All About Animals

A Blog About Animals by Erica Myers

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What Can Solitary Mammals Teach Us About Autism?

I found this really interesting article today to add on to my previous blogs about Autism.

To give a little background on the disorder, Autism is defined as a neural disorder characterized by poor social interaction, problems in verbal and non-verbal communication, and restrictive, repetitive behavior. A formal diagnosis of autism requires the symptoms to be seen in children before the age of three and for the symptoms to be severe enough to disrupt the child’s normal development.   Autistic behavior can fall on a spectrum ranging from mild social impairment to more severe forms with gross impairments in cognitive and social functioning.  Autism Awareness

Despite controversies raised over vaccination and other presumed environmental factors, research has shown autism to have a strong genetic component although the genetics of autism have not been clearly established.   While the current prevalence of autism is 1-2 per 1000 births worldwide, the rise in diagnosed cases of autism over the past four decades has sparked renewed concern.   Whether these new autism cases are due to increased awareness of autism symptoms or an actual increase in children with autism, understanding why autism occurs seems to be more critical than ever.

While animal models of disease are commonly used to understand how genetic diseases can operate in humans, developing equivalent models for autism has been more difficult.  Up to now, much of the animal research into autism has focused on rodents such as rats and mice, which are specifically bred to test key gene combinations and how they affect social behavior. Mice have been bred that display certain autism symptoms such as impaired social interaction and repetitive behavior though skeptics have questioned whether animal models based on these rodents can help us understand human autism.

But are researchers using the right animal models?  A new review article published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology suggests that there might be a better way of exploring the biology of autism.  According to Jared Edward Reser of the University of Southern California, certain species of mammals display solitary behavior that strongly resembles what is often seen in autism.   While many species of mammals form strong social bonds, there are some species that do not form into communities like more social mammals but can function relatively independently of others of their kind. Reser provides an abridged list of different species of solitary animals including polar bears, opossums, skunks, tigers, cougars, armadillos, and orangutans.   Though many of these species display some social behavior, there appear to be important neurological differences between social and solitary animals that may be relevant to autistic behavior in humans.

According to Reser, both solitary animals and people on the autism spectrum show a reduced need for bonding and attachment, reduced separation distress, and reduced body expressiveness.  Autistic people also have many of the same biological markers seen in solitary animals.   These include reduced levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, a decrease in the body’s ability to produce internal opioids, and system hyperactivity in social situations. While these similarities may be coincidence, Reser and his colleagues suggest that understanding social bonding behavior in mammals might provide researchers with better insight into the neurobiology of autism.

One key difference between social and solitary mammals involves plasma levels of oxytocin.   A peptide hormone linked to reproduction, pair bonding, and social recognition, oxytocin levels are significantly higher in social than non-social animals. Oxytocin is released during positive social interactions and appears to be useful in regulating social stressors, social memory, and in modulating how animals respond to social threats.  Synthesized in key regions of the hypothalamus, oxytocin is distributed to different brain areas including the rest of the limbic system, the brain stem, and other parts of the brain associated with social functioning.

Animal species that are genetically similar but have different social patterns, including the prairie vole and montane voles, respond to oxytocin in different ways.  Montane voles have fewer oxytocin receptors in the brain and are more likely to be wary of members of their own species.   Monogamous animals (having a single, dedicated mate for at least one part of its lifetime) have a higher density of oxytocin receptors in the limbic system and frontal cortex. Research studies involving direct stimulation of oxytocin receptors show an increase in bonding and attachment behavior.  While autism researchers have not explored this potential link to oxytocin production and solitary behavior in animals so far, Reser suggests that it may be a promising area for future studies.

As for why these biochemical and genetic differences occur between social and non-social animals, Reser and other researchers have pointed out the importance of early environment.   When rhesus monkeys are separated from their mothers at an early age and raised in cages, they often develop abnormal behaviors that resemble autism in many ways. This includes high aggression, poor social interaction, and repetitive activities (rocking back and forth, etc.). They are also found to have lower levels of oxytocin in their cerebrospinal fluid when compared with monkeys raised normally.

