Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beer Drinking Dogs Prove That Guinness Really Is Good For You

Scientists in Wisconsin - and more specifically their dogs - have done the world's Guinness drinkers a huge favour.

For years the Dublin brewers of the famous, black stout ale used to claim that it had health benefits. Their old adverts used to say: "Guinness is Good For You", until that was the EU intervened and stopped them. However, as the BBC reported this week a team of researchers has now discovered that there may be some life in the old phrase yet.

The team at the University of Wisconsin conducted a series of tests in which dogs suffering from problems with their arteries were fed around a pint of Guinness with their meals each day. Another group were fed lager beer instead.

 At the end of the study, it emerged that the dogs on the Guinness diet were less prone to clotting in the arteries - a major cause of heart attacks. As the BBC reported: 
The researchers told a meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Florida, that the most benefit they saw was from 24 fluid ounces of Guinness - just over a pint - taken at mealtimes. They believe that "antioxidant compounds" in the Guinness, similar to those found in certain fruits and vegetables, are responsible for the health benefits because they slow down the deposit of harmful cholesterol on the artery walls.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Pups of War - An Inspiring True Story

Puppy love: A trio of pups rescued by Royal Marine Sergeant Pen Farthing

By Pen Farthing

'Sergeant, I thought you might want to do something about this.' Mase, the Royal Marine who had called me to join him in his sand-bagged sentry post, or 'sangar', was pointing towards the barbed-wire road block 100 yards north of our isolated compound in the Afghan outpost of Now Zad.
The road block was designed to prevent a suicide bomber driving into our walls. A small, white, terrified-looking dog was trapped in it. The dog had a wire noose around its neck.
Having broken free from whatever it had been tied to, it tried to run through our barrier, but the noose had caught on the barbed wire. The more it struggled, the tighter the noose became. The dog was slowly killing itself.
The 100 yards that separated me from the dog was in no-man's-land. The obstacle was situated across the only 'real' road in this area of Helmand province, a single strip of tarmac that ran north to south for 400 yards.
At one time shops had lined the road. Now, there was no one to be seen, and the fronts of the empty stores were a mess of twisted metal and broken wood; their walls peppered with bullet holes.
The network of alleyways leading off the road was notorious as a hiding place for Taliban fighters.
I wondered why this was happening to me, but I knew I couldn't walk away. I squeezed through the narrow slit at the front of the sangar and on to the edge of the roof on which it was perched, then climbed down to the road.
Everything was eerily quiet.
My heart racing, I ran at a crouch up the centre of the road. As I got closer the dog started to fight to free itself again.
'Chill, dog, I'm on your side,' I called out. I was conscious of talking too loudly, but the dog was making enough noise as it was.
'Help me out here, fella, I don't want the Taliban to know I am here.'
I sliced through the strands of wire with my cutter. The dog was still pulling madly away from me and - as the last strand broke - it shot away. The wire loop was still around its neck, but I hoped that it would eventually work loose.
'No problem, buddy,' I said, watching it go.
Standing in the middle of a deserted street in the Taliban heartland was not a good idea. As swiftly as I could, I walked backwards towards the sentry post.
'Nice one, Sarge,' Mase said as I rolled head first in to the sangar.
'Let's keep this one quiet, eh?' I said as I dusted myself down. At 37 I was getting too old for this.
Things were getting out of hand. How on earth had I managed to become responsible for the welfare of every stray dog in Helmand?
I was a sergeant with Kilo Company 42 Commando Royal Marines, responsible for the 20 young lads who made up 5 Troop.
It was autumn 2006 and we were stationed in a mud-walled compound in a small market town which, at first sight, looked like something out of Monty Python's Life Of Brian. Nothing had changed in hundreds of years.
To the south, the flat expanse of the Afghan plain stretched into the distance. To the west, north and east, the mountains rose from the desert floor.
The town of Now Zad had been plagued by some of the worst fighting seen since the coalition forces removed the Taliban from power. It was a transit stop for Taliban fighters to resupply as they headed West towards other targets.

