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Animal Behavior Experts Meet to Reveal Results of Studies


By Steve Dale

ST. LOUIS, MO. – The annual American College of Veterinary Behaviorists/American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Symposium was held here July 15, in conjunction with the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention. Here’s some news from the symposium, revealing the latest research in animal behavior:

— Cats who scratch in all the wrong places can damage their relationships with their owners, or worse, end up in shelters. Dr. Alessandro Cozzi, a researcher at Pherosynthese Research Institute for Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology in France, said most owners don’t understand that cats scratch to mark territory (with visual cues and pheromones they deposit when they scratch), as well as to maintain their claws. A product called ScratchyLicious (not yet on the market) has been tested to encourage cats to scratch at posts. Catnip can also encourage cats to scratch but ScratchyLicious proved more effective.

–Since dogs are so often given up to shelters due to behavior problems, such issues may actually be the most significant cause of death for adult dogs (before they become elderly). Dr. Jennifer Kwan, of the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine-Davis, questioned owners at shelters about why they’d given up their dogs. Results showed those who gave up their pets were less attached to them (compared to those who never give up their dogs), and were more likely to keep the pets outside all the time.

Interestingly (and in conflict with at least one other study), dog training classes didn’t seem to be a factor in whether a pet was relinquished. However, Kwan did learn that owners using punishment-based training were less satisfied with their dog’s overall leash-walking behavior. Also, 65 percent of those who gave up their dogs reported bad behavior as the primary explanation for giving up the pet. These findings imply that using punishment-based tools may deleteriously affect the human-animal bond.

Legendary veterinary behaviorist Dr. R.K. Anderson, of Minneapolis, MN, suggested people clearly offer “other excuses” for giving up pets. For example, in one study, “moving” was among the most significant explanations for owners giving up dogs or cats. In fact, Anderson said, it turned out most of these people never did change their address.

–Does feeding dogs from food delivery toys (dogs manipulate the toys so food tumbles out) potentially alleviate boredom in shelters? If so, one may assume, the same may be true in a home setting, particularly when dogs are left home alone. Two toys, the Kibble Nibble and the Tug-A-Jug, were used in a study. Dr. Margaret Gruen, of North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine-Raleigh, indicated that many dogs engaged with the toys, as measured by the number of interactions noted and percentage of food consumed. Results suggested food delivery toys may be very useful, durable and convenient items for canine environmental enrichment, alleviating boredom. Interestingly, pit bull-type dogs seemed to engage with the toys most often.

–Julie Hecht, a New York-based behavioral researcher, traveled to Budapest, Hungary, to conduct a study trying to answer the age-old question: Do dogs really exhibit “guilty” behavior when they’ve done something wrong in their owner’s absence?

It seems all dog owners know “the look” — lowered body, lowered head, averted eyes and a downward wagging of the tail. Owners often translate this to mean, “I did something wrong and I’m sorry.” Hecht suggested that in many ways, human guilt looks much the same — lowered and turned head, slumped posture, averted gaze.

The results of Hecht’s fascinating study — which included dogs snatching hot dogs when they weren’t supposed to, all caught on video — demonstrates that dogs didn’t actually show remorse after chowing down; in fact, quite the opposite. When the dog handler returned the room, the dogs did act “guilty,” but Hecht says these may have been appeasement gestures offered to prevent human scolding. Hecht concedes further work is required.

–Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Jacqui Neilson observed 277 cat elimination events via motion-activated cameras at the Oregon Humane Society in Portland. The results compared scented vs. unscented litter. It turned out the cats, overall, didn’t have a preference. Literature had suggested cats prefer unscented litter. Maybe it depends on the scent (if there is one). The result of this work was surprising.

If you’re dealing with pet behavior problems, you may wish to contact a veterinary specialist at or a veterinarian with a special interest in animal behavior at Both sites offer contact information.


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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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