Dial Up the Dopamine!

feeling-good

Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, ooooooooh…
And I’m feelin’ good.

~Nina Simone


 

Backstory: In a recent post I discussed the implications and far reaching effects of fear . This post will be about the first tool that I recommend when helping pets and their people to effectively cope with stress and fear.

 


The Chemical of Feeling Good

Feeling Good is what everyone strives for. Whether it’s that much needed hug, a glass of wine, mediation, a pay raise, play, or the touch of a lover or loved one, we want and need to feel good.  Animals need to feel good too.  And they will behave and respond to their environment in ways that enable them to feel good, or at the very least, feel better.

Thankfully there are chemicals at work that help both people and animals to feel better.

One of these is Dopamine.

“It’s like one of those scenes from a feel-good Hollywood movie. Where everybody is happy and nobody’s hair fizzes in the wind. Where it doesn’t rain, your shoes stay comfortable all day, and everybody’s jokes are funny.” ― Randa Abdel-Fattah


Dopamine is a chemical in the body.  It’s one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in humans and animals. Dopamine helps regulate movement and emotional responses, It also enables one not only to seek out rewards, but to take action to move toward rewards.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses.

The chemical Dopamine helps to regulate:
-movement
-memory
-pleasurable reward
-behavior and cognition
-attention
-inhibition of prolactin production
-sleep
-mood
-learning

A single molecule in the brain can do all of this! Dopamine Is Powerful.

But so is food. 


Needed Nutrients from Food

Animal Behavior  (including people) is regulated by neurotransmitters and hormones. These substances have precursors – chemical compounds that precede them in metabolic pathways.  For example, Tryptophan, is the precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter).

If we can make these precursors more or less available we can alter behavior.

One example is the presence (or absence) of Tryptophan in canines. Scientists believe that this may affect both aggression and stress resistance in dogs. Tyrosine is a precursor of catecholamines; hormones produced by the adrenal gland. These may also affect aggression and stress resistance.  You can read more about that here.

The nutrition (or lack thereof) that we provide our animal companions affects not only their body, but also their mind, which in turn affects behavior.

The right kind of food can literally change an animal’s brain chemistry. This is an important first step in everything from training basic behaviors to addressing aggression.


Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but also to help a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward. 


Using Food to Feel Better

We all know to feed our pets when they are hungry.  And most people feed their pets in the morning and night. But what if there was another, better, more effective way to feed them?

What if we fed our pets throughout the day (or night) when they need to feel better?

What if we used food to help them feel better in challenging situations?

What if we used food when they were afraid?

What if food could be a tool you could use to reduce their stress?

What if food appeared when that frightening fox dashes past the window?

What if food was present when you took him to the veterinary’s office?

What if it rained food when she is frustrated, confused, scared, or reactive?

What if food you knew that food was this powerful?

What if you knew you could wield this power to help them to FEEL GOOD?!

Food is that powerful. This is how we should use their food.

BOOMER


The Power of Food

Food can increase the level of dopamine in the brain!  This is why we recommended using FOOD when training, modifying behavior, and when we need to minimize an animal’s stress, fear, aggression, and anxiety.  If an animal is offered food before reaching a high stress level, while in the presence of a stimulus that frightens or triggers her, a positive emotional response occurs.

FOOD IS A TOOL.

Food is not a bribe. We are not teasing, luring, or bribing an animal to get them to do what we want. When we are using the right kind food, there are actual chemical reactions taking place in the brain and the body! Here is some of what is happening when food is used as a tool.

  • When you present a highly desirable food option to an animal you turn on the animal’s ‘seeker system.’  This dials down the emotion of fear.
  • Instead of feeling fear the brain begins to be overcome with the pleasurable feelings that food provides to an animal.
  • It also allows the animal to have a greater ability to focus on the good-feeling sensation and less on the negative emotion (fear, frustration, stress, anxiety, etc.)
  • This enhances an animals positive, focused attentiveness
  • In turn, it allows the animals to shift into a calmer state in their mind and body.
  • In this calmer, more relaxed state, learning and behavior modification can occur.

 

conscious companion_food in training_dopamine


When To Use Food

Visits to the vet. Walks in the park. Unexpected Visitors. Using the vacuum. Bringing a new baby into the home. New people in your apartment. Getting into the cat carrier. Moving. Staying in a hotel.  You name it; there needs to be high value food involved.

I honestly cannot think of when food would not be appropriate to use when working with an animal of any species. Whether you are working with a crocodile to station politely and practice self-restraint, or you are asking a cat to station on her cat tower instead of the counter, food is at the heart of it all.  One of my favorite opportunities to use food is at the vet’s office.  Whether we are at the cat specialist for King Albert’s acupuncture, or we are at the veterinarian waiting room for Hocus’ annual exam, you can bet that I have food on me.

Food should be used during any kind of family transition, or any situation that your animal companion finds challenging.  Food should be used in any situation where your pet might experience anxiety, stress, fear, and even aggression. Yes, you read that correctly. Food can (and should) be used to help a pig, parrot, cat, rat, horse, dog if they are struggling with a variety of behavioral issues.

Anxiety, aggression, frustration, and fear can be managed safely and positively by using food as a tool. Food can increase one’s focus, their attention, their mood, and more!  Food can change a crazed canine into a cool canine. Food can change a fearful feline into a confident kitty. Food can help a bird to not be so bashful.  Food is powerful. And we are not using it enough.

 

Food and Fear_cats


Food to Use

When use are choosing what food to use, think High-Value and practical.  If you are feeding your pet a high-grade pet food, sometimes this can be used as a behavior modification tool. We feed Hocus Pocus the Cadillac of canine food, so she goes bonkers for her kibble! The cats never get dry food these days, so when I break out the grain-free cat kibble they lose their minds!  These are the kind of food responses you want from your pet when you are using food.  If you aren’t sure if your dog or cat’s dry food will make the cut, you will need to experiment with foods that your pet will go nuts for. Some good foods to begin with are turkey, bacon, cheese, hot dogs, fish. etc. -anything they don’t normally receive, or anything they are super psyched to get!

One of my favorite on-the-go-food-treats is Stella and Chewies. These don’t crumble, and are not greasy. And the end goal is met: they are irresistible to the animals.


Pay me in food, human!

Studies have shown that dogs don’t want petting or soothing words as much as they prefer a primary reinforcer (food).  They prefer petting over soothing words, and they prefer food over petting!  I have found this to be true for cats as well. And for parrots and reptiles as well.

So where’s the beef ?  It needs to be used.

Food is a primary reinforcer for our pets! Primary reinforcers are biological.  Food, drink, and pleasure are the principal examples of primary reinforcers. We can use food as a tool with regards to its importance to an animal.

Using food as a tool is not hard, people.  It can be very easy.  Rather than dumping all the food in a boring bowl (ahem, we have talked about this before), it’s better to keep high-value treats (and food that they LOVE) handy.  This food should be hand around the home, convenient in your car, and easily pluck-able from your purse or pocket.

Here’s  Why:  You never know when fear might strike.

Here’s How:  Make it Rain Treats!  Rain those goodies down when and wherever something frightening, startling, or scary happens. (Even if you don’t think the person, place, or event was scary, your pet does), so make it rain, baby.  Rain down the treats!

If you are unfamiliar with food as a tool, you can see how we use food in these videos:

 

Hocus food_conscious Companion_food as a tool_dopamine
Preparing to go for a walk!  We always have food as a tool.

The Dope Rewards

Let’s get back to Dopeamine for a minute.  Dopamine is considered a “reward” chemical. When we are using food, we are able to increase the level of dopamine in the animal’s brain.   What we as humans, call rewards, are often things that are unexpectedly good. Let’s say for example, you run into an old, favorite pal, or your boss surprises you with a pay raise. Or maybe your spouse takes you on a romantic vacation.  These unexpected events lead to positive prediction errors, and increases in dopamine.

As cool as that is, there is more to the dope, hip chemical called Dopamine. More and more studies are showing that this neurotransmitter is not responsible for pleasure per say, but it has more to do with motivation.


Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself. – Salamone, a UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor,

Dopamine-and-addiction-relapse22

Researchers have found that in animals, dopamine levels can actually spike after stress! This could be something such as losing a fight with another animal, or seeing a predator outside the window.  Humans also experience a spike in dopamine after stressful encounters.  Soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder also show activity in dopamine-rich parts of the brain when hearing recorded gunshots and other combat sounds.

So what’s with dopeamine coming out during negative experiences?

One researcher believes he has found the reason.  A scientist was able to artificially raise (or lower) dopamine levels in animals. Then he gave them a choice between two rewards with a different value, which could be obtained through different amounts of work.  For example, he wanted to see what a rat would do when given an easy or difficult choice. On one end of a corridor he place a pile of food. On the other end there was a pile of food twice as big, but this end has a small fence that the rat had to jump over to get the food.

The results are fascinating!

Animals with lowered levels of dopamine almost always choose the easier, low-value reward. But the animals with normal levels of dopamine didn’t mind exerting more energy and effort to jump the fence to receive the high-value reward.  (I know many species of animals and people who behave the same way!)  Other studies in depressed human patients have corroborated these results.

The scientist who did the study believes, “This lack of perceived energy is maladaptive, because it reduces the tendency to interact with the environment. But, it could also reflect the body’s attempt to save energy in a crisis.”

I found that study fascinating and helpful.  If motivation is directly related to dopeamine, and food can increase the level of dopeamine, then why are we not using food more often?  Why is food not front and center and at the heart of any training or behavior modification program? Why are we as animal guardians not using food as a tool with our pets?

Maybe today you will.  Maybe one day we all will.

I have hope for us all!

 


 More To Come!

This is part three of a four part series about how to help you and your pets cope with grace and ease during times of stress or Big Family Changes.  Stay tuned for the next post.

But in the meantime, Get Some High High-Value Food … And Don’t Leave Home Without It! 


 

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good

Nina Simone

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.


1889068_10153303537121060_5048655039113329961_o
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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“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.

World-Snake-Day-children-and-snakes-2

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.

Tortoises Teaching Us Through Touch-Screen Technology!

The old assumption that animals acted exclusively by instinct, while man had a monopoly of reason, is, we think, maintained by few people nowadays who have any knowledge at all about animals.  We can only wonder that so absurd a theory could have been held for so long a time as it was, when on all sides the evidence if animals’ power of reasoning is crushing.  ~Ernest Bell 

"Don't judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize." ~ The nearly 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma
“Don’t judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize.” ~ The 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma

I am beyond excited to share this post with you!  Huge breakthroughs have been happening for tortoises and turtles behind the scenes for decades, but most of the world has no idea what we have accomplished and learned from these complicated reptiles.  Thankfully, a new study has proven what reptile trainers, zoo, aquarium and nature center educators, and reptile enthusiasts all over the world already knew; turtles and tortoises are not simple, mindless creatures.

Thanks to scientists who are thinking outside the box, and who are willing to share their results, the world will finally know that turtles and tortoises are capable of decision making and complex cognitive behavior.  Yes, you read that correctly; tortoises and turtles make deliberate decisions, and use complex thinking to solve problems, and to gain rewards for themselves.

The title of this post is actually true! Tortoises have officially entered the world of touch-screen technology!  Scientists recently discovered that tortoises are capable of learning how to use an electronic device in exchange for strawberries!  The tortoises not only mastered the task in exchange for strawberries, but the animals also transferred their knowledge to a real-life setting.

 


The Tortoise Test Subjects

The tortoises they chose as test subjects for this experiment were Red-footed tortoises. Like most turtles and tortoises, they are very inquisitive and very eager to eat tasty treats.  “This makes them very good test subjects”, Anna Wilkinson, of the University of Lincoln, England explained.

These tortoises lack a hippocampus.  This is an area of the brain associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation.   The researchers believe that red-footed tortoises may rely on an area in their brain called the medial cortex.  This is the same area associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision making in humans.

