How do you build resilience in dogs?

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or even significant sources of stress. This process is obviously seen in humans, but what does it have to do with dogs?

The ASPCA and other animal welfare professionals are concerned about resilience in dogs because, for some dogs that end up at a shelter, a lack of resilience is a major obstacle to successfully rehoming the dog. Despite shelters’ best effort to mitigate the stress of being in a shelter, the stress of being in a shelter can lead to some dogs developing pretty depressing and challenging behavior, such shutting down, becoming frantic, or even defensive aggression.

Recently, ASPCA Professional hosted a webinar called “Building Resilience in Dogs” by Dr. Patricia McConnell, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (If you’d like to see the whole webinar, follow that last link – you can register to receive the recording of the webinar!)

I amimg_4819 personally interested in resilience in dogs because my younger dog, Luna, is the least resilient dog in the world. OKAY – that may be a slight exaggeration! However: Luna’s recovery time from a single stimulating event (which includes things such as: playing with a toy, going on a walk, someone coming to the house, etc.) is hours if not days.  Since I have organized Luna’s routine to accommodate adequate recovery time, many of Luna less-than-desirable behaviors (including becoming frantic and inappropriate defensive aggression) all but disappear.

This can be tricky though, if we have to have a handy man over to the house and then Luna unexpectedly needs to go to the vet – or a hundred other eventualities that I’m sure you can imagine! Hence my interest in building resilience in dogs: if I can build up Luna’s resilience, maybe I won’t have to be quite as vigilant about guarding Luna’s recovery time.

A dog’s resilience seems to depend on her genetics, early life experiences, and current environment. By the time a dog enters shelter, there typically isn’t much that can be done about those first two factors. Fortunately, Dr. McConnell, the ASPCA, and other animal welfare professionals have identified five ways we can set up a dog’s current environment to help foster resilience.

Dr. McConnell talks extensively in the webinar about the following strategies in the context of a shelter environment (so really, check out the webinar recording!!). Here, I am going to illustrate these strategies with things that I have tried, am trying, or would like to try in my own home for my own un-resilient dog!

1. Sense of safety and security. In general, dogs take in a lot for stimuli than us humans and it can be overwhelming, especially for a dog that is already feeling low on resilience due to a stressful event. Think rock concert + strobing light show + an entire perfume department: you might want a break too! Additionally, for a dog suffering from a lack of resiliency, knowing that it’s safe to sleep, when the next meal is coming, where and when she can go to the bathroom, etc. can be sensibly comforting. How can you create a sense of safety and security? Two main ways: avoid sensory overload and create predictability.

  • Avoid sensory overload
    • Give the dog a seclude “quiet spot”, like a crate or a room that is out of the way of household traffic and let everyone in the home know that the dog is “off-limits” when she is in her quite spot. Encourage or enforce your dog’s use of the quiet spot both during down time at home and when things are a little hectic.
      • Maybe even cover the dog’s crate with a blanket (not for dogs who chew and/or eat cloth, obviously!).
    • Train your dog to wear a ThunderCap, which reduces visual stimuli.
  • Create predictability
    • Create (and stick to!) a routine. Meals, exercise, playtime, and down time should all occur at roughly the same time every day.
    • Teach your dog cues to indicate something is going to happen. For example, Luna gets worked up over treats (she is a lab) so I say her name before I give her a treat and I say my other dog’s name when I am about to give my other dog a treat. Luna does not have to guess who is getting the treat!
    • Other times cues can be useful: nail trims, taking a turn or stopping during a walk, baths, meal times, end of playing (“all done!”), hitting a bump while in the car, etc.
    • Classical music adds to the calming predictability of home (or just the dog’s quiet spot) by adding predictable sounds (and maybe even blocking out some unpredictable sounds!)

3. Social support. Dogs tend to like other dogs – they just speak the same language! So it can be helpful to provide the company of dogs on the way to a resilient recovery…but it might not. Dogs that have not grown up around other dogs or who have had bad experience with another dog in the past may prefer the company of humans. Regardless, dogs are social creatures who (generally) enjoy social interactions.

