Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Why Science Matters to Our Dogs and Cats

Science – and science blogging – can help animal welfare in important ways.

Science and science blogging can help animal welfare

We wish our companion animals to lead a charmed life and always be happy. We want our dogs and cats to have a wonderful relationship with us. But we can’t achieve this if we don’t know what they need and how we should interact with them.

Last year, some readers took part in a survey of who reads science blogs. The preliminary results are out, and it’s got me thinking about why science – and science blogging – matters for our companion animals.

One of the findings of Dr. Paige Jarreau's study is that in general (and regardless of level of education, gender, age and consumption of other online science info) people who consistently read science blogs were better able to answer the knowledge questions about science that were included in the survey (a few of you sent me comments on those at the time).

“This finding is a promising indicator that science blogs may be promoting greater scientific knowledge or science literacy – at least for some readers,” writes Dr. Jarreau.

I find this encouraging because there are many ways in which science (and social science) can improve animal welfare and our relationship with our companion animals.

In order to help our animals be happy, we need to understand their needs – and also how well their guardians understand those needs. For example, cats benefit from environmental enrichment. But although guardians are good at providing some of these (e.g. playtime, feline-friendly spaces like windows, and scratching posts), they miss other important aspects such as providing water separately from their food bowl, using scents, and – a surprising omission, since it’s easy to fix – the use of food toys that make the cat work for their food. Discovering gaps in people’s knowledge and communicating easy ways to make things better is one thing science blogs can do well. (If you’re a dog person, there are some tips on canine enrichment too).

Science is important for the welfare of our pet dogs and cats
Another example of how science matters comes from dog training. Because dog training is unlicensed, sometimes all the education a dog trainer has (apart from high school) is that they grew up with dogs. We wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids; we would expect them to get a qualification and experience. This lack of education partly explains the fact some people still use out-dated, antiquated training based on the metaphor of wolf packs applied to dogs. There are also many wonderful dog trainers with education and expertise; people need to choose carefully so as to get the right kind.

The problem is that using aversive dog training techniques has risks, and positive reinforcement is a better choice.  For example, dogs trained using negative reinforcement (e.g. teaching sit by pulling the leash and pushing the dog’s bottom down, only stopping when the dog sits) gaze less at their owner and are more likely to show signs of stress. Dogs taught recall using electronic shock collars show signs of stress and don’t perform any better than those taught with positive reinforcement. A higher frequency of punishment correlates with higher aggression and excitability. For dogs with behaviour problems, the use of aversive techniques can sometimes lead to aggression, while rewards-based training has a positive effect. People who use only positive reinforcement report better trained dogs. Plus, dogs like to work for rewards.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that using aversive methods can have unwanted consequences. We’ve known for some time that it’s not a good idea to use physical punishment with children. Just this month, a new study (Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) looking at 50 years of research found spanking children is linked to many detrimental outcomes. Prof. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor told UT News, “The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”

Dogs are not children, and the scientific literature on dogs and training methods is nowhere near as vast or sophisticated as that on children and parenting strategies, but there are some parallels.

One thing we know about people’s knowledge of dog training is that it often comes from themselves. Hopefully science blogging can help to increase awareness, as people read and share articles that promote positive reinforcement in dog training. Here, the bad news from Dr. Jarreau’s study is that many readers of science blogs do not share the articles they read. If we want people to pay attention to science-based dog training, we need to share information about it.

Another way science can help companion animals relates to work that shows how much pets can mean to people. For example, research shows that homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without but that having a pet on the street brings disadvantages too such as the problem of finding a shelter that will take pets. Knowing about the importance of pets and the difficulties their homeless owners face can lead to policy decisions that will ultimately help both pet and human.

The main reasons people gave for reading science blogs were “because it stimulates my curiosity”, “as an educational tool” and “for information I don’t find in traditional news media.” Dr. Jarreau also writes that, “there appears to be a small but avid cluster of science blog readers who read blogs to feel involved in an online community.”

One of the things I’ve gained from writing this blog is a sense of just how many people are passionate about science and committed to animal welfare. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful to all of my readers. I read all of your comments here and on twitter, facebook and email (subscribers just need to hit the reply button), and try to use them to make this blog even better. I'm very pleased that interest in science and our companion animals continues to grow.

Now go share some science stories. Let’s keep spreading the word!

Gershoff, E., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology DOI: 10.1037/fam0000191
For other references, please click the relevant links.
Photo: Christian Mueller (

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Enrichment Tips for Cats (That Many People Miss)

Cats have a moderately-enriched life, but people need more knowledge about their felines in order to do better, according to a new study.

