Covert Cougars!

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The cougar (Puma concolor)

 

Hello, gorgeous!

I am talking to both you and that cougar 😉

I hope you are enjoying life, while remembering to give yourself as much unconditional love as your furry, finned, scaled, and feathered companion give to you.  In my last post I went waaaaay up into the heart, so today I am going to switch gears and talk about three things I freaking love: Big Cats, Wildlife Ecology, and Sleep!

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The other day I was taking a break from writing our book trilogy  by tweetering around on twitter (another one of my best displacement behaviors).  😉   While I was out there I came across a very cool post from Panthera, so I was inspired to learn more.  I’ve been following their great work ever since a dear friend became their C.O.O., but this particular project really got my attention.  It was not only about who cougars are choosing to cuddle with, but where and why.

If you are not yet aware, Panthera is not only the name of the genus within the Felidae family; Panthera is also the only organization in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their landscapes!  Seriously.  How amazing is that!?  You will be stunned at the incredible conservation work they are doing around the globe, so be sure to check them out!  Below is their mission statement.

Panthera’s mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action.  We have brought together the world’s leading wild cat experts to direct and implement effective conservation strategies for the world’s largest and most endangered cats: tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards.  Our approach to wild cat conservation is rooted in science and based upon decades of first hand field experience. We seek a future in which the world’s 37 wild cat species have the necessary and ongoing protection from human and environmental threats to persist and thrive in the wild. Our vision sees endangered wild cat populations rebounded, critical habitats and core populations connected by genetic and biological corridors, and a global commitment to protect these iconic species through near and distant futures.


 

Fabulous Felidae! 

Ever since I began working around and managing captive groups of exotic cats back in the day, I have been head over heels in love with every species of wild feline.  They never cease to teach me something new and incredible.  And since I happen to adore house cats and appreciate the powerful genetic link, I thought this would be a fun post to share!

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Our beloved Garth at Audubon, may he rest in peace always

 

Now, if you are not familiar with the word Felidae, I can explain.  Think of your family. You may not be close, but you are of the same lineage.  Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as “cats.”   Members of this family are called “felids.”  So the term “cat” refers both to felids in general and domestic cats.  Your house cat belongs to the Felidae family, just like Garth, the African lion, pictured above! Pretty cool, huh?

Felids are separated into two distinct subgroups: large cats and small cats.  Some of these small cats, due to a hardening of the hyoid bone, have an inability to roar. But many of them purr (as you might have read about before).  Felidae consists of 2 subfamilies: Pantherinae and Felinae.  We humans don’t have subfamilies, (although I am sure some people view their younger, annoying siblings this way 😉  There are a number of genus within the Felidae family.  Some feline biologists only acknowledge a few genera of felids, but most agree there are 18 genera (genus) and 36 species of Felidae.

Note: A “genus” is a rank in the biological classification/taxonomy. It stands above species, and below families. A genus can include more than one species. When biologists talk about a genus, they mean one or more species of animals or plants that are closely related to each other.  Below is an easy rundown of the classification of the cougar which includes genus and family.

concolor. Puma concolor.
Chapter 18 Classification by E.Stone

 


 

Beyond Cool Cats

But as cool as these wild cats are, it’s important to note that if we want to understand how to provide proper conditions for house cats, we need to look at the species as a whole.  And if we want to support conservation efforts, it helps to understand and appreciate the species as a whole.  This post serves to do just that.  So grab your coffee, tea, water, or wine, and get comfy with your cuddle-bug!  We are going to take a peek at one of the house cat’s kin: The Cougar!

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image via istock

The puma (Puma concolor) is also commonly known as the mountain lion, cougar, panther, or catamount.  This species is the most widely distributed free-ranging land mammal in the Americas. They are currently found from Northern Canada to the Southern Andes.  At the time of European contact, this species occurred through most of North, Central, and South America.  Today, the cougar has the greatest natural distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere except for man.

The cougar is the largest cat in the genus Felis.  The cougar is comparable in size to the leopard.  Length varies from 59 – 108 inches with a tail length of 21 – 36 inches (I am squealing as I am thinking of such a delightful tail!).  Their height ranges from 23 – 28 inches at the shoulder.  Weight can vary greatly: between 75 and 250 pounds.

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a cougar (puma) using his tail to jump successfully between two caverns

Felis Concolor at a Glance:

Habitat: The cougar thrives in montane, coniferous forests, lowland tropical forests, swamps, grassland, dry brush country, or any other area with adequate cover and prey.

Distribution: Western North America from British Columbia and south Alberta south through west Wyoming to California and west Texas. Also south Texas, Louisiana, south Alabama, Tennessee, and peninsular Florida.

Common Names: Cougar, Puma, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata 
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Felidae (Puma)
Species: concolor

Sub-species: 

  • Eastern Texas to Florida – P.c.coryi –IUCN: Endangered, CITES:Appendix I
  • Northeastern US and southeastern Canada Cougar – P.c. couguar – IUCN: Endangered, CITES: Appendix I
  • Central American Cougar – P.c. costaricensis – CITES: Appendix I

Misc: The International Species Information Service lists the current estimated number at 334 in zoos worldwide, with 119 located in the U.S.

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Common Ancestry of Cats

One of the major lessons I learned from working with wild cats during the day and then coming home at night to my house cats was life changing for us all: I realized was living alongside tiny tigers, wee wildcats, and house panthers. My feral cat was amazingly similar to the African wildcat.  My playful black cat was not that different from the Black Panther.  My sweet orange tabby was much like a tiny tiger.  My grey cat was incredibly similar to the fearless cougar.

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Genetic evidence indicates that our modern day house cats are descendants from at least five feline founders of a group of Wildcats from nearly 10,000 years ago.

 

Everything from how they hunted, where they preferred to sleep, how they groomed, how they interacted with their species, other species, their prey, and even people were eerily similar. My house cats’ bodies, needs, behavior, choices, and personalities were not worlds away from these wild cats; they were living parallel lives in many ways.

It turns out, feline science shows they are more alike that most people realize.  In fact, results of mitochondrial analysis indicates that all Felidae descended from a common ancestor.  And genetic evidence indicates that our modern day house cats are descendants from at least five feline founders of a group of Wildcats from 9,000 – 10,000 years ago! Cats are considered only a semi-domesticated species, because many populations are not isolated from wildcats.

