Monday, September 26, 2016

What your cat's vomiting near the litter box can tell you about their health

Being observant of a pet's behavior and their habits is essential, no matter if you're family or their occasional caregiver.  Understanding what's normal for them and noting any changes, regardless of how subtle can speak volumes that something is going on. Cats can be especially challenging to read; they are masters of hiding any illness or pain and yes, of course they don't often openly display if they are not feeling well.

To mine for the right information, there are times you need to look no further than the litter box--or in this case, in and around it.

This morning, I arrived to care for a senior kitty that I've been tending to for years. She has some health issues, including renal insufficiency, something that isn't uncommon in cats her age. Thus far, it has been well-managed by providing bowls of fresh water throughout the house so that she is encouraged to drink ample amounts of fluid; dehydration goes hand-in-hand with chronic kidney disease (CKD). One of the areas that we see affected is the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and with less fluid made available to that area, stools can become too firm and difficult to pass. In this cat's case, I've noted that despite the fact that she's taking in lots of water (the plentiful urine clumps in the litter box are fine evidence of that) her stools are less soft than they were just a few weeks ago. That's a good indicator that the CKD is likely progressing, but with some changes in her daily regimen directed by her veterinarian, her condition can continue to be managed adequately. Watch the video below to learn more about another clue related to this facet of CKD that is often missed, but should be taken seriously and discussed with a pet's veterinarian.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reactive dogs need help to feel empowered when faced with their triggers

It's not unusual for a dog owner to be uneasy when they first contact me about caring for their furry friend. And beyond the anxiety of not knowing what to expect going in when hiring a caregiver, or having had a previous experience that was less-than-ideal, the angst they feel often has more to do with how I might react when I have the opportunity to get to know their furry friend a little better.

"They're not welcome back to the day care facility we been using… " and "...our previous pet sitter voiced some concerns about their behavior especially when encountering other dogs on walks" are common nervous refrains. 

As is often the case, observing how the guardian interacts with the dog, my spending a little time with the family—even suggesting that all of us walk together—and asking the humans good questions quickly gives me some clarity about what might really be going on.

Often I discover that what is at the root of the issue likely isn't at all what the family has been told. 

Case in point: reactivity. It's a common issue that plagues pet dogs and we've all been witness to it. Barking, lunging, jumping, vocalizing, carrying on, that sort of thing.

One assertion that I often hear when a dog is exhibiting reactivity is that they are aggressive or dominant, while another frequent quip, '...they are not obedient' gets tossed around. This only leaves the family feeling all thumbs, and wrongfully so. In fact, what I find is that obedience is not a problem with most reactive dogs; I observe most of these dogs understanding and responding appropriately to cues they're given and they're quite eager to engage and listen. The problem arises when they are thrust into a situation where they don't have a sense of safety.

With reactivity, what some mistakenly view as willfulness, aggression or dominance is simply an emotional response to a trigger (think the UPS truck, a bicyclist, another dog, a runner). This emotional response—referred to as a distance-increasing behavior—is spurred by being frustrated, anxious or even fearful. To clarify, the dog is articulating in the best way he knows how, 'I don't know how to deal with this [dog/person/vehicle] and I want it far away from me!', and with the lunging and barking and such, they hope to achieve that. Simply, the dog feels better when that trigger is gone. So if we don't facilitate getting the dog the space they need from that trigger to feel more comfortable, they'll try and make it happen by using what they have to work with.

It's not only frustrating for both ends of the leash, but potentially dangerous. Many a time I've seen a human physically struggle to maintain their hold onto the leash—even worse when a retractable is being used—or to not get tangled in the leash and knocked down and dragged about by the dog who is going bananas. By the same token, hopefully the leash, collar or harness doesn't fail and if there's another dog in the scenario, fingers crossed they don't break loose. 

For those reasons alone it makes sense to not try and do what to most might feel is wise and force a dog to sit and calm down and wait until the trigger is out of sight. (Are you with me?)

A much better solution is to get the dog as much physical space as they need to feel okay. In my experience—and depending on the dog and the scenario—this might mean casually changing direction and heading down another street or simply crossing the street. Often I find myself in this situation with a charge, but I might be on a country road with no where to go besides into a field or a driveway. Space is space. I should add that I frequently encounter other dogs and their handlers who are clearly struggling with reactivity, and giving them the space they need is a priority for me as doing so could avert a dangerous situation. If I see that's the case, my charge and I cross the street, change our intended course, whatever I think might be most mindful.

Steeping a dog in a situation that makes them reactive will not only reinforce and escalate what you don't want, but can lead to other unwanted behaviors.

