Monday, February 24, 2014

Comparative Anatomy, Doggy Style

Recently, somebody commented to me that I seemed to select dogs that had long noses. I thought about this and decided that while it is true that my dogs have long noses, I didn't select them for that reason. But it's also true that I prefer the look of dogs with long noses, and it's also true that such dogs don't have the teeth, eye, and breathing problems of dogs with smushed faces. Still, that's nothing more than serendipity.

No, I select dogs specifically for their short coat. I've always enjoyed watching fit, short-coated dogs move. You can really see how their bits are put together for good or ill.

Now that I've spent the past few weeks learning the name of every skull and skeletal bone (every bone) and every structure on those bones, and the names of every skeletal muscle, and the origins, insertions, and actions of every skeletal muscle on Felis domesticus, I'm looking at my dogs (and even HB) with an entirely new perspective. 

Learning such a large amount of that kind of information isn't like learning a list of vocabulary words. Sure, making lists is helpful. I always put enormous databases like this into Microsoft Excel because I can then use the software to explore new relationships between subsets of the data (for this to be successful you have to invest quite a lot of time in the data entry component but I've found it often well worth it). But lists and spreadsheets only take you so far. Muscles and bones need to be put in a spatial context. You need to be able to visualize how everything fits together and moves in the living animal--and extrapolate that to Little Blackie laying there belly up in the dissecting tray or to a disarticulated femur or forelimb lying on the lab bench. As it turns out, you also need to be able to visualize (and mentally rotate) three-dimensional objects to be a good geologist--as you might imagine, I've had some practice with this sort of thing.

I took an exam for the anatomy lab today so much of this information is right at the top of my mental pile. Feeling a bit guilty from my study frenzy over the weekend, I rushed home from the exam, fed the dogs then took them straight out for a nice long walk. It was a lovely evening.

As we walked, I found myself staring at them, visualizing the muscles and bones beneath their skin. Not a terribly hard exercise because of their short coats (ah, there, we've turned the conversational corner). I can clearly see Azza's biceps femoris on the outside of her thigh. I can easily trace the outline of her scapula--not because she is thin (she is just the right weight) but because I know where it should be and what it is doing. Mimi and Harry are structured differently in the rear so other muscles are emphasized in their thighs. And their straight fronts and characteristic gait are related to muscles on the outsides of their scapulae that are distinctively large compared to Azza who has a much looser, houndish gait. Sure, they are all dogs and have the same basic set of parts but it was a marvel to see the array of differences between them walking in front of me in real time.

T3i: Recent Analyses

Terrier Toy Testing Institute (T3i) ran some new benchmarking experiments yesterday.

Our first item: the "knotted" plush bear. It has a plush exterior but inside it's a series of knotted ropes plus a squeaker somewhere in the middle of it. I thought it might be a good choice for Harry. The old man is no longer allowed to chase thrown toys or balls (he hasn't shown any soreness in his left shoulder since I made this a hard and fast rule) but he loves to tug! Between them, he and Azza will wear me out with the tugging. I never bothered to teach Harry a toy release command, or rather, I never really enforced it. The only finesse I put on his toy release was to exchange his tennis ball for a fleece tug when we played flyball. He would drop the tug on his own when we lined up to race again. My, my, but Harry lived for that game! We've dropped the ball and the fly parts of our games but the tugging is still there. 

You will tug with me NOW! That's a darned intense stare for a 15 1/2 year old terrier!
 Anyway, T3i is going to have to give this one a solid 8 out of 10, despite the fact that one of the front arms ripped partly loose during our first session with it. The hind legs are sewn on much more firmly so I make sure that I grab those instead. Harry holds the thing by the chest, the strongest part of it. It has a nice mouth feel for him since the ropes aren't too big or stiff and it's covered in soft plush. The only stuffing I can detect is in the head. Azza is a big one for chewing off faces and removing head stuffing so this toy is kept in the reserve pile in a basket on a shelf.

Our second item is the giant, green, honking spider. Iz had one of these many years ago. It must be a small feisty dog thing--Mimi also loves enormous plush toys. She spent almost 15 minutes shaking the bejeebus out of it. She was shaking it so hard that she would lift off the ground. She'd snatch its flabby body out of the air if I managed to get it away from her and throw it. Mimi has some hellacious teeth and already the honker is becoming fainter as she punches holes in the honk bag. Still, if I can keep this one away from Azza, it should last for a while. It's too delicate to be good for tugging, and since it isn't a toy I can offer to any of the dogs except Mimi, I'll have to give this a 5 out of 10. 

Kill! Kill!

In that pet store run, I also got Azza a new supertough Nylabone chew (she prefers the "original" flavored ones; I have no idea what "original" flavor is based on). She buzzsaws her way through them in a month or so but it redirects her from doing more destructive chewing when she gets bored or worried. Sorry, no photo. T3i would have to give these things a 10 just because they perform exactly as advertised.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Five Minutes a Day, No More

I haven't posted in a while. I'm buried up to my eyeballs in coursework this term.

