The Public (Health) Lives of Pets | Crooked Media
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April 30, 2024
America Dissected
The Public (Health) Lives of Pets

In This Episode

For so many Americans, pets are members of the family. And our interactions with animals — in our homes, on our farms, and in the wild — shape our health in some important ways. Abdul reflects on what he’s learned about health working in animal welfare. Then he sits down with Melissa Miller, an animal care expert, disaster field responder, trainer, and county animal care and control director to talk about how pets shape our health, how to do our best for our fur babies, and what can go wrong when we fail them.




[AD BREAK] [music break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: DNA of the H5n1 virus, better known as bird flu, is found in pasteurized milk. The Arizona House of Representatives passes an abortion law repeal. The Biden administration delays a long awaited menthol cigarette ban. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. [music break] Hey everyone. Just a heads up that today’s episode is the last we’re doing under the Crooked Media Network. I’m so proud and excited to announce that I’ll be bringing the show in-house to my production company, Incision Media, and exploring opportunities in the educational space. Thank you to the tons of hard, smart work by Emma and Austin, and everyone else at Crooked Media who helped bring the show to life each week. I also want to share a particular thank you to John, John and Tommy, who took a bet on the show back in 2019. Don’t worry, America Dissected isn’t going anywhere. We’ll still be releasing new episodes every Tuesday on this very feed, and I’ll be keeping you updated on any exciting changes coming your way here, including premiering the show on YouTube. I’m really excited about this next chapter, but we are of course going to miss our colleagues at Crooked Media. And now to the show. Look, I’ll be the first to tell you I’m more of a people person than an animal person. But I learned to love the furry creatures. And I have to believe that I’ve done my duty by them. Let me explain. I was hired to rebuild the Detroit Health Department in 2015. Just three years earlier the city decided to shut down a 185 year old health agency as it sought to downsize to avoid the impending collapse. Bankruptcy happened anyway, and in the process, the city slagged its public health responsibilities off onto a poorly operated nonprofit. I walked into a shell of a department situated in the back of the offices of the municipal parking department. You can imagine all the issues coming my way. Address the city’s shameful infant mortality rate. Solve our asthma epidemic. Figure out the lead crisis. But according to my boss, the mayor, the most pressing of all was animal control. Yep. You heard that right. Animal control. We were operating under deeply outdated and, frankly, inhumane procedures in a building built in 1927. The facility was understaffed, overworked, underpaid. And when I started, nearly eight in ten animals that came to the facility would end up euthanized. Worse, we had roaming bands of abandoned dogs terrorizing neighborhoods across the city as suburbanites, finding themselves unequipped to care for a new pet would simply drive to Detroit. Open the door and let them loose. And the fact that many of these animals were dogfighting survivors, abused by their owners and trained for aggression made the problem deadly. Every night at five, six, and eleven, the local news would make a smorgasbord of the city’s failures to care for animals. I have to admit that I didn’t immediately appreciate the connection between animal control and public health. But one morning, early on in my tenure brought that into sharp relief. On his way to school, a five year old little boy, Xavier, was killed when he was attacked by a neighbor’s dog, which had likely been trained for dog fighting. It made the connection vivid, and so should current events. 


[clip of unspecified news reporter 1] On Monday, the Texas Department of State Health Services issuing an alert confirming our state’s first human case of avian influenza or bird flu. 


[clip of unspecified news reporter 2] America’s dairy cows will be tested for bird flu more closely to stop the virus from spreading. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: This week alone, I spent several hours on calls regarding what we’re calling HPAI or highly pathogenic avian flu. A fancy way of saying bird flu that can make you really sick. We’ll talk more about that later in the show. But there’s another side to this. For as long as humans have existed, we’ve built symbiotic relationships with animals. Archeological evidence suggests that we began domesticating dogs dating back to nearly 26,000 years ago in Siberia, whereas our connection with our fur babies today is more about love and affection. Back then, it was a matter of survival. Dogs are incredible hunters, and when hunting and gathering was the difference between life and death, the keen sense of scent, incredible speed and ferocity of a hunting dog could mean the difference between finding your dinner or not. It wasn’t only one sided. They benefited from our strategic minds, our ability to forge weaponry, and our ability to provide reliable shelter. Dogs are man’s best friend, sure, but man should be dog’s best friend, too. The benefits far outweighed the public health concerns. And they should today too. And when they don’t, it’s not because the dogs did something wrong. It’s because the humans did. And those are the challenges I had in front of me in Detroit. Luckily, I had an incredible leader to work with who happens to be our guest today. Melissa Miller is the director of Saint Clair County Animal Control. She’s also a certified dog behavioral consultant and served as a senior disaster field responder for the Humane Society of the US for nearly a decade. It was her insight, experience, and grit that helped us turn it around. We raised our animal care officer salaries 15%, helping us to get to full staff. We moved the operation into a new facility and upgraded our protocols and procedures. By the time I left, we had fully reversed the animal save rate, helping place nearly 80% of the animals that had come through our doors into loving homes. I was interested in digging deeper into the relationship between animals and health today, and I knew that Melissa would be the perfect guest. I’m grateful she agreed to come on the show. Here’s my conversation with Melissa Miller. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: All right, let’s go. Can you introduce yourself for the tape? 