Research looking at how oxytocin affects human autism has yielded intriguing findings.   One study using intravenous oxytocin on adults with autism showed a reduction in stereotypical behaviours and an increase in pro-social behavior, reduced social fear, and increased eye gaze.   Though more research is needed to test how effectively oxtocin can be used to treat autism, it represents a promising new direction.

Along with oxytocin, arginine vasopressin (AVP) is another peptide hormone that may play a role in social bonding. While the primary function of AVP is to constrict blood vessels and help the body retain water, it can also be released directly into the brain where AVP receptors appear to reinforce social behavior and pair bonding in animals. Not only do solitary species have fewer AVP receptors than more social species, but direct infusion of AVP into the brain can increase mate preference in many animal species. AVP receptors in the human brain also appear linked to social behavior but there is little research so far looking at the role that AVP can play in autism.

And then there are the endogenous opioids such as endorphin which has been linked to the body’s capacity for dealing with pain. Since the release of opioids is linked with both pain and pleasure, their release during social interactions is thought to act as a reinforcer due to the pleasurable sensation that comes from socializing with others. Research using opioids such as morphine has shown that it can decrease social interactions in animals. Humans addicted to opioids also show autistic-like symptoms and many of the brain areas associated with autism are linked to opioid production in the brain. More research is needed to investigate how brain opioids are involved in autism but their role, much like the role of other brain chemicals such as oxytocin and AVP, makes for an exciting new direction in autism research.  Autism Awareness 2

Research focusing on solitary animal models can also provide clues to new forms of treatment in cases of severe autism. Learning more about how the complex way that brain chemicals such as oxytocin, arginin vasopressin, and endogenous opioids interact to influence social behavior may represent new directions for diagnosing and treating autistic children and adults. While linking autism in humans to solitary behavior in many animal species can be controversial, the differences in brain chemistry between genetically similar social and solitary species can have important implications for understanding human social behavior. As Reser points out in his article, only a fraction of what we call autistic behavior can be explained by what researchers have found in solitary species. Since the autism diagnosis often includes a wide variety of different symptoms which are often lumped together by clinicians, no single animal model will likely be enough to understand what is happening in autistic humans.

Still, exploring the various neurological and biochemical differences between social and solitary animal species can have important implications for human psychology.   Not only could this kind of research help us understand autism, but it may also help us understand more about human social behavior in general.  It may also lead to how we interpret some of the ways that people on the autism spectrum behave.  Are the different behaviors we label as being autistic necessarily pathological or are there advantages involved, especially in modern society?

As Reser points out, some researchers and autism advocacy groups have promoted the concept of an autism advantage that needs to be encouraged. Since many autistic people can become highly successful in fields such as computer programming, mathematics, and physics, and treating them as mentally ill is often counterproductive. If we provide children that have autistic symptoms with the proper coaching to help them adapt and prosper, this represents an intriguing alternative to treatment in many cases. By learning more about the biology of social interaction, we can also recognize the need to accept that humans vary widely in terms of how they deal with others.  Studying the differences between solitary and social mammals may only be the first step.

Please comment below and let me know what you think about this intriguing and controversial subject!

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Service Animal Scams

A cottage industry has developed around fake emotional support animals.

While bicycling around Central Park this past week, I spotted a family with three young kids and a handsome German shepherd wearing bright red Service Dog vest. I enjoy talking with people about their companion animals, so I stopped, complimented them on their dog, and naively asked the dad, “I see she’s a service dog. What service does she provide?” He suddenly got the deer-in-the-headlights look, hemmed and hawed a bit, and finally said, “Errrr… she’s not really an official service dog. She just helps keep the kids together when we go for walks.” It turns out that he had purchased the nifty service dog vest from Amazon. Service Dog

When I got back to my hotel, I started searching the Internet for service dog paraphernalia. I was shocked. With absolutely no proof of an animal’s training or abilities, Amazon will sell you vests, leashes, collars, and dog tags indicating that your dog is a “Service Dog,” an “Emotional Support Dog,” or a “Seizure Alert Dog.” For a few bucks more you can purchase an ominous legal-looking card saying you are prepared to sue the skeptical restaurant owner who thinks their no-pets allowed policy applies to your puppy.

