24 December 2012

Season's Greetings

Christmas scene with a cat drinking milk and dog eating cookies
Merry Christmas!
Photo: Michael Pettigrew / Shutterstock

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

19 December 2012

Is Timing an Important Feature of the Sounds Dogs Make?

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, one which involved the normal sound followed by silence, and the other which involved the sound played in reverse followed by silence. If temporal features – aspects to do with timing – are important, the dogs would respond differently to the signals played forwards and backwards.

Headshot of a rottweiler showing its brown eyes, ears and mouth
Photo: Ammit Jack / Shutterstock

Eighteen pet dogs of various breeds took part. They were tested in a room at the University, with their owner present. A feeding bowl was set up with speakers on either side, and the dog’s favourite dry food was placed in the bowl. While the dog was feeding, the different sounds were played through the speakers. The dog’s reaction was observed as a head-turn to the right or left, or no direction. Each dog was tested several times, each period lasting up to 30 minutes, and returned to the lab for additional sessions, until each sound (forwards and backwards) had been tested seven times.

The results showed that when played the normal vocalizations, dogs responded by turning their head to the right (right ear leading). This is thought to mean that the left hemisphere is activated. When the play signal was reversed, dogs turned their heads to the left (left ear leading), which is thought to mean that the right hemisphere is activated. When the isolation and disturbance sounds were played backwards, there was no significant effect, although there was a tendency to turn the head to the left. 

These differences suggest that temporal features of the sounds dogs make are important, as has been found with primate signals (and of course with human speech). The authors suggest that when the play signal is reversed it is completely novel, and that the right hemisphere is responsible for processing novel things. The play signal is a cooperative one, whereas the noises made during isolation and disturbance are made even if the dog is alone. They speculate that this is why they did not get a turn to the right for disturbance and isolation sounds; because the play signal is the most co-operative, it is probably more fixed in its pattern.

This study shows that temporal features of canine vocalizations are important, and also that the left hemisphere is involved in understanding other dogs’ communications. This adds support to the idea that the canine brain has specialization of the hemispheres.

Do you find it easy to understand the vocalizations that your dog makes?

Siniscalchi M, Lusito R, Sasso R, & Quaranta A (2012). Are temporal features crucial acoustic cues in dog vocal recognition? Animal cognition, 15 (5), 815-21 PMID: 22544303

12 December 2012

How to Help a Fat Cat Lose Weight

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

Portrait of a beautiful but obese calico cat

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 should weigh about 4.5kg. Michel and Scherk adapt figures from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention that scale up cat weight gain to human dimensions.

For example, a cat that weighs 6.8kg – about 50% more than it should – is equivalent to a weight of 98.9kg (218lbs) for a 5’4” woman, or 115.2kg (254lbs) for a 5’9”man.

An obese cat looking at the camera

Apart from using accurate scales, you should also look at the shape of your cat. The waistline should be visible, as should a tummy-tuck, and you should be able to feel the cat’s ribs. 

So what should you do if your cat is overweight and obese? Portion control is obviously part of the solution.

A cat that is a little overweight should have a fixed amount of regular food, while very overweight and obese cats should be fed a special weight-loss diet to ensure they still get enough nutrients. Ask your vet for advice.

Many people use approximate measures for food, and an accurate cup measure, or weighing the food, would be better.

Keeping a food diary of everything the cat eats will help you stick to your plan. Remember to include products designed for dental health, as they also have calories.

Michel and Scherk say you can continue to give your cat treats, since it makes the cat happy, but should reduce the amount of kibble to take account of calories from treats.

To lose weight, a cat needs around 60-70% of the calories that it would need to maintain its weight. A substantial weight loss that does not reach normal weight will still have health benefits, so owners of very obese cats should not feel disheartened – they can still make a difference.  

"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."

The paper also points out other steps that have been found to make a difference to weight loss, such as feeding via devices that require the cat to do some work: food puzzle toys for cats.

There are several containers on the market with holes in, designed for just this purpose, or you could make your own using a plastic drink bottle.

Cardboard tubes – such as from toilet roll – can be fastened together, and food placed inside so the cat has to reach its paw in.

Another great suggestion is to put portions of the cat’s daily food on a small plate or in a cupcake case and hide it around the house, so the cat has to hunt for some of their food.

A beautiful Ragdoll cat playing with a toy
Engaging in play with your cat will help him or her maintain a healthy weight

These ideas count as environmental enrichment for the cat, and other enrichment activities will help to increase the cat’s exercise.

For example, playing an interactive game with your cat, such as getting it to chase a toy or laser light (they suggest always ending by putting the light on a toy, so the cat gets to catch something and doesn’t feel frustrated).

