Goodbye Skymall, Purveyor of Human Dreams

It is a positive tragedy that Skymall has filed for bankruptcy. As a scientist, flying all over the world, Skymall is sometimes the best distraction you can find – and I have long been fascinated by their products for pets. I love gadgets and I love animals, so I’ve often been compelled to search Skymall for their oddest products, such as . . .



An indoor yard for dogs




A Yard of His Own

A Yard Of His Own

Summary: An astroturf block you can use indoors, complete with fire hydrant and bucket to collect pee.

Animal Welfare Perspective: Well, I wouldn’t recommend it as a substitute for walking, and I wouldn’t recommend allowing your dog to urinate or defecate in your house (it’s your dog’s house too and they don’t like making a mess where they live) but I imagine if you had a very old dog and a very large house and liked cleaning astroturf this could be a bit of a boon for you. Are you going to pay $280 for your dog? Well, we all love our dogs!



A raincoat and hood for a dog
Hood For Your Dog (10 fun colours to choose from!)

Doggy Hood

Summary: What can I say? It’s a raincoat for your dog – with a hood so they don’t get rain on their head. Now as someone who has fostered a greyhound, I am well aware of how sensitive some dog breeds can be to Scottish weather, but it’s well worth reading the stuff Alexandra Horowitz has written about the subject.

Animal Welfare Perspective: If your dog is truly a freak who hates the rain on his ears, he’ll hate having his hearing and vision obstructed even more. Just . . . no. Not even with ten amazing colours.




The Christmas doggy shelf at Pets At Home
The Christmas Section at Pets At Home














Moving On – Pets At Home

Summary: Not long after I’d taken those photos of Skymall, it was time for the Christmas decorations going up. The Christmas aisle at Pets At Home, after I’d got Athena, really surprised me. I’d never noticed them before (never had much cause to go into Pets At Home at Christmas time!). Weirdest of all, I felt the urge to buy Athena presents! And I still do every time I go past a pet aisle.


What does all this mean? Well definitely that there’s some research to be done in the field of consumerism and human-animal bonds! An MSc project for someone perhaps?


Chronicles of Athena – 26 Weeks

For the second time in Athena’s life, her human has come home early from work and curled up on the sofa under a blanket, and refused to play games. She’s improved on her ‘nurse cat’ routine a little bit, but she did curl up around my migraine addled head and purr loudly in an effort to comfort me. Poor little kitten. She tries so hard, but really doesn’t quite get why I don’t want to play games sometimes.

Nurse Cat was a thing my childhood cat used to do. She had a keen sense for sick days, and would immediately come to watch over the patient, and take advantage of the patient’s bed.

Athena will sometimes do things that remind me of other cats I’ve had, and it must be a combination of innate cat behaviours and the common environment I provide. For example, although it may significantly squick some readers out, she likes to sleep under the covers of the bed with her head on the pillow, another behaviour she has in common with the cats who have gone before her.

She’s beginning to ‘mummy’ (or knead/make biscuits) soft fabrics, but not nearly as much as our old cat, Posie used to do. She loves a fake fleece blanket that lives on the sofa and is torn about how to approach it – should she bite and play with it, or love and cuddle it?  Her love of hunting and ‘killing’ inanimate objects is all Athena, and unlike any other cat I’ve met. Athena never gets tired of killing her toys, hunting scraps of paper, and when I changed the bed clothes this morning I found two wrappers she’d brought to me in the middle of the night and deposited lovingly under my pillows. I pray I never get mice again because my bed will become a graveyard (and I’m rethinking the idea of letting her become an outdoor cat if we ever move again).

She’s recovering well from her surgery, though today there’s some fluid build up under the incision. There’s quite a lot, but as there’s no evidence of heat or infection, she doesn’t seem to bother with it, and she’s been playing about loads, I’m not too worried. I’ll keep an eye on her and contact the vet if it doesn’t go down. Kittens are not very good at bed rest – for migraines or abdominal surgery!

Could Deoxyribonucleic Acid Be in Your Food?

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

It’s almost too good to be true, and certainly a gift for any science communication blogger out there . . . can it be?