Red-footed tortoises are inquisitive and eager to eat treats, making them good test subjects. ~Wilkinson

What better way to a tortoises heart than through a strawberry??
What better way to a tortoise’s heart than through a strawberry??

“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”

 


Learning How Tortoises Learn

First the researchers needed to understand how tortoises learn, so they tested how the reptiles relied on cues to navigate the area.  To do this, they gave the tortoises treats when the reptiles looked at, approached, and then pecked on the screen.   All four red-footed tortoises learned how to use touch screens fairly quickly.

“It’s comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it. I’ve trained dogs to use a touch screen and I’d say the tortoises are faster.” ~ Wilkinson

Wilkinson explains that turtles’ and tortoises’ speedy learning is due to the fact that “tortoise hatchlings don’t receive parental care, so they have to learn how to make decisions about food and shelter for themselves from the moment they hatch.”

 


The Main Experiment

The tortoises attempted to bite a red triangle in the center of the touch screen.  When two blue circles flashed, the tortoises had to consistently peck at either the circle on the right, or the one on the left to get a tasty strawberry.

The results:  All four of the tortoises mastered the tortoise touch-screen task! However two of the tortoises eventually stopped cooperating; Wilkinson explains that it’s possibly because these two were too small to reach the screen.  Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, continued to try and applied  their knowledge to a real-life situation.

You can watch part of the experiment below.

Tortoise With A Touchscreen Tests Testudine Perception Video

 


Learning Applied to Real Life

In the next part of the experiment, the remaining two tortoises applied their knowledge to a real-life situation.  The researchers placed the tortoises in an arena with two blue, empty food bowls that were similar to the blue circles on the touch screen.  The tortoises walked over to the bowl on the same side as the red circles that they were trained to bite at on the screen.

The researchers then trained the tortoises to go to the opposite blue bowl in the arena to see how flexible they were with learning.  When they were reintroduced to the touch screens three months later, the tortoises immediately began biting at the same side of the screen as before.

 “The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”

 


What Does This All Mean?

The experiment reinforces other findings that tortoises are intelligent creatures. ~Professor Vonk, psychology department, Oakland University, Michigan

These new findings will help researchers compare the perceptual and cognitive abilities of tortoises to other animals that can perform the same tasks.

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!
Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!

“Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.” -Dr Wilkinson


“If you are taking on a reptile, you must consider their need for cognitive enrichment.” ~ Wilkinson

 

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise
Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise. Educational outreach can be great mental and physical enrichment for reptiles, but we do need to consider that they can get stressed, too. Science is now proving that turtles and tortoises do have complicated cognitive abilities, so we must honor that with how we interact with them and care for them in captivity.

 

“Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive.  I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.” ~ Anna Wilkinson, senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln, England


This study was published in the July issue of the journal Behavioral Processes.

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Lincoln


Journal Reference:

Julia Mueller-Paul, Anna Wilkinson, Ulrike Aust, Michael Steurer, Geoffrey Hall, Ludwig Huber. Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria). Behavioural Processes, 2014; 106: 187 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.06.003

 

Why Did The Turtle Cross The Road?

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution. ~ Turtle Conservation Coalition

turtle crossing road
Turtles on the road are on a mission! Help them accomplish their turtle mission!

World Turtle Day is May 23, so I wanted to remind everyone to be conscious of these very special animals that share the roads with us!  Where we live, we are surrounded by natural wetlands. But there are highways and roads that also surround these wetlands. This often means that native turtles do not fare well when they need to cross the busy roads.  I have seen far more than my share of injured and crushed turtles in the three years that we have lived here, and every time I find one, my heart breaks.  Many of these turtles are endangered or threatened species. Yet, most people don’t seem to know this, or don’t even care. This is where we come into play!  Helping one turtle across the road can be the difference between life and death for the animal, and for future generations.  Educating our friends and family is how we can save species.

Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. 

