17 October 2018

A Short Petting Session Improves Wellbeing in Shelter Dogs

For shelter dogs, spending 15 minutes with a volunteer who will pet them when they want is beneficial according to both physiological and behavioural measures.

A 15 minute petting session is enough to help shelter dogs' well-being.
Photo: ESB Basic / Shutterstock

Dogs in shelters may be deprived of human company. Can a short petting session help them feel better? A study published earlier this year by Dr. Ragen McGowan et. al. and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science investigated the effects of petting from a stranger and found positive results.

The scientists set out to answer the question, “Does one 15-min petting session make a positive difference for shelter dogs?”

And the answer was yes.

The report concludes,
“As predicted, positive physiological and behavioral changes were evident in shelter dogs even after only a single 15-min petting session with an unfamiliar volunteer. A complete understanding of the human-animal bond from the dog’s perspective is still in its infancy, however this work contributes to the mounting evidence that humans play an important part in the emotional wellbeing of companion animals. As a result of this study it is clear that: “Yes, 15 min can make a difference” for many shelter dogs when that time includes close interaction with a person petting and speaking to them in a calm manner. “
55 shelter dogs took part in the study at a county animal shelter in Maryville, Missouri.

A handler took each dog individually to a small observation room where one of five volunteers – who had never been to the shelter before – was waiting to begin the 15 minute session. The volunteer either sat on a chair or on a blanket on the floor.

Whenever the dog approached the volunteer, they would pet the dog and speak nicely, taking into account the dog’s preferences e.g. if the dog seemed to be presenting particular areas to be petted.

The researchers took measures of salivary cortisol and heart rate, as well as coding the behaviours the dogs engaged in during sessions.

The dogs were divided into three groups based on the results. Highly engaged dogs spent more than three-quarters of the time interacting with the volunteer, moderately engaged dogs spent between half and three-quarters of the time, and indifferent dogs spent less than half the time engaged with the volunteer.

Comparing the end of the session to the beginning, dogs in all three groups had a reduced heart rate. As well, dogs that were highly or moderately engaged with the volunteer had an increase in heart rate variability.

Overall, the dogs spent less time soliciting contact from the volunteer and less time standing up at the end of the session compared to the beginning.

Salivary cortisol samples could only be taken from 32 of the dogs. Results showed no difference in levels before and after the session. However, since cortisol is a measure of arousal rather than stress, this is hard to interpret.

Overall, these results suggest the petting sessions were beneficial for the dogs.

Other research has also shown that shelter dogs like petting. The nice thing about the new study is that it shows just one 15-minute session with a volunteer the dog has never met before can make a difference.

Dogs were only selected for the study if they were healthy and known to be friendly. They had all been at the shelter for at least two weeks so they had had time to settle in.

It’s important to note the dogs were given a choice – if they did not approach the volunteer, they were not petted – and the volunteers were trained in how to pet the dogs.

While more research is needed, the finding that petting from someone the dog had never met before led to behavioural and physiological changes speaks to the value of contact with people for dogs’ emotional wellbeing.

Where does your dog prefer to be petted?

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. And subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to get the latest posts by email.

You might also like: How to pet cats and dogs and great photos are important to dog adoption.

McGowan, R. T., Bolte, C., Barnett, H. R., Perez-Camargo, G., & Martin, F. (2018). Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 203, 42-54.

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10 October 2018

Do Dogs and Cats Get Along? Ask the Cat!

Dogs and cats living together get along most of the time, but it’s the cat’s level of comfort with the dog that is the defining factor, according to research.

Dogs and cats living together are often friends, but it's the cat's comfort with the dog that matters most
Photo: Plastique/Shutterstock

With 94.2 million pet cats and 89.7 million pet dogs in the US, it’s inevitable that some dogs and cats live together. While we don’t know how many households have both a dog and a cat, scientists Jessica Thomson, Dr. Sophie Hall and Prof. Daniel Mills (University of Lincoln) recently published a questionnaire study of how well people think their dog and cat get along.

