Enriching the Lives of Dogs and Cats

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and taking a course called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Each week I’ll share highlights here from my studies.

Jumping back to the eighth week of my Principles and Practices course, animal welfare science was the focus. The module consisted of a definition of animal welfare science and then an exploration of enrichment for dogs and for cats. Although the instructors focused on dogs and cats in shelters, the principles I’ll share here are ones that also applicable to our pets.

According to instructors Brian Burton and Sarah Fraser, there is no one single definition of animal welfare science. However, all existing definitions refer to the physiological, physical or environmental, and behavioral state of a companion animal.

In other words, animal welfare doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whether an animal lives in a shelter or a home, all three needs must be considered. Animals must have their health needs met through wellness exams, vaccinations, prevention and management of disease, nutrition, and husbandry (having ears and eyes cleaned, nails trimmed, and hair brushed). Environmental needs should also be considered, which involves sanitation, lighting, population density, and enrichment (adding to an animal’s environment and lifestyle with pet beds, toys, and more). Finally, behavioral needs are important. These include an evaluation of the animal’s history, development of a consistent routine, and socialization.

According to instructors Burton and Fraser, there is also no one single agreed upon method of care. At the same time, no one should rely solely on their personal feelings or beliefs, as those will differ from one organization to another and even from individuals within the organization. Instead, said Brandon and Fraser, those in animal welfare should use scientific methods to determine the welfare of an animal on a spectrum of very good to very bad, and then explore critically what research says about the best methods of care. Their knowledge should be used to “develop or modify existing protocols, best practices, and standard of care” for animals. In their doing so, despite there being no single agreed upon method of care, those in the field will be on a same page when discussing animal welfare.

Animal behavior consultants should likewise rely on scientific methods when evaluating an animal’s behavior and then explore the pros and cons of each available method so that they can determine the least intrusive and minimally aversive ones to change an animal’s behavior. At the same time, consultants need to consider not only the effectiveness of certain methods, but also owner limitations, environmental constraints, and individual animal characteristics.

When it comes to an animal’s home, there is a consensus of those in the animal welfare field that shelters are not the ideal. They’re a stressful place for an animal, and so foster homes are promoted as a better option. Shelters lower the immune system, which can lead to the deterioration of an animal’s health and the development of stress-related behaviors as an animal attempts to cope in its new environment. Shelters are especially bad for puppies, kittens, and senior animals, due to their being more susceptible to diseases and ongoing stress. In addition, puppies and kittens are at a critical stage of social development. Housing them in a shelter will set them up for failure because of how difficult it will be to reverse the negative effects of what they weren’t provided. However, with the reality being that a shelter will be at least a temporary home for 3.3 million dogs and 3.2 million cats each year, it is necessary to address their needs while at the shelter.

In talking about dogs, instructor Sheila Darpino recommended having three tiers of care, which also apply to dogs in our homes. The first tier covers wellness and focuses on providing the essentials. All dogs need to have food, water, shelter, medical care, ambient temperature (or temperature related to their surroundings), a light/dark cycle, daily walks to eliminate, places to retreat and to sleep, grooming, and time with people. Only when the needs on the first tier have been met should one move forward to the second tier of enrichment. The hope is that by this time a dog in a shelter has been adopted. Of course, enrichment is just as important for dogs in a home and should be provided as the owner is able.  The third tier covers behavior.

Unfortunately, not all dogs are adopted quickly, which means that a shelter should provide for enrichment needs to the extent that it is feasible. The health of a dog may be at stake. Darpino said that enrichment can address physical needs by providing dogs with play time with other dogs and quiet time with a caretaker, cognitive needs by providing food puzzles, games, and training, and emotional needs by rewarding a dog for calm behavior. Dogs should also have their sensory needs addressed, which can be done by the simple act of giving them a ball.

  • Visual: a dog sees the ball tossed away and chases it
  • Auditory: a dog hears a ball bouncing
  • Olfactory: a dog smells the ball and the surface where it lands
  • Tactile: a dog feels the texture of the ball in its mouth
  • Taste: a dog tastes the stuff that clings to the ball after it’s been thrown

In talking about cats, instructor Miranda Workman categorized cats as active or passive based on how they respond to stress. She also emphasized that while cats might show their frustration in different ways, neither shows better or worse coping skills. It’s our job, whether a cat is in a shelter or a home, to help cats adapt.

Cats that are active will pace at focal points (center of activity) and vocalize to seek attention. In a shelter they will paw at anyone who passes by their cage, and in at home they will shadow their owner. Active cats that fail to have their needs met might eliminate outside a litter box, destroy possessions, and display aggressive behavior. These cats need a lot of stimulation, access to exercise, and toys for self-play.

Cats that are passive will show little interest in their environment or social activities with people. They will attempt to hide, and are normally quiet except to growl or hiss when they’re approached. Passive cats that fail to have their needs met might become depressed. Symptoms include engaging in too many or too few maintenance behaviors—eating, drinking, grooming, and using the bathroom. These cats need to feel safe and tend to find comfort in each other’s company.

Workman focused on the need for sensory enrichment in the environment, saying that it helps cats keep mentally engaged. A lack of enrichment can lead to boredom and lethargy in the short term, and physical and behavior problems in the long term.

Whatever sense is being addressed, Workman advised looking at what cats would do if they were provided with the choices. For example, one study observed laboratory house cats in a free-roaming room. Most cats spent the bulk of their day sitting on a window perch and watching the hallways where people walked. Another study observed that cats watched television when they saw other cats on the screen or could hear sounds connected to prey species such as birds, rabbits, and mice. These studies suggest that cats find people, other cats, and prey entertaining to watch.

When discussing the auditory needs of cats, Workman also drew upon research. She referred to a study of how cats responded to various types of music when under anesthesia. It shows that cats had lowered respiratory rates and smaller pupil diameter when classical music was being played; in contrast, the stress level of cats increased when heavy metal music was being played. Pop music had no effect. This study suggests that one way to help calm cats might be to have classical music playing in the background.

Workman said that people don’t often think of cats having olfactory needs, especially when compared to dogs. However, studies show that catnip and prey scent encourage significantly higher frequency of activity; catnip also encourages play. Other studies show that Feliway can reduce the anxiety of cats during vet visits.

When it comes to the taste needs of cats, Workman said that not much has been done in the way of research. From the limited studies that are available on how cats eat, puzzle feeders provide cats with a way to “hunt down prey” as they might in the wild.

Finally, there are the tactile needs of cats. One study found that consistent positive handling of shelter cats by the same people over 21 days resulted in a higher rate of adoption than when shelters cats were inconsistently handled by a variety of people. In general, research is showing that cats that receive socialization are less stressed than those that don’t. An exception are cats that have a negative history with people; for them, handling by people tends to result in more stress. The bottom line, contrary to what clichés about cats might suggest, is that consistent and predictable handling results in better welfare for and adoptability of cats.

Although there is no single definition of animal welfare science and no one single agreed upon method of care, research shows that the least intrusive and minimally aversive place for an animal is in a home. The goal then of everyone concerned with animal welfare should be to help animals grow up healthy, happy, and well-behaved. This will help reduce the number of shelter animals and optimize the welfare of our companion animals.

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