Melissa Miller: My name is Melissa Miller. I am currently the director of Saint Clair County Animal Control and a long time animal advocate, as well as canine behavior consultant. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And my former colleague in the city of Detroit who taught me more about animals than I ever thought I ever wanted to know. Which I really appreciated. And um, it’s still knowledge that I take to this day. So uh, Mel, I don’t know if I’ve told you um. You and I both know and, you know, it’s going to be no surprise to our listeners here that, like, I’m not much of an animal guy. Like, [?] like, you know, I love people. And I think that, like, that makes up for it. And I love animals. Like, and I feel like given our work together in the city, I’ve done justice to to animal kind. 


Melissa Miller: Absolutely. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Many, many nights working, to save many animals. So I appreciate them. And I want to see them thrive. I just, you know, like they do them and I do me and like, you know, you know. Anyway. But I am the proud re-owner of two cats. 


Melissa Miller: Yay! 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I don’t know if I told you this. 


Melissa Miller: No, it’s finally happened. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But here’s here’s the crazy story. We got married really young, and I was in grad school, and Sarah was finishing up undergrad, and I won the scholarship to go off to England, and I was going to go for a year, and then she was going to come after, and she’s like, I’m gonna be super lonely, and I need to get these, some animals. And I was like, how about like one animal? And lets just, you know, but I also think this is not a great idea because, like, you’re coming to England in a year and like, those animals are still going to need to have a place. Anyway so she uh ends up within two weeks finding a cat for adoption. This beautiful cat named Socks, which we think is like part Maine Coon because he’s huge. And um, and so Socks is living in this 880 square foot apartment, which is where we lived at the time. And uh, he is a kitten, so he’s like, tearing up everything, destroying cords. And she’s like, I read online that if you uh, get a partner for them, then they calm down. So now we ended up with two cats. The second cat is a beautiful white cat named Yoda because he strikes a remarkable resemblance to the character. Um. And now we end up with two cats, uh that are living in our 880 square foot apartment. I’m like, yo why? [laughter] All of us sharing a bathroom, there’s like, there’s like litter all over the bathroom floor in a tiny little bathroom. You can imagine. So of course, lo and behold, Sarah ends up going to England. We have to find another home for these cats. Uh. We find the lovely mother of a friend of Sarah’s for with whom the cats go and live, a long life. Now, we get a call about two years ago from this mother of Sarah’s friend, who says we found out that my grandkids are really allergic to cats, and I needed to put them up for adoption. They are at the Humane Society. So you and I both know, I know the Humane Society folks way better than I ever thought I would because of our time together. So I call him up. I’m like, yo, man, you got my cats. I need to, I need to take these cats back. And we know that one of them is deaf and they’re very old. So I think they were 14 at the time. So we didn’t expect them to to be adopted. And, you know, we weren’t going to let em go out like that. So, uh we brought them back home and they’ve been living in our house now for the last two years. And um, I begrudgingly accept the fact that despite our house being full of their dander and um and still a gigantic mess of of litter in places I don’t want it to be, uh they have added immense amounts of joy to our lives and, yes, even my life. So I wanted to tell you that story because, well um I thought you’d appreciate it. 


Melissa Miller: Absolutely. I’ve been trying to pawn kittens off on you ever since I’ve known you. [laugh]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I know, and and the funny thing is, I have a, you know, I have a one year old now, and my one year old loves our cats more than she loves any other member of the family except for Sarah. Um. And she has this word for them. She calls them Tata. We don’t know why she calls them Tata. Who who named them Tata. But like, she has this affection for them. 


Melissa Miller: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And she just likes to go and and like, lean her face on them. It’s very, very cute. And she chases them around the house and I’m sure they’re deathly afraid. But like, to their credit, there is some sense that that like, she is a young member of our species and they treat her with like far more respect than I think they would treat anyone else behaving in that way. Um. So it’s it really is just lovely to watch. 


Melissa Miller: That’s amazing. I love that story. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So I want to I want to jump in. Um. You obviously have have dedicated your life to cats and I [?] cats and dogs and animals of all kinds. Um. And I probably should explain how we’ve worked together. So when I was the new director of the Detroit Health Department, um I inherited a part of the job that I never trained for and never thought I would do, which is Detroit Animal Control. And uh, it was a mess at the time, and I needed somebody who I could trust, who could come in and do right by the animals and right by the people of the city of Detroit. And Mel Miller was that person. And so we spent many, many hours in my office strategizing about how to take on animal infections and how to improve operations in the facility, and how to engage the um animal care community in a way that was productive. And you were great through all of it. So I learned a lot from you. So I’m thankful for that. 


Melissa Miller: Thank you. I think we all had our skills put to the test. Uh. I was just telling the story the other day how we had to go and microchip check the elephant from the circus to make sure it wasn’t the elephant with tuberculosis from that guy’s herd. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. Not great. Nobody wants a tuberculosis elephant in their city. But it’s also sad that an elephant got tuberculosis, like also, can you imagine how much like tubercle bacilli would, like, come out of an elephant? That’s insane. 


Melissa Miller: Come out of a trunk.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Right like it just it just sneezes once, and literally everyone’s in like yeah. Anyway, um and I think we’re foreshadowing a lot of the important aspect, right? Because you’d wonder why is animal control under public health? And this happens in municipality after municipality. And if you ever find a health director and you want to make them groan, just say animal control because it’s like literally the part of the job everyone’s like yo, I didn’t train for this. Um. And it’s it’s wild. So I want to, you know, jump in because you’ve clearly got a love and a passion for animals. When did that start for you? 


