Wednesday, 23 April 2014

What Is A Typical Animal Hoarder?

Sometimes we hear their cases on the news – dozens of sick and frightened dogs or cats removed from the home of an animal hoarder. But is there a typical profile, and how big is the problem?

A study by Calvo et al (2014) investigates 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain between 2002 and 2011. 

An abandoned dog looks through a wire fence
Photo: schankz / Shutterstock

Animal hoarding is not simply having large numbers of pets; it also involves a lack of care for those pets, such that they are sick, not receiving veterinary care and living in unhygienic conditions. The hoarder is usually in denial about the situation and still acquiring more animals. As well as any mental health issues, the person may also suffer physical health problems from a living situation littered with animal urine, faeces, and even dead pets. 

For the humane societies who take in the animals, it can be a difficult problem to deal with given the sudden intake of so many creatures in poor health. Calvo et al say, “Animals coming from cases of animal hoarding sometimes must be euthanized, due to their severely affected state. The remaining animals rescued in hoarding cases usually need a lot of veterinary care and exhibit difficult-to-solve behaviour problems. This means they will not turn easily or ever into an adoptable animal.”

Hoarding animals is an under-researched problem. It is not a psychiatric disorder in its own right, although it does appear under the general umbrella of hoarding disorders in the DSM-V. The authors of this paper say media reports present hoarders as devoted animal lovers or harmless eccentrics. The full scale of the problem is often not understood.

The study looked at all animal hoarding cases reported to a large Spanish humane society, the Asociación Nacional de Amigos de los Animales (ANAA). Most of the cases were in Madrid, although some were in other parts of the country and were referred to the ANAA by other humane societies. It is likely there were other cases in Spain during this time that went un-noticed or were not reported to ANAA.

Previous research has suggested that most hoarders are female. In this study, about half of the hoarders were male and half female. It seems that hoarding is a middle-aged or older person’s problem, with 63% of the hoarders aged over 65 and about another third in middle-age. As in previous studies, most of the hoarders lived alone, although three lived with someone else. All of them were said to have a bad or borderline financial situation.

Hoarders are typically unaware there is a problem, and this was the case for most of the people in this study too. Only 3 of the 24 cases admitted there was a problem with their living conditions, and only 1 agreed that the animal’s welfare was compromised. 

Although only 24 cases, a total of 1218 animals were involved, mostly dogs and cats. It was more common to hoard only dogs, but some hoarded only cats or both cats and dogs. Some hoarders were experiencing an increase in animals because they had not spayed or neutered them, and so accidental breeding was taking place. Some of the hoarders were deliberately acquiring more animals by seeking out strays or deliberate breeding.

The most common reasons for a complaint to be made to ANAA were ‘animals in need of medical care’, ‘malnourished or mistreated animals’, and ‘excessive number of animals’. The person making the complaint was typically a neighbour, but other humane societies also frequently reported problems.

The animals were in a sorry state, without proper access to food and water, and many of them were sick. Although previous research has found a tendency for dead animals, that was only true of 4 of the 24 cases.

It seems that in many cases, hoarding had already been going on for five years, suggesting there might be ways of developing earlier interventions. Hoarding is known as a difficult problem to solve, and 3 of the cases were ‘recidivist’ where people had started to hoard again after earlier intervention.

44% of the animal hoarders also showed signs of object hoarding, and this is similar to previous research.

The authors say, “Our study supports the idea that animal hoarding should be considered and recognized as a genuine form of animal abuse and incompetent pet ownership.” 

Another striking finding is that when animals were removed, no further assistance was provided to hoarders to help with any underlying psychiatric or medical problems. This could be one reason why some of the hoarders were recidivists. Further research is needed to see if other agencies (such as medical professionals and social services) could work with humane societies to design programs to prevent re-offending.

Is animal hoarding a problem in your community?

Reference
Calvo, P., Duarte, C., Bowen, J., Bulbena, A., & Fatjó, J. (2014). Characteristics of 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain Animal Welfare, 23 (2), 199-208 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.23.2.199

You might also like: Is having many cats an early sign of animal hoarding?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help At-Risk Boys?

If existing behavioural programs aren’t working, can therapeutic sessions with a dog help boys who have problems at school?

A sweet terrier sits on a chair next to her toy
Photo: criben / Shutterstock

A new paper by Abbey Schneider et al (2014) investigates the success of a program designed to help boys who are considered ‘at-risk’ – by matching them up with a specially trained dog and handler.

