Wow. How are we already past the midway point of 2017!?
Hello Summer! And hello to you!
It’s been 3 months since I shared here. So much has happened since the last post . After our beloved King Albert transitioned into Spirit, life has been a roller coaster of sorts. Saying goodbye to him was a heartbreaking and familiar path, but this time the path was paved with life-changing insights and experiences. So much love, learning, healing, and growth has happened in the process.
But that’s not what I am sharing with you today.
As I discussed in an earlier post, my life and work is now a blend of science, metaphysics, and spirituality. My last post was a bit of both, and rather lengthy. Today’s post is science-based and short-n-sweet to save us all time. 😉
If your cat is cool with the cacophony of clangs, I commend him. If your dog digs having strangers over with a symphony of explosions, and scary sights and scents, I bow down to her. If your parrot, ferret, pig, or horse is unphased by the big bad booms around their dojo, they are the minority.
Most animal companions are not coolwith the Fourth of July.
If you have worked with or lived with an animal, you know that most are frightened of loud or startling noises. Even the ones who enjoy being around new people can be pushed to their limit. Strangers in your home during the holiday can stress out even the most subdued souls.
Even if your animal companion has not displayed fear around these family events before, the sights, scents, and sounds on The Fourth of July could easily bring out their most intense fears. And these fears don’t pass after the festivities are over; they can manifest as physical issues well after the event.
It can be a living nightmare for many.
💥 So, what’s a devoted animal guardian to do?!? –> BE AWARE. –> PLAN. –> PREPARE.
Here’s the Good News: Family festivities on the 4th of July don’t have to become Fright Night to our animal companions! There are many things that you can do to help your animal family members successfully cope with the Big Bad Booms and Bangs!💥
Let’s Get to Sharing!
Below are resources that I have been sharing like wildfire for weeks on our InstagramTwitter, and Facebook pages. Check em out! And if you have friends, family, or colleagues that would benefit from this information, by all means, share it!
“For it is in giving that we receive.” ― Francis of Assisi
Last weekend, a gifted colleague and I gathered forces to create a live call-in event for families. The intent was to empower people and their pets by sharing tools, tips, and techniques, and also to dispel myths. This event was created to help animal guardians across the country to prepare for the Night of Assault on the Senses.
It was a huge success.
Countless people had NO CLUE that it’s really OK to comfort the animal when they are afraid; how and why food can and should be used as a tool to modify fear; why medication is often very helpful; holistic tools that actually work; how to identify and create safe hide outs; why play is powerful.
All of these topics were new to many.
People were so relieved to learn that they do have the power to help their pets! People learned how and why these tools are vital to having a night that’s fear-free on the 4th of July. During the live event we discussed:
Sight, Scent, Sound, and Tactile senses 101
How & Why we should desensitize them to loud noises NOW
Signs of Stress in parrots, cats, and dogs
How to properly use FOOD to modify fear 🥓✨
Why cats behave certain ways when they feel threatened
What you can provide to help them feel safe and secure
Why “bolt holes” are critical for dogs and cats
Holistic Tools to use
Why you might want to consider contacting your vet now
So that’s some of what’s been on my mind the past couple of weeks, which is why I was motivated to share with you today. I hope this is helpful. And I hope you know that it is possible to have a Fear-Free Fourth of July.
You can do this!
If you have questions or concerns, shoot me an email, or comment below. 🙂
For those of you who are new to this blog, welcome! I am so grateful you are here! For those of you who have been here since the beginning, and for those who are interested, here are some other exciting projects in the works:
I am closer to completing my first children’s book (gah!)
A video series on how to positively leash train cats of all ages & stages via force-free techniques (with an emphasis on senior and geriatric cats!)
