25 March 2015

Can Street Dogs Become Good Pets?

From free-ranging dog to new home. It sounds like a fairy-tale, but how does it work out?

Street dogs can make good pets, like this happy little dog peering out of his dog house

A recent survey by Yasemin Salgiri Demirbas (Ankara University) et al investigates how well free-roaming urban dogs fit into a family home once they are adopted. The results show the dogs adapt well to their new homes.

The scientists say, “Every year in Turkey, thousands of free-ranging dogs are brought to dog shelters. These dogs are mongrel dogs with stray origins.” There is often a bias against adopting dogs that have been stray in case they have behaviour problems, and they can spend a long time waiting for a home. The researchers wanted to know if people’s misgivings are well-founded.

75 homes that had adopted a free-ranging dog completed the survey. Some dogs came from a shelter or vet, but others were picked up on the street. This, they explain, “may be because of the pattern where in developing countries such as Turkey people encounter free-ranging dogs in everyday life, so they do not need to put any extra effort to adopt these dogs.” There was no difference in behaviour of the dogs who came directly from the street rather than via another source.

Most of the dogs were acquired as puppies; 40% under 3 months old and 21% between 3 and 6 months at the time of adoption. 

First, the good news. Most homes reported no difficulties with house-training or leash-training. And although 75% of the dogs were said to show fear at first, 69% became more confident and easy-going over time. Common things the dogs were afraid of were sudden noise, thunder, vacuum cleaners, and sudden movements (things many dogs from other sources are also afraid of). 

The most common behaviour problem reported was hyper-attachment to the owner (59%), such as following the owner around the house or wanting to be in constant contact. Some dogs were like this from the beginning, and others developed it over time. 

The authors say 
“This finding is not surprising because it is known that dogs adopted from animal shelters or through rescue routes are more likely to exhibit separation-related problems.”

Street dogs can become good pets, like this dog snuggling under a blanket on the sofa

Differences in terminology make comparisons tricky, and it’s worth noting that separation anxiety and hyper-attachment are not synonymous (Sherman and Mills 2008). In Linda Lord et al’s (2008) study, problem behaviour when left alone was reported in 16% of shelter dogs one month after adoption. Following the owner round the house was reported in 65% of pet dogs by Emily Blackwell et al (2008) (and most of these dogs came from a breeder).

Another common behaviour problem reported at the time of adoption was destructiveness (32%), which declined over time to 13%. 32% of dogs were said to stray. Although aggression was not common initially, it increased in the period following adoption, suggesting some dogs initially inhibited this behaviour in their new home. At the time of the survey, 12.5% of the dogs were said to show aggression. Of these, most were aggressive to cats (which might be considered predation) or towards other dogs.

A few of the dogs were kept on a chain. Although many had access to at least some of the house, 39% were not allowed inside. The scientists say more research is needed on animal welfare and to find out whether these dogs are treated the same as other pet dogs.

There’s an interesting finding in terms of how owners perceive the human-canine relationship. Only 4% of the owners said the relationship should be based on dominance and force. However (64%) “stated that the owner should be a leader in a hierarchical order when interacting with his or her dog. They, however, reported that the hierarchical order should not be based on dominance.” More research is needed on how people understand the human-canine relationship.

The authors say, 
“one may assume that urban free-ranging dogs have a rather shy and fearful character in comparison to their conspecifics. Such dogs may have the tendency to display fearful behaviour in novel situations. They may, on the other hand, show considerable improvement when living in a stable family environment.”

It’s possible that people whose dogs did not do well did not complete the survey, so it may not show a full picture. The finding that dogs improve over time in their new home ties in with Frank McMillan et al’s similar finding for adult dogs re-homed from commercial breeding establishments

The scientists conclude that urban free-ranging dogs adapt well to their new homes. This will be reassuring to anyone thinking of adopting a similar dog. It’s especially good news given that some of these families quite literally picked a dog from the street, without going via an organization that temperament tests the dogs or provides ongoing behavioural support. 

Have you ever adopted a shelter dog or free-ranging dog?

Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3 (5), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
Salgirli Demirbas, Y., Emre, B., & Kockaya, M. (2014). Integration ability of urban free-ranging dogs into adoptive families' environment Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 222-227 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.04.006  
Lord, L., Reider, L., Herron, M., & Graszak, K. (2008). Health and behavior problems in dogs and cats one week and one month after adoption from animal shelters Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 233 (11), 1715-1722 DOI: 10.2460/javma.233.11.1715  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006
Sherman, B., & Mills, D. (2008). Canine Anxieties and Phobias: An Update on Separation Anxiety and Noise Aversions Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38 (5), 1081-1106 DOI: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.012
Photos: Yanaskaya (top) and Adya (both Shutterstock.com)
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18 March 2015

The Right to Walk Away

What can pet owners learn from the way scientists give animals choices in research?

