 years at least, that’s too early! It’s like saying that humans should be considered seniors in their forties. Perhaps that was true at one time (and it remains true in the minds of teenagers), but now that I’m in my late 50s, I object! I don’t feel old!

At first, I thought that this, to me, premature categorization of senior or geriatric was no more than a marketing ploy by the business experts and corporations who have insinuated themselves into veterinary medicine. Perhaps that’s part of it. It certainly helps a practice’s bottom line to talk owners of older dogs into running a “senior panel” of blood and urine tests every year, whether or not it’s medically indicated. (Seldom do the results of these tests do much more than worry or depress the pet owner.)

But as I thought about it some more and looked more closely, I realized that dogs on the typical dog-food diets are indeed starting to break down and show signs of the customarily age-related diseases by 7 or 8 years of age, often much earlier. And sadly, many are dying before they even make it into their ‘teens.

Diet and disease

The science of aging has revealed some common threads to the conditions we typically think of as age-related, such as arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, dental and periodontal disease, cataracts, senility, and cancer. Even just “slowing down as we age” is better understood at the molecular level.

Our bodies are designed to be self-maintaining and self-repairing, and thus they’re designed to last us a lifetime. However, two things limit both our lifespan and our ‘healthspan’ (the length of time we remain healthy): our genetic code and the fact that life is messy.

Our genetic code (species and family inheritance) dictates our expected lifespan, but the endpoint (how long we actually live) is really quite ‘elastic’. Here is where the ‘messiness’ of life takes over. Oxidative damage and metabolic debris accumulates over a lifetime, altering cell structure and function such that the efficient maintenance and repair — replacement of cells and renewal of tissues — slows to a crawl or stalls out completely.

This cumulative damage is diet-related, in that a healthy diet of species-appropriate, fresh foods can limit and even counteract it, and an unhealthy diet accelerates it.

But the problem many of us have with making this connection between diet and disease is that the consequences of an unhealthy diet often are insidious. There’s usually a lag between when a dog (or a human) starts on the bad diet and when signs of disease first appear. Sometimes that lag can be years long, so the connection isn’t as obvious as it is with the typical case of food allergy or food poisoning, for example.

Even so, my experience with Miss Lilly and with various domestic animal species in my work as a veterinarian supports the connection between bad diet and poor health — and its opposite, good diet and better health. Often, just improving the diet can be enough to improve the animal’s health and well-being.

Feeding dogs well

Loads of books and articles have been written about feeding dogs, and yet myths and misconceptions about how to feed dogs abound. Perhaps the most pernicious is that it’s beyond the ability of the average person to do it well. I hear this concern often from dog owners who’d like to be making their dog’s food but are too afraid to even try, for fear of getting it wrong. 

Let me relieve you of that notion right now. Feeding dogs well is not rocket science. If it were, then dogs would have died out long ago. You don’t need a degree in nutrition to feed yourself and your family well. The same is true about feeding your dog. You simply need to understand a few essential principles, and go from there.

Given how much information is available already, I thought what might be most useful is for me to tell you how I fed my own dog, Miss Lilly.

Feeding Miss Lilly

Miss Lilly was a bitza (that’s Aussie lingo for a mixed-breed dog: one that’s made up of bitza this and bitza that). She looked like what would happen if you crossed a Greyhound with a Staffordshire bull terrier. She had physical and behavioral characteristics of each, so I think that’s pretty close. As I said in the foreword, I don’t know exactly how old she was when we first met, but she lived with me for about 15 years, having arrived as a young adult.

I love mystery novels, but I don’t like mysteries! When I start a new mystery novel, I read the first chapter or two, get to know the principal characters, and then flip to the end to see ‘who done it’ and why. Only then can I go back to where I’d left off and enjoy the unfolding of the story. In that spirit, I’ll start at the end of Miss Lilly’s life and then go back to the beginning and let the story unfold.

endings

When I published the first edition of this book, Miss Lilly was 13 or 14 years old. While she was clearly a senior dog, she was still bright, energetic, and playful. She would still race around like a puppy — going “crackerdog” as Mrs Pumphrey (of James Herriot fame) would say, or “doing the zoomies” as a friend says of her otherwise very dignified senior dog. At that point, Miss Lilly had been on a fresh meat & veg diet for about 11 years, for reasons I’ll explain in the next section.

But as she continued to age, she slowly faded away. All of her normal processes gradually slowed down and became less efficient, and some of the age-related conditions common in senior dogs began to appear.

The first thing I noticed was that she gradually lost muscle mass and vitality. She went on to develop mild cataracts and eventually had trouble seeing well in the dark, not wanting to go outside on her own after dusk (something she’d really enjoyed as a young dog). She also became quite deaf toward the end, which was a bit of a blessing, as she’d always been very noise-sensitive.

Most problematic (for both of us), she began showing early signs of canine cognitive dysfunction (the canine version of Alzheimer’s disease), notably restlessness, neediness, and anxiety at night. Her sleep/wake cycle became disrupted and she slept more during the day if I didn’t get her moving.

In the last year or so of her life, she developed a cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and she started leaking urine while resting or sleeping, which was something that had been a problem when she was young, right after she’d been spayed, but had not been an issue since. In addition, her skin and coat health gradually deteriorated, and she became more susceptible to parasites, particularly fleas (a persistent vulnerability throughout her life).

But while she did develop arthritis, it was very limited; for example, it was confined to a single joint in a single toe in a single foot, and to a single intervertebral joint in an otherwise normal spine. In other words, her few arthritic joints were probably the result of localised trauma or a specific overuse injury, accumulated over a lifetime. I’ll talk in depth about her teeth in Chapter 2, but I’ll note here that she did not develop periodontal disease.

I was curious to see what would happen if I simply continued to feed her this nature-inspired diet and otherwise provide lots of love and companionship and the varied physical and mental activities of life on a small farm. In her senior years we had goats and chickens on several acres of land, and for both of us our farm ‘chores’ were a daily delight.