Kids-In-Cali Animal Communication workshops
Dog and Kid Safety workshops for our Marines at Camp Pendelton
A video series on assisting aging cats with force-free medical care at home
Connecting with Animals on the Other Side – a complimentary program for pet parents who are struggling with death, loss, and grief
Empaths with Pets: how highly sensitive people can learn from their animal companions
As I am guided I will be sharing more about each of these with you here in the future. In the meantime, check out these free resources so you and your beloveds can have a Fear-Free 4th of July together! 🎉
With infinite Love and Gratitude,
Amy and the animal menagerie🐾
Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. -Kofi Annan
“I take care of my flowers and my cats. And enjoy food. That’s living.”—Ursula Andress
It’s Caturday! Let’s get our Cat-Care-Chat on! (OK I am a little stoked about this post.)
I had some down time today, and had a lot of fun with our cats this morning so I was inspired to share one of the tools we have been using. This particular tool helps our feline family members to feel safe, confident, and at ease with each other, and their environment, no matter where life takes them.
Today we are talkin’ bout puzzles.
Did you play with puzzles as a child? I didn’t. They were boring and frustrated me. But my younger brother did. He loved doing puzzles. Even at the age of 7 he was playing with 1,000 piece puzzles. I couldn’t believe that someone would want to sit still for that long, for days on end. I would have died of sheer boredom! But puzzles were anything but boring to my brother. In fact, he lived for them.
So what does my brother and his fascination with puzzles have to do with our animal companions?
A lot actually.
Lackluster or Enriched Lives?
Most people have limited knowledge as to how to successfully enrich the lives of their animal companions. This results in a lack of species-appropriate enrichment with most household pets. The lack of mental and physical stimulation is linked to a myriad of medical and behavioral issues in animals. But we can change that! But making a few changes to their daily routines, we can greatly enhance the lives and longevity of our animal companions!
You may think your cat is fine just hanging out and lounging around all day while you are away, but I beg to differ. This is a common cat misconception. Those unwanted behaviors you are seeing are not random. Let’s look at some startling feline facts. Some of these stats might surprise you, but they are very real. These facts are at the heart of why I am so passionate about feline enrichment:
Cats far outnumber dogs in homes (96 million cats vs. 83 million dogs). Yet cats are the number one animal euthanized at shelters due to “behavioral issues”.
House-soiling (litter box avoidance) is the most frequently cited behavior problem for cats, followed by aggression toward people.
Cats with medical or behavioral issues were the ones most likely to be re-homed to an animal shelter, (instead of being re-homed with friends or family members.)
Only 1-5% of house cats have access to food toys.
Only 0.5% of owners hide food for their cat to find.
House cats are significantly lacking in physical AND mental exercise.
Fact: Many of these behavioral and medical issues can be prevented!
Fact: Food Enrichment can be a tool to prevent and manage many behavioral issues in homes with cats!
“Cats are captives in these environments, akin to zoo animals, and as with zoo animals, cats’ health and welfare may be affected by their surroundings. Because of this, they sometimes display undesirable behaviors when deprived of appropriate outlets for their expression.” – Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats, by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVBa and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVNb
Puzzles as Mental Enrichment
Now that I am older and more mature, I understand why my brother played with puzzles. It was mentally stimulating for him. It kept his mind focused and it allowed him to reduce stress. He was able to accomplish a goal and receive a reward. Using puzzles for enrichment for our cats are not that different from this practice.
Puzzles are one tool that can be used on a regular basis to encourage an animal’s natural behaviors and alleviate boredom, reduce stress, and increase confidence. Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors.
The Value of Enrichment
Let’s take a look at a few very important reasons why enrichment (in general) should be a tool that we use in our homes on a daily basis. Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn.
Curb boredom and restlessness
Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion
Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity. It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time.
Types of Enrichment
Don’t be overwhelmed at the thought of using enrichment. You don’t have to be a wild animal expert to do this at home. And you don’t need to have a lot of time to implement this important enrichment tool. It really can be incorporated easily!