Easy ideas for enrichment for cats

There are many ways we can improve our cats’ lives: toys that let the cat simulate stalking prey, social interaction with people, providing spaces high-up for cats to go. This is called environmental enrichment, and is especially important for indoor cats. A new study by Ana Margarida Alho et al (University of Lisbon) finds that although most cats do quite well, there are some things many people are missing. Here are some of the highlights.

Food toys: “Taking into account their low cost, the fact that they also can be homemade and free, the ease of assembly, and the inherent advantages promoting locomotion and decreasing inactive behaviour, we find it regrettable that such a small number of guardians use them,” say the scientists.

Only 5% used food toys such as balls, puzzle toys and hiding food. There are many types of food-dispensing toys on the market, some of which have adjustable difficulty levels so you can start off easy and make it harder once your cat has got the hang of it. It’s also very easy to make your own, as with these examples of interactive food toys, many of which involve cardboard tubes or yoghurt pots. Another option is simply to hide food for your cat to find.

Providing water separately from food: Cats prefer it if their source of water is not near their food, yet the study found most people provide them adjacent to each other. It’s a good idea to provide both still water and moving water (such as via a dripping tap or a specially-designed water dispenser). The researchers also say food and water bowls should be in a quiet location so the cat does not feel stressed while eating or drinking.

Litter boxes: The researchers say most owners did well here, but some were not aware of the need to put litter boxes in a quiet location, and to have one extra litter box (e.g. if you have two cats, you should have three boxes). Where some people didn’t do so well was in hygiene. Although most people scooped daily (65% of single-cat and 56% of multi-case houses), in a few households the litter tray was only scooped once a week or even once every two weeks. It’s better to scoop the litter tray twice a day, especially in a multi-cat household.

High places, hiding places, scratching places: Most cats did quite well here, although there was room for improvement. Cats like to have access to a window with an interesting view, and to have high-up places to sit and rest, as well as places they can hide. Cat trees, cardboard boxes, hammocks and shelves are all a good idea. As well, cats need horizontal and vertical places they can scratch, as this is a normal behaviour to them. Cats use scratching posts when they are provided and this can save the furniture.

Play, grooming and petting: Most people in the study played with their cat every day, and also had daily petting and grooming sessions. This is good because earlier research suggests that a daily playtime helps to reduce behaviour problems in cats.

Other enrichment strategies the scientists looked at included the use of scents (catnip, lavender and pheromones), television or video for cats, and rotating toys so the cat does not get bored of them. None of these were very common.

The study asked 130 cat guardians to complete a questionnaire. It was a convenience sample of people who brought their cat to a particular veterinary hospital, so may not be representative of the general population, but it usefully highlights many areas where people can make improvements.

The researchers conclude that the enrichment practices least likely to be used were those requiring either more effort on the part of the owner, or more knowledge about feline behaviour, suggesting that better education will go some way to improving feline enrichment.

How do you provide enrichment for your cats?

Alho, A., Pontes, J., & Pomba, C. (2016). Guardians' Knowledge and Husbandry Practices of Feline Environmental Enrichment Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 19 (2), 115-125 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1117976
Photo: Oksana Bystritskaya (
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Wednesday, 13 April 2016

How to Choose the Right Puppy in Four Easy Steps

The vital questions to ask before you get your puppy-dog.

How to choose the right puppy in four easy steps (#wheresmum)

You’ve decided it’s the right time to add a puppy to your life: you’ve got the time and energy and you can afford the bills (approximately $1,580 in the first year of a medium-size dog’s life, according to the ASPCA). And now it’s time to choose your puppy. But most guides to getting a puppy miss some vital questions. Read on to find out how to get it right.

Which breed?

This is the question most people focus on, and it’s true it’s an important one. You need to think about the energy requirements you want, because it’s no good getting a working dog if you really want a couch potato (and vice versa, of course). Even within a breed, like Labrador Retrievers, there can be differences between working lines (bred to have a job) and show lines that make easier pets. 

You also want a friendly dog (I assume). If you have children, or if you have visitors to the home, you’ll especially want to pay attention to this. The trouble is breed descriptions never say “unfriendly”; they are more careful with their choice of words. Terms like courageous, loyal, reserved, vigilant and aloof are not necessarily compatible with ‘loves everyone’. If friendliness is important, you would prefer to see words like friendly, amiable, affectionate, gentle, mellow, charming and happy in the breed description.

Grooming is another factor to consider, because some dogs are pretty easy to look after whereas others shed lots of hair and need regular brushing. With some breeds, like the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute, you won’t believe how much hair comes out when they are shedding. If you don’t want to do the grooming yourself, you’ll need to include regular visits to the doggie salon in your budget.

Having chosen a breed or mix, many people go straight to the internet to start looking. But there are three more things you need to consider, and the next one is the most important of all.

Where’s mum?

Always ask where's mum, says Bernese Mountain Dog puppy
Before agreeing to get a puppy, you need to see the mother and puppy together. The reason this is so important is because it is the one question most likely to help you avoid puppy mills. 

