I have not shared with you on this blog in FOUR months! We’ve had a lot on our plate since my last post. But today I am very excited about something in the skies, so I am making time to share.
This will be a short post because we are still unpacking and getting settled after our PCS (Big Move) from the west coast to the east coast! Since we are still in the swing of Summertime, I thought this would be fun to share with you. I hope it inspires you!
Did you know … ?
The expression “dog days of summer” was not originally referring to the oppressive heat and laying around like a tired dog in the summer. It actually refers to the period from July 3 through Aug. 15 when the “dog star”, Sirius, holds a most prominent position in the nightsky! Sirius is nicknamed the “Dog Star” because it is part of the constellation Canis Major, which is Latin for “the greater dog.” Eventually the phrase “dog days” was poorly translated from Latin to English about 500 years ago; taking on a new meaning.
The History of Sirius
For centuries, the effect of Sirius’ light with the combination of our Sun’s energy was understood to have an effect on all life on Earth. In Egypt, Sirius’ return to the night sky became a precursor to the annual flooding of the Nile, and was associated with the goddess Sopdet. In Greece, the sighting of Sirius was the precursor to their hot summer and thunderstorms.
Today, this star is still considered powerful to life on planet Earth. Sirius, located in the Canis Major constellation, can be considered directly ‘upstream’ from our solar system in a cosmic sense that refers to its relative position in the Milky Way galaxy. A highly-charged stellar field, it is said to be currently bringing in high-end electromagnetic currents into our solar system, affecting the solar activity and planetary vibrations of every celestial being on Earth. It’s also known to be directly involved in the 8/8 Gateway that we are all currently in now.
When stars reach the end of their evolution, smaller stars—those up to eight times as massive as our own sun— become “white dwarfs.” These ancient stars are incredibly dense; a mere teaspoonful of their matter would weigh as much as an elephant.
Even as a dwarf star, Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, even though it’s 8.8 light-years away from Earth! The Sirius system is the fifth known closest stellar system. Sirius observes a period of almost exactly 365¼ days between risings. Although this incredible star continues to return to the night sky in late summer, its position continues to gradually shift relative to the Sun. Several millennia from now, this astrological event won’t even occur during the summer. Roughly 13,000 years from now, Sirius will be rising with the sun in mid-winter. Scientists say that in 26,000 years, the dog days will completely move all around the sky.
Stars like our sun fuse hydrogen in their cores into helium. White dwarfs are stars that have burned up all of the hydrogen they once used as nuclear fuel. Fusion in a star’s core produces heat and outward pressure, but this pressure is kept in balance by the inward push of gravity generated by a star’s mass. When the hydrogen used as fuel vanishes, and fusion slows, gravity causes the star to collapse in on itself.
How to Locate Sirius in the Night sky:
Have you noticed a very bright, twinkling star in the predawn/dawn sky? That star is Sirius. It’s so bright that, when it’s low in the sky, it shines with glints of red and flashes of blue! Sirius is highly visible in the Northern Hemisphere night sky because it has a high relative luminosity to other stars, and it’s relatively close to Earth. If the star were placed next to Earth’s sun, Sirius would outshine our sun more than 20 times. To find Sirius, use the belt of Orion as a pointer. The three stars point downward toward Sirius to the left.
The very noticeable constellation Orion the Hunter rises before dawn at this time of year, recognizable for the short straight line of three stars that make up Orion’s Belt. And the sky’s brightest star Sirius – sometimes called the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major the Greater Dog – follows Orion into the sky as the predawn darkness gives way to dawn.
Orion and the nearby star Sirius will become visible in the evening by northern winter (or southern summer). But presently the Hunter and the Dog Star lord over the southeastern sky at dawn’s first light.
If you are into the stars and the night sky, I highly recommend getting the Sky Guide App. I wish I had this as a kid. I used to lug my huge telescope around the neighborhood at night. This is much easier! 😀 It is So Cool to see constellations so clearly on your phone! And the Sky Guide automatically adjusts to your viewing direction so you can easily identify stars, planets, constellations and so much more! You can see a demo here.
