Forensic scientists in England have used a cat DNA database to identify cat hair found on a dead body, and help convict the killer.


The UK’s first cat database of DNA from British cats was established by forensic scientists at the University of Leicester, and has already helped to solve a homicide. When the remains of a man were found in a trash bag on an English beach last year, 8 cat hairs were found on a curtain wrapped around his body. And thanks to the help of this DNA database, the killer was subsequently convicted.

The cat hairs were initially examined by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, and were shown to match hair of a cat belonging to the victim’s friend. DNA obtained from the cat hair, however, was not nuclear DNA (nDNA), but mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). While nDNA, found in hair roots, is individual-specific, mtDNA, present in hair shafts, is maternally-inherited and can therefore be shared by many animals.

Although the mtDNA was also shown to differ from 493 other randomly sampled cats in the United States, prosecutors needed to determine the evidential strength of the match by demonstrating how rare the match might be for 2 random cats in the UK.

Consequently, Jon Wetton, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, worked with his team to create a database of cat DNA for this purpose. After collecting samples of mtDNA from 152 cats across Britain over a 6-week period, only 3 were a match with the cat hairs from the crime scene, confirming that it was an uncommon type in the UK as well as in the United States. Although not a perfect match, it indicated that the hairs on the victim’s torso most likely belonged to his friend’s cat, and provided evidence that was able to be used to help convict the killer.

This marks the first time that cat hair has been used in a criminal trial in the UK, and the group at the University of Leicester aims to publish their data for use in future crime investigations.



In dogs with hemangiosarcoma, treatment with a compound originating from the Coriolus versicolor mushroom was shown to result in survival times longer than any recorded so far in dogs with this condition.

Hemangiosarcoma is an aggressive form of cancer with a high metastatic rate that originates in endothelial cells that line blood vessels. This tumor is not uncommon in dogs, and typically arises in the spleen of middle-aged to older animals, and is associated with rapid and widespread metastases. Although it can affect any breed, German shepherd dogs and golden retrievers are particularly predisposed to this fatal disease.

But could there be hope?

Coriolus versicolor, more commonly known as the Yunzhi mushroom, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. It contains polysaccharopeptide (PSP), a compound that is thought to have immune-stimulating properties, and has more recently been suggested to also have an anti-tumor effect.

Some interesting data recently emerged from a study out of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Single Agent Polysaccharopeptide Delays Metastases and Improves Survival in Naturally Occurring Hemangiosarcoma (Brown DC and Reetz J. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Vol 2012 (2012); Article ID 384301) reported results from a double-blind, multi-dose pilot study designed to evaluate the effect of PSP treatment on survival time in dogs with hemangiosarcoma.

It included 15 dogs with the disease that were randomized equally across 3 treatment groups Each group was treated daily with a different dose of a manufactured formulation of PSP (25, 50, or 100 mg/kg/day). Dogs were examined monthly for disease progression.

The results of the study demonstrated that high-dose PSP significantly delayed the development of metastatic hemangiosarcoma, leading to the longest survival times reported in the veterinary literature in dogs with this tumor.

Previously, the longest median survival time reported in the veterinary literature in cases of splenic hemangiosarcoma, in dogs that did not undergo treatment, was 86 days. Although survival times were not significantly different between the dosage groups, the median time to development or progression of abdominal metastases was significantly delayed in the 100 mg/kg/day group (112 days; range 30-308 days), and the highest median survival time was 199 days. Some dogs in the study lived longer than a year.

Splenic hemangiosarcoma often remains undiagnosed until the tumor ruptures, leading to emergency presentation of the dog due to shock. At this stage, many owners choose surgical removal of the spleen rather than immediate euthanasia, despite the poor prognosis. But even if not evident at the time of surgery, widespread metastasis occurs rapidly, typically leading to fatal hemorrhagic crisis within about 3 months of the initial surgery.

Some owners consequently also opt for adjuvant chemotherapy with single agent and combination doxorubicin-based regimens. Although median survival times of 141-179 days are reported in dogs that have undergone surgery plus chemotherapy, this does not increase in the 12-month survival rate above that associated with surgery alone.