While giving a dog the physical distance they need to help quell their reactivity in the moment (and you can certainly use it to stave off an encounter by being vigilant), it doesn't resolve the root issue: the dog hasn't been afforded the opportunity to draw from wellspring of positive experiences with their triggers. You see, with proper socialization in the crucial early months of life and positive experiences with those things that might otherwise become a trigger (two things that I find many reactive dogs lack), young dogs naturally gain confidence and the ability to make good choices when confronted with their subsequent interactions with them. Victoria Stillwell wrote a beautifully crafted piece on helping reactive dogs gain the confidence they need in situations that they've found troublesome in the past. Click here to read, Teaching a leash reactive dog to make the right choices.

Some families find that they need one-on-one help with this or in other situations. If you feel a training professional's expertise is needed, be sure to do your homework and vet the person carefully. Your family's needs might be able to be met by a reputable trainer, a behaviorist (there's a difference) or in some cases, consulting a veterinary behaviorist might be necessary.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Talk to me: conflating a dog's ability to process human language with comprehension puts them at a disadvantage

One of the top things that I impress upon people when it comes to companion animals is the importance of relationship building: it's really the cornerstone of ensuring how well they unfold as family pets. Some of us get to kick things off when our pets are young, in other cases we get a late start if they might come to us when they're a bit older. Nonetheless, great relationships are fostered by clear communication—both non-verbal and verbal. The latter kind can be a bone of contention to some degree, especially when it comes to training. 

Just how vital is our verbal communication when it comes to our dogs? Mighty important in my experience, (though non-verbal is highly effective in some cases.)

Dogs have lived along side us humans for a long time, and because of that we've had to better understand each other. One of the ways that we've made an effort is through research, and using technology has been a part of that. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is one method that has been used in the past, and it's once again shedding new light on how complex the canine brain is.

Attila Andics, PhD, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, along with a handful of his colleagues who are also part of the Family Dog Project, aimed to see just what goes on in a dog's brain when they hear a familiar, trusted person (their trainer) utter words and phrases. 13 dogs trained to lay calm and quietly in an fMRI scanner were used in the study, Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs, published late last month. 

To test the dog's ability to process and understand words and intonation, the trainer offered up words to them while inside the scanner that were either neutral with a neutral intonation (Nn), a neutral word with a praising intonation (Np), a praising word with a neutral tone (Pn) or praising with a like tone (Pp). 

Andics' focuses of study include voice processing and social and affective aspects of learning and perception, so it seems fitting in this study to home in on how canines might use what we say to interact with us and learn. 

So, what did the researchers discover? From the collective results of the fMRI, it appeared that the dogs could recognize meaningful words, differentiate when a word was spoken with or without a praising tone and finally, they could use the other two skills in conjunction to process the reward value of what was said. 

Does this mean that dogs can understand what we're communicating when we talk to them? The answer to that is tricky.

What we do you know from the study is that a dog's brain can process language like us humans; that is, ah-ha! I've heard that before!, but in terms of reliably comprehending what a human means when the words come out of their mouth, it's simply not on par with what we are capable of. 

Deflating the proverbial balloon, gently

That's not to say that it can't happen to some degree—there have been canines who have exhibited the ability to acquire a vast vocabulary and demonstrate comprehension with it—but yes, it's rare. Dogs gain this level of skill with a lot of training and diligence on the human's part. And the majority of dogs don't have access to that.

Sure, dogs can hear a favorable word that their humans use often when engaging with them and their reaction is equally favorable. That simply demonstrates that the dog's brain recognizes the word as such, and to go a step further it could be strung to a rewarding outcome (like a treat or an interaction that they find pleasurable). But switch up the context of the word/phrase or how it's said, and often, confusion sets in.

(This is an example of when proofing comes in as a valuable tool in training and communicating. Read more about that by clicking here.)

This is why—going back to what I mentioned in the first paragraph about relationship-building—communication with your dog needs to be clear, concise and yes, contextual. Dogs need to be able to count on us to do that when we are interacting with them, no matter if we are in training or goofing off at home or if they get loose from their leash and dash out into a busy street.

So, do we take the study with a grain of salt? Let's just say that the information gathered from it is helpful in that it demonstrates where the limits are when it comes to what dogs can understand, and we need to respect that. I've read too many articles with regard to this study that would easily lead some dog owners to feel supported in their misguided view that their dog is simply being willful or as one said to me, "...they're stupid". In truth, the difficulties arise from the mistakes that have come from the other end of the leash.

Equating the way that the canine brain works with our own muddies the waters and only creates problems. Dogs, although highly intelligent, adaptable and very much a part of our families, are not human. We have to be okay with that.

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.