When You Know Better than the Expert

John Bradshaw, a scientist at Bristol, wrote two fabulous books: Dog Sense and Cat Sense. They are some of the best popular science books I’ve ever read, and helped me to decide that the Animal Personality book could be a good pop science book. I cite Bradshaw a lot in this blog, if you take a look over the companion animal and cats tags you’ll see his name come up a lot.

So I was interested to see the Guardian’s regular “You Googled It So We Asked the Experts” column had been given to John Bradshaw to answer “Why Aren’t Cats Loyal?

You know from the number of Guardian links that appear on this blog that I enjoy a good Guardian article, but there is the phenomenon “Below The Line” where the Guardian commenters turn their rabid, foaming fingers to the columnist.

In this article I was near in stitches reading the likes of:

I thought that study was pretty superficial. My cat is more out going and more assured when I’m around. It may not be immediate like for a dog but they do miss us. At least mine does.

Superficial, this is why I have decided to go into great depth and talk about my one animal.

My cats have a range of facial expressions and have several vocal expressions to let you know what they want.

Which is why your cats have ten times the facial muscles everybody else’s have . . . oh, they don’t? Perhaps your ability to ‘understand’ them is part of this whole scientific question? Who knew.

The studies are a heap of crap I reckon, my cats are totally loyal more loyal than dogs I’d say without a doubt. With dogs its their nature, cats choose who they are loyal to, there is a big difference when comparing the two.

Science communciation, what a joy.

To all those who read the article and feel their cats were misrepresented, I urge you to pick up Cat Sense which is a sublime read and puts a huge amount of effort into communicating the science, because as another recent Guardian article points out, it is everybody’s responsibility to try and understand the science.

Anatomy of a Break – Part Two

This is a post I have tried to put off writing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bobo, who had badly broken a leg. This was missed by a vet, and so poor Bobo had spent time in pain, and now was faced with a complicated operation to save the leg.

Almost unbelievably, Bobo died under general anaesthetic last Friday.

I wrote up a case study on the subject, and I’ve had the chance to explain it to her old owner Sophie in person, thanks to a helpfully timed genetics conference. And I’ve talked about it to mum over and over. I won’t go into the detail again here. Suffice to say, the operation to save her leg didn’t work. When she was brought back under anaesthetic to amputate her leg, she suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived.

It’s incredibly unusual to lose a cat under general anaesthetic these days, even one who has been through several with some infections. The staff were shocked, and have been very kind to my mum, sending her a card and Forget-Me-Not seeds.

In a horrible echo, Mum’s new neighbour found her own cat returning home with a half-severed tongue. It appears as though there’s something in the area attacking cats, be it another cat in the area, or a dog, or whatever.

And I have just submitted my old MSc project for publication, about how online pet obituaries can help shine a light on successful human-animal bonds. One of the interesting little results we found in that project was the preponderance of people justifying their choice to euthanise, if that’s what they did. People recite clinical information, talk about lack of pain, the need for a ‘good death’. I find myself doing this too, going over the advice I gave, analysing where I could have saved Bobo. And I know that Mum has been doing the exact same.

Some theories suggest we have companion animals because the short nature of those bonds prepare us for what happens in human-human bonds. It prepares us to look after children, it prepares us to grieve, it prepares us to have someone depending on us. The nature of our bond with our pets is unique, though.  When Athena was moaning at me this week I was able to say to her “You know, some other little cats are dead, how would you like that?” which you would never say to a human, child or adult, but you can completely say to an animal. When Athena was trying to upturn her water fountain on Friday night, I sang, to the tune of ‘Maria’, a song about a kitten who got wet paws.

The nature of the human-pet bond is such that we can be brutally honest with them, exposing a part of ourselves that we wouldn’t normally expose to other humans. The loss of a companion animal does not just encompass the loss of something you love, but a specific and unique loss – the loss of a confidant, the loss of a proxy family member, the loss of a little extension of yourself.

Hug your babies close, if they’ll let you, and tell them you love them, which they might not fully understand. What we have with our pets is special, and when it’s unexpectedly robbed from you, that is a break that is hard to heal.

Goodbye Bobo, you will be very much missed.

Cultural Biases: The Good Adopter

Something that has come up in a few of our lectures and in one of our Google HangOuts from the MOOC has been the idea that some people who adopt animals from shelters are motivated by the need to adopt, or save, rather than to buy.