April through October are the months that you will see many turtles actively crossing roads in the United States.  They do this for many reasons; in the spring, males are looking for females and territory to call their own.  May and June is nesting season.  At this time egg-bearing, female aquatic turtles leave the water to find terrestrial nesting sites, and this often requires crossing a road.  During late summer and fall, hatchling turtles are digging up from nests, looking for water.  Then later in the year males and females are heading to safe places for winter hibernation. Other times they will migrate to find a more suitable spot to live.

turtle road
Be a conscious driver and slow down for turtles such as this common snapping turtle!

 

The worst threat to snapping turtles is vehicle traffic. Each year many females get killed in their search for nesting sites. Often vehicles will not stop or even deliberately hit turtles because snapping turtles are disliked by many people. Nests on road sides and in gravel pits are often destroyed by vehicles and road grading. Hatchlings on their way back to the water are frequently run over. ~Tortoise Trust 

 

Our modern roads cut off generations old nesting grounds.
Our modern roads cut off generations old nesting grounds.

Although pre-dating dinosaurs by several million years, turtles everywhere are fast disappearing today. The “hide in my shell and wait it out” strategy that has enabled turtles to weather the geologic changes leading to the extinction of countless other species, however, has proven of little use in surviving the peril posed by fast moving trucks and cars. ~Dept. of Natural Resources

You can literally save a life – and even an entire species – by taking a few minutes out of our day to help them safely cross the road!

turtle crossing

How to help turtles safely across the road:

  • Safety First!  Busy roads and highways are dangerous for humans and animals.  Turn on your hazard lights and carefully pull off to the side of the road.  Make sure other drivers see you, before stepping onto the road.
  • Determine if the turtle is injured.  If he or she is injured, call your veterinarian to see if they will take it.  They may refer you to another vet that does accept injured wildlife.
  • Injured turtles:  If you see a turtle on the road that has been hit, PLEASE STOP to help it! He/she may not be dead!  Reptiles, especially turtles, have an extraordinary capacity to remain alive, even with severely injured.  They can do this because of their slow their metabolic rate.   The benefit of a low resting metabolism is that it requires far less fuel to sustain bodily functions.  This enables them to survive for long periods of time, even when injured!  Turtles can often survive, even if their shell is crushed, if they are given medical treatment in time. I have saved countless turtles who had been hit on the road by getting them to a vet in time.  Don’t let him/her just lay there suffering and baking in the sun!  Take them to a veterinary clinic near you.  Call the vet to let them know you are coming.  If the veterinarian does not have the ability to help you, they will send you to a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles and exotics, or wildlife specialist.  More about What to do if you find an injured turtle.   Check out some pictures of an injured turtle being repaired! 
  • When picking up a small to medium turtle, grasp it firmly and confidently on both sides of its shell between the front and rear legs (along its side).  Turtles have long legs and claws, so they might be able to kick at you, but don’t freak out.   Most will choose to stay safely tucked in their shell, during the brief time that you are moving them.
  • Keep the turtle low to the ground when moving them. Even small turtles have surprising strength.  If a turtle pushes free of your grip, you do not want it to fall and injure itself.
  • If it’s a very large turtle, it may be a snapping turtle, or a softshell turtle.  Both species can be large, heavy, and quite feisty.  They have a very wide reach with their neck and powerful jaws, so be careful.  I would not advise picking it up, but you can still help it cross the road by staying nearby – out of its way – while it continues to cross.  Let the passing cars see you and the turtle so they can safely go around you and the turtle. Learn more here about how to help snapping turtles and softshell turtles here. The video below demonstrates how to use your car mat to move one of these turtles safely across the road:

  • NEVER EVER PICK UP ANY TURTLE BY THE TAIL. This can severely injure them.
  • Place the turtle in the direction it was heading.  NEVER TURN THEM AROUND!  The turtle is on a mission and if you turn it around, it will just head back across the road when you are out of sight.
  • Do not move the turtle to a “better spot.”  Many people are tempted to relocate a turtle.   Turtles have a home range and females often return to the same general area to lay their eggs.  When relocated, they will often search for ways back to their “home base”.   Not only do these relocated turtles risk more road crossings, but if they cannot find their way back, will wander far and become lost.
  • Don’t be a Turtle-Napper!  Do not ever remove a turtle from its habitat.  They are not pets.  They belong in the wild.
  • Report turtle sightings to your local Fish and Game’s Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program.
  • Work with land trusts and town officials to help conserve important natural areas in your community.
  • Recommended Resources:  

—>  You can save a turtle! A project by Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre

—>  Help a Turtle Across the Road [ Help A Turtle ] by the Minnesota Herpetological Society

—>  Roadways and Turtles: Solutions for Safety_flyer

—> Discover turtles and tortoises in your state!