Although further investigation of this compound and its effect on survival time is warranted in dogs with hemangiosarcoma, results of this pilot study suggest that PSP may offer hope for use as a treatment alternative or addition to chemotherapeutic regimens.


Image credit taliesin @morgueFile



Did you know that April was “Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month”?
Each year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) “urges supporters across the country to support our efforts and Go Orange for Animals in honor of the signing of the ASPCA’s charter in 1866.”

No other relationship has lasted as long as that between animals and people. It’s amazing to consider how this dates back to prehistoric times, and to consider how it has evolved from an era when people merely used animals to their own advantage – to provide food, labor, and clothing, for example – to one in which companion animals have become increasingly important in contemporary life. Now, we not only rely on animals for companionship, but also regard them as friends and family members. 

Yet, despite our increasing personal bond with animals, we seem to remain the cruelest of all animal species.

Animal Rights

The topic of animal rights continues to generate extremely diverse viewpoints among people. The mere thought of animal abuse is unfathomable to many, whilst others consider that “they are just animals”. Clearly a disconnect remains, and as many continue to feel that humans are the superior species, they don’t believe that animals deserve any moral consideration.

In 1866, the ASPCA was founded on the premise that “….persons who harmed animals would escalate their violent acts to include vulnerable humans” – interesting that the development of animal abuse legislation back in the 1800s related to concern for people, not animal welfare per se.

Do you have any idea how unprotected animals are, by law? The Animal Welfare Act is the only federal law that deals with animal protection, and it doesn’t even provide for rights for animals – and indeed farm animals and laboratory animals have even less protections than companion animals. Typically, animals are considered as “property” under the law, so in most cases of abuse, perpetrators tend to be punished less harshly than if they’d stolen someone’s expensive painting. Although there have been some pivotal cases reported recently, in which owners have been able to claim for emotional damages due to the loss of their pets. So maybe the legal landscape will slowly change in years to come.

The Link Between Animal Abuse and Interpersonal Violence

The connection between abuse of animals and humans is irrefutable. Some of the data that have emerged in recent decades from studies investigating the link, have been both revealing and chilling:

  • 70% of animal abusers also have other criminal records
  • People who abuse animals are 5 times more likely to commit violent crimes than       those who do not abuse animals
  • Domestic partner violence is the most common cause of nonfatal injury in the US
  • 36% of emergency room visits by women between 1992 and 1996 were related to domestic abuse
  • 60% of domestic violence cases also involve pet abuse
  • 48% of battered women don’t escape to protect pets or livestock
  • 74% of battered women seeking refuge at a shelter reported that their pet was killed
  • More than 80% of families being treated for child abuse involve animal abuse, and in       in a quarter of these cases, the victimized child may later go on to abuse their pets
  • 31% of teenagers in one survey in Chicago had been to a dog fight
  • Men who abuse pets are more dangerous than those who don’t, using more types of violence, such as emotional and sexual violence, marital rape, and stalking
  • Most serial killers start out by killing animals

Animal abuse is known to represent part of a triad of behaviors for predicting criminal behavior. And the link between cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence is so well established that many communities now cross-train social service, animal control, and law enforcement agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. And some state laws now even mandate that veterinarians notify police if they suspect animal abuse.

So it’s easy to see how animal welfare plays an integral role in the welfare of humans, demonstrating the need to prevent, and intervene early in, animal cruelty cases. The concept of “animal rights” therefore clearly has implications in areas of society other than animal welfare.

“Every veterinarian has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of animals. Therefore the AVMA considers it the responsibility of every veterinarian to report animal abuse to appropriate authorities even when such reporting is not mandated by law or local ordinance. Such reporting is for the benefit of the animals, but there are often implications for people as well.”

[Dr Ron DeHaven, CEO, American Veterinary Medical Association]


Researchers find that pets may actually help to reduce allergies.


July 13th – children who grow up with a dog in the house may be less likely to develop allergies and respiratory infections later on in life, new research suggests.