There are a variety of enrichment options, but today we will be covering food and foraging enrichment for our felines. Just so you are aware, enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories:
Sensory (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound)
Foraging for Captive Big Cats
When I was the enrichment coordinator at Audubon, we utilized foraging enrichment as management tools for several species of big cats (exotic cat species). Offering our jaguars, African wildcats, snow leopards, and lions various types of puzzle feeders helped to reduce common stereotypical stress behaviors often seen in captivity. This could be anything from pacing in an exhibit or hiding. We also used puzzle feeders and hiding food to improve one’s body condition (keeping them lean), and to increase exploratory behavior (encouraging them to explore their environment to prevent boredom and increase exercise). We also used food and foraging enrichment to decrease aggression, frustration, and fear.
House Cats Need to Forage for Food, Too!
Our fluffy cats are not that far flung from these feline ancestors. The innate desire to explore their environment with confidence, and to hunt for their food is still very alive and well within them! Fears, frustration, aggression, and boredom are all just as common in our homes as it is for Big Cats in captivity. A stagnant environment is a breeding ground for medical and behavioral issues. As cat guardians we need to be encouraging healthy hunting and foraging behaviors. We need to be providing this kind of healthy mental and physical stimulation for our felines.
That’s where enrichment puzzles come into play!
The Semi-domesticated House Cat
House cats aren’t that far flung from their feline ancestors and modern day wildcats. But we are treating them as if they are. Companion dogs are considered fully domesticated. Cats are only “semi-domesticated“. In fact, the genomes of housecats have changed very little from their wild counterparts. And some house cats still breed with their wild relatives! Scientists now say there is very little that separates the average house cat (Felis Catus) from its wild brethren (Felis silvestris). And there is even some debate over whether our house cats fit the definition of “domesticated”. That’s why I often refer to our cats as wee “house panthers.” Our house cats need just as much enrichment that their wild counterparts receive every day.
“We don’t think cats are truly domesticated.” – Wes Warren, PhD, associate professor of genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University
Satisfying a Feline’s Innate Need to Forage
The concept of working for food is natural for all hunters. You may see your house cat as a cuddly cat, but beneath sweet exterior is a hunter. House cats are hardwired to hunt and forage for food just like their feline kin, such as lions, tigers, and jaguars. All cats, no matter the species, are hardwired to use their highly developed senses and physical skills to hunt, capture, and kill their prey.
But are we encouraging this in our homes?
And if it’s being done, it’s not happening enough, or done properly.
Although standard diets may adequately satisfy the nutrient needs of domestic cats, their usual presentation may not promote expression of normal hunting (exploratory) behaviors. Meeting nutrient needs in ways that mimic cats’ natural preferences provides additional enrichment. – Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats, by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVBa and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVNb
Make Them Work for Food!
Cats in the wild hunt for their food. Not only is it in their nature to capture and kill, but they LOVE it. Your feline family member should be “working” for their food, too. Even if they are not living in the wild, they still should have access to this wild instinct! Hunting is a natural feline behavior, and our couch potato cats need this outlet.
Why make them work for it?!?, you might ask. Great question. A study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more. These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward. The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.
I have yet to see any studies that parallel this with cats , but from my professional experience with exotic cats and personal experience with house cats, all of these species get very excited when they have to work for a treat or for their meal!
Cats who are living in the wild will forage and hunt on and off for hours. They will also eat 10 to 20 small meals throughout the day. But with our house cats, when we provide commercial cat food, we have removed the ability of housecats to hunt for survival.
But that innate desire and need to hunt is STILL present within your feline friend.
Housecats need foraging opportunities! Most of them spend as much time eating out of a food dish as they would be foraging and eating in the wild!
“This has led to an obesity epidemic in pet cats. Many of these cats eat out of boredom. But foraging allows cats the activity and the entertainment of ‘the hunt.’” – Ilona Rodan, veterinarian and co-chair of the AAFP’s Feline Behavior Guidelines.