Pen with two of his charges, RPG and Jena

'Taliban Central' was an expanse of woods on the other side of a dry riverbed. The Taliban managed to keep us occupied nearly every day. They tended to hit us with mortars first thing in the morning or about half an hour before it got dark.
The howl of an incoming mortar as it arches across the sky sounds good only in the movies. In reality, it is as scary as hell.
There were no people living within 200 yards of our compound; it was too dangerous.
The compound was designated a 'safe' house. Precisely what was safe about a mud compound surrounded by armed religious fundamentalists who wanted to kill everybody inside was unclear.
It was a couple of weeks after arriving that I chanced upon a dogfight while on patrol outside the compound.
About 15 Afghans stood in a circle in an alleyway. Most were Afghan National Army soldiers, the rest were the Afghan National Police (ANP) members who shared our compound for their own protection.
The ANP were supposed to bring stability back to Afghanistan, but they were poorly paid and poorly trained. They weren't very popular, either.
I recognised some of this lot from two days before when I had caught them tying up with wire a dog they said they planned to enter into the 'Regional Dog-Fighting Championships'.
I secretly freed the dog later and it ran off to join the pack of at least 50 strays that prowled the perimeter of the camp at night searching for food.
This time the Afghans had long sticks that they were using to push and beat the two angry dogs inside the circle.
One hit the alley floor with a sickening thud. Its larger opponent landed next to it. Both dogs went for each other's throat. Both had bloodied stumps where their ears had been.
I had come to Afghanistan to help people get back on their feet, not to promote this kind of barbarism. I try to respect other cultures but after the earlier episode I was not about to take the diplomatic approach again.
My wife Lisa and I had two dogs back at home - Fizz Dog and Beamer Boy.
Fizz Dog, a rottweiler, came to us as a puppy from a breeder. We got Beamer, a black and white springer spaniel, from a rescue centre. He loved nothing more than floating around in the smelliest cattle trough he could find. Taking the dogs for walks on Dartmoor was how we relaxed.
So, as a dog lover, there was no way I was going to tolerate animal cruelty. Especially not while I had a big gun. I burst through the circle of men with such force that two of the soldiers were almost knocked over.
'What the hell's going on?' I screamed. The dogs bolted through the gap I had created and the Afghans surged towards me. The most senior policeman pushed me in the chest as he spat incomprehensible words.
'Back off buddy,' I said, using the palm of my left hand to shove him. He landed in a heap on the floor. 'Don't touch me again.' Pointing at him, I raised my rifle.
As the Afghans screamed obscenities at me, Dave, one of our more experienced corporals, pushed into the throng to stand alongside me.
'Nice one, Pen,' he said. 'Time to leave.'
He led me back towards the patrol, which had closed ranks into the alley and stood facing the Afghans silently. The Afghans got the message.
Two days later I wandered over to a derelict building on the western side of our compound to see if I could find a use for it. I was surprised to hear a menacing growl.
My torch picked out an alsatian-type dog curled up in the corner. I recognised it as one of the dogs from the alley fight.
'The ANP let you in here, didn't they?' I whispered. I threw him one of the biscuits I carried with me. The dog sniffed it suspiciously then picked it up.
I pushed another one towards him but as my hand neared he gave a bark and lunged his head forward. I shot backwards, landing on my backside.
'OK, I get it. Your space,' I said. I gave him a bowl of water and the rest of the packet of biscuits. I didn't want to think about what the ANP had planned for him, but I had duties to carry out and had to leave him.
That night I was walking across the compound when I noticed the dog sitting outside the building.
He pushed off his rear legs with an unsteady jerk and wandered towards me. For a second I thought about running. The dog sniffed my trousers. I realised I was holding my breath.
I reached my hand down towards his head. It suddenly struck me that he had probably never been stroked before, but it was too late and my hand was next to his muzzle.
I let him sniff my hand a few times and then, unexpectedly, he sat down next to me. I stroked his head, standing in the glow of the Afghan moonlight.
I visited the dog in his derelict building every day. He would always bound up to see me. We were becoming mates and he allowed me to rub antiseptic cream into his ear stumps.
On the phone, I told my wife Lisa, a Royal Navy Wren, about the dog. I heard the sigh. 'You are not bringing home a dog from Afghanistan.'
'I know, but I have to do something for him. He's got no ears, Lisa.'
She promised to try to find an animal welfare organisation in Afghanistan that would rehome him.
In the meantime, I told the Officer Commanding of my plan to build a small, enclosed dog run. He didn't say 'Yes' but he didn't say 'No' either. I took that as permission.

