26 February 2014

Enrichment and Play in Domestic Ferrets

Ferrets are popular pets because they are curious, playful and engaging. A new study by Sarah Talbot et al (Charles Stuart University, Australia) looks at play, behaviour problems and enrichment in domestic ferrets. Despite a reputation for aggression, it seems that ferrets rarely bite – and they love toys.

A domestic ferret walks across a piano keyboard
Photo: grynold / Shutterstock

According to the American Ferret Association, ferrets “are independent, yet enjoy being with people. Their mischievous and playful nature, retained well into old age, makes them entertaining companions.” It is estimated that there are 334 ferrets per 1000 households in the US, and many owners have multiple ferrets. According to the UK's National Ferret Census, most ferrets are kept as companion animals, but about 20% are both working and companion ferrets.

The study involved a questionnaire that was distributed via Australian vets that treat ferrets, the websites of ferret societies, and social media. About half of the 466 respondents live in Australia, and rest in other countries.  The vast majority (86%) had more than one ferret, with the maximum being six ferrets. Did you know the collective noun for ferrets is a business?

The good news is that play behaviours were much more common than problematic behaviours. Ferrets engage in a kind of play called the weasel war dance, and this was reported as happening frequently. Also, ferrets make a lovely chattering noise called dooking, and this was reported as occurring occasionally. Listen carefully to hear this ferret dooking in response to the sound of a squeaky ball.

And here is an example of the weasel war dance:

The most common frequency for repetitive behaviours and biting that hurts (or appears to hurt) was never. Most people said that biting something and dragging it and compulsive scratching only occurred rarely.

Owners seemed to know there could be different explanations for the same behaviour. For example, biting and dragging was thought by most respondents to be linked to play or social interaction, but some also said it could be aggression or fear. However, only 41% of owners thought that compulsive scratching is abnormal behaviour, and only 55% knew that repetitive behaviours such as pacing are abnormal. This suggests a need for more owner education on how to recognize abnormal behaviours in ferrets, and how to respond to them.

Most of the ferrets were de-sexed, and ferrets that were de-sexed engaged less in repetitive behaviour, although there was no effect on other behaviours. Weasel war dance was reported a little more frequently in male ferrets compared to female ferrets.

Play behaviours are a good sign from an animal welfare perspective. Dooking and weasel war dance were reported as happening more often when ferrets had more enrichment items. The authors say, “The increase in the incidence of play behaviours with a greater number of enrichment was expected as the enrichment items that we enquired about were all expected to elicit play. This increase most probably reflects the interaction of the ferrets with the objects (including biting and dragging the items around) rather than with people or other ferrets.”

The results also showed that a combination of more enrichment items and less time spent caged was linked to lower owner reports of biting that hurt (or looked like it hurt, e.g. if another ferret or other family pet was bitten).

Ferret behaviour was not affected by the size of cage or pen in which they lived, a finding that surprised the researchers. Normando and Gallo's (2011) study of rabbits, rodents and mustelids (including ferrets) found that stereotypies (such as pacing and gnawing) were less common in animals that had more time to roam. It may be that the ferrets in Talbot et al's study all had adequate housing. Given the method of recruitment and length of the questionnaire, it seems likely that only enthusiastic ferret owners would have participated. Most of the ferrets in this study had more than two hours a day of roaming time, and 11% of them were never confined.

The enrichment items in the study included squeaky balls, cardboard tubes, scratching posts, soft toys and bells. What are your ferret’s favourite toys?

Normando, S. and Gelli, D. (2011). Behavioral complaints and owners' satisfaction in rabbits, mustelids and rodents kept as pets Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 6, 337-342 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2011.01.005
Talbot, S., Freire, R., Wassens, S. (2014). Effect of captivity and management on behaviour of the domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 94-101 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.11.017
Links to the videos: Ferret dooking and dancing

19 February 2014

Food Enrichment for Cats

Cats are natural predators, so how can you satisfy a domestic cat’s hunting instinct? A new study investigates the use of food – specifically, sirloin – dangled on wires as a form of enrichment for a captive colony of cats. The results are useful for the average cat owner as well as for animal shelters.

A cute tabby kitten rolling on the floor playfully
Photo: Damien Richard / Shutterstock
The study by Juliana Damasceno and Gelson Genaro (University of São Paolo) took place at a captive cat colony in São Paolo, Brazil. The 35 cats that participated in the study had all lived as a captive colony for four years, in a caged outside enclosure. One of the experimenters was already very familiar to the cats since she had spent some years helping to take care of them.

Previous work has shown that food can be used as enrichment for cats, but there are individual differences in how cats interact with such items. One of the aims of this study was to look at those differences, and see if changes to the enrichment program would lead to more cats interacting with the items.

The enrichment item chosen for the study was sirloin. It was suspended on a wire so that it was off the ground but the cats could still reach it. It was provided for two-hour periods at different times of day to see if the cats had preferred times of day to investigate it. The scientists also looked at differences between having one and three suspended pieces of sirloin.