One food-based enrichment foraging tool that you can try at home (or at your shelter) is a “puzzle feeder.” The old school (traditional) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors. Food based and foraging enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors! These help to satisfy a cat’s natural instinct to search for their food.
I have written about this topic at length, but if you are a cat guardian who’s new to this blog, and new to the idea of food enrichment, consider trying out something simple such as the Maze Bowl. It’s an interactive slow feed bowl for cats. In the video below Knox shows us how much he loves using it. (And King Albert peeks in at the end to see if there is any leftover.)
Note: If your cat has a sensitivity to Whisker Stress, this might not be the best enrichment feeding tool.
Pick Puzzles That Are Perfect for Your Pussycat.
The Maze Bowl is what I consider the beginner puzzle level. But it’s not for every cat. It’s easy and fun for very food-motivated felines. Two of our four cats will use it; the other two would go hungry before they used it. – mainly because of their Whisker Stress. That’s why it’s important to know that there are many other styles of puzzle feeders out there!
Here are a few that our cats, or my client’s cats have had great success with, or I trust the people/companies who make them:
Note: We don’t feed dry food to our felines any longer. We rotate between premade raw, canned wet food, and various freeze-dried meats. But for those of you who are feeding dry food, another option you can explore is this feeder.
I don’t know what I would do without recycling for enrichment. I have depended on it for nearly 20 years in both a professional and personal setting. If you love to recycle and if you/someone in your family is creative, there is no end to the puzzle feeders that you can make!
Puzzle feeders can be made of almost anything, as long as it’s safe for the cat. There are mobile devices, stationary, sturdy devices, and even devices that you can hang and they swing. Do It Yourself Puzzle feeders can be used to provide either wet or dry food
Puzzle Feeder Feeding Stations
I should mention that each of our four cats have their own puzzle feeder “feeding station.” In the wild cats are solitary hunters. Cats who are now living indoors are not exempt from this feline fact. That means at mealtime in your home, they should be solo (away from other cats). Forcing our feline family members to gobble down in a group can be very stressful to some cats.
In our home Knox is the food-frenzied feline. He used to inhale his food, then race over to the elderly cats, shove them out of the way, then gobble down their meal like a Meal Monster! Not only is this rude and stressful, but Knox is on a very portion controlled diet, so he is not allowed to have “second breakfasties.” Secondly, only one of the other cats (King Albert) will disagree with this rude behavior and set Knox straight. Mr. Beaux, the more meek and gentle senior cat, will wander off and let Mr. Eats a Lot devour his dinner.
And it’s really not cool for us as cat guardians to allow this behavior to occur. That’s why I love using Maze Bowls for the food frenzied feline. And that’s also why I give the senior boys their own quiet places to eat in peace.
And speaking of dining alone, any puzzle feeders that you use with your cats should be placed accordingly and safely around your home. We want these to be novel areas, and novel enrichment items, not new feeding stations that encourage competition for a highly valued primary resource (food).
Preference and Choice Matters!
It’s very important to be aware that whenever we are considering changing a high value resource (food), or how it’s offered to the animal, we must offer the new resource adjacent to the familiar resource. So if you want to try out a new puzzle feeder, such as the Maze Bowl, offer it in close proximity to where your cat’s current feeding platform or feeding bowl is currently. This allows the cat to display his/her preference for one feeding mechanism or the other. We don’t want to force our felines to use “this or that”. Cats need choices. Choice encourages confidence! When you offer your feline family member a choice, you will quickly see which one your cat prefers, and which one he/she wants to use (or ignore).
Be there with your feline family member as he discovers his new foraging toy or feeder. Encourage your cat every time she makes a small success! Don’t just leave her alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder. You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.” You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress! The same is true for our feline friends. Encourage them. Praise them when they make small progress, and reward them even when they are just trying to figure it out!