A cat choose to walk away from a small child

When people take part in research, scientists must ensure they give informed consent. When the participants are pets, owners give consent on their behalf: they understand the risks of the research and they have the right to end their participation at any time (e.g. if they feel their dog is stressed). We can’t ask animals about their feelings, but scientists have several ways they give the pets a choice.

In Sarah Ellis et al’s recent (2015) paper on feline stroking preferences, cats were stroked in their own homes by two different people and were free to walk away at any time. 18 out of 34 cats walked away at some point during the first study, and 3 out of 20 in the second study, showing the importance of the choice.

Sometimes scientists offer dogs a piece of food before starting an experiment, or wait for the dog to approach a person or location. Dogs are first given time to get used to the experimenters and the new surroundings. Then if they don’t want the food or approach, it could be because they are stressed (stressed animals are often not interested in food). It’s not unusual for a few dogs to drop out of a study for this reason.

In Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne’s (2015) experiments to test whether dogs prefer petting or praise, dogs were given time to get used to the location and experimenter, and shown that one person was offering petting and another praise. Then the dog was taken to the starting position. They write that four dogs “were dropped from the experiment because they did not approach either alternative in the first 5 min period.” 

Just as in Ellis’s study with cats, dogs could walk away from petting at any point in the study. Because the study was about choices, they write that, “When providing petting, the assistant petted and scratched the dog with one hand on the side closest to the assistant so that the petting did not interfere with the dog’s ability to move away.”

Dogs aren’t only dropped from studies due to lack of interest or stress; sometimes they are actually excluded for being too confident. An example is Isabella Merola et al’s (2012) study of whether pet dogs look to a person (their owner or a stranger) for social support when stressed by something. The scientists chose a fan with streamers attached as the slightly-scary object. Of the 90 dogs that took part, 25 were excluded from the study because they confidently approached the fan. 

Social referencing paper PLoS One doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047653.g001
A dog looks at the fan with streamers in Merola et al's experiment

Note that dogs were never forced to go near the fan; they were free to move around the room so they could approach, or not, as they wished. At the end of the study, dogs were given food near the fan so they would not be frightened of fans in future.

What is the relevance to ordinary pet owners? Try to ensure that your dog or cat (or rabbit or …) has the opportunity to make choices. If they don’t want to interact with you at a particular time, that’s fine. Wait, and try again later. 

While to many this may seem obvious, to others it’s a revolutionary idea. One of the (many) problems with outdated dominance views of training is the emphasis on forcing animals to do as you wish. 

Not only is this ethically questionable, it can backfire in several ways. It is potentially dangerous for the person and animal, and risks creating fear and a poor human-animal relationship.

A puppy sits with its back to the camera with a purple background
Choices are especially important for fearful animals, for whom enforced interactions might only make the fear worse. 

If your puppy is shy in class and wants to hide, let her, and she will come out in her own time. If your dog is afraid of fireworks, comfort him if he would like it or let him hide if he prefers – and later on, figure out a plan to help him with this fear. See eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe for some ideas.

If your cats prefer to hide under the bed when young children come to visit, that’s fine too – let them stay in their safe place until things are back to normal, if that’s what they want.

If pets don’t want to be trained at a particular moment in time, that’s okay – but consider how you can motivate them in future. 

Some people are surprisingly reluctant to use food for training, but think about how much dogs like to eat! You could use high value food such as your dog’s favourite treats, pieces of hot dog, cheese, fish, or even steak. 

Dog training is an unlicensed profession, so there is no requirement for dog trainers to follow the same ethical standards as scientists. Ask your dog trainer how they motivate dogs, and if the answer is not food, you might like to exercise your own right to walk away.

How do you give your pets choices?

Ellis, S., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002  
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019  
Merola I, Prato-Previde E, & Marshall-Pescini S (2012). Dogs' social referencing towards owners and strangers. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23071828
Photo: Shapiro Svetlana (top) & Adya (both Shutterstock.com)
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Do dogs prefer petting or praise? 

11 March 2015

Where Do Cats Like To Be Stroked?

People expect cats to enjoy affection, but what’s the cat’s opinion? Research shows where cats prefer to be petted.

Where do cats like to be stroked? In places where cuddly cats like this show affection to each other

Research by Dr. Sarah Ellis (University of Lincoln) et al investigated how cats respond to being stroked by their owner and an unfamiliar person, and which parts of the body they prefer to be petted. The results show cats have definite preferences.

