26 October 2016

Study Shows Just How Stressed Dogs Are at the Vet's

Most dogs show signs of impaired welfare at the vet, according to their owners.

A West Highland Terrier is unhappy at the vet

A survey of 906 dog guardians in Italy found most people report their dog as being stressed at all stages of the visit to a vet clinic, from being in the waiting room to being examined by the vet. 6.4% of dogs had actually bitten their guardian at the vet and 11.2% had growled or snapped at the vet.

The report by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al draws important conclusions about what owners and vets need to do to help dogs at the vet, including teaching them to be handled.

The scientists write, “It is in fact alarming that only one third of dogs seemed to tolerate all kinds of clinical handling carried out by the vet.

“The proportion of guardians who resorted to scolding their dogs if they refused to be treated is also alarming. Veterinary surgeons have a duty to ensure their patients’ welfare, and therefore, they should take advantage of every situation to advise guardians that the use of punishment is not recommended due to its negative implications on dog welfare and behavior.”

Most of the dogs (89.9%) had had regular visits to the vet since they were a puppy, so you might think they were used to going to the vet.

But many owners (39.7%) said their dog already knew they were going to the vet while they were in the car, and 7.4% before they had even left home. Add in the dogs who showed signs of stress as soon as they arrived (52.9%), and over three quarters of dogs are said to show signs of stress before they even make it in to the waiting room.

Dogs who were stressed at the early stages of the visit were more likely to be stressed at the later stages too.

Most people were able to give at least some treatments to their dog at home (50.6%) and 47% said they could give all treatments. However, about two thirds said they had sometimes had difficulty.

Of those who struggled to give treatments, most scolded the dog and then did the treatment anyway (72.4%). This is unfortunate because scolding the dog does not teach them to accept the treatment and can make things worse in the future. Only 14% of owners did not scold the dog in these circumstances.

In fact there was a link between scolding the dog when owners found it hard to give a treatment and aggressive behaviour towards the vet. This was the case whether the owner scolded the dog and did the treatment anyway, or scolded the dog and abandoned treating them.

People’s assessments of their own dog at different stages of the vet clinic showed the majority had impaired welfare at each stage, except for the transition from waiting room to consultation room. Even then, 30% of dogs had to be encouraged and 16% had to be carried into the room.

The paper makes many important recommendations for both dog owners and vets.

Dr. Chiara Mariti, first author of the paper, told me in an email, “To the owners, I would suggest to get the dog becoming habituated to the veterinary clinic, to being handled, and to being exposed to common clinical practices. This means to gently, gradually and progressively familiarize puppies with manipulations (to being touched all over their bodies and used to the most unpopular treatments, such as temperature measurements and ear examinations), associating any kinds of handling with positive emotions and stimuli.

“Also a positive association with anything related with the travel can help. Courtesy visits to the clinic, just to familiarize with the place and the vet without any interventions, and real visits since puppyhood are strongly recommended.

“More importantly, in case dogs refuse to be treated by their owners, the latter should not scold the dog, but rather trying to understand the problem, being gentle, and maybe to ask for a behaviourist’s help.”

If your dog is stressed at the vet, you're not alone. The signs of stress to look for in your dog, and how to look after your dog's welfare.
Photos: Tinxi (top) and melis (both Shutterstock.com)
Almost everyone said the vet tried to give their dog food, but 37% of dogs would not take it. Food is a very good way to help animals at the vet but an animal that is too stressed will not eat. This result suggests vets need to learn how to use food to help their patients, and how to keep their patients from getting so stressed they will not eat.

Only a third of owners said their dog would let the vet handle them anywhere.

Vets did make some attempt to talk to the dog (53%), use the dog’s name (40%) and pet them (53%) but this was not enough to make dogs comfortable. It was still helpful, because dogs whose vet did not do this were more likely to be stressed in the waiting room, on the exam table, and when the vet approached.

There are clear consequences for a vet’s business, because about a third of participants said they had previously changed vet. The most common reasons were because they did not think the vet was competent (24.5%) or because of the vet’s attitude to their dog (18%).

Dr. Mariti says, “My advice for the vets: make sure you are protecting your patients' welfare, that is a duty of your profession.

