Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Helping dogs overcome their fear of car rides can be simple but it takes patience, time

From the time Gretchen was a tiny pup, she has spent time traveling in the car frequently. My desire to take road trips with her was a driving force behind that, so making even the shortest car rides a pleasurable experience was something that I worked at making happen.

In the 15 years since I brought her home, we've taken many trips — and there have been car rides to other people's homes, the park, the pet store and more frequently these days, trips to a local facility for laser therapy to address her advanced arthritis, which she enjoys (more on that later).

Through it all, Gretchen has enjoyed her car rides because almost always, good things happen (sometimes these days that means the two of us splitting a small order of fries from the drive-thru after laser therapy).

That said, a lot of people have dogs that they have welcomed into their family that are not so fond of a vehicular outing, and it's understandable: cars can be noisy, over-stimulating and disorienting — plus, there's the scary unknown. Bad experiences can result in lots of nervous panting, drooling or even vomiting on the part of our pet friends.

If you're in that camp, rest assured that you can help your reluctant pooch make friends with the thing on four wheels.

First, consider that your furry pal might have an aversion to car rides because of motion sickness or even anxiety, so a visit with the vet is in order to see if medication can help.

If not, the anxiety that they are feeling is likely because they are simply afraid.

Here's how to help mitigate any reservations that your dog might have:

  • Demonstrate that the car is something positive. Start by approaching your vehicle while it's parked and the engine is off. Playing their favorite game near it and around it will create a positive association, as will offering high value treats.
  • Give them autonomy. Open the doors of the car before you climb in calmly, but cheerfully. Invite them to join you in the same manner, all the while offering high value treats and praise. Consider feeding a favored food once they venture inside. Keeping the doors open allows your pet the freedom to make choices will help increase his confidence. It will also give you a barometer to measure how they're feeling about things,
  • A Kong toy filled with food to enjoy while in the car might further enhance positive associations. If your pooch decides to exit the vehicle, kindly retrieve the toy from them and put it in the car in plain view. This will demonstrate that the vehicle is the place where fun things happen.
  • Transferring a positive association can be helpful. If your dog has a good relationship with their crate, you might consider putting one that they're familiar with in the car. Be sure to keep the door to the crate open, as this will offer the autonomy to get in and out as they wish.
  • When you observe that your pet has made friends with the new environment, it's time to take the next step: being inside the car with the engine running. How you do this is crucial. With you and your four-legged friend happily settled in somewhere in the backseat area of the vehicle, (and making sure that the radio is off), have a person that your pet trusts get in and calmly start the car. Sit with them while rewarding with yummy treats, or play with a valued toy and praise. You won't be driving anywhere, just allowing them to get used to the sound and feeling of the running engine. Remember, it's all about positive associations.
  • Once your dog gets the hang of how that feels, you can begin taking short drives, (preferably where there isn't too much stimulation, like lots of traffic or people or animals), and then gradually increasing the distance and intensity of visual and auditory stimulation. (Some dogs do really well with the help of calm, relaxing music playing on the stereo during their car rides.)
  • Ensuring that these first outings always end on a positive note is key, so something like a walk in a favorite park or some interactive playtime back at home would in order.
  • After implementing these fun and easy tips, it isn't too long before the time comes when most dogs get really comfortable with the family vehicle and then of course you'll need to spell out C-A-R R-I-D-E.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor for The Ann Arbor News -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Scientists discover that reptiles may have more sophisticated cognitive ability that facilitates learning new skills

The way that animals interact with the world around them has long fascinated us, and most often we as pet owners are focused on behavior and ability to learn when it comes to our dogs and cats — as well as a fair share of those who have horses and birds.

What may not be on our radar is that other species that are kept as pets — reptiles, like the bearded dragon, specifically — may also use a type of learning to gain new skills that only other animals were known employ: social learning.

In the past, it was thought that only certain species of animals (as an example, primates and canines) were capable of using social learning.

Researchers discovered that reptiles, bearded dragons, as they witnessed in a new study, likely use social learning through imitation as well — something that has not been noticed before.

The study, called Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps), was recently published in the journal Animal Cognition and used 12 bearded dragons that had never been used in experiments in cognition.

Researchers from the United Kingdom, Eötvös University in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna were behind the study.

Because it's known that reptiles and mammals evolved from a common ancestor, sorting out the two group's similarities and differences in behavior is of interest to help flesh out the overall evolution of cognition.

Lead researcher from The School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, Anna Wilkinson expanded a bit on the topic.

"The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the pinnacle of social learning and long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. However, nothing is known about these abilities in reptiles. This research suggests that the bearded dragon is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms — such as an individual being drawn to a certain location because they observed another in that location or through observational learning. The finding is not compatible with the claim that only humans, and to a lesser extent great apes, are able to imitate."

It's important to clarify that in discussing cognition, imitation (in other words, mimicking what is seen, as well as comprehending the intention behind the action), differs from emulation, or simply parroting behavior without understanding that there might be a desired outcome that will result.

To do the study, researchers used one lizard that was trained to demonstrate the act of opening a wire door which concealed a hole that was cut in a wooden board. The door could be slid to left or right by using their head or the foot. After opening the door, the lizard was given a food reward.

The other lizards were divided into two groups: experimental and control.
The experimental subjects watched the lizard used to demonstrate the activity (using their head to open the door), and each of them went on to imitate it successfully.
Subjects in the control group did not imitate it, nor did they observe the demonstrator lizard manipulate the door.

"This, together with differences in behavior between experimental and control groups, suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms. These results reveal the first evidence of imitation in a reptile species and suggest that reptiles can use social information to learn through imitation."

