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Ask Dr. Universe Veterinary Medicine

Why do people like cute animals more than ugly ones? – Brayden, 9, Ohio

Dear Brayden,

Not to brag, but when I was a kitten, humans would see me and squee. Maybe it was my big, sparkly eyes or my teeny, fluffy paws.

I asked my friend Giuseppe Giannotti why people found me so adorable. He’s a scientist at Washington State University. He studies the brain.

He told me that humans like cute animals because they remind them of babies.

“We’re drawn to find traits in animals that are similar to what we think is cute in humans,” Giannotti said. “The cutest things in humans are babies—you know, big heads, giant eyes, soft cheeks—and we project this to everything around us.”

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Why are cats scared of cucumbers/snakes? — Aurelia, 8, Canada

Dear Aurelia,

It’s been almost ten years since someone went viral for recording a cat freaking out about a cucumber. In that video, a human sneaked up behind a cat while it was eating. They silently placed a cucumber behind the cat. When the cat turned around, it jumped super high and ran away. Soon, lots of people were making those videos.

I asked my friend Jessica Bunch why all those cats were scared. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that cats can be surprised by new things. That’s especially true if the new thing shows up without warning. Or while the cat has its guard down. Like when a cat is eating, and a human sneaks up with a cucumber.

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Why do cats rub their cheeks on stuff? – Lara, 10, New York

Dear Lara,

Sometimes I get an overwhelming urge to rub my face on things I love—like my microscope. Other times I’m so happy to see my tortoiseshell roommate that we bump our heads together.

I talked about why I do that with my friend Dr. Jessica Bell. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that cats rub their cheeks on things when they’re happy or want to say that thing belongs to them.

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Why do cats purr? – Kaylee, 11, Kentucky

Dear Kaylee,

I purr all. the. time. I purr when I get a good question like yours. I purr when I finish answering a question. I even purr when I’m struggling to find an answer.

Luckily, Dr. Sarah Guess says that’s normal. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University. She told me that cats purr when they’re content and when they’re stressed out. It can be a little confusing for humans.

Scientists have two ideas about why cats purr. It could have come from the way mother cats care for kittens. Or it could keep their bones and tissues healthy.

But experts don’t agree on the answer yet.

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Why do owls stay up at night? – Zelezina, 8 ½, Maryland

Dear Zelezina,

I love how humans use figures of speech about animals to describe their behavior. An early bird is someone who likes to get up early. A night owl is someone who loves to be awake late at night—like an owl.

I talked about why owls stay up all night with my friend Dr. Marcie Logsdon. She’s a wildlife veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that for many owls, the dark is a good time to catch a meal.

“Owls are just taking advantage of a time when they can excel at finding prey because there are a lot of other things that are active at night, too—like rodents,” Logsdon said.

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Why do dogs have tails? – Bailey, 7, Ohio

Dear Bailey,

My best friend is a golden retriever. When I get home, she greets me with a goofy smile and a big wag of her fluffy tail.

I talked about why she has a tail with my friend Jillian Haines. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me dogs use their tails for lots of things. Tails help dogs balance while running, jumping or swimming. Tails help dogs communicate with each other and other animals. Some dogs in the Arctic—like sled dogs—use their tails to stay warm. They curl up and cover their noses with their fluffy tails.

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Do fish and sharks drink water? – Copper, 9, Florida

Dear Copper,

All living things need water. It’s how life works on Earth. But do animals that swim in water drink water?

I talked about that with my friend Nora Hickey. She’s a fish veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me it depends on the kind of fish. Saltwater fish constantly drink water. Freshwater fish drink hardly any water.

It’s all about the salts inside their bodies. Those salts make their muscles and nervous systems work.

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What organisms do you think would survive an apocalypse of extreme radiation? – Marshall, 11, New Zealand

Dear Marshall,

Sometimes I get x-rays at the veterinarian. They work by sending a small amount of powerful energy—called radiation—through my body. X-rays only contain a small amount of radiation. Too much radiation would harm my cells.

The organisms most likely to survive extreme radiation might be microbes. These creatures are so tiny you need a microscope to see them.

To learn more, I talked with my friend Cynthia Haseltine. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She studies extremophiles. These microbes love intense environments. Boiling heat? Freezing cold? Blistering acid? Yes, please.

Haseltine told me the amount of radiation an organism can survive is measured in grays. Just 5 grays of radiation will kill a human. Here are five organisms that can survive way more than that.

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How do you tell if your betta fish is happy or depressed? – Neely, 10, Oregon

Dear Neely,

As a science cat, I handle going to the veterinarian better than most. I see it as a meeting of scientific minds. But I had no idea some veterinarians specialize in fish.

I learned all about fish medicine from my friend Nora Hickey. She’s a fish veterinarian at Washington State University. She works in the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. She helps fish at zoos and hatcheries stay healthy.

Hickey told me you can watch a betta's behavior to see if it's happy. Happy bettas swim around. They interact with things in their tanks and act interested when you come close.

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What is the difference between B cells and T cells in the immune system? – Tanveer, 11, California

Dear Tanveer,

Everyone who heard your question agreed that it’s a sophisticated one. To get my paws around the answer, I talked with my friend Phil Mixter. He’s an immunology professor at Washington State University.