What I found was that, while these age-related diseases still developed, they appeared much later in life than is typically seen in dogs her size, and they progressed more slowly. Even more interesting is something I only touched on in the first edition…

When Miss Lilly was 4 or 5 years old, a small, oval-shaped, hairless lump appeared on her left flank fold shortly after we’d made our first cross-country trip to relocate (from Raleigh NC to Seattle WA). It was a stressful time for us both. While it was exciting to plan and open my own practice, it was also one of the most frustrating and discouraging experiences of my life. That move, which felt completely inspired and “meant to be” at the time, prompted what would best be described as a profound spiritual crisis. It led to what I now think of as “the lost decade,” a long period in which I felt utterly lost.

Anyway, back to Miss Lilly’s lump. I always meant to biopsy it, but I never quite got around to it (the cobbler’s child …). To my great surprise, it started to grow rapidly (yikes!) and then it disappeared even more rapidly (phew!), ‘eating’ itself from its center outward and leaving only a small scar at the site where there was once a ‘mesa’ of pink, hairless skin. Based on its behavior, I thought at the time (and still do) that it was probably a mast cell tumor.

The lump slowly regrew a few years later, but it remained fairly static for many years. It would become inflamed and the surrounding area would swell whenever we were chronically stressed, such as when we moved house or moved back across the country (to central NC). It would then settle down again as our stress eased. In effect, her lump was a barometer for our sense of well-being. Given what mast cells do for a living and the fact that they are part of the neuroimmune system, it might be more accurate to say that her lump was a barometer for our sense of safety or security.

Several years after the lump first appeared, and shortly after our second cross-country relocation (refugees of the Great Recession), the nearby lymph nodes and the matching ones on her right side became enlarged. But these too remained fairly static until shortly before her death. In the last few months of her life, the lump began to increase in size, and in her last few weeks it dramatically enlarged and became red and ulcerated. She also developed digestive problems indicative of more systemic spread.

I stood by, ready to euthanise her when the time came, but she managed even her death well. She got to complete her mission on her own terms.

If one needed to pin down her cause-of-death, it was probably this: a mast cell tumor which she managed to keep in check, with no treatment at all, for a dozen years or more, until her aged body couldn’t manage it anymore.

Would she have lived longer if I’d removed it at the start, or treated her at any point along the way? Perhaps. But how interesting that she managed it herself for so long! And what would we have missed by cutting away this part of her body or otherwise suppressing her expression of life’s ups and downs in this way? Might I have forced this expression down another, more destructive or less manageable, path?

Looking back, I think she would have been better served by me attending more to my own physical and mental health. I’ll write about this more in another book, but while I loved her dearly, for many years I struggled with bouts of severe depression that often spawned suicidal thoughts. Miss Lilly was my steadfast companion, my ‘soul friend’, through all that darkness. At what cost to her?

So, it’s all the more remarkable that Miss Lilly was able to manage her own health so well. For all my shortcomings, the way we lived and ate enabled her to keep a commonly lethal tumor from significantly shortening both her lifespan and her healthspan. I remain humbled and awed by that. Miss Lilly continues to teach me the tremendous power of living simply and eating well — and she reminds me of the very great importance of enjoyment! ”More games, more play” is her recurring theme, and one she taught by example.

beginnings

Miss Lilly arrived as a stray in 2002. Except for her pendulous udder, she was a skin-and-bone life support system for about a million ticks. With her brindle coat and poor condition, she looked like a toast rack. According to her teeth, her behavior with other dogs, and her subsequent development, she was probably 12 to 18 months of age at the time.

I can be as lazy as the next person, so if I could have gotten away with it, I’d probably have fed Miss Lilly some type of dry dog-food for her entire life. I’d already begun my explorations in holistic medicine, but I was still pretty much stuck in the same mindset as most dog owners. If asked “what do dogs eat?” I’d have replied “dog-food, of course.” In fact, in vet school we were warned of the many “dangers” of feeding anything but scientifically formulated dog-food.

Fortunately for my edification and yours, Miss Lilly’s body wouldn’t tolerate either dry or canned dog-food. Not even the “all natural” and “organic” varieties. (And by the way, there’s nothing natural or organic about kibble. Where in nature does such a thing exist? What organ/ism made it? Some man in a white lab coat?!)

Miss Lilly brought with her a spectacular array of what I now know to be symptoms of digestive disorder, each one more colorful or odoriferous than the last: frequent vomiting, diarrhea, gurgly belly, foul-smelling gas from both ends, bad breath, mucky teeth and gums, itchy skin, chronic ear infections, low energy, restlessness, and a “dog smell.” (I’ve since learned that truly healthy dogs don’t smell “doggy” — except perhaps to cat people.)

No matter which of the premium dry or canned dog-foods I tried, her symptoms persisted. On the advice of some colleagues, I  switched her to a grain-free, raw dog-food, and the light finally came on: her symptoms improved dramatically within the first day or two, and they were all resolved by the time we finished that first batch (about 10 days).

(By the way, not knowing any better, I made that transition from kibble to raw food abruptly: all kibble one meal, all raw the next. As I’ll discuss in Chapter 4, that’s not always the best thing to do. It worked out OK, but I attribute that piece of good luck solely to her youth.)

But, lazy bum that I am at times, and needing to stick to a tight budget, after a few weeks I switched her back to dry food. It was cheaper and I could get it at the grocery store when I did my own shopping. However, all of her symptoms returned — some of them with the first or second meal back on kibble. I was convinced! I promptly switched her back to the grain-free raw food and didn’t fed kibble as her basic diet ever again.

(She came to tolerate small amounts of kibble as her health improved.She especially enjoyed it when stolen from someone else’s bowl. On the fresh-food diet, her digestive system, and her body as a whole, became more robust and thus more tolerant — something I’ll discuss later in the book.)

biting the bullet

When we moved across the country 3 years later and I couldn’t find that particular raw food locally, I tried some other commercially made raw dog-foods, but with far less success. Some of them Miss Lilly didn’t care for and refused to eat (they smelled weird to me, too). With others, her symptoms returned or she developed new problems, such as vomiting in the wee, small hours of the morning because the fat content of the food was too high for her.

I finally bit the bullet and started making her food myself — with much of the trepidation I often see in my clients when I recommend that they do the same.

And so began my adventures in home-making food for my dog. In the following chapters, I’ll share what I’ve learned along the way, feeding Miss Lilly and monitoring the transition to home-made diets in my canine patients.