While there’s been plenty of research on why animals get relinquished to shelters, why adoptions fail, and how humans bond with pets, there hasn’t been a great deal looking at why some of us are strongly motivated to adopt an animal. I’ll put my cards on the table, I’m very strongly motivated to adopt an animal. In fact, I felt slightly guilty for adopting Athena, a kitten, as she was a very beautiful and desireable kitten who would undoubtedly have got a home without me. There was some part of me which felt like I should adopt the animal that was less likely to be adopted. (I tell that little part of me that even beautiful, clever, charismatic kittens like Athena can come to grief, and that with me she will have the best possible life I can give her or any animal. Also she’s mine now and you can’t have her back).

I wanted to think more deeply on this, what motivates us adopters? I started with my own thought processes, and this level of introspection may reveal a little too much about myself . . . For me there’s a pride to be found in not taking the easy route. I also have some misplaced reverse snobbery, where I view buying an animal as somehow bourgeois. This is undoubtedly to do with my own values, which are definitely to the left of centre. I believe in taking care of those less fortunate than yourself. This is what underpins my belief in animal welfare, ultimately, that I have a responsibility to those under my care. So is it any wonder that it comes across in my personal attitudes towards my companion animals?

This was a difficult subject to research and after some fruitless scholar searches, I changed tact. Forget animals. Why do some people adopt children?

Deiner et al (1998) looked at why some families choose to adopt special needs children. Interestingly 96% of their 56 families reported having a religious affiliation (this seems high to me, but I wonder if it is for American audiences?) 41% considered themselves to be active in their faith. The majority of the families who had adopted a special needs child (70%) had become aware of the child through fostering them or through the fostering system. Through making an emotional bond with the child, they had then made the decision to adopt. Interestingly, these families perceived themselves to be a closer, more cohesive unit than the average family. I found this particularly interesting as previous (unpublished) work of mine shows that successful animal adoptions often have the owner perceiving the adopted animals as ‘grateful’ and speak of the strong bond between them.

Of course, another reason that people adopt children is because of infertility (Hollingsworth, 2008), although this study also picked up on whether religion was perceived as important by the adopter encouraging the adopter to adopt. Religious conviction was also noted by Glidden (1984).

I’ve often joked that politics is a religion, and my beliefs about my moral conduct are a strong part of my own being, though I’m by no means religious. While I don’t ever see myself adopting a child, perhaps because as a biologist I have a strong desire to have a blood bond with my offspring, does my need to adopt animals come from my cultural upbringing?

While my (and by extension, other peoples’) motivations for adopting are interesting, when it comes to animal welfare we must ask: how does this affect the animal’s life?

Many people can have unreasonable expectations of their pets – I mentioned a few paragraphs up that some owners expect their pets to be grateful for their new home, to be able to compare their previous life with their current life and then understand their owner is the cause of that. Those are some mental leaps animals can’t make.

My unpublished pet obituary project, stuck languishing in the hell of ‘I did this too long ago and lost the original data’, was unique because it looked at successful human-animal bonds. We have lots of research on when human-animal bonds fail. For example, we know that lack of obedience classes, lack of veterinary care, lack of neutering, cheap purchase price and lack of knowledge surrounding care needs are all risk factors for giving up a dog (Patronek et al 1996a). We know there are similar risk factors for cats, but also the weird counter finding that cats adopted as strays/adopted with minimal planning are less likely to be given up (Patronek et al, 1996b). That last point makes you think about owner expectations, doesn’t it? But we don’t really know what makes a human-animal relationship likely to work.

Prior knowledge of how to look after animals certainly helps. Having the right animal for your lifestyle. Much as I love them, I wouldn’t work well with a border collie. From my unpublished work, the only thing I could really say that was indicative of the successful outcome of the bond was that the animal was readily spoken of as being part of the family, and assigned a familial role (for example, though I hate myself for it, I can’t help but call myself ‘mummy’ to Athena. The infantalisation/maternalisation of the human-animal bond in late twenties women is perhaps a subject for another day).

Marston & Bennett (2003) reviewed dog adoptions with a view of trying  to understand why some adoptions work. They bring up a point I’m very interested in, as a photographer, that we compose familiar animals in our shots in the same way we would a human, but not necessarily other animals. They also talk about the many positive aspects of owning a pet, which I’ve already spoken about, but they note that there is a huge need to characterise adopters in more detail. Kidd et al (1992) is one of the few papers looking at it and they conclude that realistic expectations are one of the best ways to have a successful relationship.

This phrase pops up again and again. But how realistic are the expectations of the chronic adopter? And the question nobody has really answered: how do these expectations really affect the animal?