Algae poses threat to humans as well as animals

Health departments have been trying to inform swimmers and pet owners that they should avoid water with visible algae, since ingesting it can cause severe and sudden illness including convulsions or even death. In our state, three dogs died last year after swimming at a reservoir. One died before his owner could even get him to the car, another died on the way to the vet.

Now, a recent report in the ProMED health tracking network calls our attention to human risks that don’t involved either entering or drinking the algae-contaminated water.

One man, whose dog died after a swim in the lake, was hospitalized last week [week of 19 Jul 2010] after he gave the dog a bath. Within days, the 43-year-old man began having trouble walking and lost
feeling in his arms and feet.

“We weren’t swimming in the lake because it’s disgusting,” said the
victim’s wife, whose husband, is still having trouble with memory loss and fatigue. “Our dog was just covered in that sludge, and my husband washed him.” Washington Examiner, July 30, 2010.

According to one doctor treating the Ohio man, his neurological problems may be permanent. But he’s better off than his dog, who died despite having the algae washed off.

The algae are in the “blue-green algae” family, and are actually not algae but photosynthesizing bacteria, called cyanobacteria. Blooms, or overgrowths, in bodies of water (fresh or saltwater) are encouraged by temperature change and increases in nutrients, often from agricultural runoff into the water. The cyanobacteria, like some algae, make toxins harmful to fish and mammals. Humans have been aware of this mostly through being poisoned by eating shellfish, which concentrate the toxins. The familiar warnings about “red tides” and issuance of “shellfish advisories” result from these conditions.

While it has been known that skin contact with toxic algae could produce illness in humans, the severe results from relatively small exposure—simply washing an algae-slimed dog—seem to be worse than expected.

The lake in Ohio is Grand Lake St. Marys; it’s the largest inland lake in the state by area, but is extremely shallow, with an average depth of only 5 to 7 feet. This shallow lake warms up more, and doesn’t dilute the runoff of agricultural fertilizer and livestock waste as much as if it held more water. Recent algae blooms have killed so many catfish that crews were shovelling up the dead fish. With the lake surrounded by warning signs, the area’s $160 million tourism industry has declined, and a boat race that draws about 30,000 people in late August each year has been cancelled.

Some algae are harmless, but there are many different algae or bacteria that can produce dangerous levels of toxins when they bloom. Some are more harmful than others but it’s foolish to take chances: keep yourself, and children and pets, well away from any water that has a visible algae presence. This can be greenish, reddish, or other colors. Or it can appear as just cloudiness or discoloration in the water, as foam or scum floating on top, as mats on the bottom, or actual filaments or pellets. And don’t let kids or pets wander to areas of a river, stream, or lake that you have not closely checked.

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Source.

An Ohio factsheet sums up the methods of exposure, and known symptoms:

Skin contact: Contact with the skin may cause rashes, hives, or skin blisters (especially on the lips and under swimsuits).

Breathing of water droplets: Breathing aerosolizing (suspended water droplets-mist) from the lake water-related recreational activities and/or lawn irrigation can cause runny eyes and noses, a sore throat, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions.

Swallowing water: Swallowing HAB-contaminated water can cause:
◦ Acute (immediate), severe diarrhea and vomiting
◦ Liver toxicity (abnormal liver function, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting)
◦ Kidney toxicity
◦ Neurotoxicity (weakness, salivation, tingly fingers, numbness, dizziness, difficulties breathing, death)   Source.

Splashing of water in eyes, or inhaling droplets of contaminated water, can get the toxin into your system. One of the toxins from cyanobacteria, Saxitoxin is “reportedly one of the most toxic, non-protein substances known. It is known that the LD50 (median lethal dose) in mice is 8 micrograms/kilogram. Based on
a human weighing approx. 70 kg (154 lb), a lethal dose would be a
single dose of 0.2 mg.” [Source, ProMED report.]

How much is two-tenths of a milligram? There are a thousand milligrams in a gram, and a dime or a paper clip each weigh about 1 gram. So an amount of toxin weighing the same as two ten-thousandths of a paper clip may be lethal.

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Source.

These “Harmful Algal Blooms” can occur in large or small bodies of water; often, but not always, they are in areas where the waterflow is slow (near shore) or nonexistent (stagnant). Small pools or puddles separate from the main body of water can contain algal growth. Even in tiny amounts the toxins can have devastating and sudden effects of humans or animals.

Eating fish or shellfish from contaminated waters is dangerous too. Cooking does NOT render toxins safe.

Algal blooms can be very transient, appearing and disappearing in a matter of days to weeks. If you spot a possible instance and there are no warning signs, it may not have been found yet. Stay away from the water and call your local or state health department so they can track outbreaks, and put up signs.