It is thought that animals prefer petting from humans to be similar to the ways animals show affection to members of their own species. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you are expected to lick your cat (affectionate cats often lick each other, something called allo-grooming). But friendly feline behaviour involves certain parts of the body where there are many scent glands: around the lips, chin and cheek (peri-oral gland); between the eyes and ears (temporal gland); and around the base of the tail (caudal gland). 

When cats rub against each other in these areas, they are transferring scent from one to the other, which makes them smell more similar (more on the importance of scent to cats). Many readers will know that when introducing cats to each other, it’s a good idea to swap scent between them before they ever meet. So you might guess that these three areas are where cats would prefer their humans to touch them.

There could also be an order effect. When cats rub against each other, they start by rubbing their heads, and only sometimes progress to intertwining tails. On the other hand, when they groom each other, there isn’t a set order. 

The researchers tested 34 cats (age 6 months to 12 years) in their own homes. Cats were given time to get used to the experimenter and video recorder before the experiment started. Each cat was tested on two different days, one time with the owner stroking it and another time with the experimenter doing the stroking.

Two sweet cats rub their bodies together and intertwine their tails

As well as the three scent gland areas, they tested five other parts of the body (top of the head, back of the neck, top of the back, middle of the back, and the chest and throat). The experiment was standardized: the order of body parts to be stroked was random, stroking was done with two fingers and lasted for 15s in each area. However, cats were free to walk away at any time. 

And, being cats, many did. Only 16 of the cats were stroked in all eight areas by both people.

The videos were analyzed to see how cats behaved. The researchers counted how many times friendly behaviours occurred, such as a slow blink, licking the person or rubbing their head against them, grooming, kneading, tail straight up or up with a curl on the end. 

And they also counted how many times negative behaviours occurred, such as swishing or flicking the tail, moving the head away from the person, licking their lips, biting, or cuffing the person with a paw.

When being stroked by the experimenter, cats showed more negative behaviours when stroked near the tail. In other words, they didn’t like this so much. The cats seemed to prefer being stroked by the experimenter more than by the owner. There were no differences in positive behaviours.

In a second experiment with 20 different cats, owners stroked their cat in a set order, either from the top of the head and along the back to the tail, or vice versa. This time they could use their whole hand or just one or two fingers, however they would normally pet the cat. And this time, only 3 cats moved away.

These videos also showed that cats did not like being stroked near the tail, regardless of the order. The lack of an order effect suggests being stroked is more like allo-grooming than allo-rubbing, though more research is needed.

So what does this mean for the human-feline relationship? The scientists say owners should avoid stroking near the tail. Instead, they should stroke the face, especially in the areas where the scent glands are.

So why did cats prefer to be petted by the experimenter rather than their owner? It could be simply that the researcher was new and interesting. The fact the owner had to use two fingers (to standardize the experiment) may have meant the interaction wasn’t what cats expected. It could also be that cats like interactions with their owner to be on their own terms (i.e. cats prefer to initiate interactions themselves). But there’s also the possibility that some cats have learned negative associations to their owners (for example if the owner scolds them).

The results are fascinating, especially the suggestion that stroking is akin to allo-grooming. It’s not clear why some people stroke cats near the tail; perhaps they are treating them the same as they would a dog, without realizing that felines have different preferences to canines.

You might also like this interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about training cats and how to pet cats and dogs. Or you can subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology

How does your cat like to be petted?

Ellis, S., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002
Photos: Wongwean (top) and ClementKANJ (both Shutterstock.com).

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04 March 2015

Taking Care of your Pet Rabbit

Rabbits are the third most popular pet, but how should you look after them?

A cute bunny rabbit against a pastel lilac background

A study by Nicola Rooney (University of Bristol) et al asked 1254 rabbit owners about how they housed, fed, played with and otherwise cared for their rabbit. The good news is that “many pet rabbits were found to be in good health, had compatible companions and were provided with enriched living areas.” But there were also many areas where things could be improved. 

The most common type of rabbit was a Lop, followed by Lionheads, Netherland Dwarfs and mixed breeds. The rabbits were aged 2 to almost 13 years, and most came from a pet store or a garden centre.

Housing for Rabbits

59% of the rabbits lived in a cage or rabbit hutch, and 28% in the house with a cage. 8% lived in an outbuilding, while almost 6% lived in the house without a cage. A handful of rabbits had no roof, but on average the rest of the rabbits had a cage height of 0.9m. 