“Vets can work at different levels, from the education of owners (handling and habituation of puppies, appropriate treatments at home, avoiding any kinds of punishment, including scolding…) to the preparation of the clinic to make it as much dog-friendly as possible: the place, the kind of handling, noises, and the presence of conspecifics and strangers can be stressful for some dogs, and this may be a relevant welfare issue especially in cases where the dog has to visit the veterinary clinic regularly or if recovery is long.

“Vets behaviour is also relevant, as dogs feel calmer when the vet spends some time interacting with them before the visit.”

The finding that many dogs seem to know where they are going in advance of arriving at the vet has important implications too. The scientists say for some dogs there is a risk of developing a more generalized anxiety disorder. They also say it suggests dogs have learned when they are going in the car to the vet rather than somewhere else. For dog owners, this shows the importance of also taking the dog for pleasant outings, so they don’t learn to be afraid of the car.

This research confirms that vet visits are stressful for many dogs. An earlier study observed 45 dogs in the waiting room at the vet (Mariti et al 2015) and found that 29% were highly stressed according to signs noted by a veterinary behaviourist including trembling, low tail, lowered ears, and trying to leave. Taken together, these studies show that both dog owners and vets need to take steps to improve canine welfare at the vet.

Many cats also find vet visits stressful.

There is a lot we can do to make vet visits better for our canine and feline companions. These days, there are some excellent resources on how to help dogs and cats be less stressed at the vet.

What do you do to try and reduce stress for your dog at the vet?

Mariti C, Pierantoni L, Sighieri C, & Gazzano A (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Dogs' Welfare and Behaviors Related to Visiting the Veterinary Clinic. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 1-10 PMID: 27712096

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19 October 2016

A Windstorm is a Reminder of Disaster Preparation for Pets

The best time to start disaster preparation for your pet is now.

A Springer Spaniel in the trunk of a car - ensure pets are ready for disasters

Recently, like many people in this part of the world, we heard there was a big storm on the way. The third of three windstorms was said to be the most powerful. Since we live in an area with many beautiful trees and the power lines are above ground, it does not take much to knock out the power.

In the end, we were lucky. The storm was not as strong as predicted, and it changed track and went further north. But it’s a reminder that we all need to be prepared for emergencies. And pets are an important part of our emergency preparedness.

Planning starts with thinking about the kinds of emergencies you might face. Maybe you live in an area that is prone to floods or forest fires, or has the potential for big earthquakes. It’s helpful to think about smaller events too, that might impact you without affecting others: house fires, job losses, illnesses. These could all have an impact on your ability to care for your pet.

You could come to arrangements with friends and family about how you will care for each other’s pets if something happens. It helps to talk about these things in advance.

For me, with an incoming storm I wanted to be sure I had enough pet food and cat litter, and to charge up my cellphone. A bad storm last year knocked the power out for more than a day, and I can tell you that by day 2 the novelty was really wearing off. It was long enough that once the power came back, local stores had to stay closed to throw out ruined food. Also some roads were blocked with fallen trees, making travel more difficult for a short while.

Prepare pets in case of emergency, as a cat sits on a windowsill safe from the storm

In this part of the world, the big risk we are meant to be prepared for is an earthquake. The official advice is to have enough supplies that you can manage on your own for at least 72 hours, preferably longer.

That means food and water supplies for your pets as well as yourself, flashlights and spare batteries, and a radio so that you know what’s happening in the world. (A wind-up and/or solar-powered one that you can use to charge a cellphone seems like a good idea).

Don’t forget to include some of your dog or cat’s favourite treats.

A harness and leash would be handy so you don't run out of the house without them. A towel or blanket could be useful as a temporary bed for your dog or cat. Bowls for food and water, washing up liquid and some garbage bags would all be useful too.

Having some cash in small notes is sensible in case of power being out at ATMs. This is a habit you can get into, or you can keep a small amount at home.

What about copies of important documents, not just your own but also your pets’ vaccination records? Keep them in a plastic wallet or container that will keep them dry, and add them to your ‘grab bag’ that you will grab and take with you in an emergency.

Identification for your pet is sometimes overlooked (tattoo, microchip, collar tag). As well as making sure your pet has id, ensure the people who keep the microchip/tattoo records have an up-to-date address and phone number for you.

Helping your pet to be well-socialized and to be calm and well-behaved in ordinary life pays off in an emergency too. After the M9 earthquake in Fukushima, those who had trained and socialized their pets were more likely to be able to take them with them when they evacuated (Yamazaki 2015).

Training your cat or dog to go in a carrier is useful in ordinary life, since it means you can take them to the vet. In an emergency, it’s easy to see that it might make the difference to being able to take them with you.

Heath and Linnabary (2015) also say that having a good starting point for animals is part of emergency planning. While they are thinking about the broader societal level, we can apply this to our individual situations too. If your dog or cat is fearful or has other struggles in ordinary life, finding ways to solve those issues is worthwhile (if you need help from a certified trainer or behaviourist, this could be the moment to make that call).

This post is not a guide to how to prepare for emergencies; rather it’s intended to encourage you to think about the kinds of events you might have to prepare for, and get started. It’s not a solo activity; discuss it with your family and friends. And you might be kind enough to also consider neighbours who are seniors or who might need a little help for other reasons.

You can also put a regular date in your diary to review your plans and update your supplies (even bottled water has a sell-by date). Pick a date that you will remember, either because it’s meaningful to you or because it’s the date your city carries out earthquake drills (thus you will be reminded by the media). For me, that's tomorrow: ShakeOut BC is on 20th October.

You can find more information about emergency planning for pets in this ASPCA guide.

Heath SE, & Linnabary RD (2015). Challenges of Managing Animals in Disasters in the U.S. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 5 (2), 173-92 PMID: 26479228
Yamazaki, S. (2015). A Survey of Companion-Animal Owners Affected by the East Japan Great Earthquake in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, Japan Anthrozoƶs, 28 (2), 291-304 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2015.11435403
Photo: Josh Powell (Shutterstock.com).

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16 October 2016

Invitation to the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club

If you love reading and animals, you are invited to join the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

A puppy reads a book about dogs and cats

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is for discussion of books about dogs, cats, and our relationship with companion animals.

The club will discuss one book a month except for January and July, so we will read ten books a year.

Most books will be non-fiction, although fiction will be considered if a companion animal plays a prominent role.

Books may cover a wide variety of perspectives, but there is a preference for humane and kind treatment of animals (and people), and for scientific or critical approaches to the human-animal bond. Books do not have to be recent, but they will be available in book stores.

The book for discussion in November 2016 is The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

The book for December 2016 is The Secret History of Kindness by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

Everyone is welcome to join, whether or not you are a regular reader of Companion Animal Psychology.

Discussions will take place at the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club Facebook group - ask to join the group on Facebook - and here on the blog (see note below).

Discussions will start on the first weekend of each month, and you can join in any time during that month.

See you on 5th November to discuss The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat!

If you would like, you can purchase via our Amazon Associate link.

Note: The book club group is now closed to new members due to overwhelming demand. I will post the books and questions to my blog every month, so that readers not able to join the group can still join in at home. Thank you to everyone for your interest, and I'll let you know when there is an opportunity to join again.

12 October 2016

Training is Purrfect Enrichment for Frustrated Shelter Cats

Training shelter cats leads to more contentment and better health.

Enrichment is important for shelters cats, like this cat lying down in her box

The study, by Nadine Gourkow and Clive Phillips (University of Queensland), tested the effects of training sessions on cats that were frustrated when they arrived at an animal shelter. The cats in the training group became more content and were healthier compared to the cats who just experienced normal shelter conditions.

Prof. Clive Phillips says,
“Confining a cat into a small cage after it has been roaming free, in someone’s home or as a stray, is a huge challenge for any cat. A significant proportion of them develop serious behaviour problems and one of these is extreme frustration, manifested by trying to escape or turning their cage contents upside down. 
“We can help these cats adapt by training them to do a task, taking time with them and encouraging them to have trust in human contact. Then they will be happier, healthier and more likely to get adopted.”
The study took place at the Vancouver branch of the BCSPCA. Cats were assessed within an hour of arriving at the shelter. Out of 250 cats that were assessed, 15 were deemed frustrated and were eligible to take part in this study.