I’ve made many mistakes along the way, including accidentally poisoning Miss Lilly with garlic and nearly killing her with some contaminated chicken. Bless her, she kept on going despite my ineptitude, and forgave most of my mistakes (although she continued to avoid anything with garlic in it).

lessons learned

What I’ve learned along the way can be summed up as this: Miss Lilly did best on a home-made diet of fresh meat & veg, mostly raw but some lightly cooked (particularly the veggies), with lots of variety.

Here are the essential elements, and the book in a nutshell:

1. Dogs are carnivores — but while they are true meat-eaters, they are carnivores of the somewhat more casual (‘facultative’) variety, so dogs do well with some plant material (veggies, seeds, nuts) in their diets. Miss Lilly’s diet had a meat-to-veg ratio of around 60:40 (i.e., animals comprised about 60% of her total diet, and plants the rest). But her daily diet was grain-free, for reasons I’ll discuss in Chapter 1.

2. Carnivores eat the entire animal — they eat most, if not all, of their prey, and dogs are no exception. So, the more body parts we can get into their diets, the better. Along the same lines, bones are an excellent source of calcium for dogs. (Yes, bones… never fear; there’s a whole section on how I feed bones in Chapter 2.)

3. The more variety, the better — facultative carnivores eat a wide variety of foods, and again dogs are no exception. The more variety we get into the dog’s diet, the less we’ll need to supplement and the fewer problems the dog will have with any one food. I fed Miss Lilly as many different beasts, body parts, and products (e.g., eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese) as I could manage, as well as lots of different vegetables, seeds, nuts, and even some fruits.

4. Carnivores eat their prey raw — and not always fresh. Dogs are well adapted to eating raw meat, even when it has a high bacterial load (although there are limits). I fed most of Miss Lilly’s meat raw, but I was careful about handling and storing raw meat. I fed most of her veggies lightly cooked in order to improve their digestibility and thus their nutrient availability for this carnivorous diner.

5. Carnivores are meal-feeders — dogs have fairly large stomachs for their body size, so they are adapted to eating one or two fairly large meals per day. I fed Miss Lilly (who weighed in at around 50 pounds) roughly 3 to 4 cups of this fresh-food diet each day, divided between a smaller breakfast and a larger dinner.

These are the topics I’ll explore in the following chapters. I hope you find this book helpful and by the end of it you feel well prepared and game to start making your own dog’s food, even if you don’t cook for yourself.

Feeding Miss Lilly, revised edition: Foreword

I’m in the process of revising my book, Feeding Miss Lilly (on feeding dogs a great, nature-inspired diet), published in 2014. As I complete each section, I’ll upload it here until the revision is ready for publication (hopefully in the next month or so).

***

FOREWORD

The Splendid Miss Tiger Lilly — ‘Miss Lilly’ to her friends — was my own beloved mutt, and this book is about how I fed her and the reasons behind my decisions. Miss Lilly died naturally in the spring of 2017, somewhere between 16 and 17 years of age. She was a stray when I got her, so I don’t know her exact age. I was told she was about 3 years old when I adopted her from an animal shelter, but I don’t think she was quite that old; if she had been, then she was coming up on 18 years of age when she died.

I published the first edition in late 2014, when Miss Lilly was in her early ‘teens. I knew that, at some point, I’d want to write an updated version which included the final years of her life, but it’s taken awhile for me to fully absorb the lessons I’ve learned from her, and from my mum, about the fine art of living and dying.

One thing is clear to me: how we live, including how we eat, during the main part of our life affects how we spend the final years and months of our life. Dying is inevitable; disease is not.

But the more important lesson came as a surprise to me, and it comes from Miss Lilly herself: nothing is more important to a dog’s health and well-being than the sense of being loved. Good diet matters; feeling loved and cherished matters more.

I wrote the first edition of Feeding Miss Lilly while she was still alive, so it was written in the present tense. In this revised edition I write about her in the past tense as I incorporate some things I’ve since learned about feeding and caring for the dogs we love. I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I’ve enjoyed living it and writing about it. Four years on, I still miss that stripey dog, but it’s an absolute joy to write about our life together.

***

Next post: Introduction

“I like animals better than people”

If you’ve ever said something like that, or even thought it, then this post is for you. I’ve heard that sentiment a lot over the years. (Perhaps it’s an occupational ‘hazard’ for a vet.) I’ve even said it myself — and I’m not the only vet who feels this way. In fact, I suspect that there are many of us… Not long after graduating from vet school, I did a locum (fill-in) job for a vet who scandalised my young mind at the time when he told me that he wanted to hack a path through the jungle, build himself a little house, and then let the path grow over behind him. More recently, a vet friend fantasised out loud about having a moat around her house, filled with crocodiles. I joked that all she needed to perfect the picture is an air patrol of pterodactyls. Naughty me! 🤣

Animals make sense to me (even crocodiles and pterodactyls), because they remind me of Popeye when he said, “I am what I am.” (Well, it sounded more like “I yam what I yam” when he said it 😆)

Animals are what they are; no pretence, no dissembling, no false flattery, no lies. While individuals have their own personalities and their own life experiences which may dictate their specific responses in various situations, you can still expect a horse to act like a horse, a dog to act like a dog, a chicken to act like a chicken, and so on. Humans, on the other hand, are baffling to me. Just baffling! I love Agatha Christie novels because Agatha is an absolute master at exploring and explaining why people say and do the things they say and do. Same goes for Jane Austen; she cut through all the costumes and customs to the nature of the people beneath, complete with all the confusions and contradictions that mark our species.

For many years I thought of myself and others like me (who prefer animals to people) as misanthropes. I was also led to believe that my dislike of people (or, at least, of what they say and do) must mean that I dislike myself, and that I must be damaged or deficient in some way. But that’s simply not true. I don’t hate humans (the basic definition of misanthropy), I don’t mean anyone harm, and I like myself and enjoy my own company. In addition, I have friends and family whom I like; some I even love. So, misanthropy is not the right label for at least this one person who prefers animals to people.

Perhaps some of us are genuinely misanthropic. But speaking for myself, and I suspect for all of the people I’ve known who have expressed that title sentiment, I think each of us is simply what clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr Elaine Aron, describes as a highly sensitive person. If that’s so, then it’s rather important for us to control the amount and type of disturbing stimuli in our field of view and experience, even when (and perhaps especially when) it involves what other people say and do.

