Animals, Pets and Vermin

What do animals mean to you and what role do they play in your life? These and related questions were recently asked of ordinary people by the Mass Observation Project in the UK, and the results, in a paper by Alison Sealey and Nickie Charles, are fascinating.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Since 1937, the Mass Observation Project has been collecting information from ordinary people about life in Britain. Set up with the idea of creating “an anthropology of ourselves,” data collection continued until the early 50s when it stopped, and then resumed in the 1980s. Now, over 500 people are on the panel, and respond to open-ended questions three times a year. Researchers can commission questions, which is how this particular study came about. (If you live in the UK and are interested in Mass Observation, you can keep a one-day diary on Monday 12th May).
Sealey and Charles asked a number of questions about the role of animals in people’s everyday lives. 249 people replied and, while all responses were a…

Will Work for Hot Dog?

How do scientists motivate dogs to take part in scientific research?

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Canine science relies on dogs taking part in experiments so that researchers can learn more about what dogs know or how dogs behave.

In some scientific studies dogs are allowed to act naturally, but in others they need to learn something such as how to operate an apparatus they haven’t seen before, or to observe people interacting.

Either way, you can’t guarantee canine cooperation. So just how are dogs are motivated during the course of the research itself?

Needless to say, food is a common denominator. We know that in dog traininggreat training treats can really help. Scientists have to consider what to use too, as dogs won't work for free. Many studies use sausage or hot dog.

For example, in one study that looked at whether dogs can recognize human emotional expression (Buttelmann and Tomasello, 2012), dogs were given a piece of sausage if they successfully chose the box containing it, rathe…

Enrichment and Play in Domestic Ferrets

Enrichment, play, and time out of the cage are important for the welfare of pet ferrets.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Ferrets are popular pets because they are curious, playful and engaging. A new study by Sarah Talbot et al (Charles Stuart University, Australia) looks at play, behaviour problems and enrichment in domestic ferrets.

Despite a reputation for aggression, it seems that ferrets rarely bite – and they love toys.

According to the American Ferret Association, ferrets “are independent, yet enjoy being with people. Their mischievous and playful nature, retained well into old age, makes them entertaining companions.

It is estimated that there are 334 ferrets per 1000 households in the US, and many owners have multiple ferrets. According to the UK's National Ferret Census, most ferrets are kept as companion animals, but about 20% are both working and companion ferrets.

The study involved a questionnaire that was distributed via Australian vets that treat ferrets, the websites of ferret…

Food Enrichment for Cats

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

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The study by Juliana Damasceno and Gelson Genaro (University of São Paolo) took place at a captive cat colony in São Paolo, Brazil. The 35 cats that participated in the study had all lived as a captive colony for four years, in a caged outside enclosure. One of the experimenters was already very familiar to the cats since she had spent some years helping to take care of them.
Previous work has shown that food can be used as enrichment for cats, but there are individual differences in how cats interact with such items. One of the aims of this study was to look at those differences, and see if changes to the enrichment program would lead to more cats interacting with th…

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

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

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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

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

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

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

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The study, by Megan Mueller (Tufts University), is published in the journal Applied Developmental Science. It is based on a survey of 567 young people in the US aged between 18 and 26, and was part of a wider longitudinal study called the 4-H study. 
The questionnaire asked whether or not participants owned an animal, how often they were responsible for its care if they did, and whether they were involved in other activities with animals. Other questions asked about their contribution to society, commitment to animals, morality about animals, attachment to and emotions about animals. The researchers also looked at what are called the 5Cs of positive youth development – competence, confidence, connection, character and caring.
The results showed a correlation between taking part in animal-related activities and higher scores on a scale called Contributio…

The Street Dogs of Bangkok

The relationship between Thai people and street dogs in Bangkok.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

If you’ve ever been to Bangkok, you will have noticed stray dogs and cats loitering on the street corners. Some are well fed, but many are scrawny, flea-ridden, and have old injuries. While many sleep away the day, others are tricky for pedestrians to navigate. New research by Nikki Savvides investigates the relationship between people and street dogs in the capital of Thailand.

Thai people’s attitudes to animals are shaped by Theravada Buddhism, including a belief that killing animals is wrong. Although most Thai people eat meat and fish, there is a vegetarian festival in the month of October, when for ten days people ‘ginjeh’ (eat vegetarian). There are spirit houses outside most buildings, where Thai people light incense and make offerings of flowers, food and other items. Acts of kindness towards animals, such as feeding strays or releasing birds from cages, are a way to ‘make merit’ (tam bon) for t…