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Pets Q&A: Dogs are creatures of heredity

Q: Why do dogs turn around three times before they poop? – S.H., Buffalo

Q: Sparky sleeps on our bed, and just like clockwork when we go to bed, he does, too. Each night, before he lies down, he spins around three times. Why? – S.C., Cupertino, Calif.

A: Dogs (as they have for thousands of years) always leave their business cards wherever they do business, expressing lots of personal information in their “product.” And also suggesting that their “address” belongs to a specific dog. By circling three times, a dog tramples the grass a bit, sending a clearer visual signal to other dogs of what they’ve left behind. Also, circling, and simultaneous sniffing, seems to stimulate a dog’s bowels.

New research on this topic, published in Frontiers in Zoology in 2013 by Czech and German scientists, yielded some fascinating results. Observing 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period, it turns out dogs typically (though not always) circle when they defecate. Also, the vast majority of the time dogs do their business facing north or south, but only when the earth’s magnetic field is calm (which is about 20 percent of the time). Otherwise, they poop in random directions. No one knows why.

As for why so many dogs circle threes time before lying down, especially when settling in for a long snooze, the practice is no doubt hard-wired, dating back to when their canine ancestors had to make their own beds. The circling pattern tramples the grass, and also allows time for dogs to make sure the spot is safe.

Once again, no one really knows why they circle an average of three times. At the end of the day, as I’ve said many times, our dogs likely understand us better than we understand them.


Q: I want to help pets in places other than where I live. I’m fortunate to have means to give to our local shelter, and I generously do this. However, I have more faith in you to direct me than I have in extreme groups, or national humane organizations regarding donations. Any tips? – F.H., Cyberspace

A: I appreciate your trust. I suspect people are thinking about making donations to boost their tax deductions.

There are so many wonderful organizations doing amazing work that your question is difficult to answer. Here are two possibilities:

1. Your support would be welcome at the Winn Feline Foundation, a funder of cat health studies. It seems that nearly everything we know about cats was underwritten with Winn dollars. There are likely over 100 examples, from understanding feline leukemia to determining why 40 years ago cats commonly suffered from a type of heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy) since rectified after a Winn-funded researcher determined that pet food companies needed to add more taurine (an amino acid) to cat food.

A more recent example is the creation of a simple, inexpensive cheek swab test to determine if the gene defect for another type of heart disease (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) likely occurs in Ragdoll or Maine Coon cats. If so, breeders now think twice about breeding these individuals, reducing the number of cases of this serious disease in these breeds. Learn more at (In full disclosure, I serve on the board of directors of Winn Feline Foundation).

2. You could help pets south of the border. The SPCA Puerto Vallarta has created a no-kill sanctuary for homeless and formerly abused animals. While the treatment of companion animals in Mexico is changing for the better, many dogs are still left to wander the streets, tied up on rooftops, or tied up in yards (presumably to guard property). Often, they’re malnourished. Cats are often treated no differently than the vermin they hunt.

SPCA Puerto Vallarta has managed to save about 850 animals, often by providing medical care, then ultimately adopting them to U.S. and Canadian families. One pooch named Holly was found tied up with a rope embedded in her skin. Most U.S. shelters, with understandably limited resources, might have euthanized her. Holly is thriving today:

Learn more about SPCA Puerto Vallarta to see why I was so impressed: