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Tag Archives: Pet Care

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Ethology and veterinary practice: The HIREC effect and companion animal behavior

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Despite its lack of notoriety like some animal behavioral concepts, human-induced rapid evolutionary change, or HIREC, possesses the potential to alter wild and companion animal behavior in many ways.

As wildlife scientists became increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change and habitat destruction on wild animal populations, some researchers chose to study the behavior effects on wild animals who couldn’t or wouldn’t vacate habitats overtaken by humans. In a relatively short time, these animals not only survived in these environments but also thrived.

Based on their studies, these urban biologists concluded that these animals had adapted faster to their environments than the Darwinian rate predicted. Any doubts that remained regarding that possibility vanished when the 2,000-square-mile area rendered human-inhabitable following the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor became a thriving community of wild plant and animal life within decades. Genetic studies of those animals in 2001 revealed that they were mutating at 20 times the stable environment rate.

HIREC changed the scientific perception of evolution as a process that took thousands of years to effect meaningful change. Instead, it was a dynamic one that enabled at least some animals to make dramatic changes within relatively short periods of time in response to dramatic changes in their environments.

But while this is good news for wild animals, what does it mean for companion dogs and cats living in metropolitan and suburban areas who increasingly find themselves sharing space with a growing population if wildlife?

On the one hand, we have a population of wild animals increasingly comfortable in human environments, able to adapt to any changes in them at an accelerated rate, and pass on these genetic predispositions to their offspring. On the other, we have a population of companion animals whose probability of passing on any environmentally adaptive genetic potential to cope with this wildlife to their offspring is low thanks to spay and neuter.

While wild animals are evolving to adapt more quickly to human-induced changes in their once-wild environments, changes that do occur in companion animal genomes directly or indirectly are anthropocentric. These may take two forms: intentional and unintentional.

Purebred dogs and cats possess genetic changes intentionally planned by humans, specifically the animals’ breeders. While wildlife rapidly adapts to living in closer proximity to people and their domestic animals, some purebred dog and cat breeders may focus primarily on their animals’ physical appearance. Others may focus on their animals’ ability to perform a specific function: hunt, herd, service or assistance work, companionship. Sometimes those desired genetic predispositions may carry negative health ones that may undermine the animal’s behavior.

While having pets that fulfill their personal needs is gratifying for the people who own them, some of these companion animals may lack the behavioral adaptability needed to keep up with changes in the wild and free-roaming animal community. In my experience these animals may be more prone to atypical separation behaviors and aggression that appears to be linked to the stimulus load, particularly scent. Because these scents may be beyond human perception, people may have less patience with these animals.

At the same time, though, other companion animals have demonstrated rather ingenious behaviors to cope with the closer proximity of wildlife. Three of my favorites involved intelligent, naturally more subordinate dogs overwhelmed by the need to protect a complex environment. All wanted to fulfill their protective responsibilities, but also wanted to avoid harm to themselves. The dogs all incorporated rocks into their protective strategies.

Case one: A 2-year-old spayed female German shepherd dog lived with her owner in a residential neighborhood carved out of native woodlands. The property consisted of an open area around house and garage surrounded by a fence that separated the landscaped area from the woods. Initially, the dog marked the fence with both urine and stool. Her house-proud owner couldn’t do anything about the urine, but routinely picked up the dog’s stool and tossed it over the fence into the woods.

This created two problems for the dog. By tossing the dog’s stool into the woods, the owner inadvertently signaled her dog’s willingness to protect the area on the other side of the fence — the last thing this dog wanted to do. Second, the dog had to produce more stool to remark the fence after her owner cleaned up. Not surprisingly, the dog had developed intermittent, not specific GI problems.

Next, the dog started digging up rocks in the yard and placing them along the fence in addition to marking them with urine. The owner then yelled at the dog, tossed the rocks over the fence, and filled the holes. Unfortunately, the emotional contagion triggered by the owner’s yelling made the dog feel even more insecure in the yard.

I suggested she allow the dog to dig up enough rocks to mark the fence. Once the dog was able to secure the perimeter to her satisfaction, she had no need for other rocks. Her owner also was pleased because this helped resolve some of the dog’s other stress-driven behaviors.

Case two: When I mentioned the previous dog to a friend who also has a spayed female GSD, she told me her dog has always watched over her grandkids. However, the much older dog had become increasingly distraught when the children went swimming in a nearby lake.

Presumably to calm herself, the dog would collect rocks and pile them up on the beach where the children were swimming. (One advantage of living in New England is that there’s almost always a ready supply of rocks for a determined dog to locate!) Once the dog constructed her rock cairn and peed on it, she felt secure.

Case three: The third dog, a young neutered male English cocker, offered a variation on this theme. He got along with other dogs very well but had a great deal of trouble with passing vehicles. His very observant owner had noticed that when she and the dog walked around their area, he calmed down immediately when he reached a section of the trail separated from the road by several good-sized rocks. She also had noticed his much larger dog pals marking those rocks as they made their rounds. In this case, the other dogs’ marking enabled a little dog who had no desire to signal a challenge to a potential threat to enjoy himself.

Would these dogs have been able to pass the genetic potential for their clever use of rocks as a means to protect themselves in an era of increasing wildlife presence? We’ll never know. But given the evidence of HIREC as a normal wildlife response in rapidly changing environments, it seems likely that at least some companion animals will show signs of this potential as they cope with an accelerated rate of change in their own habitats, too.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Client perceptions of animal behavioral problems

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When veterinarians begin integrating the treatment of behavioral problems into their practices, it may surprise them how client perceptions of these problems may differ compared to medical ones.

Consequently, these client perceptions may blindside practitioners and sabotage problem behavior resolutions. Here are some of the most problematic ones I’ve encountered.

Problematic Client Perception 1: Animals with behavioral problems are healthy.