Melissa Miller: I think always, uh I’ve always in my family had dogs and cats and periods of time with other small pocket pets. Gerbils, hamsters, those kind of things. Fish. Um. Had to go through a few periods, uh years in college where I didn’t have an animal and really wanted one really bad and ended up with my apartment bunny, who I basically treated like it was a puppy and took him everywhere. And he was very well socialized and wonderful, and he became a house rabbit. So um, but I think in terms of a profession, uh around 2006, when I was working in the financial industry as a stress reliever, I started volunteering to walk dogs at the Franklin County Animal Control in Columbus, Ohio, and met the dog that would become my first uh dog as an adult, which is very different than having your parents also assist you with the care of a dog. He also ended up being kind of a behavioral mess. And, that is what sent me to the library, where I just started reading and taking in everything I could. Um. The next six years, I became a certified professional dog trainer and then went on to become a uh certified behavior consultant for canines. I started volunteering with HSUS as part of the [?] The National Disaster Animal Response Team, and then became a consultant for the animal rescue team. So responding to everything that would be defined as a disaster. So anything that would overwhelm a community’s ability to respond. So that would be floods, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, as well as puppy mill seizures and hoarding cases with multiple species and hundreds of animals on one single property and um bloodsport like dogfighting or hog dogfighting cases. And throughout that time, I got really interested in in some of the legislative and advocacy making comments at the Michigan Senate about puppy mills and current legislation, as well as working within communities on anti breed specific legislation and how that can be really detrimental to a community instead of community based bite prevention. And at a integral time when things that Detroit had gotten specifically very bad, started a nonprofit with a couple of my friends called Dog Aid. It’s a community outreach program to help keep people and their pets together, because we realized that the number one way to keep animals out of the shelter and out of animal control was to keep them in their homes. So we started providing door to door services, uh information, getting out in the communities and helping people with finding resources and what they needed. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. And that’s that’s how how you and I met, um and, uh you’ve been, you know, working in this in the space since. As you highlighted, in a lot of the challenges that you’ve responded to, the problem with animals isn’t animals, it’s people. And it’s usually people either not knowing what they’re getting into or knowingly doing something that puts animals, or other people in harm’s way. Can you talk a little bit about that people part, right. Because, you know, it seems to me, you know, as a, as an animal adjacent lover, that the conversation is often,um one sided. Everybody thinks they’re doing right by animals. But oftentimes now oftentimes they’re doing things that um, that can be really quite harmful. Tell me a little bit about that people part, you know, where do people go wrong. And, you know, if you could, if you could think about the ways that you could prevent some of these kinds of situations, what are the kinds of things that that we all ought to be thinking about in the ways that animals and humans interact? 


Melissa Miller: Yeah, I think that intersection is really important, um especially as we think of access to resources and information. If you’re living in a neighborhood where nobody has a primary care physician, it’s really difficult to get groceries, it’s difficult to find resources to help your personal family. There’s certainly not going to be a lot of resources for our pets. So it’s very common in some communities that your your pet may never see a vet. Um. It may, your dog may have gotten its puppy shots, the cat distribution system if anybody’s aware of that internet meme, uh you know, cats just show up on your porch and decide that they’re yours and they move in on you. [laugh] Um. And, and all that happens. Uh. So sometimes it’s just making sure that people have access to the resources. It’s difficult to have the right stuff if there’s not a pet supply store. Um. Even if you have the finances to do that. And honestly, some of the best human animal bonds I’ve seen have been with unhoused folks and the animals that they’re caring for. So the other thing that I think we don’t talk enough about is the lack of social safety net when it comes to this. We have a lot of folks that are struggling with specific mental illnesses that make it difficult for them to either connect with humans, or difficult for them to really understand what their capacity for care is. So when you look at collecting, which I’m going to say collecting instead of hoarding, hoarding is technically a diagnosis and I’m not a doctor. But if we were talking about collecting, we have folks who just kind of can’t see the forest for the trees. They think they’re providing the best care possible. They keep taking in the next animal that needs their help. Well, that level of care continues to decline and medical care isn’t provided. Typically, those folks don’t have a strong social safety net. They don’t have a doctor that they’re going to regularly. They don’t have family stopping by to say, whew when was the last time you changed the cat litter? Or why are there six more cats here? A lot of senior folks who are isolated and alone and don’t have good family connections end up in really tough situations. [music break]




Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to walk back into history, and then we can talk a little bit more about, you know, some of the recommendations you have and some of the public health concerns um, that come out of, of our, our, our animal friends. Um. Do you when did when did humans start to, like, domesticate and take in animals outside of the circumstance of um, of food production. Right. When do we start taking pets? And do we have a sense of, you know, what what it what it has looked like over the years? 


