30 January 2013

Homeless Cats in Canada

A report by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is depressing reading for cat lovers, and confirms what studies in other countries have shown: that the situation for homeless cats is even worse than for homeless dogs.

The CFHS surveyed organizations that are responsible for homeless cats, such as humane societies, SPCAs, rescues and municipal animal controls, as well as veterinarians. They also conducted a telephone survey of the general public.

They found that 37% of households in Canada have one or more cats, and estimate there are a total of 10.2 million owned cats. In fact, the number of households with cats has been increasing slightly, while the number of households with dogs has gone down a little. Of the cats that are owned, only 80% are spayed or neutered, and this is where things start to go downhill.

Although 25% of Canadians say they are most likely to adopt their next cat from a shelter or rescue, the most common source of a cat (36%) is essentially from an unwanted litter: acquiring a stray, or a cat from a friend or relative, a free cat (e.g. from an advert), or from their own cat’s litter. 

A white cat with a red collar sitting on a windowledge, looking at the garden

The study found that shelters are almost full.  58% of cats arriving at a shelter are strays, and 22% are owner-surrenders. The main reason people gave for surrendering cats or dogs was issues to do with accommodation (34%). This is similar to the finding of the ASPCA that one of the main reasons for people no longer having a cat or dog is due to housing issues. 
Unfortunately 63% of stray cats arriving at a shelter have no identification, and less than 1% are re-united with their owners (compared to 46% of dogs with no id, and 30% re-united). Only 18.5% of cats surrendered by their owners are already spayed or neutered, and less than half a per-cent of the strays (although not all shelters recorded this information).

Adoptions were given as the best solution, but only 44% of cats arriving at shelters were adopted out; of these, almost half (46%) were kittens. A small number of cats were transferred to other shelters.
The hard fact is that on average 40% of cats entering Canadian shelters are euthanized, as are 14% of dogs. However, the CFHS thinks this is a conservative estimate since not all organizations answered the questions about euthanization. 

The most common reason for a cat to be euthanized is ill-health, either on intake or becoming ill at the shelter, followed by animal behaviour. Cats and kittens are also more likely than dogs or puppies to be euthanized because of a lack of space. 

78% of the organizations surveyed agreed that there is a problem of cat overpopulation. There was a general consensus that adoption was the best solution to this problem, and ‘humane education’ was also seen as important. Amongst shelters, rescues and TNR groups, Trap Neuter and Return was also seen as a successful approach. Veterinarians were less certain about TNR, but were likely to see subsidized spay/neuter clinics as part of the solution. This is good because it contradicts a perception that vets don’t support subsidized clinics, and suggests that vets and shelters could work together more.

The report says, “Shelters are at or near capacity to care for the cats that arrive at their doors. This is exacerbated by the fact that twice as many cats as dogs are being brought in for care. Extrapolating the data provided, it is projected that more than 600,000 homeless cats did not find homes in 2011.”   

These figures are worse than those found in Stavisky et al’s study of homeless pets in the UK, which found that 77% of cats were found homes and 13% were euthanized. The shelters in the UK reported a higher number of owner-surrenders (45%) than in Canada, and a slightly higher rate of re-uniting cats with their owners (1.4%). However, it is difficult to compare the figures directly since in both studies, there were some organizations that did not respond, so they may not show a complete picture.

The report ends with case studies of successful practice, including one from the BC SPCA’s Vancouver Branch. The case study shows how they set a new capacity limit based on adoption rate, and took other measures including setting up PURDA rooms (Post-Upper Respiratory Disease Adoption) and new intake and cleaning procedures.

The problem of cat overpopulation is multi-factorial. Although increasing adoptions was cited as the best solution, on its own it's clearly not enough to solve the problem. I think one of the biggest lessons is for shelters/animal controls, as the number of cats being euthanized is shocking. Since the main reason is illness, measures need to be taken to ensure fewer cats get sick. The fact so many shelters are at capacity may not be helping, and some locations may need to redefine their limit.
The report said many people get their cats from friends, family, as freebies, or take in a stray. Where did your cat come from?

Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (2012) Cats in Canada: A Comprehensive Report on the Cat Overpopulation Crisis. Available online at the CFHS http://cfhs.ca/athome/cat_overpopulation_crisis/.
AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Available online at www.americanhumane.org/aha-petsmart-retention-study-phase-1.pdf
Stavisky, J., Brennan, M., Downes, M., & Dean, R. (2012). Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK: results of a 2010 census BMC Veterinary Research, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1746-6148-8-163

23 January 2013

Does Experience Help People Recognize Emotion in Dogs?

In last week’s post about dogs’ responses to petting by familiar and unfamiliar people, we said dogs generally prefer to be petted in certain places, and people don’t always recognize the subtle signals that show when a dog is uncomfortable. This week, we’re looking at a study that investigates whether experience with dogs helps people to recognize canine emotions such as happiness and fear.