In addition to being problematic in and of itself, this perception also lays the foundation for others that may complicate the behavior problem treatment process.

Superficially, perceiving animals with behavior problems as healthy may seem like a reasonable client response. Unlike when those same animals are vomiting or limping, many animals with behavior problems do appear physically healthy. This limited view also may be shared by the client’s family and friends as well as some in the medical community.

This perception may generate a host of challenges for practitioners treating behavioral problems. Consider how the Guyettes’ different perceptions of their animals’ medical and behavioral problems influence their responses to their animals. They wouldn’t dream of denying their dog or their cat whatever support is needed to address the animal’s medical problems. When their highly territorial dog leaps the fence, ignores Ms. Guyette’s come command, and gets hit by a car, the owners feel nothing but compassion for him. They willingly rearrange their lives during the months it takes to ensure the successful healing of their dog’s multiple injuries.

But if one of their animals develops a behavior problem that requires a comparable amount of owner support and commitment and they perceive that animal as healthy, mustering those vital attributes may be difficult for them. While their responses to their dog’s physical problems elevate the Guyettes to near saintly status, they don’t hesitate to label their cat spiteful and mean when the timid animal signals her willingness to protect them and herself by peeing on their bed.

Whereas they didn’t hesitate to rearrange their lives temporarily to help their physically injured dog, they don’t hesitate to condemn their cat for displaying a behavior that signals a comparable amount of behavioral distress. But if they spot a bit of blood in that urine, that instantly would change their perception of their cat. “Because then,” explains Ms. Guyette, “We could know she’s not feeling well.”

Problematic Client Perception 2: Animal behavior is static.

Most people acknowledge that their companion animals go through physical developmental stages. They also acknowledge that different nutritional and medical changes that warrant their attention may accompany these. However, a fair number of pet owners believe their animal’s behavior is — or should be — static. Once their canine additions complete a basic puppy class or two, they think their pets are set for life.

Consequently, when some of these the once well-trained canine youngsters suddenly start ignoring commands or aggressing toward others who approach them and their people, some owners truly do believe their dogs must have a brain tumor.

It’s often beneficial to remind clients that animals, like people, have different behavioral needs as well as health needs over their lives. Contrary to Ms. Lyda’s belief, her Shih Tzu didn’t start snarling at the letter carrier “for no reason at all.” It’s possible he merely reached maturity and, lacking any cues from her and her son that disproved the need for this, assumed a protective role by default. Or perhaps their move to a new home with a larger population of free-roaming dogs, cats, and wild animals overwhelmed the now-middle-aged dog. Or maybe her son’s departure for college left the aging dog feeling more vulnerable.

This brings up the related, but sometimes overlooked awareness of how any changes in the human half of the bond may affect an animal’s behavior. Each one of the changes that affected their dog’s behavior also had the potential to alter Ms. Lyda’s and her son’s. For better or worse, we also in a society in which animal companionship often is marketed as a 24/7 antidote for what ails us.

If moving, loss of loved ones, unemployment or other events leave us feeling vulnerable, we inadvertently may interact with our companion animals in ways that communicates our neediness. This may increase some dogs’ need to protect us as well as themselves. If they feel vulnerable in this role, they may devote more energy to any protective displays than if they would if they felt more secure.

Problematic Client Perception 3: Resolving animal behavioral problems should be fast and fun.

This surprisingly common perception probably is an unintended consequence of training programs that incorporate these words into their marketing strategies. This results in a population of people for whom taking their dogs to class was more of a human social event than a human-canine learning one. Unlike those clients with the previous behavioral problem perceptions who often embrace learning more about the ethology and bond dimensions of their animals’ behaviors, those in this group take a more anthropocentric view.

This creates several problems for practitioners. If the animals belonging to these folks develop behavioral problems that will take time and commitment to resolve, their immediate response may be to seek the fastest and easiest treatments. These may include multiple treat-based training classes in hopes of finding the magic one.

If these don’t resolve the animal’s problem, a subset of these folks may switch to punishment-based approaches — often shock collars or other electronic devices. These animals also may be taking an array of supplements and natural and not-so-natural remedies and drugs, seeking an instant magical cure. Some of these may not have been given as recommended or prescribed.

If these clients’ relationships with their animal depends on shared activities with other pet owners — play dates, shows, competitions, etc. — they may resist even temporarily limiting their animals’ environment to facilitate learning.

Although their approaches to animals may seem like the fastest and most fun for them, sorting through all this can be anything but for the practitioner who wants to help their animals!

Often clues to the presence of these perceptions and other counter-productive perceptions may show up in pre-consultation histories or in conversations or emails with the client before the consultation. As with questionable perceptions regarding medical problems, those related to behavioral ones are best addressed upfront.

Taking these clients from their medical knowns to behavioral unknowns using appropriate analogies can be helpful. So can recognizing that this view may be endemic in certain segments of the companion-owning population. Fortunately, most companion animal clients are willing to let go of these perceptions to help their animals.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Human beliefs about animal medical vs. behavioral problems

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Ethology, by definition, is the study of animal behavior in the animal’s natural environment. For the companion animal, that environment consists of the owner’s home, property and wherever that person routinely takes the animal and the associated animal health, behavior and bond components.

Within that complex environment, owner beliefs about animal medical vs. behavioral problems can differ considerably.

The Quinns’ rescue bulldog, Maisy, experiences so many medical problems that they lovingly joke that they spend more time at the veterinary clinic than at home with her. Whether Maisy needs oral medications, topical ointments of one sort or another, or medicated baths, the Quinns administer these as directed as long as needed. Nor do they blame Maisy for her illnesses. In their minds, that would be unthinkable.

