30 April 2014

Feeding the Felines: Does Food Intake Change with the Seasons?

Do you ever feel like you want to eat more in the winter than in summer? It could be that your cat is the same.

Black and white cats in the garden in Spring
Photo: Nadezhda Nesterova / Shutterstock

New research by Samuel Serisier et al (2014) investigates how much cats choose to eat at different times of year. The results show seasonal variations in food intake in cats that were allowed free access to food.

The study took place over a four-year period in the South of France. 38 cats took part, including 7 Bengal cats, 6 European shorthairs, 5 Maine Coons and a range of other breeds. There were 17 male cats (almost all neutered) and 21 female (of which ten were spayed).   The cats were all healthy, although 16 of them were overweight at the start (and end) of the study. 

The cats were resident at the Royal Canin Research Centre. 8 of the cats were indoors-only, and the rest of the cats had an indoor pen with access to an outdoor run. They lived in colonies of 8 cats. There was a two-hour period each day when a caregiver initiated play with each group of cats, and the rest of their time was free for the cats to do as they wished.  

The living quarters received natural daylight, and during 7.30am-5.30pm a human would turn the lights on if, in their opinion, it was gloomy.

Over the four years, the cats were fed different foods, but the type of food did not change with the seasons. Basically, these are cats that test cat food, so at times they were given a choice of two different foods, and the rest of the time they were fed their regular food. The exact amount that each cat ate was monitored every day. The hours of daylight and the temperature were also recorded. Then some complicated statistics were performed on the data, including something called Artificial Neural Network modelling.

The results showed that cats ate the most in late autumn and winter (Oct – Feb) and the least in the summer (June to August). In the intervening months, they ate a middling amount. Despite the change in food intake, their weight did not change with the seasons, suggesting they were expending more energy in the winter. Although they may have needed energy to keep warm, the inside of their residence was always 18-24C. Future research could investigate the cats’ actual energy expenditure.

The researchers were not able to separate the effects of temperature and daylight length, since they correlated so closely together. It is not known if it is one or both of these that affected the cats’ eating habits.

Interestingly, although the overweight cats were not able to regulate their food intake to keep themselves at a normal weight, they still showed seasonal variability in food intake, like the normal weight cats. The researchers say, “whilst physiological cues driving seasonal variation appear to function effectively, other physiological mechanisms governing food intake (e.g. appetite regulation) do not.”

Another interesting finding is that the cats all gained some weight during the course of the study. 

Because these cats were living in a colony, it’s not known if the same eating patterns would be found in pet cats. But these results are interesting because they were found in cats fed ad libitum over a long period of time. Plus, of course, it’s always interesting to know about the lives of cats that test pet food.

Have you noticed seasonal changes in your cat’s eating habits? 

Serisier, S., Feugier, A., Delmotte, S., Biourge, V., & German, A. (2014). Seasonal Variation in the Voluntary Food Intake of Domesticated Cats (Felis Catus) PLoS ONE, 9 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096071 


23 April 2014

What Is A Typical Animal Hoarder?

Sometimes we hear their cases on the news – dozens of sick and frightened dogs or cats removed from the home of an animal hoarder. But is there a typical profile, and how big is the problem?

A study by Calvo et al (2014) investigates 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain between 2002 and 2011. 

An abandoned dog looks through a wire fence
Photo: schankz / Shutterstock

Animal hoarding is not simply having large numbers of pets; it also involves a lack of care for those pets, such that they are sick, not receiving veterinary care and living in unhygienic conditions. The hoarder is usually in denial about the situation and still acquiring more animals. As well as any mental health issues, the person may also suffer physical health problems from a living situation littered with animal urine, faeces, and even dead pets. 

For the humane societies who take in the animals, it can be a difficult problem to deal with given the sudden intake of so many creatures in poor health.

Calvo et al say,
“Animals coming from cases of animal hoarding sometimes must be euthanized, due to their severely affected state. The remaining animals rescued in hoarding cases usually need a lot of veterinary care and exhibit difficult-to-solve behaviour problems. This means they will not turn easily or ever into an adoptable animal.”
Hoarding animals is an under-researched problem. It is not a psychiatric disorder in its own right, although it does appear under the general umbrella of hoarding disorders in the DSM-V. The authors of this paper say media reports present hoarders as devoted animal lovers or harmless eccentrics. The full scale of the problem is often not understood.

