Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Reader Survey: Please Take Part!

Would you like to help with some research on who reads science blogs like this one?

I’ve teamed up with Science Borealis, Dr. Paige Jarreau (Louisiana State University) and 20 other Canadian science bloggers to conduct a broad survey of the readers of Canadian blogs. Together we are trying to find out who reads Canadian science blogs, where they come from, whether or not Canadian-specific content is important to them, and where they go for trustworthy, accurate science news and information.

Your feedback will also help me learn more about who reads Companion Animal Psychology. People from anywhere in the world can take part, whether you’re a regular reader or you’ve only read one or two posts.

It will take around 5 minutes, and the survey is here.

Participants will be entered to win one of 11 prizes (a $50 Chapters gift card, a $20 surprise gift card, 3 Science Borealis T-shirts and 6 surprise gifts). In addition, everyone who completes the survey will receive a free hi-resolution science photograph from Paige’s Photography.

The deadline is December 14th. Thank you in advance for your participation!

A cat and a puppy complete the survey of readers
Photo: Rita Kochmarjova (

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Education about Cats may Reduce Feline Behaviour Problems

Behavioural advice for people with a new kitten is linked to a better-behaved pet at 1 year old.

Behavior advice for new kitten owners leads to fewer feline problems

A new pet can be hard work, and if people don’t fully understand the needs of their animals, behaviour problems can result. A new study investigates whether education for owners at their first vet appointment is the answer. 

People with a new kitten (3 months old) were given 25 minutes of standardized advice on caring for cats. The study, by Angelo Gazzano et al (University of Pisa) compared the behaviour of these cats at just over 1 year old with that of a control group where no behavioural advice was given.

The authors say, “providing simple, relatively short advice at the very beginning of a kitten-owner relationship is not only important in pleasing the owners, protecting cat welfare, and [the] cat-owner relationship but also in offering a complete service to the owners.” 

The education was given by a vet behaviourist and took 25 minutes. It included advice on cat behaviour, such as the need to habituate kittens to social and non-social stimuli and provide environmental enrichment, as well as advice on how to train and manage a cat, including litter box issues and getting the cat used to being handled as in a vet consult.

91 cats took part in the study; 45 whose owners received the behavioural advice, and 46 cats in a control group. 

For the group given behavioural advice, only 2 owners consulted someone about a behaviour problem (one asked the breeder and another asked a veterinary behaviourist). In the control group, 21 cat owners asked for advice about their cat’s behaviour: of these, 43% asked their vet, 19% asked a vet behaviourist, and 10% consulted the internet or scientific literature.

This is reflected in people’s complaints about their cat. People in the no-advice group were much more likely to have at least one complaint about their cat’s behaviour (46%) compared to those in the advice group (4%).

One of the most striking differences is in how people fed their cat. In the no-advice group, 39% fed when the cat asked to be fed, 30% fed their cat twice a day and 30% fed three or more times a day. However, in the advice group, 71% of people fed three or more times a day, suggesting they had taken the vet behaviourist’s advice on board. (Domestic cats prefer several small meals a day - see International Cat Care). 

In the advice group, cats were more likely to only go on some furniture or just on the furniture they were allowed on. In the no-advice group, cats were more likely to climb curtains. There were no differences in scratching furniture. “Excessive vocalization” was more common in the no-advice group. 

The cats in the advice group were more tolerant of being touched. Although both groups of cats were sociable, the no-advice group were more likely to seek physical contact when the owner was on the bed or sofa. Cats in the behavioural advice group were more likely to greet the owner when they came home. Although there were no differences in kneading or licking, cats in the advice group were reported to rub more often on their owner, and to seek physical contact more often.

One potential confound is that cats in the behavioural advice group were more likely to be allowed outdoors. This could make a difference, because indoors-only cats are more likely to get bored and lack environmental enrichment, and hence may be more likely to have behaviour problems. It’s possible the behavioural advice prompted people to allow their cats time outdoors, especially since the study was in Italy where outdoor cats are common, but we don’t know.

It would be nice to know whether the behavioural advice prompted people to behave differently (aside from the feeding regime). For example, did it mean people were more likely to buy scratching posts, pay attention to provision of litter trays, and spend more time playing with their cat? Were they more understanding of any feline indiscretions? This would be a great topic for follow-up research.

These results are interesting and suggest that providing information to new cat owners is beneficial, which is good news for those who hope to improve animal welfare through education.

What advice do you wish you had been given before you got a cat?

*Full disclosure: one of my cats climbs the bedroom curtains. She is allowed.

Gazzano, A., Bianchi, L., Campa, S., & Mariti, C. (2015). The prevention of undesirable behaviors in cats: Effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists' advice given to kitten owners Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.042
Photo: Acon Cheng (

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Large Study Finds No Evidence for "Black Dog Syndrome"

A study of over 16,000 adoptable dogs finds black dogs don’t take longer to be adopted after all.