Melissa Miller: Yeah. It’s actually really interesting that our relationship with dogs started long before agriculture. So as we were hunter gatherers and there were ancient wolves that are no longer part of the the gene sequencing at all for wolves. But still have some gene sequencing in dogs, which is pretty cool. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Melissa Miller: So around 30ish thousand years ago, there was a big genomic divide between those ancient wolves and what has now become dogs. And then over the next couple thousand years, you see dogs start showing up from a anthropological and archeological basis in um Southeast Asia and China about 30,000 years ago. Uh. Siberia, about 26,000 years ago, moving into Europe about 10,000 years ago. So over a vast quantity of time, we see dogs moving into different continents in different types of ways. You know, we don’t necessarily think of a Shar Pei as an ancient breed, but it it definitely is just as ancient as a Siberian Husky or Malamute. So around 11,000 years ago, we started domesticating sheep and goats. And about 8000 years ago, we started domesticating cattle. Around that period of time between our herding folks of goats and sheep and continuing to move with them uh we started agriculture and where we started collecting grain came mice. And wild cats said this is pretty cool. So they started showing up and they said, wow, there’s all this food. And people said, hey, you get rid of mice, this is cool. You can stay here. And started cohabitating and sharing our environment with them. So it’s it’s been a pretty cool thirteen to 18,000 years of having dogs and cats in our lives on a regular basis. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm. That’s really interesting. You know, you think about the the values and often today, you know, so much of how we think about our dogs are they’re a pet, and they give me emotional joy and happiness. But so much of the way, you know, you shared the evolution, that relationship really is about the symbiotic relationship, the ability to um, almost to mind meld with another animal to do a thing that needs to be done in the circumstances in which you find it. You know, you think about hunter gatherers, obviously, uh dogs are phenomenally better hunters, naturally, than than well than we are in some ways. Um uh. Probably not as good at strategy, but probably a lot better on tactic, uh than we are. But um, you think about cats and their ability to, you know, to keep a a barn or a silo, um free of the animals that are going to destroy and potentially, um put disease into your food supply. Uh. And you start to see this, this symbiotic relationship around scarcity and, and food and capacity, and then also, like the emotional joy of being able to do something well, uh with someone. Right? Even if that someone’s a different species than you. I want to jump now, because it’s a really good segue into some of the health concerns when we think about animals, obviously, um there’s a lot, you know, particularly when we think about uh the domesticated animals that we keep. But there were several that we engaged with directly back when we used to work together in the city that you work on uh in a neighboring county uh today, you know, whether it’s the challenge of dog bites, you know, a terrible circumstance. Very early into my tenure in Detroit, little boy about five years old was mauled by a dog that somebody had been keeping, inappropriately, um and had been training for purposes that are uh just inconsistent with the best care of a of an animal. That ended up becoming a very violent circumstance and took the life of a little boy. Or it’s the risk of disease spread in in animals. Can you talk about some of the ways that, you know, you think about both the downside, but then also the upside, of a relationship with animals, um when it comes to our health. 


Melissa Miller: Yeah. If we are keeping our animals healthy and we’re attentive to them, the risk of disease transmission between species is very low. Uh. Which is great. One of the components that makes that difficult, of course, is our sheltering system. And all the growth that our sheltering system has had to go through in the last 40 years to look at viral spread, cross contagion management and essentially move from the pound to running pretty much a mini hospital. I remember one night pretty late uh on the phone with you and University of Florida shelter med about a emerging virus at the time, which was pneumovirus in dogs. We didn’t have a ton of information. Our shelter was the first of seven to experience that. And you all Doctor House style, were [laugh] drawing on the window, trying to look at, you know, from a contagion perspective and using all of your public health epidemiology and me using all of my cross contagion and shelter knowledge of how are we going to manage this population so we can stop feeding the virus new new hosts so we can get this under control and save lives. So, you know, when we when we look at diseases like parvovirus, um jumped from essentially, the horses to greyhounds. And at that point greyhound racing moved that into boarding facilities, moved that into contact with companion animals and animals that went into shelters. And it was this brand new disease. And in the ’70s, no one knew what it was. They just knew that all of a sudden dogs were dying, just incredible rates and especially puppies. We now have vaccines. We have some amazing vaccines and the basic puppy vaccines that you should be getting with any pup, your three boosters, um DHLPP is distemper and and lepto, parvo, parrot influenza. So it protects against a lot of those things. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I have question for you. Has the misinformation around human vaccines jumped into animal owners not vaccinating their animals? I’d be really interested to know. 


Melissa Miller: Yes, it it has. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Oh God. 


Melissa Miller: And and part of it is a little legitimate. And part of it is bonkers to me. One of the things that used to be just a golden rule was giving your your dog its DHLPP booster every year. The AVMA after testing tighter for years, came out a couple of years ago and said, okay, you can probably do that every two to three years. So there is a sense that private practice vets are absolutely doing the right thing when they say, have you thought about vaccination? This probably needs to happen. We should keep the animal on the schedule, but to a certain degree it would be okay to go a year or two according to the AVMA, with without that booster. Um. Because I work in a high risk environments, my pets get boostered every year. I’m not going to ever take that chance. Um. Because I work in a shelter and I come home in shelter clothes and change really quick, but I could still bring something home. So the other thing that’s really interesting is, is the microchipping, and having permanent identification on your pet, which is amazing when it comes to getting lost dogs and cats back home. Um. As well as horses, rabbits, anything else that you want to microchip? Um. It’s just a RFID with a 15 digit number. Goes into a database and your contact information pops up if you’ve kept up with that. Um. But there’s there’s definitely since the pandemic, been an odd aversion to that as well. [laugh]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I guess, Bill Gates is coming for our dogs, too, uh?


Melissa Miller: Yes. Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Uh poor Bill Gates, actually, not poor Bill Gates honestly. Very rich. [indistinct] 


Melissa Miller: [laugh] Very very rich. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It’s got to be weird to be like demagogued on on these global conspiracy theories for, like [?]–


Melissa Miller: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –low income children in sub-Saharan Africa uh vaccinated. I, I want to ask you, you know, we talked a little bit about the the downside. Um. What about some of the upside? I mean, you know, I got to tell you so after the pandemic, during the pandemic, even, uh Socks, I was working from home. And as you well know, anybody who knows me knows, like, I thrive on being with people. I like to be with people. And it was just a very isolating experience. And every day I’d sit on the couch uh and, uh I’d sit with my laptop doing my, you know, work from home thing. And every day Socks would come sit next to me. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had that companionship. I really, like, really got me through some tough days just to be like, alright man it’s just me and you. Just just sitting here on this couch, doing the same thing we did yesterday and the day before. Um. 


