The Secrets and Splendor of Squamata

People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer. ― Andrew Smith

snake eye

My heart is so happy right now.   My social media news feed has been overtaken with posts about snakes!  These post are not snake-hating posts; they’re posts from snake savvy people who absolutely adore these magnificent, valuable, and misunderstood species.  They’re posting about snakes today because it’s World Snake Day!

Snakes (like most reptiles) are one of the most misunderstood and least researched animals in the world.  Before you decided to disengage from this article, please give me just a few minutes of your time.   It’ll be worth it.  And one thing is for sure:  You’ll learn something new!  And, if you are lucky enough, you might see snakes in a new light by the time you are done reading this.


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In my watershed/wetlands class my students found a juvenile Queen snake (Regina septemvittata) 🐍 We said hello then released her back into the water.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I usually discuss companion animal topics, but I have a secret: Reptiles are my passion.  When I see a snake, toad, frog, turtle, or lizard my entire being lights up with glee.  While others are screaming and running away, I am trying to figure out how I can get closer to the animal without freaking him/her out!  I know that might seem crazy to many, but if you have been in my shoes you would feel this way, too.

I have worked with snakes for nearly 20 years.  I was indifferent to them prior to this, but things change after 20 years of educating and research.  After working with exotic and domestic snakes, venomous and nonvenomous, boas and pythons, constrictors and prey chasers, common and critically endangered, captive and wild, I saw every species of snake in a new light.  Each snake taught me something new and captured my imagination.

I would like to share some of this with you.

During my career with snakes one of the most amazing things I was able to coordinate and witness still warms my heart. Youth and adults (many who were once afraid of snakes) learned to love and respect them.  Then, if that wasn’t amazing enough, I watched these youth and adults share their love and appreciation of snakes with strangers.

These mini miracles happened at The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Me and my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk
Hanging with my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk

In a very special area of the Audubon Zoo, called Discovery Walk, we focused on educating the public with facts not fear. And since most people are scared of anything that slithers, snakes were the perfect teachers. Some snakes were common snakes you could find in your backyard, and some were critically endangered.   Our collection of public education snakes were animal ambassadors. They were the voice (and face) for snakes all over the world.

My volunteers and interns learned how to care for each snake in our collection, they learned each snake’s temperament, and learned how to safely handle the snakes. They learned how to transport snakes on outreach programs, how to recognize when the snake was stressed, and when the snake was having a really good time!

Yes, you read that right; snakes can have good times!  In fact, snakes are very sensitive to our emotions, our moods, how we are feeling one day to the next, and our scents.  Some of our snakes even had a favorite handler!

Snakes are not the mindless creatures that many believe them to be.  In a word, they are spectacular.

Below is a slideshow of images that capture fun-filled education and appreciation of the species of snakes in our ambassador program.
(Note: You can see the images & captions better from your computer, not on your mobile device).

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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”― Marie Curie

There are so many ridiculous myths out there about snakes.  And honestly, fear is at the heart of these misconceptions. The initial reaction when someone finds a snake is to kill it.  People do this because they are afraid.  So I am going to share a few snake facts with you today, in honor of World Snake Day, to help people to not be so afraid.

Let’s Remove Fear and replace it with Facts!

anaconda_
Anaconda researchers in the field with a live specimen – Notice the snake is NOT trying to eat the humans (another myth perpetuated in the movies).

Snake Stats:

  • “Squamata” means scaled reptiles.
  • Squamata is the largest order of reptiles, comprising all lizards and snakes.
  • Worldwide, there are about 3,000 species of snakes.
  • Snakes are on almost all continents except Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, and New Zealand.
  • At least 50 % of Americans are afraid of snakes.