"Black Dog Syndrome" does not exist

Understanding what people look for in adoptable dogs can make a big difference to animal shelters. It makes sense to target promotions in order to stop dogs having lengthy stays. But you can only do this if you know what people want. 

The idea that black dogs wait longer for a new home than dogs of other colours has been around for a while. New research by Heather Svoboda and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) suggests it does not exist, at least at the two shelters they surveyed.

Christy Hoffman told me, “We did not find evidence of Black Dog Syndrome, but we did find that shelter outcomes tended to be worse for brindle dogs and, not surprisingly, bully breeds. A relatively recent paper by Brown et al. (2013) also concluded black dogs do not have worse than average shelter outcomes. I wonder if, perhaps, Black Dog Syndrome was never a problem, or if all the marketing efforts to promote black dogs have actually reversed the trend.

Black dogs did not take longer to be adopted at either of the two shelters taking part in this study. In fact, brindle dogs had a longer wait at both shelters, and multi-colour dogs also took longer at one of the shelters. Black dogs were not more likely to be euthanized. Age and breed group were more important than coat colour when it came to adoptability.

Even though all the dogs in the study were adults, the younger ones were still adopted more quickly. Females were adopted faster than males.

The bully breeds took longest to be adopted at both shelters, and were more likely to be euthanized or considered untreatable-unhealthy. This is in contrast to the earlier work by Brown et al which – while also finding no evidence for Black Dog Syndrome – did not find bully breeds waited longer for a new home. 

At both shelters Terriers and Toy breeds were adopted most quickly, but there were some differences in the relative popularity of other breeds.

Svoboda and Hoffman suggest shelters take a look at their own data to find out which dogs wait longest at their location. They can then devise targeted promotional strategies to help increase adoption rates and reduce euthanasia.

One of the great things about this study is the size of the dataset: 16,692 dogs over four years at two animal shelters in the Pacific NorthWest. Because puppies and young dogs are already known to be adopted faster, they focussed on dogs over 1 year old, and less than 13. Dogs that came in and were adopted out between 1st Jan 2009 and 31st December 2012, and for whom all the necessary data was available, were included in the study. 

The results are especially interesting given different intake policies. Shelter A, which houses over 100 dogs, has a managed intake policy, which means they decide which animals to take. About half their dogs come from other shelters and 30% are surrendered by their owner. Shelter B has space for 60 dogs, and is ‘open admission’ which means they take any animal. Owner surrenders and strays make up 60% of their intake, with most of the rest coming from other shelters.

The average length of time a dog was available for adoption at shelter A was 7 days, and 10 days at shelter B.

This study shows the importance of looking closely at adoption data, and the results will surprise many people.

What do you look for when adopting a dog? 

Brown, W., Davidson, J., & Zuefle, M. (2013). Effects of Phenotypic Characteristics on the Length of Stay of Dogs at Two No Kill Animal Shelters Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1), 2-18 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.740967  
Svoboda, H., & Hoffman, C. (2015). Investigating the role of coat colour, age, sex, and breed on outcomes for dogs at two animal shelters in the United States Animal Welfare, 24 (4), 497-506 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.24.4.497

Photo: Istvan Csak
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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Make Your Dog Happy: Reader's Photos

Recently readers were invited to send in photos of their happy dogs with the #makeyourdoghappy hashtag. These are my favourites. It was very hard to choose - thank you to everyone who sent photos and gave me permission to share them.

Rader the dog (make your dog happy)

Erin Beckett says “Radar LOVES force free training. He gets so excited for our training sessions.”

Trigger with a clicker (make your dog happy)

@Misa212 sent in this gorgeous photo of Trigger and her clicker.

Dudley peeking out of the bushes (make your dog happy)

Helen Verte says, "Dudley's only been trained force free and he's always ready to offer a behavior for something delish. Besides food, and chase-me games, belly rubs make him incredibly happy and content!"

Daks does a play bow (make your dog happy)

Gill Land says “Daks loves everyone and everything and knows how to have fun.

A happy JRT (make your dog happy)

Shelly Fourie says of Sasha, "My 3 year old Jack Russell waiting for her next treat."

Colin (make your dog happy)

William Henderson says, "Colin is a happy boy."

Make your dog happy series

@5_pups sent in this wonderful photo of Inez.

Make your dog happy series

Cindy Heisler says, "Limbo has only known positive reinforcement and it shows! He's a people-lover, dog-lover, trees, rocks, cars, water... etc etc. My goal every day is to get him to flash his smile."

It's been great to see all these pictures of dogs having fun! Please continue to share photos of your happy dogs on twitter with the hashtag #makeyourdoghappy, or post to our Facebook page.

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