For the state of Oregon, current advisories can be found online here. The HAB team can be reached by email at Hab.health@state.or.us, by phone: 971-673-0440; Toll Free: 877-290-6767; or by fax: 971-673-0457. Other states should have similar programs; your city or county health department ought to be able to tell you more.

Why are these toxic algae blooms becoming more common?

The short answer is, better growing conditions for algae. They thrive in warm water, and temperatures are going up. Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from human activities pour into streams, lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and act like Miracle-Gro for the algae. Sources include runoff from fields treated with fertilizer or manure, spraying partially treated sewage sludge, sewage overflows, and runoff from pastures.

What can be done?

Rising temperatures, that’s a big one. Let’s just look at eutrophication or over-nutrification of water, since that’s something where local efforts can have relatively immediate local effects. Obviously, better treatment of sewage (including livestock waste) and reduced use of fertilizers (in agriculture, on golf courses, in parks, and in our own personal yards) are important steps to work on. On July 1st, 16 states will begin enforcing laws that require dishwasher detergents to be almost phosphate-free. That’s a small but significant improvement; the legislator who introduced the bill into the Pennsylvania legislature estimated that 7% to 12% of the phosphorus entering sewage plants came from automatic dishwashing detergents. New guidelines from the federal Clean Water Act to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus have provided more impetus to these particular efforts.

Not so obvious steps:

At least one study found that use of organic fertilizers led to less nitrogen runoff than use of chemical fertilizers.

Remediation of areas where nitrogen is stored in soil, from decades of deposition by one means or another, is possible but expensive and slow.

And years of research is showing us, surprise surprise, that intact aquatic communities slow the trickle-down of nutrient pollution (from, say, creeks to streams to rivers to a lake) and seem to enable a body of water to better resist eutrophication. Dr. David Schindler (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta) has studied the problem for decades including 37 years of work on Lake 227, a small pristine lake in the Experimental Lakes region of northern Ontario. He says, for example, that overexploitation of piscivorous (fish-eating) fish seems to increase the effects of eutrophication. (His earlier work energized the campaign to reduce phosphorus pollution.)

A study along the Georgia coast suggests that tidal marsh soils protect aquatic ecosystems from eutrophication, caused by the accumulation of nutrients. And they sequester large amounts of carbon, helping us slow down climate change. I would expect similar results with regard to freshwater wetlands and marshes. When I was a zookeeper I worked with mechanical incubators for bird eggs, none of which was as reliable as one of those “bird-brained” hens of whatever species. We are told that the appropriate native herbivores—bison, wildebeest, and so on—produce more meat per acre and do less damage than introduced species like cattle. And now we’re coming around to seeing that oldmothernature is better at water purification than we are, if we leave existing systems intact (but we never do).

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Salt Marsh near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; more good photos of this marsh here.

Hydraulic mining scars, wildflowers, dogs, and poison oak, a short early-summer walk in the Siskiyous

[I’ve made brief corrections to this post regarding aspects of hydraulic mining, after a commenter pointed them out to me. And a more recent post goes into matters at more length, on points where I was wrong, and others on which I disagree with the commenter.]

We took our new English Mastiff Jack for his first off-leash walk in the woods this morning. He is a 3 1/2 year old rescue who has been with us for nearly a month now. He has settled in very well, comes when called at home even if he is barking at the UPS guy, and so we thought he was ready for an off-leash ramble. Our elderly female Rhodesian Ridgeback went too.

The nearby Gin Lin Trail is named for a Chinese mine owner and “traces the remains of a late-nineteenth-century hydraulic gold mining operation in what was known as the Palmer Creek Diggings, now a part of the Rogue River National Forest.” [more info]

Hydraulic mining used huge pressurized streams of water to turn hillsides or mountainsides into slurry that could be run through sluice boxes to trap the gold. The photo below shows a large-scale operation in action, somewhere in this area of the Oregon Siskiyous, in the latter half of the 19th century. For scale, notice the tiny figure of a man wearing a white shirt, tending the left-hand water hose.

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The tremendous destruction takes geologic time, not human time, to heal. Huge clefts are made in the land, piles of big rocks and new hills of “processed” dirt are put anyplace convenient, and the subsoil brought up doesn’t support plant life as well as the now-buried topsoil did. All this is easily seen along the Gin Lin Trail.

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The picture above shows a steep slope of discarded material a steep-sided ditch, probably hand-dug to accommodate the miners’ equipment—sluice boxes or water pipes. Both the angle of the slope, and the composition of the material itself, are hostile to plant growth. Even on the top where it is closer to level, trees and shrubs are not as numerous or healthy as in undisturbed areas.