    snake skeleton
    Snakes have a beautiful skeleton
  • A true fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia
  • Only about 15% of snakes worldwide can do actual harm to humans.
  • Only about 1/4 of all snakes are venomous.
  • There are hundreds of snake species in the U.S. but about 90% of them are non-venomous. Only 10% have venom!
  • Snakes are not “poisonous”.  Snake can be venomous.  Poison and venom differ in the method of delivery.  Poison is ingested orally or absorbed; venom, is injected. There are no “poisonous” snakes.
  • The venom gland is a modified salivary gland, and is located just behind and below the snake’s eye. The size of the venom gland depends on the size of the snake.
  • Venom is a protein. In fact, it is a very precious resource to snakes. This protein exists to subdue their prey (not to inject into humans!) Snakes do not want to waste this precious resource on us.
  • This is why over half of the snake bites that people receive from native venomous snakes are “dry bites”, meaning no venom is injected into the person.
  • Venom delivery is voluntary — snakes squeeze their venom glands with muscles to deliver venom. All venomous snakes could deliver dry bites.
  • Some snakes, like the Coral snake deliver venom to their prey (other snakes) by chewing on the snake. They use teeth in the back of their mouth to deliver the venom.  Coral snakes are extremely reclusive and are not aggressive towards anything except their prey!  In fact, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in the U.S. since 1967.
  • You are 9 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.snakebite_death_stats
  • A snake will bite a person (and other perceived threats) as an absolute last resort. They depend on camouflage and retreat as their preferred method of avoiding threats. When someone is bitten by snake, it is always the persons fault.  Always. And many times it could have been avoided.  I have worked with hundreds of snake species over the years, but have only been bitten 3 times.  Every single time it was my fault.
  • Snakes try to avoid human contact. Wild snake bite incidents occur when humans inadvertently step on or otherwise disturb the peaceful creatures.
  • Snakes (and other reptiles) allow more energy to remain in the food chain compared to mammals and birds. Snakes can convert 10 times more of their food to actual biomass (instead of losing it through metabolism).
  • Snakes’ presence is important for healthy ecosystems as they are predators as well as prey for other species.
  • One of the most vital roles that snakes hold is their position in the food chain. As voracious predators, snakes provide an indispensable contribution to human survival. If snakes were to disappear, we would be besieged with vermin, pestilence, plague and crop destruction within a matter of months.
  • Snakes are important to our medical advancements: Medicines for heart disease and diabetes were derived from snake venom. And new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and pain management are currently being developed using proteins and peptides in venom toxins.
  • Copperhead venom has cancer-fighting abilities and is being tested to treat breast cancer and other forms of cancer: The vemon has a protein that inhibits the growth of tumors and growth of blood vessels into tumors without damaging healthy tissues.
  • The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that about 28% of snakes are threatened.
  • 1 in 4 snake species are threatened worldwide.
  • 12 snake species are listed as Threatened (9 species) or Endangered (3 species) in the U.S.
  • Sea snakes are now critically endangered due to over fishing and habitat loss.
  • 1.5 – 2.5 million snakes are killed for the skin trade yearly.  Even with their skins removed, they can live on in agony for days and days before dying. ~ Eden Bio-Creations, LLC © 2015
  • Conservationists believe that habitat destruction and climate change are to blame for snakes’ declining numbers.
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors.  Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps - parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after she had an incomplete shed
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors. Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps – parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after he shed incompletely

Snakes are not the malevolent creatures portrayed in the Bible. Over time, they have become convenient victims of superstition, bad movies and the anthropomorphic misassumption that animals can be evil. It is entirely possible that if Satan had appeared to Adam and Eve as a squirrel, humans today would try to justify an irrational fear of squirrels.

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Snakes Need Compassion and Conservation.

Snakes deserve much credit for the invaluable role they play within ecosystems, including the ones in our backyards!  Focusing on facts –not fear, can help raise awareness and support to better understand these misunderstood species.  Jul 15, World Snake Day, is a opportunity to see these animals in a new light, and to gain respect for them.   Let’s remove our fears and illusions about snakes.  Let’s help our fellow travelers of this Earth gain recognition as a spectacular species.

An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day
An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day

If you want to join the conversation, please share and use the hashtag ‪#‎WorldSnakeDay and ‪#‎CelebrateSnakes365!  And Thankssssssssssss for helping to ssssssssave snake speciesssssssss!

Related Recommended Reading

world snake day education kids

This is dedicated to every snake I have ever met.  Thank you for teaching me what I did not know.  Thank you for showing me that you are to nothing fear, but a species to be understood and respected. Thank you for showing me that within each species, each one is an individual; each having his or her own personality, preferences, and abilities.  May your beauty and gifts be seen by all men one day.  May we loose all fear of you and see you with eyes of love.

And thank you, to all of my volunteers, interns, and colleagues. You all were the greatest, most powerful voices for the voiceless.  You affected thousands of people’s lives. You were the compassionate educators. You literally saved species.  This is dedicated to you as well. All my love.

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

Recommended Reads:

Save The Paw!