Click here for more on the study.

Archerfish are also known to use social learning to gain skills in going after food, according to a recent article on Nautilus.com.

You can watch one of the experimental lizards in the study imitate the behavior.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor for The Ann Arbor News -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Recent study reveals surprising details about ingredients in pet food

What's in the food that our families eat is undoubtedly something that more of us are conscious of these days, and it's not limited to the bipeds in the tribe: what goes into the mouths of our furry and feathered friends is of concern, too.

There are more choices on the market when it comes to pet food and I know all too well that there is much contention (and plenty of people willing to offer their unsolicited opinions!) about which type of food is best. Walk into any pet store and you can really see the proverbial fur fly; when I'm browsing the aisles, I usually hear at least one patron or employee soliciting unfounded, cringeworthy advice about why one brand or type is better than the other.

Despite the number of recalls of all kinds that are posted on the Food and Drug Administration's website in a given month, the acerbic banter about how evil the most well-known pet food companies are is fed like a coal furnace with the help of the pet food recalls that are issued, though most commonly they are voluntary and done as a precaution by the company.

A recent study could give people more to consider when it comes to ruminating about the food that they are giving their pets: there's a possibility that the ingredients in the pet food could be mislabeled.

“Although regulations exist for pet foods, increases in international trade and globalization of the food supply have amplified the potential for food fraud to occur,” said Rosalee Hellberg, Ph.D., who co-authored the study, titled Identification of Meat Species in Pet Foods Using a Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Assay.

"With the recent discovery of horsemeat in ground meat products sold for human consumption in several European countries, finding horsemeat in U.S. consumer food and pet food products is a concern, which is one of the reasons we wanted to do this study.”

Interestingly, 40% of the foods that were tested were mislabeled (20 out of 52). Here are some more highlights from the study:

  • 13 were dog food and 7 were cat food
  • 16 of the total tested were found to contain meat species that weren't on the product label
  • pork was the most common undeclared meat species

DNA was extracted from the 52 products was tested to see which of eight meat species — beef, goat, lamb, chicken, goose, turkey, pork or horse — were present.

The results concluded that chicken was the most common meat species found in the pet food products, followed by pork, beef, turkey and lamb. Goose was at the bottom of the list.

Horse meat was not detected in any of the tested samples.

More studies are needed to determine just how far the incidence of mislabeling goes, as well as seeing where it occurs during production.

Pet foods are regulated at the federal and state level. The Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates animal feed and pet foods. While the United States Department of Agriculture regulates the interstate transportation and processing of animal products, as well as the inspection of animal product imports and exports. At the state level, Departments of Agriculture also conducts testing — in fact this is where problems have been detected in some recent pet food recalls.

Though the brands tested were not disclosed, mislabeling does raise an obvious cause for concern: many pets are on limited ingredient formulas because of allergies.

“Pet food safety was another area of concern, particularly with pet foods that are specifically formulated to address food allergies in both cats and dogs,” noted Dr. Hellberg.

Click here for more on the study, which was co-authored by Tara A. Okuma, was recently published in the journal Food Control.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Having the courage to face reality is key when helping any pet in their twilight or during a grave illness

"I am seeing that my dog doesn't do as well when we travel and aren't able to take them with us, and wanted to ask about how you might be able to help..."

This is something that I often hear from those that share life with aging dogs, and for good reason: they know their pet better than anyone.

Pets experience all kinds of changes throughout their lifetime, and we spend so much of our time with them that it seems easy to pick up on when they might be having trouble — or is it?

The answer to that depends on a lot of things: our previous experience, the pet, the species — even our willingness to do so.

With regard to the latter statement, I'm not suggesting that we're stubbornly refusing to do what is reasonably mindful for our furry friends. Rather, perhaps it's subconscious. It can be difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that a pet is changing in little ways, or more profoundly.

In some respect, we've probably all done it, or will: we don't want to face the prospect that they might be in pain or that cognitively they are slipping a bit or we know that we need to stop procrastinating on having a conversation with the vet even though we instinctively know that there is a dire health issue unfolding. Perhaps we feel like there isn't good communication between ourselves and the clinician and we don't know how to navigate through that. Family dynamics often muddle things when it comes to addressing pivotal or even minor changes with our pets. It can even be easy to let ourselves off the hook by writing things off as a normal part of aging, when we know that there's more to our pet's story.

What does facing the changes that we're seeing mean for us? That's certainly a fair question, because we're one part of the equation, and we're socially bonded to our companion animals.

Sometimes it means crafting a different life, a new routine; acquiring a new skill in caring for our pets; thinking not in terms of years, but months or weeks; having to summon the courage to open up a tough conversation with another family member who might be resistant to what is happening; facing the fact that a chapter in our lives will be closing.

Being honest is hard, I know that all too well. I'm incredibly bonded with all of my charges and over the years, specializing in the care of aging pets because of my day-to-day experience has become the norm. And with two aging pets at home, there's a double dose of everyday reality.

Coming to terms with our pet's changing needs spurs us to re-evaluate our definition of what "doing well" is — "the new normal", I call it. It's surprising how different that looks in short periods of time.

With the right care, our pet's lives can be comfortable, happy and full while navigating their twilight or through a grave illness. None of that happens optimally without our having the courage to speak up on their behalf.

Many have articulated that what's most surprising is once the honestly hurdle is crossed, there is a weight that is lifted — the one that is worn like an albatross around the neck. If we give ourselves the opportunity, we come to see that though these changes are moving us and our pets in a direction that we don't want to go, life can still be enjoyed, just differently.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.