Must-See Meteor Shower!
Also, if you were not aware, the 2018 Perseid meteor showerpeaks this weekend. The upcoming new moon on August 11 guarantees darker nights, so it’ll be easier to see. The Perseid meteorstend to be bright enough to be seen in suburban skies. Sky Guides are saying the mornings of August 12 and 13 are best for viewing, but August 10 and 11 will be good, too. Check out these tips for watching 2018’s Perseid meteors!
I know this a switch-up from my usual posts about animal behavior, training, and enrichment, but this is no less important. I have discovered that when we allow wonder to permeate our being, this sense of wonder and awe flows into all other areas of our life. When we choose to see life through the eyes of a child, filled with wonder and awe, transformations occur. When we set out to see new sights, our perceptions change. If we are willing to see things differently, we change, as does the world around us.
I hope that you will create space to view the beauty of space with your beloved animal companions. May the nightsky and the bright lights within it remind you of the Light within you and your animal companions.
Blessings to you and your beloveds! And Happy Summertime!
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
I have to mention; the grammar nerd in me got a kick out of playing around with the comma placement in the title of this post. If you were confused, this post isn’t about disco frogs, disco cats, or disco dogs, but it does involve these species, with a touch of the genre of music I just adore: disco!
I appreciate that this genre of music isn’t everyone’s preferred choice. But since I am a child of the 70’s I have a super positive association with DISCO that stems way back to childhood and well into high school. From rocking out to The Bee Gees in the backseat, to breakin’ it down until the break of dawn with my girlfriends; Disco was my dope.
It was a natural high for me. Even to this day, if I am in a funk, I play F U N K! Disco can get me movin’ and groovin’ unlike no other music! Play me some Soundgarden or Bob Marley and I am ready to rock-n-roll or love everything around me. Put on “Super disco, disco breakin” by The Beastie boys, and I am amped! But when real old school Disco starts to play … watch out world … my sass emerges and I am ready to shake-that-aaaaaa … !!!
Ok, you get it. 😀 The right kind of music can totally shift me out of a funk. And as someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain for more than half of my life, music is my medicine.
But I am not unique in this way.
We are all moved by the right kind of tune. Music shifts our mood. Chemical reactions occur. Endorphins are released. Music promotes positive movement, and dare I say, healing?
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” ― Bob Marley
Movement Shifts Energy. When we physically move the body, it supports and facilitates the movement of Life Force Energy. When the physical body moves, the energy shifts within. This is not woo; it’s legit. Science has yet to prove this fact, but Eastern cultures have known this for centuries. Our western world is just catching onto this fact. But this fact is not limited to humans. Because physical movement shifts energy, physical movement supports the chakras of all living beings. Animals of all shapes, sizes and species benefit from positive movement and motivation.
But are we, as animal guardians, providing this opportunity enough?
The body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.” ~ Dr. Candice Pert
Back in another life, during my Audubon Zoo Dayz, I was an Enrichment Coordinator. Providing species-specific enrichment for everything from parrots to poison dart frogs was my passion! So now, providing this necessary, science-based enrichment for companion animals is second nature to me. My hope, is that once you learn how, this will come naturally to you, too! Knowing how to do this is vital if we want to provide a healthy environment for our animal companions to thrive in captivity.
So what do poison dart frogs have to do with disco, cats, and dogs? A lot, actually.
We now know that offering a coconut foraging feeder to captive Dendrobates (poison dart frogs) produces new behaviors. This particular kind of enrichment feeder produces the greatest increase in frog activity in both traditional and new exhibits. The increase in mobility is most likely due to a coconut feeder’s complicated nature, which randomizes the release of insects into the exhibit. The complexity of the enrichment increases both mental and physical aspects of the frogs.