I also discovered a host of dubious service and emotional support animal “registries.” For example, the United States Dog Registry will certify any dog as a “service dog” or a “therapy dog” for $58, and an outfit called ESA of America will happily certify your pet rat, hamster, or iguana as an “emotional support animal.” (Sample ESA customer testimonial – “I have now taken 3 flights with my dog, and the peace of mind of being able to just pack up and go anywhere I want with him is the greatest thing ever.”)

Then I began to ask around about bogus assistance animals and immediately began to hear stories. A high profile animal activist confessed to me that several of his friends had purchased phony service vests so they could take their pets into restaurants. (He refuses to go out to eat with them anymore.) And my daughter told me about a woman she knows who got a free flight for her dog to Southeast Asia by having a social worker pal write letter a saying the pet provided her with emotional support. (While the ruse worked, the dog did have to wear a canine diaper on the trip.)

A Legal Morass                                                  

Plenty of people with medical and psychological disabilities have legitimate needs for service dogs, therapy dogs, or emotional support animals. And having your service dog wear a vest can make things a lot easier when it comes to getting assistance animals into places where pets are not allowed. But the present system governing the status of service animals is rife with abuse. Here’s why…

Three different sets of federal statues apply to the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by animals: the American’s with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act. This division of responsibility has resulted in a bewildering array of conflicting and confusing regulations. Take, for example, the laws pertaining to animals in public places such as restaurants, stores, and shopping malls and the laws governing the right to take assistance animals on airplanes.

Dogs in Public Places: The Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA governs the accessibility of public places and commercial enterprises. The rules (here) are administered by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and they only pertain to “service animals.” The guidelines are strict – in theory. First, under ADA regulations, only dogs can qualify as service animals. (In a few special cases, miniature horses can also qualify.) Second, pets are not considered service animals. Third, and most important, service dogs must be specially trained to perform specific services for specific disabilities. Legitimate service dogs range from guide dogs for the blind to psychiatricservice animals which can sense oncoming panic attacks in owners suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The ADA regulations seem reasonable, but the devil is in the details. One problem is that the law stipulates a person claiming to have a service dog can only be asked two questions by, for example, the owner of a no-pets restaurant. The first is, “does the dog provide a service?” The second is “what has the dog been trained to do?” This means that a person with a service dog cannot be asked what their disability is. (I inadvertently violated the law when I asked the family in Savanah about their “service” dog.) Nor can they be asked to provide any documentation attesting that their dog has been trained and certified as a service animal. Indeed, there is no federally recognized service animal certification program. Further, contrary to conventional wisdom, service animals do not need to have any kind of identification such as a vest.

Free Plane Rides: The Air Carrier Access Act

My daughter’s friend who snagged a free trip to Asia for her dog did so under the auspices of a different federal agency – the Department of Transportation. The DOT regulations (here) differ from the Americans with Disabilities Act in several important respects. First, unlike the ADA, the Air

Carrier Access Act gives legal standing to animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support. This means that, unlike service dogs, emotional support animals are not required to be trained to perform specific tasks. It’s enough that they are necessary for your psychological wellbeing. Thus your lovable pet puppy may well be entitled to free air travel if she helps you get through your day.

