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Showing posts from 2012

Season's Greetings

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Seasons Greetings to you and all your furry and feathered friends.

These were our top stories of the year:

Social Referencing in Dogs

Now Where's My Treat?

How to Help a Fat Cat Lose Weight

Behavioural Problems in Rabbits, Rodents and Ferrets

Homeless Pets: A UK Survey


Is Timing an Important Feature of the Sounds Dogs Make?

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We recently looked at the amazing story of how two dogs had been taught to go into an fMRI scanner – the beginnings of canine neuroscience. Today’s blog is about a study that takes a different, less hi-tech, approach to understanding the canine brain. Siniscalchi et al were interested in how dogs process other dogs’ vocalizations, and whether they show lateralization of the hemispheres – in other words, whether the left half and right half of the dog’s brain have different functions.

To begin with they needed to record some canine vocalizations. They took four dogs (two mixed-breed, one Border Collie, and one Rhodesian Ridgeback) and recorded the sounds they made during a disturbance, isolation, and play. To get the disturbance recording, they had the dog in a car with its owner, and a stranger approach. For the isolation recording, they got the sound the dog made when left on its own. And finally, the play sound came from a play session with a human. 
They then made a set of stimuli,…

How to Help a Fat Cat Lose Weight

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If your cat is overweight or obese, there are some simple steps you can take to help your cat lose weight.



If you have any concerns about your cat's weight or diet, or simply want to know if your cat is a healthy weight, speak to your veterinarian.

Many cats are overweight or obese. A recent review by Kathryn Michel and Margie Scherk, published in the Journal of  Feline Medicine and Surgery, summarizes the problem and the steps that should be taken to help cats lose weight.

Their paper begins by discussing the serious health concerns caused by overweight and obesity: an obese cat is almost four times as likely to get diabetes as a normal-weight cat, and more likely to suffer from other problems such as urinary tract disease and lameness.

They point out that just ten extra pieces of kibble a day, over and above what the cat needs, will cause a 12% increase in weight over the course of a year.


Many owners are not very good at recognizing that their cats are overweight. A typical cat…

Can Dogs Use Human Emotional Expressions to Identify Which Box Contains Food?

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Dogs are very aware of human emotional states. An earlier blog post looked at how dogs respond to a crying stranger. This week’s post is about whether or not dogs can use human emotional cues to tell them which of two boxes contains a tasty treat.


The research was conducted by David Buttelmann and Michael Tomasello in Germany. They compared two sets of human emotional expressions: Happy vs Neutral; and Happy vs Disgust. They tested 58 domestic dogs (Siberian Huskies, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and German Shepherds). The Siberian Huskies were tested at the open air enclosure where they lived, and the other dogs were all tested in a room, mostly with the owner present.
The experimental set-up involved two cardboard boxes, each containing an item that acted as a clue to the experimenter as to which emotion they should display: sausage for the happy condition, wood shavings for the neutral condition, and garlic for disgust.
The dogs were given a warm-up in whi…

How Many People Use Electronic Shock Collars?

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Regular readers of this blog will know that we take a special interest in research on dog training. We were excited to read a new paper by Emily Blackwell that investigates how many owners use electronic collars on their dogs, and whether or not they think they work.


Electronic collars deliver a small electric shock as an aversive stimulus, with or without a preceding warning signal. It is useful to know how many people use them, since a recent British report on shock collars found they have the potential to cause harm if mis-used, and recommended controls on their use and design.

The study took place in the UK and dog owners were recruited via questionnaires distributed to people out walking their dogs, at agricultural shows, at vet surgeries and pet shops. The questionnaire was adapted from a previous study by Blackwell and colleagues. It asked detailed questions about people’s experience at owning and training dogs, about the training methods they used, and about any problem behav…

Music for Kenneled Dogs

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There are many studies on the effects of music, from what kind of music will make us spend more time and money in shops to the effects that learning to play an instrument has on our brains. Now, scientists at Colorado State University have turned their attention to what kind of music dogs might prefer to listen to in kennels.


The study, by Lori Kogan and colleagues, took place at a kennel that housed rescue dachshunds (generally long-term) and also boarded dogs while their owners were away. Being in kennels can be a stressful experience for dogs as they are kept in a small space with limited access to outdoors, and limited human and canine company. Kogan et al wanted to know if music would help to make the kennel environment less stressful.
They compared three different kinds of music: classical music (4 tracks), heavy metal (3 tracks), and some music that was specially designed to be relaxing for dogs (1 track). A period with no music was used as a control. The music was chosen as th…

Attitudes to Rescue Dogs in Australia

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Last week, we looked at a study which found that attitudes to cats predicted public preferences for Trap, Neuter and Release programmes, but knowledge about cats and experience with feral cats did not. But does knowledge and experience predict attitudes to rescue dogs?

A recent study by Kate Mornement and colleagues in Australia answers this question. In Australia, 36% of households have at least one pet dog, but as in other countries, a lot of dogs are in rescue and in need of homes. Understanding perceptions of rescue dogs is important as it can help in finding strategies to increase adoptions.

The internet survey had 1,622 participants and included sections on demographics, attitudes to getting a dog, and beliefs about animal shelters and how they operate. Details of the survey were distributed via social networking, and both dog-owners and non-dog owners were invited to take part. Since some large dog and rescue organizations shared links to the survey, the sample included a mix …

Public Opinions on Feral Cat Management

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What should be done about feral cats? A recent survey in Athens, Georgia, investigated people’s preferences for three different methods: catch and euthanize, trap neuter and release (TNR), and the establishment of a feral cat sanctuary. Opponents of catch and euthanize schemes argue that it is inhumane to kill cats, and simply creates a cat-free area into which new feral cats will move. Trap, neuter and release programmes involve catching the cats and neutering or spaying them before releasing them; the cats continue to live in the same place, but are unable to breed. The third option in the survey was to “capture and place feral cats in a sanctuary just for them”.