However, the Quinns aren’t nearly as accepting when Maisy began showing signs of aggression toward them and others. Instead, negative emotions hijack the more rational thought process they use when Maisy develops medical problems. Rather than asking, “What can we do to help Maisy?” as they do when her allergies flare up, her growling makes them feel angry, betrayed and fearful — although they don’t like to admit that. Like many pet owners in these situations, they know their double standard is irrational but…

This poses a challenge for practitioners who assume that clients who conscientiously implement treatments to resolve their animals’ medical problem also will reliably implement those needed to resolve their animals’ behavioral ones. However, there are four differences in human perception of animal medical and behavioral problems that may sabotage even the most carefully crafted behavioral treatment program.

One: Animal symbolism.

When it comes applying symbolism to animals, contemporary dog and cat owners easily rival ancient humans who lived in the cave-dwelling era. This tendency persisted into modern times, but with two critical differences.

In the past, most symbolism was imposed on wild animals who, barring being slaughtered for meat, or feathers, horns, or other items of perceived importance, were free to live their own lives. That’s not the case with companion animals who live in human-controlled environments.

As contemporary humans became more remote from nature, highly variable emotion-based symbolism that may reflect strictly human beliefs and needs replaced those based on knowledge of animal behavior and animal needs. In some quarters, the definition of the dog or cat as a different species with different needs gave way to one of these as a 24/7 de facto service animal.

Two: Clients’ belief that they know everything about canine (especially) and feline behavior (to a lesser degree).

Whereas few, if any, clients would boast that they know everything about the canine or feline physical body, a fair number believe they know all about what constitutes normal canine or feline behavior. Statements that begin “I’ve had [fill in species and breed] all my life and they never behaved like that.” routinely may pop up when these animals develop behavioral problems.

Three: Human impatience, reactivity, and unrealistic expectations.

We live in an era of rapid technical change that enables us to do more things, faster, and more easily than even a few years ago. While sometimes treatments for animal health problems fulfill these criteria, most people also accept that it takes time for their animals to recover from illnesses of injuries.

However, such often isn’t the case for behavioral problems. Animals with these often are described as “healthy.” Or, as one person told me about his severely aggressive dog, “He’s healthy as an ox. All he needs is some of them behavior pills and he’ll be fine.”

Four: The social and legal ramifications of certain problem behaviors.

Whereas animal medical problems may generate supportive responses from others, aggressive and destructive animal behaviors may turn formerly animal-friendly and tolerant landlords and neighbors into intolerant and contentious ones. This plus living in a litigious society all may change the once positive symbolism attached to the animal to more negative.

At its worst, it can tear families and neighborhoods apart as well as wreak havoc on the owner’s bond with the animal, all of which may further undermine any treatment for the animal’s behavioral problems.

Experience has taught me that it may take more communication skill than knowledge of ethology to help clients realize and accept that the treatment of behavioral and medical problems are more alike than different. For some of those clients, grasping that their role and responsibilities when dealing with their animal’s serious behavior problems may rival or exceed those related to comparable medical ones may come as quite a shock.

In these situations, I find the use of analogies that compare the behavioral healing process to the medical one very helpful. One that clients seem to find especially helpful compares the obligations to their animal when the animal has a compound fracture to those related to a serious behavioral behavior problem.

Most readily admit that they wouldn’t expect their physically injured animals to meet their own emotional needs at this time. Most also admit that they would expect any treatment of their animal’s physical injury and their obligations to promote healing to differ from any past experiences because the medical process has changed, as have they, their animals, their environment, and their lifestyle.

And much as they’d love to engage the animal with the fracture in all the physical activities they used to enjoy, most readily admit that they’d summon the wherewithal to limit the animal’s activity rather than risk disrupting proper bone healing. Although it would be difficult, they would control their impatience, reactivity and unrealistic expectations to make it as easy for the animal to heal as possible. They also would assume responsibility for any negative effect their animal’s health and treatment might have on others.

Admittedly, comparing client responses to serious medical versus behavioral problems may not benefit those clients for whom the tangible and intangible costs of treating serious behavioral problems may exceed any benefits for some reason. But this also may occur when serious medical problems arise, too. The challenge for clinicians with primarily medical backgrounds is to help clients move beyond a long-established double standard that viewed animal behavioral problems as lesser in their potential impact on the animal’s and client’s quality of life.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Ethology- vs. problem-based behavioral histories

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Despite the growing concern about the limitations of the problem-oriented approach and the restrictive thinking it fosters, most people take a problem-oriented approach to their companion animals’ behavior. They focus on the problem instead of the on bigger picture.

This variation on the theme of silo-thinking may make getting a comprehensive ethology-based history difficult when perceived companion animal behavior problems arise.

Consider the case of Ms. Doe and her dog, Jeffrey. Jeffrey got into a scuffle with a neighbor’s dog and although there was a great deal of snarling and flying dog spit, neither dog sustained any injuries. But even if Ms. Doe hadn’t defined Jeffrey’s behavior as a problem, the owner of the other dog and others who witnessed the event most likely would have done so.

But Ms. Doe did see the behavior as problematic and every time she describes the event to another person, its problem status increased. Simultaneously, any details perceived as not directly related to the inter-dog scuffle are dismissed as inconsequential. Soon the brief squabble between Jeffrey and her neighbor’s dog becomes the only thing that mattered.

Compare this view to an ethology-based one that sees the behavior in the context of the animal’s natural environment. In our example, that would include the home Ms. Doe and Jeffrey share and the neighborhood around which she daily walks her dog. Getting meaningful information regarding context from problem-oriented clients like Ms. Doe requires good communication skills.

Unless convinced otherwise, these clients may see providing it as a waste of time. Or their singular focus on their animals’ specific problems may make it more difficult for them to provide reliable answers to these context-related questions. If so, this may make them feel inadequate and complicate the treatment process.

When such situations arise, client communication can become difficult unless the clinician already has an established relationship and good rapport with the client. With behavioral clients, that may not always be the case.