A happy border collie with snow on its fur
Photo: jadimages / Shutterstock
The internet survey was conducted by Michele Wan and colleagues at Columbia University, New York, and was completed by 2,163 participants. There were 16 short video clips of dogs, sometimes with people, in various situations. They were shown with no sound, so people could only use visual signals. Several different dog breeds and mixes were shown in the videos so that the results would not be due to specific dogs or breeds.

After each clip, participants were asked to say what emotion the dog was displaying, which body parts showed this, how difficult it was to tell, and how accurate they thought their answer was. The emotions they could choose from were happy, fearful, angry, sad and neutral.

In fact, amongst the sixteen videos there were nine that a group of experts in canine behaviour consistently rated as showing a fearful dog (4 videos) or a happy dog (5 videos). It is people’s opinions of these videos that are reported.

Participants were also asked about their previous dog ownership and experience. They were then categorized into groups. Those with low experience had never owned a dog and had little or no experience with them (7% of the participants). Owners had owned a dog at some point in their life (68% of the participants). The professional group had worked with dogs in a professional capacity for between one and nine years (14%) and the ‘professional 10+’ group had worked with dogs for over ten years (11% of participants).  Amongst the professionals, most worked in dog behaviour (e.g. training), but around 30% worked in some other capacity such as grooming.

When the dog was happy, participants had no difficulty in recognizing this, regardless of their level of experience. However, experienced participants were much more likely to recognize when a dog was fearful. These results still applied when the researchers took account of how likely people thought it was that a dog would experience happiness or fear (i.e. the experienced participants didn’t choose fear more often because they were more likely to think dogs could be fearful).

In addition, the results still held when they excluded people who had learnt about dog behaviour from books, lectures or classes – in other words, actual experience with dogs, rather than teaching about dogs, is enough to make a difference.

There were also differences in the parts of the dog that people referred to. In general, the experienced participants used more body parts in making their decision, and were more likely to pay attention to the ears. This applied to both happy and fearful dogs. For fearful dogs, all participants found aspects of the face such as eyes, ears, mouth/tongue most useful. In contrast, for happy dogs, the legs/paws and tail were most useful. 

Finally, people were more confident of their decision about the happy dogs, and said they were easier to understand than the fearful dogs. Not surprisingly, the Low Experience group felt less accurate and found the questions more difficult than other participants. 

These results are especially interesting since some previous studies found that experience with dogs had no effect. One advantage to this study is that the videos were consistently rated by experts as showing canine fear or happiness, so we can be confident the dogs were displaying those emotions. The results do concur with studies of human emotions, which show that differences in experience have an effect on emotion perception. It’s also the case that for humans, happiness is easier to recognize than fear. This suggests the human brain may process information about emotions in a similar way for people and other species. 

An important implication is that learning how to recognize a fearful dog could help in dog bite prevention. Fearful dogs are a particular risk for biting, and yet many people were unable to recognize fear in a dog.

So, how can you tell if a dog is fearful? Signs to look for include a low tail, ears back and flat to the head, a frozen posture, crouched body position, shaking and panting. See how can I tell if my dog is afraid for more information (and some photos to practice on). If your dog is afraid, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe

What canine features do you use to help you recognize doggy emotions?  

Wan M, Bolger N, & Champagne FA (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23284765

16 January 2013

Dogs’ Responses to Affection from Familiar and Unfamiliar People

When my Siberian husky wants affection, he will come and stand near me. If I don’t respond immediately, he will lick his lips and move closer, possibly leaning on me, until I respond. Sometimes when I start to pet him, he will lick his lips again, but if I take this as a sign that he’d like me to stop, he licks his lips even more and moves closer or paws at me to ask me to start petting again. At some point he will sit, and then lay down and ask for chest rubs. From his perspective, chest rubs should last at least half an hour, and if I stop at any point before this there will be more licking of lips and pawing at me.

I was interested to read a new paper by Franziska Kuhne and colleagues in Germany that investigates how dogs respond to petting from both familiar and unfamiliar people. Twenty-four pet dogs took part, of assorted ages, genders, breeds/cross-breeds and training levels. Since the experiment involved some actions that dogs might not like, they were pre-tested by a member of the research team to ensure they would not be aggressive; this person didn’t take any further part in the experiment.

Some of the dogs were tested by a person who was familiar to them as they had been seen whilst on walks with their owner. The other group of dogs were tested by the same person, but did not previously know her. The study took part in an office and dogs were given a treat at the beginning to encourage them to approach the experimenter.

