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12 Trusty Facts About the Akita

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The Akita inu is well known in its home country of Japan, but it's just gaining popularity here in the states. Read on to learn more about the fluffy canines.

1. THEY’RE NAMED FOR A REGION IN JAPAN. 

Akitas have been around for thousands of years, so their exact origins are murky at best. What we do know is that the contemporary Akita was first bred in the Odate region of Japan's Akita prefecture. The dogs, originally known as "snow country dogs," were first used to track game during hunts. By the mid-1800s—as a response to a population boom in rural areas—their role had expanded to include the protection of family homes. They were originally called Odate dogs, until their name was officially changed in the 1930s. 

2. THEY’RE BUILT FOR THE SNOW. 

Akita is surrounded by mountains, resulting in cold, harsh winters and rainy summers. The rocky and cold environment is hard for most living things, but Akitas thrive in it. Their heavy double coats keep them warm, while their webbed paws help them walk on snow. 

3. THEY HAVE A STRONG PRESENCE IN JAPANESE CULTURE. 

In Japan, the Akita symbolizes good health, happiness, and longevity. Often the Japanese will gift a small Akita-shaped statue to friends and family as a "Get Well Soon" token, or if someone has just had a baby. The statue is considered a way to tell loved ones that you wish them good health in the future. 

4. THE WEALTHY HELD A TEMPORARY MONOPOLY ON THEM.

Around the 17th century, the Akita was a status symbol. Breed ownership was restricted to the Japanese aristocracy. The animals led lavish lifestyles with elaborate feeding rituals and fancy collars, and special leashes denoted the owner’s rank and stature on the Japanese social ladder. The pampered dogs were used to hunt, alongside falcons, for boar, deer, and other large game. Some owners even hired special caretakers, who were sometimes tasked with the care of just one dog. By the 19th century, Emperor Taisho had changed the law so that any citizen could own an Akita.

5. THEY'RE STILL USED IN DOG FIGHTING. 

Unfortunately, dog fighting continues to be popular in Japan. Although it's illegal in major cities like Tokyo, rural areas continue to host fights. In the early 20th century, Akitas were crossed with a variety of tough breeds like the mastiff, great Dane, and St. Bernard in an effort to bulk them up for the fighting pits. Akitas mixed with Tosa dogs were common (Tosas for their stamina and Akitas for their strength) and were called Shin-Akitas, or “improved Akitas.” That said, unlike in other countries, dog fighting in Japan is not a fight to the death. The dogs are outfitted in elaborate get-ups, and fights are broken up before either dog is mortally wounded. 

6. HACHIKO IS THE MOST FAMOUS DOG OF THE BREED.

You probably know the story of Hachiko, Japan’s most famous dog. Hachiko’s tale started in 1920s Tokyo, where he would accompany his owner on his walk to the train station. Every day, the dog would patiently wait on the platform for his owner to get home from work, and then walk home with him. This routine went on until 1925, when his owner died at the office. Although Hachiko’s owner never returned to the train station platform, the pup waited there anyway—for 10 years. The canine’s extreme loyalty struck a chord with the Japanese people, who would feed and visit the dog while he waited at his post.

The entire country mourned the dog when he finally died in 1935; a bronze statue was erected in his memory. 

7. THERE’S A MUSEUM DEDICATED TO THEM.

The love for Hachiko is so widespread in Japan that there’s a museum erected in his memory. The Akita Dog Museum in Odate, founded by the Akita Dog Preservation Society, is a celebration of Hachiko and the Akita breed in general. Inside, guests can find documents, art, and other information about Akitas; outside, guests are occasionally greeted by real Akitas who have been tasked with playing host for the day.

8. HELEN KELLER HAD ONE. 

Helen Keller is generally credited with bringing the very first Akita to the United States. In 1937, Ms. Keller and her companion, Polly Thomson, traveled to Japan, where Keller learned about Hachiko and his legendary faithfulness. Impressed by the breed and its loyalty, Keller, as the story goes, decided she wanted an Akita of her own. An Akita Police Department instructor named Ichiro Ogasawara offered her a puppy named Kamikaze-Go. Tragically, he died of distemper at just over seven months old. When Ogasawara heard the sad news, he sent her Kamikaze’s younger brother, Kenzan-Go. The dog was considered an official gift from Japan.

9. INSURANCE COMPANIES DON’T TRUST THEM. 

Akitas are notoriously protective and fiercely loyal. The dogs are generally distrustful of strangers and don’t get along with other dogs. Because of this behavior, insurance companies will sometimes charge their owners more. That said, don't think of your Akita's aggressiveness as a done deal: You can combat his or her natural possessiveness early on by socializing them as puppies. 