In practices with multiple clinicians, only one may enjoy working with animals with behavioral issues. In these situations, any time spent beforehand explaining what the consultation will involve is well spent. For example, I routinely call or send my clients an email regarding what will happen during the consultation and their role in it.

I assure them that my goal is to make the consultation as productive and relaxed for them and their animals as possible. Knowing this before the consultation can do wonders to relax people who feared I would deliberately incite their dogs to display the problem behaviors. However, those problem behaviors make up only a small fraction of what goes on in their animals’ lives and, by extension, their animals’ minds.

Take a routine behavior like urination. Medical education prepares most practitioners to perceive urination and urine as valuable sources of diagnostic medical information. The same is true when attempting to understand behavioral problems too.

For example, Ms. Doe initially made it clear that where Jeffrey peed, how often, and whether the neutered dog lifted his leg or not at such times was irrelevant from her point of view. What difference did all that make as long as he wasn’t peeing in the house? However, she becomes intrigued and interested when she learns that this information can reveal a great deal about her dog’s relationship to the environment and those in it.

It turns out that Ms. Doe and Jeffrey routinely take a long walk twice daily around their suburban neighborhood. Jeffrey used to just squat and empty his bladder at the end of their driveway when he was younger. However, about a year before the problem behavior occurred, the now the 8-year-old dog began lifting his leg and peeing multiple times during their walks.

What changed in his behavioral and bond environment to cause a dog who previously felt no need to mark his territory to start marking it? And not only marking it, but marking it repeatedly?

At this point, some clients can tell you exactly what changed. Perhaps their other, more confident dog died suddenly. Or the makeup of their neighborhood changed as more people with dogs moved in. Or maybe climate change and habitat destruction resulted in more wildlife around their homes that made the dog edgier. Or the owner became more dependent on the dog for some reason: loss of a family member, deterioration in health, etc.

Fortunately, once clients begin thinking in terms of context, they may recall significant events they ignored when they were in a problem-oriented mode.

Although the specific causes that trigger seemingly unrelated but behaviorally and bond significant changes prior to the problem behavior may be varied, the results may be similar to Jeffrey’s.

One: a dog who previously did not need to mark his territory now must signal his willingness to protect it. Two: a dog who feels sufficiently vulnerable in that space, he must use all of his urine to mark in multiple locations. Three: a dog in an environment in which he could meet other dogs experiencing similar stressing circumstances at any time. Four: a dog who has no desire to fight — even despite considerable visual, sound, and other stimulus from his owner and environment to do so — who chooses a soft target and limits himself to a high-energy but ritualistic display.

When these and other considerations are taken into account, it becomes clear that neither Jeffrey nor his owner are ready for such a complex environment filled with variables over which they have no control. Compare sending fearful dog and often equally fearful owner armed with a bag of treats out in such a complex environment and hoping nothing bad happens to limiting owner and dog to their own familiar and secure yard until they both master the basic skills.

Which one builds and nurtures mutual trust, a vital element often lacking in human-animal relationships marred by animal behavioral problems?

And it goes without saying that any behavioral or bond issues that result in problem animal behavior possess the potential to trigger medical problems. And vice versa. Nor does addressing one necessarily resolve the other.

My behavioral/bond learning curve involved a dog with a serious marking problem who turned out to have prostate cancer. I also learned how back, hip, and knee problems may affect the expression of aggression, depending on the dog’s temperament and bond with the owner as well as any physical discomfort.

Ethology and the domestication studies convinced me that no such thing as a strictly medical, behavioral, or bond problem exists. For convenience, we can pretend it does. But just as clients’ bonds with their animals or their animals’ behavior can determine the success of any treatment for a medical problem, so may those bonds and an awareness of any animal medical problems determine the success of any behavioral diagnostic and treatment programs.

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How being mistreated because of learning disabilities made me push back

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In 2006, shortly after moving to Florida, I was hired as a dog sitter for a couple who were living in the same residential community as me.

They had the cutest Boston terrier with the calmest disposition I had ever seen in a dog.

It was the perfect job. I could set my own hours and the pay was pretty good.

However, the couple’s true colors began to show shortly after. Not only was I supposed to work five mornings a week, but I would often receive last minute calls and texts asking me “if I could come over and watch the dog.”

In other words, I was expected to be at their beck and call. I’m ashamed to admit that, for years, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I was in complete denial to what the couple were doing despite the frequent warnings from my loved ones.

I would often think, “They’re Christians. They would never do what my family is accusing them of.”

As time went on, it was getting more and more clear that my family were right.

By then, the “cutest Boston terrier” had died and had been quickly replaced by a very rambunctious puppy! From day one, they had me —now in my early 40s — working these ridiculous hours! It was literally a full-time job watching this holy terror of a dog! Plus, I had other clients.

After each appointment I was so sore and worn out! During one walk, “the little devil” got off his leash and ran full speed around the grassy area we were at.

After five minutes of doing some heavy running of my own and with the help of two other people, I finally caught up to him. I was so sore afterwards I could barely walk!

He also bit me on a regular basis. At one time I had a Band-Aid on practically every finger! My left middle finger had three!

What made it worse and quite frankly, ticked me off was the couple would brush it all off saying “he’s just a puppy”… blah, blah, blah. They actually expected me to keep on working despite my constant complaints! I couldn’t believe it. I could not wrap my head around how someone claiming to be people of faith would be so completely inconsiderate!

The final straw was when I was taking him for a buggy ride, and he jumps out to go after another dog. This scared the owner of that dog so much that she literally picked up her dog and ran full speed back to her house! I caught up to them, and fortunately they were all right.

I quit later that afternoon.

I think my learning disabilities were the reasoning behind the couple’s behavior. They often talked down to me and repeated themselves especially about locking their front door.

I believed they felt I didn’t have the intelligence to eventually figure out what was going on.