“We don’t think house cats are truly domesticated. We refer to them as “semi-domesticated. They only recently split off from wild cats, and some even still breed with their wild relatives. We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.” – Wes Warren, professor of genomics at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis

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A nose print from Garth, the African Lion, acquired during one of his physical exams. This beloved nose print is framed in our home.  Does this resemble your cat’s nose??

What You Don’t Know

Now before you get all judgey about exotic cats being kept in captivity, there are facts that most folks don’t know about these felines.  Many are captive born.  Many are rescued.  Some are confiscations from the illegal animal trade, (just like this tiger recently confiscated here in California) and they are now living in zoos.  Some are clones!  Some are on loan from other zoos for very specific breeding purposes to preserve their species.

Some were pets, like Chloe pictured below. She was horribly mutilated through a declawing procedure.  She was unable to walk, stand upright, or put any pressure on her paw pads after the horrible procedure of declawing.  Thankfully, she gained a new life at Audubon after my dear friend and talented veterinarian went to great lengths to reattach her tendons.  Now she is thriving.

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Chloe, the Louisiana cougar who resides at Audubon after being declawed to become a “pet”

 

Animal care facilities, such as zoos are not out there capturing wild cats and bringing them into captivity.  Most are assisting, breeding, and caring for these cats.  They are being cared for in the best way possible in captive conditions.  There is more going on behind the scenes at zoos than most people realize.  100% of these efforts (at AZA accredited zoos) are dedication towards education and conservation.

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Garth getting his choppers checked by our brilliant veterinarian Dr. Bob


Then and Now

Back in the day, we were managing big cat species with the most recent data and research available.  Today, nearly twenty years later, we have learned so much more! Thanks to advances in technology we are dispelling myths, finding new facts, and using field data to better understand these covert creatures (including what happens when a Male Puma Visits a Female & Her Kitten at their recent Kill)! 😮

These tremendous advances in conservation efforts, both in and out of zoos, are contributing to the success of these species in the wild.  Much of these advances are due to the technology that’s now available to capture these elusive cats on camera.

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cougars caught on film, sharing shelter

 

When I look back to when I was a kid in the 70’s and remember that my go-to handheld device was the Etch A Sketch , I have to laugh.  Now look at what we have available in 2018!  It’s amazing.  As technology has improved, not only have we enabled our society to stay more connected virtually, but our ability to study mysterious and obscure animal behavior has increased.

So this brings us to our focus today:  Covert Cougars & Puma’s Preferred Beds!

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Pumas (Felis concolor) are also referred to as cougars or wild mountain lions.

Strange Feline Bed Fellows

Would it surprise you to learn that house cats choose to sleep in strange places for similar reasons that big cats in the wild choose to sleep in strange places?  If you think about how closely related house cats are to their wild kin, it makes purrrfect sense!

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Ever wonder why your cat wants to hide in a box, or why she chooses to snooze with a cuddle buddy?  Thanks to folks who are studying wild felines in the field, we know why.  It turns out, there is safety in numbers even with more solitary species, and bed selection sites are not random.  Where wild cats and house cats choose to snooze is based on very particular preferences and the need to stay safe and survive!  And pumas, like our house cats, are more social than previously thought!

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Mr. Beaux watching his world while safe and secure in his cat cave                            (This is the “Hide-and-sneak” designed by a veterinarian at Dezi & Roo)

An Extinct Subspecies

As much as I am excited about this post, I am deeply saddened.  Before we go on, there is some sad news to report.  Effective January, 22, 2018, the eastern puma (Felis concolor couguar) is extinct.  My heart sank when I learned this.  Eight decades after the last confirmed sighting, wildlife biologists have concluded that the eastern puma is no more.

To help you better understand how this came to be, it’s helpful to know this subspecies’ (known) history.  This now extinct cat is a subspecies of puma.  The eastern puma (cougar) was originally listed as an endangered species on June 4, 1973.   Historical literature indicates puma populations were mostly in Eastern North America (except for Florida and perhaps the Smoky Mountains) by the 1870s, and in the Midwest by 1900. Puma records from New Brunswick in 1932 and Maine in 1938 suggest that a population may have persisted in northernmost New England and eastern Canada.  By 1900 they had all but vanished due to systematic hunting and trapping.  The last one on record was killed by a hunter in Maine in 1938.

Although habitat conditions now appear to be suitable for puma presence in various portions of the historical range described for the eastern puma, the many decades of both habitat and prey losses belie the sustained survival and reproduction of this subspecies over that time.

Their disappearance was attributed primarily to persecution stemming from fear of large predators, competition with game species, and occasional depredation of livestock.  Other causes of eastern puma losses during the late 1800s included declining habitat.  The most recent confirmed eastern puma sightings date from the mid-1800s to around 1930. Confirmed reports of pumas in Eastern North America (outside Florida) since then have been shown to be either western puma dispersers, as in Missouri, or released or escaped animals, as in Newfoundland.

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A mountain lion (cougar) in the hills of Los Angeles

The agency opened an extensive review in 2011 into the status of the eastern cougar, a genetic cousin of the mountain lions that still inhabit much of the Western United States and of a small, imperiled population of Florida panthers found only in the Everglades.  In 2015, federal wildlife biologists concluded that pumas elsewhere in the Eastern United States were beyond recovery.   States now have juridiction to determine the best way to reintroduce the other subspecies of cougars into society.

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A cougar spotted at night via camera “traps”

The puma was documented historically in a variety of eastern habitats from the Everglades in the Southeast to temperate forests in the Northeast.  Aside from presence reports, few historical records exist regarding the natural history of the eastern puma subspecies.   Thankfully, in North America, breeding populations of the Puma species still occupy approximately one-third of their historical range but are now absent from eastern regions outside of Florida.

Below are quotes from the Fish and Wildlife Service explaining their ruling.

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), determine the eastern puma (=cougar) (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information. This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies; it also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938. Therefore, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act), as amended, we remove this subspecies from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

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Pumas, also known as mountain lions, cougars, or panthers, historically roamed every state east of the Mississippi River.

Our decision to remove the eastern puma from the List due to extinction is based on information and analysis showing that the eastern puma likely has been extinct for many decades, long before its listing under the Act. Eastern puma sightings have not been confirmed since the 1930s, and genetic and forensic testing has confirmed that recent validated puma sightings in the East, outside Florida, were animals released or escaped from captivity, or wild pumas dispersing eastward from western North America.