Creature comforts: Pen and RPG take a break inside the Marines' compound

One of the lads suggested we called the dog Nowzad. 'The town is battle-scarred, right?' he said. 'Well, so is the dog.'
I found a building in the compound that had lost its roof and a wall and fenced it off to make a run. I left Nowzad there while I went off for radio watch.
When I came back, some of the lads had built Nowzad his very own mortar shelter from sandbags and plywood. I hoped he wouldn't need it, but that night the Taliban bombarded us for an hour and a half.
We returned fire and the noise was deafening, painfully so when an F18 dropped two 500lb bombs on the Taliban positions.
A wave of air radiated outwards from ground zero and hit our position with an audible oomph that caused the wooden roof to shake. The boom vibrated around the mountains as it faded to nothing.
After about half an hour of silence, we realised the Taliban had fled.
I jogged round to Nowzad's run, but he was nowhere to be found - somehow he had scrambled over the 5ft fence.
Nowzad still didn't get on too well with strangers and the last thing I needed was him to bite somebody as he roamed around the compound.
I bumped into Dan, the lad who had named Nowzad, just as he ran out of the entrance to the living area. 'Come and see this, Sergeant,' he said.
I followed him over to one of the cell doorways. Dan pointed under a bed. There was Nowzad curled into a ball, eyes wide.
'Halfway through the contact he barged in here,' Dan explained. 'He just looked at us and then squeezed under the bed.'
Nowzad had never been over this side of the compound yet he had found his way to safety, just one room away from where I slept. 'It's OK now,' I said, comforting him. 'I'll get you somewhere safe, just give me time.'
A few of the lads started visiting Nowzad during their downtime. They enjoyed feeding him biscuits, even though they took care to remain on the safe side of the run. I struck a deal with the ANP to 'buy' him in exchange for some torch batteries.
When I was up in the early hours, I let him have the run of the compound. He would spend the first few minutes chasing me around.
For those rare moments he would be like any other socialised dog and, for me, all thoughts of being in the most dangerous place on Earth vanished.
One night, on the way to see Nowzad, a dog ran out of the shadows at me. It darted from side to side as it crossed the 30 yards between us in a series of zigzags. He threw himself down on the ground in front of me, eagerly watching me.
He wasn't a fighting dog - he wasn't big enough and he was still in possession of a pair of floppy ears.
I reached out my hand. The dog spun twice on the spot, kicking up a dust cloud. When I took a pace towards him, he charged full pace towards me, before veering off at the last moment.
'Mad as a box of rabbits,' I said. I guessed he had dug his way under one of the compound gates. As I walked over to Nowzad's run, the small dog followed. Without thinking, I let Nowzad out.
He charged straight for the newcomer, but then simply stopped and started sniffing the smaller dog. Amazingly, they began playing together.
As usual, Nowzad didn't want playtime to end and it was a struggle to coax him back into the run.
When I'd succeeded, I turned to the young dog. 'You get a reprieve,' I said. 'I haven't got time to get you out the gate now.'
I headed off for my radio watch and the dog followed me to the ops room door. 'Sorry, buddy, you can't come in here,' I said, closing the door behind me. Hours later, I opened the door to find the playful dog curled up in front of it.
As soon as I bent down to stroke him, he jumped up, instantly awake.
'Sorry, but you'll have to leave,' I told him. 'I can't have the boss seeing you running around.' It took me the best part of an hour to coax him out of the compound.
The next day, the dog was back. Again he darted out at me when I was on my way to see Nowzad.
The way he ran in random line reminded me of a rocket-propelled grenade. 'RPG, that's a good name,' I thought to myself.
I opened the gate for Nowzad and he charged out to see his friend. As I watched them playing, I made my mind up. RPG was going to be given the same chance as Nowzad. He joined my improvised dog pound.
The next time I spoke to Lisa, I waited until there was a pause in the conversation and then went for broke. 'If we are trying to rescue one dog, why not two?' I asked.
She didn't sound that chuffed and she wasn't making much progress finding a rescue centre, but she said she would keep trying.
A few nights later, barking roused me from my sleep. I went to investigate, only to find the rear compound gate open and dogs of all shapes and sizes surrounding a small, terrified dog.
She was tied to a post by a wire around her neck and the large male dogs were snapping at each other for an opportunity to mate with her. The Afghans had decided to have a go at breeding their own supply of fighting dogs.
Dave and I chased away the males and released the captive. I held on to the wire tied around her neck, not wanting her to run away, but I needn't have worried. She walked beside me as I went over to where Nowzad and RPG were both desperate to get out.
When I let them out of the run, she happily trotted in. 'Guess that's another one, then,' said Dave.