10. THEY’RE PART OF THE SPITZ FAMILY. 

Like most other wolfy-looking dogs, the Akita falls under the spitz umbrella. Spitz dogs typically have fox-like features—a long snout, pointed ears, and a curled tail. Other dogs that share this category include the Norwegian elkhound, the Samoyed, the shiba inu, and the tiny Pomeranian.

11. WORLD WAR II ALMOST WIPED THEM OUT. 

Times were tough for all Japanese dogs during the war. By 1943, Japan was hit with strict rationing, and many pet owners couldn't afford to feed and care for their large dogs. Eventually, the streets were cleared of any animals that weren’t German shepherds being used as guard dogs. In an effort to save the Akita, devoted breeders gave their dogs German-sounding names and hid them in remote villages, hoping they could ride out the rest of the war without attracting notice.

Not even Hachiko’s statue was safe—the bronze figure was melted down to be used for weapons. (Don’t worry—a new one replaced it in 1948). 

12. THEY’RE VERY CLEAN.

Just like the shiba inu, these dogs are clean to the point of being finicky. The dogs self-groom and have an almost cat-like obsession with cleanliness. Their coat sheds twice a year, so trips to the groomer are unnecessary.

Images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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12 Furry Facts About Red Pandas
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Red pandas have always lived in the shadow of the other, more famous panda. But now it's time to give the little guy its due.

1. THEY HAVE TWO EXTINCT RELATIVES.

Red panda in a tree.
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Currently, red pandas live in the Eastern Himalayas. But the first red panda fossil was found a little bit further afield than that—in the United Kingdom. In 1888, a fossil molar and lower jaw of a cougar-sized animal called the Giant Panda (unrelated to the modern giant panda) were discovered. More fossils have been found in Spain, Eastern Europe, and even the United States. Around 5 million years ago, Tennessee was home to a giant red panda that probably went extinct with the arrival of raccoons.

2. THEY'RE VEGETARIAN CARNIVORES.

Red panda eating bamboo.
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It might seem like an oxymoron, but carnivore in this case doesn't mean meat eater. Carnivore is a biological order that includes groups like bears, dogs, and cats, and while these animals are generally carnivores, some are omnivores, and some are vegetarians. Red pandas are classified as carnivores because they're descended from the same ancestors as the other carnivores, but they rarely eat anything other than bamboo and a few insects. And while giant pandas eat all of a bamboo plant, red pandas eat only the young leaves. Because this is such a nutritionally poor food source, they need to spend 13 hours a day eating and looking for food and can lose upwards of 15 percent of their body weight in winter.

3. THEY'RE SLIGHTLY BIGGER THAN A DOMESTIC CAT.

Red panda sleeping on a branch.
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But their tails add as much as 18 inches to their length. Red pandas live solitary lives in trees, high up in the mountains, so they wrap those big, bushy tails around themselves to keep warm. (They also use them for balance.)

4. THEY HAVE A FALSE THUMB.

Red panda perched on a log.
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This is another feature (along with diet) that red pandas and giant pandas share. Because both pandas have false thumbs—which is actually an extended wrist bone—it was thought that it must be an adaption to eating bamboo. But the red panda's more carnivorous ancestors had this feature as well. According to a 2006 study, what happened was "one of the most dramatic cases of convergence among vertebrates." Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals faced with similar circumstances evolve to look similar. In this case, the red panda's false thumb evolved to help it climb trees, and only later became adapted for the bamboo diet, while giant pandas evolved this virtually identical feature because of their bamboo diet.

5. THEY'RE ESCAPE ARTISTS.

Red panda climbing across a tree.
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Rusty the red panda had been at the Smithsonian National Zoo for just three weeks when he made a break for it in June 2013. His method of escape? A tree branch that was pushed down over his enclosure's electric fence by heavy rains. The ensuing panda hunt (and endless bad jokes about panda-monium) captivated Twitter (tweeters used the hashtag #findrusty) until he was found in a nearby neighborhood. Soon after his daring escape, Rusty became a father, forcing him to put his wild youth behind him and settle down. But it could have been worse. After a similar escape in Dresden, Germany, the authorities got another red panda down from a tree by using a fire hose to spray it with water. The panda fell 30 feet to the ground, giving it a concussion. (Ultimately, the animal was OK.)

Red pandas have also escaped from zoos in London, Birmingham, and Rotterdam. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums even warn in their official care manual "beware: red pandas are escape artists" [PDF].

6. ONE ESCAPE LED TO SOMETHING CALLED THE RED PANDA EFFECT.

Red panda peeking out from behind some tree branches.
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Sadly, the red panda involved in the 1978 Rotterdam escape was found dead not long after the search for it began. But the event led to a very peculiar psychological observation. Even after the body of the panda was found, more than 100 people reported seeing it, very much alive. These sightings were clearly mistaken; there's no reason to think that multiple red pandas were loose in Rotterdam, and red pandas are distinctive enough that mistaking them for a dog or cat was unlikely. It's believed that people expected to see a red panda, so they saw one, even though there wasn't one there; researchers called it the Red Panda Effect.