Now think about how we can create something like this at home or in shelters, and why it’s so important. If something as simple as placing prey (fruit flies) in a coconut feeder for frogs to foraging and hunt from, creates more desirable behaviors and healthy mental stimulation, what can we offer to our companion animals??
The possibilities are endless!
They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal. Create choice, offer control, and add complexity. The goal is to elicit species-specific behaviors and to stimulate their natural abilities, senses, and enhance cognition. This is what proper enrichment offers. Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs. The scientific principles in which structured enrichment programs are created are not reserved for lions, tigers, bears, and sea lions in zoos and aquariums.
Enrichment Is For Everyone.
And considering the high number of unhealthy pets in homes, increasing behavioral problems, and animals surrendered to shelters every week, I say we aren’t doing enough enrichment. But we can change this. And when we do it will shift everything. Not only will we shift the energy within the animal, which will result in healthier bodies and minds, but we will create a more empowered way of living for each animal within the home. We will also shift the energy between guardians and the animals.
We create a total shift for everyone on every level.
“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
― Frank Zappa
There is enough craziness and fear unfolding around the globe. Why don’t we bring some joy and humor into our home? Why don’t we pull our focus from that insanity and consciously create really fun but safe ways to shift the energy with our animals? There are amazing souls right under our nose! Let’s engage with them more! Let’s focus on the joy and love that’s waiting for us!
That is where we can choose to focus our energy.
Creating fun games that are tailored for the individual animal/group are one way that we can pull away from the drama and fear in the world and create harmony at home. We can create our own music that moves us all! Music moves us and gets us groovin, but what can we offer our animal companions to get their bodies and minds movin’ and groovin??
I have talked about enrichment at great length before. But if you haven’t read those posts, here’s a quick run down on enrichment:
promotes naturalistic behaviors
stimulates the mind
increases physical activity
promotes overall health
increases an animal’s perception of control over their environment
empowers the animal with more choices
provides constructive ways to occupy their time
Enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.
All of that is so important, but one of my favorite by-products of proper enrichment is the bonds it strengthens. – both between animals of the same species and between different species. This has been a powerful tool in our home. One of our favorite ways to shift the energy of our group while building bonds that last is by providing species-specific enrichment every day.
For the 3.0 cats (3 males) and 0.1 dog (female) in our family, this was not only a way to shift stagnant energy in their body, but it was a tool to build a bridge between them. We created conditions to create a fun, harmonious, and happy home. Hocus Pocus and King Albert once had a very combative relationship, but these kind of enrichment activities (and other tools) have dramatically changed their relationship to one based on trust. Physical challenges in older animals were addressed and healing occurred. Minds were stimulated and stagnation faded.
Behavioral enrichment is the environmental enhancement of the lives of animals in a managed setting by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior.
Now to the disco.
In the short video below, “Wake-and-Hunt” (not to be confused with Wake-and-Bake) 😉 you will see one example of how we do this.
“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Of course the cats and dog aren’t dancing to disco while they do these foraging activities, but you can see how excited they are to participate! Seeing their energy shift from stagnation to determination, and boredom to curiosity, is similar to shifting our energy via the right kind of music! We just need to find the right tune and melody, so to speak, for each individual.
Seniors, in particular, really need to be encouraged to behave, explore, and be stimulated in constructive ways that mimic the experiences they had when they were younger. Nose work is one way that we can do that.
For 18 years I have been creating I.E.P.s (Individualized Enrichment Programs) for animals of all shapes, sizes, and species, so it’s now second nature to me. I often forget that this kind of program isn’t in everyone’s go-to-tool box. But it should be! I believe that proper, individualized, species-specific enrichment can be more powerful than basic training.
Choice, control and complexity are key.
Providing conditions in a captive animal’s environment (home, shelter, zoo) that parallels a life were they would normally have endless choices is empowering. It’s life changing! Science and experience have proven that by providing this for all species of animals living in captivity, we have the power to reduce and eliminate a myriad of medical and behavioral issues. When we create conditions that enhance cognition, encourage movement, and improve overall well-being through resources that tap into the individual species’ senses, we can change lives!