Kei Fujimura, PhD, and colleagues, presented their findings on June 19th at the 112th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Francisco.  

While previous studies have demonstrated that children with pets are less likely to develop asthma, a new study has shed some light on how this may occur – if results in mice apply to people. 

Earlier work by Dr. Fujimura and colleagues showed that pet-friendly homes have microbiomes that are much more diverse than pet-free homes, and that some of the bugs could be helpful bacteria, such as ones that help with digestion. 

As a follow-up, the researchers aimed to evaluate the link between house dust and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common pathogen that infects children, making them more prone to developing childhood asthma. 

In their study, mice were divided into 3 groups. Mice in the first group were fed dust from homes with pets, and were subsequently exposed to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Mice in the second group were only infected with RSV, and those in the third group were uninfected. 

The animals fed the house dust did not show symptoms of the infection, such as airway swelling, and mucus production. The composition of their gut bacteria was also very different from that of mice who were not exposed to the dust. 

Early childhood is a critical time for development of protection against allergies and asthma, and it seems that exposure to pets can be beneficial. The researchers believe that early exposure to allergens can help the immune system to mature more quickly to protect against allergies and asthma. 

Now it remains to be determined which of the microbes are responsible for guarding against this infection – information which could be important for the development of therapies to protect against RSV and maybe decrease the risk of childhood asthma. 

The recent unveiling of the Human Microbiome Project will hopefully help to make this a reachable goal.



Image credit elemenoperica @morgueFile



Physicians should be reminded of the potential for medication errors by pet-owning patients and veterinarians as a result of self-medication.

This was the message from a case reported in a clinical communication to the editor by Harmeet Singh Narula, MD, from the Department of Medicine, SUNY Stony Brook, NY, in this month’s American Journal of Medicine (published online, May 7, 2012).

A 33-year-old veterinarian with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and hypothyroidism presented with mild anxiety, jitteriness, and insomnia.

Although the patient’s thyroid condition had been previously stable with levothyroxine replacement therapy, at the time of presentation, her thyroid hormone levels (serum total T4 and free thyroxine index) were discovered to be high.

Upon questioning by the physician, the patient admitted that she had run out of her levothyroxine prescription, and instead had switched to using a canine levothyroxine formulation. It was discovered that she had been taking a tablet dose of 0.5 mg daily, thinking that this was equivalent to the 50 µg daily dose that she had been originally prescribed, and was therefore taking 10 times the required dose.

The patient was instructed to stop taking the canine medication. Her thyroid function was restabilized, and she was warned to only take physician-prescribed medication in the future.

Hypothyroidism is a common condition in both people and dogs. However, the levothyroxine replacement dosages are much higher in dogs than in people, and the recommended starting dose is at least 25 times higher in dogs.

Levothyroxine also has a narrow therapeutic index, so mistakes in dosage can occur relatively easily due to prescription or dispensing errors.

Since veterinarians and pet owners have easy access to pet medications, physicians should recognize the possibility for such errors in these patients. Sudden unexpected changes in patient condition should be cues for physicians to enquire about any self-induced switches in medication.


Image credit FreeDigitalPhotos

Many pet owners were not too happy with the release of a manuscript by veterinarians Bruno B. Chomel and Ben Sun in the February 2011 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases from the Centers for Disease Control. Their article “Zoonoses in the Bedroom” discussed the fact that sleeping with pets has the potential for serious health risks. 



As our pets become more integrated into family life, they increasingly tend to share our lifestyles – including our beds! Surveys have estimated that up to 62% of owners allow their pets on their beds. Despite the fact that pet ownership brings us many benefits, including emotional support and stress reduction, we should not forget that our furry friends also bring along a whole host of their own “friends” in addition. Namely in the form of a wide range of zoonotic pathogens – bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

The authors searched PubMed for peer-reviewed publications that clearly detailed human exposure to zoonotic disease in association with sharing a bed or sleeping with pets, and kissing or being licked by them. A selection of their findings included:

