By Dr Emma K Grigg, University of California, Davis
We may not realize it, but many household appliances are causing our pets significant stress, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. Now, one of its authors, Dr Emma K Grigg of University of California, Davis, writes about another less-discussed issue: how little effort is being put into better understanding our pets.
Grigg is a certified applied animal behaviorist and a staff research associate and lecturer at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also a lecturer in canine behavior at Bergin University of Canine Studies in northern California and has authored a number of scientific publications on canine, feline, and marine mammal behavior. Her first book, The Science Behind a Happy Dog, was published in June 2017.
As an animal behavior researcher who specializes in dogs and cats, I have been trained to carefully observe and interpret their body language to better understand and predict their behavior, to study the ways in which they interact with their worlds, and to continually consider the impacts of human activities on their wellbeing.
My recent research has often focused on these topics, and I share this interest with many talented researchers. Human attitudes towards animal welfare and understanding the needs of species-typical behavior are all interconnected, and have very real consequences for the animals in our care.
In our recent study published to Frontiers in Veterinary Science, we surveyed 386 dog owners, and recorded dog behaviors seen in 62 videos posted on an online video sharing platform, to document companion dog reactions to common household noises. We learned that many dogs suffer significant distress when exposed to relatively common household sounds.
These sounds ranged from the ‘low battery’ beep of the smoke detector, sounds made by microwave ovens, fire alarms, and vacuum cleaners. Dogs reacted with more intense fear and distress to sounds characterized as high frequency and intermittent (eg low-battery warning beeps), versus sounds characterized as low-frequency and continuous (eg vacuums).
Owners laughing during distress
In many of the online videos, the dogs were displaying well-established signs of canine anxiety, fear and distress: retreating, pacing, trembling, hiding, and howling. Many dogs also attempted to stay close to their owner, something dogs frequently do when feeling threatened. Equally troubling was that many (but not all) owners who presumably love their dogs, were oblivious to their dog’s suffering.
Amusement was the most common human reaction seen in 45.6% of the videos. In 22.8% of videos, the dog was deliberately antagonized to get the desired reaction. Concern for the dogs was expressed in only 17.5% of the videos. Clearly, some owners underestimate their dogs’ fearfulness in response to these ‘normal’ stimuli, and as a result, respond insensitively to their dogs’ behavior.
Our observations, in both survey results and videos, agree with other published studies of noise sensitivity in dogs, which frequently document intense fear reactions to loud noises. Strong reactions are especially likely when noises are unpredictable, and when the dog cannot control their exposure to them, as with dogs in human households. Furthermore, dogs’ hearing differs from ours. Their sensitivity to high frequency sounds is greater than humans, and thus the high frequency sounds made by electronic beeps or chirps may be particularly unpleasant, even painful, for dogs.
Videos shared online do not allow us to calculate a true prevalence for these types of noise sensitivities or phobias in dogs. More research is required, involving detailed surveys of a much larger sample of dog owners, perhaps combined with controlled experimental research involving the assessment of dogs’ physiological and behavioral reactions to various types of household sounds (conducted ethically, without harming the dogs).
Highlighting a bigger issue
I am often a ‘wet blanket’ for ‘funny’ videos and jokes involving dogs and cats, posted online or shared by well-meaning friends. Frequently the animals involved show clear signs of discomfort or distress. Our findings highlight a bigger issue for the public good: the need for increased, evidence-based education of animal professionals and the general public about how to understand, communicate with, care for, and interact safely with these animals which share our homes and daily lives.
Many researchers have noted the need for increased coursework in applied behavior in veterinary curricula, but veterinary schools are slow to take up the challenge. For example, Calder et al. found that only 26.8% of graduating veterinary students in North America felt prepared to diagnose and treat behavior problems in their future practice. Not all accredited veterinary schools require (or even offer) a course in animal behavior.
However, even if all veterinarians were highly trained in animal behavior, studies show that many owners of companion animals look elsewhere for advice, often receiving uninformed or outdated information with negative consequences for both human and pet.
Coursework focused on companion animal behavior, welfare, and human-animal interactions is limited in US undergraduate science curricula. This is changing somewhat, with new programs in applied ethology or anthrozoology at some forward-thinking institutions. Some university animal science or biology programs – focused heavily on production animals or wildlife – view the behavior of companion animals as within the purview of veterinary schools. Yet they only teach veterinary students, and already have struggles to provide adequate training in behavior.
This strange academic resistance may reflect the historical prejudice in the field of animal behavior against studying domesticated and companion animals as‘less intelligent’, and thus uninteresting.
A major veterinary blind spot
Recent excellent research into canine and feline behavior and cognition underscores that companion animals are valid topics in life sciences curricula. Strong and consistent undergraduate and graduate student interest focuses on learning more about these animals who play such a large role in our lives.
The American Veterinary Medical Association notes that more than 48m US households include a dog, and almost 32m include a cat. Companion animals provide an excellent conduit to understanding many broader topics in science, such as evolution, ecology, welfare, and ‘one health‘.
Far more students interact regularly with dogs and cats than with wildlife or production animals, but they know remarkably little about the biology or behavior of their companions. A better understanding of the behavior and needs of companion animals would benefit the animals themselves.
It would also benefit humans by reducing injuries due to aggression, the stress and expense of pet behavior problems, and the emotional toll on animal professionals working in shelters and veterinary clinics who must face the consequences of this lack of knowledge daily. This should no longer be delegated to veterinarians or trainers, but should be a part of what we teach every student in animal studies.
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