But don’t get too excited just yet. In some ways, the rules for emotional support animals are more rigorous than for service dogs. That’s because the feds have given airlines considerable flexibility in what is required of passengers who claim they need to be in the company of their emotional support animal. Service Animal 2

Take Delta Airlines (here). If you claim to need four-legged emotional support to stave off a panic attack on your next flight, you will need to provide the airline with a signed letter from a “licensed mental health professional.” (Your family doctor will not do the trick.) The letter must include the professional’s address and phone number, and it must state that you have a disorder listed in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Further, you have to be under active treatment for your disorder by this “mental health professional.” The good news is that this letter, however, will allow your pet to accompany you in the cabin of the plane for free for a year.

The AACA differs from the ADA in another respect as well. Emotional support animals are not restricted to dogs. So if it is ok with the airline, you can bring your iguana along on the ride to calm your jangled nerves. I would advise, however, against becoming psychologically dependent on a Great Dane; emotional support animals flying on Delta are required to fit under their owner’s seat.

If you or someone that you know are in need of a service animal, please make sure that the animal is certified by a licensed and reputable service animal organization.

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The Cat Nobel Prize Part Two

I found an interesting update to a blog that I wrote about a couple weeks ago regarding how scientists made the first real strides in understanding how vision works inside the brain by studying cats. But, in this most recent study, the neuroscientists responsible for this work, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, also used cats to study brain development, especially during infancy.  Cat

For this work, the duo divided a pack of kittens into two cohorts, the horizontal group and the vertical group. As you can probably guess, the vertical group was raised in a world consisting entirely of vertical lines: the wallpaper inside their cages was black-and-white stripes running floor to ceiling, and the people handling and feeding them wore either solid colors or vertical stripes as well. As a result, these cats saw nothing but vertical lines for the first several weeks of their lives. Meanwhile, other cats were raised in cages lined with (and handled by people wearing exclusively) horizontal stripes, and this group never saw vertical lines.

The results were startling. Cats raised in one environment were blind—literally blind—to any lines running the “other” way. Cats raised in a horizontal world, for instance, could see the seats of chairs just fine and would jump up onto them to nap. But they couldn’t see the chair’s legs at all and were constantly banging into them. The vertical-world cats had the opposite problem. They weaved around the chair legs like champs but could never find a cozy spot to snooze.

These experiments provided some of the first and best evidence for the existence of “critical windows” in brain development. The basic idea is that the brain, which is plastic when young, must be exposed to certain sights early in life or it will remain blind to those sights forever. In this case, because the vertical-world and horizontal-world cats never saw any differently oriented lines during their critical windows, their brains ended up dedicating all their vision neurons to the one orientation and neglecting the other.

Something similar can happen with human beings. No humans have ever been raised in such stark surroundings. But, those of us raised in modern cities tend to notice horizontal and vertical lines more quickly than lines at other orientations. In contrast, people raised in nomadic tribes do a better job noticing lines skewed at intermediate angles, since Mother Nature tends to work with a wider array of lines than most architects.

The idea of critical windows extends beyond just vision, of course: almost every system in the brain has a critical window when it needs to experience certain stimuli or it won’t get wired up properly. The most obvious example is language: if you don’t learn a language early on, it’s nigh impossible to become truly fluent. To be sure, different brain systems have different critical windows that last remain open for different lengths of time. But in some fundamental way, we’re all like Hubel and Wiesel’s kittens—able to process some things without effort, but crashing into those darn chair legs that our brains, through no fault of our own, simply can’t process.

Please comment and let me know what you think about this fascinating and intriguing article. What are your thoughts about performing tests on animals?

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Activities in English and Western Riding: Part Two

Western and english riders have a variety of mounted activities from which to choose from.  Western

Both english and western riding have their different activities, or disciplines. If you already know that you want to barrel race, or to jump, you’ve got a head start in knowing which way you will ride.

Being english myself, I’ve always been biased towards english riding. But as my knowledge has grown, I’ve learned that there’s more to western riding than throwing a leg over the horse and hitting the trail.

For example, western riders can participate in western pleasure, barrel racing, roping and cutting, reining, competitive trail classes and more.

Western pleasure is a showing class in which horses are shown in a group in the arena, performing changes of gait and direction as requested by the judge. Horses are judged for their appearance, style and movement.

