Wednesday, 22 June 2016

How Many Cats Are Stressed at the Vet?

New research shows just how stressed cats are at the vet, but there’s a lot we can do to help.

A ginger moggie feeling stressed at the veterinarian

A recent study found 30% of dogs are very stressed in the waiting room at the vet, and it turns out things are even worse for cats.

It comes as no surprise to learn many cats are stressed by visits to the veterinarian. A new study by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al explores the scale of the problem, and has important suggestions for both cat guardians and vets on how to make things better.

The survey found some cats are so stressed the vet is not able to examine them properly. 789 of the 1,111 cats in the study were reported to have been aggressive to a vet at some point. 24% had bitten or scratched their guardian at the vet.

Many cats had areas that were off-limits for being touched by the vet, including the tummy, tail and genital area. Only 32% of the cats let the vet touch them anywhere.

When it came to vet procedures, cats were none too happy about these either. 34% would not tolerate injections, 32% objected to temperature taking, and 23% would not allow the taking of a blood sample.

Some cats were reported as being afraid of everyone in the waiting room (33%), whereas for 26% it was the dogs they were especially afraid of.

In fact, most owners reported cats were stressed at every stage: when entering the vet, while waiting, when moving to the consultation room, during the examination – and sometimes for some time after returning home. 78% of people thought their cat knew where they were going before they got there, and only 27% of the cats were said to be calm in the waiting room.

A cat being examined at the vet
Food can help animals to have a more positive experience at the vet. 869 of the cats in this study were offered food by the vet, but only 23% of them ate it. 47% of cats refused the food and 29% were reported to be suspicious of it.

The cats who were calm in the waiting room were significantly more likely to take the food, and cats who ate the food were more likely to be calm on the exam table as well as back at home.

This shows that food is an important part of the solution, but it’s essential to help cats feel relaxed enough to be able to eat it.

10% of the vets jumped straight into the examination without even stroking or talking to the cat first. A number of people had changed vet because they were unhappy about the abilities of the vet (28%) or the way the vet behaved with the cat (14%).

So what can be done to help cats at the vet? Dr. Mariti told me in an email, “My first advice would be for the vets: make sure you are protecting your patients' welfare. This is a duty of vets and it avoids the risk of losing clients (as mentioned in the paper).

“In addition, vets are those who prepare the clinic and can make it as much cat-friendly as possible, and those who advise cat/kitten owners. Vets behaviour is also relevant, the adoption of a "less is more" approach would be beneficial in most cases. So their role is crucial in the protection of cat welfare.

“To the owners, I would suggest to familiarize kittens with manipulations, in a gentle, gradual and progressive way, associating any handling with positive emotions and stimuli. Also positive associations with anything related with the travel, especially the carrier, can help; the appropriate use of pheromones may be beneficial, but I would stress the importance of avoiding the association of the carrier with the visit to a vet clinic. Some vets suggest the use of towels to gently "wrap" the cat in, it seems to calm the cat during the visit and to reduce the need of physical restraint.

“Owners should try going to the clinic with an appointment, in order to avoid long staying in the waiting room (usually the car is better). When getting to the clinic, they should avoid contact with other animals and, if unavoidable, they should put the carrier as high as possible (shelves, chairs), in order to give the cat the opportunity to feel a bit safer.

“Visits to the clinic as a kitten without any interventions, just to familiarize with the place and the vet, should be encouraged.”

Cat guardians completed the survey whilst in the waiting room of one of 20 veterinarians in Tuscany, Italy. The answers were about vet visits in general, rather than that specific visit. The cats were mostly moggies (75%), with equal numbers of males and females, and typically went to the vet once or twice a year.

For those who have trouble with vet visits, there are some useful resources on taking your cat to the vet.

Mariti, C., Bowen, J., Campa, S., Grebe, G., Sighieri, C., & Gazzano, A. (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Cats' Welfare and Behavior Regarding Visiting Veterinary Clinics Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2016.1173548
Photos: Magdalena Lieske (top) and bmf-photo-de (

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Train for Rewards Blog Party is now on

There is a fantastic set of posts by some brilliant bloggers in the Train for Rewards blog party. Check it out now!

Seven Reasons to Use Reward-Based Dog Training

It’s amazing what we can do when we use rewards to train our companion animals. Here are some reasons to give it a try.

A happy dog waiting for a reward

Positive reinforcement is recommended by professional organizations

Many professional organizations have spoken out against the use of punishment in dog training because the scientific evidence shows that it carries risks.

For example, Dogs Trust recommend the use of rewards in dog training. “In order to be effective and to gain the best results, all training should be based around positive rewards. Positive reward training works because if you reward your dog with something he wants as soon as he does what you ask, he is far more likely to do it again.”

In their advice on finding a dog trainer, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour says “AVSAB endorses training methods which allow animals to work for things (e.g., food, play, affection) that motivate them rather than techniques that focus on using fear or pain to punish them for undesirable behaviors. Look for a trainer who uses primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys, and play. Avoid any trainer who advocates methods of physical force that can harm your pet such as hanging dogs by their collars or hitting them with their hands, feet, or leashes."

