26 August 2015

Summer Reading: The Play Edition

Our summer reading list is all about play.

Articles about play in dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets and people.

Why do animals play? In Dog Sense, John Bradshaw writes “In wild animals, play must promote survival; otherwise, evolution would select against it – a young animal that is playing out in the open is much more obvious to a predator than one sleeping in its den. However, the benefits of play do not usually become apparent until months later, when they emerge in the form of better social integration or more sophisticated hunting techniques (to name but two, which vary from one species to another). Again, the simplest explanation is that play is self-rewarding: in other words – it is fun!”

Our summer reading list includes links to articles on play in dogs, cats, rabbits, meerkats and humans. Enjoy!

Is your dog’s rough play appropriate? Barbara Smuts and Camille Ward, PhD, explain the difference between play fighting and real fighting at The Bark. 
Do dogs understand play signals given by humans? Stanley Coren, PhD, writes that the play signal most commonly used by humans often doesn’t work, while chasing and running away, bowing, and lunging have the best success rate. 


House rabbits like play too. Christina Chivers has some great ideas for logic toys for rabbits (with video).

Lynda Sharpe writes about the difficulties of studying play in meerkats and other animals. So you think you know why animals play...


Watch this wonderful enrichment activity for a dog. The bottle game at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (video).
A couple of interesting research papers about play in dogs are currently open access at the links below:
Bradshaw, J., Pullen, A., & Rooney, N. (2015). Why do adult dogs ‘play’? Behavioural Processes, 110, 82-87 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.09.023  
Norman, K., Pellis, S., Barrett, L., & Peter Henzi, S. (2015). Down but not out: Supine postures as facilitators of play in domestic dogs Behavioural Processes, 110, 88-95 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.09.001

19 August 2015

The Beneficial Effects of Watching Fish

Spending time observing an aquarium leads to improvements in mood and reductions in heart rate.

An African Malawi Cichlid in a tank

There are psychological benefits to watching fish and crustaceans in an aquarium, according to a new study by Deborah Cracknell et al. They observed people’s natural interactions with a marine life display, and took heart rate, blood pressure and questionnaire results from 84 experimental participants. 

But the display wasn’t a fish tank that you could fit in your living room – it was a large exhibit at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, UK.

Sitting and looking at the display led to significant reductions in blood pressure and heart rate. “Most of these gains occurred within the first five minutes,” write the authors. 

The results are not due simply to sitting, they say, as experimental participants had a rest period before a curtain was opened to reveal the display.

The researchers were able to take advantage of a new marine life display being created at the museum. They took measurements when the display was ‘empty’, about half-full, and fully-stocked. The empty display contained artificial seaweed and corals, and was full of sea water that needed time to settle, but no fish. When half-full, the tank contained 60 fish (of six species) and 14 crustaceans (of two species). Fully stocked, there were 138 fish (19 species) and 13 crustaceans (of 3 species).

Not surprisingly, ordinary visitors to the museum spent longer in front of the display when it was partially or fully stocked. There was a lot of variation, with the average time being about 4 minutes, but some people spent up to 20 minutes looking at it. 112 members of the public were observed, with a sign at the entrance informing them a study was taking place.

Experimental participants were recruited to come to the museum at one of the three time-points. “Participants in all three conditions found 10 minutes in front of the exhibit was an enjoyable and interesting experience that made them feel better,” say the scientists. Even when the exhibit was empty, participants said they would be willing to sit in front of it for another 7 and a half minutes. But they said they were willing to observe it for significantly longer, 11 and a half minutes, when it was partially or fully stocked.

The partially and fully stocked conditions led to bigger improvements in mood, enjoyment, and how interesting it was compared to the empty display. All three stages of the exhibit also led to decreases in heart rate and blood pressure. Heart rate dropped more when the tank was full or partially-full compared to when it was empty.

The scientists say, “in general, as duration of exposure increased people became both more positive and calmer, but as biota [marine life] levels increased, people became more positive but relatively less calm. This latter finding is concordant with the notion that greater levels of biota are associated with more interest and fascination.” In other words, the more fish there were in the tank, the more interesting it was to watch.

There are several theories that might explain these results. One is the idea that people have an innate tendency to like nature (the biophilia hypothesis). Another theory is that spending time in nature is restorative and can improve feelings of stress and fatigue from concentration (Attention Restoration Theory). If an environment is rich, fascinating, in line with the person’s likes, and involves being away from the daily routine, then it will be restorative.

Previous studies of the effects of aquaria in healthcare settings have had mixed results. More research is needed to find out if an aquarium of the type people keep fish in at home would have similar effects. But this study found that watching the exhibit for just a short time had psychological benefits. 

Do you like watching fish in a tank? 

Cracknell, D., White, M., Pahl, S., Nichols, W., & Depledge, M. (2015). Marine Biota and Psychological Well-Being: A Preliminary Examination of Dose-Response Effects in an Aquarium Setting Environment and Behavior DOI: 10.1177/0013916515597512 
Photo: ET1972 (Shutterstock.com)

Pets: Building Community One Friend at a Time   
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

12 August 2015

Proof the Internet helps Cat Adoptions

And that toys are important in photographs of adoptable cats.

Close-up of a calico cat playing with a toy

We all assume that internet photos and adverts play an important role in pet adoption these days, and now it’s possible to put a figure on it, at least for cats. 82.5% of people who adopted a cat from a shelter in Western New York said Petfinder strongly or moderately influenced their adoption.

The length of time cats waited for adoption varied from 1 to 126 days. Cats whose Petfinder profiles were clicked more than once a day were typically adopted in 9 days, but cats with less than one click per day typically waited 23 days for a new home.