Note: Many cat guardians perceive their cats to be “finicky eaters,” recent evidence suggests that food refusal is a common feline response to environmental threat. So it’s important to look at the big picture. See what could be causing your cat to refuse to even explore a new feeding option. Remember to encourage your cat by making changes gradually.
Keeping Peace with Puzzles
Food puzzles have been an excellent facilitator for making friends among felines. A couple of our cats would rather hang with us, or the dog, when given the choice. -Having another cat all up in their space is less than desirable. But puzzle feeders have bridged the gap between cats who could care less about each other.
Puzzle feeders have also been a saving grace at times when we want to keep the peace in close kitty quarters. One example of this is when we were moving. As I talked about before, all of us were confined to various hotels across the country for nearly a month. Puzzle feeders (and feeding stations) helped to keep the peace and increase kitty (and canine) confidence.
Since they Kitty Boys (and Hocus Pocus) were already acclimated to various puzzle feeders and their own feeding mats (stations) prior to the move, we were able to easily encourage each of them to focus their minds and energy onto something positive and highly rewarding while we were all crammed together. Rather than focusing on what might be a very stressful situation to them (new sights, sounds, and smells) they were so excited to forage for their food! Rather than becoming aggressive to one another, or having a full-on-feline-freak-out-fear-fest every time we had to relocate into a new hotel every day, each animal knew that once we got settled in, play time (puzzles time) was coming their way.
Puzzle feeders saved the day. And night.
Every dang day.
Positive Side to Food Puzzles
Not only do feline food puzzles encourage cats to engage in (part of) their natural predation sequence of stalking, capturing, and consuming their prey, but there are other benefits as well. If your feline is a tubby tabby like ours was, food puzzle toys can encourage cats to lose weight! And in some instances, the successful introduction of food puzzle toys has helped to resolve litter box issues. (Yes, you read that correctly; mental and physical enrichment can help with other behavioral issues in your home!).
When a cat is actively engaged in getting their food (rather than having it served to them in a boring bowl) this foraging activity encourages cats to be more active. This kind of activity increases confidence, helps to reduce stress levels, and … here’s my favorite part: cats become less demanding of their owners.
More to Come for Cats!
On October 10th I will be hosting a free member webinar on this topic. It is entitled, “Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food.” I would love for you to join us!
If you missed it, you can sign up here for the replay!
For now offer your felines some food foraging fun!
Way down deep, we’re all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them. – Jim Davis
“Lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication. We can share our emotions, we can understand the language of feelings, and that’s why we form deep and enduring social bonds with many other beings. Emotions are the glue that binds.” ― Bekoff
Ants teach. Earthworms make decisions. Rats are ticklish. Chimps grieve. Horses understand and react to human facial expression. Some dogs have a thousand-word vocabulary. Birds practice songs in their sleep. Mice and rats show empathy. Crows use tools. Jays plan ahead. Moths remember being caterpillars. Cats are way smarter than your iPad.
What else will we learn about animals today?
In my last post I discussed how our personal and collective fears affect progress, success, and peace with our pets and within ourselves. This follow up post is intended to help you to become aware of the range of emotions that animals can experience. When we begin to see our pets as conscious beings who can experience deep and profound emotions we are better equipped with the knowledge and empathy to help them, when life challenges arise. My hope is that you learn something here so you and your animal companions can live a more fulfilling and peaceful life together, no matter what comes your way.
Most people believe that animals have some emotions. But there is a lot more happening within animals than most realize. Did you know that some animals, when faced with stressors, often respond in body and mind the way humans do? It’s really amazing.
Let’s take a look at what emotions are.
From the scientific perspective, emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal glands, etc.) that cause changes in expression (the animal’s external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them. From the layman’s perspective, they are feelings one experiences in the mind that affect one’s mood and body.
Emotions have evolved as animal adaptations in many species. Emotions serve as a “social glue” to bond animals together. Emotions also regulate a wide range of social encounters among both friends and competitors. Emotions allow animals to protect themselves by using numerous behavior patterns in a wide variety of settings.