As I’ve matured, I’ve discovered for myself that it’s perfectly fine to prefer animals to people, given how screwed up people are as a group — i.e., our profoundly dysfunctional society. But it’s equally important for me to find a place of equanimity about other people. Letting people be whoever they are is essential for my health and well-being, for my peace of mind and my creativity and enjoyment of life. After all, I can’t change anyone but myself; it’s pointless to even try.

Sorry, Babs, but I must disagree: people who need people are not the luckiest people in the world; they’re tragic! 🤣 It’s we people who need animals in our lives who are the lucky ones. Animals are who they are, simply themselves, and how refreshing that is! Some of us are lucky to have friendships with animals who love us unconditionally, and they metaphorically hold up a mirror to show us not just our weaknesses but also our strengths, not just our vulnerabilities but also our value. Who could ever doubt their essential worth who has been loved and adored by a dog?!

Spending our time in activities that make us feel good is the secret to success, because by changing our mindset from ☹️ or 😖 or 🤬 or 🤯 … to 🙂, we change our perspective so that we’re able to see possibilities we couldn’t even imagine when we’re upset by something someone said or did. We’re also able to find our way into that mysterious slipstream that I think of as ‘the way of ease’, where hard work and frustrated effort is replaced by inspired action that is a timeless and effortless joy.

Dealing with other people in our daily lives is often challenging for us highly sensitive people, and for many of us our animals, and even other people’s animals, are a balm for our troubled minds. This is not a good thing; it’s a great thing! Animals are wonderful, and they’re especially wonderful for those of us who struggle to keep our equilibrium in a profoundly disordered society.

Celebrate your ability to find your way in the rich and rewarding company of animals, and take a moment to feel sorry for those poor people who need people 🤣🤣🤣!

Equine Cushing’s Disease and Belonging

When I get a moment, I’ll write an in-depth article on the pathophysiology of equine Cushing’s disease (ECD), also known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), for my website. (It’s a fascinating topic, but rather heavy on the biochemistry… You’re welcome 😉) Here I want to talk about the metaphysical aspects of the disease, meta- being a Greek word root I’m using to mean ‘along with’ or ‘alongside’.

In my experience, an essential component of ECD is chronic social stress — in particular, a chronic lack of the sense of belonging. Another way of saying that is loneliness, but I prefer to focus on what’s needed, which is a sense of belonging, because therein lies the solution. While a lack of belonging may not cause ECD on its own, it’s certainly a contributing factor in the development and progression of the disease, and an element that’s often missing from the conventional approach to treatment (‘hormone replacement therapy’ using pergolide as a dopamine receptor agonist).

Horses are a social species. In their natural setting, wild or feral* horses live in small herds or ‘bands’, consisting of one stallion and several mares, along with their young (foals, weanlings, and yearlings). Weaning is typically a relaxed affair that occurs gradually and by mutual agreement sometime between 6 and 12 months of age. As the foals grow up, the fillies either stay in their ‘native’ herd or they go off and join another herd; the colts leave the herd, aspiring to have one of their own at some point and living together in ‘bachelor bands’ (all-male herds) in the meantime.

(* Feral horses are free-living horses who were once domestic horses or who are descended from those who were once domestic horses. For example, Australia’s brumbies are all descended from horses brought here by European settlers. Horses are not native to Australia, so we have no wild horses, as such; brumbies are properly called feral horses — although ‘wild’ sounds much more romantic 🙂)

For all that, herd life is not as idyllic as I may have made it sound. Equine interactions are often very physical, and there is plenty of fighting, particularly among the males; and for many free-living horses, the wild life is arduous and dangerous. However, the key element here is that horses are never on their own for very long. Even today, in countries where large carnivores (bears, big cats, wolves) are found, solitary horses are easy prey for predators, and this ancient vulnerability reverberates in every horse’s DNA. Togetherness is an essential survival strategy for horses, so it underpins their sense of physical and psychological (mental/emotional) well-being.

Given how most domestic horses are kept, it’s no surprise that stress-associated medical and behavioural problems are common. Here are the most common causes of social stress in horses:

  • isolation — keeping horses separated from each other, keeping just one horse, preventing horses from even seeing other horses
  • repeated disruption of social bonds — moving horses from place to place through sale or lease, relocation, boarding for training, travel for events, etc.
  • incompatible company — keeping horses together who don’t like each other, mixing horses who don’t know each other yet are expected to get along
  • bullying — bullying is a sign of systemic disorder; the entire group is stressed by bullying, not just the horses who are lowest on the ‘pecking order’
  • confinement — even in a barnful of horses, being confined to a stall or small paddock is stressful for a species designed to roam as a herd over vast areas of territory

The common thread is one of not feeling a sense of belonging or not being able to trust a sense of belonging because there is no control over one’s social situation, which may change at any time.

OK, but why would ECD be a disorder of belonging?

Unlike Cushing’s disease in humans and dogs, which is caused by a benign tumour in the pituitary gland (most common) or in one of the adrenal glands, the epicentre of the disease in horses is the hypothalamus — an area in the base of the brain that has been described as the ‘seat of emotion.’

Like the common form of Cushing’s disease in other species, the pituitary gland in horses with ECD becomes enlarged (although not by a tumour) and overproduces the hormone that directs the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, a “stress” hormone. However, the problem in horses with ECD originates not in the pituitary gland but in its master gland, the hypothalamus.

The biochemical processes involved are intricate and not what I want to focus on here. But I remember being struck when I realised that the specific pathology (dopaminergic neurodegeneration) in the hypothalamus of horses with ECD is identical to that in humans with Parkinson’s disease; it just happens in a different part of the brain (nearby, but functionally quite separate).

In Parkinson’s disease, the main pathology involves physical agency (control over one’s movement). Given the role of the hypothalamus in our experience and expression of emotions, might the main pathology of ECD be described as involving social agency (control over one’s social connections or emotional well-being)?