In barrel racing, horse and rider enter the arena at high speed and negotiate a pattern of three barrels, turning tightly around each barrel without going too wide (and wasting precious seconds, or cutting in too close and possibly knocking a barrel over and losing points. This is a speed sport and the fastest across the finish line wins.

In roping events, the rider follows a steer out of the chute, aims and throws the lasso while riding at speed. He then secures the lasso around the saddle horn and the specially trained horse comes to a quick halt to hold the steer. The rider quickly dismounts, grounds the steer and quickly ropes its legs. Another speed event, the quickest person to get his steer roped and raise his arms to signal to the judge that he has completed the task, wins.

Cutting takes a very special horse. In cutting events, horse and rider enter a group of cattle and single one out. The horse moves the steer away from the other cattle and then prevents it from moving back to the herd for a preset period of time. Since the steer is determined to join his herdmates, the horse will have to continually face the steer and anticipate which way it will go, moving himself quickly left and right to block escape.  Western 2

In reining classes, horse and rider perform a preset pattern of movements, involving circles, spins, slides and turns. Reining has been called the “western dressage” and is always a crowd pleaser and each horse’s performance is accompanied by whoops and hollers from the audience. Horses and riders are judged on the obedience of the horse to the riders aids and on accuracy.

In competitive trail classes, horses enter the arena separately and work through a series of obstacles, such as gates, patterns of poles which they must reverse through etc. The idea is to simulate in the show ring, such obstacles as may be found out on the trail. Horses are judged for their obedience to the rider’s aids and the willingness with which they perform each task set them.

So get out there and try Western riding for yourself and let me know what you think!

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Activities in English and Western Riding: Part One


English riders can participate in dressage, hunter or jumper, combined training and more.

In dressage, horse and rider follow a set pattern of movements, including circles and straight lines, changes of pace and direction and, at the higher levels, lateral movements and collections and extensions of gait. They are judged on accuracy, the obedience and submission of the horse to his riders aids, correctness, straightness and presence. Dressage is often compared to western reining. Unfortunately, while it’s fascinating challenge to do, dressage has gained a reputation as being a rather stuffy sport. This image probably isn’t helped by the fact that, in the words of my esteemed father, it is, for the uninitiated at least, like watching cement set. Often the audience is asked to hold their applause, for fear of spooking the horses and each ride is performed in graveyard-like silence.  Hunter classes can be on the flat, or over fences. In Hunter under Saddle classes, the horses enter the arena as a group and perform the changes of gait and direction as requested by the judge. They are judged for their obedience to the rider’s aids, their gaits and their elegance. They maintain an even head carriage and smooth, quiet paces throughout.

In hunter classes over fences, the horses are judged on style as they negotiate a course of jumps. They should maintain a steady, even gait, switching leads when appropriate and jumping the fences with style. In fact, style is the main criterion for judging in hunter classes over fences and a horse which, even though it clears the fences, dangles a foreleg, or puts in an extra stride in front of a fence, will be marked down.

In jumper classes, horses are judged on their ability to cleaning negotiate a series of fences. Style is not taken into account, so if your horse doesn’t have the level head carriage and smooth, calm gait required for the hunters, but can jump anything you put in front of him, jumper classes may be where you’ll shine.

Eventing, or combined training, has its roots in the military, where horses needed stamina, while also showing obedience to their rider and agility. Eventing includes dressage, cross country jumping and stadium jumping. Any type of horse can take part in eventing and so, horses that perhaps aren’t fancy enough for showing or aren’t elegant enough for hunter classes, can participate in eventing. At the very highest levels, eventing requires stamina, obedience and courage from the horse, to clear the very formidable fences on the cross country course, but at the lower levels, it’s something everyone can enjoy just as much as a pleasant ride in the country.