And since I've begun my allotted five minutes per day of whining, I might as well use it all.

I have horrendous, agonizing, throbbing carpal tunnel in my left wrist; it's been bothering me since January but it has become much more acute in the past week. I can visualize that part of my anatomy all too well since we dissected the carpal tunnel, well, specifically the tarsal tunnel, on one of Little Blackie's hind feet. And I've learned far more than I really need about the metabolic pathways of prostaglandins. There are more than thirty types of them but they are often associated with pain and inflammation. My left wrist and arm are no doubt flooded with prostaglandins. NSAIDs inhibit prostaglandin synthesis but ibuprofen puts me to sleep like it was a narcotic and I don't have any aspirin in the house.

It's raining. I've been waiting almost a full year for the infamous Pacific Northwest rain. It's here. It's been raining for days.

I drove an hour to Salem last weekend to look for some wet weather shoes. I found some--my feet are at last toasty warm and dry as I slop around campus which makes me happy. But the mall experience was rather disappointing. The two malls in Dhahran had more shopping options, and they were really just the same half-dozen stores repeated over and over.

The cat is eating his bed. I don't know why.

Harry's senility is increasing and he has not been handling the lack of attention from me well (I'm studying nearly 8 hours a day on top of the 5 to 6 hours that I'm in class every day; on the weekends I can get in 10-12 hours of studying a day before my brain gives up). The girls seem to be able or at least willing to amuse themselves but Harry gets very anxious if I don't pay attention to him often. It makes me sad to see him confused and worried.

Oh, look! Time's up! No more whining allowed today.

I've got to go play with the dogs.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Adventures in the Dissection Lab with Little Blackie

We've been dissecting a cat in the anatomy class I'm taking this term. We are only doing the muscles, not the nerves or viscera or any of that messy stuff. The cats came skinned, except for the paws and head, so even that messy part was already taken care of.

Out of the 8 cats that the class is using, 6 are black. Even so, I named mine Little Blackie.

My partner and I were both really tentative at the beginning, getting frustrated from the very start because we were tearing some of the muscles in our clumsy attempts to clean off the fat and the webbed connective tissue that covers muscles. We had no idea what we were looking at, what we were supposed to see, and what we were supposed to do about it. We were flailing. But nobody else in class was whining so we wondered if we were just idiots. It went along this way for two lab sessions.

Okay, it was time to get on top of this dog's breakfast of a cat dissection.

The instructor hasn't been particularly proactive. But she did alert the class to a couple of websites with some great photos. I made a Powerpoint deck from one site that had very clear photos with labeled muscles (there are more than 50 muscles that we need to learn about). I then spent most of the snowed-in weekend researching and putting together a rather vast spreadsheet listing the name of each muscle, its origin and insertion, its action, and some notes about how it looks in the photos and in our own cat. Once I put it all together, I sent it to my lab partner (and to the instructor because I believe in sharing; it wasn't original research by any means, just reorganizing info that is already in numerous places, and I thought she might be able to use it in the future. Personally I thought she should have already made something like this, but I certainly learned a hell of a lot by doing the work myself).

During class on Monday, my partner and I took those photos and we made our cat look as much like them as we could. We ripped through that cat like nobody's business. I don't think we lifted our heads once in the two hours of lab. Combined with some extra time I had already put in the week before, Little Blackie was finally looking properly dissected.

I spent two more hours with our cat on Tuesday night checking and double checking all of the info in my spreadsheet. Does this muscle really have a ventral insertion? Does it originate on cervical vertebrae or on the lambdoidal ridge (the ridge at the back of your skull)? Does it abduct or adduct the bone it is attached to? Did we dissect it properly on at least one spot on the cat? My partner showed up as I was heading out and she spent several more hours with Little Blackie.

Today in lab we had our first cat dissection quiz. The instructor had small bits of styrofoam, each with 10 numbered pins stuck in it. She was going to give a list of muscles and, working with our partner (bonus!), all we had to do was stick a pin in the correct muscle! My partner and I looked at each other and grinned. We had exposed and identified 47 out of the 50 muscles on our list, had quizzed each other extensively already, including on muscles that weren't going to be on the quiz, and even knew origin/insertion/action. And this quiz was simply to stick a damned pin in a muscle?

Then the instructor said, "...and you'll do this on someone else's cat!"

That put a bit of a spin on things.

We glanced at the two partners across the bench from us. They seemed to have made the most early progress on their cat and without even discussing it, my partner and I almost jumped across the table to their cat. We had about 60 seconds to orient ourselves on this new cat.