—>  Turtle & Tortoise Species Specific Sites

—> A Field Guide to Turtles: Eastern and Central North America

 

 

Whatever the reason a turtle is traveling, their destination can take him or her miles away from where they live.  As humans continue to encroach upon their habitats, turtles will be crossing more roads.  Research has shown that aquatic turtle populations across the United States have uncommonly high proportions of males because so many female turtles are being killed on roadways.  Turtles have a long lifespan, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and have low survivorship when newly hatched.  Because of these attributes, turtle populations cannot compensate for losses due to adult mortality without experiencing long-term consequences.  With turtle populations requiring high levels of adult survivorship, every individual is important to a population’s stability.  This concern is even greater in recent years because many U.S. turtle populations are becoming fragmented, isolated, and progressively smaller.

It’s up to each of us to ensure that turtle species stay abundant, healthy and safe!

Sammy the turtle crossing road

“For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal.”– U.S. President Thomas Jefferson

Baby It’s Cold Outside


Originally Posted Winter 2013 Cold Cat Winter

I grew up in the harsh winters of Kansas.  As a kid, winter was bliss.  I didn’t have to shovel snow, or scrape the icy windshield;  I got to play in it.   However, my dad believed that the dogs were fine out there in the dead of winter, unless there was a blizzard or “big storm-a-coming.”  Only then would we prepare the basement for our black Labrador and German Shepherd-Golden Retriever mix, Sampson and Sheba.  They were both allowed inside, but had to stay down in a carpet-free, secured area of the basement for the night.  To a 7 year old girl who adored her canine companions,  this was fine to me because I got to see my buddies inside for a night!

Things are different now.

It’s not recommended that you leave your animal companion outside in the freezing temperatures, with or without snow.  Most dogs and all cats are safer indoors.   No matter what the temperature, the freezing wind chill can threaten their lives.

Fur isn’t gortex.  A dog or cat’s fur doesn’t always protect them from extremely cold temperatures.  In fact, when most pet fur gets wet from walking through snow, they actually become more susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite because their fur chills them instead of keeping them warm.



Cold Weather Protection 

Cat ShelterIf you know of any cats that live outdoors consider building (or buying) a structure where they can go to get out of the inclement weather.  Provide insulation in their shelter.  Use blankets.  Straw (not hay) is also a good insulator.  Provide a heat source.  Some houses have the capability of connecting a light bulb as a heat source.   Other options may be warm water bottles.   Be careful with heating pads, as they can chew through them.  Anytime you are providing a heat source, be sure that the animal is able to move away from it if they get too warm.   Alley Cat Allies has an extensive list of shelters that you can build.   You can build a basic shelter, or an elaborate one.  Check out their Cat Shelter Options!

Click on the image / Link below to learn how to make an easy shelter.

cat shelter winter outdoor cats

Building Winter Shelters for Community Cats




Slap The Hood!  Keep ’em on Leash! And Wipe Those Feetz!

We have all heard the stories about outdoor cats and their terrible injuries or deaths because they sought warmth in a car engine compartment.  You can prevent this by simply slapping the hood a couple of times or honking the horn before starting the engine.   The noise will startle the cat and hopefully encourage him or her to make haste and leave!

When you are out and about with your canine or feline, keep them on a leash at all times during a snow storm.  In snow, they can lose their scent and easily become lost.  The ASPCA states that more pets are lost during the winter than during any other season.  Keep their ID tags on at all times!Lonely cat waiting by the road by Shutterstock

Be sure to wipe off their paws, legs and stomach when they come inside from the sleet, snow, or ice.   The salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice can make them sick and irritate the pads of their feet and their stomachs.  Check to make sure there is no ice stuck between their toe pads. These pieces can be very sharp and tear their skin.