Some organizations (such as the Pet Professional Guild and the APDT (UK)) and some dog training schools (such as the Academy for Dog TrainersKaren Pryor Academy and the Victoria Stilwell Academy) have a code of practice that requires their members to use kind, humane methods instead of aversive techniques.

People report better results with positive reinforcement

Several studies have found that people who use positive reinforcement to train their dogs report a better-behaved dog than those who use aversive techniques.

In a study by Blackwell et al (2008), the dogs of people who used only positive reinforcement training were less likely to have behaviour problems. They suggested this could be because dogs don’t associate punishment with their behaviour, but instead with the owner or the context, and hence may become fearful and anxious.

Another study (Hiby et al 2004) found if dog owners used punishment (whether or not they also used rewards) their dogs were more likely to have problem behaviours. People who only used reward-based methods reported more obedient dogs

These results apply to dogs of all sizes. In a study that compared small and large dogs (Arhant et al 2010), those whose owners used more punishment were reported to have more problems of aggression and excitability whatever their size. However this was most pronounced for little dogs (less than 20kg).

Of particular concern is the finding that people who use confrontational methods (such as prong, choke and shock collars or growling at the dog) sometimes report an aggressive response (Herron, Shofer and Reisner 2009). This was never reported in response to using rewards.

These studies relied on owner reports, but another study used an experimental design to compare positive reinforcement to shock collars. They looked at teaching recall in the presence of livestock and found that, contrary to popular belief, the shock collars did not lead to better trained dogs (Cooper et al 2014). And in fact, the dogs trained with shock showed signs of stress, which brings us to the next point.

Reward-based training is better for animal welfare 

Happy Afghan hound trained with rewards

The conclusion of Cooper et al’s study is that the “immediate effects of training with an e-collar give rise to behavioural signs of distress in pet dogs, particularly when used at high settings.”

Another study looked at the body language of dogs at two training schools where the dogs had already learned sit and loose-leash walking. One school used positive reinforcement while the other school used tugging the leash or pushing the dog’s bottom down until it did the required behaviour. Dogs previously trained with the aversive techniques showed more stress-related behaviours, such as a lowered body posture, and looked less at their owner compared to those trained with positive reinforcement (Deldalle and Gaunet 2014).

If you use reward-based training, you avoid the risk that aversive techniques will cause stress, anxiety or fear. This is better for both the dog and you.

“Ultimately, reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog, and, hence, safer for the owner,” say Herron, Shofer and Reisner (2009).

Positive reinforcement dog training is good enrichment 

Successful problem-solving, like learning a behaviour in exchange for a reward, makes dogs happy.

Research has shown dogs that work to earn a reward are happier than those that are just given a reward (McGowan et al 2014). The scientists called the dog learning s/he could earn a reward the “Eureka effect”.

Dr. Ragen McGowan told me “Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task... do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that dogs may also experience this 'Eureka Effect.' In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs.”

This study shows that giving your dog the opportunity to earn rewards is a good enrichment activity (another thing that's good for animal welfare).

Dogs get better at learning with rewards

Dogs that have previously been trained using positive reinforcement do better at learning a new task.

This was the finding of a study by Rooney and Cowan (2011) who took videos of owners and their dogs interacting at home. One of the tasks involved giving owners a ball and a bag of treats that they could use (or not) as they wished. The owners were asked to teach their dog to touch a spoon.

The dogs who learned the new task more quickly were the ones whose owners had used more rewards in earlier training.

The explanation? It’s probably down to a more motivated dog. Rooney and Cowan say “a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.”

It focusses on what your dog can do

Reward-based dog training is good for your dog
It makes sense to teach your dog what to do, rather than what not to do. It can get very frustrating if your dog keeps doing something you don’t like. It’s probably frustrating for your dog too.

For example, suppose your dog jumps up on you. They are probably trying to get close to you and wanting some fuss, which they don’t get if you push them away. However you can teach them that if they keep all four paws on the ground they will be rewarded with affection and a treat. Over time, they will learn to do this instead. It’s a win for you and the dog.

If you don’t actually teach them what to do, how can you expect them to learn it?

Reward-based dog training is fun 

Dog training should be fun for you and your dog. Using rewards to teach your dog what to do can be a fun game for you and your dog to enjoy together. As well as basic obedience behaviours like sit, down and stay, you can teach tricks such as shake hands, wave, say your prayers, sit pretty, or spin.

Don’t forget to reward yourself after a good training session – you’ve earned it, too!

What do you like best about using rewards to train your dog?

This post is part of the Train for Rewards Blog Party, hosted here at Companion Animal Psychology. Check out the other posts and find out how you can take part in #Train4Rewards.

Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123 (3-4), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3 (5), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
Cooper, J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training PLoS ONE, 9 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102722
Gaunet, F. (2009). How do guide dogs and pet dogs (Canis familiaris) ask their owners for their toy and for playing? Animal Cognition, 13 (2), 311-323 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-009-0279-z
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007