He told me all living things need to protect themselves from microbes that could make them sick. These are called pathogens. They can be bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites.

“Almost every organism I can think of—from plants to animals and beyond—has a defense system to handle the possibility that another organism might sneak in,” Mixter said.

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Is it true that seven human years equals one dog year? – Cameren, 12, Kentucky

Dear Cameren,

Humans have kept dogs as pets for more than 14,000 years. That close friendship inspires scientists to explore questions like yours.

I talked about how dogs age with my friend Ryan Baumwart. He’s a heart doctor for dogs. He teaches in the veterinary hospital at Washington State University.

I asked Baumwart if a dog year is equal to seven human years.

“I think it's a good general rule,” he said. “But some larger breed dogs like bullmastiffs and Great Danes have a shorter lifespan of 6 to 8 years. So if you do the math, they get shorted. Then some small breed dogs like Chihuahuas seem to live forever.”

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How long do you have to train to become a scientist? – Katelyn, Texas

Dear Katelyn,

Maybe you dream of pointing your telescope toward distant galaxies. Or zooming in on microscopic life on Earth. Being a scientist is an amazing job. You can also do science for fun—no matter your age or anything else about you. It belongs to everyone.

I talked about science training with my friend Kalli Stephens. She’s earning her bachelor’s degree in genetics and cell biology from Washington State University. WSU has a strong undergraduate research program. So, Stephens has been working as a scientist while going to school.

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What are microorganisms? –Trystan, 11, North Carolina

Dear Trystan,

One of my favorite things to do is look at pond water with a microscope. I love to see all the teeny tiny critters zooming around in a single drop.

I talked about microorganisms, also called microbes, with my friend Claire Burbick. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She told me the key trait for microbes is size. Microbes are micro—which means extremely small.

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Dr. Universe: How do horses sense how you feel? –Taylor, 11, New Zealand

When I got your question, I called up my friend and veterinarian Dr. Macarena Sanz who had just finished checking up on the horses at the Washington State University Teaching Hospital. She was happy to help. “It’s a hard question to assess scientifically,” Sanz said. “But I think everybody who has worked with horses can tell you that horses really do have a certain sense about humans.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do dogs and cats spin around before they sit down? – Antonio, 10, Richmond, Va.

Dear Antonio, That’s a great observation about cats and dogs. Even I wasn’t sure why cats spin around before they sit down, so I took your question to my friend Dr. Jessica Bell. She is a veterinarian at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital and has seen quite a few cats and dogs walk in a little circle before they sit down. “It’s a common thing we observe as veterinarians, but we can't talk to cats and dogs and ask them ‘why,’” she said. “From a behavioral standpoint, it probably stems back to their wild instinct.” Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: I heard a little bit about how COVID-19 started, but I don’t know much about it. What happened?  - Colleen, 10, Louisa, VA 

It turns out scientists around the world are investigating this very question. It’s likely the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, started in an animal before jumping to humans. But exactly how it all happened is still a kind of mystery.      That’s what I found out from my friend Michael Letko, a researcher at Washington State University who studies viruses and how they cross different species. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: how do sleeping darts work? (e.g. for elephants) - Jonathan, 7, Pullman, Wash.

Dear Jonathan,

Some people get nervous when they go to the doctor. Maybe you’re one of them. You may not enjoy all of the visit, but you understand the doctor wants to help you. (And that a treat might await you at the end.)

But if an elephant gets sick, they can’t understand a doctor’s words. They may get confused and scared, until it’s too dangerous to help them.

That’s why sleeping darts—also known as tranquilizer darts—help so much.

“It’s safer for both the humans and the elephant because the humans aren’t right next to a wild animal, and the animal isn’t being chased to try to catch it,” Dr. Tamara Grubb said. She is a veterinarian at Washington State University who specializes in anesthesiology, drugs that make animals calm, sleepy, or unable to feel pain.

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Dr. Universe: How did the first horse change into the horses of today? -Ava, 7, Kennewick, Wash.

We can learn a lot about animals of the past from fossils, the imprints or remains we find in rocks. One fossil found in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming helped us learn about the oldest known horses. These horses are called Sifrhippus (siff-RIP-us). They had four toes on each foot and were very small. Believe it or not, these tiny horses weighed only about ten pounds. That’s just a bit heavier than your average house cat. According to the fossil records, Sifrhippus lived somewhere between 54 and 30 million years ago. When I went to visit my friend Lane Wallett, she told me all about the history of horses. As a veterinarian and a paleontologist at Washington State University, she is very curious about both horses and fossils. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we get morning breath? -Stephanie, 10

Dear Stephanie, If you’ve ever caught a whiff of someone’s stinky morning breath, or even your own, you know it can be pretty rotten. We can trace the smell back to tiny culprits that live in our mouths. They are called microbes and they live around your gums, between your teeth, and on your tongue. Read More ...

Why do lizards lose their tails? -Bailey, Inwood, Iowa

Dear Bailey,

Our planet is home to all kinds of lizards. Maybe you’ve seen one climbing up the wall, scurrying through the grass, or at the pet store. Just the other day I saw a big green iguana when I visited the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in search of an answer to your question.

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