Miners blasted away tons of earth trying to follow layers of gold-bearing gravel laid down by ancient rivers. This picture (below) shows a cut made by their work, at the point where they stopped. making ditches like this.

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And here’s some of the big river rocks moved as the mining went on.

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The gold being sought had been deposited by watercourses running down to the river below, seen in the background of this picture. was in layers of Tertiary-era gravel, laid down in the bottoms of rivers 40 – 100 million years ago. Since then the river bottoms have been pushed up by geological forces, and cut through by new drainage systems. The ancient rivers may have had no connexion to existing rivers, since drainage patterns have changed.

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Looking over the fence, from the same spot as the previous picture.

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The dogs had a good time, and Jack stayed close and came when called, as we expected.

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Because of the mining, it isn’t the best place for wildflowers, but we saw a few. This is Elegant Cat’s Ear (Calochortus elegans); the common name refers, I believe, to the fuzziness and triangular shape of the flower petals. This doesn’t show the plant’s leaves but there’s a good photo on Flickr that does.

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Lupines don’t mind disturbed soil as much as many other plants do.

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I think this is the Yellowleaf Iris, Iris chrysophylla.

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And below, Iris bracteata, Siskiyou Iris. [caveat: I’m no expert on wildflowers so my identifications are not guaranteed! This USFS page has photos, range maps, and descriptions of the Pacific Coast iris species.] In our experience, this yellow-flowered iris is less common around here than Iris chrysophylla, the Yellowleaf Iris.

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Below is my least favorite native plant around here, the glossy-leafed Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum.

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In spring its leaves are usually glossy like this, and may be reddish too. On another plant it would be attractive but to me, the shiny fresh leaves are as ominous as the froth on a bodysnatcher pod.

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We found it along most of the trail, flourishing as if it had been thickly planted and then fertilized and tended. If only my plants at home looked so good! Ravines were choked with it, and of course the dogs wanted to go running down into such places. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten poison oak from a dog’s coat, in all these years of living here, but there’s always a first time. I’ve often gotten it from secondary sources like clothing or even the touch of someone else’s hand. (In a post last year I described something that helps lessen the itching and make the blisters go away faster.)

The damned stuff was everywhere. Every plant visible in the photo below is poison oak.

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Finally the trail ahead was overgrown with it and we gave up and headed back. The dogs ran ahead, enjoying the downhill rush, and got out of sight as we neared the small parking area, where I heard excited voices. It turned out to be the teenage park maintenance crew and their adult supervisor, cruising the areas to do things like gather up garbage strewn around by animals during the night. They were excited by the sudden appearance of a dog who outweighed most of them, and Jack had been pleased to see them but hadn’t bowled anyone over or been a pest. He’s a sweet affable guy except when defending his home turf, and even then has a good sense of proportion.

We loaded up our tired dogs, filled their water dish in the car, and headed home.

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Thirsty dogs drink from the birdbath.

Happy to be drooled on

Drool is back in our lives, finally; and wisps of fur in the corners, and the need to refill the water dish every few hours. We have a new mastiff.

Our beloved English Mastiff Bart, whose picture is at the top of this blog, died in February of old age at eleven and a half, very old for a mastiff. There will never be another Bart, but we knew after only a short time with him that we wanted a mastiff in our household always. We got Bart at 8 weeks but decided this time that a mastiff puppy was more than we were ready to handle, with us being older and my husband facing knee replacement surgery next month. Enter breed rescue: programs run by devoted volunteers for each dog breed, aimed at re-homing dogs of their breed.

These folks want the dogs’ new homes to work, since the dogs have already been through at least one sad parting (and sometimes neglect or worse, as well). We filled out extensive applications, with references; and someone in our area came to meet us and check out our surroundings. Is there a fenced yard? Are there stairs to the house that would be a problem for a mastiff when he’s old? Other pets, livestock? Feeling of stability? Would-be owners’ attitudes and familiarity with the breed, and commitment required? All that stuff and more. We passed, and last weekend we travelled to visit prospective young males in foster homes. The third one we visited was the right one for us, and we drove home with our new mastiff Jack.

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We weren’t looking for a dog that resembled Bart, but it turned out that way. Jack is “fawn” like Bart, but is taller and longer-bodied. He has the same steady intelligent gaze, calm manner, and affectionate nature, that Bart did. He’s a little over three, and his previous home gave him good socialization and some training––age and training were important to us: a rambunctious rowdy 150-lb dog does not mix well with recovery from knee surgery.

Our elderly Rhodesian Ridgeback Brook went along on the trip, and got to spend a couple of hours with Jack after we decided (early in our visit) that he was the one.