Both english and western riders regularly hit the trails and compete in long distance, or endurance rides. Endurance rides are competed over a set distance, perhaps 25, 50 or 100 miles. Time must be taken to condition the horse for this event and care is taken at the events, to make sure that horses remain in good health throughout.

In England, many English riders participate in gymkhana events, which are various races and games on horseback. They have their roots in medieval jousting. Every summer show in England has a ring in which the gymkhana events are held and children of all ages hurtle up and down the ring grabbing potatoes balanced on buckets from the back of their pony, or snaking through a line of poles. Many Pony Clubs hold Mounted Game team competitions, culminating in the Prince Phillip Cup which is held annually at the Horse of the Year Show.

In the United States, gymkhana includes barrel racing, pole bending and flag races and participants are not limited to children.

Gymkhana of any type requires a horse or pony that has agility, speed and shows obedience to the rider, who may at any time be hanging off to one side reaching for something. However, no particular breed is required and horses are not judged on appearance or quality, so horses that aren’t appropriate for showing in other disciplines can usually, with the right training, make the switch to mounted games or gymkhana

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English Versus Western Riding – Which is Easier?


I thought I would continue blogging this week about the types of horseback riding and give you even more insight about the two main disciplines of riding.

So, which is easier? I’d have to say western is easier than english. For one thing, the larger saddle provides a more secure seat for the novice rider. My dad, a complete novice, sat very precariously in my english saddle for about two minutes before begging to be let off, but earlier this year, happily trailed up and down a Colorado mountain-side, secure in a western saddle!

In english riding, the rider has to learn to post to the trot, a bouncy gait in which the horse springs from one diagonal pair of legs to the other diagonal pair, with a period of suspension in between. In western riding, horses go at a slower gait called the jog, which doesn’t dislodge the rider nearly so much. In addition, the wider seat and raised cantle and pommel of the western saddle give even the most novice rider much more stability.

English riding, even for the beginner, involves the coordination of multiple factors, such as legs, reins and balance to maintain control of the horse. This can be difficult until it becomes second nature to the rider. In western riding, as my father demonstrated, even the greenest of riders can enjoy an afternoon on horseback in relative safety.

Having said that, it is my opinion that it is actually better for someone considering learning to ride, to start out with english riding lessons. Why? Because someone who is comfortable riding in an english saddle and giving “english” aids, will have no trouble converting to western, if they should decide that they’d like to participate in the western equestrian sports. By contrast, someone who has learned to ride in a western saddle will essentially have to learn to ride all over again if they should decide they want to participate in one of the english equestrian sports.

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English Versus Western Riding – What’s the Difference?


Many people thinking about learning to ride ask about the differences between English and Western riding.

One question I frequently get asked in my email is: “What is the difference between English and Western riding?” The next question is usually: “Is one easier than the other?”

There are both differences and similarities between english and western riding. The most obvious difference is the tack the horse wears.

As explained in my Saddle Facts article, the western saddle is larger and heavier than the english saddle. It’s designed to spread the weight of the rider over a larger area of the horses back, making it more comfortable for long days out chasing cows.

The english saddle is smaller and lighter and designed to give the rider a closer contact with the horse’s back.

With both the english and the western saddle, different designs are available to accomodate certain styles, sports and disciplines.

As far as riding goes, the main difference between english and western riding is that in english riding, the rider takes a direct contact with the horse’s mouth via the reins and uses the reins as part of the “aids” (along with the seat and the leg) for speed and direction. Most western riding horses are ridden on little or no contact and the rider uses his seat, his weight and neck-reining to give aids to the horse.

The position of the rider is much the same in both english and western. The rider should sit tall and straight, leaning neither forward nor backward. The rider’s legs should hang naturally against the horse’s sides and the arms should be relaxed and against the rider’s sides (flapping elbows are frowned up in both disciplines).

In english riding, the rider takes a rein in each hand, whereas western riders take both reins in one hand, allowing the other hand to fall naturally at their side, or lay on their thigh.

Please watch my video blog and let me know what you think!