  • Spend time with your dog in a way she img_4863appreciates (i.e. snuggles with a dog who likes that, quiet time (or read aloud!) with a dog who is not so touchy-feely).
  • Arrange for one-on-one play with another friendly dog or visit a well-maintained dog park.
  • Arrange a walking club. For dogs that may not be comfortable with off-leash play, introducing a dog friend as a walking buddy (when both dogs are leashed and kept at a comfortable distance) may be helpful.

4. Sense of autonomy.  Autonomy means, for a dog, having a choice. And let’s face it, the dogs in our lives do not have many choices: we decide the what, where, and when of her eating, going to the bathroom, playing, sleeping, going on a walk, visiting the vet, and so on. Providing opportunities for a dog to choose what they want to do, when they want to do it.

  • Use the basic principles of no force. A no brainer if ever there was one – never, ever force your dog to do something she does not want to do.
  • Teach behaviors that the dog can initiate herself, such as ringing a bell to go outside or going to a quiet spot.
  • Teach the dog tricks. This gives the dog appropriate behavior options to offer to you and also, when you ask the dog to perform a trick, you’re setting up a situation where the dog really does have a choice to perform the trick or not (with no negative repercussions).

5. Healthy and Balanced Internal Physiology. Just like humans, it is hard for dogs to behave well when they are feeling bad. And beyond veterinary care and good food, dogs need mental and physical exercise to be at their best.

  • Time outdoors. Given her own experience and the results of many research studies in humans, Dr. McConnell feels that time outdoors can be profoundly therapeutic to dogs. While I do agree, this is something that Luna struggles with because A) squirrels, B) sticks, C) people walking down the sidewalk, D) noises…you get the picture.
  • Regular exercise. This is so critical for so many dogs. A tired dog is a happy dog, some say – although really, it should be, “a satiated dog is a happy dog”. Overworked and overwhelmed dogs are tired, yes, but happy? Nope.
  • Mental games, like teaching and performing tricks and using puzzle toys. Luna is so helped by mentally taxing work, especially scent work. Sometimes she is not able to go on our near-daily walks, but she is always able to play “sniffy boxes”. If you have an anxious dog, I highly recommend finding a trainer who does scent work.

Have you tried any of these strategies with an anxious or un-resilient dog? Do you have any suggestions for building resilience in dogs?

 

 

Journal Article: How to Not be a D#@% to Your Cat

IMG_2540Have you ever considered that cats, creatures that we commonly deem to call “owned”,  are a totally different species to ours?  Because cats are relatively common aspects of our households, the fact that their needs to totally unrelated to our own frequently goes overlooked. Dr. Meghan Herron and Dr. Tony Buffington published recommendations for cat owners to provide good health and welfare for their feline friends. Furthermore, ensuring good health and welfare can pre-empt or ameliorate many cat behavior problems! The authors divide their advice into five systems in a cat’s world: physical resources, nutrition, elimination, social, and behavior. My summary of these experts’ recommendations for each system is below!