The study, by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College), also looked at preferred features of adoptable cats. Coat colour made a big difference, with cream cats getting adopted in less than ten days, but black or smoke-coloured cats waited 22 days on average. Not surprisingly, younger cats were adopted faster. Male cats were adopted slightly faster than females (19 compared to 22 days).

The researchers took these features of the cats into account, and then looked to see if there was anything about the photographs that made a difference. 

The results will surprise many people, because most factors made no difference, including whether the photo showed all of the cat or just the head, was from the side or front, the cat’s ear position, even whether or not the cat was looking at the camera.

The thing that did make a difference was whether there was a toy in the photo. These photos were clicked more often, whether or not the cat was interacting with the toy.

The scientists say, 
“Shelters may benefit from including toys in photographs of cats who may otherwise be overlooked, while refraining from including toys in photographs of cats of a popular age or colour. For instance, placing a toy in a photograph of an older cat or a solid-black cat may be useful for drawing attention to that cat’s Petfinder profile.”

The study looked at all the cats whose Petfinder profile had at least one click during the study period, and who were available for adoption for at least one full day during this time. This was a total of 892 cats, out of the 3,835 the shelter adopted out that year. 248 people who had adopted cats in the study answered the survey.

This research shows how influential the internet profiles of adoptable pets are. A larger study of adoptable dogs in the UK (Siettou et al 2014) showed the importance of highlighting positive features of the animal (such asfriendliness) in the dog's profile

The quality of photographs has also been shown to make a difference for dogs (Lampe and Witte 2014). 

Although more research is needed on what leads people to adopt shelter animals, it seems that paying attention to both photographs and text in an animal’s internet profile will pay off for shelters.

Have you used the internet to find and adopt a pet?

Lampe, R., & Witte, T. (2014). Speed of Dog Adoption: Impact of Online Photo Traits Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.982796  
Siettou, C., Fraser, I., & Fraser, R. (2014). Investigating Some of the Factors That Influence “Consumer” Choice When Adopting a Shelter Dog in the United Kingdom Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 17 (2), 136-147 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.883924  
Workman, M., & Hoffman, C. (2015). An Evaluation of the Role the Internet Site Petfinder Plays in Cat Adoptions Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1043366
Photo: Piyato (Shutterstock.com)

You might also like: 
Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss)
Great Photos are Important to Dog Adoption 
Does Playtime for Cats Reduce Behaviour Problems? 
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

05 August 2015

De-Stressing with a Puppy for Parents of Children with Autism

A pet dog can reduce stress for parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder, according to a new study.

Cute puppy on a beach

Research by Hannah Wright et al (University of Lincoln) finds that a family dog reduces stress in the caregivers of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This result is especially striking because it applies to pet dogs rather than specially trained service dogs. But there are caveats, because a dog is not right for all families.

The study looked at parents of children with ASD, and compared those who chose to get a dog to those who did not. Parents in the group that acquired a dog had significantly lower scores for total stress, parental distress, and for how difficult they thought their child was. 

The change for parental distress was enough that many parents moved from a rating considered clinically high prior to getting a dog, to one that is not clinically high. This is especially important because people with high ratings on this scale typically do not respond well to other available therapies. The parental distress scale includes questions like “I often have the feeling I cannot handle things very well.”

The researchers say there could be several reasons for the improvements in stress levels, including physiological effects of spending time with the dog, social support from the dog, increased activity from taking the dog for walks or spending time away from the child.

There was no difference between the two groups in terms of how dysfunctional the relationship between parent and child is. This is not surprising because you would not necessarily expect a dog to improve interactions between them.

The study compared 38 parents who got a pet dog to 24 parents who did not. All of the families had a child with autism spectrum disorder aged between 2 and 16. Most of the dogs were acquired as puppies, and were a range of breeds and crossbreeds including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Miniature Schnauzers.

Participants completed questionnaires at the baseline, then 3-10 weeks after getting a dog, and again at 25-40 weeks. The control group had a similar timescale for the questionnaire, but without the intervention. It is promising that the results endured to the final follow-up, and further research is needed to see if the effect persists over the lifetime of the dog. 

Many participants were recruited via PAWS workshops run by Dogs for the Disabled. They describe the workshops on their website: “Through practical demonstrations, discussions and hands-on learning, the workshops provide information on choosing the right dog, welfare and care, training techniques, and explores ways a dog can help families with a child with autism.”  Attendance at this workshop hopefully meant that families were well-prepared for the arrival of a puppy.

One caveat to the study is that the dog did not work out for all families, and a number of people dropped out because they got rid of the dog before the end of the study. For those who didn't keep dogs, reasons included issues between the dog and child (including one dog who bit), allergy, and dog training issues. The proportion of people affected (16%) is not that dissimilar from the number of people who give up dogs shortly after acquiring them. (For example, the American Humane Association found that 10% of pets adopted from shelters are no longer in the home six months later). 

There were also some participants who swapped from one group to the other because they changed their minds about either getting or not getting a dog. The study was not a randomized controlled trial, which is the ‘gold standard’ for assessing whether or not interventions work. The researchers say they chose a different design because of ethical issues with randomly assigning a pet dog to families.

Future research is needed to find out whether these results compare to other more-established interventions for the families of children with ASD. It would also be useful to know if there are particular characteristics of the dogs or families that make the relationship more or less likely to work. The results show that – for some families at least – getting a dog significantly improves stress levels. 

If you have a child with ASD, do you think a pet dog is a good idea?

Wright, H., Hall, S., Hames, A., Hardiman, J., Mills, R., & Mills, D. (2015). Acquiring a Pet Dog Significantly Reduces Stress of Primary Carers for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Prospective Case Control Study Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-015-2418-5
Photo: Mat Hayward (Shutterstock.com)

You might also like:
Do children benefit from animals in the classroom?
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Companion Animal Psychology...

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk. (privacy policy)