In Colorado, a group of elementary schools take part in a program called the Human Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC). It is designed to help girls and boys who have problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, or depression. These children are usually given an Individualized Education Plan to help them in school, and several behavioural support systems are also available. When these supports are not enough, children can be referred to HABIC.

The Animal Assisted Therapy program matches each child to a specific dog and handler, with whom they spend 10-12 sessions. The first is a meet-and-greet, and in this and subsequent sessions the child helps the handler teach new commands to the dog, learns how to give the dog commands it already knows, and also has unstructured time in which they can play with or cuddle the dog. The dog and handler are specially trained to work in the program, and the sessions are designed for each child with specific behavioural and emotional aims.

Dogs are great for a program like this because they are not judgmental, they are available to be petted and cuddled, the child can try out different pro-social behaviours with the dog, and the relationship does not rely on verbal skills. Within the framework of attachment theory, the child can develop a secure attachment with the dog (and the dog’s handler) that will enable them to feel safe and to develop emotionally and behaviourally.

Nine boys took part in this study. The researchers conducted a set of assessments before, during and after the animal-assisted therapy sessions. This included observations of the child and dog interacting that were designed to assess the emotional bond between them, the child’s self-reports about the relationship with the dog, teacher and parent assessments of the child’s behaviour, and data about the child’s absences from school and referrals to the principal for bad behaviour.

The researchers say the “results suggest that children are able to create more emotionally positive relationships with both animals and adults over the course of the intervention.”  In addition, although there was no change in being absent from school, there was a significant reduction in the number of times the boys were referred to the principal’s office for problem behaviour.

Interestingly, teachers did not rate the boys’ behaviour as better in the classroom. The researchers think it is possible their ratings were clouded by previous experiences with the boys. Independent classroom observations could be a useful addition to future evaluations.

A nice thing about this study is that in evaluating emotional attachment between the child and dog, observations were also made of the dog, such as the time spent in close proximity to the boy, and whether the dog’s mouth was open in a happy expression or closed, suggesting tension.

The researchers say one advantage of the scheme is that, while social skills can be taught, the desire to connect emotionally with others is harder to inspire. The dog provides encouragement to the child to connect with another being. It also seems that unstructured time is important for the development of the bond between them, and this is something that warrants future research.

This study is an important formal evaluation of an existing scheme. Without research like this, we would not know if such schemes work or how they could be improved. It is small-scale, and a larger evaluation that included girls as well as boys would be helpful. The results are very encouraging, and suggest that animal-assisted therapy can be beneficial for children with a range of behavioural problems.

The HABIC program is just one way in which animals can potentially help children. For example, work by Maggie O’Haire suggests that a classroom program with guinea pigs can help children with autism as well as their normal peers. This is a fascinating topic and we look forward to future work by these and other researchers in the field.

If you would like to know more about the study, the full paper is open-access (registration required).

Is there an animal-assisted therapy program in your community?

Reference
Schneider, A.A.,, Rosenberg, J., Baker, M., Melia, N., Granger, B., & Biringen, Z. (2014). Becoming relationally effective: High-risk boys in animal-assisted therapy Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 2 (1), 1-18

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four year old child?

A very cute BC pup bites a branch of a flowering tree
Photo: DragoNika / Shutterstock
Canine researchers have been investigating dogs’ cognitive abilities: whether they can solve puzzles, recognize our emotions, and so on. But are ordinary people aware of these findings, and do they have a realistic view of dogs? A paper by Tiffani Howell (Monash University) et al investigates owner’s beliefs about their dog’s intelligence.

The research, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, involved a web survey that was aimed at both dog owners and non-dog owners. However, because the overwhelming majority of answers came from people who did own dogs, the analysis was restricted to this group. Although respondents were perhaps not typical of the average dog owner – they were mostly female (90%) and educated at postsecondary level (63%) – they may be typical of people who take part in dog forums and discussion groups on the internet.

The questionnaire was completed by 565 dog owners, most of whom (73%) reported that they were knowledgeable about dogs. The largest group came from Australia, with the USA and UK also making up a sizeable number of participants. The questions asked about perceptions of canine intelligence and also about people’s relationship with their dog.

The results showed that owners think dogs have a range of cognitive abilities, including being able to recognize people’s emotions, and awareness of human attention. One interesting finding is that many of these fell into two categories – an instinctive ability and a learned ability. For example, people thought that dogs have an instinctive ability to be able to solve problems, and that they are also able to learn how to solve a problem. 