Melissa Miller: And tomorrow. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And and there’s, there’s, there’s some real, like, upside to that companionship. Can you talk to us a little bit about what some of the evidence has shown about the value of of having animals and um, and what that can do for our health? 


Melissa Miller: Absolutely. Uh. The the center for Disease Control has some really amazing studies, as well as the NIH about decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol, decreased cortisol, which is great. Also an increase in exercise. Uh. Folks who have dogs are well within their step limits uh for most folks. Outdoor, getting outdoors, getting social it actually can affect your bone density [laugh] to have a pet, which is pretty cool um. In terms of cognitive function, that’s really amazing. There’s the socialization aspect, especially when it comes to dogs, getting out, outdoors, seeing other people, as well as just having that, that friendship and being able to to process stress. So uh, definitely some really great things for our health, especially seniors and uh having a routine that incorporates their animal but also having different interactions every day, keeping you on your toes. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. I got to tell you, my my grandparents have a um, uh I think he’s a labradoodle, named Warren Buffett. Um. And, uh and, you know, just watching them interact with him in particular my, my grandfather, who takes him for a walk multiple times a day. I really do think he’s been just  a such an amazing lifeline for them. And, you know, has has kept them young in a way that’s pretty amazing. And grandma and grandpa, if you guys are listening, shout out to, to Warren Buffett. [laughter] You know, those impacts are really amazing and something to watch. The other part of it is also that um, I do think, you know, when they say man’s best friend, like, there’s there’s something real about the ability to have to care for a animal, but at the same time, know that that animal in some respects cares for you. Right? And I think that there’s something really beautiful about the nature of that kind of a relationship, because it’s not just one way. And I think that’s what makes, you know, relationships valuable. And with animals um, you know, so often there’s this aspect to them where a lot of the purpose of this, the things that we get most frustrated with in other people, right? Sometimes the self-centeredness, the the need to, uh to sort of look out for oneself over others, that isn’t that doesn’t show up in an animal. Right. And there’s something, you know, with animals and children, I think that make them unique in that way and makes them blameless. Um. And so I think there’s something really pure about that kind of relationship that, that more and more people engage with. I do want to ask, though, and this has been something that I’ve, I’ve kind of watched over time. We have this like weird relationship to animals because of this nature, of this purity of the relationship, where on the one hand, we treat them as beings and on the other we treat them as objects. Right? 


Melissa Miller: Correct. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what’s sad about it is it shows up in the ways that people think about, like what animal they want to get. So, you know, someone will go out and get like a designer dog. And there are many other dogs with, with, you know, just as just as much purity and need for care, um that are sitting in animal care and control centers across the country that are, you know, liable to be put down, um that folks don’t want to get. So it’s like that objectiveness, but then also that nature of like, oh, well, now this is going to be my best friend. Right? And it’s it’s kind of odd, right? Because we don’t really think about people that way. 


Melissa Miller: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Um. And so, invite you to reflect with me about that sort of duality of relationships and the ways that that kind of confuses things or create circumstances where, you know, too often we’re not really as a species, treating animals with the respect and and dignity they deserve, even if we might treat our little fur baby with the respect and dignity it deserves. 


Melissa Miller: Yeah. And it’s it’s interesting, when I think about this, about animals in different cultures than ours, uh what’s considered an appropriate animal to consume? What makes a dog different from a cow? And there’s certainly countries where cows are absolutely sacred and and not eaten. And there are countries like ours where dogs are absolutely sacred and not consumed, um but other countries where they are. So it’s always interesting to me to think about, you know, guinea pigs in our pet stores and guinea pigs in the wild, and that in some places they’re something we consume. And that that consumerism boils down to some not all, breeding. Puppy mills exists because people have an impulse to want a certain animal to look a certain way and have it right now. And so there’s large scale cruelty and suffering that happens because we want that perfect little Pomeranian delivered to our door by air the next day. Um. Instead of doing our research and finding a reputable breeder or somebody who really pays attention to the genetics of the animals and loves the breed, loves the, the line, and can speak to their bone health and that they don’t carry the genes for hip dysplasia or eye issues or ear issues. Um. So there’s there’s a there’s a big difference between the fast food of pet acquisition, which would be puppy and kitten and parrot mills. Um. Versus looking around and seeing kind of what, what needs a home and what type of home can you provide? I think it’s really important when we think about our our homes, who are we asking to share our homes with us and our lifestyle with us? And do we have the activity level that’s needed for a a young mid-sized dog that is really energetic versus a mature adult couch potato? You know, if you like to watch Netflix all weekend, you’re probably not going to want that hyper puppy [laugh] that wants to go on four mile walks twice a day, every day. So, um and like you experienced with the kittens, kittens often are better together. But everybody has to sort of look at their, their budget, you know, the average costs and make those decisions for, for themselves about how they’re going to care for anything, whether it’s a beta fish, or whether it’s a Great Pyrenees. We need to know what that animal needs. Um. And a lot of times, what we think an animal needs is far below what they actually do need. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Can you speak to that a bit? Because I do think that that’s a really important point. I think what happens is people underestimate what their potential pet needs and then it ends catastrophically. I mean, one of the issues that we dealt with routinely in the city of Detroit is that there is this epidemic, almost, of people deciding they can’t care for their dogs, and then driving into a random part of the city, opening their car door with their dog inside their car, letting the dog out and then driving away. And you end up having this situation where you have many, many abandoned animals that then form packs, and then it becomes a very intenable situation. Um. Can you speak to some of like the ways to think about, um or to assess what an animal needs and to make a smart decision for yourself? Are there resources out there for people? 