We proceeded to nail that quiz. We didn't hesitate for even a second for 9 out of the 10 muscles--the only brief point of discussion was how to insert the pins so they would stay in place since we were turning the cat over and around. But remembering which extensor is which on the forelimb did require us to recite our little mnemonic formulas; funnily, both of us had independently developed a counting formula to remember this (I love it when I can work with some just as anal as I am). We quickly reached agreement on the the extensor we wanted, pushed in the pin, double checked all of them again, then sat back and waited.

Well, we were the only team out of 7 in the class that got all 10 muscles right on the first pass. We high-fived each other, discreetly.

The team that got Little Blackie was grumbling about our cat but it was clear they didn't know the difference between an extensor and a flexor, much less which extensor was which. Not our fault, nor that of Little Blackie, whose lower forelimb musculature is exemplary.

We have to do another dissection of a yet-to-be-determined animal, and I suggested that my lab partner and I remain partners and do it together. We seem to be working well together. I hope she takes me up on it. I'm a competitive sort (hey, if it's true, might as well own it), and with her as a dissection and research partner, I can expect continued success--and a good grade in the class.

With the prospect of vet school ahead, I'm sure this is not the last dissection that I'll be doing, but it has certainly been a challenge, and in the end even a bit fun.

On a final note, I won't put any photos of Little Blackie here. We were encouraged, somewhat unnecessarily, to be respectful of our cats. My partner and I even wrap him in paper towels before slipping him back in the plastic storage bag to keep his various bits from tearing or getting wound around other bits. We always slip him gently in head first, and lift him out instead of dumping him in the tray. I don't know if he was loved in life but there's no doubt that we are treating him as kindly as we can now.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Azza and HellBeast

Let me state up front that no cats were harmed in the making of this video. Despite all the drama, Azza and HellBeast know the rules of this game, which they play almost every day. When Azza gets too rough, the cat will simply get up and leave. And all that screaming? I guess it makes it more fun.

Friday, February 07, 2014

More Snow!

It seems that people in Portland don't have any more of a clue about driving in snow than they do in Atlanta! A heavy dump of snow began to fall early Thursday morning here in Corvallis, moving north to Portland by late afternoon. Since they didn't wake up to snow like we did, lots of Portlanders were at work when it began to snow. Hysteria ensued: abandoned cars, accidents that backed up the freeway for hours. There were photos in the Oregonian newspaper of pedestrians pushing cars up a notorious hill in Portland--the street was jammed on both sides with cars, people trying to get home, I hope.

Out here in the sticks, they don't plow the main roads; you can forget about seeing the neighborhood streets cleared. But with more snow forecast for the next few days, I took advantage of a lull in the snowfall on Thursday afternoon and spent one and half hours shoveling out my little car and my driveway. We had around 8" from the first storm; another 4 to 8 inches is expected from this second storm (it's snowing now as I finish up this post). I figured that I would rather shovel 8 inches then another 6 inches than 14 inches all at once!

Once I had cleared my driveway, I made a slightly white-knuckled trip to the grocery store for emergency rations: cheese, eggs, a box of brownie mix (a study break with a nice warm brownie and a cup of tea--who wouldn't like that?), and a box of wine (for when I am no longer able to cram one more factoid into my brain at the end of the day). I already had veg, chicken, rice, plenty of dog food and sundries on hand, and I made a pot of beans yesterday--we are set for quite a few days. The propane tank was fortuitously refilled on Wednesday--it's our main source of heat.

The snow is getting quite deep. I should say that I lived in Salt Lake City for a number of years so it isn't the snow itself that is amazing. It's that it doesn't snow all that often in this part of the Pacific Northwest. Nobody is prepared. All that shoveling I did? Used a regular old square-head shovel. I scrape ice off my car windows with a plastic spatula (been doing a lot of that lately with all the freezing fog). I've been studying all day and heard only one car go by--the UPS truck!

The snow is now up to Azza's belly. Since Mimi can easily walk under her, Mimi has completely given up on navigating anything but the snow-free zone under the house eaves. Harry was a bit more adventurous last night, crossing the yard to check the fence perimeter, but now that the snow level is pretty much up to his head, he's content to stick to the eaves too.

Mimi and Harry under the house eaves. Taken at 2pm today. The snow is already too deep for them to move around easily. And it continues to snow steadily!

Azza loves the snow. She bounds around like a crazed beast. She asks to go outside constantly and stays out there for 20-30 minutes. It's well below freezing. I don't know how she stands it. She has no hair on her underside!

Campus was of course closed yesterday and today. If the temperature doesn't rise over the weekend, I don't see how they can open on Monday either since nothing is plowed. Still, snow days don't mean free days for me. Since I'm not in class being buried in new information, I'm catching up on and solidifying what we've been buried in up to this point. Spent most of yesterday on cat muscles and French. Today it's been the gamma loop and sensory neuron pathways in the cerebellum. In between, I'm trying to cram in at least one hour per day devoted to working through GRE practice problems; I'm scheduled to take the exam in March.