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.

Product Review: Thundershirt (for dogs)

Product: Thudershirt by Thunderworks

Cost: $39.99

Available: at every pet store that I’ve ever been in and online

Length of ownership: 1+ year

Review:

I bought a Thundershirt for our lab, Luna, because her over-stimulated antics during social outings was making me choose to leave her at home more than I wanted to. Basically, I wanted to be able to take Luna into a pet store without her having a total meltdown (jumping, lunging and barking nonstop). I took a while to purchase the Thundershirt because it’s not advertised for this purpose – it’s marketed towards dogs with noise-induced anxiety. However, I realized that the Thundershirt may help Luna after I attended a talk by veterinary behaviorist Christopher Pachel at the 2014 Midwest Veterinary Conference. One of Dr. Pachel’s suggestions for low-stress handling in veterinary clinics was using a pressure wrap, like a Thundershirt or an ace bandage, to induce calm in veterinary patients. Maybe the Thundershirt could induce calm in Luna during pet store visits!

I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. I had been trying to counter-condition Luna’s overstimulation in pet stores by using treats and distracting her from things she fixated on (usually people). However, without the Thundershirt, I was only getting about 10-40% of her attention even with the highest value treats. With the Thundershirt on, Luna was calmer from the start and able to return her attention to me faster when she did get distracted by something (or rather, someone). I have since used it for veterinary visits and at home when Luna gets overstimulated or overly worked up, usually in conjunction with a frozen Kong. I was helpfully advised by an associate at the pet store where I bought the Thundershirt to put the Thundershirt on Luna during non-stressful events so that she didn’t begin to associate the Thundershirt with stress and thereby inducing stress just by seeing the Thundershirt, which i think was vital in the Thundershirt’s success for Luna.

In summary, Luna is not a noise-phobic dog in the least so I can’t attest to the Thundershirt’s ability to calm down dogs during thunderstorms or fireworks or etc. The Thundershirt was extremely effective for Luna in lowering her stress or overstimulation during pet store or vet visits as well as at home if she gets overly worked up about something. Because her stress/overstimulation level was decreased, I am able to work on desensitizing and counter-conditioning Luna to the things that stress her.

The Thundershirt did not “cure” Luna’s stress and overstimulation tendencies but enabled her to be under an emotional threshold where she could still pay attention and learn during stimulating events. Two thumbs up!

Why Science? and First Post

I thought a good way to start off this blog would be a small discussion about why science is important to discussions about companion animals. Actually, this is really a discussion about why science is important in general!

How can you be sure?

The purpose of science is to find an objective truth. That would be the actual truth – not the truthiness that seems to be everywhere these days.

Using the scientific method to describe the world around us is vitally important because of all the funny things our brain does without us realizing it. Take, for example, this counting experience described by Dr. Scott L. Zeger in his Coursera course, Case-Based Introduction to Biostatistics:

A large barrel of candy kisses was placed in a central location in the Department of Biostatistics at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. All professors and graduate students within the department were invited to guess how many kisses were in the barrel within a range. All individuals who guessed a range that the actual number of kisses fell within would be entered into a random drawing to win the barrel of candy.

In all, 73 people entered the contest. There were about 1600 kisses in the barrel. Only 6 out of the 73 individuals who entered guessed ranges that included 1600. That’s less than 10%! In fact, the median (that is, the most occurring number of all responses) was 975 kisses…about 43% off.

Let’s make this clear – the only people who entered this contest had or were earning advanced degrees in counting things. Humans are just really bad at coming to objective truths by just looking at something.

Dr. Zeger (or, more likely, a graduate assistant) arrived at the total number of kisses in the barrel by counting every last kiss. But what if you were trying to count the number of free-roaming cats in a city? What if you wanted to determine the effectiveness of one training technique versus another in dogs? As previously mentioned, our brains can make objective observations difficult but in addition to that, some things are just very difficult to figure out. Even for people who are “professionals” or “experts”, rigorous scientific exploration is required to come to an objective truth.

Bayes’ Theorem

So, you read the word “theorem” and are seriously considering skipping this entire section. But stay with me! It’s not that bad and there are no proofs or equations to memorize. Well, there is an actual equation to Bayes’ Theorem but I’m going to discuss the concept rather than the actual calculation.

Bayes’ Theorem states that you can come to a scientifically informed opinion by multiplying the prior odds (your prior knowledge that most coins are one-headed) by the likelihood ratio the supports the prior odds. The qualitative explanation of Bayes Theorem is that we function in the world with  pre-formed beliefs or expectations about nearly everything. While Bayes’ Theorem advises us on a specific way to update our beliefs with the results of scientific experiments, the broad concept that I am arguing for is that the results of rigorous scientific experiments should cause us to update our beliefs. With some substantial caveats.

Bad Science

Unfortunately, not all science deserves to impact our beliefs. More unfortunately, there is an entire hoard of reasons why some “scientific” findings may not be worthy of serious consideration. Sincere mistakes happen, perhaps less than sincere mistakes happen, interested parties may interfere with the publication of certain findings and news outlets tend to get a hold of scientific papers and utterly misinterpret them. There’s a great TEDGlobal talk by Ben Goldacre that confronts some of these issues.

Fortunately, there are some principals of research that can help you avoid misleading scientific publications:

  • Be wary of articles summarizing scientific papers. News outlets make money from attracting readers, not accurate reporting! Find the scientific paper and read it yourself. Here’s a guide from Rice University to help you out if you’ve never read a scientific paper before.
  • Even if you don’t know a lot about the subject matter or the exact research methodology, a paper should be written well enough that the A) question the authors are trying to solve is evident and B) the method the authors are using to answer the question makes some general sense to the reader.
  • The authors conclusions should match up with their findings. After reading the results and the conclusion section, ask yourself, “Does that make sense?” If it doesn’t, there is either a problem with the writing or the authors’ interpretation of their findings.
  • Authors should suggest further research or implications for their findings. Be wary of authors that make definitive or large claims stemming for their results – they may be making more out of their work than it deserves.

Importance to Companion Animals

The bottom line is that research into companion animal behavior, veterinary care and management practices can help us be better friends to the animals that we share our lives with.  By better understanding our pets, we can provide a higher quality of life for them, enhance our relationships with them and prevent interactions with them that lead to damage or injuries.