The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” ― Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

declaw my cat_why not to declaw your cat

Have you had an experience that changed the way you once viewed something? Have you ever known in your gut that something you were watching unfold or helping with seemed ”so right” to everyone else, but it felt so wrong to you?  I’ve had this experience more than once, and I would like to talk to you about it today.

This is not a feel-good story, but it’s one that needs to be shared.

From the age of 14 to 17, I worked and volunteered at local veterinary clinics in Orlando Florida, where my family lived at the time.   I worked closely with pets that people brought in for boarding, minor procedures, and major surgeries.  Even though I was young, the staff let me work alongside of them for many of the procedures.  This was in the 90s, so veterinary staff were much more lax about safety procedures than now.  Some of the procedures were fascinating.  Some were bloody and heart wrenching.

As a teenager, and later as an adult, I had an all inclusive pass and a front row seat to participate in tail and ear dockings and amputations.  Tail and ear docking was considered “minor” surgery, but what I witnessed as a post-op staff was not “minor.”  The harmless-sounding term “declawing” was used to hide what amounted to an amputation procedure.   You might raise an eyebrow reading that because these procedures are something we hear about often, so they seem rather innocuous.  I am here to tell you from first hand experience: declawing is not a minor, harmless procedure.  Onychectomies (declawing of cats) is quite controversial, and quite complicated.

declawing cats procedure

Experience Changes Perception

During my teenage veterinary life chapter and my post college veterinary school chapter I witnessed and participated in many things involving or resulting from decalwing.  It always felt wrong to me, despite the docs who quickly dismissed my questions and concerns.  None of what I saw was positive.  I saw cats in pain, cats sick from the procedure, cats later euthanized due to major complications post-surgery, and I saw cat owners devastated because of the uninformed decision they made for their cats.  I have even known cougars who had been declawed out of safety for humans, but ended up living a life dominated by physical pain and discomfort.  Fast forward to today.  Now I help people who made the decision to declaw their cats (either out of convenience or because of a veterinarian’s recommendation to solve undesirable scratching behavior), but now they have more issues because of declawing their cats.  I share this with you today because tomorrow is Declaw Awareness Day.  This is your chance to spread the word and become involved.   

Educations spreads Awareness. Awareness breeds compassion


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DECLAWING

 Declawing is NOT a “Kitty Manicure” 

People often are often misled to believe that declawing is a harmless procedure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Declawing is the surgical amputation of all or part of a cat’s third phalanges (toe bones) and the attached claws.  If this surgery was done on a human, it would be like cutting off each finger or toe at the last knuckle.

declawed cat claws

Onychectomy is an amputation and should be regarded as a major surgery. ~ AVMA American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

cat declaw like human amputation

Feline Fact:  Cats claws are NOT like our fingernails.

Cat-Declawing

How Declawing Is Performed 

The standard method of declawing is amputating with a scalpel or guillotine clipper.  The wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue, and the feet are bandaged.  I had the job of doing the “kitty super glue” when I assisted veterinarian staff as a teenager.  Laser surgery is another way this procedure is done.  I helped during the post-op procedures for this technique at the Louisiana State University Veterinary Teaching School.  A beam of light cuts through tissue by heating and vaporizing it.  This procedure still amputates the last toe bone of the cat and carries the same long-term risks as the other method.

declaw_what happens when cats are declawed_the truth about declawing_amputation

 Feline Fact:  At least 22 countries have banned declawing.


A Cat’s Anatomy Matters

Did you know that cats are digitigrade, which means that they walk on their toes?  As a cat walks or runs, he/she will usually retract their claws into sheaths, leaving behind just the smooth, small toes and footpad.  Humans and bears are plantigrade mammals.  We walk on the soles of our feet, with the toes only touching the ground briefly toward the end of each step.

Declawing Complications

Once a cat is declawed, it changes the way a cat can move.  There can also be a regrowth of improperly removed claws, nerve damage, and bone spurs.  A cat’s leg muscles and back muscles can weaken over time. This can lead to back and joint pain.

Clawed-vs-Declawed-Toes _cats Declawing

Removing claws changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground and can cause pain similar to that which humans experience when wearing a very uncomfortable pair of shoes

Medical Complications of Declawing:

  • pain in the paw
  • infection
  • tissue necrosis (tissue death)
  • lameness
  • nerve damage
  • bone chips that prevent healing
  • postoperative hemorrhage
  • regrowth of the claws inside the paw pads.

Behavioral and Physical Complications of Declawing:

  • Many cats are less likely to use the litter box due to pain after being declawed.
  • Most cats are more likely to bite because they no longer have their claws for defense.
  • There are long lasting physical problems for your cat.