The study looked at all animal hoarding cases reported to a large Spanish humane society, the Asociación Nacional de Amigos de los Animales (ANAA). Most of the cases were in Madrid, although some were in other parts of the country and were referred to the ANAA by other humane societies. It is likely there were other cases in Spain during this time that went un-noticed or were not reported to ANAA.

Previous research has suggested that most hoarders are female. In this study, about half of the hoarders were male and half female. It seems that hoarding is a middle-aged or older person’s problem, with 63% of the hoarders aged over 65 and about another third in middle-age. As in previous studies, most of the hoarders lived alone, although three lived with someone else. All of them were said to have a bad or borderline financial situation.

Hoarders are typically unaware there is a problem, and this was the case for most of the people in this study too. Only 3 of the 24 cases admitted there was a problem with their living conditions, and only 1 agreed that the animal’s welfare was compromised. 

Although only 24 cases, a total of 1218 animals were involved, mostly dogs and cats. It was more common to hoard only dogs, but some hoarded only cats or both cats and dogs. Some hoarders were experiencing an increase in animals because they had not spayed or neutered them, and so accidental breeding was taking place. Some of the hoarders were deliberately acquiring more animals by seeking out strays or deliberate breeding.

The most common reasons for a complaint to be made to ANAA were ‘animals in need of medical care’, ‘malnourished or mistreated animals’, and ‘excessive number of animals’. The person making the complaint was typically a neighbour, but other humane societies also frequently reported problems.

The animals were in a sorry state, without proper access to food and water, and many of them were sick. Although previous research has found a tendency for dead animals, that was only true of 4 of the 24 cases.

It seems that in many cases, hoarding had already been going on for five years, suggesting there might be ways of developing earlier interventions. Hoarding is known as a difficult problem to solve, and 3 of the cases were ‘recidivist’ where people had started to hoard again after earlier intervention.

44% of the animal hoarders also showed signs of object hoarding, and this is similar to previous research.

The authors say, “Our study supports the idea that animal hoarding should be considered and recognized as a genuine form of animal abuse and incompetent pet ownership.” 

Another striking finding is that when animals were removed, no further assistance was provided to hoarders to help with any underlying psychiatric or medical problems. This could be one reason why some of the hoarders were recidivists. Further research is needed to see if other agencies (such as medical professionals and social services) could work with humane societies to design programs to prevent re-offending.

Is animal hoarding a problem in your community?

Calvo, P., Duarte, C., Bowen, J., Bulbena, A., & Fatjó, J. (2014). Characteristics of 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain Animal Welfare, 23 (2), 199-208 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.23.2.199

You might also like: Is having many cats an early sign of animal hoarding?

16 April 2014

Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help At-Risk Boys?

If existing behavioural programs aren’t working, can therapeutic sessions with a dog help boys who have problems at school?

A sweet terrier sits on a chair next to her toy
Photo: criben / Shutterstock

A new paper by Abbey Schneider et al (2014) investigates the success of a program designed to help boys who are considered ‘at-risk’ – by matching them up with a specially trained dog and handler.

In Colorado, a group of elementary schools take part in a program called the Human Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC). It is designed to help girls and boys who have problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, or depression. These children are usually given an Individualized Education Plan to help them in school, and several behavioural support systems are also available. When these supports are not enough, children can be referred to HABIC.

The Animal Assisted Therapy program matches each child to a specific dog and handler, with whom they spend 10-12 sessions. The first is a meet-and-greet, and in this and subsequent sessions the child helps the handler teach new commands to the dog, learns how to give the dog commands it already knows, and also has unstructured time in which they can play with or cuddle the dog. The dog and handler are specially trained to work in the program, and the sessions are designed for each child with specific behavioural and emotional aims.

Dogs are great for a program like this because they are not judgmental, they are available to be petted and cuddled, the child can try out different pro-social behaviours with the dog, and the relationship does not rely on verbal skills. Within the framework of attachment theory, the child can develop a secure attachment with the dog (and the dog’s handler) that will enable them to feel safe and to develop emotionally and behaviourally.

Nine boys took part in this study. The researchers conducted a set of assessments before, during and after the animal-assisted therapy sessions. This included observations of the child and dog interacting that were designed to assess the emotional bond between them, the child’s self-reports about the relationship with the dog, teacher and parent assessments of the child’s behaviour, and data about the child’s absences from school and referrals to the principal for bad behaviour.

The researchers say the“results suggest that children are able to create more emotionally positive relationships with both animals and adults over the course of the intervention.”  In addition, although there was no change in being absent from school, there was a significant reduction in the number of times the boys were referred to the principal’s office for problem behaviour.