80% of Americans support mandatory labelling of food containing DNA. 

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

The Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University has a project called the Food Demand Survey which surveys Americans regarding their attitudes and sentiments to their food. Before we’re even going to address this claim about DNA, let’s think about the methodology.

The information comes from Volume 2: Issue 9 (January 2015) of their self-published online reports. So the first point to make is that this methodology is not peer reviewed. However we can glean some of the methodology from Lusk and Murray (2014). The survey has been running since May 2013 and goes out each month online to survey at least 1000 people, but no word on what their response rate is like. Each month they add an ad hoc question which doesn’t follow the basic survey layout and the DNA result comes out of the question.

So the question this month was:

Do you support or oppose the following government policies?

  • A tax on sugared sodas (39% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of marijuana (47% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of food products made with transfat (56% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurised milk (59% Supported)
  • Calorie limits for school lunches (64% Supported)
  • Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus (69% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA (80% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on food produced with genetic engineering (82% Supported)
  • A requirement that school lunches contain two servings of fruit and veg (84% Supported)
  • Mandatory country of origin labels for meat (87% Supported)

Really, without further methodology questions all we can really say is more of these particular Americans (a number we know is less than 1000) want mandatory labelling on foods containing DNA than a tax on sugared sodas. Without sample size data we have no idea whether that difference is significant or not (although if they surveyed 100 people, and 80% want DNA labelling, then that is significantly different from a random 50:50 distribution).

But here’s the thing: regardless of methodology, the idea that there are any people in a survey that aims to be informative who are concerned about DNA being in their food is very concerning indeed.

In the title of this post, I used an old journalistic trick by using DNA’s more formal name which is long, hard to pronounce and contains the scary ‘acid’ word. It’s the kind of question that we’d laugh about if it caught out our most hated politician. But the survey appeared to ask about DNA. I can only conclude this is a sample of people who have never even watched Jurassic Park, never mind the one respondent who said they’d read the bible as an agricultural text (this led me to the best site ever – Biblical Research Reports: Farming).

DNA has been one of the most amazing discoveries in science, and has been so completely misunderstood by the respondents of this survey that it’s unbelievable. And yet these consumers, by the same survey, place the highest value on the safety and nutrition of their food. Instead of laughing at them, it’s my role as a self-professed science communicator to give them the tools and understanding to interpret the information they need to achieve those values.

In America, it’s just a particularly obese mountain to climb.

Chronicles of Athena – 25 Weeks

My poor, beautiful kitten has been wearing a cone of shame and skulking around the flat keeping as low to the ground as possible, occasionally getting stuck as he cone catches something and she refuses to lift her head enough to fix it.

Yes, on Friday she got spayed. It was a very stressful experience for both of us. From the moment she got in the carrier she was on her best behaviour, until she realised where we were, then cried plaintively. We met a nice new (attractive) vet who was very patient with my imagined list of possible complications and reassured me that she was healthy enough to undergo the GA, and then Athena popped back into her carrier expecting to go home.

Oh kitten.

When I phoned after her op I was told all had gone well and aside from the usual grogginess, she was fine. When I went to pick her up I cautiously asked how she’d been. Apparently she’d behaved very well, they said with only a moment’s hesitation which I can only imagine means she told them in no uncertain terms how displeased she was with them. Instead of sitting in her hidey box in the recovery cage, she perched on top of it and watched the nurses, only coming down for cuddles. We were sent away with metacam and the nurse said that since she hadn’t shown much interest in the wound we’d try without a collar.

At this point a little voice said in my head “I don’t believe my orally fascinated kitten, who has destroyed carpets and is currently peeling wallpaper off a corner the wall in the kitchen, will be able to leave that fascinating incision alone”, but foolishly I said that was fine and we went home. Athena was full of cuddles when we got back, if a little bit spaced out, but within minutes she was grooming her wound and biting at the join. I rushed back to the vets for a collar. Which she hates. She even had a couple of bolts up and down the room trying to escape it (“prevent Athena from jumping or excessive exercise” said the vets).