Monitoring Covert Cougars

Like other cryptic, covert carnivores with large territories, puma populations are notoriously difficult to study.   These large Felids are typically solitary, elusive, and nocturnal, making spotting them very challenging.  But it’s a necessity.  Being able to gather reliable data on large Felid populations is crucial for effective conservation and management of this species.  Tagging and following cougars with GPS technology is the standard approach, but these methods are expensive and can compromise the animal’s welfare. So scientists are also using indirect signs for monitoring this covert creature.

Indirect signs are footprints, scat, nests. Often these can be the most effective and least expensive way to detect many animals. Animal footprints are much more frequently encountered in the field than the animals themselves, and have served as the basis for population indices and estimators. Footprint surveys are also non-invasive; the animal need not be seen, captured, or handled.

Non-invasive Methods

Researchers are using at least three non-invasive methods to study puma populations:

  • camera traps (used to identify individual animals by analysis of spots and stripes
  • genetic analysis of hair and scat (puma poop!)
  • footprint surveys

But they have learned that camera traps may underestimate accurate numbers because pumas lack distinguishing marks.  The genetic analysis is accurate, but apparently finding puma poop isn’t that easy.  But, thanks to scat detection dogs, biologists are now  locating more scat! 

Another non-invasive method being used to track these covert cougars is identifying puma prints!  This can be done through tracking three signs a puma has left behind after being in an area:  a Trail, Footprint, or Track

  • Trail = an unbroken series of footprints made by one animal
  • Footprint = a single impression made by a foot
  • Track = commonly used to describe both an individual footprint and a trail

Below is a perfect photo of a puma footprint and a puma footprint showing the placement of 25 landmark points (red circles) and 15 points derived from them and generated by the FIT script (yellow circles).  These provide 40 points to enable the scientists to measure each puma’s footprint precisely.

 


Recent Science Reveals Secrets

A relatively recent study that was part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (TCP), which had already shed invaluable light on other puzzling puma behaviors, enabled conservationists to learn more about this secretive species – everything from their ecological effects to their secret social lives.  The study published on Nov 14, 2017 showed the results of research conducted on cougars in Yellowstone.  Their goal was to determine whether a subordinate carnivore (cougar) chose bedding areas with similar characteristics in an ecosystem that supports a multi-species guild of competing predators.  Basically, they wanted to learn about bed site selection among Pumas!

The video below shows curious cougars (a mother and her kittens) investigating a camera trap in the Teton mountains.  In this region, Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project has discovered a great deal about the behavior and ecology of this misunderstood and charismatic cat.

 


 

I should note:  In the world of Ecology,  a guild is a group of species that have similar requirements and play a similar role within a community.  They exploit the same kinds of resources in comparable ways.  Members of a guild within a given ecosystem could be competing for resources (space, shade, or light), while also cooperating in resisting wind stresses, attracting pollinators, or detecting predators. One example of this kind of guild is the Savannah-dwelling antelope and zebra.

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Antelope and Zebra sharing a primary resource

 

The name “guild” emphasizes the fact that these groups are like associations of craftsmen who employ similar techniques in plying their trade.  They often are composed of groups of closely related species that all arose from a common ancestor, and they exploit resources in similar ways as a result of their shared ancestry.  Several species within a single genus may constitute a guild within a community.

Other examples of guilds in nature are different insect species that collect nectar in similar ways, various bird species that employ corresponding insect-foraging techniques, or diverse plant species that have evolved comparable floral shapes with which they attract the same group of pollinators.

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Mantled Howlers are the most folivorous of the Central American monkeys, meaning they eat large quantities of leaves

Guilds in Nature:

  • Browsers and terrestrial folivores
  • Forest canopy folivores
  • Forest floor scavengers
  • Grazers
  • Forbs ( or “phorb” – an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid)
  • Graminoids (grasses, rushes and sedges)
  • Plankton
  • Saprophytes (plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on decaying organic matter)
  • Shrubs
  • Trees
  • Vines
  • Piscivores (carnivorous animal that eats primarily fish)

 

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Most otters, like this Giant Otter (Pteronura basiliensis), are piscivores; hypercarnivores that specialize in eating fish

 

Because members of a guild engage in similar activities, they are often competitors for the resources they share, especially when those resources are scarce.   So, when it comes to safe bedding sites, and sharing resources in a guild, researches wanted to know more about cougars!  Between 2012-2016 the researchers investigated nearly 600 cougar bed sites in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  They carefully examined both the landscape and the microsite.  These TCP researchers used GPS collars to identify the puma bedding sites, then carefully studied each one.

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Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) satellite tracking collar, in the Tien Shan Mountains

Microsite

If we are going to learn why and what they are studying exactly, we need to cover the terms.  A “microsite” is a term used in ecology to describe a pocket within an environment with unique features or conditions.  Ecologists and scientists classifying different microsites based on temperature, humidity, sunlight, nutrient availability, soil characteristics, substrate, vegetation cover, etc.  A microsite is basically a sub environment within an environment.

It’s important to also note that many microsites exist in an environment.  This leads to organisms (plants, insects, animals) basing their selection of habit on the features of the microsite itself.  Being able to choose the best microsite will positively influence the species’ survival, growth and reproduction.  Basically, a good choice of a microsite has a direct relationship to the future generation of that particular species.


Their research discovered that among prey species, bed site selection provides:

  • thermoregulatory benefits
  • mitigates predation risk
  • may directly influence survival

They discovered that pumas gravitate to hidden bed sites where it would be hard for a competitor to see them.  Warmth is also an important factor in bed-site selection, especially during winter.  Their studies also shed light on the fact that these felines face more danger in their natural habitats than most of us realize.

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1. Landscape Choices

Research concerning the landscape, discovered that in the winter, cougars selected bed sites that were in alignment with the hypotheses of both thermoregulatory AND predator avoidance.

In the winter, cougar “beds” / communal sleeping areas were located:

  • on steeper slopes, but at lower elevations
  • closer to the forest edge
  • on southern, eastern, and western-facing slopes

Research concerning the landscape in the summer, showed that bedding areas were a bit different.  They found that cougars chose predator avoidance over thermoregulation.