The good news is that most rabbits had a denning area, some kind of tunnel or box, a platform, and access to toys. The provision of a tunnel or box is important because rabbits – as animals that are preyed upon – are fearful of open spaces and need somewhere to hide (15% of rabbits did not have this). 

A sizeable proportion of rabbits (43%) had a run attached to their cage. Although most rabbits had some access to the outdoors, such as being allowed in the garden, the timing was not always the best from a rabbit’s perspective, since rabbits are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk). Also fewer rabbits had outdoor access in the wintertime. 

The minimum legal cage size for laboratory rabbits in the UK is 0.54 m2, and 0.88m2 is needed to allow rabbits to engage in normal behaviours. Just over a quarter of pet rabbits in this survey did not have cages this size.  Rabbits also need enough vertical space to rear up, and platforms to encourage them to climb, but 34% of the rabbits did not have a platform. 

The scientists say, “Recommendations for pets include that cages be sufficiently long to allow the animal to carry out three unrestricted hops, and to lie outstretched.” The height of the pen should ideally be at least 75cm.

Bunny Companions

42% of rabbits lived with a fellow rabbit, and of these, 94% often rested in contact with each other, and 84% often groomed each other, both signs they get along. However 52% of these rabbits occasionally mounted each other, 36% occasionally circled, and 29% occasionally pulled each other’s fur out.  44% of the rabbits lived alone, and the others had another kind of companion (e.g. guinea pig). 

A beautiful rabbit next to some pink tulips

Rabbits are sociable and it is good for them to live with a conspecific. The scientists say, “Rabbits are strongly motivated to gain social contact. Solitary living precludes their ability to engage in normal social behaviour and negates one of the five basic needs, laid down in the Animal Welfare Act.” The fact that some rabbits were fighting suggests it it is important to choose compatible rabbits, and make sure they have space to avoid each other if they wish.

Feeding Rabbits

Almost all rabbits were given root vegetables and hay, although 11% did not get hay every day. Owners preferred to feed pelleted food rather than muesli-type food, and the authors say this is likely due to campaigns warning of links between muesli, dental problems and obesity. 67% of owners also gave their rabbits grass at least once a week. 

Forage is important for rabbit health, and the results suggest that rabbits are being overfed on sweet foods (such as carrots, apples and pears) and not given enough hay and grass. 

Husbandry for Rabbits

Cages were cleaned at least once a week by 72% of owners, but 2.6% never cleaned it properly. When cleaning, 45% left the bedding in the cage. Only half of owners removed soiled material every day.

Rabbit Health

Most owners said their rabbits were healthy, and 71% were vaccinated. The most frequent problems were dirty bottoms.  Positive behaviours (e.g. hopping, binkying, and playing with toys) were reported for most rabbits, but negative behaviours (e.g. thumping the hind limbs, gnawing at housing, and grunting) were also commonly reported. 

Many rabbits were afraid of loud noises, suggesting they would benefit from treatment for this and should be kept indoors on fireworks night.

Handling Pet Rabbits

Although 83% of rabbits approached in a friendly way when someone went to their cage, only 39% were comfortable being handled. Only 73% of owners said they were very confident in handling the rabbit, and most picked up and handled their rabbit at least once a week. 

The scientists say, “Combined with the fact that 27% of owners do not describe themselves as “very confident” when  handling their rabbit, yet the majority of rabbits are handled at least weekly; this could potentially represent a significant source of stress and suggests that appropriate handling protocols are essential to ensure this is not aversive.” (see: How to handle your rabbits)

And how long do pet rabbits live? The average age of people’s previous rabbit when it died was 5 and a half, ranging from 1 month to 12 years.

The Rabbit Welfare Research Study

Questionnaires were distributed in pet stores, vet clinics, rehoming centres, rabbit shows and even via schools; ten vet clinics contacted their clients; and the survey was also posted on the internet. If people had more than one rabbit, they were asked to complete it for the rabbit whose name was first alphabetically, to prevent bias (e.g. choosing the favourite rabbit). 

The results show considerable variation in the living conditions of pet rabbits. They also show that although general rabbit welfare is good, there are many ways rabbit care could be improved. Since most rabbits came from pet shops and garden centres, these would be good places to target educational materials for rabbit owners. 

The full paper is open access at the link below.

What are your tips for good rabbit welfare?

Rooney NJ, Blackwell EJ, Mullan SM, Saunders R, Baker PE, Hill JM, Sealey CE, Turner MJ, & Held SD (2014). The current state of welfare, housing and husbandry of the English pet rabbit population. BMC research notes, 7 PMID: 25532711
Photos: Soultkd (top) / Robynrg (Shutterstock)

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