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10 Elegant Facts About the Borzoi

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Is there any dog more luxurious than the borzoi? From the lavish homes of the Russian aristocracy to a spot onstage alongside rock 'n' roll royalty, borzois have been revered and admired for hundreds of years. Learn more about this dignified breed. 

1. RUSSIA PERFECTED THE BREED. 

While the dog's exact origins are up for debate, we do know that the breed standard was first officially recorded in Russia in 1650. Some believe the dog was crafted by the Russian aristocracy. According to that account, a Russian duke was looking for a fast hunting dog and ordered a collection of Arabian greyhounds. Although they met his speed requirements, the dogs were not suited for the cold weather and perished. He ordered a new batch and crossed them with Russian sheepdogs, which had thick coats to keep them warm during the unforgiving Russian winters. These new dogs were both fast and well equipped to deal with the snow. 

Others believe that the borzoi actually has a more complex lineage. Some breeds thought to be ancestors of the borzoi include the southern coursing hounds of the Tatars, the Owtcher, or Russian Sheepdog, and the bearhound, as well as other sighthounds.

2. THE BREED'S MONIKER WAS CHANGED.

Prior to 1936, Americans knew the dog as the Russian wolfhound. Their name was later changed to borzoi to match the rest of the international kennels. Borzoi literally means “swift” in Russian.

3. HUNTERS USED THEM TO LOCATE WOLVES.

Borzois might look fancy, but they were bred to hunt. During said hunts, the dogs were kept in large packs of a hundred or more. These large parties would hunt wolves, foxes, and hares. Borzois were expected to find and pin wolves, then wait for the hunter to catch up. Sometimes the wolf would be released so the hunt could continue in the future. This sport was very popular until the emancipation of Russia's serfs in 1861. Without their free labor, nobles could no longer afford their lavish outings. The breed almost died out as a result, but a few devoted fanciers kept the lineage going. 

4. THEY’RE HUGE.

Standing at over 32 inches from feet to shoulder, the borzoi is one of the tallest sighthound breeds in existence, second only to the Irish wolfhound. They can weigh about 120 pounds. 

5. THEY'RE CALLED SIGHTHOUNDS FOR A REASON. 

As the name “sighthound,” suggests, these dogs have an amazingly wide field of vision. They have almond shaped eyes that are frontally placed on the head, giving them a 270-degree field of sight. Compared to the human’s measly 180 degrees, that’s pretty impressive. Borzois also have what's known as a visual streak (a line of vision cells) across their retina. This feature is unique to sighthounds, retrievers, and other hunting dogs. This quality helps the dogs spot their prey from far away, even on wide plains. 

6. PUPPY HEADS NEED TIME TO MATURE. 

It takes about three years for a borzoi head to mature and reach its final shape. The head starts short, with a bent nose. By five weeks, the nose begins to straighten. Over the next few years, the head grows another 10 inches. 

7. THEY'RE GLAMOROUS. 

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The borzoi is a fairly rare breed today (they are the 93rd most popular dog in the country, according to the America Kennel Club), but they enjoyed a brief stint as a status symbol in the U.S. in the early 1900s. The unusual look of the borzoi fit perfectly with the decade's art deco aesthetic. Silent movies stars like Jean Harlow and Sarah Bernhardt could be seen mingling with the graceful, long-legged dogs. (They even graced the pages of Vogue and other fashion magazines.) But it wasn't just starlets palling around with these pooches: The Titanic's Captain EJ Smith had a borzoi that was given to his daughter by Benjamin Guggenheim. Luckily the dog wasn’t on the ship when it met its end. 

8. YOU SHOULD ASK ONE TO JOIN YOUR BAND. 

In 1971, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett took a break from vocals and let a borzoi sing a song. The tune was called “Mademoiselle Nobs” (previously known as “Seamus”). It was named after a dog named Nobs, who belonged to circus director Joseph Bouglione’s daughter, Madonna Bouglione. Nobs whined and yelped along to music with David Gilmour on the harmonica, Roger Waters on the guitar, and Richard Wright on the keys. 

9. THEY’RE PRONE TO BLOATING 

Borzois are slight dogs, and therefore can’t fit that much food in their stomachs at once. To avoid painful tummy aches or bloating, give your borzoi multiple small meals a day instead of one or two big meals. 

10. WATCH OUT FOR ESCAPE ATTEMPTS

Borzois are fast and independent dogs. They were bred to follow their nose, so it’s not unusual for one to run off when they catch a scent. To avoid losing your pup, keep them on a leash at all times, or confined to a fenced-in area. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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