The results show that in general, dogs and cats living in the same house are friendly towards each other – but it’s the experience of the cat that is most important in mediating this relationship.

Early introduction of the cat to the dog (preferably before the cat is 1 year old) helped them to have a good relationship, whereas the age of the dog at first introduction was not important. (This is different to an earlier study that found early age of introduction for both cats and dogs was beneficial). 

In fact the most important factor in a good canine-feline relationship was the cat being comfortable in the dog’s presence.

It also helped if the dog was happy to share their bed with the cat, although cats were generally not willing to share their bed (perhaps because cat beds are typically not big enough to also accommodate a dog).

Cats generally would not share their food with the dog or take toys to show the dog, but if they did it was a sign of a good relationship.

Cats and dogs also got along better if the cat lived indoors, perhaps because they got to spend more time together and learn about each other. But it’s important to remember they should not be forced to interact; instead they should be able to choose whether or not to hang out together.

The relationship between dogs and cats was generally not described as close. For example, it was quite rare for them to groom each other.

The scientists say that because cats have not been domesticated for as long as dogs, it is likely harder for them to be comfortable around other animals. But they also point out that dogs can be a real risk for cats, as dogs may try to eat them, whereas cats are unlikely to cause serious harm to a dog.

Although aggression was most often reported from the cat towards the dog, it was likely because the cat felt threatened.

748 people completed the survey. 20.5% of cats and 7.3% of dogs were said to be uncomfortable in the other’s presence at least once a week. 64.9% of cats and 85.8% of dogs were said to be rarely or never uncomfortable in the other’s presence.

The study relied on owners’ reports of their dog’s and cat’s behaviour and did not make any independent observations – something for future research, especially as people are not always very good at recognizing signs of stress in their pets.

The results suggest that if your cat and dog are not friends, you should put extra effort into helping your cat feel comfortable around the dog.

If you have a dog and cat, how well do they get on with each other?

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. Visit my Amazon store for a list of all book club titles and other suggestions.

You might also like:
How to pet cats and dogs
The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens
How can I tell if my dog is afraid?

Number of pets in the United States.
Thomson, J. E., Hall, S. S., & Mills, D. S. (2018). Evaluation of the relationship between cats and dogs living in the same home. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 27, 35-40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.06.043

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07 October 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club October 2018

"An accessible and richly illustrated introduction to the natural history of dogs―from evolution, anatomy, cognition, and behavior to the relationship between dogs and humans"

The October 2018 choice for the Animal Book Club is The Dog: A Natural History

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for October 2018 is The Dog: A Natural History by Ádám Miklósi.

From the cover,
"As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris
The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs' evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans."

Will you be reading too? Let me know your thoughts on the book!

You can find a list of all the past and upcoming book club titles on my Animal Book Club Amazon store. And check back often as I will be adding lists of some of my favourite books and dog and cat toys over the next few weeks.

Also new this month: The Animal Books Facebook group is for anyone who wants to chat about books about animals,  share book reviews, news about new titles and interviews with authors, and tell us about your favourite animal books (old and new). All welcome.

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06 October 2018

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Tabby cat with pumpkins and walnuts

It is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and there is much to be grateful for.

I am thankful for such a wonderful community of people who want to learn more about companion animals. I am thankful to have met so many amazing people as a result of writing this blog. And I am thankful for every one of you who, in your own way, does something to make the world a better place for pets (and people).

Happy Thanksgiving!

The beautiful photo of a tabby cat with pumpkins and walnuts is by Nailia Schwarz/Shutterstock.

30 September 2018

Fellow Creatures: Another New Post

I have a new post at my Psychology Today blog, Fellow Creatures, about a pilot study that upturns some conventional wisdom on dogs.

Should you pet your dog before an absence? looks at a study that compared signs of stress when the dog is petted or ignored before an absence. (It's important to note the study is with dogs that do not have any separation-related issues).

A new post at Psychology Today looks at research on whether we should pet dogs, like this little dog on a sofa, before we go out
Photo: Pexels/Pixabay

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