I first made the connection between chronic social stress and ECD with my own horse. Banjo was my first horse. We’d had horses and ponies for as long as I can remember, but I’d never had one of my own. When I was 15, I worked all summer in a factory and finally earned enough money to buy my own horse just before school started for the year. Banjo was an Australian stock horse gelding. He had one white sock, and like the horseman’s adage says, I kept him “till the end.”

If you have a horse with four white socks, send him far away.
If you have a horse with three white socks, keep him for a day.
If you have a horse with two white socks, give him to a friend.
If you have a horse with one white sock, keep him till the end.

Banjo was 7 years old when I got him, and he remained with my family until he died at 32 years of age.

Banjo in his younger years.

When he first arrived, Banjo and my sister’s pony, Reilly (a Welsh mountain pony who’d long been in residence here), fought for several months over who would lead their little herd of two. Reilly eventually one, and peace reigned. The two became inseparable — or, I should say, that Banjo was inconsolable if Reilly went out on a ride without him, and he would not stop running the fences and calling out until Reilly returned.

In hindsight, that’s a critical piece. “Herd-bound” horses are not suffering from an excess of bonding, but from a lack of stable social bonds or a lack of trust that the bonds they do have will hold (or will be honoured by us). Typically, horses are moved around many times throughout their lives, and they seldom get to remain in the same herd or stable social group for their entire lives. Some horses adapt well to these sudden changes in their social network and sudden breakage of the social bonds they’ve formed; others do not.

(I’m thinking I should write a blog post or series on the highly sensitive horse, to go along with the one on the highly sensitive dog…)

I don’t know anything about Banjo’s ‘formative’ years, but I do know that he’d been born and raised on a station outside of Biloela in central Queensland, and he ended up being sold by a horse trader in Brisbane, over 500 km from where he was born. There’s more than enough there for the fertile imagination…

Couldn’t resist throwing in another one; I just love that beautiful boy!

Eight years later, when Reilly died and was buried in the back paddock, Banjo didn’t make a sound. He stood silently over Reilly’s grave for about a week. My sister didn’t want another horse after Reilly died, so Banjo became an only-horse and remained so until he died, 17 years later. My sister kept goats instead, but eventually they too were phased out, leaving Banjo completely alone here except for his human caretakers. None of our neighbours had horses or other livestock, so it was a solitary existence for the latter part of his life.

After I graduated from vet school and moved away for work, I intended to relocate Banjo to where I was living, but by the time I felt settled enough, Banjo was a senior horse and I didn’t think the long trip from Queensland to Victoria (where I was working at the time) was wise, so he stayed put.

Staying put was a good thing for him, but knowing what I know now, I’d have made sure he had another horse or pony for company — and made sure it was someone he really liked.

Because somewhere along the way, Banjo began showing the classical signs of ECD, most notably the long, shaggy haircoat that was never shed in the spring. I’ve since seen any number of horses with ECD whose social situations I’d describe as “less than ideal.” Whenever their person has been able to improve the patient’s social situation by ensuring compatible company in a stable ‘herd’ (even if only a herd of two), the disease has been far easier to manage. And whenever I can intervene early enough in the process, the disease is reversible.

If I’m right, this disease may also be preventable. We used to think that, as ECD is a disease of old horses, every horse would develop pituitary gland dysfunction if s/he lived long enough. But those assumptions have been debunked. Equine Cushing’s disease is not just a disease of old horses; while most horses showing signs of ECD are in their late teens or older, ECD has been diagnosed in young adult horses. In addition, not all senior horses develop ECD nor even any laboratory evidence of pituitary dysfunction. Only some horses develop ECD.

Why only some horses, and why them? No doubt, genetic predisposition and management factors are the two big players. Within ‘management’ as a category, diet is hugely important. The microscopic lesion associated with ECD appears to be caused by chronic oxidative damage to the dopamine-secreting nerve cells (dopaminergic neurons) in the hypothalamus that control the intermediate part of the pituitary gland (the pars intermedia). So while the pathology is described as dopaminergic neurodegeneration, it is also described as oxidative neurodegeneration. A diet rich in antioxidants is an important component of both prevention and treatment. I have a lot more to say about dietary management, but that’s for another time.

An equally important component of ‘management’ is housing and turnout, particularly whether horses are kept separate or in groups, and whether those groups are stable and congenial or often-changing and not always congenial. Although few of us want to keep horses in an entirely natural way (roving band of stallion, mares, and their young offspring), the closer we can get to the core element — belonging to a stable, compatible group — the healthier our horses will be.

Life is characterised by change. Our lives will always include comings and goings, and occasional discord; the same is true for our horses. But change is far less disruptive and distressing when we enjoy a solid sense of belonging. Simply by realising our horses’ elemental need for each other and by respecting the social bonds they’ve formed with each other, we’ll do a far better job of serving their interests and meeting their needs. Then it’s far easier to get and keep them healthy.

Pollyanna and the art of seeing the whole picture

Have you ever been accused of being “a Pollyanna”? As in, “Oh, don’t be a Pollyanna!” Or “you’re such a Pollyanna!” Or worse, have you ever heard yourself say, “I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, but…”

OK, so the young Hayley Mills’ depiction of Pollyanna makes me want to slap the girl, but that ungracious (and wholly warranted 😉) impulse aside, I want to make the case for being a Pollyanna.

It’s clear to me that anyone who has a negative view of Pollyanna (and being “a Pollyanna” — Pollyanna-ism!) has never read the book or seen a faithful (i.e., unsentimental) screen adaptation of the story. Because if they had, they’d know what it was really about:

The Glad Game.

Before he died (and left her an orphan), Pollyanna’s father taught her the Glad game, which basically goes like this: anytime something bad happens, say to yourself, “even though [this bad thing] has happened, I’m glad that…” and then start naming some things you’re glad about. Before long, you’re starting to feel a bit better, and you start to get some perspective — and you start to see solutions that might not have even occurred to you in your ‘pre-glad’ state.

In other words, the Glad game is an acknowledgement that, yes, a bad thing has happened, and it may even be awful; but good things are happening, too — all at the same time.

The Glad game is about practicing the art of seeing the whole picture. It’s also about where you place your focus: on just the bad thing that’s happened or on the whole picture, including all the good things, which usually far outnumber the bad.