With the right kind of movement and music to match the soul, we shift out of pain and suffering into bliss and joy. – Conscious Companion
You don’t have to be a professional in this area. You can learn how to provide safe and species-appropriate enrichment to the animals with whom you care for, in your shelter or home! It does require some planning and creativity, but the effort pays off in the long run. I will be creating a free E-Book that discusses this in greater detail, but for now:
You too, can create and provide this kind of fun but carefully created mental and physical stimulation for your animal companions every day. Heck, even once or twice a week could completely shift so much energy in your home! But before you do, please remember to ask these questions:
We need to ask important questions BEFORE providing this kind of food enrichment.
A successful food enrichment program is goal-oriented and considers The Big Picture.
Do we have a goal in mind?
Is the enrichment for one cat? Multiple cats? A cat and another species?
What behaviors of each do we want to encourage?
How will these behaviors be encouraged?
Will the foraging enrichment be created (or purchased)?
“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer
You might have noticed that I am highlighting cats in this post. I am because the majority of people believe that cat’s don’t need as much mental and physical stimulation as dogs. But this is untrue and very harmful. Another misconception is that senior and geriatric cats don’t need to get moving daily. Friend, they DO!
Some Cat Stats at a Glance:
• Cats are currently the most commonly kept pet in the United States
• Cats far outnumber dogs in homes (96 million cats vs. 83 million dogs).
• Cats are mislabeled as low-maintenance pets.
• This leads to cats housed in suboptimal environments.
• Cats are the number one animal euthanized at shelters due to “behavioral issues”.
• 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.)
When the environment of house cats don’t match the conditions they need in order to thrive, medical and behavioral issues arise. Medical issues lead to behavioral issues which leads to a stressful household. It can be a vicious cycle. All of this can lead to a weakening of the human-animal bond, which often results in the owners surrendering the cat to a shelter, tossing the cat onto the streets, or euthanizing the cat.
Sub-optimal conditions are associated with increases in dozens of health and behavioral issues. Aggression, attention-seeking behaviors, and stress-related behaviors can be results of suboptimal conditions of captivity. In fact, House-soiling is the most frequently cited behavior problem for cats, followed by aggression toward people. Below are just a few common conditions created by sub-optimal conditions for house cats:
Type 2 diabetes mellitus
Chronic lower urinary tract issues
Behavioral and mental health problems
The Reality is that house cats and their conditions don’t match.
The conditions house cats are kept in are often the least natural to their species. Our feline companions are very similar to their closest ancestor, the African wildcat, in terms of their behavioral needs and instincts. Therefore, the conditions of house cats should parallel those of their closest wild ancestor, the African wildcat.
Scent is another biggie that’s overlooked in companion cats. A cat’s sense of smell is 40x stronger than ours. Scent is crucial when it comes to social situations, locating prey, and maintaining safety. Scent is also crucial when it comes to evaluation of food. If more cat guardians gain a better understanding of the vital role that scent plays in a pussycat’s life, they can use this tool to enhance their feline friend’s life!
“Importantly, a better understanding of cat chemical signals has critical applied implications, as scent (and marking) plays an important role in many species-typical cat behaviors, problem behaviors, and can also serve as enrichment if properly understood and applied.” – Vitale Shreve and Udell
Providing various scents for cats to find is very enriching to cats. We can use everything from catnip to canned food. Some other great options are silver vine, honey suckle, local bird feathers, potting soil, beach sand, etc. Encouraging cats to harness these innate abilities and natural instincts is necessary.
Senior and geriatric cats, in particular, really need to be encouraged to behave, explore, and be stimulated in constructive ways that mimic the experiences they had when they were younger. Nose work (like you saw in the video above) is one way that we can do that every day. When we set the scene for a cat to use his/her exquisite senses we are helping our house cats to live a life worthy of their ancestors. We are allowing house cats to THRIVE.