Sadly, that was not my first encounter with discrimination. I couldn’t find regular 9-5 work because interviewers were too intimidated. I have family members who don’t speak to me because they get confused on how to talk with me.

I have accepted that I will never be a part of the regular workforce. Actually, I love being self-employed! I get to spend time with dogs — which I love — and I get to focus more on my writing.

I have also accepted that I have family who won’t talk to me. I really have only a few members who I communicate with on a regular basis. And yes, it is pretty sad to know I have family who won’t accept me, but I would prefer to have just one person in my life who does over someone who doesn’t.

The couple from the residential community recently tried to pull their usual stunts but this time I didn’t fall for it.

Knowing this couple, they will try again. I’m not going to work for someone who doesn’t truly appreciate what I do for them.

I’m living life the way I was meant to — learning disabilities and all.

My hope for those of you who have been discriminated against because of your disabilities will come and see just how special you truly are.

If someone doesn’t, that’s their loss… not yours.

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The companion animal behavior implications of R- and K-species orientations

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Can wild animal ethology concepts like R and K species help us understand better companion animal behavior? To answer that question, we first need to know what R and K species are.

Wild R species live in harsh, unpredictable environments. They produce large numbers of offspring that mature rapidly and require minimal to no parental care. Most of these animals only mate once and die young.

Compare them to K species, who live in more stable environments with sufficient but limited resources for which animals must compete.

These animals tend to be larger and have fewer offspring that require more parental care and take longer to mature. Members of K species routinely reproduce more than once, and most have longer life spans.

Although R and K are wild species labels, individuals within these species may opt for the alternate strategy if doing so increases their success. For example, although the majority of R species may produce large numbers of offspring that receive no parental care, some subspecies may produce fewer young that do receive such attention.

If these adaptations result in more young who reach maturity and successfully mate than those who use an R-species strategy, then the benefits of using this more K-species approach outweighs any costs.

Compared to members of those wild species who lay hundreds to thousands of eggs that receive no parental care and die young, the domestic canine and feline species are classified as K species. However, just as those animals with an R-species predilection may adopt a K-species orientation if their environment favors it, dogs and cats living in harsh, unpredictable ones may display behaviors with similarities to the R-species one.

Nationally and internationally, there’s no shortage of free-roaming canine and feline populations living in harsh environments characterized by their unpredictability. Dogs and cats living in these environments randomly may encounter disease, predators (including humans), unreliable food supplies, and harsh weather and natural disasters, among other hardships.

Naturally, offspring of bitches and queens who just dump their newborns and walk away are highly unlikely to contribute their genes to any existing free-roaming canine or feline gene pools. But a more R-species survival strategy that favors faster development of young requiring minimal parental care and early sexual maturity would have its benefits. What these animals lacked in life expectancy they could make up for in numbers.

Their unpredictable environment also would favor a more dynamic strategy that could meet changing demands faster than a fixed one.

In such an environment, genetic and epigenetic combinations that favored the survival of one generation of young may not serve the next. Populations most likely to succeed are those that are the most adaptable as well as resilient in the long run as well as in the here and now. Survival would favor those animals of all ages more capable of handling stress.

On the other hand, human-orchestrated companion and feline environments favor a K-species approach. These environments and their resources are more stable, but there’s not an unlimited supply of them.

Although a few animals may live with people able to provide virtually all the tangible and intangible resources the animals might want or need, most companion animal environments have at least some limited resources at their carrying capacity for which the resident animals must compete.

Tangible resources may include premium diets, multiple walks or car rides daily, access to the owners’ bed, and veterinary care. Intangible resources include access to the owners’ attention and freedom from physical and behavioral pain.

Where basic survival dominates R-species life, K-species dogs and cats must compete for what’s there. And doing this successfully using the least amount of energy involves the development of social and other skills.

Skills like the ability to deceive or otherwise outwit competing animals in the household and even humans on occasion to get what they want. Learning those skills takes time. Consequently, K-species parents who want their offspring to succeed have fewer, slower maturing young who require more parental care longer. Or they would provide longer parental care if those breeding these animals allowed it.

Increasingly the companion animal human population also favors more infantile canine and feline looks and behaviors regardless of the animal’s behavioral legacy. Because of this, friction and mismatches between dogs and cats with R- or K-orientations and some humans are bound to occur.

Clinical experience supports this contention. Although rare in the past, dogs — and increasingly cats — from long-established lines of free-roaming animals now show up more frequently in the companion animal population. Some of these puppies and kittens don’t even look like puppies and kittens; they look like smaller versions of fully mature dogs and cats.

Unfortunately, practitioners may encounter naïve rescuers who adopt these animals that dislike confinement and dismiss human attempts to cuddle, cajole, treat-train or otherwise change these young animals’ genetic and epigenetic R-species predispositions. While some of these little survivors can and do eventually make the transition to what their adopters consider acceptable pets, others will never find peace in such environments no matter what their people do.

In general, the older the animal when captured and placed in a companion animal household, the more resistant to it. One exception to this may be older cats with chronic health problems.

Sometimes heroic measures will keep healthy animals confined who don’t want to be confined. But doing so may raise legitimate questions about the animal’s welfare under those circumstances, especially if doing so results in the development of behavioral or medical problems with a strong stress component. More caring and enlightened rescuers may sterilize these animals and place them in environments similar to their native ones as possible with the minimum amount of human contact.

There’s an old saying, “You can’t overcome genetics and environment.” Today we might reword that to say, “You can’t overcome genetic and epigenetic predispositions.”

But this goes hand-in-hand with another of nature’s caveats. “Never say never or always.”

Given the sizable gap between the genetic and epigenetic predispositions of dogs and cats from established free-roaming environments and purebreds, taking a one-size-approach to domestic canine and feline normal behavior can be problematic.