Summer Bedding was found to be:

  • closer to forest edges
  • away from sagebrush and meadow habitat classes
  • on steeper slopes.

2. Microsite Choices

At the microsite scale, cougar bed characteristic in BOTH the winter and summer supported BOTH of their hypotheses of predator avoidance and thermoregulatory.

Cougars chose bed sites that included:

  • high canopy cover
  • high vegetative concealment
  • in a rugged habitat class (characterized by cliff bands and talus fields)

Note:  Talus is steep, loose piles of rock, formed by the constant process of erosion, and ubiquitous to the mountains.  Talus deposits typically have a concave upwards form.  To mountain climbers, Talus areas are not technical challenging areas to hike, but climbing Talus can be exhausting—and dangerous as well, due to the possibility of landslides consider this an area.  Cliff bands consist of steep, narrow passages.

 


Puuurfectly Suited for the Terrain

Looking at the two terrains pictured above, most people wonder how and why a mountain lion would choose to navigate those kinds of steep terrains, but these wild cats are designed for this habitat.  Pumas have incredible paws!  Their feet have a unique bone structure that enables them to grip rocks, logs, and slippery substrates.  They are even better at this kind of “hiking” than bears or wolves!

 ….So a precarious bed site can offer an escape advantage if a competitor tries to sneak up mid-nap. You’ll probably never see a puma sleep in an open field, as they typically bed down where trees or other landscape features provide a quick escape. –-TCP member Anna Kusler

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This puma has claimed a precarious place that can protect her from less agile enemies (Photo: wplynn/Flickr)

 


Bed Buds

Researchers found that a subordinate predator (pumas) selected bed sites that allowed for both thermoregulatory and anti-predator functions.  Brilliant, eh??  These choices are very similar to what we see occurring in many prey species!  Remember: Cats of all shapes, sizes, and species can be both predator and prey.

It’s also important to recognize that across their range, pumas overlap with six apex predators, including the gray wolf, grizzly bear, American black bear, jaguar, coyote,  and maned wolf.  How’s that for competition for resources and the possibility of become prey?!

“Even though most of us probably think of pumas as top predators with little to fear, that’s not always the case.  In North America, much larger grizzly and black bears steal their hard-earned kills. Wolves, as pack animals, steal their kills AND kill them and their kittens.” -TCP A.Kusler

The biologists now believe that studying bed site characteristics of subordinate predators could provide a new way to measure the use of refugia (an area where a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions).  This would ultimately provide new insights into the habitat requirements and energetics of subordinate carnivores.  Their research highlights some nuances of habitat loss that are easy to overlook.  When trying to protect large predators like pumas, many people — including researchers — focus on the availability of prey.  But this is only part of the puma picture.

“Because the best hunting habitats are not necessarily the safest places to sleep, a puma must find a home range that can provide both types of environment.”

Below is one of the videos they shared with the public, and used in their studies that shed light on where and why pumas chose to bed with other pumas:

 


We often found puma beds tucked underneath the low-lying boughs of a tree, or against the rugged face of an inaccessible cliff.  They seem to prefer steep, rugged terrain, like cliff bands and boulder fields. – A. Kusler


Catnap Connoisseurs

Cats can snooze like no other.  A pussycat can pass out while purring, and some even doze off when bird watching out a window!  Cats never seem to venture far from a nap. The house cat’s pendulum swings between sleeping and stalking so well, we’ve named a version of napping after them!  A cat could be fully aroused one moment, engaging in passionate play or serious stalking, then fall effortlessly back into a catnap.  These cat nappers know what they are doing.  Feline veterinarians agree that if a cat is awake most of 24 hour period of the day, there could be something wrong.  Like their wild ancestors, house cats are programmed for proper sleep; it’s in their DNA.  This instinctual need lets the cat that know that when he/she is not chasing, hunting, eating, or grooming, h/she should be sleeping — or at least searching for a place to sleep.

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Much like the cougars, Mr. Beaux and Knox share shelter and safe snoozing places at our home.  Here we are in our enclosed garden together while I write this post!

 

The family of Felidae is made up of solitary predators.  Lions are the exception; they cooperatively hunt.  But new research has shown that female cougars may benefit from tolerating males during feeding, through the maintenance of social niches that support breeding opportunities.  – Who says females don’t have ulterior motives when it comes to survival of their species? 😉   And when it comes to sleeping, not only could all cats in the Felida family compete in sleeping as an Olympic trial, but where they snooze, and with whom they choose to catnap, is quite particular for these felines.

Cat guardians have seen the amusing and strange ways cats sleep. We have noticed how often they sleep, and where they sleep.  But why they are choosing these places, spaces, and bedfellows is linked to their ancestors.  So is the fact that house cats are crepuscular:  They are biologically programmed to be most active/ awake in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn.

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Knox Zydeco and Mr. Beaux catching some zzzzs & rays on their catio

Pumas may not have the option of  passing out on an enclosed patio, but they do have comparable choices about where they sleep in their native, wild habitats.  Pumas, like our house cats, need to find safe sleeping spots. These places must be located where it’s unlikely other predators / potential threats can harm them or disturb them.

“So, like your housecat loves to sleep in the sunny warmth of a windowsill, pumas like to maximize their exposure to the sun’s rays That meant many bed sites were on south-facing slopes, where the warmth from the sun is strongest.” –  Anna Kusler

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Warmth, secrecy and escape routes are key factors for felines when they need rest. (Photo: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock)

 


Considering Cats and Cougars

As we wrap this cougar chat up, I’d like for you to consider something about your cat at home.  The next time you spot your house cat snoozing in a sack, inside an empty box, on a shelf, or any other safe cozy place, consider how this behavior is inextricably linked to their wild ancestors.  Your feline family member has the same innate desire and need to remain silent and hidden, just like the puma napping under the boughs of a tree or the crags of a cliff, perched high above the world.  Once we know this, and recognize the importance of this, we can properly provide our house cats with the safe spaces, and cozy places they need … just like their wild feline ancestors.

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“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”― Anaïs Nin

 


References & Recommended Reading:

Why Cats Like Boxes AND Need Them!

Estimating Abundances of Interacting Species Using Morphological Traits, Foraging Guilds, and Habitat

Felidae Species List by Genus

Adaptive social strategies in a solitary carnivore

About Panthera

“Microsite Selection and the Informed Planter”. http://www.for.gov.bc.ca. Retrieved 2016-12-14.