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She went from growling at him to following him around to sniff him, and they rode home uneventfully in the back of the SUV together. We did have to convince Jack not to ride in the front seat, right at the beginning, but that was easy. He is easy-going and wants to please. Essential, in a dog his size! English Mastiffs are protective of their owners’ person and property but have been bred for a long time to have a calm and gentle temperament. A mastiff’s size and formidable appearance mean that he or she rarely needs to give more than a look or a bark, to warn off some stranger. Responsible breeders (of any dog breed) pay as much attention to temperament as to physical characteristics. You want a dog who is healthy and reliable in both regards, mens sana in copore sano.

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Jack has tried out all the dog beds in the house but has not gotten up on the couch even though he sees Brook up there. Until we can clip his long bear-claw-like nails, it is just as well. He hadn’t let the foster home’s vet draw blood for a heartworm test but our vet got one easily (and it was negative), with the old Cheez Wiz method (dog is busy licking the cheese-like substance out of the nozzle, and nothing else matters!) but by the time we got to the nail clipping part he’d had enough cheese and resisted. No growls, just pulling away, and believe me he is strong. We use a dremel for dog nails so I have left it on the floor the past two evenings to introduce him to it, and have also been getting him used to me holding his paws and touching his nails. He’s making progress, but no telling if that will hold when the actual clipping/grinding occurs. He has tried to eat the sandpaper cylinder off the grinder but I can’t interpret that, except he isn’t backing away from it any more.

Jack’s original home was with a couple and their teen-age daughter. He was the husband’s dog but when the marriage broke up the husband abandoned him, then the wife had to sell the house in order to give the husband his share of the money. She had a dog of her own, and could not keep Jack, BUT she was savvy enough to know about, or find out about, a breed rescue organization with a local presence. Friends of Rescued Mastiffs is a national organization, non-profit, providing care, foster homes, and re-homing to mastiffs. They deal with dogs from situations like Jack’s, dogs found as strays or in shelters, ones seized for neglect, and from puppy mills (both young ones and breeding stock). Good rescue organizations like FORM also check out the dogs to see if they are suitable for a new home, and what the conditions might be (OK with cats? other dogs? too rambunctious to be around small children at this age? needs someone who can do extensive training?). There are other good organizations helping mastiffs, but FORM was Jack’s salvation. We count ourselves very lucky to have found Jack and he seems to be settling in very happily with us. We’ll be sending photos and a report to the regional coordinator, in hopes she can pass the word on to the woman and girl who loved Jack and had to give him up. He has obviously been well loved and cared for.

No breed of dog is “for everyone” and English Mastiffs are no exception. They occupy a lot of space; fur and drool will find their way onto your furniture, clothing, etc.; and they want to be with you all the time. That’s usual for dogs, though, they aren’t toys with an on/off switch you can pay attention to only when you feel like it.

Giant dog breeds have shorter life spans than smaller dogs, and if they need medication or surgery the bills will be big too. That’s another reason to check out breeders carefully, see the parents, ask about testing for hip/elbow/eye problems that may be inherited. Visit someone with one or more mastiffs and see how it feels to be around such big dogs. Talk about the pros and cons. Think about your situation: how much time do you have to spend with a dog (for whom you will be the center of life)? How much space, indoors and out? We have a big house and fenced area, but our newly acquired 2005 Trail Blazer seems a bit crowded now with Brook and Jack in it!

Do you have plans to move, or have a baby? Dogs and babies are not at all mutually exclusive; pit bulls were reportedly used as “nanny” dogs to watch over toddlers a hundred years ago, and an adult mastiff who has been properly socialized is gentle, tolerant, and completely reliable around children. But you may not have enough time to do justice to both a new dog and a new baby; certainly you need to see how your dog of any breed behaves around children–does he or she get excited so that body or tail could knock a child over? Is the dog able to resist “taking candy from a baby”? and so on. None of these are reasons to give away your dog before having a baby, but they are factors in getting a dog, or in planning how your dog will be able to be around your children especially when dog or child is very young.

Educate yourself before acquiring any breed of dog! Even mixed breed dogs usually have some discernible breed heritage, and shelter employees or friends who really do know a lot about dogs, can be helpful. An as example, terriers and sheepdogs have higher energy levels than many other breeds: not a good choice for a dog that will spend a lot of time alone.

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Oregon’s “Puppy Mill” bill: ineffective and wrongly aimed

In an earlier post I discussed some of the problems I see with two bills now in the Oregon legislature, HB 2470 the supposed anti-puppy mill law, and HB 2852 which is ostensibly aimed at increasing public safety from “dangerous dogs”.