Signs that the cats were frustrated include pacing, meowing, tipping out the contents of food bowls and litter trays, and trying to escape the cage by biting the bars or putting their paw through. Cats were defined as frustrated if these signs were apparent more than 10% of the time.

8 cats were assigned to the control condition and experienced normal shelter life for the next ten days. 7 cats were put in the training condition. Four times a day, they had an individual 10-minute reward-based training session with the experimenter.

The training took place in a room next door to the room with the cat cages. Initially the cats were carried there, but most soon learned to walk to the room with the experimenter once she let them out of their cage.

The cats were given two minutes to explore the room, then the clicker training session started. The aim of the training plan was to teach them to do a hi-five.

The cats were first conditioned to the clicker and then shaped to do a hi-five. Once they had learned the behaviour they were taught to do it on cue (“Give me five”).  Whiskas Temptations cat treats in tuna flavour were used as the reward.

Throughout the study, stool samples were collected from cats in both the training and control groups. Video cameras were also mounted in the cat cages so that behaviour could be monitored, and evaluations were made for 10 minutes every hour. The researcher also noted whether the experimental cats were friendly or not at the end of each training session.

Training is good enrichment for cats, like this kitten on a cat tree

The behavioural results showed that cats in the training group were more likely to be content than those in the control group, who remained frustrated for longer. Signs of contentment included normal grooming, lying on their side in a relaxed posture, rubbing the head or body on things in the cage, and sitting calmly at the front of the cage.

Over time, the control group of cats became apathetic, typically after 6 days of trying to escape. They did not eat as much or groom themselves properly, and spent a lot of time sleeping.

The stool samples showed that cats in the training group had higher levels of Immunoglobulin A, which can protect against upper respiratory infections. In line with this, the control group was significantly more like to get an upper respiratory infection during the time of the study.

The training activity involved several aspects that may have been beneficial to the cat – time out from the cage and time spent with a human as well as the training itself. It could be any of these, or the combination, that caused these results.

The sample is small, but it represents all of the frustrated cats that were available at the shelter at that time. Further research with a larger sample is needed. The authors point out that cats may also become frustrated after being at a shelter for a while, so potentially many more cats could benefit.

These results are promising and suggest that training is good for frustrated cats. Shelters could incorporate this kind of enrichment into their regular practice. Cat training might be an attractive program for volunteers.

Would you like to try training a cat?

Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. (2016). Effect of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 131, 103-110 DOI: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2016.07.012
Photos: Esin Deniz (top) and Crystal Alba (bottom) (both Shutterstock.com)
More cat stories:
Interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat
Your cat would like food puzzle toys
Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss)

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 October 2016

Interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on the Trainable Cat

An interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about teaching cats the key skills they need to live in society with us.

A cat plays with a toy

This week, I was thrilled to speak with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her new book with John Bradshaw, The Trainable Cat. The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat is published by Basic Books and is a New York Times bestseller. Every cat owner needs to read this book.

Zazie: How did you get into training cats?

Sarah: I started training cats unbeknown to myself when I was a child. I grew up with cats from the day I was born, but I got my first-born cat when I was 7 and he was a Burmese, very very intelligent. I lived in the rural countryside in Scotland with no siblings and not much to do so I spent a lot of time with him. He was very food motivated and very very social. And so I – not on purpose, but I inadvertently trained him to go over little obstacles of furniture in the living room, walk on my shoulder, and he used to go over little trails of jumps in the garden following a lure toy, you know like a fishing rod toy. And these were things that I would show to my parents and show to my friends, and that was that. I never at that stage even really thought about the fact that I was training him on purpose.

Dr Sarah Ellis with her cat Cosmos
Then I didn’t get my own cat as an adult until I was in my mid-20s when I was doing my PhD in feline behaviour. So that first cat had an obviously quite big impact on me. During that time that I was doing my PhD I was collecting data in a rescue group organization. So I was seeing lots and lots of cats every single day and seeing lots of the problems that they face – going to the vet, how they couldn’t cope, couldn’t even cope in the cat carrier, couldn’t cope in the cages in the rescue centre. And I thought it doesn’t need to be like this at all, it’s not like this for my cat, so why is my cat different from all these other cats? But even then I didn’t really realize that I was actually training him. It was something I just did, I still didn’t think about it.