A collie dog being patted by lots of children

In each case, the dog was tested with nine different human actions, each for a set time and with a gap in between. The behaviours were: petting on the shoulder, chest or neck, petting the dog whilst it was laying down and simultaneously holding it down, holding its front paw, petting on top of the head, scratching it close to the base of the tail, holding the dog’s collar, and holding one hand over the dog’s muzzle.

The sessions were videoed, and dogs’ responses to the different actions were analyzed. When the person was familiar to the dog, re-directed behaviours occurred more often than when the person was unfamiliar. They were especially likely to occur in response to holding the dog’s collar or covering its muzzle. Redirected behaviours include sniffing or licking the floor, digging, drinking, over-activity, visual scanning and playing with objects. Once the dogs began this kind of behaviour, it continued for longer in the familiar than the unfamiliar group.

There was also a significant difference in appeasement gestures, which include blinking, looking away, closing the eyes, licking the nose or lips, lifting a paw, turning the head or moving the body away, and laying down. Appeasement gestures were significantly more common in the familiar group. In addition, they lasted longer in response to some actions, namely petting on the head or shoulder, under the neck, having the collar held or laying down. 

Finally, panting (a sign of stress) was seen more often in the familiar group. There was no difference in terms of displacement activities, such as yawning, licking/scratching themselves, shaking, stretching and vocalizing.
The authors say these results show that dogs generally don’t like to be petted on the top of their head, on their paws, or on their hind legs, and that they prefer to be petted on the side of the chest or under the chin. They conclude that dogs may misunderstand some human behaviours since they mean something else during interactions between dogs. 

These dogs were pre-tested to ensure they weren’t aggressive, and so the results might not generalize to less friendly dogs. In particular, grabbing a dog by the collar or surrounding its muzzle with your hand may trigger a bite from some dogs.

This study raises a question that isn't addressed in the report. We could assume that actions dogs don’t like are more unpleasant coming from an unfamiliar, rather than familiar, person. In this case, we would expect to see some kinds of behaviours that happened more often in the unfamiliar group, and yet this isn’t the case with the body language measured. However, the authors do suggest the reason displacement activities were not observed could have been because of the mild restraint that was part of the petting.
It would be nice to have more detail of the body language that was observed, since the results are summarized as the category of behaviour (e.g. redirected) rather than individual behaviours. Presumably only some redirected behaviours were seen, since it is hard to imagine a dog digging in the office setting.  

The interaction was also unusual for dogs, since people don’t usually pet them for an exact period of time then stop, pause, and repeat with a new action. Future research could look at how dogs respond to affection in more natural situations.

The paper's main finding was that appeasing behaviours (such as licking the lips) and redirected behaviours (such as sniffing the ground) were more often observed with a familiar, rather than unfamiliar, person.

Next time you are petting your dog, observe its body language. How does it react? And if you stop, what happens then?

Kuhne, F., Hößler, J., & Struwe, R. (2012). Effects of human–dog familiarity on dogs’ behavioural responses to petting Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 142 (3-4), 176-181 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.10.003

09 January 2013

Perceptions of Stray and Feral Cats in New Zealand

Recently, we wrote about a study of public perceptions of feral cats in the US. That study gave participants a definition of what they meant by feral, but as one of our readers pointed out, whether we describe cats as feral or stray could have consequences for how people feel about them. We promised to return to the topic and so this week we look at a study in New Zealand by Mark Farnworth et al. They wanted to investigate how perceptions differ for stray and feral cats, and the measures that should be taken to deal with them.

The legal framework in New Zealand is different for stray and feral cats. Stray cats, that are lost or abandoned and rely on people for at least some help, should be taken to animal charities where they will be assessed and then rehomed or euthanized as appropriate. On the other hand feral cats, which are self-sustaining and do not rely on humans, are defined as pests and can be subject to lethal control.

People were recruited in downtown Auckland and in a small town on the North Island called Kaitaia. To get a random sample, every fourth person was approached on the street and asked to complete a questionnaire; just like taking part in market research, the participant was asked the questions but a researcher ticked the relevant boxes for them.

A cat on a post looking at horses in a field

The first part of the questionnaire asked about demographics. Then participants were given a definition of companion, stray and feral cats. For subsequent questions, they were asked to give an answer first for stray cats, and secondly for feral cats.

Most participants (55%) were not aware of New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act, which governs how cats are treated. The results showed significant differences for stray and feral cats. People were significantly more likely to support lethal control methods for feral cats than for stray cats. They were also significantly more likely to support non-lethal methods (such as Trap, Neuter and Release) for stray cats than for feral cats. 