That is why we provide these kind of fun enriching activities every day!
The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors
Animal guardians can learn about who their pet is as a species. We can learn their individual hunting styles, personal preferences, and dislikes /fears. Guardians can provide proper species-specific conditions inside their home that parallel the animal’s natural life in the wild. People can learn how to help their companions to thrive inside!
We can change lackluster homes into thriving environments!
We can enhance the lives and longevity of our animal family members!
We can enhance the bond between animals and their guardians!
We can build bonds between every species in the home!
We can keep animals in homes.
We can Build Bonds That Last!
My challenge to you is to allow yourself to let go of the drama and stress of life by creating a peaceful kingdom at home. Let laughter and joy become the centerpiece of your home. Create memories that last, well after your beloved moves on. Create harmony by enriching their environment … and yours.
There doesn’t need to be any pressure. There is enough pressure in this crazy world; we need not add any to our life. The idea is to create therapeutic, enriching, and fun activity time together every day. We all need more fun! Funk it up! Help them get their groove back! And yours! Create the time to add in more playtime, more ways to bond, and to release the stress of life. Together.
You know you ought to slow down
You been working too hard and that’s a fact Sit back and relax a while Take some time to laugh and smile
Lay your heavy load down So we can stop and kick back It seems we never take the time to do All the things we want to do
I am curious. What kind of fun mental and physical games do you play with your animal companions? What has worked well? What kinds of exciting enrichment opportunities will you create this week together?
My hope is that you will choose to create moments of joy together and memories that last forever. My hope is that you will create your own musical masterpiece together and dance to your own tune. My hope is that you will turn to your beloveds when the world is too much with you. My hope is that you can find peace within your animal kingdom at home.
Be at peace.
Let your heart be light.
Let your animals be your greatest teachers.
Let go and remember to laugh with the ones you love!
“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 worlds wiser than your iPad.
What else will we learn about animals today?
In mylast postI 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.”
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.
When a threat is perceived, the body’s brilliant sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. The body then releases hormones that are responsible for either Fight or Flight. The hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones serve a very important purpose: They increase chances of survival.
“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!
Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone. ― Louis L’Amour
I Faked It.
When I was working at Audubon Nature Institute my coworkers and I used to lovingly joke about a “rambling” coworker. One of our colleagues had a tendency to ramble on and on for what seemed like an eternity. And those of us on the receiving end of the ramble would totally zone out. I mean, we would completely check out. Gone. We would mentally leave the situation. But we were clever enough to appear as if we were listening; we would chime in with a word or nod every few minutes and say something along the lines of “Oh”, “wow” , “huh”, “really”, or “yeah”. We faked as if we were there, but we were mentally checked out.
Do You Fake It?
As rude as what we did may sound, it’s all too common for most people when they are bored, distracted, or worried about either something that just happened, or what might happen later. We fake that we are listening, or we fake that we care. We fake interest in the person, the topic of discussion, or the situation. We fake that we are actually there with the person as they are sharing. It’s a rare event for people to be truly present with others. Let’s be honest: We are faking it all the time with people.
But we also fake it when we are with our pets.
My Mind is Either Full or Mindful.
I am the first to admit that I can completely zone out like it’s going out of style. My mind goes a million miles a minute. I am easily distracted. I get bored very easily. I don’t enjoy doing tedious chores. (Ahem, I was in the middle of a very boring and tedious attempt to clean and organize our house for upcoming guests right as I was suddenly compelled to write this post. ha!)
As a highly creative person, it can be an enormous challenge to be fully present. I will get these amazing insights or inspirational ideas while someone is talking to me, or when I am doing the dishes or feeding the animals.As great as that inspiration may sound, it’s not the best use of my mind. It’s not mindfulness. And it’s not helpful or respectful to the ones who are choosing to share their time, presence, or insight with me.