And then when I finished my PhD I moved to the University of Lincoln and I was doing research into feline welfare. But a lot of my colleagues were working with dogs, and they were training dogs on a daily basis, running puppy classes, and I went along to help assist with the puppy classes. It was only really right then that I thought, “Aaah, I totally know what I’m doing with my cat. And why have we never ever formalized this, and why do we think that this is just something for dogs and not something for cats?” 

And yes we might want to do it for cats for different reasons than we want to train dogs, but it was then I started to put terminology to what I was doing and formalize the process I was doing and really bring my conscious thought into it. “This is exactly what I’m doing, I’m actually training them without even realizing.” You know, whether it’s how I change my body language, when I give the food reward, whatever the food reward is, I’m training them. So then I started at that point to actively train cats. Then I started to talk about it quite a bit and then I think it was 2010  - I went to the University of Lincoln in 2007 and it was 2010 I was asked to give my first talk at a conference on training cats. And then in 2012 I was asked to write a year-long series on training cats for a UK Cat magazine. And that was it!

Zazie: When people think about training, usually they’re thinking about things like sit and stay, obedience and things like that. But that’s not really quite what your book is about is it?

Sarah: No, not all. I mean, the book is called The Trainable Cat but for me it’s really about training for better welfare, to improve the wellbeing of the cat. Insofar as teaching the cat the key skills that they need to live in society with us. And without those skills they often struggle. They’re skills that are completely within the reach of a cat, you know, we’re not asking for things that actually destroy the essence of what a cat is. I think there are many of those demands placed on cats, I do think many people ask cats to be things that cats are not. But the training here is about teaching cats to perceive the world that we have them in and the things we have to do to them. Not things we just want to do to them, but things we have to do because it has a welfare advantage to them, but the cat doesn’t necessarily know that at that time, to be able to cope with those things in a better way.

Going in the cat carrier is a definite because every cat that is owned within a responsible owner’s home if you like, or wherever that is, a shelter, will end up in a cat carrier at some point in its life because they will give it veterinary care.  Likewise veterinary care, preventative health care, visitors – there’s no way we can keep pet cats within our home without them having to meet people they don’t know. These types of things for me are absolute life skills. The sits and the stays and the hi-fives are things that can be done to enhance your relationship with your cat, because training is rewarding in its own right. But it’s beyond that, it’s actually about thinking about what you want to train and how that might improve the cat’s life.

Zazie: So for people who are completely new to the idea of training a cat, can you say something about the best rewards to use?

Sarah: If people are completely new to training cats but have trained dogs before, they almost need to take that hat off and start from scratch. Because dogs are so – as you well know – are very very socially orientated towards us and are very very perceptive at reading cues that we give, whether it’s pointing at something or the facial expressions that we make. Cats are not so good at those sort of things, so therefore we need to think about the fact that the cat is not necessarily always focussed on us. They don’t start from that standing point. You know if you stood in front of a dog and they kind of look at you and say “what do you want me to do?” If you stood in front of a cat they’d say “why on earth are you looking at me?!” then turn round and walk off. There isn’t that need to please, so we have to think about what really is rewarding for a cat, because it’s certainly not our social attention, for most cats. And when we first start training a cat that’s not been trained before, the most rewarding thing generally for cats is food.

They are obligate carnivores, so that food generally has to be meat, and by meat I mean meat and fish – animal flesh. And they are solitary hunters, they are derived from solitary hunters so they will hunt small and often, small meals frequently. So actually they are really well suited to training because that’s how we deliver the food. But because they do eat frequently, small amounts frequently throughout the day naturally, food again is a really good reward because it’s not like they  just have one big meal a day and that’s it. So food works well, feeding small and often really works well.

The thing I really would like to point out is many people think about the size of the food reward that they give, and it is so often far too big. Because we sort of think in dog terms or even in human terms and even the size that commercial cat treats come in are far too big to be a single training treat. So I very often recommend that if you are using commercial cat treats, use the freeze dried ones or the semi-moist ones, because you can pull them into much much smaller parts. If we’re thinking about a prawn, not a king prawn just an average normal prawn, I would break that maybe into four or five parts at least.