Consider getting snow boots and a coat for  for animal companions!

ruffwear_bark_n_boots_polar_trex_insulated_dog_boots_
RuffWear has amazing snow gear!

Keep those “Cold Blooded” Critters Warm!

While most exotic animals are housed indoors here in the northern part of the states, there are still some key things to keep in mind during winter.  When housing reptiles in the home, remember that your house temperature drops as the temperature outside drops, so you will need to adjust their enclosure heat sources accordingly.  The most important part of their heating set up is a good quality digital thermometer.  Place the thermometer where the reptile will be and measure the warm and cool ends of the cages as well as the night temperature.  If these temperatures fall outside of recommended ranges, then provide a supplemental radiant heat source.  Use a lamp -not a hot rock or heating pad — Burns can result from these.   Here are a few more tips for keeping your reptile friends safe and warm during cold weather.

NOTE:  Overheating (even from heat lamps) is much more dangerous than the cold is for reptiles.  Use caution!   Hibernation is not recommended for any reptile without a reptile veterinary consultation first.  Many pets die every year from incorrect hibernating techniques.

Little David in his pond

Even native turtles need a source of warmth in the winter. Here Little David is enjoying some rays of sun on a cooler day.


Feathered Friends Need Warmth and Shelter, too! 

winter_parrots_cartoon

Ideal Temperature Ranges For Parrots

The majority of birds should not be kept outside when the weather is below 40 degrees – unless adequate shelter is provided.  The ideal temperature for most birds is between 65 and 90 degrees F.  African greys, cockatoos, and amazon parrots prefer temperatures around 70 to 80 degrees.   Miniature parrots (parrotlet and fig parrot) cannot be kept in temperatures below 50 degrees.

How to Keep them warm

  • Get a heater!  Ceramic heaters produce a constant flow of heat without light that disturbs your bird’s sleep. Keep the heater away from the bird and enclosure; these heaters can get very hot.
  • Get a warming perch. Birds lose a ton of heat through their feet; heating perches are a great way to keep them warm.
  • Solo birds don’t have the option of huddling up with a mate to keep warm. Provide your loner bird with a warm soft fabric to snuggle with!
  •  More Temp Tips
  • More Winter Tips to keep your parrot healthy, including how to provide adequate UV Light!

Soothe the Seniors’ with Added Warmth!

These rapidly fluctuating temps dipping down well below normal can really affect aging pets with arthritis.   And since we always want to look at the BIG picture when it comes to our animal companions, we need to recognize that joint stiffness and pain can exacerbate (or create) behavioral issues and tension in the home, especially in multiple cat homes, or in homes with multiple species.  Chronic pain can lead to increased vocalization, irritability, aggression, fear, and a host of other behavioral issues.

One of the many ways that we maintain peace and harmony in our home is to make sure that each senior is content and comfy 24/7.   One way that we do that is by placing “warm spots” for them on each level of the house.  This allows him to retreat to a safe, warm, and soothing spot when they want to, they all have their own places, and it allows them to find a warm patch when a cold snap comes through. As you can see, this homemade heated bed is for our senior cats, who have a hard time navigating in and out of tall beds.

pet heating pads_senior cats_arthritis .png

We also LOVE these heated cat beds for the more agile cats in the home. You can view them here. thermo-kitty-bed heated cat bed

The image below is of our Beaux, who is twenty years of age. He, like most cats, gravitates toward warm spaces. Beaux is safely sleeping on a heated pet bed.  At a mere six pounds, he gets chilly easily, so Beaux loves to be covered up! 

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Although this sort of low heat source is not likely to penetrate deep into a cat or dog’s hip joints, many are soothed and comforted by having a warmed spot, and the warmth can encourage blood circulation through those stiff muscles.

Martin Conscious Companion_pet warming beds
Hocus Pocus is seen here sleeping on Mr. Beaux’s heating pad area. As you can see, the heating pad is directly on the couch, with a regular pet bed on top of it. When Beaux is ready to nap on this, we add a blanket over the pet bed (for extra safety and to prevent over-heating).