Melissa Miller: Yeah, there’s a lot of really wonderful groups. Uh. There’s great websites. ASPCA Pro is mainly designed for shelter and welfare professionals, but it has great free webinars on animal behavior. Every animal is going to have a social need component and an enrichment component that’s going to be based off of what their, their modal action patterns are. So the things that regardless of our intervention in their lives, that they’re going to do, right? There, they they need to groom, they need clean places to rest, and dry, unless it’s an amphibian or reptile or fish. [laugh] So um, what those, those animals need based on their simple biology. Dogs and cats love games that are predictable uh but also have a little bit of fun in there. And I think of it sometimes as, you know, playing pickup football or, any of the games. Hide and seek, the sort of things that you learn to play with friends, you know, the general rules, but it’s going to be different every time depending on who’s playing. So, uh being able to predict what comes next. It affects stress, with humans and and animals. So a game that they’ve learned that they’ve picked up, fetch is one of the great ones that we use on a regular basis, but that’s tapping into a lot of dogs prey acquisition sequence. So that’s the orient to your prey stock chase, bring back. Um. So we have a lot of different animals. Um. Cats, example, there’s a lot of people who say, my, it’s like my cat’s a dog. He likes to chase after this particular toy or my girlfriend’s uh hair ties or or things like that. Or bring back bottle caps. Um. There’s a lot of that that falls in under, predatory sequencing. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what about training? Everybody’s seen a well-trained dog versus a less well trained dog. And, you know, they’ve made reality TV shows about it. Um. You know, what’s interesting, right? Is, is we sometimes think that our animals want what we want. Um. And that’s that’s not always the case. Um. There’s something about, you know, predictability and expectation and the combination between love and discipline that, you know, makes for good training. Obviously with cats, it’s a different story, but with dogs in particular. Um. But a lot of times, I think folks sort of think about their dogs really actually as humans when they’re not actually humans. And there’s a different set of needs there. How do you recommend people think about training or start pursuing training? And of course, there’s a health aspect here because, you know, a poorly trained dog can be dangerous in the wrong situations. 


Melissa Miller: Yeah, I think there’s a little bit of a fallacy there because because as you’re talking about cats, you know, we do we do have training with cats and they’re just a little bit sensitive. Uh. And they have shorter attention spans when it comes to focused training in our world. But to speak with cats specifically and, and public health, food preparation. Right. Cats like to see what they’re doing. They’re arboreal predators. They like to be up in trees. They like to be up off the ground. And one of the biggest complaints that people that work with cats from a behavior standpoint gets is he’s always in what I’m trying to do, when I’m cooking he’s up on the counter when I’m doing that, well because they’re inquisitive, you know. So for everything that you want to say no to, the biggest advice is what do you want to say yes to? So for every get off the counter, how can I meet your need to be high to be able to watch what’s going on? Because that’s what they’re interested in. And so sometimes it might mean for a while having a cat tree in your kitchen. Not forever, but have it close to the place where, you know, Kitty gets on the counter. It’s a no kitty gets on the, on the cat tree, and it’s a tree. And they get to watch and they learn like, hey, if I want to be involved in this, I can go up here and this is a good place, and then slowly move that a little bit away from your cooking preparation area. Uh. Same thing with dogs. There’s a lot of unfortunately socially popular but inaccurate dog training shows that propagate this myth of the alpha dog and, dominance mentality, pack theory, which has been proven to not be how dogs work for over 40 years. In fact, the the gentleman, Dave Mech, who who came up with the term Alpha Wolf, has spent the rest of his career trying to take it back and, and correct people’s understandings because it was based off of flawed research of captive wolves that were unrelated. Um. So when it comes to dogs, dogs do what works. Their cognition level and emotional development is somewhere similar to a 2 to 3 year old. So there’s no real concept of time. We can’t tell them it’s going to be four days or three sleeps. They don’t quite get it yet. Um. And as well as those sort of advanced emotions sometimes that we give dogs just aren’t there. They actually don’t feel guilty, or feel regret, which is, is kind of interesting. Um. Because the concept of guilty or regret means that understanding the concept of going backwards in time and doing something differently, so they really don’t don’t have that. But what they do have are puppy dog eyes, because they’ve learned that when they make the puppy dog face, that appeasement face, for whatever reason, humans stop yelling and start acting more gentle towards them. So there’s a lot of times people will say, oh, he knows what, he knows what he did, but they they lack that part of executive function of morals. They, they, they have a certain amount of ethics of, you know, we all did this thing together. We all should be sharing in it. When it comes to old time hunting behaviors, but dogs are never doing necessarily anything out of spite. So when you see problem behaviors, things like inappropriate elimination, dog or cat. Jumpiness, mouthiness, love bites, which my cat Nugget. You can pet them exactly 3.45 times before you get a overstimulated little bite in there. Um. It’s a it’s important when you see those problem behaviors to also assess assess their health first. Is there something that’s causing them to be painful is there an underlining um medical issue pain, teeth, ears, joints, something that’s that’s going wonky anytime there’s a sudden change in behavior. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what are a couple of you know as we, as we uh, finish up here, what are some of the key um safety tips that you have for for both dogs and cats that folks should keep in mind? Uh. Either for for their pets or others. 


