One of the best parts of my job covering the pet food industry is that I come across a wide range of stories about pets: interesting and informative, wonderful and inspiring, fun and entertaining – plus plenty of downright head-scratchers. In celebration of the weird, let’s look at a few recent ones in that last category. Only one has a link to pet food, but all may help us appreciate just how much pets have permeated our lives.
New cat DNA test kit to link to nutrition needs?
Just announced: the “world’s first-ever cat DNA test.” It’s from a company called Basepaws, which says that, as more owners turn in their cats’ test kits (or “catkits”), its database will build to the point where “future reports will be able to link results with potential diseases and nutrition needs.” Really?
Obviously, direct-to-consumer DNA kits are not new; TV commercials and other promotions abound from human-focused companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, and those kits have become very popular as gifts. Some have even forayed into providing genetic information on health markers and propensities for certain diseases.
Similarly, canine DNA tests for veterinarians have been around for some time, followed several years ago by ones available to dog owners. With pet care giant Mars’ acquisition last year of OptiGen, a canine DNA diagnostics company, among other deals, some dog kits now also indicate health risks and conditions along with breed backgrounds. In between, in 2016, Mars announced ways that even mutts’ DNA could be linked to potential nutrition-related needs associated with certain dog breeds, if those breeds appeared in the mutts’ genetic backgrounds.
There are something like 160 dog breeds worldwide, with wide variation among them, so the dog DNA kits have always made some sense to me. But that’s not the case with cats. There are only about 50 cat breeds worldwide, and among those, there is really not that much variation, give or take a brachycephalic face here or folded ears there.
So, even if Basepaws’ database grows, will there truly be enough information available to accurately indicate specific nutrition needs for individual cats? And would that information be understandable and actionable enough to really help cat owners in making feeding choices? I question if even veterinarians would find much use for this information. Even Royal Canin, which pioneered breed-specific pet foods back in 1999 with one targeted to Persian cats and has since expanded the line to include 55 different cat and dog breeds, has developed only about six of those products for cat breeds. The rest are all for dogs.
What weird pet stories really tell us about people
The other two stories, frankly, boggle the mind. First, it’s been reported recently that the U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA, every air traveler’s favorite governmental body – NOT!) has moved away from using “pointy-eared” dogs in preference of “floppy-eared” ones because dogs with pointed ears purportedly scare children. TSA employs about 1,200 dogs, the second highest number of an U.S. federal agency, according to Anna Giaritelli of the Washington Examiner, and about 80 percent now have droopy ears.
Somewhat comfortingly, the chief criteria for selecting individual passenger-screening or explosives-sniffing dogs used by TSA are health, ability and willingness to detect odors, and sociability and disposition toward people, rather than breed. Yet it’s clear there were no scientific studies or reasoning behind the switch to floppy eared breeds or the belief that pointy-eared ones frighten children. “The adjustment to consider the appearance of dogs during the purchasing process was part of an informal internal decision, according to TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein,” Giaritelli wrote. “No official document on the change was issued.” Go figure.
In making the decision to choose dogs that supposedly look less threatening, I assume that no one at TSA knew of the research into a condition known as “cute aggression.” Because who on earth has ever heard of this? Yet it apparently is a real thing that researchers have actually studied, as to why some people are so emotionally overcome when faced with a very cute animal or baby that they feel compelled to squeeze it to the point of harming it. Wow.
Despite my sarcasm and head-scratching over these stories, I choose to accentuate the common, positive thread running through: that many people truly care about animals – not just their own pets but most others – and can’t help react when they encounter them. It’s further proof that pets are fully intertwined into our existences and daily lives, which can only be a good thing.