When you start playing the Glad game with animals, funny things happen… Whether it be a physical problem or a behavioural issue, it’s remarkable what happens when you start naming some things that are going right: you start to see more things that are going right. And when you start looking for the improvements that you want to see, you start to see them.

For example, when you start (gently and inquisitively) looking for good behaviour in an animal who’s been behaving badly (according to our preferences, at least), the animal starts behaving better. (The key here is gentle and inquisitive attention or curiosity; as the Buddhists would say, ‘nonattachment’ to any particular outcome.) Perhaps the behaviour is just a little bit better at first, but if you keep looking for good behaviour, and keep rewarding the little bit that you see, the animal offers more and more of the behaviour you want, and less and less of the behaviour you don’t want.

Is this merely an example of reward-based training or is the animal actively participating in improving the relationship between us?

Are we making things happen or simply noticing that they’ve already happened, that they were already there? Perhaps it’s both. The seeds of change were always there, but they may have needed a little encouragement to germinate and grow.

Either way, the change starts with us.

And it starts with us choosing to see the whole picture, rather than focusing just on what’s wrong.

Stories: quantum entanglement in the shower

For me, there’s something magical about the shower. It seems to act as some sort of portal between the seen and the unseen. (I’m kidding, of course. The shower is simply where my mind is usually most relaxed yet alert — most receptive, in other words.) The shower is one of the places where I get my best ideas, solve my thorniest problems, and have my greatest insights; and the shower was where I had my first direct experience of ‘quantum entanglement’ and a brilliant example of how interconnected we all are.

When I was a kid, there was a Chinese man who went to our church, called Sing Poi Hung. He was a tall, thin, quiet man who was married (as they do) to a very outgoing woman of generous nature and proportions. Mrs Hung featured prominently in my childhood, as she was an opera singer (married to a Chinese man — an oddity in himself) and she sang in our church choir, as did my mum. And for awhile, Mrs Hung gave me and my brother elocution lessons in her beautiful home, which was filled with all sorts of exotic furniture and artefacts. (I remember standing in her living room and reciting, with perfect diction, “Cats sleep anywhere; any table, any chair…”; and my brother’s favourite, the Tortoise’s Lament, “I’m tired of grass and cabbage leaves; I really am. I want ice-cream and ginger nut and strawberry jam.” Ah, the things that stay with us…)

The Hungs had two lovely boys, both a bit younger than me, but both very delightful. Mrs Hung and the boys were foremost in our experience of church and school life; Sing Poi, as everyone called him, remained very much in the background, an inscrutable Oriental curiosity to us little Aussie kids, with our fair skin, our freckled faces, and our completely Aussie outlook on life. Sing Poi was kind and he often had a bemused smile on his face, his eyes crinkled with silent laughter, but he said very little. In fact, I can’t recall whether he said a single word to me or even knew who I was beyond being one of the many King kids (there were six of us, and I once heard one of the adults at church say of us, “seen one King, seen ’em all”). In other words, I did not have a close relationship with Sing Poi Hung; he was just one of the many ‘bit-players’ in my childhood, more background than foreground.

Fast-forward three decades or so. I had moved to the US in my early thirties and was living in North Carolina when one day, while I was in the shower, Sing Poi Hung popped unbidden into my mind. I hadn’t thought about him in many years, probably not since I was a teenager. It was a pleasant memory, because I had liked him, but it was gone as quickly as it had arrived. I didn’t think anything more of it until a few days later when, in her weekly email to me, mum mentioned that Sing Poi Hung had recently died. I worked backwards and discovered that he’d died in Australia at the same time as his memory popped into my mind in the US.

Many years have passed since that day. I’m now back in Australia, living once again in my childhood home, and I still think of that experience with wonder and curiosity. For one thing, it makes me wonder whether my friends in the US can somehow feel ‘a ripple in the ether’ or if they spontaneously think of me whenever I think of them (and vice versa). If the passing of a childhood acquaintance could be felt by me all the way across the world, how much more influence might the loving thoughts of friends and family have, no matter the gap of space and time?

Might this be the sort of thing Rupert Sheldrake was describing in his book, Dogs that know when their owners are coming home, and other unexplained powers of animals? If so, then the thoughts we have of our animals when we’re away from them may well be experienced by them in some way. If so, then we could put our thoughts to good use by helping our animals feel safe and loved. Instead of worrying about whether they’re OK (and thus sending them worrying ‘vibes’), think of them with love and affection, and joyful anticipation of when you’re home with them again.

What have you got to lose? If nothing else, it’ll change your thoughts from worry to something far better for you. 🙂

Stories: Miss Lilly takes her time

Time is something that has tyrannised me for pretty much my whole life. “Hurry up!” “Wait!” “Don’t be late!” As a result, I hate to keep people waiting, and I hate to be kept waiting.

Miss Lilly didn’t bother with all that nonsense. She could move with lightning speed when she wanted; but she was just as good at going slow, or not moving at all. On our walks, I would usually go too quickly for her and I’d get impatient when she’d want to take her time and sniff every square inch of the way, veer off down a different trail, or ‘go bush’. And heaven help us if we happened upon a site where another dog had peed! We’d be there for hours (well, in my sense of time, anyway).

Most maddening was when she’d stand at the back door, deciding whether she wanted to be inside or outside… She loved to be outside, but she hated to get rained on. That was quite the dilemma when we lived in the Seattle area, where it rained for nine months of the year and dripped off the trees for the other three.

I’d long been of the view that I should be giving her as much freedom and choice in her daily life as I could manage under the circumstances. As we had a fully fenced yard, she had the choice of being inside or outside, whichever she pleased; she knew both words, so I would routinely ask her whether she wanted to be inside or outside. We didn’t have a dog door, though, so she couldn’t just come and go as she pleased; I had to be ‘on the door’.

On several occasions, I found myself standing at the back door, holding the door open for her as the chilly, wet wind blew in, impatient for her to make up her mind. I could see her weighing her options, because she would look in at the kitchen and then out again at the rain. Her eyebrows would lift and her ears would twitch as she looked at the rain, as if she was thinking “maybe it’ll stop soon.” Our house was cosy and warm, but outside was vastly more interesting than inside.