But I can train my mind to be mindful. I can practice being fully present, even if what I am doing or listening to is boring or tedious. Or I can practice being bored and distracted. I can choose to focus on what’s right in front of me. Or I can choose to zone out. I can choose to be consciously aware of where my mind is, or I can choose to not care.
I have that choice, and you do too.
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
The Most Mindful Ones
Animals are mindful. Their minds are not full. Take a look a the image at the top of this post. Look at what is in the man’s mind. Then look at what is in the dog’s mind. The man’s is cluttered and full of his worries, wants, and concerns. The dog’s mind is focused on exactly what is in front of him/her. The dog is no where else. The dog is fully present. The dog is taking in the sight, scents, and experience of being right there, in that field with his/her person. Animals have the conscious ability to be fully focused, and fully present. And they practice this at every opportunity. It’s truly extraordinary. And we can learn from their practice and habit of being mindful. In fact, recently, Hocus Pocus had some insights to share with me on this very subject. You can read her wisdom here!
We Are Missing Out When We Are Not Mindful.
If you are asking, So what’s the big deal about being fully present? then you are right were I was many years ago. You are starting to at least question your behavior and thoughts. Asking that question and learning the answer is how we start to become more aware of our presence (or lack of) with our animal companions.
Over a decade ago when I first started consciously practicing mindfulness in my day-to-day activities, I was appalled at myself. When I slowed down and noticed my behavior and thoughts, I started to observe how frantic, chaotic, busy, and random my thoughts were. My mind was more like a mindless monkey machine. I wasn’t focused on anything that was in front of me. I was anywhere in my mind, but right there! I was missing out on life. I was not even present and absorbing all that was happening right in front of me!
Mindful or Mind Full Walks?
One area that I noticed I was really mentally checked out was when while walking my dog. I was dismayed to discover that I was in my head the entire time on our walk. I found myself wandering off in my mind, thinking about so-and-so at work, planning my next day’s events, how I wish I had said blah-blah blah in that meeting, and so on. I was pursuing my own agenda. I was stuck in the past. I was fixated future.
I was not fully in the present with my dog.
Eventually I noticed that while I was mentally absent, I wasn’t paying attention to my dog at all! I wasn’t focused on what she was doing, what she was sniffing, what she was looking at, what she was reacting to, or where she was choosing to walk. As she walked down the sidewalk sniffing and popping her head up every so often I noticed that the walk wasn’t about her at all. The walk was about the distractions in my head. It was about me and all the things I wanted, fretted, and worried about. I was there with my dog physically, but my mind had left her.
She was essentially walking alone.
“Be here now.” ― Ram Dass
Where Are You?
One aspect I love to address with clients is helping them to notice where their mind wanders. An easy way to determine their ability (or inability) to be fully present is when they are relaxing at home. Relaxation time is an important tool. This tool can help an animal guardian recognize “where they are” because this is the window to where their mind goes, when they can allow themselves to relax.
If they are in the habit of allowing themselves to sit down and relax for at least 20 minutes a day, then we start there. People soon learn if they are able (or unable) to maintain focus on their animal while doing something as simple as petting them, or just sitting with them. They can start to ask themselves questions such as, While I am petting my dog or cat, am I really focused on what’s happening right here now? Am I distracted about what happened today or what will happen tomorrow? Is my dog (or cat) even enjoying this? Am I? Is what’s happening “out there” more important than my friend at my side, or in my lap? As silly as those questions may seem, they are a window to where your mind is.
That’s the answer to where you are mentally.
If we are making time for “down time” every night, we can start to look at where our mind goes when relaxing with our pets. If you can’t even focus on your pets while you are relaxing at home, with no distractions, how are you going to be able to focus when it gets hectic or when things go awry? How will you be able to be fully present when they are nervous, afraid, reactive, sick or injured?