Poor Athena had a bit of a bad come down from the ketamine and spent the rest of Friday night on my lap, purring softly to herself as she lamented her collared state. This morning she managed to remove it so after trying to reapply it (kitten knows she can take it off, kitten is not so easily fooled again) I’ve decided to leave it off and keep a very close eye on her. We’ll have friends over tonight which should keep her attention off grooming. And right now we’re playing games which is keeping her busy (and always a sign of a happy animal feeling better!).

Being an ethologist, keeping an eye out for something called ‘excessive licking’ is hard. An ethogram is something we use, and it allows us to record behaviour in unambiguous terms. We often say to students that an ethogram would allow a martian to record behaviour the same way you would. So I’ve decided to describe ‘excessive licking’ thusly: a grooming bout focussed on the incision area (or within a fifty pence diameter of the area) for longer than three seconds, or biting on the incision line. We’ve had a few, but I’m trying to let her explore it without damaging the incision.

The internet is full of conflicting advice here. Even my own veterinary surgeons, much as I like them, recommended a completely unnecessary blood work up that I felt obliged to take because what if it showed something up? Although my veterinary colleagues advised against it, as a customer you lose rationality. Perhaps we should provide more comprehensive and generalised advice post surgery. Or perhaps a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. People who don’t know about ethograms trust their instincts. Perhaps people who have kittens less destructive than Athena don’t even worry.

If we can make it through the day without any ‘excessive’ biting we might abandon the collar entirely. We’ve given up entirely with the whole “no jumping” thing. Considering she was just hanging off her climbing tree on her incision side, I think that’s for the best. Wish us luck!

Kai: The Case of Paddington Ayr

Scotland’s been abuzz with the story of Kai, the Shar-Pei cross abandoned at Ayr railway station with a suitcase of his belongings. Buzzfeed has more information here.

The SSPCA has taken him in and the attention his story received has meant he has literally hundreds of homes offered to him. I’m sure his story will have a happy ending, the SSPCA are spoiled for choice, they’ll find him a good home, I am sure. The SSPCA are also fixing his eyes (the eyelids are turning inwards, meaning his eyelashes scratch his corneas – a simple surgery to fix), so he’ll find his new home, with good health.

But the ‘why’ of the story truly confuses me. If you’re giving up an animal, why not take it to a shelter? What pride stops you from taking a clearly loved animal to where you know it will be safe? Or is it some way of trying to take it back at the last minute? To return in half an hour to collect the dog you’ve ‘forgotten’, except someone makes the final choice for you? Again, Buzzfeed has an account from the alleged abandoner. I don’t buy it at all.

But the story has raised an interesting side issue. Kai was sold on Gumtree, and quite a few people have come out to say that this is why buying and trading animals online is a bad idea.

I’m not sure I agree.

In some ways, Athena was traded online. My friend Leigh was fostering Athena and her siblings and posting photos of them on Facebook. I remember, distinctly, being curled up under a thin sheet in Bellevue, Seattle, very hungover and trying to ignore the snores of my fellow geeks around me. I saw a picture of Athena cuddled up with one of her sisters. She was the cat of my idle fantasies. You know when you picture yourself as a ‘grown-up’, in a Victorian farm house with a green aga, copper pots hanging in the kitchen, a kitchen island with a sofa on one side of it . . . in my version of that classic middle class dream, there was always a little silver tabby cat sitting on the kitchen island, watching the goings on. While I had been looking for a cat for a year, seeing the perfect kitten in a picture prompted me to message Leigh and the rest is history (history currently sitting on my knee waiting for an opportunity to catch at my earring again).

What’s the difference between Athena’s story and Kai’s? Both were spotted over the internet, after all.

The difference is duty of care. Leigh and the shelter she volunteered for had duty of care of Athena, and when I messaged them hungover, fragile and on the other side of the world, I was still vetted by Leigh. I have every confidence that she would never have recommended me to the shelter if she didn’t believe I could take care of Athena. In fact, in our early days, Leigh had more confidence in me than I did!