Bed site selection by a subordinate predator: an example with the cougar (Puma concolor) in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Are pumas subordinate carnivores, and does it matter?

Characterization of puma–livestock conflicts in rangelands of central Argentina

The challenge of monitoring elusive large carnivores: An accurate and cost-effective tool to identify and sex pumas (Puma concolor) from footprints

The work of carnivore biologist Jonatan Borling

International Urban Wildlife Conference, June 4 – 7, 2017 | San Diego, California

A single migrant enhances the genetic diversity of an inbred puma population

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Cross-Species Transmission: Implications for Emergence of New Lentiviral Infections

 Removing the Eastern Puma (=Cougar) From the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife- Now Extinct

Creating Calm After the Chaos

Martin Family Halloween 2015
Scary Scarecrow and his friendly Crow
Now that the tricks and treats of Halloween and Samhain are coming to a close, it’s easy to become complacent as we wind down, but be aware: Your animal companions might still be wound up!  The endless sights, sounds, and stressors of Halloween might have deeply affected your animal companions.
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“Oh the crazy things my humans do …” – King Albert the Grey could do without the shenanigans of Halloween

Hocus Pocus and the Kitty Boyz did quite well during the pre and post Halloween festivities because we set everyone up for success, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is Cool and The Gang afterward.  The day after a cacophony of commotion is often when families observe their pets becoming irritable and reactive.  We refer to this as trigger stacking.

Trigger stacking is how stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactive behavior.  This kind of behavior is also seen in humans; think about when you have lost your temper after one stressful thing after another happens.  When an individual is pushed over their threshold, we see reactivity.  A ‘threshold’ is the point at which one reacts.  They quickly switch from an operant-thinking-mode to a non-thinking-survival-mode.

When the non-thinking-survival-mode kicks in the individual will either fight, flight (flee), fiddle, or freeze.  Below are The 4 F’s –  4 common behavior patterns that animals (and people) will do when afraid or feeling threatened:

  1. Flight
  2. Fight
  3. Freeze
  4. Fiddle About

Stress is both a physical and mental problem.

Stressful events affect all living beings, even on the cellular level.  And be aware: these stress hormones don’t just disappear once the stressful event is over.  The stress hormones can last for days, and even weeks with some individuals.

When conditions in the environment continue to stack up, and when multiple triggers (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time, they can have a cumulative harmful effect on the animal.  These stress hormones cause the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not.

Over the years we have observed each animal in our home respond with a different type of reactivity to their individual perceived threats.  The dog has been known to lunge and bark, freeze and growl, or retreat.  Her response depended on what she felt threatened by, and by her individual stress/hormone levels at that moment.  Each of the cats has their own individual response, depending on the trigger at the time, and their individual stress hormone levels. You might recall one of your animals behaving this way when they are stressed. You might even recall doing this yourself!

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone with a great number of effects on the body.  The level goes up or down quickly in response to stress.

Pet owners will often see this kind of reactivity when multiple stimuli occur in a short period of time (example: Halloween!)    It’s important to know that we don’t get to decide what’s stressful for the animal; these stimuli are anything that the individual animal is sensitive to.  A reactive animal can be sensitive to dogs, cats, people, sounds, objects, and/or their environment.  This sensitivity can be displayed by various types of reactive behavior such as running, hiding, freezing, growling, hissing, air snapping, biting, and guarding resources such as food, bedding, spaces, people, etc.

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Often during holidays and festive times pets can be under rested. Be sure to give them ample down time for rest. This can reduce their stress levels and reduce reactivity.

365 days a year we do our best to help every animal in our home to feel safe and secure. We continue to counter condition each animal to their individual perceived threats, and we strive to set them all up for success.  We use tools and techniques to ensure their perceived threat level is at zero.  But these are only pieces of the peaceful puzzle.

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King Albert and Beaux are sharing warm sunny spot, enjoying the peace

Reducing Stress Levels by Creating “Down Time”

How do you feel when you are tired and irritable after a long stressful day?  Our animal companions feel this and more when they are forced to participate, or even observe our human shenanigans.  Just watching and listening to so many strange sights and sounds can greatly increase their stress hormone levels!  But we can help them recover by giving them a “cortisol vacation.”   One of the most loving and helpful things we can do as animal guardians is offer all of the animals in our home plenty of safe, quiet places of refuge, especially after busy weekends such as this one.  We can create plenty of “pet down time.”  We can do this by encouraging them to take naps, get plenty of deep sleep, and lots of rest.  We can create a peaceful, calm environment.  Think of ways that you can create peaceful personal retreats for every living being in your home, including yourself!

Knox and I are good at encouraging one another to chillax.
Knox and I are good at encouraging one another to chillax.

Boundaries, Please. 

Creating safe boundaries is an essential key to creating peace and harmony in your home, especially after stressful festivities.  If you have children, guide them by showing them how to to respect the animal’s space or enclosure.  Teach them to be mindful and respectful of each individual animal’s tolerance for noise and commotion.  Ensure that the pets have their own safe bubble where they are free from being “loved on” (AKA being pestered).  If you have family or friends visiting, remind them to give the animals space.  If the animals choose to be around your guests, remember that the dog or cat may be excited to see newcomers, but in the next instant they very well could be more protective of things they consider “high value” such as bedding, treats, their people, and their food. Remember those stress hormones are in their system!  Also, if the animals in your home are not the best of buds, and they’re merely coexisting with one another, creating safe spaces for each animal and managing your home environment carefully is imperative.  Give everyone ample safe space!

Being aware of each animal’s individual threshold, and their need for safe, quiet refuge after any kind of commotion is how we become conscious companions for the animals with which we share a home.

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Hocus Pocus tucked in and sleeping soundly after the Halloween festivities.

Was your family prepared for the festivities this year? How did your animal companions do during the commotion? Are you all having a relaxed Sunday together? How do you help your animals and yourself decompress after big events?

Blessings of peace to you and yours!

Doin’ The Displacement

“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket

behavior

Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?

I do.  We all do.

We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on.  They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid.   When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.

To-Dos-List
I wish my To Do list looked like this.

What Is Displacement Behavior? 

Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:

In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.

Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.

Displacement Activity defined:

1. (Psychology)  behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time

Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.

Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object.  Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.