Then it finally struck me: she was indeed considering her options, but unlike me, who was entrained to the immediate responses (and expectations of immediate response) of human communications, she was making her choice as though she had all the time in the world. No, scratch that; as if time didn’t exist. Because for her, human time didn’t exist. Dog time did, and in dog time there are only a handful times: meal time, play time, walk time, nap time, bed time, and getting out of bed time.

Over the years, Miss Lilly taught me by splendid example the importance of letting my watch battery go flat and ignoring the clock on the wall, and instead eating when I’m hungry, stopping when I’m full, resting when I’m tired, going to bed when I’m done for the day, getting up when I wake up, and so on.

I’ve been without the live-stream of Miss Lilly’s Lessons on Life for over 3 years now, and I must admit that I’ve backslidden a bit. (Miss Lilly completed her mission in 2017, at somewhere between 16 and 17 years of age.) Remembering how she’d take her time with important decisions such as inside or outside has gotten me thinking about time, and how I’ve been rushing headlong through life toward some ill-defined goal, when what I should be doing is slowing down and smelling all the great smells and exploring all the interesting things one finds along the way when we just slow down.

The curious thing is that magic happens — for example, inspiration lights on my mind like a butterfly on my shoulder — when I switch from human time to dog time…

Stories: Miss Lilly plays fetch

Years ago, when Miss Lilly was young, I was playing around with the concept of using mental imagery to communicate thoughts to animals nonverbally and nonphysically. (Do you see me trying to wriggle out of using the word ‘telepathy’? 😉) I don’t recall exactly what I was reading at the time, but it was around about when I read The Field by Lynne McTaggart.

As well-loved dogs tend to do, Miss Lilly had a toy basket that was full of all sorts of dog toys. (Yes, I was one of those dog owners! 😂) One was a rubber ball, a little larger than a tennis ball, that had the pentagonal soccer-ball pattern on its surface, only it was orange-and-white instead of black-and-white. To her, there was nothing particularly remarkable about it; the ball had a good ‘mouth feel’ (i.e., it fit well in her mouth and it was fun to chew), but it wasn’t her favourite toy, by any means. She’d only play with it if I got it out and threw it for her.

She was no good at playing fetch; she just didn’t see the point! She loved to chase things — live things, in particular. But I think she reasoned that if I’d thrown the ball away, I must not want it anymore, so she wouldn’t bring it back.

So, that’s the background to my experiment, which began with me sitting on the sofa and holding out my right hand such that my palm was up and my hand formed a soft cup. I rested my elbow on my knee so that I could keep my hand in place, at Lilly height, for as long as it took. The toy basket was on the floor, to the left of the sofa from where I sat, and the orange-and-white ball was sitting near the top, in amongst her various other toys.

Miss Lilly, ever interested in what I was doing, was sitting on the floor in front of me. I imagined her going to the toy basket, selecting that particular ball from everything else that was in the basket, and then bringing it over and placing it in my outstretched hand.

Can you imagine what happened next?

Nothing. She just sat there, looking at me expectantly. Undeterred, I kept playing my little ‘mental movie’ of what I would like her to do, with no particular thought in mind other than “wouldn’t it be fun if Miss Lilly went to the basket, got that ball, and put it in my hand.”

After a minute or so (although it felt like hours), Miss Lilly got bored and walked away. I got discouraged and stopped for a bit. Then I figured that I had nothing better to do, and I would really like to crack this nut, so I began again.

Miss Lilly came back and stood in front of me again, but this time she was watching me intently. I just kept running my mental movie, with no particular urgency or need for anything to happen; I simply thought it would be wonderful if she acted out my mental movie.

After what felt like an eternity, but which was probably only another minute, Miss Lilly went to the toy basket, picked up that particular ball, and then walked over and put it in my hand, with a “well, that was too easy; what’s next?” expression on her face.

I don’t remember what we did next. I’m sure I made a big fuss of her ‘cleverness’, which would have baffled her no end. Such a simple thing to be praised for doing!

Many years have gone by since that day, and my mind is still blown by the result of that little experiment. I haven’t dared to replicate it — no doubt, for fear of failing! But ever since that day I have tried to remember to play little mental movies whenever I’m with animals. I show them what I’m planning to do or what I’d like us to do together, and I explain why whenever it would make sense to do that.

For example, I’d show Miss Lilly a little movie of us getting in the car and going to our friends’ place. She never liked travelling in the car, but she loved our friends and running wild on their farm with their dogs, so she was far more enthusiastic about getting in the car when I would show her where we were going and what we’d be doing there.

In my next Miss Lilly story, I’ll talk about the tyranny of time when operating in this way…

The highly sensitive dog

Is there a canine equivalent to the highly sensitive person (HSP)?  This term, highly sensitive person, was first coined by psychologist Dr Elaine Aron and is now called high sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) in research circles. Since reading her book (The Highly Sensitive Person), and answering an emphatic “yes!” to pretty much every question on her self-assessment test (a short version of which is available here), I’ve assumed that this phenomenon occurs in animals as well.

(Every time I read something to do with humans, I automatically wonder whether it’s applicable to animals. One might politely call it an occupational tic; the truth is that I’m more interested in animals than in people 🙂 )

When I read that 15–20% of the human population is considered to be highly sensitive, a roughly equal proportion to have very low sensitivity, and the majority to lie somewhere in between, I immediately thought that this breakdown probably holds true for animals as well. The research in many different species, from insects to fish to primates, has at least identified animals at both ends of the sensitivity spectrum (high or low sensitivity; “timid/shy” or “bold”; “uptight” or “laid back”).

I would add that, in my experience, some species (e.g., horses) are inherently more sensitive than other species; some breeds within a species (e.g., Arabian horses) are inherently more sensitive than other breeds; some family lines (here I won’t name names) within a breed are inherently more sensitive than others; and some individuals within those family lines are inherently more sensitive than others. But I digress…

So, is there such a thing as the highly sensitive dog (HSD)?  If so, what might that look like?  What behavioural traits might these dogs share or exhibit more than other dogs that we could recognise as group characteristics?

When I read Dr Aron’s checklist for parents of highly sensitive children, I was struck by how very well it translates to some dogs I’ve known, and especially to one I lived with for 15 years who was very sensitive to loud noises such as thunder, fireworks, and gunshots until she developed hearing loss in old age. (We’ll circle back to this particular profile in a minute.)