The researchers say, “the participants scored dogs very highly in terms of the possession of complex cognitive skills. Respondents generally seem to agree that dogs possess extensive social cognitive skills, many of which have been established experimentally.” At the same time, owners typically also believe dogs have abilities that have not yet been shown by researchers, such as deception. It would be interesting to know more about how people form their opinions about dogs.

In general, the results also showed that the closer the relationship someone has with their dog, the higher they rate the dog’s cognitive abilities. Similarly, people who said they knew more about dogs were more likely to give high ratings for canine intelligence (except for instinctive problem-solving, on which they gave lower ratings). 

And so just how intelligent do most people think their dog is? The average result was equivalent to a 3-5 year old child, with the next most common result being the same as a 1-2 year human baby. A few people said their dog was as clever as a human aged 16 years or older (do you think this was a tongue-in-cheek reply?). 

It’s important to gain a better understanding of what shapes people’s beliefs about their dogs. The researchers say, “It is possible that, in some cases, dog owners believe that dogs are cognitively capable of more than they actually are and misconstrue normal dog behavior as an attempt at ‘dominance’ or a stubborn lack of obedience. “ This is especially important, they say, given that behaviour is a common reason for dogs being given up to shelters or euthanized. 

I think many people who train their dogs experience a point at which they think the dog already ‘gets’ a command, when actually the dog doesn’t get it yet. This can be frustrating for both the dog (who doesn’t know what to do) and the owner (who thinks the dog is being wilfully disobedient). This research is a welcome step in gaining a better understanding of what owners believe about their dogs.  

So what do you think, how clever is your dog? And do you think some breeds are smarter than others?

Reference
Howell, T., Toukhsati, S., Conduit, R., & Bennett, P. (2013). The Perceptions of Dog Intelligence and Cognitive Skills (PoDIaCS) Survey Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (6), 418-424 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.05.005

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

How About that Doggy at the Hair Salon?

Can we speed up the process of re-homing shelter dogs by getting the dog out of the shelter and into the community?

Two JRTs play fetch on the lawn near daffodils in Spring
Photo: AdamEdwards / Shutterstock

Every year, many dogs find new homes through animal rescues and shelters, but some have a long wait and many are never re-homed.  What if there was a way to free up shelter space and encourage people who would not visit the shelter to adopt? A new paper by Heather Mohan-Gibbons et al (2014) assesses the success of a scheme in which dogs were moved to foster homes that had the job of finding a suitable new home for the dog.

The background to this research is the high rate of euthanasia of shelter dogs in the US (and other countries). Although there are no official national figures, Mohan-Gibbons et al report a range of estimates from previous research, including that only a quarter of such dogs are re-homed. So ways of increasing the adoption rate are urgently needed.

At the same time, many more people say they would consider adopting from a shelter or rescue than actually do.This suggests there is a lot of potential to persuade more people to adopt, rather than buy, a new dog.

The research took place at the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans (a pilot study) and at the Charleston Animal Society in South Carolina. In both cases, dogs were assigned to either a shelter group or a foster group based on their intake number to avoid bias. When dogs were in the foster group, then the foster homes could choose which dog they would foster. Although it is potentially a confound in the research to allow foster homes a choice instead of random assignation, it’s a sensible part of the plan since they need to pick a dog that will fit in with their family and pets.

The foster homes were called Adoption Ambassadors. As the authors explain, Adoption Ambassadors “were volunteers who cared for the dog in their home, found an adopter for the dog, and performed the adoption.“ They were trained by a coordinator and given supplies for the dog, including food, leash, crate etc. 

AAs used social media and asked friends and family to help find a home. The dogs wore an ‘adopt me’ vest in public, and the AAs had business cards to hand out to anyone who expressed an interest. It was important the AAs took the dogs to dog-friendly places where they would be seen by members of the public, and so they took dogs with them to places like parks, stores and the hair salon. 

The criteria for adoption were the same as for the dogs in the shelter. The person adopting the dog did not have to visit the shelter at all; the AAs were trained in how to carry out the adoption, which was usually done in a public place. 

The AA dogs were compared to the group of dogs that were re-homed in the shelter as usual. At both locations, fewer dogs in the AA group were returned than those adopted via the shelter.  The length of stay before adoption was longer for dogs in the AA group, but of course they spent this time in a home, rather than a shelter.