The latter bill may be dead, and that is a good thing. But HB 2470 lives on, and I have closely examined the available version and have more to say about why it should also be forgotten. [I am still commenting on the original version. I have heard that changes have been made in committee but apparently the text of those changes is not available to the public. However, the bill is so fundamentally flawed that it would need to be rewritten completely to become both effective and beneficial, in my opinion, and I doubt that that has happened.]

What’s wrong with Oregon’s “anti-puppy mill” bill

We already have the laws needed to shut down puppy mills

Oregon animal cruelty laws currently contain requirements which would put puppy mills out of business, if enforced.

 (6) “Minimum Care” means care sufficient to preserve the health and well-being of an animal and, except for emergencies or circumstances beyond the reasonable control of the owner, includes, but is not limited to, the following requirements:

(a) Food of sufficient quantity and quality to allow for normal growth or maintenance of body weight.

   (b) Open or adequate access to potable water in sufficient quantity to satisfy the animal’s needs. Access to snow or ice is not adequate access to potable water.

   (c) For a domestic animal other than a dog engaged in herding or protecting livestock, access to a barn, dog house or other enclosed structure sufficient to protect the animal from wind, rain, snow or sun and that has adequate bedding to protect against cold and dampness.

   (d) Veterinary care deemed necessary by a reasonably prudent person to relieve distress from injury, neglect or disease.

   (e) For a domestic animal, continuous access to an area:

    (A) With adequate space for exercise necessary for the health of the animal;

    (B) With air temperature suitable for the animal; and

    (C) Kept reasonably clean and free from excess waste or other contaminants that could affect the animal’s health.
[ORS Chapter 167 – Offenses Against Public Health, Decency and Animals. 167.310 Definitions for ORS 167.310 to 167.351. As used in ORS 167.310 to 167.351]

I’ve never heard of a puppy mill that could come anywhere close to meeting these requirements. Hard to make a profit following those rules. Yet the existing criminal law has not been effective in ending puppy mills in this state. Why not?

1. Puppy mills hide in rural areas.
2. There is no funding for enforcement.
3. There is apparently no requirement for licensing of breeding establishments, so their location can remain unknown to authorities. Without licensing, there is no possibility of a regular inspection program like that for, say, food-handling establishments; and of course there’s no funding for such an inspection program either. Hence enforcement of the existing law depends on law enforcement rather than inspectors. Unless violations are reported by a witness or are visible from outside the property, law enforcement may not be able to enter the premises legally.

So what do we need? To do it right, licensing of breeding facilities (at a nominal cost), and funding for inspection. A couple of the provisions in HB2470 would provide some help, notably the requirement that “puppy dealers” provide purchasers with written documentation about the health, and origin of the dog––but the negatives in the bill far outweigh the positives. And “puppy dealers” as defined in the legislation wouldn’t apply to pet stores which sell the product of puppy mills!

HB 2470 is wrongly aimed

As far as I can tell, it systematically exempts pet stores, the main sales points for puppy mill “product”, from the standards of care and the health and documentation requirements, as well as from responsibility if a puppy turns out to have a health problem. The bill distinguishes between a pet store

SECTION 1. (1) As used in this section:

(b)(A) “Retail pet store” means a retail establishment open to the public that sells, or offers to sell dogs.
(B) “Retail pet store” does not mean a person that sells or offers to sell only dogs:
(i) That were bred or raised by the person; or
(ii) Are kept primarily for the purpose of reproduction.

and a pet dealer

SECTION 2. As used in sections 2 to 12 of this 2009 Act:

(3)(a) “Pet dealer” means a person that during a 12-month period sells, offers for sale, barters or exchanges more than the greater of:
(A) Twenty dogs; or
(B) Three litters of dogs.

All the subsequent requirements of the bill apply to pet dealers and not to pet stores.

Pet stores are not required to provide documentation to buyers giving the mill-produced puppy’s vet record, name and address of breeder or broker, and a guarantee of current health. Why not? What possible justification can there be for this?

HB 2470 also exempts pet stores from the “lemon law” portion of the bill. This part requires breeders, but not pet stores, to reimburse pet owners for dogs that have certain problems within two years of purchase. Sometimes that would be fair. But it makes the seller responsible for any “disease, illness or condition adversely affecting the health of the dog that existed in the dog before or at the time the customer acquired the dog”, or “a congenital or hereditary defect adversely affecting the health of the dog or requiring hospitalization or nonelective surgical procedures”. There is no provision here as to whether the condition or defect could reasonably have been known to the seller. The most careful screening of breeding stock, whether of a pure-bred dog or a cow or horse, cannot rule out every single genetic (hereditary) defect. Similarly, a puppy from a responsible breeder can receive all vaccinations, be checked by a veterinarian, and still possibly have some undetected condition that will affect its health in future.