Safety First:  Always be sure your pet does not have access to the wires, or anything else that could be harmful.  And be sure the PET heating pad is set on the lowest setting, and it’s well insulated under blankets and other materials.  If you have a home with pets who can not be trusted around wires and such, here’s a non-electric option.  

Remember:  Heat rises, so the house may feel very warm to us, but at a cat and dog’s level, it’s considerably cooler.  If you have senior pets, talk to your veterinarian about what can help sooth those achy joints, especially during these cold weather months!

 


The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has some great tips on how you can help your furry family members in cold weather:

Did you know?

  • Animal neglect is considered a misdemeanor crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
  • All but nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina) specifically require pet owners to provide adequate shelter for a pet outside, the definition of which generally includes some variation of “protection from the elements or extreme weather.”
  • Felony penalties can be levied in Massachusetts and Oklahoma for any animal neglect case.
  • Felony charges can be applied in animal neglect resulting in death in California, Connecticut, Florida and Washington, D.C.

Be a Conscious Companion!

PLEASE, If you see any animal that has been left outside in extreme temperatures (a neighbors pet, a business’s pet, etc.) find the courage to say something.  If you are not comfortable going on your own, take someone with you.  Be the voice for the ones who need your help.   Ask if the person if they need help setting up a shelter, if they need blankets, or if they would like help in anyway.   Don’t be accusatory.   Be helpful.  It will come across more meaningful and they may accept your help.  If they don’t respond well to your offerings, the HSUS suggests that you contact local law enforcement agencies.  Pets left outside in extreme temperatures without food and shelter are at risk of hypothermia, frostbite, and even death, and this places their owners at risk of facing criminal charges.  The HSUS lists details of how you can help neglected animals during these winter months.

Remember that even though animals have their own instincts, as their guardians we have to be responsible and take precautions for them on their behalf.  


Winter Weather Recap:

 

  • Never leave your pet outside during a snowstorm for longer than you’d would want to be out there with them. If it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your pet.
  • Consider caring for and/or building a safe shelter for outdoor cats.
  • Prepare indoor play activities for your pets who are used to more outside time.
  • Stock up on pet food and medicines your animals may need, as winter storms can take out power, close roads, and even trap you in your home.
  • Thoroughly wipe off your dog’s paws and belly with a moist washcloth after going outside. Snow-melting salt can be very painful to dogs’ feet and cause illness if ingested. Clumps of snow can accumulate between toes and cause pain as well. Dog boots and salves can be purchased to protect sensitive dog paws.
  • During the winter, outdoor cats sometimes sleep underneath cars for shelter. Bang loudly on the car hood before starting the engine to give any resting cats a chance to escape.
  • Consider giving short-haired or smaller dogs a coat and booties to wear outside to protect them from the elements and the chilly temperature.
  • If you lose power, be sure candles aren’t in locations where your pet can knock them over.
  • Be aware of snow-melting salt, which can be painful to animals’ paws and make them ill if it’s ingested.
  • Create an emergency plan.
  • Stay up to date on storm conditions and warnings in your by checking with your local Office of Emergency Management.
  • The ASPCA’s free mobile app provides pet owners with critical information on what to do before, during, and after a disaster, and gives personalized instructions on how to search for and recover a lost animal in a variety of circumstances.
  • You may also store your pets’ medical records and other important information — such as microchip numbers and veterinarians’ contact information — often needed when bringing your animal to an evacuation shelter. Visit ASPCAapp.org to download on iTunes or Google Play.
  • The ASPCA’s shareable cold weather pet care infographic may be found here. For more information on cold weather pet safety tips from the ASPCA, visit aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/cold-weather-safety-tips.


How do you keep your animal companions safe during the winter months?  

Please share with us and help others!

Some cat and dog breeds are well adapted to cold weather, but the majority of them are not.
Some breeds are well adapted to cold weather, but the majority of them are not.
The Norwegian Forest Cat is a breed adapted to a very cold climate.
The Norwegian Forest Cat is a breed adapted to a very cold climate.

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