I called Lisa but before I could tell her anything she announced: 'I've found a rescue centre in northern Afghanistan.'
'How many dogs did they say they would take?' I asked.
'I told them you had two dogs that needed rescuing ... Oh no, you haven't?'
Our new arrival settled in well. Both Nowzad and RPG appeared to defer to her. The lads had already named her, but I wasn't too happy with their choice: Jena, after their favourite American porn star.
The problem was going to be getting the trio to the rescue shelter before the end of my posting in a few months.
The shelter was 700 miles from our base and I didn't have the contacts to broker a deal with a local driver to deliver them. I doubted anyone else would want to take the responsibility of looking after them when I left.
In fact, problems were mounting up. Rumours about the dogs filtered out of our camp and an officer pulled me over one day to remind me of the strict policy on animals.
'There will be no dogs adopted by anybody in this unit. And I shouldn't have to tell you that there will not be any use of military assets to transport the animals back to the UK or anywhere else for that matter.'
Before long, Jena started putting weight on - she was pregnant. Then another small funny-looking dog turned up in the compound. Her neck was nearly double the thickness it should have been for an animal this size. She had been bitten by a snake.
The doctor sorted her out and we christened her AK, after the Russian AK-47 automatic weapon. So now we were four.
Meanwhile, Nowzad was becoming unpredictable around everyone apart from me. One night, when he almost bit one of the lads, a switch inside me flipped.
The frustration of being target practice for the Taliban, the months of sleep deprivation, burst to the surface.
'Nowzad! That's it! No more,' I shouted as I dragged him towards the gate. 'Nobody will want you at the rescue, you're a total pain in the a***.'
I pushed him out. Later that night I heard his whimpering. I climbed up the ladder and looked over the 15ft wall.
There was Nowzad propped against the gate, looking rejected. He was waiting to come back to what he regarded as his home. I forced myself to ignore him.
An hour later I climbed the ladder again. I couldn't see him at first but then I caught sight of him, curled up. His coat was camouflaged with the glistening, white frost. I opened the gate.
'It's me, come on, dog,' I whispered. He pushed clumsily to his feet. His stumpy tail wagged uncontrollably as I brushed the ice crystals from his coat. I rubbed his head.
'Sorry, let's not do that again, eh?' I danced around with him by the gate feeling just as happy to see him as I believe he was to see me.
Then, to crown it all, one day returning from patrol, Grant, my mortar man appeared and motioned for me to follow him.
He led me to the rear gate where a small crowd of lads had gathered and were watching a grubby, grey-brownish blob of fur being forced through a tiny depression in the mud under the bottom of the metal gate.
'I'll be damned!' I said. It was a tiny puppy, probably no more than a few days old, being forced through the gap.
The force pushing the puppy came into view. A dirty snout with a bright pink nose appeared first, followed by a thin, mud-streaked head. It was a scatty white dog I had seen running through the compound a few days ago.
Somehow she squeezed through the gap, then gave the puppy a quick sniff and a prod before picking it up between her teeth. We all watched as she padded over to a small mud cave.
'That's the third,' Grant said. The mother carefully placed the newborn puppy down alongside two other small, curled-up bodies before heading back to the gate.
'Looks like the word is out on the street, Sergeant,' Grant smiled. 'All strays welcome.'
Within minutes we saw another puppy emerging through the hole. Then there were two more.
'This is getting ridiculous,' I sighed. 'If I didn't know better, I'd say the dogs are talking to each other out there.'
The new dog, who we called Tali, short for Taliban, was barely settled in with her litter when Jena delivered eight puppies on New Year's Eve.
We now had five adult dogs, and 14 puppies. Our boss had turned a blind eye to our small dog welfare operation, but I couldn't count on the incoming officer to be as accommodating.
We needed to get the dogs to Kandahar, where the people from the rescue centre said they could collect them.
I had a brainwave. The ANP detachment we had bought Nowzad from had been replaced by a new bunch with whom we got on really well.
Through our interpreter, Harry, I asked the commander if he could find us a vehicle and driver to make the trip. After much discussion, Harry announced: 'The commander will make it happen.'
The plan was simple. For $400 the commander would hire a vehicle that would drive from Now Zad to Lashkar Gar; once there another vehicle would transport the dogs to Kandahar.
But the days ticked by and there was no news of the commander's vehicle. I received regular updates from one of the policemen, Rosi. I didn't have a clue what he was saying but the shame in his eyes was plain to see.
Finally, it was the day of our departure. Time had run out. The dogs would have to leave the compound when we did. We'd decided to leave the dogs with as many ration packs as we could spare in a deserted compound nearby.
Rosi would feed them for the remainder of his stay. When the time came for him to leave, he would leave the compound gate open. I knew it wouldn't be long before they starved.
I wondered whether I'd done the right thing for the dogs. I'd given them an unfounded trust in humans. That might not be the best thing for them once I'd left.
We were just about to move the dogs when one of the Afghan policemen started shouting excitedly. He was balanced on top of the wall, beaming and repeating just one word over and over: 'Taxi! Taxi!'
Our transport had finally arrived.