Did you know that many dogs are ‘farmed’ like industrial agriculture? Think something more like battery chickens, not free range hens. But you’re not going to eat your puppy, you want to spend many happy years with them – and a puppy mill background doesn’t just affect their welfare as puppies, it can have profound effects on their behaviour in the home.

Dogs from commercial breeding establishments, as puppy mills are officially known, may have health problems due to crowded conditions and poor biosecurity (Schumaker et al 2012), including gastrointestinal problems (Dupont et al 2013). 

Puppies from commercial breeding establishments are three times more likely to show aggression to their owner and two times more likely to show aggression to strangers than dogs obtained from responsible breeders (McMillan, 2013). This is probably due to a combination of prenatal stress (because the momma dog finds the environment stressful), stress during the early weeks (which may be spent in a cage with little contact with people), stress during transit and in a pet store, and lack of socialization. 

A greater risk of owner-directed aggression in dogs bought in pet stores was also found by Pirrone et al (2016).

Incidentally, dogs rescued from puppy mills as adults are also significantly more likely to have health problems and behavioural problems than matched dogs obtained from other sources (McMillan et al 2011). (This doesn’t mean they can’t become good pets, if you’re thinking of adopting one from a rescue; it means it takes patience, hard work, and behavioural rehabilitation – but can be very rewarding).

Another study found that when people don’t see the mother of a puppy, it is 2.5 times more likely to have behavioural problems as an adult dog than if the mother was seen (Westgarth et al 2012).

You should check that both mum and puppies look healthy. Ask if they have been wormed and had their first vaccinations. For further questions on health, this list from Dogs Trust is very helpful.
If you are given reasons why you can’t see the mother, it’s best to be skeptical. A good breeder will want you to see the puppies with mum, and will ask you lots of questions to check you are a good home; you will probably also have to wait for your puppy. 

What are you doing to begin socializing the puppy?

Socialization is vital for puppies. If you give a puppy lots of happy, positive experiences with new things and people, it helps them to be well-adjusted adult dogs. The socialization window closes between 12 – 14 weeks of age, and may be even earlier for some breeds, according to research by Mary Morrow et al (2015). Dr. Joy Pate (one of the study authors) explains that “development of a confident, emotionally competent animal depends not only on the new owner and trainer, but on the environment of the breeder.”

Therefore, although you will need to continue socialization once you bring the puppy home, it is essential that it begins at the home of the breeder. Young puppies should already be getting used to household sights and sounds – which can’t happen if they are in a cage at a puppy mill.

If you want an example of what a breeder can do, take a look at Connemara Terriers and their Polished Puppy program. If you are getting a puppy from a shelter, they should be in a foster home where they are getting some early socialization too. You might have to arrange a time for viewing of the puppies.

What happens if it doesn’t work out?

I know it’s unthinkable that something could go wrong, but sometimes it happens – and the answer to this question is another thing that separates a responsible breeder or rescue from somewhere that puts profit ahead of animal welfare. A good breeder or shelter will want you to sign a contract that says you have to return the puppy to them if for some reason you don’t want him or her any more. 

Assuming all goes well and you bring your puppy home, don’t forget to sign up for a good puppy class.

And finally… if you’re not sure about a puppy, have you considered an adult rescue dog? Puppies are a lot of work, and some people are much happier adopting a shelter dog, maybe even a senior, because you get the joy of saving a life and you already know what the dog is like. Most people who adopt rescue dogs find they live up to their expectations.   

Good luck in your search for a new family member!

If you like this post, please spread the word by sharing with friends and family.

Dupont, S., Butaye, P., Claerebout, E., Theuns, S., Duchateau, L., Van de Maele, I., & Daminet, S. (2013). Enteropathogens in pups from pet shops and breeding facilities Journal of Small Animal Practice, 54 (9), 475-480 DOI: 10.1111/jsap.12119  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006
McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359  
Morrow, M., Ottobre, J., Ottobre, A., Neville, P., St-Pierre, N., Dreschel, N., & Pate, J. (2015). Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10 (4), 286-294 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002  
Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Pastorino, G., & Albertini, M. (2016). Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 13-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.007  
Schumaker, B., Miller, M., Grosdidier, P., Cavender, J., Montgomery, D., Cornish, T., Farr, R., Driscoll, M., Maness, L., Gray, T., Petersen, D., Brown, W., Logan, J., & O'Toole, D. (2012). Canine distemper outbreak in pet store puppies linked to a high-volume dog breeder Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 24 (6), 1094-1098 DOI: 10.1177/1040638712460531  
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems Veterinary Record, 170 (20), 517-517 DOI: 10.1136/vr.100138

Photos: Liliya Kulianionak (top) and budur.foto (
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