Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Classified Ad

Today, Annie and Penny are two months old. What a wonderful age for calves! Newborns are sweet, but completely clueless. At one month, they are starting to play, but are still timid and unsure, and still very dependent on their moms. At two months, well heck, they just love everybody.

Annie never did learn to nurse from her mom, though Bessie has been an excellent mother in every other way. So Annie associates people with food and neck rubs, but understands that she must be respectful of adults- people as well as cows. She is lovable, but without the obnoxious behaviors that many orphans (without such good moms) acquire. Penny was very aloof for the first month of her life, hiding behind her mother and initially just tolerating being haltered and led. But lately, she’s really come out of her shell and she is just as affectionate as Annie, She has a strong personality and is very confident, so she sometimes needs a reminder of what constitutes acceptable calf behavior. “Acceptable” does not include romping with humans.

We have discovered that teaching calves is a lot different from teaching horses. Horses are timid, where calves are emotional. Both learn to trust your judgment, but for different reasons. Horses can be convinced early on that you are in charge, and if they are handled well, they may never quite realize that they are stronger than you are. If they are frightened (and this happens easily), their first reflex is to run away. I’ve always thought that you need to flirt with horses, just like you do cats. Cows know from an early age how strong they are, but they are perfectly willing to go along with your program as long as they think you are being fair and reasonable. If they don’t, they will protest and simply refuse to do what you are asking. They aren’t easily frightened, but like horses, if they become concerned over something, they will generally believe you if you tell them things are fine. Calves, especially, need and respond to encouragement. Both cows and horses need to be taught to be respectful of your personal space. We have discovered that horses are easier to intimidate than cows, and if a cow is beginning to walk over the top of you, it will not stop just because you are making a scary noise. Turning them around when they are determined to go somewhere else is like trying to turn your car around by dragging it at the end of a dog leash.

Annie already has a new home waiting for her. She is just busy growing up enough to be weaned, so she won’t be leaving for awhile. She has a new friend waiting there, too, so she won’t be lonely. Penny is still for sale. We have had inquiries on her, but no firm offers, yet. I will miss these calves terribly. But I am sucking it up and gamely trying to market them. So, I have composed the following advertisement for Penny:

“For Sale: Calf. Brown. Missing top teeth. Not broke to ride, drive or milk. Scared of the cat. You probably can’t afford her right now, given the state of the economy. You really should be paying off your credit card.”

After all, I am a scrupulously honest person and would not want to mislead anyone by embellishing her description.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Breeding will out!

Pugs can suffer from severe breathing problems due to close inbreeding.
Photograph: Getty Images

At:*, the Guardian reported yesterday that in the UK the leading animal humane society, the RSPCA, has announced that it will no longer support the Kennel Club's (KC) premier dog show event, Crufts. This show carries the level of prestige that the Westminster Kennel Club show does in the USA. The RSPCA took this strong stand after a recent BBC documentary showing the horrible genetic diseases caused by years of canine inbreeding. Using the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel as one example, it pointed out that many are suffering from syringomyelia, which is when a dog's brain is too big for its skull. It is the cranial equivalent of stuffing a size 10 foot into a size 6 shoe. Other breeds carry the traits for blindness and deafness, as well as kidney problems and severely shortened life spans (see and,9171,163404,00.html for more examples.) It is also possible that the BBC will stop televising Crufts, even though it has been a flagship, calendar fixture for 40 years (they are contracted for two more years).

Dog lovers and veterinarians have been exhorting the KC for many years to consider the health of the dog when focusing on breed characteristics. In the UK the KC sets the standards for breeds and, as a consequence, is largely responsible for the good and bad genetic changes that ensue. In the US the AKC claims that breeders set these standards, but regardless of where the blame lies it is a weak argument when the standards run contrary to veterinary opinion. Someone is accountable and others are complicit, and the animals suffer. The blog goes on to report that the RSPCA wants to see a change in the breed rules to prioritize health, welfare and temperament over appearance. It also wants to see the development of health-focused breeding strategies for individual breeds, including steps to increase their genetic diversity.

Our experience with pure breeds in dogs had been fairly limited. Jorg had a Weimeraner that she raised from a puppy, but apart from being very intelligent, her only extreme characteristic was an overriding passion for food (I still remember the Stilton episode, Sally!). On the other hand, Bridget, French Bulldog and Katrina rescue, had all the worst traits of her breed - breathing difficulties (she was on theophylline daily), spinal problems, bent legs, bone spurs in her back and digestive problems (tendency to bloat). On a good day, her life was probably no better than tolerable. Going up and down the stairs was a problem and allergy season was excruciating. We spent many sleepless nights with her and several emergency trips to the vet's as a result of these problems. In her youth she was a valued show dog, but I doubt that she gained much from the experience, compared to what she suffered through later in life.

Unfortunately, and not to be unfair, this problem is not limited to the canines, as followers of the feline, equine, bovine and avian worlds can attest. It is encouraging that in the mini-Jersey sphere great attempts are being made to ensure general health and genetic diversity, along with the desire for a small size.