 Feline Fact: Declawing changes the way the cat’s paws function, and this creates stress on the joints of the paw, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and spine.


Why Cats NEED Their Claws

1. Offense and Defense – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her arsenal for offense and defense. Did you know:

  • Cats use their claws to capture prey (toys or real prey)
  • Cats use their claws to settle disputes among themselves, other animals, and with people who are hurting, threatening, or annoying them.
  • Cats who need to climb to safe place use their claws to grip onto the surface and pull themselves up to safety.

2. Health and Habits – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her daily rituals.  Cats instinctually pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer resistance (trees, logs, rugs, scratching posts, etc.) They do this to mark territory, exercise and stretch muscles, relieve stress, and to remove worn sheaths from the nails.

declaw_why cats need their claws

Scratching Serves Many Purposes.

Despite what you may believe, cats don’t’ scratch your furniture or other personal items to “get back at you”.  Cats have a biological (physical and emotional) need to do this behavior!  Scratching is a very normal and healthy behavior.   There is another popular misconception that cats scratch to sharpen their nails.  This is not true.   Cats scratch for a variety of very important reasons:

 Why Cats Scratch:kitten-with-scratchpost

  • To communicate; scratching on surfaces deposits pheromones that send messages to other cats.
  • To condition the claws by removing aged cuticles
  • To serve as a visual territorial marker
  • To defend themselves
  • To stretches the muscles of the limbs, thorax, and back
  • To express joy, excitement, frustration, stress, and as a displacement behavior

Experts Weigh-In on Declawing

Read what the respected feline veterinarians and animal welfare organizations have to say about this declawing:

The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their guardians. The only circumstance in which the procedure could be condoned would be if the health and safety of the guardian would be put at risk, as in the case of individuals with compromised immune systems or illnesses that cause them to be unusually susceptible to serious infections.

 The Humane Society of the United States opposes declawing except for the rare cases when it is necessary for medical purposes, such as the removal of cancerous nail bed tumors.


Feline expert Dr. Margie Scherk shares her experience and thoughts on the issue:


Some people feel it’s unnatural to remove a cat’s claws, and it’s done for the owner’s benefit and not for the cat’s benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this — the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to cats are born with claws and they should keep them. ~ Drew Weigner, Atlanta veterinarian and president of the Academy of Feline Medicine

The American Association of Feline Practitioners statement on declawing (PDF) 

The AVMA’s Policy on Cat Declawing and what’s actually Involved (video)



Is declawing bad for cats AND YOU?  You bet.  Jackson Galaxy sets the record straight:



Alternatives to Declawing

Sometimes, people feel like there is no other option but to remove a cat’s claws.  Thankfully, many progressive and humane veterinarians are now teaching their clients about other humane and respectful methods for managing destructive clawing and to prevent injury from cat scratches.  Here are just a few alternatives to declawing:


Facts Aren’t Enough

I was going to simply share the facts about declawing along with the humane alternatives and just keep it at that, but as I write this I am moved to share more.  I have three cats laying around me right now.  All of them have their claws intact.  Have we had issues with scratching in the home before?  Sure. It’s what cats need to do.  But I didn’t chop off their toes because of unwanted scratching.  I taught my cats where and what to scratch on.  I took the time to learn my cats’ individual preferences and thresholds so they would never feel the need to scratch me, our house guests, each other, or the dog.  I teach my clients, family, and friends how to do this as well.  It’s humane. It’s fun. And it works.

The Bigger Picture

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time know that I steer on the positive side of things.  I do my best to not judge, and I focus on compassionate education.  But I have to ask: Who do we think we are to do this to cats?  Why do we think it’s perfectly acceptable to amputate an animal’s body part because it makes our lives easier?  How did we get to this point with the animals we invited into our lives?  Will we continue to do this procedure without exploring other options?  How did the disconnect happen between caring for our cats and fully honoring them for who they are?  When did we choose to overlook their emotional and physical needs?  Who are we to decide that this procedure is justifiable? We would never consider doing this to a child if there was a behavioral issue; we would look into every other option available. Are cats considered less than deserving of the same treatment?

I understand these are tough questions, but they need to be asked, and we need to take an honest look at all of this.

Before you make the decision to amputate your cat’s toes, try humane alternatives.  There are too many available to ignore.  Choose wisely.  My cats are family.  Are yours?

