Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Your Cat Would Like Food Puzzle Toys

Food puzzles will help satisfy your cat’s hunting instinct, but most cats are missing out.


A brown tabby cat plays with a food ball


A new paper on food puzzle toys for cats has plenty of ideas to get everyone started on these wonderful enrichment items. The research, led by Mikel Delgado (University of California, Berkeley; Feline Minds), combines a review of the scientific literature on food toys as feline enrichment with practical tips gained from the authors’ work as feline behaviour practitioners.

Food puzzles are toys that make your cat do some work to get the food out of them. Maybe they have to stick their paw in and pick pieces of food out, or maybe they roll it around with their nose or paw to make food fall out of the holes. There are many different types of food toys, some of which stay in one place and others that the cat has to move around.

“It's a great way to give your cat something to do to keep them busy and get them doing what a predator is supposed to do... Working for their food!!” Mikel Delgado told me. “It's great for their brains and body!

“A bonus is that it's really fun to watch your cat play with a food puzzle!”

Most cats miss out on food toys


A study of enrichment for cats found that only 5% of cats have food toys. An earlier study of how owners play with their cats found just 1% of cats have food toys, and only 0.5% of owners hide food for their cat to find.

If your cat is one of those missing out, read on to find out why these feline scientists say you should give food puzzles a try.

The benefits of food puzzle toys for cats


A ginger kitty on a red carpet dreams of food puzzle toys
Food puzzles make cats engage in part of their natural predation sequence – getting food. This has many benefits, according to the report, including encouraging cats to be more active, reducing stress levels, and making them be less demanding of their owners.

If your cat is overweight or obese, then food puzzle toys can help cats to lose weight. In some cases, introducing food puzzle toys has also helped to resolve litter tray indiscretions (N.B. If your cat is toileting outside their litter tray, they must see a vet to solve any medical issues first).

The report provides several case studies in which food puzzles have been all or part of the solution to feline behaviour problems.

For example, a 3 year old neutered male cat was biting his owners, sometimes without warning. This was considered due to frustration. Introducing a combination of food puzzles led to some immediate improvement. Six months later, the aggressive behaviour had completely stopped.

Food puzzles are also suitable for multi-cat homes, although each cat should have their own toy.

How to get started with food toys


We all know cats can be finicky. You should expect to try several types of food toys in order to find ones your cat loves. Note that’s plural – your aim is to find (or make) several different food puzzles for your cat.

Some cats that are used to having food freely available at all times may go on strike when they first find out they are now expected to work for their food. Not eating can be very dangerous for cats, so it’s important to make the toys accessible.

Early on, they have to be very easy. You can increase the difficulty later, once your cat has got the hang of it.

“Initially, obtaining food from the food puzzle needs to be as easy as obtaining food from the food bowl,” write the scientists. “This means that the cat should have to do very little work for food at first. The puzzle should be filled as much as possible, and should have several, large holes to allow food to fall out easily. The puzzle should roll with little manipulation. For stationary puzzles, cups or reservoirs should be overflowing.”

Mixing some treats in with the cat’s regular food at first may help them to be interested in it. For puzzles that move, you can roll it around to show them how it works, and it will also help to present it on a surface where it will move easily (rather than carpet as that will make it harder; your cat can build up to this if you like).

To begin with, you should still feed your cat some of their daily food in their bowl. Over time, once your cat has become adept at the food toy, you can reduce the amount in the bowl until they are working for all of their food.

Your cat really will like food puzzles


It seems that every cat can benefit from food toys and there are few, if any, downsides. A common reason they are not more widely used, according to the report, is that cat guardians think their cat will not be interested in them. Reassuringly, they say every cat they have worked with has learned to use food puzzles – even those with special needs. So why not give them a try?

Trouble-shooting problems


If your cat seems to be frustrated with the toy, you may need to make it easier for them. Remember that it should be overflowing with food at the beginning. If your cat is what the report calls a 'slow starter', you can hide a small portion of food somewhere for them to find. If it’s canned food, you can put a spoonful in a cup cake holder or on a little saucer to stop it from marking your furniture.

If your cat seems bored, you can always make the toy more difficult (making sure you don’t go too far and make it too difficult). Some toys are adjustable to different difficulty levels. You can also try new toys.

The paper also suggests filling a small food toy and putting it inside a larger one, which seems like a fiendish level of difficulty for expert cats.

