26 April 2012

The Effect of Recession on Companion Animals

Two studies show the effects of economic hardship on companion animals.

Photo: Miroslava Levina/Shutterstock

With the news yesterday that the UK is in a double-dip recession, and other world economies still struggling, the effect is likely to be felt by animals too. Over the last few years, there have been many reports in the media about animal rescue charities being inundated with cats and dogs due to the recession. These reports are illustrated with heart-breaking examples such as the sixteen year-old border collie surrendered to a rescue because her owner could no longer afford to look after her.

Although many rescues are bursting at the seams, actual data is hard to come by. Two recent studies address this by looking at the effect of the recession on animal relinquishment and adoption in the US.

A paper by Gregory Morris and Jennifer Steffler considered foreclosures and dog relinquishment in the Californian city of Turlock in 2008, which was the height of the foreclosure crisis. First, they tried to match the addresses of relinquished animals with the addresses of foreclosures, but this only found one match. However, they also looked at maps of neighbourhoods, comparing the rate of foreclosures in that neighbourhood with the level of dog relinquishments.

This spatial analysis painted a pattern in which neighbourhoods with higher levels of foreclosures also showed higher levels of dog relinquishments. Another finding is that dogs were less likely to be spayed/neutered in poorer areas; other studies have shown that dogs in rescue are more likely to be unaltered than the average pet, so in itself this is a risk for relinquishment.

Earlier this year, Hsin-Yi Weng and Lynette Hart published a paper comparing rates of animal relinquishment and adoption at a Chicago animal shelter in the years preceding and during the recession. They found that senior dogs were significantly more likely to be relinquished during the recession, and suggest this is probably due to the increased costs of caring for a senior dog.

They didn't find significant differences for younger dogs and puppies, or cats, but there was a significant difference in adoptions.

It seems that during times of economic hardship, people are less likely to adopt new animals. This puts extra pressure on the rescue system since it makes it harder for them to find new homes for the animals.

Economic hardship can have an impact on pets in many ways, from owners being unable to afford veterinary care for their animals, having to move house, or having to work extra part-time jobs which means they no longer have the time to spend with their pet. Little things like help with vet bills, having someone else to walk the dog from time to time, and greater availability of pet-friendly rental housing could really help people to keep their animals.

You might also like: Why do people relinquish large dogs?

Gregory D. Morris and Jennifer Steffler (2011) Was pet relinquishment linked to foreclosure? A spatial research note from California during the height of foreclosure. The Social Science Journal, 48, 739-745.
Hsin-Yi Weng and Lynette A. Hart (2012) Impact of the Economic Recession on Companion Animal Relinquishment, Adoption and Euthanasia: A Chicago Animal Shelter's Experience. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 15(1), 80-90.

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12 April 2012

The Dog Dominance Myth

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One of the things I often hear about dogs is that they are always trying to be dominant. It comes up in advice that is sometimes given about dog training. For example, that you should always eat before your dog, otherwise it will think that it is dominant; that you shouldn't let your dog walk in front of you, or go through a door ahead of you, or win a game of tug of war. It makes people's relationships with their dogs sound like a constant battle.

Fortunately it's not true. This idea of dominance comes from what I'll loosely call 'pack theory', and is based on studies of captive wolves. In a captive wolf pack, it seems that there are battles between wolves fairly frequently, and at the top is the 'alpha wolf', the one that is in control. Since dogs are evolved from wolves, a long long time ago, it was thought that this also applies to the domestic dog. However, captive wolves are not like a wolf pack in the wild; they have limited territory and resources, and are usually a group of unrelated wolves that has been put together by people. Their behaviour might not be the same as wild wolves - and in fact it's not.

The term 'alpha' was coined by Dave Mech (pronounced 'Meech') in 1970, when scientists only really knew about captive wolves. Since then, things have moved on, and as Dave Mech explains in this interesting video about the term alpha wolf, it isn't an accurate term for most wolf packs. Instead, scientists refer to the 'breeding pair', since they are the parents and got their position in the pack by breeding and having offspring.  If life as a wolf isn't a constant struggle to become the 'alpha', it doesn't seem likely that dogs would be like that either.

Another thing about the idea of dominance as applied to dogs is that it implies a constant, fixed feature of a relationship; that one dog is always the alpha. If you observe groups of dogs together, however, the dynamics of the relationship are more fluid; it's not usually the case that one dog is in charge all of the time. In a future post, I'll look at what we know about the dynamics of relationships in groups of feral dogs.

When dominance is used to explain doggy behaviours, there are often better explanations, such as impatience, wanting to get to meet another dog, or being rewarded for jumping on people. So it doesn't matter if the dog eats before its owner or goes through the doorway first. Of course, if you want to teach your dog to wait for people to go through a door first that's fine, because after all it's up to you to decide what is good manners, but it's not about establishing dominance.

Further reading: John Bradshaw (2011) In Defense of Dogs (UK). In the US, the title is Dog Sense: How The New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend To Your Pet. Allen Lane.

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