Recognition of the R- and K-species orientation provides a more realistic guide to the full range of normal behavior. Although such awareness may not result in the pet dog or cat behavioral stereotype the client desires, reframing those behaviors as “different” instead of “wrong” may facilitate behavioral and bond change if it’s possible and acceptance if it not.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: When bonds that worked no longer do

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One of the basic tenets in ethology reminds us that we can say nothing about what an animal’s behavior means unless we know the context in which it occurs. But what does that actually mean?

In an effort not to overwhelm my clients, I usually define context as the recognition of what preceded the perceived problem behavior, the behavior itself, and what follows it. “What follows it” includes their responses to the animal’s behavior.

However, as a clinician, I also must acknowledge that context involves a lot more. Unlike those who study animal behavior in controlled settings, practitioners seeking to unravel what caused an animal to display a particular problem behavior at a particular time don’t have the luxury of eliminating all but one or two variables and ignoring the rest. We first need to determine all the variables that could contribute to the problem in any way.

Often people think of companion animal environments in strictly physical terms — e.g., urban, suburban or rural; house, apartment, dormitory, etc. However, relative to behaviors, environments also include any mental/emotional components and their related physiological changes.

Furthermore, this comprehensive environment is dynamic. Even if Mr. Abernathy’s dog, Alice, was born, raised, lived and died in his home which he describes as “unchanged during her lifetime,” both of them will have experienced multiple macro- and micro-environmental changes during that period. Moreover, every one of these possess the potential to effect the most vital component in the resolution of any problem behavior the animal might develop: the physiological and behavioral effects these changes may have on bond between them.

Let’s consider some examples of how these changes may play out in the companion animal behavioral realm, beginning with Mr. Abernathy and Alice. Fourteen-year-old Alice didn’t actually develop fear-based aggression the day she bit the plumber who came to repair Mr. Abernathy’s leaking faucet.

A comprehensive history revealed that Alice had taken a proprietary view of her owner ever since she reached maturity years previously. Throughout that time, Mr. Abernathy doted on his dog instead of training her, and “managed” rather than addressing her aggressive displays by confining her to her crate whenever he expected company.

Meanwhile, Alice and Mr. Abernathy aged together. Although the dog remained physically healthy for a dog her age, she wasn’t the same dog that she was in her prime physically, mentally or emotionally when the biting incident occurred. Nor was her owner the same person.

During that same period, Mr. Abernathy’s health declined, which caused him to dote on his dog even more. Moreover, he did this with the encouragement and full support of his healthcare providers and family enchanted by all those positive media reports about the benefits of animal companionship on human health.

Meanwhile, her owner’s increased dependency made Alice more protective. This combination of increased human and canine vulnerability made Alice more anxious. And that, in turn, lowered her stress threshold.

Consequently, we don’t have a case of one-size-fits-all, fear-based aggression here. We have a complicated, specific, human-canine case that resulted in a dog who displayed fear-based aggression. We have a dog whose fear-based aggressive tendencies have been tolerated and inadvertently reinforced for years. We have a dog whose arthritis in her hips doesn’t compromise her ability to move freely in her home and yard. But it does compromise her ability to lunge to protect herself and her owner.

That also makes her more likely to aggress sooner that she did when she was younger. And we have an anxious owner in his late 70s on multiple medications for various health problems who forgot to confine his dog but desperately loves and needs the animal for his own well-being.

He also wants her aggression “fixed” immediately because home-healthcare looms on the horizon. So does potential trouble with his homeowner’s liability insurance provider if any bite inflicted by Alice requires medical care or is reported to the authorities.

Our second example looks at changes in the physical, mental, and emotional context at the opposite end of the spectrum that also can foil the one-size-fits-all approach to problem behaviors. It involves that population of single folks whose lives revolve around their dogs and social activities related to them.

Using usually positive but occasionally negative other-reinforcement training approaches, they spend hours each day transforming their puppies into stars in agility or other canine competitive sports.

Then, the unexpected happens. The owner meets a Special One and they start seeing each other. Pretty soon they move in together, then decide to marry. The young adult dog who had claimed the owner all to himself since he was a puppy now must cope with someone he perceives as a competitor for his owner’s time and attention. He’s not aggressive toward the partner. But he’s not overtly friendly, either.

The new partner initially does everything to gain the dog’s trust, but nothing seems to work. Meanwhile, the dog’s original owner alternates between feeling guilty for exposing her dog to such a major lifestyle change and anxious about his lackluster response to someone she cares about so much. She doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or hurt when her partner eventually chooses to ignore the dog.

Then several years later, the couple adds a baby to their household, and the now 9-year-old dog begins protecting what he considers his owner in earnest. He positions himself between her and her partner when they attempt to hug each other.

This progresses to full canine body blocks and nipping the partner’s feet and lower legs to keep him away. Nor is this more aggressive behavior related to the baby’s presence. He responds to the partner the same way even when the baby is napping or enjoying some quality away-from-home grandparental time.

Initially, the dog treated the baby with indifference. However, as the baby has become more motile, he becomes edgy when the baby gets too close to his owner. Not surprisingly, the owner’s guilt and anxiety grow as her vision of herself, her partner, the baby, and dog living happily ever after fades. Because she and her partner both see this as strictly the dog’s problem, they also want it fixed immediately.

In both of these examples, we see an increasing bond phenomenon that occurs in animals with behavioral problems: The owners have become so caught up in what their animals mean to and say about them that they lose sight of the animals themselves.

Mr. Abernathy perceives Alice as his reason for living; singletons whose lives center around their dogs and their dogs must change their orientations when a new person is added to the household. How the dog handles this can generate negative human-human feelings as well human-animal ones that may limit solutions. Further complicating matters, emotional contagion occurring between anxious humans and animals may aggravate the very problem behaviors they want stopped.