  • Numerous cases of plaque in Arizona and New Mexico, from 1974 to 2008, in people who reported sleeping with or handling sick or flea-infested cats or dogs.
  • Septicemia and multi-organ failure in a 48 year old woman in Australia. Her fox terrier pup had been licking a minor burn wound on her foot.
  • A 48 year old man with diabetes mellitus, and his wife, suffered recurrent MRSA infections. The couple regularly slept with their dog, and allowed him to lick their faces. Culture of nares samples from both people and their dog, as well as from a wound on the wife, grew an identical strain of MRSA.
  • Paranasal sinusitis in a 39 year old woman from Japan with rhinorrhea and headaches. Her cat would awaken her each day by licking her. Identical Pasteurella multocida isolates were grown from the patient’s nasal discharge and the cat’s saliva.
  • Another from Japan, and one of my favorites: Meningitis due to Pasteurella multocida in a 44 year old woman from Japan who admitted to regularly kissing her dog, as well as feeding it by transferring food mouth to mouth.

Whilst zoonotic disease transmission is uncommon with healthy pets, these cases clearly document that close contact between pets and owners presents a real risk when it comes to spread of infection. And this is especially worrying when we consider potentially fatal diseases such as plague.

Many people will likely not refrain from smooching their pets. Nevertheless, children, the elderly, and patients who are immunocompromised should at least be discouraged from kissing their pets or sharing a bed with them. And areas of skin, especially in the case of open wounds, that are licked by pets should be immediately washed. Bacterial infections with no obvious origin, or recurrent MRSA infections in patients, should also be cues for physicians to ask questions about contact with pets.


Halloween is upon us again! At this time of year, many of us love to immerse ourselves into the festivities of the holidays – and involving pets is becoming more and more popular.

If this sounds like you, then read on for some tips to help protect your pet’s health and keep him safe at Halloween.

Treats To Avoid

  • Chocolate: Whether your dog has a penchant for raiding the bags of treats, or you have a penchant for feeding them to him – beware! Chocolate can be toxic to your dog, and eating too much can result in anything from vomiting and diarrhea to fatality. Thankfully fatalities are uncommon because owners are becoming increasingly aware that chocolate can poison their dog, but nevertheless, it pays to be extra-vigilant this time of year.
  • Raisins and Grapes: Many owners mistakenly feed these to their dog, thinking of them as a healthy alternative to chocolates. These too, however, can be poisonous to cats and dogs even in small doses, so should be avoided at all costs. They can cause kidney damage, and can also lead to fatalities. So beware those cute little boxes of raisins that kids leave around the house.
  • Xylitol: Maybe you’ve never heard of this compound, but more than likely you’ve ingested it!. Xylitol is a commonly used artificial sweetener that is often found in sugar-free chewing gum, as well as many other seemingly “healthy” low-calorie food products. Your Halloween candy bag is likely to contain something sweetened with xylitol.
  • High Sugar/High Salt/High Fat/High Calorie Treats: It’s not uncommon for us to over-indulge during the holidays, and this privilege is often extended to our pets! Avoid the urge to splurge though – obesity is the number one health problem in US pets, so don’t be tempted to overdo things with your pet with respect to high calorie foods, or even just excessive amounts of food. High fat foods in particular can also lead to problems such as pancreatitis. So choose be health-conscious on behalf of your pet!