To assume that animals are incapable of experiencing the same kinds of fears and stresses that we as humans experience is a common pitfall and misconception of pet parents. Animals are very capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions! Like us, many companion animals can and do experience a range of basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, grief, and surprise.
“Common sense and intuition feed into and support science sense, and the obvious conclusion is that at least mammals experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions ranging from pure and contagious joy shared so widely among others during play that it is almost epidemic, to deep grief and pain. There also are recent data that show that birds and fish also are sentient and experience pain and suffering.”
We are hearing more often these days that animals are “sentient beings”, but what is sentience? What does this mean?
“Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them.” -CIWF
Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences (i.e. good, bad or neutral experiences). In its most basic sense, sentience is the ability to have sensations and as a result have experiences which then may be used to guide future actions and reactions.
Similar Brain Structures
Thanks to research with imaging studies we now know that some animals have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. Just like humans, animals have temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex. Each region is connected in the same way. We’ve also learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, (known as the mammalian brain). We also know that emotions such as fear, frustration, and anger drive a lot of unwanted behaviors in animals (just like in people!)
Neuroscientific research has even shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that elephants have a huge hippocampus. This is a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Animals’ Advanced Abilities
Most people believe that a human’s ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other species, but cetaceans have us beat. Cetaceans have several sound producing organs. They are capable of conveying and receiving 20 times the amount of information as we can with our ability to process sounds! This surpasses the amount of information we can perceive based on vision (a human’s primary sense).
Research with cetaceans has even discovered that the frontal and temporal lobes (which are connected by their function in speech production and language processing) are capable of astounding abilities. Communication is so spectacular in cetaceans that scientists believe there is a strong possibility that this species is able to project an “auditory image.” via sonar messages they receive. The researches at MSU claim, “A dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”
Yeah. So that’s happening in the ocean and in captivity. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Pets, People, and the Mind’s Landscape
Could our pet’s mental map be similar to ours? According to researchers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, the physical structure of our brain and that of felines are very similar. Cats have the same lobes as we do in the cerebral cortex (the “seat” of intelligence). And our brains function the same way, by conveying data via identical neurotransmitters.
In the region of the brain which controls emotion, they are similar as well. Cats have a temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobe in their brains, just as we do. Additionally, cat brains also contain gray and white matter and the connections within their brains seem to mirror those of humans.
We also know that cats’ brains release neurotransmitters in a similar pattern to that of humans when confronted with information from their five senses. Cats also have a short-term and long-term memory, and are able to easily recall information from up to 16 hours in the past. Researchers are even studying cats’ Brain structures and neurotransmitters that regulate aggression to learn more about the implications for human aggression.
Recently through MRI research doctors have discovered that dogs and humans both house impulse control in the same area of the brain. Both human and dog brains by the prefrontal lobes, but in dogs this area is much smaller relative to brain size. There is an actual link between the level of self-control a dog has and the behavior they display. Dogs who have more brain activity in their frontal lobes, tend to have more self-control and are better able to control their behaviors, reactions, and responses to stimuli in their environment.
The Workings of the Inner Clockwork
All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures: The amygdala and hippocampus and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings. Let’s look at two areas of the brain to better understand the commonalities of the inner clockwork:
The Amygdala: The “Emotion Processing Center”: There are two almond-shaped areas in the human brain that control emotional responses. The most common function of the amygdalae involves synthesizing fear responses from the environment. Animals also have amygdalae that initiate emotional responses such as fear.
The Hippocampus: Where Memories Trigger Emotions: The hippocampus is the area in the brain where long-term memories are stored. The hippocampus feeds directly to the amygdala. Scientists believe that this is why a flood of strong emotions often follows after we recall a vivid memory.
Our companion animals also have a hippocampus. If your pet had a fearful experience before, and the sight of something reminds her of that situation, the information from her sensory cortex triggers the memory in her hippocampus, which communicates with her amygdala, which then floods her with fear.