Admittedly, getting a comprehensive history that addresses these bond concerns as well as physical and behavioral components alone won’t solve these problems. But it will result in more meaningful, comprehensive approaches compared to taking a one-size-fits-all approach and hoping for the best.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: Seasonal companion animal behaviors

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With the arrival of spring, the number of calls regarding animals displaying problem behaviors often increases. Both cats and dogs may become more aggressive toward members of their own species, including those with whom they live.

Multiple natural cycles of varying length contribute to the behavioral unrest. In the wild and free-roaming domestic animal populations, the physiological and behavioral changes associated with some of these cycles first support the territorial displays that occur in the early spring.

But how does spaying and neutering affect companion animal responses to these same events?

Experience suggests that some dogs and cats may experience a state of persistent territorial unrest. As resident pets note the increased activity in the wild and free-roaming domestic animal population, some may become edgier and more protective of what they consider their own territory.

For some this may mean their yards; for others their homes. A third group that marks territories on walks with their owners or during solitary free-roaming walkabouts may become more reactive to other animals in general or known animals they previously ignored. Yet another group may become more protective of their owners.

Further complicating matters, local changes may produce noticeable changes in animal behavior. For example, wild animals living in the Northeast U.S. experienced a bust in seed production after several boom years.

During the boom years, more seed-eaters, such as turkeys, squirrels and all kinds of smaller rodents, survived long enough to have more offspring who did likewise. Their predators also responded to the increase in their food (i.e., prey) supply by doing likewise.

When the bust came, all of these animals had to scramble to compete for a reduced food supply. But where to find such food?

Unfortunately, this often meant the animals were forced to seek food much closer to human homes and activities than they normally did. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, two much longer cycles than the seed boom and bust ones, further contributed to many companion animals’ unrest this spring.

Increasingly, residential construction occurs on land previously occupied by wildlife. The infrastructure and services needed to support those people may claim a sizable piece of existing wild habitat, too.

And even though we typically associate these incursions with single-home dwellings, increasing numbers of housing developments and multiple family dwellings now include green spaces that preserve small areas of habitat that attract wildlife. Residents preferentially may choose these locations specifically so they can enjoy all the different birds at their feeders and the site of turkeys, deer, occasional bear and other wild animals in a nearby meadow or woodland.

But with the seed bust, increasing numbers of those now-hungry animals overcame their already somewhat dulled fears of humans and came into people’s yards more often. Where seed-eating prey species went, naturally so went their predators. Many of these animals came at night when the pet owners were at work or sleeping.

However, regardless of when the intruders came, many resident animals were aware of their presence. Some of these dogs and cats would monitor the intruders’ movement from inside the house.

If the homebound animals couldn’t track the interlopers until the latter left the animals’ property, the family dog or cat would track the aliens’ progress as far as they could. Then, they would mark those limits with urine, stool, or claw marks.

When dogs went out to relieve themselves or cats took their daily walk outdoors, they smelled the intruders’ scents; they read the often threatening territorial messages the intruders left behind. Or, the fear-scented ones emitted by an animal caught by a predator.

Other times owners unwittingly would track the intruders’ pheromones in on their muddy shoes and wipe them off on welcome mats by the door. Some resident cats and dogs only would give the mat a dedicated sniff; others would pee on it. One timid but determined dog preferred an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach and attempted to drag the mat outside every time his owner opened the door for any reason.

Additionally, rodents of all kinds seeking food and shelter took advantage of even the smallest openings that permitted entrance into human homes. Although cats with good hunting skills considered locating and dispatching the intruders’ quality enrichment, few owners agreed.

However, rodents that ran up and down within the walls where the resident pets couldn’t reach them created even more unrest for animals and humans alike. Some dogs and cats would sit motionless and stare at walls or cupboards they knew harbored intruders, a behavior that unnerved their owners. Others tracked the rodents’ movement with high-pitched barks or tried to dig through the walls, two more animal behaviors that few owners found endearing.

Another result of wildlife seeking food in human-populated areas was even more dramatic: surprise encounters between wild animals and cosseted pets on opposite sides of sliding glass doors. In these cases, the response of the wild animal was more likely to be shock than predatory.

Owners describe the stench of anal glands and urine on both sides of the door. After such encounters, some spooked dogs and cats who once felt secure enough within their homes not to display any marking behaviors shrank their territories by creating and marking new ones within that space.

Often, they limited their territory and marking to the owners’ bedroom or even that person’s bed. Needless to say, dealing with the influx of wildlife and discovering the beloved pet was peeing in their beds did nothing to lessen owner stress.

As with the other animal behaviors associated with this wild-companion animal interface, it also affected the bond between these animals and their people. Most people recognized that their fascination with the wildlife led them to set up the feeders and feeding stations that attracted them.

At the same time, though, they perceived their own animals’ behavioral response to that encroaching wildlife as unacceptable or even shocking. Furthermore, they wanted it stopped immediately. They didn’t realize that if their companion animals didn’t value their homes and those people, and feel so incapable of protecting it, they wouldn’t mark to otherwise signal a willingness to protect it.

Although some of these responses to seasonal changes in the environment in the Northeast may seem dramatic, other areas of the country and world have experienced even more extraordinary upheavals.

Heavy snowfalls or severe flooding may add to the seasonal changes that normally affect and sometimes destabilize wild and domestic animals of all species. But because companion animals may live such cosseted lives compared to their wild counterparts, it’s easy to forget that seasonal changes related to the natural world can and do affect their behavior and bonds with their people at those times.

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Diversity in dentistry on the rise

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Think about your dentist when you were a child. Can you remember? If you can, I’d be willing to bet your dentist was a man. Am I right?

According to the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI), 49 percent of U.S. dental school graduates in 2017 were women. That’s up from 37 percent in 1997. Forty years ago, only 7 percent of graduates were women. That means, give or take, only 7 percent of practicing dentists at that time were women.

The increasing number of women pursuing careers in dentistry is shifting the demographic makeup of the dental workforce. In 2018, 32 percent of all dentists were women, up from 16 percent in 2001. And by 2037, female dentists are expected to make up 46 percent of the dental workforce, according to HPI data.