This is perhaps where the comparison between Athena and Kai falls apart completely. Athena is lucky enough to have been under the care of people who saw pet owning as a responsibility her whole life. We don’t know what Kai’s owners were thinking. We don’t know what brought him to Ayr Station, although we may wish he had been relinquished in a more responsible manner, and we may wish his previous owners had taken more responsibility for passing him on.

None of these problems come from the medium by which he was traded.

Now if you were to ask me if dog licensing would have helped, there you might find me sympathetic.

Chronicles of Athena – 24 Weeks

Wednesday’s post was in the post-queue unfinished, and a little impromptu socialising meant that it got posted without its final few paragraphs. Oops. Since it seemed to be liked, we’ll leave it there.

The snow is falling outside in intermittent bursts, Athena is curled up on my lap, and our new home is warm and cosy. It’s a good life.

My little kitten is not so little any more, but she still doesn’t like fish based food – she even turned her nose up at a crayfish tail on Thursday. However, cooking pulled pork in the slow cooker was very intriguing. I have a sneaking suspicion she was cuddling into the slow cooker when my back was turned.

She has settled into the new flat amazingly well, and has a few new routines. The top shelf of the new wardrobe, filled with cosy jumpers and t-shirts is one of her favourite places to be and she cries when she thinks I’m excluding her from the warmth. I ran a lavender scented bath which she fell in, and was most unhappy about. It hasn’t stopped her playing in the bath or preferring to drink from the running taps (which she now does by dipping her paw into the water and licking the water off, having snorted running water up her nose one too many times). She also quite likes the big new window that looks out onto a tree where two magpies roost (although the robin who comes to taunt her is less of a favourite).

She has, in the past few weeks, become incredibly vocal. Always a chirper, she shouts at me for every little thing now. When she’s in the hall by herself, when she wants the birds to come, especially when she spots me getting ready to go out. Her every want is expressed in very vocal style. Sometimes she just likes to sing to the ceiling I think.

The hope is that next Friday a little snip or two might settle those raging hormones . . .

From Butter to Feliway

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! As you know, Athena and I moved house just before the Christmas break. We now live in our very own four walls, and it’s very exciting.

Athena, to her credit, was exceptionally well behaved during and after the house move. She gets a bit anxious every time I move a chair, so it certainly wasn’t an enjoyable experience for her – but as kittens go she did very well.

I contribute a lot of this success to my liberal usage of Feliway, the cat feline facial hormone (fraction 3, if that’s relevant). Feliway is one of those cool little body hacks that I love. You’ve seen cats rub their cheeks over people and objects, usually when they’re happy, or trying to greet someone. (I bumped into a cat outside Edinburgh Uni’s geosciences building on Monday who was so keen to rub her cheeks on my new riding boots she fell over twice. I understand, kitty, my new boots are beautiful). They’re expressing the feline facial pheromone while they’re doing this, specifically the part of the pheromone which says “this is mine” (and in Athena’s case it probably also say “and this is mine, and this is mine, and also that thing over there”).

There are a lot of interesting studies out there about Feliway – it is very good at reducing behavioural signs of stress in cats, particularly non-sexual spraying. But you have to think about the behavioural reasons behind this.

Fluffy Friday – Visualising Risk

Happy Hogmanay my lovelies!

I am, as you read this, most likely still recovering as in Scotland we take two public holiday days to get over the Hogmanay celebrations. Myself and Athena are probably both curled up on the sofa hoping someone will clear up around us.

But I did spot this great little article in the New York Times that I’d like to share – just because it’s a great example of visualising risk, and in a situation that many of us are frighteningly familiar with . . .

How likely is it your birth control will fail?

In brief, Fluffy Friday form, here’s what I love about it:

  • It describes the relationship with time, showing how risk is not always a linear relationship. Indeed in some cases it levels off with time.
  • It shows the difference between typical use and perfect use, on the same graph, and sometimes this is quite startling! (Honestly, what happens with Depo-Provera?)
  • It describes the actual risk – e.g. failure resulting in pregnancy, out of a 100 women.
  • My choice comes out on top – yay for progesterone only implants! Who knew migraines were good for something.