• One Dog At A Time, by Pen Farthing, will be published by Ebury Press on February 5. To order your copy at £12.99 with free p&p call the Review Bookshop on 0845 155 0713.

Sick Sense: How Dogs Smell Illness

It's not hard to see why our ancient ancestors recruited dogs to their domestic staff.

As well as being extremely intelligent, dogs are blessed with senses much more powerful than those of humans. In particular, their sense of smell is extraordinarily well-developed.

Dogs are capable of sniffing everything from drugs to electricity, underground gas pipelines to ovulating animals.

Recent studies suggest that dogs may even be capable of using their super-sensitive snouts to detect human illnesses from epileptic fits to cancers. Here are a few, remarkable facts about the canine's olfactory abilities:

Dogs can detect cancer in humans.
Scientists think that simply by sniffing samples of human’s breath, dogs can detect lung, breast and other cancers with an accuracy rate of between 88 and 97 percent. The accuracy rate of a multi-million-pound hospital scanner is between 85 and 90 per cent.
Dogs can also be trained to alert people with heart conditions they are about to suffer a seizure.

Dogs can also anticipate in advance when a person is going to have an epileptic fit.
A Canadian study found that dogs who lived with children prone to epileptic episodes behaved unusually in advance of the attacks.
Some dogs would lick the child’s face or act protectively. One dog even guided a young girl away from a set of stairs shortly before she had an attack. The dogs’ warnings came as early as five hours before the first symptoms of the epileptic episode were visible.
A separate study involving six dogs found that they could be trained to accurately warn owners who were about to suffer fits.
Health authorities around the world are now training “seizure alert” or “seizure response” dogs, some of which can predict fits, and all of which will respond in an appropriate way when an owner does have a fit. Some will be trained to stay with and guard the owner, and some even to press a button on a phone which dials the emergency services.

It remains a mystery how they are able to pick up on epilepsy in this way. Some think they pick up on tiny behavioural or scent cues. Others are convinced it is a reaction to electrical activity in the body. But the fact that dogs also respond to psychological seizures, which are non-epileptic and don’t display abnormal electrical activity, casts doubt on this.

For more visit my knol on canine senses.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Cats and Dogs...

On Saturday the Daily Mail ran extracts from my new book Play It Again, Tom.Here's the text and the cutest of the photos that accompanied it. There's also a number to order a copy through their free delivery book service.

Have you ever wondered which breed of dog barks the most, why black cats are a sign of good luck or which direction dogs wag their tail to show they are happy? Here are 36 fascinating facts from a new book on man's two best friends...

Dogs can smell human fingerprints that are a week old. Their noses are so sensitive that they can even smell electricity. While conducting an experiment, a researcher found that a dog could smell which of two boxes contained an electric current.

He concluded this was because the charge resulted in the release of tiny amounts of ozone that the dog could detect. The source of the dog's exceptional ability to smell is its wet snout.

The moist leathery surface acts like Velcro, catching even the tiniest molecules of smells, then dissolving them so that the dog's internal smell-receptor cells can analyse them properly. To keep its nose wet, a dog must produce a constant supply of mucus through the nasal cavities. Scientists reckon the average dog produces a pint of this mucus every day.

Apparently dogs prefer Bach to Britney
Dogs prefer Bach to Britney. A study looked at the way hundreds of distressed rescue dogs reacted to different kinds of music. The sound of human voices and pop music by artists like Britney Spears did nothing to calm the stressed dogs. Heavy metal and grunge music made the dogs even more agitated. When the band Metallica were played, for instance, the dogs started barking loudly.

At the other end of the scale, however, the scientists discovered that dogs relaxed and enjoyed themselves most when they were played classical music. Naturally, they liked the sound of Bach in particular.

Male dogs tend to be left-pawed, while females favour their front right paw. Cats, on the other hand, are generally left-pawed. Studies found that 20 per cent of cats favoured their right paws when carrying out complicated, manipulatory tasks such as toying with objects, while a little over 38 per cent favoured their left. The remaining 42 per cent were ambidextrous.