  • Physical Resource System (Home!)
    • Indoor cats benefit from secure, seclusive “microenvironments”. These are spaces that a cat can go to be away from loud noises, other home inhabitants (both four- and two-legged), and removed from other things that may stress the cat.
    • Multi-cat households may experience a range of cat-on-cat sociality. Cats may prefer a social distant from other cats in the home of between 1 to 3 meters, which includes both horizontal as well as vertical distance!
    • Introducing something new to the cat – food, litter, etc. – should be offered near to the current whatever is being replaced so the cat can choose the preferred item.
  • Nutritional System (Nom noms)
    • Cats are solitary hunters of small prey, so offering food in puzzles that must be manipulated by the cat to release food away from other animals in the household may mimic cats’ natural feeding habits.
    • Cats that are “finicky” about their food may be responding to a perceived threat in their environment.
    • Offering multiple sources of water, including running water from a pet fountain, may benefit cats.
  • Elimination System (When you gotta go…)
    • Multi-cat households should have at least one litter box per cat, plus one additional, kept out of sight of other littler boxes.
    • Covered, self-cleaning, or too small litter boxes may disrupt a cat’s normal elimination behavior routine, which may cause inappropriate elimination (i.e., going outside the box)
    • Cats seem to prefer clumping litter, which should be scooped daily, the entire contents should be dumped weekly, and cleaned with mild soap and water monthly.
  • Social System (You talkin’ to me?)
    • Other living creatures in cats’ environments basically fall into three categories: threats (dogs, humans); competitors (other cats); and prey (birds, fish, pocket pets).
    • Having a perception of control can decrease stress for cats: let cats determine the timing and location of interactions with other species (as safety permits).
    • Multi-cat households may experience inter-cat aggression to due a multitude of reasons: health problems, inadequate resources/space, social status conflicts due to other animals inside or outside the home, etc.
    • Cats may prefer avoidance (silent conflict) to aggression (open conflict).
    • Cats that experience conflict may never be best friends but can usually learn to live together tolerably, sometimes with the help of a certified behaviorist.
  • Behavioral System (A cat’s gotta do…what a cat’s gotta do)
    • Cats must be permitted to display normal behavior to ensure adequate welfare but many normal cat behaviors can be “undesirable” to owners, including scratching, chewing and playing.
    • Directing otherwise “undesirable” towards desirable outlets provides an enriched environment, which can be accomplished by providing outlets that appeal to the cat’s natural behavior.
    • Cats prefer to scratch things after rest and that allow them to hook their claws into it. Poles covered in sisal rope or real wood logs may be good options, placed near common sleeping areas.
    • Cats can be enticed to chew on cat-designated plants (such as live catnip) by rubbing the plants with tuna or wet cat food, and likewise discouraged from chewing non-cat-designated plants by spraying them bitter sprays from pet stores. Pet toxic plants should be removed from cats’ access!
    • Providing a rotating variety of toys (wand toys, stuffed toys, battery-operated self-propelling toys, balls, cat-nip filled toys, laser toys, etc.) will encourage normal cat behaviors like pouncing, stalking, chasing, and biting of said toys (and discourage those same behaviors direct toward the owner’s hands/feet/etc!).

Sources Cited 

Herron ME, Buffington CAT. Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats.Compendium (Yardley, PA). 2010;32(12):E4.

Let’s Talk: Values + Voting with Your Dollar

I don’t particularly like the term “values”. To me, it has this holier-than-thou connotation to which I have an innate negative response. However, it has occurred to me that defining one’s “values” can be helpfully orientating in a very disorientating world. In case you hadn’t noticed, a high priority value for me is animal welfare. The more that I’ve learned about our complex society, the more surprised and alarmed I’ve become about the amount of unethical sh!t that goes down in terms of animal welfare (and in a lot of other arenas, but this is a blog about pets). I’ve been heartened by the recent news stories about the financial and public perception losses of SeaWorld because of the sheer impossibility of providing adequate captive housing and care for animals like orcas.

I bring this up here because we are fortunate to live in a society where information is easily* accessible – “I didn’t know” is no longer a legitimate excuse to not understand the impacts of one’s behavior. I think the world could be a much better place if we were all a bit more critical about what we buy, where we go and how we treat ourselves and others. By acting in a more thoughtful manner, I realized that I can be an advocate for important causes in small ways nearly every day.
*Given a certain socioeconomic level, i.e. access to the internet, libraries and other information resources

The SeaWorld story has highlighted a great way to advocate for the welfare of animals in our society: voting with your dollar. Because of activism and the documentary, “Blackfish”, many people have begun to question the virtuosity of paying to see captive aquatic animals. As a result, it appears that SeaWorld may have to rethink its business model if it is to stay afloat. A smaller but perhaps more broad way to “vote with your dollar” to improve animal welfare is by purchasing cosmetics and household products that do not test their products or ingredients on animals.

Animal testing of cosmetics and household products is certainly a emotive topic for some, which is a big grain of salt to take when researching animal testing. I recommend the HSUS’s info page on the topic or the Food and Drug Administration’s statement on this subject, while keeping in mind the perspectives of these institutions. There is no need to be overly rage-y about this subject: animal testing for cosmetics/household products was previously an important way to identify human hazards but is now being phased out in light of better testing options, animal welfare concerns and established data. I take issue with the term, “cruelty-free” – bringing “cruelty” into the conversation is being a little more histrionic than rational as there are ethical standards in place for all animal testing that ensures lab animals do not suffer unnecessarily. However, one Google image search for “animal testing cosmetics” (do not do this whilst eating) is enough evidence for me that any discomfortable on the part of an animal is not worth something as superficial as a mascara.