Being able to be fully present with your pet when you are relaxing is a precursor to being fully present during more challenging times. If you can’t mentally connect with your pet on the couch, then you certainly aren’t going to be fully present and connect with her during a walk, when she is becoming anxious, fearful, or reactive, at the veterinarian, or even during a simple training session. Your mind will wander. Your dog (and cat) will know and feel it. And the negative effects of this can be enormous.
Practice Being Present.
It takes time and practice to become fluent at anything. It takes a concerted effort to change our habits and our reactions. But you can practice being present! There are a number of ways that you can learn how to do this, from mediation to body awareness, but for the sake of brevity we won’t go into all of those in this post. Instead, I’ll mention a couple of common situations that people encounter often. In each scenario, you get to choose how to respond.
The next time your cat/dog/kid interrupts you while you are working:
You can stress out and become reactive to them (because you clearly have other things to worry about, and now your kid/cat/dog is adding to your worries).
You can take a deep breath, slow down, look at them calmly, be open, be present, and be there with them.
When we choose the latter, we are shifting from our fearful and reactive mind to our conscious and loving mind. If you can do this you will find that in that moment there is only you and them. There is nothing else. They get your full focus. Then you can go back to what you were doing, but you are doing it out of love.
The next time you take your dog for a walk you have two choices:
You can fiddle with your phone the entire time.
You can be full present with your dog. You can enjoy and appreciate your time together. You can notice subtle behaviors. You can learn where your dog enjoys sniffing, and where your dog tends to avoid. You can discover new sights, sounds, and scents with your dog. You can walk together.
Being there now, in that moment is a choice. We get to choose this a thousand times a day. We get to choose where we are. We get to decide if we want to appreciate who is in front of you. It’s in that moment where you can be grateful for that moment with him/her. Or you can let that moment pass you by. A thousand times a day. It’s a choice we all get to make.
When we are fully present we are allowing their presence to be enough for us.
Their Presence is Enough.
When we are fully present we are fully engaged. We are saying to our loved ones, “I care enough about you to be here fully with you now.” We are saying to them, “Nothing else is more valuable than you and me right now.” When we are fully present we are releasing our worries, regrets, frets, and concerns. When we are fully present with our pets, we are saying that we value their presence. And we are saying that their presence is enough for us right then and there.
Being Fully Present IS a Gift.
As Conscious Companions, one of the most powerful and respectful things we can do is to be fully present with our animal companions. When we make a conscious decision to be mindful we are giving ourselves and the ones we love a gift. Mindfulness takes conscious and deliberate focus but the more you practice, the easier it gets, and the more joyful your life becomes. And I promise you: Your pets will feel it, too.
Being mindful makes it easier to savor the pleasures in life as they occur. It helps you to become fully engaged in activities and be more aware of everything. It creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events when they arise. It allows you to recognize and prevent stressful encounters, and conflicts.
I sometimes briefly look back and think about how often I was not fully present with the people and animals who I loved. Many of them are gone now, but the ones who are still by my side will have the gift of my presence. When I am walking with Hocus, petting Albert, brushing Knox, or listening to my husband, mother, or brother, they will have all of my focus. My mind may wander sometimes, but I will consciously choose to come back to them. I will remember that their presence is a gift, and my presence is my gift to them.
The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. – Thích Nhất Hạnh
She called herself an angel. She lived every kind of life and dreamt every kind of dream. She was wild in her wandering, a drop of free water. She believed in her life and in her dreams. She called herself an angel, and her god was Beauty. ― Roman Payne
Four years ago, just before Thanksgiving our beloved canine companion, Hocus Pocus, and her siblings were born to a gentle homeless dog in the poorest county of the United States. Below is the adoption ad that we responded to:
• 3 week old puppy
• Large breed
• Primary color: Tricolor (Brown, Black & White)
• Coat length: Medium
• Shepherd/Cattle Dog Mix
This was Hocus Pocus’ Rescue Story:
Cinnamon and her brothers and sisters were saved just in time. Their mom, Lola, was found very pregnant just rolling around in the middle of the street. Lola only had a couple more weeks before she was due, and lucky for her she and her babies were saved by one of our volunteers. – Robeson County Humane Society No-Kill Animal Shelter, Lumberton, NC
Fast forward to four amazing years later: A few weeks ago someone reminded me that Hocus’ birthday was coming up, but as the day got closer we kept forgetting. It wasn’t until just before bed last night that I realized we had missed her “official” birth date. So of course we felt bad, then we laughed at ourselves, gave her a bunch of late-birthday-love and went to bed.