My personal feeling is that the RSPCA's (and hopefully the BBC’s) move will encourage the KC to look at its breed regulations and modify those elements that affect a dog's health. It doesn't seem unreasonable to breed healthy, as well as breed-specific, traits. Maybe even the AKC will catch on. One can hope.

*Interestingly, when I went back to the Guardian to find the article today it had been changed from the original. Some additional material arising from responses to the article by KC and the BBC, but also a more toned down comment from the KC's chief Vet! My URL will take you to the original article.

PS From Jorg

The Famous Stilton Episode: One of Tom's greatest pleasures in life is English Stilton cheese, enjoyed over the holidays and preferably with a good Port. It's expensive, here. Really expensive. But it's a luxury that we enjoy during the Christmas season as a tradition in this family, comparing each year's Stilton wedge against previous year's. One year, Tom prepared himself a snack by taking the large wedge of Stilton out of the refrigerator and putting it on a plate with some triscuits and Branston pickle. He set it down on the coffee table, got up to get himself a drink, and returned to (you guessed it), Sally looking very pleased with herself and no Stilton. All things considered, Tom was a good sport about it, though a very disappointed one. A part of our holiday ended a little early that year. I am pleased to report, though, that our cheesemaking friend Pamela is coming over Sunday to start a Stilton for us using the milk from our Mini Jerseys, and which should be ready by the holidays. We'll let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Farm Interrupted

After a week away from the farm, it's good to be back. Animal Planet got old pretty quickly. Even very good hotels do not serve fresh eggs and real cream for your coffee. My only entertainment, besides a tour of the lovely Tech campus by one of my colleagues and an evening spent with the Treasurer of our rescue (a veterinary student at the University- Hi Beth!), was TV. In a moment of self-discovery, I realized that my tolerance for television has somewhat diminished over the past few years. I averaged about five minutes of presidential politics before clasping my hands tightly to my ears and singing "lalalalalalala!!!" I needed brain bleach. Time to tune out the media until after the election.

I also deeply missed my animals and my best friend and companion in life. Tom did a great job of keeping everything running. All the animals are fat and happy and we have had no more geriatric losses. We also avoided any impact from the very impressive Hurricane Ike, which did us a huge favor by hitting the Gulf rather than the east coast. Our sympathies go out to the folks in south Texas, though. It appears that Josephine is breaking up into an unorganized storm, the grass is growing from all the rain we got from Hanna, and we may actually get a small second cutting of hay, which would be nice to have this year. The calves are leading like perfect ladies and Rosebud, the mini Jersey cow, appears to be in heat. The Coer di bue, Cream Sausage and Egg Yolk tomatoes are doing really well. The fields have become lush again, so our metabolically challenged horses are muzzled (again).

That last sentence probably needs some explanation. Horses, like people, need to regulate their blood sugar in order to prevent damage to their capillaries and organs. Some horses, like some people (diabetics), have problems doing this. They generally fall into two groups: horses that are insulin-resistant and horses that have Cushing's syndrome, or changes or tumors in their pituitary glands. A very common result of both conditions is laminitis, or the inflammation of the layers of a horse's hoof. Laminitis is very painful and can cause permanent changes that will lame horses for life, or destroy their quality of life. This is the same disorder that Barbaro could not overcome.

One of the ways to combat the problem is to control what a horse eats, the same way you would deal with diabetes in people. Horses eat a lot of carbohydrates in grass and feed. Carbohydrates are easily broken down into sugars by their bodies, so it's important to restrict them. We do that by putting grazing muzzles on our horses. The muzzles allow them to eat some grass without overdoing it. Our metabolically- challenged guys also eat low-carbohydrate feed along with supplements and medication. These measures keep them healthy and happy for years.

In the picture above, Wonder and Star are shown with grazing muzzles. Both of these horses have Cushing's disease (a tumor on the pituitary) and both have suffered hoof and foot damage. Wonder was treated promptly, so his damage was minimal. Star was not so fortunate and has more severe problems. But the continued control of the conditions that landed them at White Bird means that both horses have a high quality of life. They are, incidentally, each others' best friends in the whole world and spend much of the day playing with each other. Ulysses has recently joined them, so they have formed their own little herd of three out of the larger herd in their field.

The masks on these horses, by the way, protect their eyes from insects. These two horses also have an eye disorder called equine recurrent uveitis, so the masks also help to shade their eyes and protect them from wind and dust.

It's been said that "all politics are local" and I truly believe that. We can't control everything in the world or in this country, but there are many things that individuals can do. In our case, we try to make life better for horses that have no other options and we try to make the world slightly better by reducing our dependence on foreign and factory-farmed food. It's good to be back. For now, we'll just keep the TV turned off, try to grow better tomatoes and spend a whole lot of time in the barn cleaning stalls. The latter activity keeps us practiced in the skill of identifying manure, which is especially helpful during election season.