Exemption of pet stores makes a mockery of the claim that the bill is aimed at shutting down puppy mills. Reducing demand, from the pet stores, is crucial to making puppy mills less profitable. Instead, those most affected will be the responsible breeders who are most easily located, not the secretive puppy mills, whether in Oregon or in the Midwest, which hide behind brokers, internet sales, and pet stores.

Unintended consequences

For boarding kennels:

”SECTION 1. …(2) A person may not possess, control or otherwise have charge of at the same time more than 25 sexually intact dogs that are four months of age or older.”

Foreseeable consequences

I’m not going to get into the motivations of some of the supporters of this bill, including allegations that it is part of PETA’s agenda to eliminate the “animal slavery” of pet ownership by driving breeders out of business. But it is predictable that HB 2470 will have far more effect on responsible breeders than on puppy mills. The responsible ones are out in the open, easy to find, unlike puppy mills. You are much less likely to have a problem with a dog from a responsible breeder, few of whom make a profit from their hobby. These breeders welcome potential puppy buyers to their homes to see the parents of the puppies, to interact with the puppies before they are 8 weeks old and ready for new homes, and to watch puppy temperament testing; they also choose male and female carefully when planning a breeding, with specific goals for the breed, do testing (genetic, x-ray, etc.) so as to avoid breeding dogs that carry heritable defects, and keep extensive records on their dogs.

An article in the Oregonian featured a woman who had purchased a puppy which turned out to have severe health problems due to bad care and bad breeding. That is a heartbreaker for the owner and the dog. But she bought it from a broker. Try to find that broker, probably in another state, and get him to comply with the bill’s “lemon law” provision. So, how much of the problem of true “lemon” puppies will be addressed, and how many good local breeders will be harassed by owners when a problem develops months or years later? I can leave my puppy outside 23 hours a day, and when it turns into a barking unsocialized dog, claim that it had an inherited genetic defect causing this behavior. Under the law, there’s no provision for evaluating claims against breeders.

I have some personal experience over two decades with breeders of two different dog breeds. They taught me right away that it is not simply a transaction to them: they decide if my household is suitable for one of their puppies, they require spaying or neutering to keep ill-bred or surplus pups of their breed out of the shelters and out of the wrong hands, they urge me to keep in touch and call with questions, they have me sign a contract which includes notifying the breeder if I can no longer keep the dog––even if it is 10 years later––so that they can accept it back for placement in a suitable home.

What happens at a pet store if I go in and buy a puppy? None of this, that is for sure! Those “doggies in the window” are there for a reason, to promote impulse buying of a live animal which will be a serious commitment for a decade or more. Pet store employees have no reason to talk a customer out of buying, say, a high-energy pup when the person says they want a quiet couch potato to watch tv with. If those cute puppies go unsold too long, they certainly do not go back to the breeder for placement; they get dumped or drowned or sold out out of the back of a truck. Yet this industry isn’t required to change one bit by HB 2470.

I know not all AKC breeders are so responsible as the ones I have dealt with and known. I have some ideas about that, which I’ll put in another post. But to burden this group with new legal restrictions under the guise of shutting down puppy mills, while exempting the pet stores which market the pups bred under cruel and unhealthy conditions, this makes no sense. And the lack of funding for enforcement ensures that breeders out in the open will be the actual subjects, while the unspeakably vile and carefully hidden puppy mills continue to grind out misery.

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In the couch potato class, our beloved English Mastiff Bart was a champion, as in all else. We lost him in February to consequences of old age (he was 11 and a half).

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Puppy Mills and Pit Bulls––is legislation the right approach?

In my state of Oregon there are two pieces of dog-related legislation currently being considered. HB 2470 is supposed to address puppy mills, HB 2852 is ostensibly aimed at increasing public safety from “dangerous dogs”.

These goals are hard to disagree with, but the details of both bills are such as to cause concern in people who know and love dogs.

HB 2470, the “Puppy Mill” Bill

The first, for example, contains a so-called “lemon law” provision giving puppy buyers legal recourse against sellers if:

Section 5 (1) (b) Within two years after the customer acquires the dog, a veterinarian states in writing that the dog has, or that the dog died as a result of, a congenital or hereditary defect adversely affecting the health of the dog or requiring hospitalization or nonelective surgical procedures.

The buyer is entitled to reimbursement for vet expenses up to 100% (or in some cases 150%) of the purchase price of the dog) in combination with returning the dog for a full refund, exchanging the dog for another, or keeping the dog.