That’s all well and good, but such checklists are quite subjective. Is there any objective evidence for the existence of the ‘HSD’ or for any specific behaviours we might consider characteristic of such dogs?

Yes, there is.

Researchers in the Department of Veterinary Biosciences at the University of Helsinki, Finland, recently published a study which identified a likely genetic basis for two specific types of anxiety in dogs: noise sensitivity and fearfulness toward strange people or situations.

Here is a link to the paper, which was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry because of its implications for similar “neuropsychiatric disorders” in people. (Their words, not mine. The human research on HSP or SPS indicates that while HSPs may suffer more from anxiety in this culture that overemphasises the value of the highly insensitive individual, anxiety is not a characteristic of the HSP. Furthermore, high sensory-processing sensitivity is not considered a neuropsychiatric disorder, but rather a behavioural trait shared by a small but significant proportion of the population.)

The study

In brief, the researchers took blood samples from 330 German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) and used a canine whole-genome tool to look for specific genetic differences among the following groups, as identified by owner responses to a behavioural questionnaire:

  1. Noise Sensitivity (NS) group — dogs who are reactive to loud noises (thunder, fireworks, gunshots); 91 dogs
  2. Fear Reaction (FR) group — dogs who react fearfully toward strangers or new situations; 80 dogs
  3. ‘Control’ group — normal dogs, those who are not noise sensitive (NS Control; 210 dogs) or fearful (FR Control; 193 dogs, 180 of whom were also used for the NS Control group)

Reaction to loud noises included one or more of the following: salivation, defaecation, urination, destroying, escaping, panting, hiding, trembling, vocalising, freezing, holding the tail low or between the hind legs, and/or getting excited and barking when hearing thunder, fireworks, or gunshots.

Reaction to strange people included one or more of the following: withdrawal, barking or growling (with or without going toward the person), not willing to make contact, staying close to the owner (but not under any command), holding the tail low or between the hind legs, and/or some other behaviour identified by the owner as specific to this situation.

Reaction to new situations or environments included one or more of the following: wanting out of the situation/environment, barking, panting, trembling, holding the tail low or between the hind legs, staying still and not wanting to explore the environment, staying close to the owner (but not under any command), walking low, and/or some other behaviour identified by the owner as specific to this situation.

It’s worth pointing out that there was some overlap between the NS and FR groups. Of the 91 dogs in the NS group, 34 dogs (37%) were also fearful. Looking at this from the other direction, 34 of the 80 dogs in the FR group (42.5%) were also noise sensitive. So, as a broad brushstroke, about 40% of the dogs in either group were both noise sensitive and fearful toward strangers or new situations. That’s a substantial proportion of these ‘reactive’ dogs (about 4 in 10), and hopefully it’s of some comfort to those whose dogs have more generalised anxiety: you’re not alone! It might also be a bit of a relief for those with noise sensitive or fearful dogs, that things could be worse: some dogs are both.

All 330 dogs lived in Finland, all were at least 1 year old, and all were privately owned (i.e., they were not purpose-bred research dogs). Most dogs were from either working or show lines (a point I want to come back to later). According to the study authors, the German Shepherd breed was chosen “for its known large variation in reacting to loud noises, strangers and novel situations (shyness–boldness personality).” I take this to mean that they felt the German Shepherd breed was a good representation of the general dog population for this genetic comparison study, as it would be easy to find individuals at both ends of the shyness–boldness spectrum within the same breed. Whether their findings are applicable to other breeds and to mixed-breed dogs remains to be seen, but it is likely to be the case — particularly in light of the fact that the authors made repeated references to similar findings in humans and to the usefulness of canine models for the study of human neuropsychiatric disorders. In other words, the authors were assuming that inferences could be made about humans, so it’s not a stretch to assume that the same conclusions may be applied to the general dog population.

This study was focused on mapping noise sensitivity and fearfulness in dogs to specific chromosomes, and to specific regions (loci, or locuses) within the chromosome that have been associated with anxiety and other neuropsychiatric disorders in people. They mapped noise sensitivity to canine chromosome 20 and to a locus that contains several ‘candidate’ genes associated with neuropsychiatric and hearing-related characteristics, including noise sensitivity/intolerance and age-related hearing loss. (That profile describes my dog to a T!)

For example, one of these ‘candidate’ genes is the oxytocin receptor gene. Oxytocin is a hormone that, together with its receptor, is involved in maternal bonding, other types of social bonding, and related stress behaviours. In dogs, this receptor is involved in human-directed social behaviour such as greeting, proximity-seeking (wanting to be near us), and friendliness. This study tells us nothing about the expression of this gene in noise-sensitive dogs; it simply suggests we look deeper at this particular gene and others at this locus that are associated with normal behaviour and with known neuropsychiatric disorders in people. It also suggests we look here for a genetic basis to age-related hearing loss.

Perhaps not surprisingly, fearfulness toward strangers and new situations was much more complex, involving several different chromosomes (most prominently, but by no means exclusively, canine chromosome 7) and several ‘candidate’ genes, notably those involved in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in humans.

I think that’s an unhelpful and potentially harmful line to draw between the two species, because it risks branding these fearful dogs as ‘crazy’ in the eyes of the general public or as having a ‘neuropsychiatric disorder’ (read ‘medication deficiency’) in professional circles.

What if these dogs are simply highly sensitive individuals — or to use the scientific term, they have high sensory-processing sensitivity?  If so, then it is probable that they are simply more easily overwhelmed by novel situations, including unfamiliar people, which is a characteristic of HSP.

Does this high sensitivity make these dogs feel a little ‘crazy’ at times?  Probably; it certainly does me. But are they ‘crazy’ dogs?  Almost certainly not. (Not to head off down a side track, but we must leave room here for individuals with brain lesions. They are not ‘crazy’ dogs, either, but they may show very abnormal behaviour. Such dogs require proper diagnostic workups and whatever medical or surgical treatment is indicated as a result.)

So, this study provides objective evidence that there is some genetic component to these behavioural problems in German Shepherd Dogs, and this conclusion probably extends to other dogs as well. But how can this information help us better manage these dogs?

stay tuned…