They have found that with dogs who are experiencing the emotion of anger, the amygdala and hippocampus play key roles. When these systems become overactive, they cause the amygdala pathway to bypass the cortex entirely. This results in an animal who will literally react without thinking. (Ahem, Hocus Pocus and King Albert can both attest to this. And I know of a cockatoo who lives in this state during the peak hormonal months!).
But don’t we all have the ability to react this way at some point in our lives? I find it fascinating that our animal companions have this hard-wiring as well.
Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System At Work
When an animal looks at the world, he or she is confronted with an overwhelming amount of sensory information—sights, sounds, smells, and so on. After being processed in the brain’s sensory areas, the information is relayed to the amygdala, which acts as a portal to the emotion-regulating limbic system. Using input from the individual’s stored knowledge, the amygdala determines how they should respond emotionally—for example, with fear (at the sight of a predator or stranger), in affection or love (at the sight of their beloved person walking in the door) or indifference (when facing something trivial).
Messages cascade from the amygdala to the rest of the limbic system and eventually reach the autonomic nervous system, which prepares the body for action. If the animal is confronting a threat, her heart rate will rise. Her body might sweat in some areas to dissipate the heat from muscular exertion. The autonomic arousal in turn, feeds back into the brain, amplifying the emotional response. Over time, the amygdala creates a salience landscape, a map that details the emotional significance of everything in the individual’s environment.
This internal mind map is a reminder of how to stay safe and alive.
“Fight or flight is a body’s primal response to anything one perceives a threat, hazard or danger; it is an immediate release of hormones to pump up our body to fight or run from a threat, whether that threat is perceived or real.”
Fear Digs In Deep.
There are some fascinating facts when it comes to the subject of fear. We now know that negative experiences effect the brain more deeply than positive experiences. Fear sinks in deep. And it holds on tight. Once a learner (us or an animal) learns that something is scary, should be avoided, or becomes a trigger, the negative effects can be long lasting and hard-wired in the brain.
Remember when that creep who wore a clown costume to your friend’s birthday party when you were a kid? Or what about that roach that crawled on you once while you were sleeping as a child? How do you feel about roaches and clowns today? It just takes one negative experience and that fear sticks to our minds like super glue.
Animals are not unlike us when it comes to how fear can set in and grab a tight hold in their minds.
Fear from Watching
Did you know that both people and pets can learn to be fearful of something, someone, or somewhere just by watching another animal or person? The amygdala plays a critical part in the physical expression of a fear response in humans as well as animals. Scientists have shown that the amygdala responds when a person or animal exhibits fear through observing someone else experiencing a fearful experience. This means that the amygdala is involved in learning to fear something even without directly experiencing the aversive event. Animals can merely observe something fearful and learn to be afraid of that person, place, or event!
The Scent of Fear
You know that phrase, “I can smell fear a mile away!”, or “They can smell your fear.”? Well, it turns out there is some truth to that. Researches in 2014 discovered that young animals have the ability to learn fear in the first days of life. Just by smelling the odor of their distressed mother. And this doesn’t pertain to just “natural” fears; If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her offspring will quickly learn to fear it too. How? Through her odor when she feels fear.
When the odor of the frightened rat mother was piped in to a chamber where her offspring were located and the juvenile rats were exposed to peppermint smell, they developed a fear of the scent of peppermint. Their blood cortisol levels rose when they smelled it! I mean, come on! How incredible is that?!
“During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories,” says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.
“Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life,” he adds. “Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers’ experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish.”
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Michigan Health System
But wait. There’s more. The scientists exposed the rat pups of both groups of mothers to the peppermint smell, under many different conditions with and without their mothers present. Fear still occurred.
Using special brain imaging, studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells, and cortisol in the rat’s blood, they focused on the lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears. Note: Later in life this area is responsible for detecting and planning a response to threats; that’s why it would also be the “hub” for learning new fears.