Many owners think their cat senses their arrival home in the car: The truth is more likely to be that its ultrasonic hearing allows it to recognise the signature high-frequency sound of the owner's car well in advance of its arrival within human earshot.

The ten brightest breeds of dog (ranked according to their ability to understand new commands in fewer than five repetitions and to obey first commands 95 per cent of the time or better) are: 1 Border Collie; 2 Poodle; 3 German Shepherd; 4 Golden Retriever; 5 Doberman Pinscher; 6 Shetland Sheepdog; 7 Labrador Retriever; 8 Papillon; 9 Rottweiler; 10 Australian Cattle Dog.

The ten least bright breeds (ranked in descending order of ability to understand new commands, even after hundreds of repetitions) are: 1 Basset Hound; 2 Mastiff; 3 Beagle; 4 Pekingese; 5 Bloodhound; 6 Borzoi; 7 Chow Chow; 8 Bulldog; 9 Basenji; 10 Afghan Hound.

Cats only have 30 teeth compared to dogs which have 42
Dogs have 42 teeth. Cats only have 30. The make-up of their mouths reflects their different dietary habits. At the front of the mouth, both have six incisors and two canines, used primarily for ripping. At the back of the mouth, however, dogs have more molars and premolars. These are used chiefly for crushing plants, roots, vegetables and bone, which cats don't eat.

Happy dogs wag their tails predominantly to the right. A study of how dogs respond to different stimuli was conducted by Italian neuroscientists and vets. Over a month, they watched a group of 30 dogs respond when they were briefly joined in turn by their owner, an unfamiliar human, a cat or an unfamiliar dominant dog, a Belgian Shepherd. The dogs' tails wagged vigorously to the right when they were shown their owners and much less so when they saw the unfamiliar human.

Cats lick themselves to protect against both the cold and excessive heat. In cold weather, licking helps to keep their fur smooth so that it functions as a more efficient layer of insulation. In hot weather, licking compensates for the cat's lack of sweat glands and helps to cool down the fur. Historically, cats have been regarded as valuable weather forecasters.

Some dogs are more likely than others to demand affection. Highest-ranking breeds: Lhasa Apso, Boston Terrier, English Springer Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel, Toy Poodle, Miniature Poodle. Lowest-ranking breeds: Chow Chow, Akita, Bloodhound, Rottweiler, Basset Hound, Collie.

Hungry cats can meow at the rate of two per minute for more than two hours non-stop and can purr continuously for up to two hours. Adult cats convey different signals with a dozen different sounds. They signal territorial aggression by growling, howling and snarling, and defensiveness by spitting and hissing. The meow, trill and chirrup sounds signal greetings. Cats also gurgle. Scientists think this is a signal of friendship.

Cats and dogs are good for human health. The idea that pets may help prevent illness was raised in the 1980s when Erica Friedmann at the University of Maryland found that recovering heartattack patients tended to live longer if they had cats or dogs.

Female dogs have a lower boredom threshold than males. In a major study in which both sexes were encouraged to look at a selection of different humans, the females got bored more quickly than the males.

A dog's bark lasts on average for 0.2 seconds
A dog's barks last, on average, for 0.2 seconds each. A Beagle was once recorded barking 907 times in ten minutes. Some dogs are more likely than others to be guilty of excessive barking. Highest-ranking breeds: Yorkshire Terrier, Cairn Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, West Highland White Terrier, Fox Terrier, Beagle.

Lowest-ranking breeds: Bloodhound, Golden Retriever, Akita, Rottweiler, Newfoundland.

Dogs are born with an equivalent of a thumb on the side of their feet. The extra digit, the dew claw, is a remnant of their evolutionary past that has become obsolete. The dew claw can be a handicap for working dogs in particular, as it can get caught in undergrowth and bushes.

Dogs can tell the time. During his famous experiments, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained dogs to expect to receive food every half an hour. But when he changed the rules of the experiment and failed to give them anything, they still started salivating after almost exactly 30 minutes. Consciously or unconsciously, their internal clocks had told them to expect food.

The cat's purr may be a self-healing mechanism. Cats purr at between 25 and 50 hertz, a frequency at which vibrations have been found to have a wide range of medical benefits, from increasing bone density and helping in the healing of fractures, torn tendons and muscles to generally relieving pain.

Cats are highly promiscuous. Male cats aren't fussy about who they mate with.