In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors.  You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered.  Men often scratch at, or touch their face.  Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe.  I call it fiddling and flirting!  Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men. 

Body-Language--Men-Flirting-8
Male displacement behavior when flirting

Mating and Conflict in Many Species

Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration.  There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom.  They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs.  Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:

If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.  

Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.

Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.

Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.

What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict.  They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.


Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones

Gulls are not unlike our pets at home.  If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions!  For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy).  During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight.  So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming.  Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!

displacement behavior cats
Grooming can be a displacement behavior.

“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior

Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:

  • yawning when not sleepy
  • grooming out of context
  • using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
  • shaking off when not wet
  • stretching deeply
  • Scent marking with their face
scratching post cats displacement behavior
Have you seen your cat suddenly run over to use his scratching post? What happened right before he did that?

“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen

parrot behavior
Beak wiping and scratching are common parrot displacement behaviors you will see when they are feeling conflicted.

Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure.  In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a behavior which helps to relieve stress or deflect trouble, without dealing with it directly.
Scratching can often be a dispacement behavior during training sessions and when other dogs or kids are getting too rowdy.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.


How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?

—-> We need to look at the FULL picture. We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”

The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context.  For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors.  Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.


Displacement In Action!

The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs.  See how many you recognize.  Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?


The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe


Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.


Cats and dogs aren’t the only companion animals who show displacement behaviors! Rabbits, rats, ferrets, horses, pigs, and parrots do too!  Check out the licking, yawning, sniffing, grooming, foot flicking, tail swishing, digging, scratching and more in this video!


Why do we need to be aware of these behaviors? 

These behaviors indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted.  Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.

What should you do?
If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe.  Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat.  If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on.  Remember to keep it upbeat and easy!  We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.

funny-awkward-cats-
Putting this random image in here is another form of displacement behavior for me; I would rather laugh at this kind of silliness instead of proof reading this blog post.

Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!


Recommended Reading

Displacement, Avoidance, and Other Stress Signals

CANINE BODY LANGUAGE

Calming Signals of Dogs

WHAT IS MY CAT SAYING? Feline Communication

Parrots and Behaviors

Wanna Get to Second Base? Go Slow and Steady, Babe.

 I’m in no hurry: the sun and the moon aren’t, either. Nobody goes faster than the legs they have.  If where I want to go is far away, I’m not there in an instant. ― The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro

Black cats_cat training

Are you a patient person?  Do you take your time with things? Do you want more than you need?

I am not very patient some days.  I rush into things sometimes, and my natural tendency is to get greedy when it comes to animal training.  But I have learned to go slow and to be patient.  I have learned to be grateful and satisfied with small successes.  I would like to share one of them with you.


My mentor and friend, Secret, teaching the sea lions how to paint
My mentor and friend, Secret, teaching the sea lions how to paint

Way back in the day when I was at the Audubon Nature Institute, one of my mentors (and my housemate) was the head animal trainer.  When I was making progress with an animal at work or at home she used to calmly tell me, “Don’t be a greedy trainer, Amy. Stop when you’re ahead.”

I always grunted when I heard that advice, but I knew she was right.  In fact, she was always right when it came to animal training.  She was one of those brilliant trainers that always had a solution to a problem.  She could create and maintain the most complicated chains of behavior. She was famous for creating long lasting bonds with every animal (and person) she worked with.  She always trained and taught without fear or intimidation.  And she was the trainer who make the greatest advances with any animal she worked with.  I learned so much from her.

Now decades later her advice still rings true when I am working with a client or with our animals at home. – especially cats.


If you wanna get to second base, let them set the pace. 

If you have lived or worked with cats you know that they set the pace.  If you have not worked with cats before, know this: When you decide to set the pace and push too fast you will fail.  You will both end up becoming frustrated and stressed.  You might even get injured in the process, too.  And then finally, you loose the cat’s trust.

It pays to go slow.

I like to think of going slow with cats as moving from first base to second base, and then eventually onto a home run. I set up our training sessions this way. First base might be the cat letting you hold his paw. Second base might be the cat letting you lift his paw, then touch his paw with nail clippers. Third base would be touching, holding, and then applying gentle pressure with the nail clippers to the actual nail. Home run is a full nail clip.

I’ll explain why I like to move through the bases slowly.

For over a decade I watched numerous veterinarians push my cats well past the point of no return.  One cat in particular, Mr. Beaux, would become so stressed at the vet’s office, he had to be netted (yes, caught in a net).  Then heavily sedated. They had to do this to even look at him.  I watched Beaux break free of leather muzzles, attack people, climb a metal wall (yes, you read that right) and knock heavy computers off counters in the examination room.

We don’t take that route at home, or at the vet’s office anymore.  I know better now.  Working with any animal should not be a wrestling match.

Now we go slow.  We let the animal set the pace. We let the animal say when they are done. And we make progress together while building trust.

I’ll show you how we do this in the short video.  But before you watch, I need to explain something:  Beaux lost all trust in people. No one could touch his ears, mouth, or feet after all of the many manhandling encounters at various vet’s offices. You couldn’t touch him in any of these areas without him becoming very aggressive.

I had to rebuild his trust.  This is how I did it. 

After several short, positive sessions like that, Beaux will now let me trim all of his nails while staying relaxed.  It’s something I never thought was possible!  By going slowly and letting Beaux set the pace I was able to build his trust.  By rewarding him for calm behavior with something he finds valuable and rewarding, he learned to enjoy the process and no longer feel threatened. By ending the session when he was done he was more willing to participate the next time.


A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.― Ernest Hemingway


Another one of our feline family members has learned that nail trim time can be a very Good Thing!  You can see us in action here: Fear-Free Feline “Pawdicure”


Husbandry with any species shouldn’t be stressful.
Some common habits of grooming cats can get in the way of success:
♦️we ask too much.
♦️we don’t know when the cat is beginning to feel stressed.
♦️we proceed to quickly.
♦️we don’t allow choice.
♦️we haven’t built up trust.
♦️we forget to reinforce.
♦️we aren’t using reinforcers the cat prefers.
♦️we create over arousal.