Interestingly, teachers did not rate the boys’ behaviour as better in the classroom. The researchers think it is possible their ratings were clouded by previous experiences with the boys. Independent classroom observations could be a useful addition to future evaluations.

A nice thing about this study is that in evaluating emotional attachment between the child and dog, observations were also made of the dog, such as the time spent in close proximity to the boy, and whether the dog’s mouth was open in a happy expression or closed, suggesting tension.

The researchers say one advantage of the scheme is that, while social skills can be taught, the desire to connect emotionally with others is harder to inspire. The dog provides encouragement to the child to connect with another being. It also seems that unstructured time is important for the development of the bond between them, and this is something that warrants future research.

This study is an important formal evaluation of an existing scheme. Without research like this, we would not know if such schemes work or how they could be improved. It is small-scale, and a larger evaluation that included girls as well as boys would be helpful. The results are very encouraging, and suggest that animal-assisted therapy can be beneficial for children with a range of behavioural problems.

The HABIC program is just one way in which animals can potentially help children. For example, work by Maggie O’Haire suggests that a classroom program with guinea pigs can help children with autism as well as their normal peers. This is a fascinating topic and we look forward to future work by these and other researchers in the field.

If you would like to know more about the study, the full paper is open-access (registration required).

Is there an animal-assisted therapy program in your community?

Schneider, A.A.,, Rosenberg, J., Baker, M., Melia, N., Granger, B., & Biringen, Z. (2014). Becoming relationally effective: High-risk boys in animal-assisted therapy Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 2 (1), 1-18

09 April 2014

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four year old child?

A very cute BC pup bites a branch of a flowering tree
Photo: DragoNika / Shutterstock
Canine researchers have been investigating dogs’ cognitive abilities: whether they can solve puzzles, recognize our emotions, and so on. But are ordinary people aware of these findings, and do they have a realistic view of dogs? A paper by Tiffani Howell (Monash University) et al investigates owner’s beliefs about their dog’s intelligence.

The research, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, involved a web survey that was aimed at both dog owners and non-dog owners. However, because the overwhelming majority of answers came from people who did own dogs, the analysis was restricted to this group. Although respondents were perhaps not typical of the average dog owner – they were mostly female (90%) and educated at post-secondary level (63%) – they may be typical of people who take part in dog forums and discussion groups on the internet.

The questionnaire was completed by 565 dog owners, most of whom (73%) reported that they were knowledgeable about dogs. The largest group came from Australia, with the USA and UK also making up a sizeable number of participants. The questions asked about perceptions of canine intelligence and also about people’s relationship with their dog.

The results showed that owners think dogs have a range of cognitive abilities, including being able to recognize people’s emotions, and awareness of human attention. One interesting finding is that many of these fell into two categories – an instinctive ability and a learned ability. For example, people thought that dogs have an instinctive ability to be able to solve problems, and that they are also able to learn how to solve a problem. 

The researchers say, “the participants scored dogs very highly in terms of the possession of complex cognitive skills. Respondents generally seem to agree that dogs possess extensive social cognitive skills, many of which have been established experimentally.” At the same time, owners typically also believe dogs have abilities that have not yet been shown by researchers, such as deception. It would be interesting to know more about how people form their opinions about dogs.

In general, the results also showed that the closer the relationship someone has with their dog, the higher they rate the dog’s cognitive abilities. Similarly, people who said they knew more about dogs were more likely to give high ratings for canine intelligence (except for instinctive problem-solving, on which they gave lower ratings). 

And so just how intelligent do most people think their dog is? The average result was equivalent to a 3-5 year old child, with the next most common result being the same as a 1-2 year human baby. A few people said their dog was as clever as a human aged 16 years or older (do you think this was a tongue-in-cheek reply?). 

It’s important to gain a better understanding of what shapes people’s beliefs about their dogs. The researchers say, “It is possible that, in some cases, dog owners believe that dogs are cognitively capable of more than they actually are and misconstrue normal dog behavior as an attempt at ‘dominance’ or a stubborn lack of obedience. “ This is especially important, they say, given that behaviour is a common reason for dogs being given up to shelters or euthanized. 

I think many people who train their dogs experience a point at which they think the dog already ‘gets’ a command, when actually the dog doesn’t get it yet. This can be frustrating for both the dog (who doesn’t know what to do) and the owner (who thinks the dog is being wilfully disobedient). This research is a welcome step in gaining a better understanding of what owners believe about their dogs.  