“The increase in diversity in our profession is fantastic,” said Dr. Jennifer Enos, Arizona Dental Association president-elect. “It allows many opportunities for growth and innovation with the varying backgrounds and perspectives.” This diversity also allows for women dentists’ particular needs, such as balancing a career and family, to take more of a front-row seat.

Dr. Enos called on her own experience as a contrast. “I started in dentistry in 1999 as an assistant,” she said. “I knew one female dentist and there was very little ethnic diversity.”

Women in Dental Leadership

Dr. Enos said there’s a myriad of reasons why women should pursue leadership roles in organized dentistry, including giving back to the profession through advocacy and having a hand in improving public health.

In addition, the opportunity to gain perspective and experience, along with meeting with legislators, participating in volunteer events and attending member events, are invaluable, Dr. Enos said. “Ultimately, there’s the opportunity to continue to learn and grow,” she said. “I hope more women continue to take the opportunities.”

Later this year, Dr. Enos will be one of 13 women serving as presidents in their state dental association — the most in the ADA’s 160-year history.

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Ethology and veterinary practice: The behavior-territory-history connection

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It’s difficult to analyze any perceived problem behavior without recognizing the role the animal’s territory plays in it. This difficulty occurs because establishing and protecting the territory is a top animal priority.

Moreover, this includes the mental and emotional as well as the physical space. If animals don’t know where they fit in relative to any people or other animals in their space, their territory is no more secure than a space with physical hazards they must learn to negotiate safely or avoid completely.

When people think about their pet’s territory, though, they often think about it in general terms — e.g., only in the here and now, and strictly as it relates to their home and yard. This may suffice if their animals are from established local sources. In that case, those people and area practitioners already may be familiar with the breeders, previous owners, or animal control officers who picked up the lost or stray animals and took them to a local shelter.

However, for veterinarians practicing in areas that attract a large population of transported dogs and cats (perhaps to a lesser degree), reliable territorial histories may be hard to come by. Ask Ms. Doe where her animal lived before she got him, and all she knows is that he came from a rescue organization “down south somewhere.”

Aside from (maybe) providing a broad geographical location, she can offer little regarding the animal’s life prior to when she adopted him. If she adopted her transport animal from a local shelter to which the dog was shipped, any history she received about him may focus almost exclusively on what happened to him after he took up residence there. If she picked him up at a drop point in a parking lot, her new dog’s history may be limited to what the person driving the transport vehicle can provide.

It goes without saying that key differences may occur in the process triggered when animals with limited histories are presented for medical vs. behavioral problems. When animals with limited histories are presented with medical problems of unknown origin, the possibility that the animals may carry a disease that could pose a threat to others may be a primary concern of veterinarians and the animals’ adopters. Although public health concerns may head the list, concerns about any threat the new addition’s illness may pose to other animals in the household and the community also exist.

In the medical problem scenario, practitioners with only general geographic information regarding the transport animal’s origins can contact multiple sources regarding diseases and parasites common in those areas, their routes of transmission, public health significance, symptoms, diagnostic tests, treatment, prognosis, and prevention.

However, when it comes to behavioral histories, a more casual view may prevail every step of the transport animal’s journey from birth to the adopter’s home. Sometimes practitioners and members of the public get so used to hearing and accepting sad stories in place of concrete facts that they even may consider “he came from a rescue” or “she came from a shelter” a valid history when, in fact, it tells them nothing.

The rescue puppy or kitten could have been born under an abandoned porch, in a rescue facility filled with other animals of the same or different species, or in a foster home with or without children or other animals. The adult animal could have been transported from a different state or even country, and spent weeks or even months being bounced through multiple foster locations where the animal was exposed to multiple people and events, some better than others.

Instead of a detailed history that includes the animal’s behavioral and bond responses during this period, only some sad story may accompany these animals as they move through the system. Sometimes these stories replace histories that don’t exist because any records kept by those involved in the process were nonexistent or incomplete. Other times, these stories attempt to present known or suspected behavioral problems in a manner that downplays their seriousness or how long they may take to resolve.

With behavioral problems, nothing exists comparable to the veterinary medical resources available regarding the diseases common in a geographical area and how to diagnose, treat, and prevent them. Lacking such resources, it can take a great deal of time and energy to determine the kind of basic information most practitioners take for granted when addressing medical problems.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. No matter how strong the bond some people who adopt these animals may have with the image elicited by the sad story, many lack the strong bond with and commitment to an animal that comes with a comprehensive, reliable history. It’s that concrete knowledge that enables them to trust their animals and go the extra mile for them.

Barring that history, practitioners can only do their best. Often, it’s possible to use an understanding of what the animal is doing now as an indicator of past experiences. The key here is the ability to ignore the considerable emotional charge these animals often carry and analyze their behaviors objectively.

Instead of thinking about these as problems, think about those circumstances where those behaviors would have been adaptive instead of maladaptive. For example, a more aloof dog from free-roaming, warm climate roots who chews the window and door frames in an effort to get out of her new home may do so simply because she hates being confined. Period.

She never experienced confinement in her native environment and her experiences with it since her capture did nothing to convince her this was a quality way to live. Although hardly a complete history, at least it provides a starting point.

In the long run though, it’s better to take more preventive approach. Remind local shelters or rescues that offer these animals to the public that they have — or should have — a strong incentive to find out where these animals came from originally and how many different environments they passed through before their organizations put them up for adoption. Educate clients seeking to add an animal to their households about the role a reliable behavioral history plays in their future animal’s and their own success.

Many companion animal adopters consider animals from nonlocal sources potential members of their families: They want to adopt a pet, not a project. The only way to help ensure this means that those involved from the beginning to the end of the process demand that a quality medical and behavioral history accompany the animal.

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