Please consider voting for animal welfare by not purchasing products from companies that test their products or ingredients on animals. This doesn’t mean spending a mint – many companies that don’t test cosmetics/household products on animals have very competitive prices! You can find out information about a company’s animal testing status from EWG, LeapingBunny, and PETA’s company search engine

Journal Article: Can you measure stress in dogs?

Title: Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs

Authors: Bonne Beerda, Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Jan. A.R.A.M. van Hooff, Hans W. de Vries

Published: 1997 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

General overview:

The researchers sought to review the behavioral, physiological and immunological stress reactions that had been previously published and add to that knowledge base with their own researcher. The authors applied auditory stimuli to 6 beagle dogs (3 “test” dogs and 3 “control” dogs) in a variety of intensities and length. Additionally, the authors used 10 beagle dogs to test for stress reactions during 50 minutes of transport and in an unfamiliar environment. The dogs had behavioral and physiological measurements taken throughout travel to the testing facility or during the auditory stress or control situations. The authors found a wide range of physiological responses to supposed stressful events. The researchers suggested that more research into stress parameters for various behavioral, physiological and immunological reactions is needed. Furthermore, the authors recommend recording a variety of stress reactions in order to reduce differences between individuals, breeds, age, gender or previous life experiences when attempting to quantify the welfare of animals exposed to stress.

My comments:

Because this paper was about 50% literature review and 50% novel data, and because it was relatively old (17 years), I found this to be a highly, erm, fascinating read. Behavior researchers used to do some pretty sadistic things to dogs (i.e. shocking a dog with such a high voltage that the dog would, “urinate, defecate, scramble rapidly and vigorously around the compartment, emit high-pitched screeches, salivate profusely and roll their eyes rapidly with dilated pupils…”)! However flawed our currently animal research welfare laws are, they really are an improvement over…you know, no animal research welfare laws.

The literature review of this piece explained the historical efforts of animal behavior researchers to define which behaviors, physiological and immunological reactions in dogs were associated with stress. This research was probably fueled by the desire to define “stress” in dogs without any anthropomorphic influences. I thought it really highlighted the importance of “baby steps” in research: if you want to study stress in dogs, you must first define stress, determine how stress in manifested in the general population of dogs, and define measurable parameters of stress. Furthermore, if you want to say that stress is bad for dogs, you must first determine whether or not stress decreases the welfare of a dog! While these components might seem maddeningly insignificant, they are a requirement of understandable, reproducible, rigorous science.

The actual findings of novel research from this paper were not altogether interesting – which isn’t entirely surprising on account of the incredibly small sample sizes (6 and 10 dogs, respectively). The authors found a great variety in potential stress behaviors in these dogs, so they’re able to determine ranges for stress responses in any of the behaviors or physiological samples they measured. The authors also did not provide information about the dogs in regards to age, gender, neuter status, previous life experiences, etc., which could have offered some potential explanations for the variable stress reactions. It does highlight the need for more research into how individual differences between dogs could impact stress reactions and its welfare implications, I suppose.

Stress is an unavoidable part of canine life. If we can reduce stress on dogs, does this make their lives and thus welfare better off? This paper focused on the importance of linking stress to welfare implications. I am interested to read more about measurable stress reactions in companion animals!

Science-Based vs. Dominance-Based Dog Training: Part 2

In this first part of this essay, I discussed why dominance-based training methods like those popularized by Cesar Milan and other dog training professionals are outmoded, inefficient and potentially dangerous. In this part, I will discuss why science-based training methods like positive reinforcement are superior training techniques and finally, discuss the implications of the training methods you choose to use with your dog.

If you have questions about any of the terminology used here, please see the Let’s Talk Vocab page.


 

3. Dominance-based training rarely tells your dog what to do

Let’s face it, if your dog lived with only other dogs, would it really be a problem if the trash was raided every night? Do you think another dog would mind if there was a designated potty spot in the corner of the spare bed room? Would another dog be opposed to barking at the delivery person until he or she went away? The answer is no: the only reason getting into the trash, going to the bathroom a spare room and barking at people who approach the house are “problem behaviors” is because we, as humans, have a problem with them!

