Wednesday, 27 June 2012

One Kitten or Two?

This is the time of year when many people get a kitten, and cat rescues are full with cats and kittens. Is it better to get one kitten or two? Here are seven reasons why it might be a good idea to get two.

Two cute fluffly kittens cuddling... one of seven reasons to get two kittens instead of one
Photo: biburcha / Shutterstock

1. It’s twice as much cute fluffy fun … if one kitten is adorable, then surely two is even more adorable? 

2. So they can play together. Kittens love to play. They have a wide variety of play behaviours: play with objects such as cat toys or shoe-laces, chasing, running, hiding, leaping, and even chasing their own (or  another cat’s) tail. Play behaviours peak at about four months old, and then tail off, but adult cats like to play too. There are several ideas about why play is important, such as practising hunting behaviours, developing motor skills, keeping fit, and learning about the environment and social bonds. As with other animals, play seems to be important in feline development. Having another kitten around will increase the opportunities for play, and they will continue to play together as adults. 

3. Kittens learn from each other. As young animals, kittens have a lot to learn, and they will be able to learn from watching the other kitten and copying their behaviour. 

4. Because cats are social creatures, but they need early experiences to learn about other cats. Cats that have grown up with feline company are more accepting of it when they are older. A cat that has always been an only cat is not so likely to be happy to get more feline company. If you think you would like another cat in the future, it makes sense to get two as kittens. In fact Sharon Crowell-Davis and her colleagues at the University of Georgia suggest that it’s better to adopt cats in small related groups of two or three.

5. So they can be properly socialized and learn feline communication and behaviours, such as how to greet another cat, how to show affection, or to ask another cat to play. This isn’t something we can teach them – they have to learn it from other cats. Interestingly, dogs can also learn how to greet a cat the way it likes, with a nose-to-nose greeting.


Two cute kittens playing... good reasons to get two kittens instead of just one


6. So they can just be cats. Having a second kitten around gives it the opportunity to do the things that being a cat involves – observing other cats, snuggling up together, grooming each other and so on. 

7. If they will be indoor cats. Indoor cats can easily get bored; the presence of another feline gives them something to do and counts as environmental enrichment. (You can read more about enrichment tips for cats and why your indoor cat likes windows).

Of course there are some drawbacks. The costs will be double, for food, cat litter, vaccinations and vet visits, and almost double for insurance (insurers will often give a small discount for a second animal). If the kittens are male and female, you have to remember to get them spayed/neutered in time, even if they are indoor cats, because cats become sexually mature between 5 and 8 months of age. Because of this, cats are usually spayed or neutered between 4-6 months, although it can be done earlier. 

Getting two kittens together means that they can play together, learn from each other, and keep each other company. In general terms, it seems like the answer to the question, “should I get one kitten, or two?” is two.

Do you have a multi-cat household?

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Reference
Crowell-Davis, S.L., T.M. Curtis, R.J. Knowles (2004) Social organization in the cat: A modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6, 19-28.
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Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Cats and Dogs

Research shows dogs and cats that live in the same house usually get along, but if helps if the cat is there first.

Cat and dog curled up sleeping together


Can cats and dogs ever get along? Isn’t there always a risk that the cat will become a furry snack, or the dog will get a scratch to the nose? Although we often talk about ‘cat people’ and ‘dog people’, in reality many of us are both, and want both as pets.

There’s some good news from a study by N. Feuerstein and Joseph Turkel, who looked at cats and dogs that live in the same home. They distributed a questionnaire to pet owners who had both cats and dogs, and also spent time in the house observing how the cat and dog interacted when in the same room. Where people had multiple cats or dogs, they chose the animal to observe at random, so they were just observing the interactions of one dog and one cat. They classified the behaviours on a six-point scale that included friendly, indifferent and aggressive behaviours.

In approximately 66% of the cases, the cats and dogs showed amicable behaviours towards the other animal. In about a further quarter, they were indifferent; they were aggressive in less than 10% of the cases. One important factor was the order in which the animals were acquired; dogs were more likely to be friendly to the cat if the cat had been adopted first.

Also important was the age at which they were introduced. They were more likely to have a friendly relationship if introduced at a young age, which for cats was less than six months, and for the dogs was less than a year old.

So if you are planning to get a cat and a dog, it makes sense to get the cat first. Of course, if you are adopting a dog from a rescue, you can find one that has already lived with cats, or at least has been tested to see if it is friendly towards cats.

One very nice finding from this study was that the cats and dogs often seemed to understand each other’s communication, even though there are differences in the signals they use. For example, a wagging tail is a sign of friendship from a dog, but of nervousness or impending aggression from a cat.

This did not stop them from getting along; the cats and dogs seemed to be able to read each other’s body language. The dogs had even learned a cat-friendly greeting. Cats often greet each other by sniffing noses, and the dogs in the study were observed to do this with cats. These nose-to-nose greetings occurred more frequently in the animals that had been introduced at a young age, suggesting that early exposure to the other species enables it to learn their communication signals. 

Does your cat get along with your dog? Have you seen them do a nose-to-nose greeting?

You might also like: Finding out if dogs like cats - or not.

Reference
Feuerstein, N., & Turkel, J. (2007). Interrelationships of dogs (Canis familiaris) and cats (Felis catus L.) living under the same roof Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 150-165 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.10.010
Photo: Jiri Vaclavek (Shutterstock.com)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Will a Dog Comfort a Crying Stranger?

A lovely study was just published by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of Goldsmiths College, London, who wanted to know if dogs show empathy for people. They wondered whether a dog would try to comfort someone who suddenly started to cry, and whether it made a difference if that person was their owner or a complete stranger.