Declaw awareness_why not to declaw cats
Me and Knox

 When we understand that all animals are our relatives, perhaps then we will treat them as our brothers and sisters. ~ A.D. Williams


Recommended Reading

Read This Before Declawing Your Cat

Think Twice Before You Declaw

Declawing: Another Veterinarian’s Perspective

Physical Consequences of Declawing

Declawing Cats Required to Rent?

Paw Project Movie on Netflix

Relief for Declawed Cats

Chronic Pain of Declawing

The Paw Project

Welfare Implications of Declawing of Domestic Cats

don't declaw_save the paw_Conscious Companion_Declaw awareness day

Try Giving Instead of Taking

There is a very common myth that taking an animal’s food or toys away while they are enjoying them, will teach the animal to allow anyone to come up and take things from them.  This “technique” at best, is usually viewed as an annoyance to the animal, but at worst it can trigger or create defensive behaviors such as resource guarding, growling, and even biting.

Instead of taking food or toys away from an animal, offer Good Things to whatever they are enjoying!

For example, calmly approach a relaxed pet (cat, bird, dog, pig, etc.) when they are eating their food, or chewing on a toy, and add another yummy piece of food, or another irresistible toy to his/her bowl or play area, then walk away.

This teaches your animal companion that approaching humans or brief touches that happen while they are enjoying their valued resource are Good Things!  This technique helps to prevent resource guarding and other defensive or aggressive behaviors. It also helps to build confidence and trust with you, other people, and other pets!

You can see an example of how to do this here:

For it is in giving that we receive. ― Francis of Assisi


Recommended Reading: Myths, Truths, and Tips about Resource Guarding

Related VIDEOS:

Butt Sniffing 101

“Hello! Do I know you? Have we met before?”
“Hey there! Do I know you?? Lemme smell to find out…”

Butt Sniffing.  It’s gross to most humans, but it’s very important to our canine comrades.

Derriere sniffing is just one of the many fascinating forms of chemical communication in the animal kingdom.  Animals all around the world use chemical communication to communicate.  Pheromones are the source of this communication!

Pheromones are chemicals released by living organisms that send information to other organisms of the same species via scent.  They’re used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals.  Pheromones can be released as alarms, food trails, sex lures, and much more.  Plants, vertebrates, and insects communicate in this chemosensory way.

Our dogs and cats (and even hedgehogs!) are just as sensitive to these pheromones, and they decipher them using a very cool method!  Like many reptiles and other mammals, these animals have a “scent collector “in the roof of their mouth that’s called a Jacobson’s Organ, or a vomeronasal organ. (Which, by the way, is absolutely one of the coolest tools in the animal kingdom.)  This organ is used by many species to send chemical scents directly to the brain.

Snakes use their Jacobson's Organ to detect pheromones in their environment, similarly to how dogs do!
Snakes, like many animals, use their Jacobson’s Organ to detect pheromones in their environment! Snakes are actually tasting the air when they stick out their tongues.

The Jacobson’s organ is useful in the process of communicating chemical messages between members of the same species. The organ helps snakes hunt and track their prey. Much evidence suggests that this organ may also be involved in the detection of chemical signals related to aggression and territoriality in some species.


Fun Fact:  Elephants touch the tips of their trunks to the Jacobson’s Organ (inside the roof of their mouth) to engage their chemosensory perception of things in their environment.  Lions use it for sensing sex hormones.

A great view of an elephant's Jacobson's Organ.  I have had the pleasure of an Asian elephant named Gene, letting me feel hers. They are so cool!
A great view of an elephant’s Jacobson’s Organ.  Elephants touch the tip of their trunk to this organ to discern scents in their environment.  I have had the pleasure being able to feel one of these organs, thanks to a very special Asian elephant named Gene.

This same organ recognizes chemicals as they enter a dog’s nose, via circular sniffs through each nostril. This organ then interprets the pheromones collected. It’s sensitive enough to not confuse fecal matter scent with pheromones.

Underside view of a dog's Jacobson's Organ
Underside view of a dog’s Jacobson’s Organ

According to the American Chemical Society, when dogs get their derriere sniffing on, it’s really all about one dog literally sniffing out important information about the other.  Find out why “Bacon is to people, as butt sniffing is to dogs” in the video below:


Fido Fact: Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us.  Proportionally speaking it’s 40 times greater than ours.

Feline Fact: A cat’s sense of smell is 40x stronger than ours.  Scent is crucial when it comes to social situations, locating prey & maintaining safety.  Scent is also crucial when it comes to evaluation of food.