The mentality behind dominance-based training methods is that your dog is constantly training to upstage you as the owner and obtain mastery of the house. This is just a baseless assertion: there is no evidence that dogs engage in hierarchy-building with humans [13] and even a cursory understanding the domestication of dogs suggests that dogs evolved as food scavengers, not power usurpers [5]. Furthermore, attempts to tell your dog, “I’m the ALPHA of the house!” don’t tell your dog, “I really want you to sleep on your dog bed, not my bed,” and the many other directions your dog needs to get along with you and other humans .

Dogs are incredibly human-social creatures – they want our attention, food or toys – and we can capitalize on that disposition by providing dogs with clear instructions about how we’d like to interact with them. Positive reinforcement and science-based training methods focus on telling your dog what you want them to do, because most of those things are contrary to a dog’s natural instincts, and they work because dogs want to get rewards like treats, affection and playtime from humans.

4. Your dog does not live in a vacuum

In some ways, the choice to avoid or use aversive training techniques and subscribe to the dominance-based training theories is a moral or personal decision. It is your dog and it is your choice to take the available information about dog training and reduce your dog’s exposure to stressful training techniques. It is your decision to look at your relationship with your dog and decide if “lovable scavenger” or “Et tu, Brute?” best describes those exchanges.

In a lot of other ways, however, it is a public health issue if you choose to train your dog with aversive techniques. A fearful, aggressive dog poses a real bite risk to your veterinarian, a person walking past your house and anyone else with which your dog interacts.

Given what researchers are discovering about aversive training techniques and the stress they cause in dogs, in addition to the scientific evaluation of positive-reinforcement training techniques as equally effective and efficient in achieving desired behaviors [17], I believe that aversive training techniques and dominance-based training methods should be considered at best inhumane. I also believe that the dog training tide is turning this way, and I hope it continues!


 

 

References (for Science-Based vs. Dominance-Based Dog Training: Parts 1 and 2)

[1] Mech, L. David, and Luigi Boitani, eds. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[2] Schenkel, Rudolf. “Submission: its features and function in the wolf and dog.”American Zoologist 7.2 (1967): 319-329.

[3] Davis, Lauren. “Why Everything You Know about Wolf Packs Is Wrong.” Io9.com, 05 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

[4] Cooperation, Evolution of. With Matthew R. Zimmerman and Richard McElreath. In: Sourcebook in Theoretical Ecology (Eds: Hastings, A., Gross, L.). UC Press, Berkeley (pp.155-162). 2012.

[5] Savolainen, Peter. “Domestication of dogs.” The Behavioural Biology of Dogs(2007): 21.

[6] Cooper, Jonathan J., et al. “Clever hounds: social cognition in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris).” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 81.3 (2003): 229-244.

[7] Hare, Brian, et al. “The domestication of social cognition in dogs.” Science298.5598 (2002): 1634-1636.

[8] Beerda, Bonne, et al. “Behavioural, saliva cortisol and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 58.3 (1998): 365-381.

[9] Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117.1 (2009): 47-54.

[10] Beerda, Bonne, et al. “Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs.”Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52.3 (1997): 307-319.

[11]”New Releases.” Understanding the Stress Response. Harvard Health Publications, Mar. 2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2014. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2011/March/understanding-the-stress-response

[12] de Quervain DJ, Roozendaal B, McGaugh JL; Roozendaal; McGaugh (August 1998). “Stress and glucocorticoids impair retrieval of long-term spatial memory”. Nature 394 (6695): 787–90. doi:10.1038/29542.PMID 9723618.

[13] Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117.1 (2009): 47-54.

[14] Rooney, Nicola Jane, and Sarah Cowan. “Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 132.3 (2011): 169-177.

[15] Blackwell, Emily J., et al. “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 (2008): 207-217.

[16] Kathy Sdao. “Forget About Being Alpha in Your Pack.” Bright Spot Dog Training. N.p., 2008. Web. 05 Nov. 2014. http://www.kathysdao.com/articles/Forget_About_Being_Alpha_in_Your_Pack.html

[17] Cooper, Jonathan J., et al. “The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training.” PloS one 9.9 (2014): e102722.