Cats have more than 20 muscles in their external ears, or pinnae. As a result, they can move each ear independently of the other, using them to identify and amplify sounds quickly. They can also move their bodies in one direction while pointing their ears in another.

When researchers tracked the behaviour of a white tomcat for a year, they found he fathered 63 kittens with a number of different females. That's one every six days or so.

Male cats appear to be possessive and certainly don't like the idea of sharing. Indeed, knowing their partners are being "unfaithful" makes them less fertile. One study of the sexual activity of male cats found some were capable of having sex ten times in an hour.

An average mother cat has between one and eight kittens per litter, though a litter may contain as many as 13 kittens. In one case, a cat was discovered to be carrying 18 foetuses. One cat was recorded as having 420 kittens over a period of 17 years. The oldest known mother was pregnant at the age of 26.

Cats' milk contains eight times more protein and three times as much fat as human milk.

Dogs have more taste-buds than cats. They have around 1,700 - almost four times as many as cats, which have approximately 470. A cat's tastes are moulded when it is a kitten. During weaning its mother gives it a set of food preferences which remains in place for the rest of its life. From then on, a cat is extremely fussy about eating anything that it hasn't tried before. So, despite the fact that raw meat is closer to the diet it would have in the wild, a domesticated cat raised on tinned cat food will shun uncooked cuts of meat that don't look and smell like the processed product.

Cats are hypercarnivores. This means they need a much higher amount of protein in their diet than almost any other mammal. An adult cat needs its diet to contain 12 per cent protein while a kitten needs half as much again, 18 per cent. Dogs are capable of living healthily on much less than this. An adult dog needs a diet of only 4 per cent protein. This is why dogs are much better suited than cats to vegetarian diets.

Cats can fish. To land their catches, they use a cunning "flip" technique. Depending on the size of their prey, they will dip one or two front paws into the water and quickly slide them under the fish's belly. They will then flip the fish out of the water, throwing it behind them, over their heads and on to land, where they will eat it. When kittens throw a ball up into the air as if to catch it, they are not playing. In fact, they are practising the fishing techniques they would use if they were living in the wild.

Chocolate can be poisonous to a dog because it contains high levels of theobromine, which is a cardiac stimulant and diuretic. Cats don't like sweet things, mainly because they can't taste them. By analysing the cat's genetic code, scientists learned that part of the code that normally provides an animal with sweet-taste receptors is missing.

Cats are much less likely to become overweight than dogs. One vet reported that 30 per cent of dogs that came to his clinic were overweight. Only 10 per cent of cats suffered from obesity. Anorexia is more common in cats than dogs, though dogs can suffer from it. In their case, the condition is often associated with anxiety about being separated from their owners.

Contrary to the familiar saying, old dogs can learn new tricks - provided, that is, they are following a healthy lifestyle. A study discovered that when elderly Beagles were fed on a diet of fruit, vegetables and vitamins and exercised regularly, they were able to learn a whole range of new tasks. Scientists think the healthy regime and mental stimulation stave off the onset of Alzheimer's and other brain-related illnesses common in older dogs.

The cat has a symmetrical walk, with its left limbs moving in sequence together, half a stride apart from its right limbs. The giraffe and the camel are thought to be among the few other animals that walk thisway. Cats normally walk at around 0.9 metres a second - that's just over 2mph. Most breeds of domestic cat can run at speeds of up to 30mph. The Egyptian Mau, exceptionally fast, can reach up to 36mph.

Cats instinctively react to cold by baring their teeth and walking around in circles.

All 38 members of the modern cat family are believed to be descended from just eight ancestors: the ocelot, panther, caracal, baycat, Asian leopard, puma, lynx and the domestic cat. The domestic cat evolved from the African wild cat and six species of small cats that thrived around the Mediterranean.

Cats signal friendship by sticking their tails in the air. Scientists think this might be a rare case of a behaviour that has evolved since the domestic cat started living with humans. In the wild, cats raise their tails into an upright position only in order to spray urine. A household cat, however, adopts this position for long periods of time while it conducts friendly rubbing with another cat.

Black cats shouldn't he seen as symbols of bad luck - quite the opposite, in fact. Scientists have discovered that, if anything, black cats have a fortunate genetic make-up. The gene for melanism, which makes their fur black, may also be able to prevent certain viruses or bacteria from entering their cells, making them more resistant to disease than cats with lighter-coloured coats. Dark coats also act as a better camouflage for hunting.