Additional Safety Tips

  • Escaped Pets: If your cat or dog just loves to escape whenever the door is opened, Halloween is a particularly important time to be vigilant about this. If necessary, confine your pet to one room while the festivities are ongoing. And if you’re outdoors with your pet, don’t forget to keep him safe by taking him on a leash. This is a good time to ensure that his identity tag is up to date too. Just in case he does a disappearing act. The best advice though, is to keep your pet at home, safe and sound, during the witching hours!
  • Costume Issues: Although your pet might look cute dressed as Yoda, think twice before you send him outdoors in his new outfit! I’d advise not to dress up pets that are anxious, or even those who appear to be anxious in their new outfit. And avoid sending him outside in the costume. If you absolutely can’t resist the neighbors seeing him dressed-up though, be sure to accompany him. Be sure also that his costume doesn’t restrict his movement – make sure it’s not too long, too tight, and that nothing is covering his eyes. Long dangling threads or cords can also cause your pet to become entangled, so these should definitely be avoided. And don’t forget that your pet can easily be frightened by kids (or you!) in costume, so be gentle with him! If he seems anxious, keep him away from kids – you don’t want anyone getting bitten. Halloween bites are very common when pets become scared and anxious.
  • Electrical Cords: There are decorations galore this time of year, so take care if you’ve acquired any with electrical cords – in addition to posing a risk of entanglement if they’re too long, many pets love to chew through cords. Take precautions to keep pets away from such decorations, and certainly make sure that all electrical cords are stowed away.
  • Candles and All Types of Naked Flames: As festive as those Halloween candles or Jack-o-Lanterns can be, they’re an accident waiting to happen when it comes to curious pets. If you must have them on display for Halloween, be sure to keep them in a room that your pet cannot access. The last thing you need is an injured pet, or even a fire.

These are just a handful of tips to help your pet have a safe Halloween. Above all, remember to avoid giving your treats to your pet – that little Hershey’s kiss might be fine if your Great Dane gets his paws on it, but it could be harmful to your tiny Chihuahua. The Pet Poison Hotline reports that the average cost of treating a pet with chocolate poisoning is almost $1000. They also report that Halloween is the most dangerous time for pets, with their calls apparently increasing by 12% at this time of year. 

If you are in any doubt at all about your pet’s health over the Halloween festivities, call your veterinarian immediately for advice. And if you are concerned that your pet may have eaten something potentially harmful, you can always contact the ASPCA’s Poison Control Center on 888-426-4435, or the Pet Poison Helpline on 800-213-6680.


Happy and safe haunting!


The House of Representatives last week passed a bill introduced by NY Congressman Michael Grimm, himself a Marine veteran, that will help both dogs and servicemembers. The legislation establishes a pilot program in VA medical centers whereby veterans with PTSD will receive instruction in the handling and training of shelter dogs. 

Abandoned dogs in animal shelters will therefore be saved from euthanasia, while veterans with PTSD receive beneficial therapy through training them. Once trained, the dogs will then become service animals for disabled veterans – thus providing a two-pronged approach to helping servicemembers in need.


PTSD is a serious anxiety disorder that can arise as a consequence of exposure to situations such as a traumatic or life-threatening event. It is especially common in servicemembers returning home from combat deployments. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, although it is not fully understood why some develop the condition but others don’t. While many sufferers will improve over time, about 1 in 3 people will continue to experience symptoms. 

The severity of symptoms can vary between sufferers, but they can seriously interfere with everyday life, affecting work, social activities and relationships. Symptoms typically fall into four categories:

  • Re-living the experience: This typically occurs when something happens to trigger memories of the traumatic event, often causing flashbacks. 
  • Avoidance of situations: Some people may avoid dealing with the emotions of the traumatic event by avoiding anything that reminds them of it.
  • Numbness: Sufferers may no longer have positive or affectionate feelings, and may report a general feeling of numbness.
  • Feeling Keyed-Up: Sufferers often describe feeling constantly jittery or on alert.

Although medications can be useful to help combat PTSD, counseling therapies tend to be most effective, especially cognitive behavioral therapy. With veteran suicide rates currently high, and increasing numbers of servicemembers returning from deployment with symptoms of PTSD, this bill meets an important need for additional treatment options.

Grimm remarked: “As a veteran, and an American, I am thrilled that this legislation has passed the House, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to pass it without delay, so that it can be signed into law and allow us to begin providing assistance to our returning veterans.”

All in all a win-win solution that will help homeless dogs and support our deserving veterans.

Isn’t that the least we can offer?

Image Credit Website Of US Congressman Michael Grimm

Last week I spent 5 days in Ames, Iowa for the annual board certification exam of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists (ACVP). Thankfully I wasn’t a candidate, but rather a member of the ACVP Examination Committee that actually constructs and administers the exam each year. I’ve been on the committee since 2007, and this coming year will mark my final year as a member, as my official “tour of duty” comes to an end.