Journal Article: Shock Collars Cause Stress and Unintended Consequences

Title:  Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects

Authors: Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Joanne A.M. van der Borg

Published: March 25, 2004 in Applied Animal Behavior Science

General overview: The authors studied video recordings of dogs in training for police or guard use to compare behavioral responses of dogs trained with remote electronic collars (e-collars) and dogs that were trained without e-collars. The authors noted that the training protocols used for all dogs included punitive techniques such as choke or prong collars, kicks and beatings. The authors found statistically significant increases in behaviors associated with stress (tongue flicking, tucked tail posture and averted ear position) in dogs trained with the e-collars than the dogs trained without the e-collars. The authors also found that dogs trained with e-collars may associate training, the training area and their trainer with stressful stimuli, which is important because it meant that the dogs were not necessarily associating the aversive stimuli of the e-collar with the behavior that the trainer was trying to prevent.

My comments:

Especially when compared to this UK study of e-collar training, this study was not as rigorous as I might have appreciated. Although the authors had a very detailed ethogram (an inventory of behaviors or actions exhibited by an animal) to catalog the study dogs’ responses, the researchers themselves reviewed the recordings. This method is clearly susceptible to bias, because the researchers would have been to tell which dogs were being trained with a bulky e-collar and without one. I wish the researchers had an independent observer score the dog training videos according to their ethogram and performed the analysis on that data. I can’t put much stock in their comparative findings because, whether intentional or not, the researchers may have noticed stress-related behaviors in the dogs they knew had e-collars on if they presumed that exposure to an e-collar might cause increased stress in the dog.

However, I do find the conclusions that dogs trained with e-collars appeared to associate their trainer, the training area and being given commands with stressful stimuli very interesting. From my understanding, e-collars work on the principal of avoidance conditioning: a subject learns a behavior to avoid a painful stimuli.

Here’s why I think this is interesting: the author mentions that most shocks were given to dogs when they did not obey the “let go” command. Using this command as an example, the point of shocking the dog when he (most study dogs were male) did not obey the command “let go” is that the dog learns not obeying the command results in a shock. Instead, it appears that the dogs may have learned that being near the trainer, being the training yard or being given a command results in a shock. If this is true, the e-collars were not doing what they are intended to do.

I found this article to be a fascinating read also because of its commentary on training techniques and breeding standards of guard and police dogs. The description of the “harsh” training protocols is rather horrifying: dogs are taught to bite well before they are taught to “let go”, subject to beatings and kicks and show visible signs of distress just because their trainer is present. The authors comment on the dogs bred for such jobs as purposefully selected to be highly excitable, temperamental and with low biting thresholds. It made me question the ethicalness of using dogs for police or guard work, for both the quality of life of the dog and the safety of communities within which these dogs work and reside.

This article was discussed, in great detail, on Dr. Sophia Yin’s blog.

Journal Article: Pet Owners Lack Basic Knowledge of Pets; Young, Intact Pets at Risk for Shelter Surrender

Title: Characteristics of Shelter-Relinquished Animals and Their Owners Compared With Animals and Their Owners in U.S. Pet-Owning HouseholdsTitle:

Authors: John C. New, Jr., M.D. Salman, Mike King, Janet M. Scarlett, Philip H. Kass, Jennifer M. Hutchison

Published: 2000 in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science

General overview: The authors wanted to better understand the risk factors for relinquishing a cat or a dog to an animal shelter. Using interview data from a sample of people who relinquished dogs and cats in 12 shelters in four regions and a sample of U.S. households with companion animals, the investigators compared animal characteristics and human characteristics between the relinquished and owned animals and their owners. The authors found that relinquished animals were more likely to be intact (not spayed for neutered), younger, mixed breed and owned for a shorter duration of time. People who relinquished animals tended to be men under the age of 35. This study was sponsored by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.

My comments: 

Interview data issues

There are some pretty basic issues with interview data, which fall into the categories reliability, fairness and validity.