So what do you think, how clever is your dog? And do you think some breeds are smarter than others?

Howell, T., Toukhsati, S., Conduit, R., & Bennett, P. (2013). The Perceptions of Dog Intelligence and Cognitive Skills (PoDIaCS) Survey Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (6), 418-424 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.05.005
P.S. Six reasons to love canine science and six ways to entertain your dog indoors.

02 April 2014

How About that Doggy at the Hair Salon?

Can we speed up the process of re-homing shelter dogs by getting the dog out of the shelter and into the community?

Two JRTs play fetch on the lawn near daffodils in Spring
Photo: AdamEdwards / Shutterstock

Every year, many dogs find new homes through animal rescues and shelters, but some have a long wait and many are never re-homed.  What if there was a way to free up shelter space and encourage people who would not visit the shelter to adopt? A new paper by Heather Mohan-Gibbons et al (2014) assesses the success of a scheme in which dogs were moved to foster homes that had the job of finding a suitable new home for the dog.

The background to this research is the high rate of euthanasia of shelter dogs in the US (and other countries). Although there are no official national figures, Mohan-Gibbons et al report a range of estimates from previous research, including that only a quarter of such dogs are re-homed. So ways of increasing the adoption rate are urgently needed.

At the same time, many more people say they would consider adopting from a shelter or rescue than actually do.This suggests there is a lot of potential to persuade more people to adopt, rather than buy, a new dog.

The research took place at the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans (a pilot study) and at the Charleston Animal Society in South Carolina. In both cases, dogs were assigned to either a shelter group or a foster group based on their intake number to avoid bias. When dogs were in the foster group, then the foster homes could choose which dog they would foster. Although it is potentially a confound in the research to allow foster homes a choice instead of random assignation, it’s a sensible part of the plan since they need to pick a dog that will fit in with their family and pets.

The foster homes were called Adoption Ambassadors. As the authors explain, Adoption Ambassadors “were volunteers who cared for the dog in their home, found an adopter for the dog, and performed the adoption.“ They were trained by a coordinator and given supplies for the dog, including food, leash, crate etc. 

AAs used social media and asked friends and family to help find a home. The dogs wore an ‘adopt me’ vest in public, and the AAs had business cards to hand out to anyone who expressed an interest. It was important the AAs took the dogs to dog-friendly places where they would be seen by members of the public, and so they took dogs with them to places like parks, stores and the hair salon. 

The criteria for adoption were the same as for the dogs in the shelter. The person adopting the dog did not have to visit the shelter at all; the AAs were trained in how to carry out the adoption, which was usually done in a public place. 

The AA dogs were compared to the group of dogs that were re-homed in the shelter as usual. At both locations, fewer dogs in the AA group were returned than those adopted via the shelter.  The length of stay before adoption was longer for dogs in the AA group, but of course they spent this time in a home, rather than a shelter.

Whereas most people who adopted shelter dogs first found out about the dog by visiting the shelter, the range of sources for the AA dogs was much wider, including the internet, hearing about the dog from a friend, or seeing the dog out in public. This suggests that the program successfully reached people who might not have visited the shelter. Analysis of the location of adopter’s homes showed that in New Orleans, new AA homes were significantly further from the shelter than the other group. This was not the case in Charleston but different areas of the city were involved.

Another interesting finding is that 93% of people who adopted at the shelter made a decision in less than a few hours, compared to 78% for the AA group. Significantly more of the AA adopters took longer than a day to decide. This could be one reason why fewer dogs in this group were returned, but it could also be that since the dogs were living in a home, the foster parent could give a realistic description of what the dog is like.

There are always difficulties in conducting real life research, and some dogs initially assigned to one or other condition were not included in the final results for various reasons, including the dog becoming sick, the foster parent going away, or because they took part in a special ‘free adoption’ event at the shelter. Nevertheless the overall sample size was 84 dogs in the AA group and 64 in the shelter group, both with an average age of 0.8 years. 

The results of this study are very encouraging and suggest that more shelters should try a similar scheme. The authors say few resources are needed other than those for any foster scheme: some co-ordination from the shelter, ‘adopt me’ vests and business cards for the dogs. For more details of how the scheme worked, you can read the paper in PLoS One (open access). 
Do you think an Adoption Ambassador scheme would work in your community?

Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., Garrison, L., & Allison, M. (2014). Evaluation of a Novel Dog Adoption Program in Two US Communities PLoS ONE, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091959

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