Melissa Miller: I think the important thing is remembering that they’re not stuffed animals and they’re not Disney cartoons. Disney has done wonderful storytelling. But a big disservice to to our animal friends in us assuming how they’re communicating. So whether it’s dogs or cats. One of the most important things you can do is if you have a little person in your life, if you have a youngster, whether it’s your own child or your nieces and nephews, to always teach them to be respectful of the animal’s space, especially when the animal is engaging in rest, eating, or play. Um. So we’re not going to chase the dog or the cat for fun. Um. We don’t wake up sleeping animals. That’s going to startle them. That could cause a bite. Um. We’re not going to mess with them when when they’re eating. I don’t want someone sticking their fork on my plate or sticking their hand in my dish. It’s absolutely appropriate for a dog to not want that as well. So we definitely want to teach kids that if if the dog is eating or sleeping or playing with a toy, to always ask the adult if that adult will interact with with the dog or cat. Um. If the dog is chewing on a toy and really into it, now is not the time to grab that toy. Maybe time for a toy exchange? Also, this is so, so hard. Because we’re like crazy primitive primate brains really associate hugging and eye contact with oxytocin, right? Like there’s a huge burst that comes out, uh when we get hugged for more than three seconds, and then when we make direct eye contact. And that’s largely because when when we’re little, um all those receptors get all that oxytocin from being held and being, you know, our food source is right next to mom. We’re making eye contact. And so that’s warmth and security and all these great things for us. Dogs, you know, they’re born blind at the point where they’re stopping nursing. They’re just starting to see about six inches or so from their face. And so so they’re experiencing their world in a very, very different way. And it’s hard to teach kids this because animals are so lovable. But most dogs don’t like hugs. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Melissa Miller: Most dogs view hugs as restraint, and some dogs are super tolerant of it and they’ll put up with it. Some dogs will try to kiss and dismiss which is giving you that little lick which we interpret as kisses. But really they’re saying, okay, I’d like you to stop now. So they’ll they’ll kiss and dismiss. Um. And other dogs really just don’t like it at all. Um. So also knowing some signs for for body language for dogs and cats, but remembering that children under the age of six, and particularly children between the ages of six to ten, are learning about human emotions and faces. You know, if you think about the first couple emotions we learn, um happy, sad, angry kids start scanning faces, looking at eyes and mouths. And it isn’t until you’re about ten that you start looking at other things like cheeks, head position, all of that. So children under the age of six are cognitively not able to interpret dog body language, especially their facial signals. So it’s important to recognize children under six and in that developmental age between six to ten may not actually be able to see that a dog is showing that it’s scared by, having whale eye where you can really see the whites of their eyes, having their ears back and flat, um lip licking, averting their face to the side to say, I really don’t like you in my space right now, those sort of things. And cats have a similar group of behaviors. The ears will go back or come slightly down. A lot of times with cats, it’s their tails and the position of their tail. So if they’re overstimulated, it’s going to be that big puffy rattlesnake tail. Um. If they’re uncomfortable, it’s going to be, you know, they’re going to try to make themselves as small as possible. So they’re going to tuck that tail, um if they’re angry, you know, that little flick that they do. [laugh] With the tip of their tail saying knock it off, back up. And so it’s, it’s important to know just, just some basics of body language and actively supervise children around pets. And there’s the difference between active supervision and passive supervision and no supervision. So if you have kids under six, you need to absolutely be actively supervising. Active supervision is in the room, actively watching the dog and the kids and how they’re interacting. Passive supervision is the kids and the animals are in the room. Uh. You’re watching TV or you’re in the other room and you keep an ear out, uh but you’re cooking dinner or you’re reading a book. Or something like that, where they’re still in your proximity, but you’re not actively watching how the animal is responding to the child’s behavior. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. We really appreciate some of those tips and, some of the ways to think about that and that recommendation, particularly around just making sure that you’re actively watching that interaction. And we appreciate all your insights and both the historical lessons and the take homes for present day. Our guest today was Melissa Miller. She is the director of Saint Clair County, Michigan’s Animal Control, and she’s a certified behavioral consultant and former director of the Detroit Animal Care and Control Center, where she and I used to work together. Mel, thank you so much for making the time today to, share some of those insights with us. And um, we really appreciate it. 


Melissa Miller: Absolutely. Thank you. [music break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now, considering how potentially dangerous this is. I’m going to be dedicating the first piece of our headline review to catching you up on avian influenza for the foreseeable future. This week we learned this. 