26 cats spent time interacting with the sirloin, while the other 9 did not. Cats interacted with it more in the mornings compared to afternoons. Cats tend to be more active in the mornings, and less active (or sleeping) during the afternoons, so this is as expected.

More cats interacted when there were three separate sirloin stations, compared to just one. This is not surprising since having more items meant that more than one cat could interact with an item at once.

It turned out that certain cats tended to monopolize the sirloin. It seems unlikely the other cats did not like sirloin, although it is possible. However it could be that they were not able to gain access when other cats were there. So the scientists tried another version of the experiment, and took away the eight cats that interacted with it the most. They found this meant other cats, that had not previously interacted, began to do so. This shows they were interested in the food, just not able to get access before.

Nobody expects the average cat owner to suspend meat from the ceiling for the benefit of their feline, but there are take-aways for pet owners. One is simply that food puzzle toys can be used as an enrichment item. Most people feed their cats at set times each day, which means the cat does not have to do anything to get food. There are many puzzle toys on the market, and it is also easy to make your own simple activities for cats. For example, putting wet food in cupcake holders and hiding it in the house for your cat to find, or constructing puzzles from used cardboard tubes in which you can hide treats.

The other message from this study is to make sure there are multiple enrichment items in multiple-cat households. The same would apply to shelter situations, in which cats are often housed in groups.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society for Feline Medicine (Ellis et al 2013) have some wonderful ideas about how to satisfy a cat’s environmental needs, available in full online here, with a nice client handout. Like Damasceno and Genaro (2014), they say it is important to have multiple locations for resources in households with multiple cats, and to think carefully about their placement. They say, “Providing multiple environmental resources that are out of view of other resource locations allows cats easy access and gives them a sense of control. Environmental resources include food, water, toileting areas (litterboxes or trays), rest and sleep areas, and elevated areas (perches).” 

What do you do to enrich your cat’s environment?

Damasceno, J. and Genaro, G. (2014) Dynamics of the access of captive domestic cats to a feed environmental enrichment item. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 67-74. 
Ellis, S.L.H., Rodan, I., Carney, H.C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L.D., Sundahl, E. & Westropp, J.L. (2013) AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15:219-230.

12 February 2014

Dog Training, Animal Welfare, and the Human-Canine Relationship

Dog training with positive reinforcement is better for animal welfare and our relationship with the dog.

A Parson Russell Terrier being trained with treats

Many people are concerned that aversive-based dog training methods can have side-effects. A new study by Stéphanie Deldalle and Florence Gaunet (in press in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior) observes dogs and their humans at training classes using either positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. The results support the idea that positive reinforcement is beneficial for the canine-human bond and better for animal welfare.

The scientists looked at on-leash walking and ‘sit’ in advanced training classes, where the dogs were already familiar with these behaviours. The dog training schools were selected from observations of beginner classes, to find one school that used positive reinforcement (R+) and one that used negative reinforcement (R-). Reinforcement is something that increases a behaviour and can be positive (adding something nice when the behaviour is performed) or negative (removing something aversive). 

In training ‘sit’ using R+, food was used to lure the dog into position and then given when the dog sat. For leash-walking, the dog was praised for walking near to the owner.

In contrast, owners who used R- for ‘sit’ simultaneously pulled the leash up and pushed the dog’s bottom down, removing this unpleasant stimulus when the dog sat. For leash walking, they tugged on the leash if the dog was not close to them, and stopped tugging when the dog was nearby.

The dogs in the study had already completed this training in a previous class. There were 26 dogs in the R- group, and 24 in the R+ group. The owners and trainers did not know the reason for the study. There were no differences between the groups in salient variables such as the proportion of small and large dogs, the owners’ experience with dogs, or owner and dog experience in obedience classes.

Previous surveys comparing training methods used by ordinary dog owners show an association between punishment-based methods and behaviour problems. For example, Casey et al (2013) found that owners who used methods based on positive punishment and negative reinforcement were more likely to report their dog was aggressive towards family members or strangers outside. Rooney and Cowan (2011) filmed dogs and owners interacting at home, and found owners who reported using punishment had dogs that were less playful and interacted less with the experimenter than those whose owners used positive reinforcement.

This study uses observations of the dog’s behaviour by an expert observer who stood next to the trainer and recorded owner and dog behaviour at specific times in the class.

There was a significant difference in gaze when walking on leash. Hardly any dogs in the R- group looked at their owners, while most of those in the R+ group did. There were no differences in posture.  

Beautiful border collie sits and waits for a reward
Photo: Ksenia Raykova; top, Godrick (both Shutterstock).

For the ‘sit’ command, significantly more dogs in the R- group showed mouth licking and yawning, behaviours that are typically linked to stress. The only two dogs in the R+ group to lick their mouths were about to be given food, so they may have been anticipating the reward. Significantly more dogs in the R- group had at least one stress-related behaviour. They were more likely to have a lowered body posture, also an indicator of stress. Dogs in the R+ group were significantly more likely to gaze at their owners.

There were no significant differences in avoidance (such as a step back or head turn away) between the two groups, although the dogs may have learnt that they could not freely express these behaviours whilst on leash.