7. THERE'S AN INTERNET BROWSER NAMED AFTER THEM.

The Mozilla Firefox logo.
LEON NEAL, AFP/Getty Images

Mozilla's flagship browser, Firefox, means red panda. Originally, Mozilla wanted to name the browser Firebird, but found that another open source project was using that name. Not wanting to upset anyone, they decided to go with Firefox, another name for the red panda. And in a true example of adorableness, in 2010 Mozilla adopted two baby red pandas that had been born at Tennessee's Knoxville Zoo.

8. THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE PANDA—AND YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS WHICH ONE IT IS.

Engraving of a parti-colored bear.
Engraving of a parti-colored bear, from The New Natural History Volume II by Richard Lydekker, 1901.

After the red panda was discovered in the 1820s, it was just called the panda (the origin of the name is controversial, but it probably comes from the Nepali word ponya, meaning "bamboo or plant eating animal"). Forty years later, Europeans found a new animal in China and called it the Parti-Colored bear—because unlike polar bears, black bears, or brown bears it was multi-colored.

9. THERE HAS BEEN A 140-YEAR TAXONOMIC MIX-UP.

A red panda walking toward the camera.
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Prepare to be confused: In the late 19th century, scientists noticed that the parti-colored bear and the (red) panda were very similar. Their jaws were more like each other than they were like any other animal, they lived near each other, they both had false thumbs, and their diets were similar. The decision was made to officially consider the (red) panda as a type of bear.

By the early 20th century, that decision was reversed: Parti-colored bears were declared bears, and (red) pandas were classified as cousins of the raccoon.

Then, in the 1910s, it was decided that parti-colored bears weren't actually bears at all, but were actually large pandas, and also distant relatives of the raccoon. But because parti-colored bears weren't classed as bears anymore, they had to have a name change. They became giant pandas, while the one true panda was renamed the red or lesser panda (to quote a 1920 issue of Popular Science: "Zoologists reverently refer to this rare beast as the "giant panda." Its more popular cognomen is the 'bear-raccoon'").

10. BUT RED PANDAS ARE THEIR OWN THING.

Two red pandas touch noses.
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By the 1980s, genetic evidence indicated that giant pandas actually were a type of bear, and red pandas belonged in their own family, the Ailuridae. They might seem similar, but they're not related.

All of this means that if you're the type of person who rolls their eyes when someone calls a bison a buffalo, or a koala a bear, you need to stop calling the bear a panda and instead refer to it as a "parti-colored bear," the original English name (but if you wanted to call it the bear-raccoon, no one would stop you). Giant pandas are not pandas. There is only one true panda.

11. BUT THIS DOESN'T AFFECT KUNG FU PANDA 3.

Red panda with teeth bared.
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There's still a kung fu panda in the series: Shifu, a red panda.

12. THEY'RE ENDANGERED.

Red panda laying down and sticking his tongue out.
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According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. Habitat destruction increases the species' chances of extinction.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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There’s No Safe Amount of Time to Leave a Dog in a Hot Car
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We often think of dogs as indomitable and durable animals who can fend off attackers, tirelessly chase Frisbees, and even eat poop without digestive consequences.

It’s true that dogs generally have a solid constitution, but that shouldn’t lead you to believe they can endure one of the biggest mistakes a pet owner can make: Leaving them in a hot car, even for a few minutes, puts a dog’s life at serious risk.

Even on relatively cool days with temperatures around 71.6°F, the inside of a vehicle can reach 116.6°F within an hour, as Quartz highlights.

If it’s a scorching summer heat wave, an 80-degree day will see temperatures get up to 99°F in just 10 minutes; a 90-degree day can turn the car into an oven at 119°F in the same amount of time.

Dogs can't tolerate this kind of heat. As their bodies struggle to cool down, the temperature is often more than they can expel through panting and opening capillaries in the skin. If their body reaches a temperature of 105.8°F, they're at risk of heatstroke, which only half of dogs survive. At 111.2°F, a lack of blood circulation can cause kidney failure and internal bleeding. Brain damage and death is very likely at this point. Depending on the outside temperature, it can happen in as little as six minutes. Cracking windows won't help.

Unless you plan on leaving your vehicle running with the air conditioning on (and we don't recommend that), there’s really no safe amount of time to leave a pet inside. If you do come back to find a listless dog who is unresponsive, it’s best to get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. And if you’re a bystander who sees a dog trapped inside a car, alert the nearest store to try and make an announcement to get the owner back to the vehicle. You can also phone local law enforcement or animal control. In some states, including California, you’re legally allowed to enter a vehicle to rescue a distressed animal.

[h/t Quartz]

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