Whereas most people who adopted shelter dogs first found out about the dog by visiting the shelter, the range of sources for the AA dogs was much wider, including the internet, hearing about the dog from a friend, or seeing the dog out in public. This suggests that the program successfully reached people who might not have visited the shelter. Analysis of the location of adopter’s homes showed that in New Orleans, new AA homes were significantly further from the shelter than the other group. This was not the case in Charleston but different areas of the city were involved.

Another interesting finding is that 93% of people who adopted at the shelter made a decision in less than a few hours, compared to 78% for the AA group. Significantly more of the AA adopters took longer than a day to decide. This could be one reason why fewer dogs in this group were returned, but it could also be that since the dogs were living in a home, the foster parent could give a realistic description of what the dog is like.

There are always difficulties in conducting real life research, and some dogs initially assigned to one or other condition were not included in the final results for various reasons, including the dog becoming sick, the foster parent going away, or because they took part in a special ‘free adoption’ event at the shelter. Nevertheless the overall sample size was 84 dogs in the AA group and 64 in the shelter group, both with an average age of 0.8 years. 

The results of this study are very encouraging and suggest that more shelters should try a similar scheme. The authors say few resources are needed other than those for any foster scheme: some co-ordination from the shelter, ‘adopt me’ vests and business cards for the dogs. For more details of how the scheme worked, you can read the paper in PLoS One (open access). 
 
Do you think an Adoption Ambassador scheme would work in your community?

Reference
Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., Garrison, L., & Allison, M. (2014). Evaluation of a Novel Dog Adoption Program in Two US Communities PLoS ONE, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091959

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Animals, Pets and Vermin

What do animals mean to you and what role do they play in your life? These and related questions were recently asked of ordinary people by the Mass Observation Project in the UK, and the results, in a paper by Alison Sealey and Nickie Charles, are fascinating.

A mouse saunters by while a black-and-white cat sleeps
Photo: pjmorley / Shutterstock

Since 1937, the Mass Observation Project has been collecting information from ordinary people about life in Britain. Set up with the idea of creating “an anthropology of ourselves,” data collection continued until the early 50s when it stopped, and then resumed in the 1980s. Now, over 500 people are on the panel, and respond to open-ended questions three times a year. Researchers can commission questions, which is how this particular study came about. (If you live in the UK and are interested in Mass Observation, you can keep a one-day diary on Monday 12th May).

Sealey and Charles asked a number of questions about the role of animals in people’s everyday lives. 249 people replied and, while all responses were analyzed, the 103 responses that were sent in by email were analyzed electronically. Corpus linguistics is a type of analysis that looks at large text datasets and investigates things like which words tend to occur in close proximity to each other. 

Some people wrote extensive answers, and the corpus was almost 182,000 words. There were many participants who did some linguistic work around the labels that were used in the study, such as defining ‘animals’ as pets in some cases, or even as specific types of pets, as with one person who said, “My relationship with animals is better than it is with humans. I say animals, I suppose I mean cats really.”

Broad category labels, such as mammal and amphibian, were not used very often. Instead, people tended to refer to specific types of animal. For example, the word amphibian appeared just once in the corpus, but frog (in the singular or plural form) was used 30 times. Perhaps not surprisingly, dog(s) and cat(s) were the most commonly used words for types of animals. 

Insect lovers should know that the word insect appeared rarely. Although the researchers say one possibility is that insects have little impact on people, another explanation is that, for most people, the category ‘animal’ does not really include insects. Perhaps ‘insect’ is a category equivalent to ‘animal’. We are talking, of course, about people’s everyday knowledge constructs, not about official scientific nomenclature.

One aspect of the results that we found of particular interest relates to use of the words vermin and pets. Respondents were asked, “Do you consider any animals to be vermin?” Perhaps not surprisingly given the phrasing of the question, the word ‘consider’ often featured in people’s responses. Some people accepted the category of vermin. For example,

“I consider rats to be vermin as I hate everything about them!”

or, “I would consider some animals as vermin, particular rats, mice, cockroaches.”

Some responses were very specific, such as “The mice in the piano are vermin.” So they refer not to mice in general, but to a very particular set of mice. (We are feeling bad for the piano).

Other participants were less accepting of the term, or did not apply it in a global way, e.g. 

“I consider wild rats to be vermin, though tame rats are quite lovely.”

“I don’t consider most animals to be vermin as they are all just trying to survive”.