When I woke up this morning I was reminded that Hocus Pocus has the kind of life in which she’s celebrated as if it was her birthday every day, so missing her birthday doesn’t matter. I know that she feels the love and gratitude that we have for her 356 days a year. Plus, she doesn’t use a calendar. Dates don’t matter to dogs. Unconditional Love does.
No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
Hocus Pocus lives a very enriched life. She has ever since she was a wee puppy. Now at four years of age (She’s in her mid-30s!) Hocus hasn’t slowed down a bit, and her life continues to be enriched in innumerable ways.
The inspiration behind why I teach others how to have this kind of healthy and happy lifestyle with your animal companion in my workshops and with my clients is because this the kind of life I lead with my animal companions – 365 days a year.
We don’t wait for “special occasions” to have special adventures and games. We do it daily.
A while ago I made a promise to Hocus (and myself) that I will always make time for her. I promised to never make excuses for why we can’t spend time together. I promised to live every day like it was our last together. We have daily adventures. We live life to the fullest. Even if physical challenges creep up on me, I don’t make excuses; I find compromise. I know that one day she may have physical challenges but that won’t stop her from wanting to explore and have adventures.
I am honestly the worst at getting presents for people. And when it comes to pet-prezzies, I am not much better. When the animals need something, we get it at that time, so when their birthdays come around (and I actually remember) I am out of gift ideas. So I asked myself this question last night:
Then I thought, “Wait. But you don’t know how to make pupcakes.”
My next thought was, “How hard could it be??”
Turns out, it’s crazy fun and super easy.
And apparently irresistible.
Here’s the lowdown:
Gather meats of choice. (Use only meats that you KNOW your dog is not sensitive to!)
Mix in food processor/blender.
Bake at 350 degrees in a muffin/cupcake pan for about 20 min.
Cool. Then serve to the salivating birthday pup!
These were fun and easy to make, and Hocus went NUTS for them! (Well, she has only had one so far …. I am making them last all day!)
I don’t eat meat or know how to prepare it very well, so if I can make these, you can too! If you forget about your pup’s birthday, don’t fret or feel bad. You can make your pup a pupcake at the last minute and your pup will enjoy his/her birthday thanks to your baking!
Let Go of Guilt.
I mention the guilt idea because we all have busy lives and it’s easy to let things slip by us. If you have ever forgotten a loved one’s birthday, you know how silly or even guilty you feel, but we don’t have to feel like that. I have learned that when we are celebrating the ones we love every day their birth date kind of seems like just another day on the calendar. If we forget a birthday (or “hatch” day) we aren’t missing out on celebrating our friend, family member, or animal companion if we are honoring and celebrating their life every day of the year.
Celebrate Your Loved Ones Every Day
The fact that Hocus came into the world on Thanksgiving is no coincidence to us. “Thanks” and “giving” are what I think of when I see her sweet face, or think about her huge heart. Every time I look at her my heart swells and fills with endless gratitude and love. Her presence in our lives has made life exponentially more fun, more challenging, and more rewarding, and more alive. Hocus Pocus has given us endless love, joy, and laughter. She has also given these gifts to the lives of countless others. As I have written about before, it’s so important to honor and celebrate our loved ones every day. Today and every day we give thanks to the life that she has chosen to share with us.
Birthday Blessings to your huge heart, Hocus! Now let’s GO PLAY!
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride! ― Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967