It’s been a long and arduous task as a committee member – it’s basically like having an extra part-time job. The exam is always held in September each year, and always in Ames. Typically we’ll start compiling exam questions and other 

necessary materials around November/December of the previous year, and usually the exam isn’t finally ready and printed until mid-summer. So you can imagine how much effort goes into that process in the intervening months. I’m not complaining about it – I find it extremely enjoyable – but it’s sometimes stressful and always tiring work, with lots to do, and strict deadlines to keep.

It is also highly rewarding. Ever since I completed my own residency training and succeeded in passing the board certification exam, I felt the need to “give back”. I wanted to pay something forward to new, incoming candidates – one of the main things that I knew I could do was to help “keep it fair”. Naturally, as one of about 12 voices on the committee, I can only do my bit, but I feel content knowing that I really have contributed to maintaining fairness in the exam system.

Additionally, outwith my involvement on the exam committee, I wanted to be able to provide moral support and mentoring to candidates under my watch. I was fortunate enough to spend three years in a very good and structured training program. But when I became a mentor myself, I wanted to not only provide this kind of training structure for programs in which I taught, but to be able to offer something more in addition. So over the years, I’ve done my utmost to be the best mentor possible for residents training with me. And whether this involved extra one-to-one training sessions, staying late for journal club sessions, or simply lending an empathetic ear when someone felt they weren’t doing as well as they should be doing, I discovered that every little helped. When people feel like they are not alone in whatever they are striving for, it’s amazing how much this can boost their morale.

The highlight of this year for me? My 3 most recent mentees (and good friends to boot) were all successful at this year’s examination, and are now enjoying their new lives as ACVP Diplomates! They all agreed that Ames was beautiful in the fall, but nevertheless they are relieved never to have to return there again! And me? To say I was ecstatic about their results is an understatement.

How do you pay it forward for your science?


The National Medal of Science
The National Medal of Science is a Presidential Award that was established back in 1959, and is given to those who are considered to be “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.”

Nominees for the award are evaluated by a President-appointed committee of 12 scientists and engineers. To date, this prestigious award has been given to 468 individuals who have devoted decades of their careers to research and development.p



One of this Year’s Recipients
On September 27th, I was very excited to learn that Dr Ralph Brinster, Professor of Physiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania was named as one of this year’s seven award recipients. He is being honored for his work in reproductive physiology, specifically for research on manipulation of the mammalian germline, and “for his fundamental contributions to the development and use of transgenic mice. His research has provided experimental foundations and inspiration for progress in germline genetic modification in a range of species, which has generated a revolution in biology, medicine and agriculture.”

Transgenesis involves inserting new genes into the germline of a developing organism – a technique that enables researchers to produce animals with selected traits that can serve as models for the understanding and treatment of disease processes. 

I was excited to hear of his success, not only because he is a fellow veterinarian, but because I literally crossed paths with him multiple times on most days during the four years that I also worked at the School of Veterinary Medicine. For the longest time when I first joined the school, I had no idea who he was – we’d pass in the hallways since we both worked on the same floor. I can say in all honesty that he was one of the nicest human beings you could ever meet. He would always have a smile on his face, and never failed to say hello and chit-chat as he passed by me. Truthfully, I had no idea of his high status there, and in this current climate of the big ego, I certainly would never have guessed that this was a man who’s list of awards and honors was like a stand-alone CV in its own right.

With his characteristic modesty, Dr Brinster remarked: “I got lucky. I always tell my students, ‘If you can choose between talent and luck, take luck.’ Modesty aside though, this award is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon scientists and engineers by the US government. The University’s Provost Vincent Price commented: “The entire Penn community congratulates Ralph Brinster on this tremendously prestigious honor. He has been a pioneer in using fundamental research to address profound and far-reaching biological questions. His innovations have defined entire fields of inquiry, spurred critical new technologies and transformed the study of human biology and disease.”

An amazing achievement by an amazing and inspirational man. I’m proud to have known him.

Congratulations Dr Brinster!


Photo Credit Scott H. Spitzer