This sounds fair and workable at first glance, but the greatest problems of illness and unsoundness come from dogs bred by backyard breeders (“Hey, my female Lab is in heat, your male looks good, let’s introduce them and sell some puppies!”) and from actual puppy mills that mass-produce dogs for profit. Neither of these is likely to pay up willingly (puppy mills sell to pet stores through nation-wide brokers, so there is some doubt about even identifying the breeder of a specific puppy). Then the dog owner has to go to court for the $350?

Reputable breeders work hard to eliminate the known genetic flaws from their breed and from the puppies they produce; often, they also have buyers sign a contract in which the buyer promises to contact the breeder at any time if unable to keep it. The breeder wants to be consulted on suitable re-homing, and to be the home of last resort if no suitable home can be found. Good breeders love their dogs; they want to keep them out of shelters and bad homes. Breed enthusiasts operate rescue programs for their breed, for the same reasons.

If a dedicated breeder has done due diligence in genetic choice of a breeding pair, had all the tests done, monitored the dogs for heritable defects, and still at age one year a puppy develops a genetic fault, shall we hold that person as liable as some for-profit breeder who has done none of those things?

My observation has been that the only way to make money from breeding dogs is to go the backyard breeder/puppy mill route: low overhead, no varying of breeding stock but using the animals at hand, dogs kept in low-rent conditions (the way dogs are housed and kept at puppy mills would make a stone weep), minimal vet care, and sell everything you breed without testing, socialization, screening buyers, or making guarantees.

HB 2852: Your dog may be labelled a “dangerous dog”

The second bill, HB 2852, is in large part what’s known as “Breed-Specific Legislation”. The Feb, 24, 2009 version actually forbade future ownership of pit bulls and lookalikes, with big fines and euthanasia as penalties, and required special permits and insurance for current owners. The revision, after great outcry, requires owners to carry $1 million in mandatory liability insurance coverage (“failure to prove compliance with order punishable by maximum fine of $720 per day”).

And other provisions would have drastic consequences for all dog breeds by broadening definitions of “dangerous dogs” which are subject to court-ordered restrictions, insurance requirements, and even euthanasia. As far as I can tell the bill still contains a provision under which “menacing” a person, off your property, for “no good reason”, can result in classification as “dangerous” and result in court-ordered insurance and enclosure requirements or even euthanasia. What constitutes “menacing”? A growl, a lunge?

This bill is opposed by the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association; they oppose all breed-specific legislation, I am told.

In brief, the objections to Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) are:

• vagueness of identifying the breeds subject to the law
• increasing the “outlaw” cachet of some breeds which are already being abused by dogfighters, criminals, and garden-variety macho dog owners who acquire them as ego accessories
• using scarce public resources against a single breed rather than supporting the public education which is the most important element for increasing public safety with regard to dogs, as well as for reducing abuse of dogs

Vagueness of identifying the breeds subject to the law

Vagueness helps accomplish the real aim of BSL, which is to eradicate certain breeds. This bill defines “pit bull” as

(b) ‘Pit bull’ means a dog that:

(A) Is registered or otherwise listed as an American pit bull
terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or American Staffordshire
terrier with a dog breed club or league, dog fanciers
association, breed registry or similar organization; or

(B) Has appearance and physical characteristics that
substantially conform to the breed standards of the United Kennel
Club for an American pit bull terrier or of the American Kennel
Club for a Staffordshire bull terrier or American Staffordshire
terrier, as those standards existed on January 1, 2009.
[Section 1 (b), HB 2852]

This means that shelters will euthanize any dogs that could possibly be seen as “bullish” whether they look pure-bred or are mixes. They’ll be unadoptable and potentially a legal liability. Present owners of dogs that are pit bulls, or resemble them, will be in a quandary: get expensive insurance, risk huge liability if any incident occurs (your dog accidentally knocks over a child, or bites a person teasing him), or get rid of their dogs. Some estimate that at least a dozen different recognized dog breeds could fall into the loose definition, which will be applied in individual cases by someone with no special knowledge (a judge, a policeman, your neighbor).

In the city and county of Denver, where pit bulls have been illegal since 1989, Denver’s Division of Animal Control impounded 689 pit-bull-looking dogs in 2003. “All we can do is say what they look like,” said the Director of the Division. Since enforcement got serious in 2005, 1,667 dogs have been euthanized because they appeared pit bull-like.

Increasing “outlaw” cachet and macho accessorizing

What else needs to be said about this?

Re-directing public resources and attention

It’s easy to pass feel-good legislation, much harder to do what is necessary to truly address a problem. As far as dog safety goes, the problem is not the breed but the owner. And also those breeders who produce dogs without regard for temperament or overall health (including truly evil people who breed dogs, and abuse dogs, in order to make vicious creatures).