  1. Reliability in interview data focuses on whether an interviewer will score similar observations the same (intra-interviewer reliability) or different interviewers will score similar observations the same (inter-interviewer reliability). This study avoids much of this issue because they use a standardized questionnaire without, as far as I can tell, open-ended questions.
  2. Fairness issues with interview data have to deal with the representativeness of the subset of the general population (also known as the sample population) that was offered the questionnaire and the makeup of people who did fill out the questionnaire. I’m not sure this study has done quite a good job at addressing this one.
    • The shelters used as study sites for this research were located in California, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York. There is no explanation for the selection of this shelters, leaving me to assume that they were convenient shelters to sample based on the researchers’ locations. (The first author is from the University of Tennessee, the second is from Colorado State University, etc.) This is probably not fair as a standalone issue but especially because of the regional differences that may exist throughout the United States in animal sheltering trends, which are not addressed in this paper.
      • The authors contend that the use of shelters across the U.S. aids the paper’s generalizability in the conclusions. However, I think the only real way to achieve a generalizable conclusion would have been if the shelters were equally representative of major geographic areas in the U.S. (both urban and rural, as well as north/south/east/west).
  3. The last major concern with interview data is validity, which I also this study fails to adequately address. The households that were sampled to achieve data on owned animals to compare to relinquished animals contained households that had relinquished animals to a shelter within the past year, which the authors acknowledge may not represent the general population of animal-owning households and may impact the interpretation of the findings.
    • In plain English, this means that the comparison population overlapped with the study population. So, when interpretation of the findings, I guess it would just be best not to compare these two populations at all because they are not clearly distinct populations.

Interesting Findings

Based on the methods section, I’m not comfortable with the comparison between the “owned” pet households and the relinquished pet individuals so I’m just going to highlight some of the findings the authors presented without the comparison.

Knowledge deficiency

I think one of the most interesting findings of this piece is the knowledge deficit displayed by survey respondents. Many people felt that female animals were better off having one litter before being spayed (WHY?), had fundamental misunderstandings of normal animal behavior, such as play behavior, and did not know “appropriate methods” of training. (The authors do not detail what they mean by “appropriate methods”.)

This highlights a real animal welfare issue and a substantial area for interventions. It’s an animal welfare issue because one of the five freedoms expounded by animal welfare advocates is the freedom to express normal behavior. If owners don’t understand what normal behavior is, an animal may not be permitted to express that behavior out of the owner’s preference. This finding emphasizes the need for increased humane education for pet owners to advance pets’ quality of life and possibly reduce the number of unwanted pets.

Young, intact animals are at risk for relinquishment

The authors found that young, intact animals were overrepresented in the relinquished animals population. The term “overrepresent” in the context of a survey means that a certain selection of a population appeared more frequently that its actual distribution in the general population, so I’m not sure how the authors determined this – you’d have to know the age/neuter status of the all pets in the U.S., which a quick Google search tells me are not known quantities. What can certainly be stated is that there were a lot of unaltered and young animals in the relinquished animals population. I worked at an animal shelter previously and this aligns with my personal experience as well. I wonder if this may relate to the knowledge deficit of normal animal behavior since young, intact animals are generally more active and untrained/disobedient than older animals.

I wish the authors had included a question about maturity level in pets because one area of knowledge deficiency that I identified during my employment at a shelter was the age at which animals should be considered as “adults”. Dogs and cats really aren’t socially/intellectually mature until around age two. I saw a number of one-year-old dogs dropped off at the shelter possibly because their families did not understand that they were dealing with an adolescent dog that would soon grow out of the unruly, moody temperament she currently exhibited.

Many pet owners could benefit from pet training and management education

The authors try to make a case for length of ownership being correlated with owner attachment, but since this directly involves comparison with the “owned” pet households, I can’t really commit myself to this finding. The authors note that behavior factors (notably house-soiling and biting) may play a role in the relinquishment of animals but they did find that behavior problems existed in the “owned” animal population as well. I’m not really sure what conclusions you can draw from this when you consider the lack of distinction between these two populations but I do agree that the existence of these behaviors indicates improper training or management practices and an area of needed improvement for both the pet’s quality of life and the owner’s.

Conclusion

So, in all, I think this research identified several areas of animal ownership that could be focused on for animal welfare and public health interventions as well as areas for future research. I don’t agree with the analysis the authors made between the study population and the comparison population but some interesting findings are still elucidated by the publication.