One of the interesting things about how people referred to pets is that they didn’t often use the word ‘own’. Instead they were much more likely to say ‘have’, e.g. “We have a pet cat and that’s about it.” Comments – sometimes negative – were often made about other people’s pets, and a look at the phrases that used the term ‘their pets’ reveals many comments that evaluate the human-animal bond. For example,

“It may give you an idea of how ridiculously fond some people get of their pets!”

“For some people their pets are their only friends”

“people abroad sometimes seem more reticent to take their pets to a vet.”

The study also looked at whether people were more likely to refer to particular types of animals in the plural or singular. For example ‘puppy’ and ‘kitten’ were more often singular, but ‘gerbils’ and ‘hamsters’ were more often plural. This may reflect people being more likely to have multiples of certain kinds of animals.

Some of the comments about the role of animals in people’s lives, particularly about them being in close relationships with people, were quite poignant. The responses show a range of experiences, from animals playing very little role (except as food), to being vitally important for companionship. It’s a useful reminder of the diversity of roles that animals play in our lives.

What do animals mean to you?

Reference
Sealey, A., & Charles, N. (2013). "What Do Animals Mean to You?": Naming and Relating to Nonhuman Animals Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 26 (4), 485-503 DOI: 10.2752/175303713X13795775535652

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Will Work for Hot Dog?

Do you ever wonder how dogs are rewarded for taking part in scientific research? In some studies dogs are allowed to act naturally, but in others they need to learn something such as how to operate an apparatus they haven’t seen before, or to observe people interacting. Either way, you can’t guarantee canine cooperation. This week we thought we’d take a look at how dogs are motivated during the course of the research itself.

Two German Shepherd Dogs take dog cookies from the oven
Photo: kitty / Shutterstock

Needless to say, food is a common denominator. Many studies use sausage or hot dog. For example, in Buttelmann and Tomasello’s (2012) research, dogs were given a piece of sausage if they successfully chose the box containing it, rather than one containing wood shavings or garlic, after a human had peeked into the box and made an appropriate facial response. Horowitz, Hecht and Dedrick (2013) used hot dog in their studies of pet dogs' sense of smell. Range, Huber and Heyes (2011) refer to “a small piece of sausage” as the reward in training dogs to open a box (and with up to 350 trials in the experiment proper, that’s potentially a lot of sausage). 

Other enticing food rewards are used too. Elgier et al (2009) writes that “As reinforcer, small pieces of dry liver of 3g were used. In order to control the odor, both containers were greased with abundant liver before the experience.” You can just imagine the dogs licking their lips, though they only received liver if they chose the correct one of two boxes by following a pointing gesture from their owner. Otherwise they were told “no” and shown that the liver was in the other box. 

Other studies use regular food, or a mix of kibble and treats. Burman et al (2011) used “two different types of food reward (standard food pellets and Frolic TM)”. They explain that “The dogs were familiar with both food types, receiving standard food pellets as their regular diet and being rewarded with Frolic during training.” 

In some cases, the researchers have made a note in the method section that they had to take account of food allergies. For example, in Feuerbacher and Wynne (2012) most of the dogs were given a piece of Natural Balance, but one dog was rewarded with a piece of potato. Although it may surprise some readers, this is fine: the thing that counts is whether or not the dog finds it rewarding. (If the dog didn’t like potato, then it would have been a problem).

Human preferences may also have to be taken into account, such as in Freidin et al (2013)’s study of dogs’ eavesdropping abilities. Sausage was used as a reward for the dogs, but they had to first observe an interaction between three people. Although sausage might have been acceptable to a human also, instead they used cornflakes, and hence, at the start of the study, plates were prepped with cornflakes (for the human) and pieces of sausage (for the dog).

Disappointingly, some studies refer only to “food” or “treats” without specifying exactly what, so we can’t draw up a table of the most preferred food item. What do you use when training your dog at home?

References
Burman, O., McGowan, R., Mendl, M., Norling, Y., Paul, E., Rehn, T., & Keeling, L. (2011). Using judgement bias to measure positive affective state in dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 160-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.04.001 
Buttelmann, D., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition, 16 (1), 137-145 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0560-4 
Elgier, A., Jakovcevic, A., Mustaca, A., & Bentosela, M. (2009). Learning and owner–stranger effects on interspecific communication in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Behavioural Processes, 81 (1), 44-49 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2008.12.023  
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2012). RELATIVE EFFICACY OF HUMAN SOCIAL INTERACTION AND FOOD AS REINFORCERS FOR DOMESTIC DOGS AND HAND-REARED WOLVES Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98 (1), 105-129 DOI: 10.1901/jeab.2012.98-105  
Freidin E, Putrino N, D'Orazio M, & Bentosela M (2013). Dogs' Eavesdropping from people's reactions in third party interactions. PloS one, 8 (11) PMID: 24236108  
Horowitz, A., Hecht, J., & Dedrick, A. (2013). Smelling more or less: Investigating the olfactory experience of the domestic dog Learning and Motivation, 44 (4), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.lmot.2013.02.002  
Range F, Huber L, & Heyes C (2011). Automatic imitation in dogs. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 278 (1703), 211-7 PMID: 20667875