Zazie: You alluded a bit to differences between training cats and dogs. Something else you mention in your book is that sometimes cats get quite excited about being trained. What can we do if the cat gets excited by the training session?

Sarah: I think one of the big problems is that many owners don’t recognize the behavioural signs when their cats are getting too excited and so it’s too late. Often a cat that gets too excited can become quite silly with its claws, because they can swipe, or they can latch onto you, they can grab you with all their claws. But there are many tell-tale signs before that happens such as dilation of the eyes, often we see flattening of the ears or wrinkling of the skin, and the tail might start to swish or thrash, or their movements might become a bit more jaggy or stuttered, a bit more staccato. It’s teaching owners to recognize these signs so that they stop training at that point before it eludes to an over-excited incident such as the cat swiping.

And it really depends on the individual cat and how skilled the trainer is, so in some cases, for example my cat Cosmos, he can get very excited around food. It’s part of his history because he was, prior to coming to me as a rescue kitten he was starved, and one of his siblings actually when they arrived at the veterinary practice had died of starvation. So he was really quite seriously starved. So he gets – or did, I should say – get extremely excited around food, but training has definitely helped us to cope with that. And now if I see the signs that he’s getting too excited, rather than stop training completely I can lower the value of the reward that I’m using. So let’s say I was using fresh meat for him, cooked chicken or a piece of prawn or whatever it is, I could drop it down to my next reward being just a piece of his normal kibble, parts of dried commercial food.

You can lower the value of the food, or you can stop completely, or you can move onto a different training task that is less exciting. I definitely wouldn’t use the reward of play and toys in situations where cats are getting really excited.

Zazie: In the book you have this idea of a training toolbox and it’s a metaphor but it’s also literal. What’s in your training toolbox?

Sarah: The training toolbox will be slightly different for each individual cat because it is tailor-made to each cat’s likes and dislikes, and depending on which tasks you are likely to train. Your rewards will be in there, so the various types of toys you might use as rewards, the various types of food you might use as rewards, and the various types of ways you might deliver those foods.

So for example, in my training toolbox I have a tin, so I keep some of my dried foods in a tin. I have a number of empty syringes, not syringes with needles on, just the plastic syringe because I would often make a paste, a smooth pureed paste of cat meat, that gives me a constant source of food to deliver slowly when pressed through a syringe. I also have a weaning spoon which is used for children, it’s like a squeezy tube with a spoon on the end, and if I squeeze the food it squeezes it directly into the spoon. I also have a target stick in my training toolbox, and I use that to teach my cats how to follow a target. It’s a stick with a big ping pong ball on the end. Sometimes I’ll use that type of training if I want to move a cat from one place to another, and it’s not offering any of that behaviour spontaneously. So for example you could use a target stick to move a cat through a cat flap or to move it down off a worktop or even to keep it still in a standing position if you are wanting to do some handling.

They’re the main things. Some people use clickers like a marker. We talked about a marker word in the book but some people might use a marker of a clicker instead, so keep a clicker in there. And I have a grooming brush in my toolbox because Cosmos finds access to a grooming brush really rewarding.

Zazie: If someone is going to start training their cat, where would you suggest that they start? Should they work their way through the chapters in order, or what do you think is the best place to start for most cats?

Sarah: I think it’s a really good idea to read the introductory chapters because they really tell you, what is a cat, and give you a full understanding of your cat before you even think about training. Then I would definitely read the key skills chapters, and have a play with the different activities within those key skills, so you’re mastering the skills on behaviours that are not really that important to you. So if you don’t get your timing quite right, or the reward you used was not high enough value, or low enough value, it doesn’t really matter because you’ve not ruined a behaviour that it’s important for you to teach, because they’re just practice activities.

Then it’s very very dependent on your own individual circumstances and what things are about to happen in your cat’s life. If you have a cat that is not good with visitors for example, that would be something I would work on straight away. If you have a cat that you know hates the vet, and his booster vaccination is in 5 months, now’s a brilliant time to start working on that. Don’t leave it until a few weeks before, give yourself plenty of time. Cat carrier again is one for everybody, preventative healthcare for everybody, but introducing a baby, introducing a dog, that’s very dependent on your own circumstances.