Athens was an interesting place for the study, since the issue of feral cats had been in the local news for some time. A new law was passed just prior to the survey, which effectively meant that TNR was the only option for dealing with feral cats. Previously, anyone who fed stray cats was deemed to be their owner.



People…

Social Referencing in Dogs

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When human infants see something they are unsure of, they look to their caregiver to see what their reaction is. This is called social referencing. It has two components: first of all, a look from the object to the caregiver; and second, a reaction to the object (approach or avoidance) that is influenced by the caregiver’s response. This is well established in infants at twelve months of age. Do dogs do the same thing?

Two recent papers by Merola and colleagues set out to investigate, using a method similar to infant studies. They needed a slightly-scary object; something that will make a dog feel cautious, but not so scary that it will turn and run away. They decided to use an electric fan with streamers attached. 
In the first paper, published in Animal Cognition, the owner brought their dog into the room with the fan. The fan was at the far end of the room, and as soon as the owner closed the door, the fan was turned on by remote control. The owner stopped at a specific mark on the…

Homeless Pets: A UK Survey

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The problem of pet overpopulation and homelessness is well known. Getting accurate figures for the number of homeless pets is a more difficult undertaking, since many organizations are responsible for stray and homeless animals. The results of a survey in the UK were recently published, and provide useful information about the scale of the problem, the wait times for animals to be accepted into rescue, and the likely outcome of their stay.

The survey was conducted by Jenny Stavisky and colleagues at the University of Nottingham. They sent a questionnaire to all the rescue organizations they could identify in the UK. They used a snowballing technique, asking each organization to suggest other groups that they should contact. They identified over 2300 contacts, and got an excellent response rate of close to 40%. In some cases, the head office of an organization provided some information, while other details came from the branches.

The results show that during 2010, the organizations in…

Behavioural problems in rabbits, rodents and ferrets

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Many people keep rabbits, rodents and ferrets as pets. A study published last year by Normando and Galli (Padua University) is the first to investigate the kind of behavioural problems they have and how it affects owners’ feelings of satisfaction with their animals.

Participants were recruited via an Italian rabbit forum, the University of Padua, and local veterinary clinics. The survey was completed by 193 people about a total of 371 pets. The pets included 184 rabbits, 59 mustelids (mainly ferrets, but also including two skunks), and 128 rodents (including guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, rats and other rodents). 

Most owners reported no problems, but 29% of rabbit owners, 53% of mustelid owners, and 20% of rodents had a behavioural problem. For rabbits, the most common problems were inappropriate toileting, destructiveness, and not being cuddly enough. The most common problem with ferrets was being aggressive, followed by house-soiling and disobedience. For rodents, the…

CAWC report on shock collars

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In September, the UK’s Companion Animal Welfare Council published a report on the scientific evidence on the use of shock collars in dog training. They use the term ‘electronic pulse training aids’ or EPTAs, because the collars do not necessarily induce a ‘shock’ but may sometimes be used only to induce a tickling sensation. I will use the everyday term here. The report included the use of collars as a training aid as well as invisible fences designed to administer an electric current if the dog crosses a boundary.

The independent review was chaired by Professor D.S. Mills, and looked at the scientific evidence, accepted submissions from interested parties, and undertook a small-scale survey of their use in the UK. The ten peer-reviewed studies discussed in the report looked at the use of shock collars for a surprisingly wide range of behaviours, including chasing, barking, and preventing acral lick dermatitis (‘hot spots’). The report discusses many problems with the literature. For …

Canine Neuroscience

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The main problem with the neuroscience of dogs is that they would have to be sedated to be in the scanner, and then their brain wouldn’t be doing its normal stuff. Until now.

A team of scientists led by Gregory Berns at Emory University has successfully trained two dogs to go into the fMRI scanner and keep still long enough for a brain scan. Prof Berns says he got the idea from realizing what military dogs are trained to do – if a dog can parachute out of a plane with its handler, he thought, then surely it could do an fMRI.
The dogs are Callie, a two-year-old feist (small hunting dog), and McKenzie, a three-year-old border collie. And while McKenzie does agility, Callie had only had basic obedience training, and is a rescue dog. (If anyone ever tries to say negative things about rescue dogs, tell them about Callie!).


The dog training was complex and took place over several months. A mock-up of the scanner was made for each dog, including a replica head coil, a tube of the same size a…

Getting a puppy? Ask to see both parents

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When you're getting a puppy, it's best to see both parents if possible, according to a new study.



When people get a puppy, a standard piece of advice from many dog welfare organizations is that you should always ask to see the mother. This week, I’m reporting on a new piece of research that investigates whether or not this is good advice.

The study, by Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool, UK, was designed to find out if there is a link between behavioural problems, the age of acquisition of a puppy, and whether or not the owner had viewed the mother and father of the puppy before they brought it home.

It has long been suggested that improper welfare of the mother causes behavioural problems in puppies, and that seeing the mother is one way to ensure that the puppy is being raised in an appropriate environment. (See here for research on the long-lasting effects of puppy mills on breeding dogs).

The study was designed carefully to ensure that other factors – such as …