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Enrichment and Play in Domestic Ferrets

Ferrets are popular pets because they are curious, playful and engaging. A new study by Sarah Talbot et al (Charles Stuart University, Australia) looks at play, behaviour problems and enrichment in domestic ferrets. Despite a reputation for aggression, it seems that ferrets rarely bite – and they love toys.

A domestic ferret walks across a piano keyboard
Photo: grynold / Shutterstock

According to the American Ferret Association, ferrets “are independent, yet enjoy being with people. Their mischievous and playful nature, retained well into old age, makes them entertaining companions.” It is estimated that there are 334 ferrets per 1000 households in the US, and many owners have multiple ferrets. According to the UK's National Ferret Census, most ferrets are kept as companion animals, but about 20% are both working and companion ferrets.

The study involved a questionnaire that was distributed via Australian vets that treat ferrets, the websites of ferret societies, and social media. About half of the 466 respondents live in Australia, and rest in other countries.  The vast majority (86%) had more than one ferret, with the maximum being six ferrets. Did you know the collective noun for ferrets is a business?

The good news is that play behaviours were much more common than problematic behaviours. Ferrets engage in a kind of play called the weasel war dance, and this was reported as happening frequently. Also, ferrets make a lovely chattering noise called dooking, and this was reported as occurring occasionally. Listen carefully to hear this ferret dooking in response to the sound of a squeaky ball.


And here is an example of the weasel war dance:


The most common frequency for repetitive behaviours and biting that hurts (or appears to hurt) was never. Most people said that biting something and dragging it and compulsive scratching only occurred rarely.

Owners seemed to know there could be different explanations for the same behaviour. For example, biting and dragging was thought by most respondents to be linked to play or social interaction, but some also said it could be aggression or fear. However, only 41% of owners thought that compulsive scratching is abnormal behaviour, and only 55% knew that repetitive behaviours such as pacing are abnormal. This suggests a need for more owner education on how to recognize abnormal behaviours in ferrets, and how to respond to them.

Most of the ferrets were de-sexed, and ferrets that were de-sexed engaged less in repetitive behaviour, although there was no effect on other behaviours. Weasel war dance was reported a little more frequently in male ferrets compared to female ferrets.

Play behaviours are a good sign from an animal welfare perspective. Dooking and weasel war dance were reported as happening more often when ferrets had more enrichment items. The authors say, “The increase in the incidence of play behaviours with a greater number of enrichment was expected as the enrichment items that we enquired about were all expected to elicit play. This increase most probably reflects the interaction of the ferrets with the objects (including biting and dragging the items around) rather than with people or other ferrets.”

The results also showed that a combination of more enrichment items and less time spent caged was linked to lower owner reports of biting that hurt (or looked like it hurt, e.g. if another ferret or other family pet was bitten).

Ferret behaviour was not affected by the size of cage or pen in which they lived, a finding that surprised the researchers. Normando and Gallo's (2011) study of rabbits, rodents and mustelids (including ferrets) found that stereotypies (such as pacing and gnawing) were less common in animals that had more time to roam. It may be that the ferrets in Talbot et al's study all had adequate housing. Given the method of recruitment and length of the questionnaire, it seems likely that only enthusiastic ferret owners would have participated. Most of the ferrets in this study had more than two hours a day of roaming time, and 11% of them were never confined.

The enrichment items in the study included squeaky balls, cardboard tubes, scratching posts, soft toys and bells. What are your ferret’s favourite toys?

Reference
Normando, S. and Gelli, D. (2011). Behavioral complaints and owners' satisfaction in rabbits, mustelids and rodents kept as pets Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 6, 337-342 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2011.01.005
Talbot, S., Freire, R., Wassens, S. (2014). Effect of captivity and management on behaviour of the domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 94-101 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.11.017
Links to the videos: Ferret dooking and dancing