Zazie: Thank you. One of the other things I wanted to ask you about is one of the key skills you describe, which is collecting the cat’s scent. So for people who are used to training dogs, they won’t really know what that’s all about. How can we use scent when we’re training a cat?

Sarah: So cats like dogs do navigate the world very much through their sense of smell, their sense of olfaction. But they also use chemicals known as pheromones. Each pheromone is specific to one species. And these are deposited from their facial glands, predominantly; from other areas too but the ones we’re thinking about are the ones from their facial glands. For people that don’t know cats so well, when you look at a cat’s face and you can see those balding patches in front of their ears, between their eyes and their ears, that’s a big area of scent glands. Behind the whiskers and under the chin and just at the corners of the lips as well. They’re areas that produce a lot of these pheromones, and the chemicals have a specific function.

An interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book The Trainable Cat. Here, A cat rubs scent on a tree and deposits pheromones, something Ellis explains
Photo: plastique (Shutterstock.com)
And we believe – there has been some research done  although we do need a lot lot more – but we believe that cats facial rub on objects, protruding objects like the corners of walls or protruding parts of furniture, because they are depositing these pheromones. We know that they do reinvestigate areas that they have rubbed, so it’s not just a chemical message that they put down for others, we know that they will keep going back and investigating those areas and re-rubbing them, putting down more pheromones. It’s difficult to know the exact function but we believe it’s something to do with enhancing their perceived security within an area, and their perceived familiarity within an area. Certainly we have observed cats performing this behaviour at the periphery of their territory.

And so if that’s the case, and if it means that the cat feels more secure and more familiar when something is impregnated with these pheromones, and when they do that it won’t just be the pheromones that go down it will be their scent that’s related to their identity as well. We know that cats can discriminate based on urine output, based on faecal output, and actually we’re just starting to look at research to suggest whether they can on scent from the body as well as from the facial gland region. So what we’re doing is we’re basically collecting those pheromones and all the scent of that cat and then placing that onto something that is new or novel. By doing that it’s like the cat pre-facial rubbed that object, and therefore it is less daunting to the cat. It should be perceived as slightly more familiar. A little bit like, I say to people when we take a child out of their comfort zone of their home, they’ll often take a comfort blanket with them or their favourite teddy. They’re taking something that is safe and secure and familiar, and then when they hold it or when they smell it, or whatever they do with it, it brings them feelings of comfort and safety.

Zazie: That’s a great analogy.

Sarah: That’s why we collect the scent and we do it simply by rubbing those facial gland areas and then rubbing whatever it is we want to impregnate with that scent. You can also do it, if you were taking a cat to a new location, you can just use the bedding that that cat normally uses.

Zazie: Thank you. So throughout the book it’s all about using rewards to train cats, but unfortunately some people sometimes use punishment like spraying water. Why is it so important not to use punishment with a cat?

Sarah:  There’s a few reasons. The first thing to say is that it’s not that punishment isn’t effective. I think to get people on side they have to understand that punishment will, by the very nature it’s called punishing a behaviour, it will stop a behaviour. But if that punishment is seen to be coming from you, you are also then perceived as punishing, therefore you are not perceived in a positive light. And therefore it can really damage the relationship that you have with that cat because for a punisher to really work it has to be really aversive. To stop that behaviour it has to be stronger than the motivation to perform the behaviour. Therefore if it’s that aversive, and the cat associates you as being that aversive, you’re going to really damage your relationship with that cat. Now, you’re in your cat’s life all the time, you feed the cat, you do other positive things with the cat, so you’re suddenly giving this cat very very ambiguous signals that ‘sometimes I’m nice, and sometimes I’m not.’ That can put the cat into a state of anxiety and in extreme cases the cat could even begin to fear you. So you actually can then begin to create a situation where the cat hasn’t just stopped performing the behaviour you wanted it to stop performing, it’s now actively avoiding you or actively fearful of you.

Zazie: Towards the end of the book you have a lovely section about things to do with your cat and which might stop your cat from getting bored, like cat agility and a sensory box. Can you just say a little bit more about that and why it’s so important?