The researchers say,
“in the group trained with the method based on negative reinforcement, a greater proportion of dogs displayed stress-related behaviors, low postures and avoidance behaviors (though no statistics could be computed for the latter behavior) during the sit command, and a smaller proportion of dogs gazed towards the owners during both exercises than in the group trained with the positive reinforcement-based method. The negative reinforcement-based method altered dogs’ behaviors.”

This is consistent with results from survey studies, but is the first time it has been confirmed by a trained observer at dog classes. This is an exploratory study with only one observer and two training schools, so more research is needed to see if the results generalize. Future studies can also investigate whether the same effect is found at other levels of dog training, and in the home.

It’s interesting there were no differences in stress response in on-leash walking but there were for ‘sit’. No verbal command was given for walking on leash, in contrast to ‘sit’. It is possible dogs have developed negative associations to the command itself, and this is why they showed signs of stress.

The increased gaze at the owner by dogs in the R+ group supports the scientists’ hypothesis that this method of training contributes to a better canine-human relationship. Dogs that gaze less at their owners might initiate fewer social interactions, or pay less attention to their owners and hence be harder to train in future. Gaze is important in interactions between humans and dogs. For example, previous work by the second author (Gaunet 2010) has shown that when dogs cannot reach an inaccessible toy, they gaze at their owner to get attention and then alternate gaze between the owner and the item. 

The findings do not demonstrate causality, but are a valuable step in our understanding of the effects of different training methods on dogs. The results support the idea that the use of negative reinforcement can have side-effects.

Dog training with positive reinforcement is better for animal welfare and our relationship with the dog (poster)

The study suggests two potential mechanisms by which this could occur. The first is that negative reinforcement can lead to a stress response, as found in dogs in the R- group to the verbal command ‘sit’. The second is that the dogs trained using negative reinforcement looked less at their owners. Mutual gaze is important in dog training and the human-canine relationship, and dogs that are not looking at their owners will not be paying attention to instructions. 

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Thinking about your own dog(s), do you think positive reinforcement benefits the human-canine bond?

Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2013). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003  
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of two training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog-owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004  
Gaunet, F. (2009). How do guide dogs and pet dogs (Canis familiaris) ask their owners for their toy and for playing? Animal Cognition, 13 (2), 311-323 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-009-0279-z  
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007
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05 February 2014

Is Caring for Animals Good for Young People's Social Development?

A new study finds that young people who have pets are more connected to their communities than those who don't.

A young woman playing with her dog in a park in Berlin
Photo: Jasmin Awad / Shutterstock

The study, by Megan Mueller (Tufts University), is published in the journal Applied Developmental Science. It is based on a survey of 567 young people in the US aged between 18 and 26, and was part of a wider longitudinal study called the 4-H study. 

The questionnaire asked whether or not participants owned an animal, how often they were responsible for its care if they did, and whether they were involved in other activities with animals. Other questions asked about their contribution to society, commitment to animals, morality about animals, attachment to and emotions about animals. The researchers also looked at what are called the 5Cs of positive youth development – competence, confidence, connection, character and caring.

The results showed a correlation between taking part in animal-related activities and higher scores on a scale called Contribution. This is a measure of how much young people contribute to their communities by helping friends and neighbours, being of service to their communities, and showing leadership. These questions also asked about the value youth place on contributing to society.

Amongst those young people who had a pet, those who were more responsible for its care were also significantly more likely to report contributing to society. Similarly, those who took part in an animal-related activity more often also had higher scores for Contribution.

Another finding is that feelings of emotional attachment to an animal were correlated to feeling connected to society, caring, and greater feelings of competence. This suggests that caring for animals may help youth develop the social skills needed to feel sympathy and empathy, for both animals and people. There could be several reasons for this. It could be that there are parallels in human-animal relationships and relationships between people, or it could be simply that having a pet increases interactions with other people. 

Mueller says, “Our findings suggest that it may not be whether an animal is present in an individual’s life that is most significant but rather the quality of that relationship. The young adults in the study who had strong attachments to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships.”

These results are a snapshot at one moment in time, and do not show causality. It is possible that only young people who are in a relatively positive situation are in a position to obtain and care for a pet.

Future research could take a longitudinal approach to investigating the relationship between human-animal interaction and youth development. The 4-H study was a national study that followed over 7000 young people from grade 5 through to after high school, but only the final survey asked about animal-related activities. 

This survey asked mostly about positive aspects of young people’s development, although it did also include a measure of depression, and of how well people self-regulate (for example, how they cope with set-backs). There was no relation between these and animal-related activities. Future research could include a different mix of both positive and negative traits. 

The results chime with other studies of younger people, such as Maggie O’Haire’s recent work on the benefits of animals in the classroom to children with and without special needs
What do you think are the benefits of pet ownership for young people?

Mueller, M.K. (2014). Is human-animal interaction (HAI) linked to positive youth development? Initial answers. Applied Developmental Science, 18 (1), 5-16 DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2014.864205

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