Among domestic breeds of cat, the Bengal has an unusual affinity for water. It frequently jumps into its owner's bath, generally uninvited.

Cats have a blind spot, right under their nose. For this reason, they can't find titbits on the floor.

Dogs are not colour-blind; they just don't see the range of colours other species, such as humans, do. A study concluded their world is predominantly made up of yellows and blues. Cats can see limited amounts of colour.

Cats gets stuck up trees because of an evolutionary design fault. Their claws curve under, making them a useful tool for climbing up but less handy when coming down, as they can't grip so effectively. As a result, cats tend to use a far-from-graceful backwards-sliding technique to get out of trees.

• Extracted from Play It Again, Tom by Augustus Brown, published by Bantam Press at £9.99, Augustus Brown. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Heard The One About The Dog Who Tells Jokes?

Do dogs have a sense of humour? Can they crack jokes? The Daily Telegraph's Washington correspondent, Toby Harnden reckons they can. In fact he thinks his dog Finn is a real practical joker. When Toby tries to put his baby daughter in her car seat, Finn jumps in to block him, flashing a playful smile as he does so. Is he joking? Well, dogs definitely have a sense of humour. They must do, because some things make them laugh. A scientist named Patricia Simonet was the first to notice dogs make “a breathy, pronounced, forced exhalation” that happens exclusively during playtime. She concluded that it’s the canine equivalent of a chuckle. Subsequent tests proved that dogs really like the sound of laughter. One study found that dogs who were played the sound of canine laughter became significantly less stressed and more sociable. The question of what makes a dog laugh though remains unanswered. Darwin’s friend George Romanes reckoned it was a “good joke”. Maybe Finn is proof he was right. Cats, on the other hand, don't laugh. The strange, curling of the top lip they frequently perform may look like an expression of amusement but in fact this is a method of heightening their sense of smell during the mating season. The technique, known as the Flehmen Response, is common in horses, zebras and donkeys too. Cats do signal happiness in different ways, however. They perform a kneading action with their paws. The action is known by various names, from skronking and paddy pawing to making muffins.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Play It Again, Tom

Dogs can smell electricity, cats can sense epileptic fits. Dogs prefer Bach to Britney Spears, while cats would rather take drugs than eat chocolate. Strange new facts about man's favourite animals - cats and dogs - are being unearthed on a daily basis, it seems. The most curious of these - a dog's bark last on average 0.2 seconds, cats have a secret ultrasonic language - are the subject of my new book, Play It Again, Tom, and an accompanying new blog. If you're not scientifically inclined, don't worry. There are lots of crazy Youtube clips of skateboarding pugs and piano-playing pussycats too!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Revealed, The World's Sharpest-Tongued Creature- And It's Not Simon Cowell

Scientists have discovered the world’s sharpest and most powerful tongue. And - shock, horror - it doesn’t belong to Simon Cowell.
As National Geographic are reporting “the giant palm salamander of Central America (Bolitoglossa dofleini) captures fast-moving bugs with an explosive tongue thrust that releases over 18,000 watts of power per kilogram of muscle”.
The scientist behind the discovery, Stephen Deban of the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, says the salamander's ballistic tongue-firing mechanism is similar to an arrow being shot from a bow.
The "bow" is provided by elastic fibres in the salamander's mouth that stretch to store muscular energy and then release it all at once. The bony tongue is launched with an initial burst of energy and flies forward under its own momentum.
The salamander’s extraordinary weapon allow it to fire it’s sticky-padded tip to reach prey in a few thousandths of a second.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Week On The Wild Side, January 21st, 2007

Some things that have caught my eye in the past couple of weeks:

Insect Porn Reveals The Shocking Truth: Spiders Squeak During Sex

The year is barely a month old, but already I may have stumbled across the most bizarre scientific discovery of 2007.
To judge by the truly weird, arachnopornography available at Live Science.Com , female physocylus spiders make a loud squeaking noise during sex. As someone once said, words surpass description.

Seahorses Are Doing It For Themselves

Male seahorses are unique creatures. Not only do they give birth to their young, they also start the whole processs by fertilising themselves. A new study by the Zoological Society of London reveals that their sperm leaves their bodies then re-enters it again via a brood pouch where its eggs then develop. Seriously weird.

Man's Best Friend

The dog really is man's best friend, at least if the latest research is to be believed. Leading canine expert, Deborah Wells of Queen's University, Belfast, claims that people with dogs have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than those who don't have a pooch around the house. Dog owners are also healthier than cat owners, Wells claims.