[clip of unspecified news reporter 3] The US FDA says that samples of milk taken from grocery stores across the US have tested positive for remnants of the bird flu virus that has infected–



Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: FDA scientists tested 297 samples from 38 states, including all nine where cattle have tested positive for evidence of H5n1. The scientists were able to identify H5n1 DNA in nearly 20% of the samples, but thankfully none tested positive for live H5n1 virus. This is scary, but it probably sounds a lot scarier than it really is. Let me explain why. Milk may show up for us in a sterile milk carton in its pristine white liquid form. But think about where milk comes from. The utter of a milk cow somewhere on a farm. Farms, cows, these aren’t the cleanest places in the world. Normally, if you really wanted to kill all the microorganisms in something, you’d boil it. But of course, boiling milk would ruin it. So instead, we pasteurized it. The process named after Louis Pasteur, who developed it way back in the 1860s, involves heating the milk to a high enough temperature for long enough to destroy the bacteria or viral particles inside it. But pasteurizing doesn’t make the particles disappear. It just denature them, destroying them, but leaving their parts right there. So if you think about that, what do these findings really tell us? On the one hand, they show us just how widespread the virus is in raw milk. Nearly one in five samples tested positive, after all. But it also shows us that pasteurization is effective at destroying the viral particles in milk. Something we’ve known now for about 160 years. So that’s the milk of it all. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to worry about. This virus is clearly spreading in cows way faster than we previously understood. Wastewater surveillance is identifying spikes of influenza A, of which H5n1 is a type in communities where infected cattle have been identified. It’s not certain that this is H5n1, but there’s no other explanation for it, which points aggressively to infected cows. The fact that this is spreading rapidly has two consequences. First, the more cows it spreads to, the higher the risk to people who interact with cows every day. But also remember, this is an RNA virus with a high rate of mutation. The more this virus spreads, the higher the probability that some subset of those mutations unlock the ability to jump between people. And that’s the never event we’re all trying to protect against. This week, federal officials instituted a requirement of testing for H5n1 if cattle are moved across state lines. That’s a good start, but I’d like to see a lot more aggressive action, including communication. Guys, can we not do this from our back foot again? Remember that draconian Arizona abortion law we talked about a few weeks ago? Well, the Republican led state legislature of Arizona may repeal it. Last week with the support of three Republicans in swing districts, democrats in the State House voted to repeal the law. And now await to vote in the state Senate. Why is this happening? Not because Arizona Republicans now support the right to choose. No. It’s happening because they’re being forced to reckon with the disastrous politics of the issue in a tough election year. And that, well, that demonstrates the power of all of us who believe that abortion is health care and that banning it creates untenable risks to people that violate their bodily autonomy and threaten their lives. Keep pushing folks. It’s working. Finally, in another story about election year priorities shaping public health, the Biden administration caved to politics on a proposed menthol cigarette ban that had been in the works for two years. Models project that a ban on menthol cigarettes could save upwards of 650,000 lives over the next 40 years, and those lives disproportionately belong to Black folks, who account for the majority of menthol cigarette smokers. But that set up a challenging political situation in the administration’s mind. Do the right thing on public health and save 650,000 predominantly Black lives? Or cave to political pressure and risk losing Black votes. Except, the ban was supported by a majority of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus as well as Doctor Robert Califf, administrator of the FDA, and HHS Secretary Javier Basara. Here’s my take. It’s sad to watch political anxiety get in the way of sound public policy. After all, the very people who benefit most from this ban are the folks whose votes this administration is scared of losing. Politicians at their best have to be teachers, they have to explain their policy positions in ways that build consensus and support for them. When politics trump public policy, it’s usually because an administration doesn’t feel like they can go out and do that foundational educational work, explaining to constituencies why and how this matters. And that shouldn’t have to happen now. It should have been happening over the past two years as this policy was weighed and measured. Remember, smoking still accounts for 30% of all cancers, which, by the way, are going up. Anything that makes smoking easier or more enjoyable kills, menthol included. That’s it for today. On your way out. Don’t forget to rate and review the show. It really does go a long way. And one last time. If you love the show and want to help us. I hope you’ll drop by the Crooked Store for some America Dissected merch. Don’t forget to follow Crooked Media and me, @abdulelsayed no dash on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. [music break] This week, I hope you’ll permit me a little bit of extra room. While I fully account for all the folks who helped to make the show possible. Given that it’s our last week with Crooked media. So one last time, America Dissected is a production of Crooked Media. Our producers are Austin Fisher and Emma Illick- Frank, and Tara Terpstra. Thank you to past producers and story editors including Carrie Junior the second, Katie Long, and Ruby Scott, Olivia Martinez and Steven Hoffman. Charlotte Landes, Vasilis Fotopoulos, and Veronica Simonetti mixed and mastered the show. Sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Production support from Allison Falsetto, Elisa Gutierrez, Tara Hart, Daniel Passarelli, Doctor Nicole Aiello, Sydney Rapp, Clara Smith, Ari Schwartz, and Inez Maza. Our theme song, which is staying, by the way, is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers were Sara Geismer, [?] Mohan, Sandy Gerrard, Michael Martinez, and Leo Duran. Thanks to Tanya Sominator, Corinne Gilliard, Robin Reister, and Solid Sound in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and to Crooked’s phenomenal ads and marketing teams over the years, including John Carlo Bizarro, Reina Paredes, Michelle Bocanegra, Jordan Silver, Julia Beach, Reyna Orozco and Gabriella Leverette. And a thank you to everyone else at Crooked who has supported the show over the years, including Matt DeGroot, Elijah Cohen, Kyle Seglin, Becky Clawson, Emily Pender, Sarah Wick, Kelly Valetta, Shaniqua McLendon, Madeline Harringer, and [?]. And of course, a special thank you to Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. To anyone I missed who helped make the show. Thank you. I so deeply appreciate you. I’m your executive producer and host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, thanks for listening. I’ll see you back right here next week. [music break] This show is for general information entertainment purposes only. It’s not intended to provide specific health care or medical advice, and should not be construed as providing health care or medical advice. Please consult your physician with any questions related to your own health. The views expressed in this podcast reflect those of the host and his guests, and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Wayne County, Michigan or it’s Department of Health, Human and Veteran Services.