Cats can also be encouraged to use a treadmill, or taken for walks wearing a leash and harness.

There is some evidence that owners of overweight cats have a tendency to over-humanize them. This comes from a study of 120 cat owners by Kienzle and Bergler (2006) in Germany. This study looked at cats that were not free-roaming (i.e. indoors-only or with access to an enclosed balcony/garden). Normal weight was defined as a queen under 4kg or a tom under 5kg, and overweight as over 5kg or 6kg respectively.

Owners of overweight cats had a closer relationship with their cat, and were more likely to say the cat consoled and encouraged them. They were also more likely to say their cat was like a child to them. While both sets of owners talked to their cats, owners of overweight cats were more likely to talk to their cat, and to talk about topics relating to friends and family or work.

Owners of overweight cats were more likely to watch their cats eat, suggesting that food played a greater role in their relationship. Owners of normal-weight cats were more likely to play with their cat.

Michel and Scherk conclude that it is important to consider the cat caregiver when discussing a cat weight loss program.

They say,
“The value of encouraging alternative ‘strokes’ – things that make the person feel good about their interaction with the cat, such as play and a sense of pride in achieving weight loss goals – is not to be underestimated. Positive feedback, both from the veterinary team (the outside environment) as well as self-generated by the client, is vital to the success of a weight loss program.”

Their excellent paper is aimed at vets, but it contains many ideas to help the average pet-owner. Speak to your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your cat's weight or diet, or if you need advice on how to help your cat lose weight.

Do you keep an eye on your cat’s weight? And, do you have any tips for feline weight loss?

Make sure you never miss a post. Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Kienzle E, & Bergler R (2006). Human-animal relationship of owners of normal and overweight cats. The Journal of nutrition, 136 (7 Suppl) PMID: 16772465
Michel K, & Scherk M (2012). From problem to success: feline weight loss programs that work. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 14 (5), 327-36 PMID: 22511475
Photos: Thy Le (top) and Tony Campbell (both Shutterstock.com).

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05 December 2012

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

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.

A labrador retriever with a rope toy in its mouth, looking at the camera
Labrador Retrievers were one of the breeds to take part in the study
Photo: Carolyn Brule / Shutterstock

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 which they were shown a pair of boxes and learned that they would receive any food that was in the box they chose. Then a screen was put up, and the experimenter pretended to be busy while an assistant placed items in the boxes.

When the screen was removed, the experimenter came to the table and called the dog over to watch. The experimenter lifted the lid of each box in turn and acted out the appropriate emotion. There were two boxes in each condition, so they acted either Happy and Neutral, or Happy and Disgust, depending on the condition. For the Happy and Disgust emotions, they also said the German word for nightingale in an appropriate tone of voice. This word had no meaning for the experiment, so only the tone of voice was relevant to the dogs.

The dogs were given a chance to choose a box, and then shown the contents. If it was sausage, they were allowed to eat it. Then the whole procedure was repeated. If the dogs showed a bias to a particular side (e.g. they always chose the box on the left), there was another warm-up session in which they were shown that either box might contain food.

The results showed that in the Happy-Neutral condition, the dogs chose the Happy box 52.1% of the time. In the Happy-Disgust condition, they chose the Happy box 54.9% of the time. In each case, this was significantly better than chance, suggesting that they were using the human expressions as a clue.

Some individual dogs performed exactly at chance levels. This was because they chose a side and stuck to it throughout the experiment, despite the warm-up session designed to show that the box on either side could contain food.

For some reason the Siberian Huskies performed better than the other dogs. Since the huskies were tested outside, they may have been able to use smell to distinguish between the boxes, especially since they were tested on a windy day. So a control condition was done with just Siberian Huskies, outside. This had the same procedure, i.e. one box contained sausage and the other contained either wood shavings or garlic, but the experimenter always had a neutral expression. In this case, where the dogs had no emotional expression to help them, they did not perform significantly better than chance. However, they also did not perform significantly better than in the earlier experiment.

These results suggest that dogs can distinguish human emotions, and use them to help identify which of two boxes contains food. However, the reason why the Siberian Huskies performed better than the other dogs is unexplained, which suggests that further research is needed before we can draw a definite conclusion. 

One thing missing from this research report is a consideration of what a social scientist would call the lived experience of the dog. What I mean is that a dog’s experience of observing human emotions may not show them to be a reliable indicator of whether or not something is tasty. Some dogs have a habit of finding things to eat that cause a look of disgust on their owner’s face, even though the dog likes it very much.

This is a fascinating piece of research despite the fact there are a few things to tease out.  I look forward to seeing the follow-up studies. 

What disgusting things does your dog like to eat? As always, feel free to leave any other comments you have about this research.

Buttelmann, D., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0560-4

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