Sarah: It’s really important because if we look back to the animal that the cat has descended from, we see an individual that spends a huge part of its day exploring its territory, investigating the environment and hunting and working for its food. Now although we have domesticated the cat, and although in many cases through pedigree breeding we have changed how it physically looks, rightly or wrongly, we haven’t actively selected for specific behavioural traits in the cat. So we haven’t bred out of them the need to be territorial, we haven’t bred out of them the need to hunt. These instincts still exist in the cat and therefore they still have a motivation to actively explore their environment and to be searching for food and finding food. When opportunities for these behaviours are not freely available, we can put the cat at risk of poor welfare because they can be motivated to do something that there’s not an opportunity to do. And this is particularly so for the cats that don’t have outdoor access and that are indoors-only.

By using training, we can set up situations where we provide an alternative outlet for those behaviours the cat still instinctively wants to perform. So through training the fact that they are actually working for their food, they are having to problem solve, they are learning that their behaviour has consequences, and it is much of what happens when a cat is hunting. If a cat makes the wrong move in hunting, and it lets the prey escape, there are no rewards. The consequence is that the prey has gone and the cat will not perform that behaviour again. It’s having to constantly think and readjust its behaviour. And that’s exactly what we provide through training. And with food there is the same ability for consumption.

An interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book, The Trainable Cat, and how to train cats. It's important to provide enrichment like here, a ginger and white cat in a box
Photo: Belozerova Daria; top, Xseon; both Shutterstock

By using things like agility we can add in that element of exploring the physical environment. So often owners don’t want their cats to climb on the furniture, on any shelf or mantel piece where we put up knick-knacks, pictures frames, whatever it is that we don’t want the cats to go up there because we’re worried about them knocking those things off. But if we talk to owners about doing agility with their cats in their home, then they start to think about their home in a different way. They start to imagine how their home could be utilized more by their cat. So I think it gives them that little change of perception and gives the cat that opportunity for that physical activity.

The sensory box again is a little bit like bringing the outdoors in. It’s really important for indoor-only cats. Cats are used to their environment – although they like to keep their inner circle, their core territory, familiar to them by constantly scent marking on it, they are used to lots and lots of change in their environment. Because naturally their environment would be outdoors. One of the reasons that they patrol is that they’re checking to see what changes have happened. The indoor environment can be incredibly stagnant and there isn’t this sort of sensory change. And we so are providing some of that stimulation by bringing some of the outdoors into the home.

Zazie: Fantastic. So if somebody reads the book and they’re really keen to learn more about cats, presumably you would refer them to International Cat Care. What kinds of resources can people find there?

Sarah: Yeah definitely. International Cat Care has a vast amount of free resources on our website, within our advice section, on all areas of behaviour, including clinical behaviour if people are experiencing problem behaviours with their cat. We also on our youtube channel have a number of how-to videos including some videos for training. There are three videos on how to train your cat to go in a cat carrier, one video on how to train your cat to do a recall, and we will be producing over time more training videos. For those that have really got hooked on behaviour and training now and want to do a lot more and understand cats a lot more, we are producing two new distance education online courses on feline behaviour. One of the courses is for vets, vet nurses and vet technicians, and the other course is for cat owners, and pet professionals working outwith the veterinary profession, in rehoming and welfare organizations, breeders, cat-sitters, all those types of jobs.  Both of those courses have a full module on training so we will be covering it in great depth and having the opportunity for a lot more support, and getting the opportunity to get feedback on your own individual training skills. Our first course runs in mid-November but the registration is open until the end of October. And then we’ll run again in May next year.

We’ve got people registered at the moment from 14 different countries. It’s really great, because we really really want to encourage peer support across the world and keep disseminating information amongst each other. Once the courses are finished we hope to set up an alumni group so people can keep supporting each other in all the different ways they work.

Zazie: Brilliant. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! I think your book is wonderful and it’s going to make a huge huge difference to so many cats. 

Dr. Sarah Ellis is Feline Behaviour Expert at International Cat Care. You can follow her on twitter and facebook, and find more information about the feline behaviour courses

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis is published by Basic Books.

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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)