Tips to Remember when you are first learning how to safely trim your cat’s nails at home:

  • GO SLOW!  It’s very tempting to want to move forward quickly when things are going well, but you will make far more progress by going slow and steady.
  • Set aside the temptation to get “greedy” and want to do more. Be happy with one tiny step that you make together! This way you can both enjoy the process.
  • By letting your cat set the pace you are gaining his/her trust.
  • By going slow, you learn to be respectful of your cat’s body language and what their comfort level is that day. Maybe the next time you can get 2 nails clipped!
  • It takes time to build trust, especially if you cat has been FORCED to have his/her nails trimmed in the past and it was traumatic for them!
  • Why rush the process when you can go further in the long run by building trust and creating a stress free, positive experience for both you and your cat?

 Recommended Related Reading 

Growls Are Better Than the Alternative

dog growls
Hocus Pocus is offering an appeasement behavior to both the camera in her face and Albert in her space.

Growls Are Good. 

Let me be clearer: Growling is good when compared to not growling, and biting instead.

In this post I will share with you what I have learned over the years concerning The Growl.

Why I Don’t Recommend Punishing a Dog for Growling.

When a dog growls he/she is asking for help.  They need an out.   Growls are a dog’s way of telling you, another dog, another person, child, or animal, I do not like this. I cannot handle this. Go away, or let me get away. NOW.

A dog that chooses to growl instead of bite, should not be punished.  Punishing a dog for growling doesn’t teach the dog that growling is unacceptable behavior.  It only suppresses the dog’s natural form of expressing their fear and discomfort.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away a very critical warning signal.  Dogs who are punished for growling learn to not growl anymore, to avoid being punished.  So if you have successfully managed to stop your dog from growling, you have only suppressed your dog’s behavior.  The fear and stress are still present within your dog!   You haven’t addressed the underlying cause for growling.  Now you have a dog who is just as stressed as before s/she growled, but the dog has no safe means of express his/her discomfort. The growl may be gone, but now you run the risk of having a dog who could bite without warning.

Instead of punishing a dog for growling, we must learn to see the growl for what it is – Communication.  

Growling is a valuable (and productive) form of canine communication.  There are many reasons dogs growl!  Growling is a behavior that more dog guardians should understand, appreciate, and respect rather than punish.


Give Your Dog a Mental High-Five for Growling.

I suggest giving our dogs a mental “high-paw” when they growl because our dogs haven’t done anything wrong.  In fact, they did something right!   Growling is normal canine communication!   By choosing to growl your dog is clearly and appropriately expressing his/her fear, discomfort, anger, frustration, and stress level in that moment.  Without the growl, a bite can happen when we (or another animal) fails to recognize the dog’s warning signals.

Growling is a dog’s way of saying, Back Off! Go Away! I’m very uncomfortable!!

What many people don’t realize is that aggression is caused by stress. The stressor may be related to pain, fear, intrusion, threats to resources, and past association or anticipation of any of these things. An assertive, aggressive dog attacks because he’s stressed by the intrusion of another dog or human into his territory. A fearful dog bites because he’s stressed by the approach of a human. An injured dog lacerates the hand of his rescuer because he’s stressed by pain. –Pat Miller


Is Your Dog In a Grumble Zone?

In our Family Paws Parent Education program, we refer to crowded, close quarters as “Grumble Zones.”  These areas in the home have an escape route, but a child, cat, or another dog may be blocking the escape route.  This can lead to a potential “grumble”.  Grumble zones are important for families to consider if you have multiple dogs, cats, or children in your home. You can see examples of these here.


Is Your Dog In Pain?

Growls can occur during a defensive reaction if a dog is in pain or any form of discomfort.  The growl can happen when a dog anticipates being moved or touched.  Questions that need to be asked? Could your dog have an upset stomach, tooth ache, stomach ache, or arthritis?  When is the last time my dog had a full check up, including blood and urine analysis?


Is Your Dog a DINO?

Some dogs need more space.  They are referred to as DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space).  We have a DINO dog.  In the past she would become reactive in certain circumstances if I did not properly manage her environment.  Dogs who need more space (and display this through various behaviors) are not “mean” dogs.  The have learned to communicate to people, dogs, cats, or other species that they either need some more space, a slower introduction to a newcomer, or a gentler interaction with another dog.  Growling is how dogs communicate this.  Growling is meant to avoid aggression.

In general, the more behaviorally healthy and mentally sound a dog is, the more relaxed that dog will be in varying situations. This means the dog is less likely to aggress quickly.   Since dogs are not able to verbalize their thoughts, they communicate through very specific and deliberate behaviors.  But we have to know how to read and recognize these behaviors.

Let’s look at the image below.  To the untrained eye, it looks like our dog and cat are just hanging out.  Ah, not so.  Hocus really does not want Albert in her space.  Albert just wants to be near Hocus. But she is tired, and wants to relax right where she is, without anyone (including me) in her space.  She IS communicating.  All of the canine clues that she’s sending out are not being heard.  This is a perfect opportunity for me to step in and  help Hocus by calmly calling Albert away from her.

Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
In the next image you will see another Canine Clue that is often overlooked; the stress yawn.  This behavior usually happens repeatedly in a situation that’s stressful to the dog.  This type of yawn is done with more intensity than a dog’s “sleepy” yawn.
dog behavior_stress yawn_dog yawn
STRESS Yawn

Other Canine Clues 

When Hocus begins to emotionally respond to something that makes her feel threatened or uncomfortable, she will display physical signs of this.  I call these her Canine Clues.  It varies based on the situation, but these are some of her common canine clues:

First she will close her mouth.  Ears will fold back.  Then maybe she will close her eyes, or look away.  She then she gets very still (she freezes).  If she is standing, her tail will raise very high and start to wag vigorously.  If she is sitting her tail is motionless.  If I am unable to intervene at this point you would see her whiskers stiffen.  If I am not able to intervene quickly and positively at this point, her emotional response to the perceived threat will continue to escalate and present itself in more physical forms.  I will then see a slight forward or backward wrinkle of her lips, or the top of her muzzle will begin to twitch.  When I see any kind of stillness, flick of a whisker, or her lip wrinkle I am already behind the ball.  I am late to the “Help Me” Party, and I have failed to help her.  She is now screaming  BACK OFF.