If you have a dog, you will need to think of a way to keep the dog from eating the cat’s food. You could use a pet gate to keep the dog away, or feed the cats in a room the dog doesn’t have access to. You may already be doing this to keep the dog away from the cat’s food bowl anyway. And you can, of course, give your dog their own food enrichment toys.

Buy Food Puzzles or Make Them – It’s Your Choice


These days, there are lots of food puzzle toys on the market. It’s also very easy to make your own.

You can make a very simple toy by cutting a hole in a cardboard tube (e.g. from toilet roll), putting food inside and sealing both ends. Remember to make it a large hole at the beginning so that it’s easy for your cat. The report includes a photo of this and several other purchased and home-made food puzzles.

Two of the authors, Mikel Delgado and Ingrid Johnson, have a website that reviews food puzzles for cats. It has plenty of ideas for do-it-yourself toys too and is an excellent resource for anyone interested in providing more enrichment for their feline friend. I love this example that only requires a brown paper bag.





One of their reviews features a 15-year old toothless, arthritic, three-legged cat enjoying using a toy called the Dog Tornado by Nina Ottoson. Food puzzles are suitable for all cats.

The full paper is open access at the link below. It’s an interesting read and includes photos of food toys, including some DIY options, as well as lots of tips for introducing your cat to food puzzles.

Does your cat have food puzzles?

Reference
Dantas, L., Delgado, M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery DOI: 10.1177/1098612X16643753
Photo: Anna Morgan (Shutterstock.com)

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Behaviour Problems in Guide Dogs

The behavioural reasons why guide dogs sometimes end their working lives early, and what it means for pet dogs.


A Labrador Retriever curled up with a teddy toy


A study by Geoffrey Caron-Lormier (University of Nottingham) et al looks at twenty years of data from Guide Dogs (UK). During this time, 7,770 working guide dogs, who had worked with blind or partially sighted people, were withdrawn from service. By far the most common reason was retirement, which applied to 6,465 dogs (83%). The authors looked at the reasons why other dogs were withdrawn from working.

Most of the dogs are bred specifically to be guide dogs, although some came from breeders. The most common breeds are Labrador and Golden Retriever x Labrador. They go through a five-stage training process before being matched with a blind or partially sighted person when they are about 2 years old.

There were three main behavioural reasons why guide dogs were withdrawn from service: environmental anxiety, training issues (a lack of willingness to work or confidence), and fear and aggression. Other reasons included chasing, attentiveness, social behaviour, excitability and distraction. Dogs would only have been withdrawn if these problems were serious enough to stop them from working; whenever possible, training was used to try and solve the problem.

When dogs were withdrawn because of behaviour issues, it had a substantial impact on the length of their working life. The normal working life of a guide dog is 3097 days. The dogs withdrawn from service for behavioural reasons lost between 1,580 – 2,286 days of work.

There were differences in the age at which these problems typically appeared. Younger dogs were more likely to be withdrawn because of fear and aggression problems; half of the dogs withdrawn from service for this reason were under three and a half years old (i.e. with less than two years of work under their belt). Training issues (willingness to work) seemed to occur at an older age, with dogs typically just over six years old.


Behaviour problems in guide dogs and age
Reproduced frorm Caron-Lormier et al (2016) under Creative Commons Licence


The researchers say, “The results of the current study provide evidence for age-associated risks of developing behavioural problems serious enough to stop a guide dog from working. Moreover, they allude to their being different trajectories for developing different types of behavioural issues.”

A white Labrador Retriever relaxing
It’s interesting to think that different behaviour problems may develop at different ages in dogs. We actually know little about the development of such problems and so, even though this study is of guide dogs, the results may also help us understand something about pet dogs. Of course, guide dogs have had very specific upbringing and training, and only the best dogs make it into service, so behaviour problems are far less likely in this group than in pet dogs.

Fear and aggression and chasing were more of a problem in male dogs (all of the dogs were neutered/spayed since they were guide dogs). Of the breeds and crossbreeds, Labrador Retrievers were the least likely to be withdrawn from service due to a behavioural issue. Fear and aggression was most likely to be a problem for German Shepherd Dogs.

The authors say, “Based on these results Labradors were suggested to be more suitable to being a guide dog than German Shepherds.”

The study does not look at the reasons why behaviour problems developed. We know that dog attacks on guide dogs can have serious consequences, but there are likely many reasons why the dogs in this study developed problems.

The authors say that further research into the age of development of behaviour problems in dogs may help in designing interventions or programs to reduce the likelihood of dogs being surrendered to shelters.

