Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Saving Species

Dogs are the unsung heroes of the conservation movement

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Train, aka Mr. T or Big Brown Monster, has made four trips to Misiones, Argentina, a rugged and rainy province with an economy that relies primarily on agriculture and logging, as well as some tourism. He’s not a sightseer -- at least not in the usual way. Train detects the scat, or feces, of jaguar, puma, ocelot, oncilla and bush dog. What he finds helps Washington University researchers analyze the paths the animals travel. This allows them to plan habitat corridors that protect the ability of wildlife to travel through territory while limiting their impact on surrounding environments, which include public and private wildlife reserves, privately owned plantations and farms, and roads and pathways.

Conservation dogs like Train hold jobs around the world. Besides sniffing for scat, they seek out turtle nests that need protection, detect pests that attack plants and monitor the presence of invasive fish species in streams and other waterways. The dogs are employed by wildlife researchers; local, state, and national agencies; and international organizations where they help to track poachers by finding the scent of ammunition or contraband such as rhino horn. You may also see them at work in airports, where they hunt for smuggled products or animals such as bear bile and gallbladders, snakes and even baby monkeys.

At Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, a border collie named Finn and a Malinois/German shepherd cross named Levi search for cheetah scat. What they find is analyzed in CCF’s genetics laboratory.

“We can do DNA and understand more about population structure and find out what the cheetah has eaten, so we have prey analysis that we can use as well,” says Laurie Marker, Ph.D., CCF’s founder and executive director.

Finn has been on the job for approximately eight years and is still active at 10 years old. Levi is his younger understudy, capable of covering more ground. They work off leash in the bush, accompanied by a handler who rewards them with a toss of a ball or toy when they give an alert. They wear tracking collars in case they range out of sight. Despite facing risks such as leopards and baboons, Dr. Marker says they’ve had only one injury. An English springer spaniel named Tiger, now retired, broke a leg from falling in a hole.

The traits that make a good conservation dog are not what most people look for in a companion, so it’s no surprise that many dogs who excel in these careers were pulled from animal shelters, Train among them.

The then-2-year-old dog was selected for his high energy level and ball-driven spirit, says his handler, Karen DeMatteo, a biology research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Dogs suited to these types of jobs can’t simply focus on a ball or toy, though. They must also be willing to pay attention to the handler and have the stamina and drive to work for long periods without getting bored.

“They work for play,” Dr. Marker says.

The dogs are capable of learning to identify multiple scents, making them valuable in a number of situations. In addition to identifying cheetah scat, Levi -- trained in South Africa -- knows rhino horn and ammunition and is being trained on leopard. Together, the scents give him a well-rounded skill set.

In addition to his work in Argentina, where his repertoire odors include tapir, white-lipped peccary, collared peccary and paca, Train has helped with mountain lion surveys for Nebraska Game and Parks and the Missouri Department of Conservation. DeMatteo is planning to expand his repertoire to include spotted skunk to help find this endangered species in Missouri, where she and Train live.

“Even at 10 years old, he shows no sign of wanting to slow down,” she says.


By a whisker?

How cats measure space

Q: I’ve heard a cat’s whiskers are as wide as their body so they can fit through certain areas. If the cat puts on enough weight, do the whiskers also grow? -- via email

A: Whiskers are an important feline sensory organ. The thick, stiff hairs, known technically as vibrissae, are arranged in neat rows. Like the kids in a school picture, short whiskers are located in front, longer ones at the rear. They project from the side of the muzzle, fan out above the eyes or from the ears, and are found on the hind side of the front legs.

Whiskers are interesting because they can tell you a lot about what a cat is thinking. When whiskers face forward, a cat is feeling friendly or curious. A cat whose whiskers are pulled back is in defensive mode. And if the whiskers twitch during a catnap, the likely reason is that the cat is dreaming about catching that mouse in your house!

The reason I say that whiskers are a sensory organ is because the specialized hairs help cats detect slight air movements. Cats rely on their whiskers as they make their way through darkness. Whiskers, which are packed with nerves, send signals to the brain about whatever they contact, and they prevent cats from bumping into things. And, as you mention, whiskers also serve as a feline measuring device. Typically, if a cat’s head and whiskers can fit through an opening, the rest of his body is flexible enough to squeeze through as well. Whiskers are one reason blind cats can get around so well.

A cat who puts on too much weight, though, can’t necessarily count on his whiskers to accurately determine if a space is navigable. The whiskers don’t grow to match his excess size. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Drug eases stress

for cats at vet

-- Cats who suffer from fear, anxiety and stress before and during vet visits may benefit from a pre-visit dose of a drug called gabapentin, according to new research published last week in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The inexpensive medication is not labeled for treating anxiety in cats, but is increasingly used for that purpose. The 20 healthy cats in the study were randomly assigned to receive gabapentin or a placebo before a vet visit. The treatment was reversed for each cat on follow-up visits a week later. Owners reported that the cats who received gabapentin were significantly less stressed during transportation and examination, and veterinarians said those cats were significantly more compliant during the exam.

-- An outbreak of multidrug-resistant Campylobacter infections has affected 67 people in 15 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. In 93 percent of the cases, the bacterial infection was linked to contact with puppies in Petland pet stores. Of those 62 people, 18 were Petland employees, and 44 had recently purchased a puppy from Petland, visited a Petland store, or lived in or visited a home with a puppy sold by Petland. Signs of disease usually appear two to three days after exposure and include diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting. To help prevent illness, always wash hands with soap and water after handling puppies or picking up their waste.

-- The Yorkshire terrier is one of America’s most popular dogs. The toy breed has the spirit of a terrier in a tiny package. Weight ranges from four to seven pounds, although some are larger. Yorkies enjoy cuddling, but they are also mischievous and curious with a wicked sense of humor. These are smart dogs who enjoy learning if people make the effort to train them. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.