The image below is a great example of what I call “The Perfect Storm” in our home.  I’ll share more on this in an upcoming post, but I for now I will quickly cover the factors involved here that are setting Hocus and the cats up to fail.
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl, or air snap.
The arrows in the above image are triggers, perceived threats, or circumstances in which she’s unable to cope effectively:
  • Beaux, the black cat creeping up behind Hocus
  • Albert the grey cat in Hocus’ space
  • Hocus is “pinned” to that spot, unable to back up because the stairs are behind her.
  • She is tired, and does not want to get up from her chosen place of rest.
  • She has just returned from a long romp in the woods; the stress hormones in her body are high.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.― Maya Angelou

I have no problem admitting that when our dog growls at one of our cats or another dog, it upsets me.  Thankfully, it rarely happens these days, because I have learned how to better manage Hocus, the cats, and also Hocus with new/unfamiliar dogs.  But life happens.  And growls can happen when the perfect storm creeps up.  If she does growl, I can feel the fear and anxiety hit me in the stomach immediately.  That’s how I know how easy it is to yell at a dog for growling.  But I don’t.  I know better now. 

Yelling “HEY! Cut it out! Stop it!” at the dog is our natural response when they’re doing something that makes us afraid or uncomfortable.  Growls and lunges make us feel awful!  We just want it to stop!

But if you step back and think about it, responding this way is really just telling the dog to shut up and stop doing what’s making us feel awful at the moment.   We don’t help them by yelling at them.  We only added MORE stress to a stressful situation.

And, if you are in the habit of hitting, yanking, poking, or “tttssst”-ing your dog, he/she will quickly learn to not growl in front of you.  Why continue to do a behavior that you are going to be punished for?  By punishing the growling behavior, you teach your dog to avoid doing that behavior.  Well done!   The next time your dog feels uncomfortable, he or she might skip the growl, and bite instead.

 Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. ~Nicole Wilde


The Fear Doesn’t Have to Make Sense. 

Our belief or personal opinion about what’s threatening the dog does not have to make sense to us.  The perceived threat is very real to the dog.   My fear of roaches is ridiculous to my entomologist friends, but the fear and my response to the perceived threat (The Roach) is totally appropriate to me.  Usually I flee, but under the perfect storm I will fight.  -Sorry bug friends, trigger stacking happens in people, too and we lash out.  Our dogs’ fears and perceived threats are not unlike my issues with the “R” word.

roach fear
Even googling “roach images” was hard for me.

Growls Work!

In the past our dog learned that growling and/or air snapping worked for her.  Each of these behavior increased distance between our dog and the perceived threat.  So today, if our dog is placed in a situation where she is unable to cope, I know that the growling and/or air snapping behaviors will happen again.  Why?  Behaviors that work (and were reinforced — the animal leaves her space) are likely to repeat.

 Growling and air snapping is a distance increasing behavior.  Dogs do what works for them. 

For example, let’s say Hocus is chewing a high value treat or bone and another animal (cat or dog) has the opportunity to get too close for Hocus’ comfort, a growl will most likely occur if The Perfect Storm is at hand.  (We refer to this as Trigger Stacking.)  When the growl or lunge happens, the other animal quickly leaves Hocus’ space.

What has happened here?  The growl has effectively increased the distance between Hocus, her prized possession, and the perceived “intruder” threat has left.  Growls work.  That’s why dogs choose to use them.


Growls Are Better Than the Alternative.

There are far worse things than a growl.  Think of it this way: Would you rather your dog warn you, a child, or another animal with a growl, or would you rather your dog skip the growl, and go straight to lunging or biting?

I’d prefer a lip curl or a growl, compared to a lunge, air snap, or bite.  But we ultimately want to help our dog to feel like he/she doesn’t need to growl, or lunge at whatever is making our dog feel threatened.

Clearly, no one wants their dog to growl, but we don’t want the dog to NOT growl if something makes her uncomfortable. Growling is communication. So it’s very important information that needs to be heard in a successful canine-human  canine-feline, or canine-canine relationship.


Thanks for the Head’s Up!

If we encounter an unplanned negative situation and Hocus growls or becomes tense, like the images above explain, I make a mental note along these lines, “Oh wow, so that really freaked you out and made you very upset.  Ok. Noted.  Looks like we have to work on how that (insert the perceived threat) makes you feel threatened.  Got it. Thanks for expressing that.  Now I know.  Next time I won’t put you in that situation or I’ll know what to avoid.”

Thank your dog for growling, then calmly remove your dog from the situation or remove the perceived threat away from your dog.


Shake It Off!

After I make the mental note and thank her, I then shake off the stress that I’m feeling, and I encourage her to shake it off too.  I encourage her to play, run, or be goofy!  Help your dog shake off that stress and switch gears in their mind.  We have to remember that seeing that kind of behavior does affect us; it’s alarming and scary to witness, but we don’t have to stay in that fearful place and neither does our dog.  Get out of that situation.  And Get Loose together!

shake it off _dog behavior
Encouraging Hocus to Shake It Off, be Loose, and have FUN after an awkward dog encounter

Set Them Up for Success!

Of course we don’t want dogs to continue to growl all the time.  We want to change the way they feel about a perceived threat.  We do this by setting them up for success.  We do this through positive training techniques.   We do this by managing the environment very carefully.  We do this by using counter conditioning / active desensitization techniques.

How I Set Our Dog Up for Success

I practice full, awake supervision when she is around other animals that might trigger her.  I am aware of the possibility of Trigger Stacking, so I work around that and prevent that from happening.  I am proactive when I know there could be potential triggers for my dog.   Now that I know better, I never put my dog in situations where she is unable to cope.   She now makes better choices that work for her, and the perceived threats are diminished because we helped to change the way she feels about them!


Learn Your Dog’s Canine Clues.

If you can learn to recognize the Canine Clues you will understand your dog’s language, and be able recognize when your dog is uncomfortable and unable to cope.  Set your dog up for success by preventing those circumstances.  Positively respond to the message your dog is sending.  Thank your dog for the message.  Then work with a force-free, science based trainer or behaviorist to work on changing the way your dog feels about that perceived threat.  Rule out any medical issues, and ensure your dog is healthy and free of pain or discomfort.


This week is National Dog Bite prevention week.  We are focused on increasing the safety and harmony of kids and dogs, but I would also love to see an increase in the safety and harmony of all animal companion species in the home.  Cats and dogs, canine companions, and dogs and other pets can become harmonious house mates if we know what to look for, manage them appropriately, and set them all up for success.  This is how be become Conscious Companions.

We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
Success

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