If your dog has behaviour problems, seek help from an appropriately qualified professional.

Reference
Caron-Lormier, G., Harvey, N., England, G., & Asher, L. (2016). Using the incidence and impact of behavioural conditions in guide dogs to investigate patterns in undesirable behaviour in dogs Scientific Reports, 6 DOI: 10.1038/srep23860
Photos:  LauraVI  and Heroc (Shutterstock.com)

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Educating Children Reduces Risky Behaviour Around Dogs

Dog safety education for children works, according to a systematic review of existing research.


Two boys playing with malamute puppies and a football outside


The CDC estimates that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by a dog every year. Children are at high risk, and bites to children are often more severe than those to adults. Bites to the head and neck are more common than for adults because children are smaller.

The CDC says “Among children, the rate of dog-bite–related injuries is highest for those 5 to 9 years old. Children are more likely than adults to receive medical attention for dog bites.”   When young children are bitten by a dog, it is typically indoors and by a dog they know or live with, often when the child approaches a dog that is lying down or stationary.

The best ways to teach children about dogs are investigated in a systematic review of the literature by Jiabin Shen (University of Alabama at Birmingham) et al.

The review focussed on cognitive and behavioural interventions aimed at children (such as how to behave around dogs), rather than management interventions aimed at parents (such as close supervision of dogs and children).

Some of the interventions involved showing videos to children or using computer programs, while others involved a real dog for children to interact with. They took place in a variety of settings including the children's classroom, hospitals, and university laboratories.

“The results showed that interventions have a moderate effect on improving children’s safety knowledge around dogs,” write the authors, “and a relatively large effect on promoting safe interactions between children and dogs. Video-based interventions were most effective in the improvement of safety knowledge, while instruction with live dogs was most effective in increasing children’s safe behaviours with dogs.”

The behavioural measures differed from study to study, but included visits to emergency because of a dog bite, whether or not the child went to pat an unfamiliar dog, role plays, and acting out behaviour in a dolls house. Knowledge was also assessed differently in each study, but typically included yes/no questions about dog safety, often with pictures.

A little girl playing with water with a dog in the background
It’s interesting that effects on children’s behaviour were larger than those for children’s knowledge. This is a surprising finding; in the field of health promotion, it’s more common that people know they need to change but don’t actually change their behaviour. For example, people might know smoking is bad for them but not give up smoking.

Only some of the studies looked at behaviour changes, and the authors say these studies tended to be better designed, and potentially also had better interventions. But it could also be that it’s easier to teach young children appropriate behaviour around dogs rather than knowledge.

The authors reviewed studies of dog bite prevention and selected those that met certain quality criteria, including having a control group and being specifically focussed on dog bite prevention amongst 0 – 18 year olds. 12 papers were included in the final review, and 9 in the statistical meta-analysis.

The studies included in the review took place in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and one in China. The authors say programs developed in the West are still relevant to other countries to some extent, in that all children go through the same developmental stages. Therefore programs designed to teach age-appropriate knowledge will still be useful.

However, while the main risk in the West is pet dogs, in developing countries street dogs are the more common cause of bites. This is especially serious because of the risk of rabies. So adaptations to the programs to reflect the source of risk would be necessary.

Although the paper did not look at management interventions (such as fencing), the authors recognize these are also an important factor in preventing dog bites. In the case of (incredibly rare) fatal dog attacks there are often multiple preventable contributing factors, including the isolation, mismanagement and abuse of dogs.

The authors also highlight a problem with the “poor quality of evidence in this field.” They say this is a general problem in pediatric injury prevention. Other meta-analyses in the field of human-animal interaction have also highlighted problems with the quality of evidence,  including on dog walking behaviour and the use of animal-assisted therapy to help adolescents with psychiatric problems. As the field grows, hopefully we can look forward to more high quality research.

The good news is the interventions did improve children’s interactions with dogs. Earlier work has found parents would welcome more education on dog safety for children  This study shows that wider availability of education for children on how to behave around dogs would be a very good thing.

There’s some useful advice on preventing dog bites at stopthe77.com.

Reference
Shen, J., Rouse, J., Godbole, M., Wells, H., Boppana, S., & Schwebel, D. (2016). Systematic Review: Interventions to Educate Children About Dog Safety and Prevent Pediatric Dog-Bite Injuries: A Meta-Analytic Review Journal of Pediatric Psychology DOI: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsv164
Photo: Vasil Syniuk (top) and Grezova Olga (Shutterstock.com)