Close up of a brown dog's face
Photo: Tatchaphol / Shutterstock.com

Eighteen medium-sized dogs took part. They were aged between 8 months and 12 years old, and were tested in their own homes, so that their behaviour wouldn’t be affected by strange surroundings. Interactions were video-taped so that the dogs’ behaviour could be rated later by several observers who did not know about the aims of the study.

The stranger and owner chatted in the living room, ignoring the dog completely. For short periods of time, the stranger pretended to cry, the owner pretended to cry, the stranger hummed ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in a staccato way, or the owner hummed. The body language was the same for the crying and the humming, and in between each display the owner and stranger sat and chatted for two minutes.

The reason for the humming was to provide a contrast to the crying; it was a novel and potentially interesting behaviour to the dog.  The time spent chatting provided a baseline for the dog’s behaviour, and during this time the dogs did not approach the people (who were, after all, ignoring the dog). The dogs paid more attention to people during the humming than the talking, but they paid significantly more attention to people when they were crying.  

If the crying had made the dogs feel sad, you would expect them to go to their owners to be comforted. However, that’s not what they did; the dogs directed their behaviour to the person who was crying, regardless of whether it was their owner or a complete stranger. Fifteen of the dogs actually approached the person who was crying, and almost all of them did so in a submissive way that could be seen as trying to comfort them. 

Does this mean that dogs show empathy? We can’t assume so on the basis of this study. It’s possible the dogs had already learnt, from prior experience, that if they approached someone who was crying they would be rewarded with affection or praise. It will be tricky to rule out that explanation, but it’s something that future studies can investigate. Humming was chosen as a novel behaviour that the dogs might be curious about, but it’s not an emotional display. It would be really interesting to compare how dogs respond to positive emotional displays, such as laughter. In any case, this study shows that dogs can distinguish between talking, humming and crying in humans. And a dog will go to a crying stranger, in a way that the stranger would likely interpret as an attempt to comfort them.

Does your dog comfort you if you are upset? What does it do?

Reference

Custance D, & Mayer J (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study. Animal cognition, 15 (5), 851-9 PMID: 22644113

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Another Reason Not to Buy Puppies From Puppy Mills

A puppy mill, or puppy farm, is a commercial breeding establishment that raises puppies for sale. Often the dogs are kept in very small enclosures and have limited interaction with people. Puppies from these sources often have health problems (because the parents haven’t been properly health-checked), and behavioural issues (because they haven’t been socialized to people, other dogs, or a home environment from an early age). In some cases, the conditions are squalid.

A recent survey by the Dogs Trust in the UK found that almost 95% of dog-owners said they would not consider getting a dog from a puppy mill. Unfortunately, when asked where they had acquired their dog, 15% of them said the internet, an advert in the paper, or a pet store – all likely places to find puppies from puppy mills. Inadvertently, these dog owners had been supporting a practise they did not approve of. The Dogs Trust calls puppy mills ‘battery farms for dogs’, and you can read more about their campaign against them here.

A sad puppy inside a rusty cage
Photo: SOMMAI (Shutterstock.com)

As well as affecting the health and welfare of the puppies, puppy farms are bad for the parent dogs. A study last year by Franklin McMillan is the first to look at the behaviour of dogs taken away from puppy farms and rehomed as pets. In the words of the authors, “this study provides the first quantitative evidence that the conditions prevailing in CBEs [commercial breeding establishments] are injurious to the mental health and welfare of dogs”.

The study asked owners of dogs that had been re-homed from puppy mills to complete a questionnaire about their dog’s behaviour. The questionnaire was the C-BARQ, a standardized questionnaire that is widely used to assess canine behaviour. On average, the dogs had been in their new homes for two years; 70% were female and the remainder were male stud dogs. Then, McMillan and colleagues matched these dogs with other dogs that were similar in age, breed, and gender, but had not come from puppy farms. This is important because it means that other factors that might affect behaviour have been controlled for, and a fair comparison can be drawn.

After controlling for these other factors, they were left with 332 dogs that were re-homed from puppy mills. The dogs were acquired at five years old, on average, and included 50 different breeds. They compared the C-BARQ results for these dogs to those of the comparison dogs.

The first thing to note is that the dogs from puppy farms were significantly more likely to have health problems, and significantly more likely to have behavioural problems. In particular, they were significantly more likely to show behaviours such as fear towards other dogs or strangers, compulsive behaviours, to urinate or defecate inappropriately, and to be sensitive to touch. In general terms, the dogs were showing signs of fear, long after they had been re-homed to their adoptive families.

The authors suggest three possible reasons for this. It could be due to the stress of living in a confined kennel for long periods of time; it could be due to lack of socialization during the first four months of their lives, a time that is known to be important for socializing puppies to dogs, people, and the kinds of things they will encounter during normal life. Another potential reason is stress of the mother affecting them during fetal development, since they are likely to have been born in similar (if not the same) puppy mill.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t adopt a dog that is being re-homed from a puppy mill? McMillan says this isn’t the case; with patience and behavioural therapy, many of the dogs were able to overcome their fears and make loving family pets. 

It is, however, another reason not to buy a puppy from a puppy mill; now we know that puppy mills are not just bad for the puppies, but also for their parents. Remember that potential owners don’t visit the puppy farm; instead they are attracted by internet or newspaper advertisements, or find the puppy in a pet store. So if you are looking for a puppy, do your research and find a good breeder, or adopt one from a good rescue.

What do you think? Do you support campaigns against puppy mills? Have you rehomed a dog that was previously used for breeding purposes at a commercial breeding establishment?

Reference
McMillan, F., Duffy, D.L., & Serpell, J.A. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135, 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006
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