Scent-Secreting Sacs!

Our pooches have pouches called anal sacs.  These sacs are a pair of small, kidney-shaped structures on each side of the anus.  These sacs hold glands that secrete chemicals.  Every dog has a unique scent “signature” created by the secretions of its anal sacs.  This unique scent not only distinguishes one dog from another, but it also reveals the dog’s sex. Genetics and the state of their immune system can influence the aroma of these sacs.

All predators, whether they are canines or felines in the wild or skunks in your backyard, have anal glands. They just use them differently. . In dogs and cats, every time a stool is passed, it should put enough pressure on the anal glands that some of the secretion is deposited on the surface of the stool. Other dogs and cats are then able to tell who has been in the neighborhood, just by sniffing the stools they find. Additionally, dogs and cats recognize each other by smelling each other in the general area of the anus, since each animal's anal glands produce a unique scent.

 

When an animal passes a stool, it should put enough pressure on the anal glands so that some of the secretion is deposited on the surface of the stool. Other dogs are able to tell who has been in the ‘hood, just by sniffing the stools they find.  Dogs can smell these anal sac scents when they are nose-to-rear as well.

cat anal sac_anal glands_how cats smell_cat urine_cat spraying_cat communnication

Cats also have two little anal glands on each side of the rectum that release a very strong-smelling liquid to mark the cat’s stool as it passes through. And cats have scent glands on their paws pads, cheeks, and head! You can read more about these here.


cat flehming response_jacobson organ
A feline experiencing a flehmen response

The flehmen response (/ˈfleɪmən/; German: [ˈfleːmən]), also called the flehmen position, flehmen reaction, flehming, or flehmening. This is a behavior in which an animal curls back its upper lip exposing its front teeth, inhales with the nostrils usually closed and then often holds this position for several seconds.  It may be performed over a site or substance of particular interest to the animal (e.g. urine or feces) or may be performed with the neck stretched and the head held high in the air.

The Flehmen response is performed by a wide range of mammals including ungulates and felids.  The behavior facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ (VNO, or Jacobson’s organ) located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth of the animal. The word originates from the German verb flehmen, to bare the upper teeth. The flehmen response often gives the appearance that the animal is grimacing, smirking or laughing.

horse _Flehmen response
A horse in Ireland displaying a Flehmen response when I am offering him food

 

Intraspecific communication
The main reason for, or function of flehmen is intraspecific, or within-species communication. By transferring air containing pheromones and other scents to the vomeronasal organ (VNO), an olfactory-chemosensory organ located between the roof of the mouth and the palate, animals can gather chemical “messages”.

The response is perhaps most easily observed in domestic cats and horses; both exhibit a strong flehmen response to odors.  Stallions usually smell the urine of mares in estrus whereas the male giraffe’s flehmen response includes actually tasting the female’s urine. Elephants perform a flehmen response but also transfer chemosensory stimuli to the vomeronasal opening in the roof of their mouths using the prehensile structure, sometimes called a “finger”, at the tips of their trunks.

 

Interspecific communication
The flehmen response is not limited to intraspecific communication.  Goats have been tested for their flehmen response to urine from 20 different species, including several non-mammalian species.  This study suggests there is a common element in the urine of all animals, an interspecific pheromone, which elicits flehmen behavior. Specifically, chemical pheromone levels of a modified form of androgen, a sex hormone, were associated with the response in goats.

Other animals which exhibit the flehmen response include buffalo, tigers, tapirs, lions, giraffes, llamas, hedgehogs, rhinoceros, giant pandas, and hippopotami.


 

When it comes to companion animals such as dogs and cats, they recognize each other by smelling one another in the general area of the anus, since each animal’s anal glands produce a unique scent.  Sniffing another derriere is just another form of chemical communication. Think of this behavior as “speaking with chemicals”.  It’s how they learn about another dog or cat’s diet, gender, and even their emotional state!

So the next time you see your dog or cat getting a good whiff of another’s derriere or  doody, let him/her get their sniff on!  It’s not gross; its purely instinctual and it’s a very effective form of communication!  Your cat or dog will thank you for letting him/her Bbe themselves.

 

Sniffing Butt
“oooh, what do you have going on?! Let me get a good whiff and find out!”

 


References:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/286/5440/716

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK55973/

http://physrev.physiology.org/content/89/3/921

Recommended Video:

How dogs “see” with their noses!