Interestingly, this mirrors the way legal definitions of cats affect the control measures that can be taken. The authors suggest this is because of public discourse around the issues of biodiversity and conservation in New Zealand. Invasive species that have been introduced to New Zealand damage native species. Although Trap, Neuter and Release is seen as the best approach in other places, they say that people’s strong beliefs in conservation may make it less popular in New Zealand than lethal methods.  Re-homing was seen as the best method for dealing with stray cats, even though not all stray cats are suitable to be re-homed, and this might be because it removes them from the natural environment. 

Women were less likely to support lethal methods of control than men, and younger people were less likely to support them than older people (defined as over 40). Those who worked in an occupation to do with animals were more likely to see lethal control as acceptable. It may be that they worked in agriculture or conservation and this affected their views. 

Another interesting result from this study is that those who own cats are less likely to support lethal methods of control for stray cats, but this did not apply to feral cats. It seems that feral cats are seen as outsiders and not considered the same as stray and companion cats.

How do you think of stray and feral cats? Would you define them differently?
Farnworth, M., Campbell, J., & Adams, N. (2011). What's in a Name? Perceptions of Stray and Feral Cat Welfare and Control in Aotearoa, New Zealand Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 14 (1), 59-74 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2011.527604

02 January 2013

Will Grey Parrots Share?

A fascinating study by Franck Péron and colleagues looks at the question of whether or not grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) will share, with each other or with a human.

A grey parrot (psittacus erithacus) looking at the camera
Photo: Eric Isselee / Shutterstock

Two hand-reared parrots took part: Griffin, the dominant bird who is 14 years old, and Arthur, who is 11. The birds live in large individual cages in the same room as each other, and often take part in studies of parrot cognition. This means they were well placed to understand the task involved: choosing one of four coloured cups, each of which has a different meaning.

For the purposes of this study, the cups were as follows:-
Green cup – sharing. The bird and their partner both get a treat.
Pink cup – selfish. The bird gets a treat but the partner does not.
Orange cup – giving. The partner gets a treat, but they do not.
Violet cup – null. No one gets a treat.

The treats varied, including pieces of cashew nut and almonds, and sometimes small candies. In the first experiment, the cups were arranged on a tray without the birds seeing what went under them. Two humans performed a demonstration session, so the birds could see what the results of different cup choices were. Then the experiment began.

The tray was presented to the first bird, who had to make a choice, and treats were distributed accordingly. Then the second bird got to make a choice. In total, there were fifty sessions, in which each bird got to make ten choices. Griffin led in 24 of the sessions, and Arthur led in the other 26 (it was meant to be equal, but there was a mistake). 

The birds did not choose randomly, and nor did they co-operate by always choosing the sharing cup, which would have maximized the rewards for both of them. Griffin, the dominant bird, chose selfishly when he went first, but when he had the second choice he continued to sometimes share. Arthur became more selfish over the trials, whether he was leader or follower. And while Arthur was silent throughout, Griffin sometimes said ‘want nut’ or ‘nut’, or squeaked in a frustrated way, in response to his own or Arthur’s choices.

Of course, the parrots already had a relationship with each other which may have affected their choices. Perhaps Arthur became more selfish over time because, as the subordinate bird, it was unusual that he had a chance to do so without reprisal.

The second experiment was similar, except the birds were paired with several humans. One human was always selfish, one was always giving, and the other copied whatever the parrot had just done. In most cases, the birds had ten sessions of ten trials each (i.e. ten choices for the bird and ten for the following human), although there was some variability due to students’ schedules. The main difference was that for Arthur, towards the end, there was a three week hiatus in testing because of students’ exams.

As before, both birds avoided the giving and null cups. Griffin’s behaviour changed over the time of the trials. When the human was giving, Griffin began to share more over time. When the human was selfish, he became more selfish over time. With the copycat, it wasn’t clear that Griffin understood this, although there was a slight increase in sharing behaviour.

Arthur’s results were complicated by the three week gap in testing. He is a bird who doesn’t respond well to absences by people he is used to interacting with, and often greets them on their return by biting or shunning them. Prior to the gap, he was tending towards more sharing with the ‘giving’ human, but after the gap he reversed this behaviour. He also didn’t seem to like the copycat, and often chose the ‘null’ cup, which may have been his way of saying he had had enough.

These results show that Griffin seemed to understand the concept of sharing, since he tended to pick the ‘share’ cup more often with the ‘giving’ human (note that he wasn’t copying the human, because that would have involved picking the ‘giving’ cup). Both birds showed awareness of the value of the choices. Their choices changed over time and (at least to some extent) according to what their partner did.

One of the things I especially like about this study is that the parrots’ personalities shine through.

Do you have a bird at home, and if so what kind?

You might also like: Going for a song: the price of pet birds and reward-based training is for all our pets

Péron F, John M, Sapowicz S, Bovet D, & Pepperberg IM (2012). A study of sharing and reciprocity in grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Animal cognition PMID: 23065183

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