“But the fact that these fears could be learned in a way that lasted during a time when the baby rat’s ability to learn any fears directly was naturally suppressed, is what makes the new findings so interesting”, says the lead scientist, Debiec.
Their research even showed that the newborns could learn their mothers’ fears even when the mothers weren’t present. Merely the scent of their mother reacting to the peppermint odor she feared was enough to make them fear the same thing.
Fear In Pheromones
Fear can be passed through scent glands. Not only can pheromones be used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals, but they can be used as alarms. Our dogs and cats can smell when fear is present in these glands. I refer to these as FEAR-amones. When they smell fear, they instinctively know to Get The Heck Out of Dodge.
Our Similar Structures
In An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian’s Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate Adrian Morrison provides a great description of just how mammalian and animal-like we humans are. As Morrison explains, we share common brain structures with other mammals:
My cat, Buster, and I both flinch and yowl or curse at a sudden painful stimulus, and our legs both jerk in response to a tap on the patellar tendon of the knee. The spinal organization of the neurons responsible for these activities is the same in cats as it is in humans.
Moving forward into the lowest part of the brain, in both Buster and me the same neurons control basic bodily functions, such as regulation of breathing, heart rate, and vomiting. Farther forward reside the nerve cells that regulate the behaviors of sleep and wakefulness, which are identical in humans and other mammals, and where dysfunction results in similar problems, such as narcolepsy … and REM sleep behavior disorder. In this brain region in all mammals are found the neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.
At the base of the cerebral hemispheres is the almond-shaped amygdala, where mechanisms
leading to fear and anxiety in people and animals operate. Monkeys and rats have contributed much to our understanding of the amygdala. The overlying cerebral cortex is where all of us mammals analyze the sensations coming from the skin, muscles and joints via the spinal cord, or eyes and ears in the cases of vision and hearing.
Where we depart from our animal brethren is in the great development of the front part of our cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes, and the greater proportion of cerebral tissue, called association areas, which integrate the information obtained from the regions that directly receive sensory information. These latter regions are called the primary sensory and motor areas because they receive simple, pure sensations and direct the movement of the body. It is within the frontal lobes that we humans mull over the past, prepare for the future, and reflect on its implications. Animals do not have this last capability in particular, as far as we can discern. Animals prepare for the future in a limited, instinct-driven way: Think of squirrels gathering and burying nuts for the winter. …
His last three sentences get right to the point of why I am sharing with you: If we have the ability to plan, predict, and prepare, and our pets are instinctively coping, adjusting, and surviving this rollercoaster (we put them on), then we have a lot of work to do as their guardians.
If fear is sticky and hard to remove, then as animal guardians we need to know how fear sets in, how we can minimize or prevent it, and how to effectively remove it. We have serious business at hand if we want them to live in our human world with minimal stress and fear, and with a maximum sense of security and safety. If we want them to thrive, rather than merely survive, then we need to get to work.
The willingness to recognize that animals have emotions is key. Their feelings matter, their fear is real to them. Animals are sentient beings who experience the lows and highs of their live with us. We must respect this.
To continue with the status quo, because that’s what as always been done isn’t enough anymore. Now that we know more, we do more. Now that we know better, we must do better. For them. For us. For all species.
All that we once believed about animals has changed, and so should our relationships with the animals we live with, care, for and are stewards for. When it comes to what we can and cannot do for animals, it is their capacity to feel, experience complex emotions that can be a catalyst for how we change the way we view them, and how we act on their behalf.
“Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other
animals. We must never forget that”. ― Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter
My next post in this “Fear Series” will address both the causes and effects of of emotional and environmental stress on our pets, so stay tuned!
And the last post in this Fear Series will be chocked full of fun tips and techniques that you can implement to help your pets reduce their fears and live a fearless life!
Until then, I am going to plan, prepare, and be proactive about our upcoming Big Move with our animal companions!