Both of the bills described above would be expensive to enforce. When Joan’s boxer mix is impounded, she sues the county: Prove he’s a pit bull! And the “puppy mill bill”, HB 2470, sets out specific rules for how dogs are kept by individuals that breed or sell a certain number of puppies per year; that’s great, but it is meaningless without enforcement. In this economic climate, the idea of adding county staff to investigate or inspect dog breeders is laughable.

Singling out specific breeds

Pit bulls do have very strong jaws, and were bred for fighting, but also for lack of aggression to humans, since in a fighting bout, humans in the ring separate the two dogs by hand. In addition, recent decades of breeding for stable companion dogs has created pit bulls that are gentle companions. The methods of those who train dogs today for fighting are savage, including starvation combined with feeding them small live animals, beating, and electrical shocks. Would this be necessary, if the average “bullish” dog were by nature an eager fighter and savage killer?
About half of the 51 brutalized dogs seized from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels have been evaluated and placed in permanent or foster homes; some have achieved Canine Good Citizen certification and a few are working as therapy dogs. The other half were judged too dog-aggressive for adoption, and sent to a special facility where most are now judged quite safe for staff and visitors to mingle with. Some of the 51 had been used as fighters, others––less eager to fight––as “bait dogs” for the others to “practice” on. Yet of them all only one was judged irredeemable and euthanized. [For details, see long Sports Illustrated article, one-page version here, and also a Washington Post article .]
Outlawing specific breeds such as pit bulls [American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers or American Staffordshires] or Presa Canarios would have little effect on numbers of dog bites—dog bite statistics are not very exact. The intent of breed bans is generally to reduce the number of serious and fatal dog attacks; the powerful jaws and tenacity of pit bulls, PresaCanarios, Rottweilers, and a few other breeds seem very threatening. Yet the American Animal Hospital Association has this to say on the issue:

A study performed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the CDC, and the Humane Society of the United States, analyzed dog bite statistics from the last 20 years and found that the statistics don’t show that any breeds are inherently more dangerous than others. The study showed that the most popular large breed dogs at any one time were consistently on the list of breeds that bit fatally. There were a high number of fatal bites from Doberman pinschers in the 1970s, for example, because Dobermans were very popular at that time and there were more Dobermans around, and because Dobermans’size makes their bites more dangerous. The number of fatal bites from pit bulls rose in the 1980s for the same reason, and the number of bites from rottweilers in the 1990s. The study also noted that there are no reliable statistics for nonfatal dog bites, so there is no way to know how often smaller breeds are biting.

Whatever the breed, the role of the owner in choosing, training, supervising, and caring for the dog is in my opinion the main reason that such attacks happen. Unscrupulous or ignorant breeders, who do not screen for temperament and health problems, and do not exercise care in placing puppies, are the second greatest cause.

I would love to see some of this bill’s provisions enacted and enforced everywhere: a limit of (in the current version) 25 intact sexually mature dogs per premise––personally I think that is too many but it is a start––and rules about care, housing, exercise, and health. As long as the rules are enforced fairly, and defined with regard to the varying circumstances of breeders, it improves the care of the dogs. An example of taking into account the varying circumstances of breeders: the bill requires that anyone with 10 or more sexually intact dogs over 4 months of age must provide each dog with an enclosure meeting certain requirements. One can imagine, especially with smaller dogs, someone who might have 10 dogs that do not even have individual enclosures, but are in the house and outside in a single large run or big fenced property; the bill seems to require that the breeder be able to point to some individual kennel for each of the ten dogs.

In the next post I’ll make some suggestions for a better approach to these issues, something that we dog owners can do ourselves.

For now, if you live in Oregon, please contact your legislators about these bills. At the National Animal Interest Alliance site you can send an email to your legislator about the Puppy Mill Bill, HB 2470; they also offer more information and suggested points to mention. To oppose the Pit Bull/Dangerous Dog legislation, cite HB 2852; there’s a state form here to identify your district’s legislators and get their email addresses. This page also gives contact information for your US Senators and Congressional Representative.

For readers who live elsewhere, the NAIA site has legislative alerts for national legislation as well as in each state. Sign up for alerts; see legislation in your state (don’t click on the map, go down farther and click on the link for your state). The AKC also has a legislative-watch page. Scanning these pages shows just how active the efforts are across the country, to enact restrictive and breed-specific legislation about dogs.

Letters to local newspapers setting out the actual provisions and consequences of proposed legislation are another way to oppose these bills. If legislators feel that their constituents are fooled by the beneficial titles (“Anti-Puppy Mill” or “Control Dangerous Dogs”) they don’t dare vote against them or support amendments.